Review: Nokia Lumia 800

Nokia gets its Windows Phone efforts off to a strong start. (December 17th, 2011)

The Lumia 800 represents more than just a radical break from the past for Nokia; in many ways, it's the company's entire future. As its first Windows Phone device, it's not just a switch to a much more modern platform but a clue as to whether or not Nokia can still stand out in an era when iPhones and Android smartphones are taking over. Our review of the Lumia 800 will answer that -- and whether or not it might just be the best Windows Phone on the market.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Nokia

Price: Free (on 31 plan, T-Mobile UK; 36, Orange)

The Good

  • Accomplished design; rich AMOLED display.
  • Nokia Drive adds to the value.
  • Speedy among Windows Phones.
  • Windows Phone 7.5 now modern along with fresh.
  • Good call quality.
  • The first easy to use Nokia phone in recent memory.
  • Camera can sometimes produce good results.
  • Sometimes cheaper than its rivals.

The Bad

  • No dual-core, high-res displays, or 4G.
  • Camera results sometimes muted.
  • Battery life a bit short; issue with draining affecting boot-up.
  • 16GB max storage without a slot for more.
  • Windows Phone still has room to grow.

The Lumia 800 represents more than just a radical break from the past for Nokia; in many ways, it's the company's entire future. As its first Windows Phone device, it's not just a switch to a much more modern platform but a clue as to whether or not Nokia can still stand out in an era when iPhones and Android smartphones are taking over. Our review of the Lumia 800 will answer that -- and whether or not it might just be the best Windows Phone on the market.

Design and display

If the design of the Lumia 800 looks familiar, that's because it should. In its rush to get a Windows Phone on the market before the end of the year, Nokia effectively lifted the design of the N9, its one and only MeeGo phone, with the only real changes being the slightly smaller screen and the needed hardware navigation buttons.

In most ways, that's a very, very good thing. The shell is polycarbonate plastic, but it's a very solid, matte-finish shell (black on ours, cyan or pink on others) that manages to exude a premium, soft-touch feel without using aluminum. The almost tube-like rounded edges are very comfortable to hold, and the proportions of the phone are very nearly ideal for gripping during a phone call or a one-handed text messaging session. Even the slightly convex glass on the screen feels nice. The placement of the camera on the center back is smarter than on some phones, too: you're less likely to accidentally cover the shot with your finger.

About the only let-down on the Lumia's body is the feel of the side buttons. They're thin plastic that wiggle, and we suspect that particularly rough use could break one, although it's not an overriding concern. They's easy to reach, although we found ourselves occasionally hitting the volume-down button instead of the sleep/wake button. They mainly feel cheaper than they should given the construction of the main body. The capacitive touch buttons below the screen were very natural and didn't trigger accidental presses.





Like the N9 and most of Nokia's late Symbian phones, what you won't find is a lot of accessible parts. The 16GB you find in the Lumia 800 is all you'll get. There's not only no microSD card slot, there's no 64GB version like there is with the N9. You'll likewise find only the micro USB port and micro SIM slot up top, and they're positioned in a way under door covers that you won't be docking the phone. Video output just isn't a choice here.

Nokia's decisions aren't new, as Windows Phone doesn't truly support microSD cards, nor are they necessarily deal-breakers. Both the iPhone 4S and Galaxy Nexus go without removable storage, and it's rarely a real concern. Still, along with a non-removable battery, it does mean having to contact Nokia or a third-party for a phone swap if the battery dies .

The 3.7-inch display isn't as large as the 3.9-inch view on the N9, but it didn't seem to matter much in practice. It's just wide enough for comfortable typing and tall enough that it doesn't feel claustrophobic.





Image quality-wise, it's good, but not without its caveats. The Lumia 800 uses a 480x800 ClearBlack AMOLED that's vivid without being lurid, like we sometimes saw on the Motorola Droid RAZR. Colors leap out, and because there's no backlight needed, the high-contrast Windows Phone interface appears to almost blend into the phone. Its screen does use the dreaded Pentile pixel layout -- a sort of weave pattern that leads to a slightly fuzzy look. The fuzz isn't as pronounced as it is on the RAZR, however, and the great viewing angles thankfully escape most of the green tinting issue we saw on the Motorola phone when looking at it from a noticeable angle.

Nokia's main challenge is simply that it's limited by Microsoft's chassis guidelines for Windows Phone. At least not until a future Windows Phone update, Nokia can't go past 480x800 even if it wanted to. As such, it has a hard time competing against the iPhone 4S' ultra-sharp 640x960 LCD (even if it's not as bright) and just can't compare to the massive 4.65-inch, 720x1280 Super AMOLED HD display on the Galaxy Nexus. While we don't think screen size is everything, the Samsung Focus S on AT&T edges out the Lumia 800, both through more comfortable viewing distances and an upgrade to Super AMOLED Plus that eliminates the fuzz.

Windows Phone 7.5

Nokia's phone is one of the first to ship with Windows Phone 7.5, sometimes better known by its Mango codename, and for many outside of the US and a few European countries will be the only real showcase for what Microsoft has improved in the past year.

By far the most important addition is multitasking, which catches Microsoft up to Apple and Google -- and itself, if you count Windows Mobile 6.5. The Windows Phone approach is closer to that of the iPhone, where it's mostly certain kinds of tasks, the most common that you'd want to use, would work. You can listen to Slacker Radio or Spotify in the background, for example, but you can't yet have an FTP upload running while you check mail. Some apps will simply resume from where they last were, which can be good enough if it didn't need to be active.





Microsoft's interface for it is very simple to use, but also somewhat limited. Holding the back button zooms out to a view of running apps not unlike webOS' cards: each app is represented by a thumbnail of its most recent state. In contrast to webOS, though, there's no way to manually close an app in Windows Phone; they're automatically managed. You consequently have to be slightly careful with app habits lest Windows Phone shut down an app whose state you wanted to keep.

Internet Explorer has been given its own big makeover. The original Windows Phone launch was using an outdated engine based on Internet Explorer 7 from the desktop, while the new one is fully up to date with Internet Explorer 9. At a minimum, it's a lot faster. We wouldn't say it beats iOS 5 on an iPhone 4S or Android 4.0 on a Galaxy Nexus, since either has a hardware advantage, but it's now finally fast enough (even on 3G) to be a real player. Microsoft has also importantly added HTML5 support and overall focused more on standards, so you can run complex web apps and play HTML5 video as well as anyone.

Searching is now more important and includes a handful of extras, including a Shazam-style music listener and a built-in scanner for barcodes, QR codes, and Microsoft's own Tag files. Bing Maps also now has voiced-out turn-by-turn navigation, which while not as optimized for the car as Google Maps Navigation is still nice to have as a backup to Nokia Drive, which we'll discuss later.





The most useful search component may well be Local Scout. It ultimately amounts to a form of built-in Yelp, but that comes in very handy when you're trying to find the closest mid-priced place to eat, whether there's a big concert coming up, or what stores are available.

Voice is supposed to be improved in Windows Phone 7.5, and to some extent that's true. You can now dictate a text message by voice as well as run a number of common searches. However, Microsoft's claims that it predates and competes with Apple's Siri on the iPhone 4S are just wrong. Its system is very much locked in the old model of voice commands and needs specific commands. There's no contextual awareness or follow-ups. If Apple's approach encourages you to use voice as often as you can, Microsoft's is an if-you-have-to.

The People and Messaging Hubs are the last major upgrades of the mix. LinkedIn and Twitter are now folded into the profiles of both yourself and others, and are much more appealing than being limited to Facebook, like before. Contacts can now be put into groups, so you can mass e-mail all your co-workers or your favorite pub crawlers. Chats on Facebook and Windows Live Messenger are now not only present but merged with SMS text messaging. It's not as seamless as iMessage, but it means you can text someone to keep a conversation going that started on Facebook, and it's a rare instance of instant messaging being woven into a mobile OS where even Google Messenger is a stand-alone app.

As with the original OS, Microsoft has created a dilemma in trying to aggregate as much as it can in one place. Twitter mentions have to compete with Facebook messages have to compete with LinkedIn updates. And while Microsoft's strategy is one of the most slickly integrated and useful, it still becomes tough to manage if you have more than a few dozen people to keep track of in any one category. Microsoft might want to avoid the in-and-out behavior of app-centric platforms like Android and iOS, but it's still often the case that the dedicated Facebook and Twitter apps are often much better at coping with the flood of information from any one source.





There are numerous other upgrades in 7.5, some more important than others. E-mail inboxes can not only be unified, but separated into groups and show collapsible mail threads. Custom ringtones are finally an option. The calendar can now handle multiple sub-calendars and Facebook events. Office Hub apps can now sync all files to SkyDrive, handle Information Rights Management-protected files, and play nicely with Office 365 and Lync communication.

Little touches like a battery saver mode, podcast support in the Zune player, face tagging in Facebook and Windows Live photo uploads, and a web-browsable Windows Phone Marketplace all go a long way towards fleshing out the OS. The net effect of these and the big improvements is of an OS that at least feels like it's now in the same ballpark as Android and iOS, and certainly miles above the Symbian OS Nokia was using. A Lumia 800 owner won't have to apologize for the feature set of the OS in the same way that a first-wave Windows Phone user would have last year.

Having mentioned this, it's hard to say Windows Phone is genuinely better than other platforms outside of its social service integration. Apple now has a killer voice recognition feature in Siri, and Google still has the strongest cloud services for mail, music, and others, often with the most powerful apps to match. What it is, however, is simple and fresh, and for some that might be enough. We'd add that Microsoft is much better about timely updates than Google. Where Android updates beyond Nexus phones often come months late or not at all, Microsoft can get everyone on a new OS within a month.

Nokia apps: Drive, Mix Radio, more

As part of its multi-billion dollar deal with Microsoft, Nokia has the freedom to customize the OS more than its rivals do, and it shows beyond just the option of a Nokia Blue color for the home tiles.



Nokia Drive will be the highlight for most, if just because it's the most practical. Arguably, it's the turn-by-turn that Windows Phone should have had, since it uses a real bird's-eye perspective and is clearly designed to be used with the phone mounted in a cradle. It can find points of interest along with specific addresses. And more importantly, it's not tied to requiring an active Internet connection even when you start the trip, letting you download a map pack in advance to avoid racking up huge data bills on that trip to Spain or running out of map data when you're too far away from good cellular coverage.

With that in mind, it's still not quite as good as Google Maps Navigation. There's no Street View visual guidance, searches through voice or for destinations only along the way, or satellite layers. Nokia's app, as the name suggests, is similarly limited just to driving, making you turn to Bing Maps for on-foot guidance and leaving you out of options if you want public transit.

There's also Mix Radio, which provides both local and global Internet radio streaming built in. We'd have tested it, but the newness of Nokia's platform means that it hasn't negotiated rights to bring Mix Radio to North America, and you can't download the app afterwards. Thankfully, apps like Slacker Radio and TuneIn Radio can fill in much of the gap.



Apart from those two, one after-the-fact download is available in App Highlights. It amounts to a recommendation tool for Windows Phone Marketplace, although given the lack of recommendations in Microsoft's own store, it comes in handy. When we browsed, we saw picks by Nokia's US head Chris Weber as well as a "starter kit" of important apps. Nokia has also tucked in a small Contacts Transfer app that will let users migrate information from some phones over Bluetooth.

Performance and gaming

The speed of the Lumia 800 is, like the screen, dictated by Microsoft's guidelines. Nokia is using a single-core 1.4GHz Snapdragon processor, which is at the upper end of the Windows Phone spectrum but still behind the dual-core processors now commonplace in the Android and iPhone worlds. It literally can't use more, since Windows Phone doesn't know how to talk to dual core chips.

From a practical perspective, the one core isn't a limitation. Windows Phone was designed to run extremely quickly even in the original generation, and on the Lumia 800, it's seamless in the regular interface. Gaming benefits as well. Although we suspect most games could run on virtually any Windows Phone, it was nice to know that a visually intensive game like Kinectimals or Ghostscape is running very smoothly. The only real limitations on the Lumia for now are video recording, which tops out at 720p, and the headroom for games with detail and effects on the order of Infinity Blade 2.





Windows Phone's ace in the hole for gaming isn't in the titles itself, though, so much as the infrastructure behind it. Xbox Live is still the framework here, and it's become more advanced with 7.5. We've liked the tie-in with the Xbox Live friends list and the ability for some games to pick up where the Xbox 360 left off. In the new OS, you now have the same support for Beacons as in the fall 2011 Xbox 360 Dashboard. You can signal a desire to play a particular game in multiplayer and do something else while you wait for an invitation. The Games Hub is more in-depth: you can see and customize your Xbox Live avatar in 3D, compare achievements, and write Xbox Live messages.

The only real challenge gaming faces on the Lumia 800, and other WP7.5 phones, is just sheer app selection. While many big-name games now exist on Windows Phone, it's still frequently the case that they're either ports from other platforms (Angry Birds being the obvious example) or have been developed by Microsoft itself. Xbox Live is still far better than Apple's Game Center and the virtually non-existent hooks in Android, but when Microsoft ports Kinectimals to iOS, you see some of the advantages dissipate.

Camera apps and image quality

On the surface, there's no great revolution to the camera app, and Nokia hasn't added any special touches of its own. It's still a significant leap over what was seen in both the original Windows Phone and 7.1 (NoDo), all the same. For one, it finally saves camera settings. No longer do you have to change the resolution or white balance every time you return to the app. It's now possible upload videos, not just photos, to Facebook and Windows Live.



There is one feature you won't find on this phone that exists on some other Windows Phones, though: a front camera. In part because of the quick conversion of the N9 body, the eight-megapixel rear camera is all you'll have to shoot with. Windows Phone doesn't have many video chat apps anyways, Tango being the highlight. But it rules out self-portraits and is something you might miss when Skype is ready to go.

The camera itself sits in between the Galaxy Nexus and iPhone 4S for quality. Helped by a fairly wide f2.2 aperture on the lens that lets in more light and produces a shallower depth of field, the Lumia 800's camera can produce some fairly sharp, pleasing macro shots and handles high contrast situations more gracefully than some phones we've tried. It's not as good at handling low light or motion as the iPhone 4S' backside-illuminated sensor is, though, and we noticed that colors were sometimes muted versus what we saw in real life.







Movie-making sits roughly in that in-between space as well. The Lumia 800 is far more graceful about shooting video in low light than some cameras, and the overall output is generally clean. Panning tends to blur the shot, however. Audio quality is adequate, but clearly recorded at a low bitrate. Nokia's hardware is perfectly good for catching a moment with friends, but not for a concert (when you have permission) or a fast-moving sports match.





Call quality, 3G speeds, and battery life

Nokia for many is the definition of a cellphone, and it's not surprising then that the Lumia 800 has good call quality. While not piercingly clear, it's distinct and pleasant on the ears. Recipients on calls liked the results of the microphone as well.

We can't quite give a ringing endorsement to the 3G speeds. Officially, it reaches the same 14.4Mbps peak download rate as the iPhone 4S, but an unofficial test had the Lumia hovering at about 1.9Mbps down and 740Kbps up where Apple could eke out 5.8Mbps down and 1.2Mbps up on the same network. Short of a flaw in the third-party app used for the test, it's hard to say what the cause might be when you have good reception and a fully 14.4Mbps-capable SIM card.



Battery life is acceptable, but not spectacular. In our experience, moderate use that focused primarily on data use with some voice and photography got us through a proper day of use, if only just. It should get better: we know there's a battery life update that has started rolling out and hadn't hit our phone yet. Once applied, though, it's still unlikely that it will be the battery life champion that the iPhone 4S (if you're not affected by hiccups), Galaxy S II, or Galaxy Nexus can be in the right conditions. Nokia has promised a second update into 2012 that may improve things further.

That fix might be important. We've heard of reports of the Lumia 800 refusing to start and recharge if the battery is drained completely. Although preventable, it's slightly worrying if you know you'll run out before the end of the day or have to leave the phone idle for a long time.

Wrapping up

When Nokia said it would transition to Windows Phone in February, it took a big gamble while being under the gun. The then-largest smartphone maker was standing on a burning platform and, CEO Stephen Elop argued, had to risk alienating millions of Symbian loyalists just to avoid being trampled by Android and the iPhone. Even now, some think Nokia took a step backwards and should have used Android instead. What does the Lumia 800 signal, then?

To us, it's definitely a big stride forward for Nokia's smartphone quality. While it has had some well-known phones in the Symbian era, it was harder and harder to recommend them as it became clear the software wasn't keeping pace, even if the hardware sometimes was. Windows Phone instantly changes that. The Lumia 800 has some of Nokia's best hardware design in years mixed with an OS that, whatever your personal preference, is decidedly modern. No more obtuse menus; no need to reboot the phone every few days; just ease of use and getting things done.



Outside of the Nokia fan's context, it's still a solid phone. The top build quality and fairly unique design could tip the balance for those who might otherwise be on the fence. We like the call quality, and Windows Phone is now very much in the running. Nokia's device could stand to go for more storage and really needs a front-facing camera. Even so, we'd put it at the upper ranks of the Windows Phone echelon, possibly beating the Samsung Focus S and HTC Titan depending on what you value in a phone. It's not the thinnest, lightest, or biggest-screened, but it exhibits a kind of balance that its peers don't always have.

Nokia's real challenge is in persuading those who aren't already inclined to Nokia or Microsoft to jump in. The truth is that each of its main competitors has something Nokia doesn't get, and in some cases can't, by launching a Windows Phone in late 2011. We've mentioned dual-core processors, but there's also faster 3G and 4G, removable storage, and NFC (near-field communication). All of them are likely to come in time, but they're not here now. You can also point to the iPhone 4S' superior camera or to the excellent screens on both the iPhone as well as a number of Android phones.

Still, even if that's your inclination, the price is potentially right depending on your choice of carrier. In the UK, the Lumia 800 is free with a 31 monthly tariff on T-Mobile, or 36 on Orange and Vodafone. That makes it a fairly safe pick and considerably less costly to own than a Galaxy Nexus or iPhone 4S, either which takes 41 or more a month to get for free. While we're the sort who would pay more up front to get the exact device we want, there's no question that Nokia is aware enough of where it needs to be in the price spectrum right now.

The tyranny, at the moment, is that the Lumia 800 currently isn't available in North America through any official channels. The most devoted can import it, and it will work on the 3G of every American and Canadian GSM carrier, but that's not the same as buying either from a carrier store or unlocked from Nokia. There's a real chance that the phone might reach AT&T or Verizon with an LTE upgrade along the way. Until then, Nokia's best phone for some time, and one of the better Windows Phones, is missing out on a chance to make its name known at a time when it might matter the most.

by Jon Fingas


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