Let’s get a few things out of the way first. This is not a tech review but a user’s observations after 10 days of regular use, so I wouldn’t call this “objective” (but then, neither are most tech reviews). I also switched from Blackberry Bold 9700 (keyboard lover) and that bias might creep in, plus the phone is not a review unit - I bought this phone and will be very pissed if my money has not been well-spent. It is not a comparison with iOS or Android (I have used both for a few days) as unavoidable as it may seem. My usage scenario is another factor – Internet usage is not heavy (except for searches, quick look at linked articles), I prefer iPod classic for music but use the phone for Youtube videos when I am not near a computer, emails/calendar are a must-have at all times, and plan to use it for light gaming.
I won’t delve much into the phone’s features or specs as there are many other reviews for it. I will also record my observations in two parts – first part about the phone hardware – body, screen, sound and camera with a bit of software, and the second part on the OS/software.
Update: 06-Dec-2011 – I did end up talking a lot about the OS than I wanted to but I hope it has come across as my experience rather than a feature-set description. I have not covered several functions like games or the integration with Windows Live among others because I did not use them enough to have an opinion. And if possible, I will try to add pictures to this review later.
Part 1 – Design and Hardware
The phone is black, beautiful and an absolute stunner. The body is plastic (polycarbonate) but feels anything but cheap. The silver buttons stand out more than I would have liked it to. Black buttons would have given the phone a more seamless black look and functioned just as well. The micro USB opening is flimsy and could break with excess force or by accident. The body is smooth and it felt like it would slip out of my hands, but the height/weight is well balanced and it feels just right to hold. There is no front-facing camera and some might see this as a minus, but I see no real use for it in the next year.
Turning it on – Zero to Ready in 20 seconds
Hold and press the phone lock/unlock button and you are greeted by a white Nokia logo, followed by the Windows Phone logo and a couple of seconds later, the phone springs to life – deep, rich colours popping out of the Lumia 800’s clear black display – and this is at around 50% brightness. And then there’s the bootup speed – it takes all of 20 seconds for the phone to be switched on, accept the 4 digit SIM password, acquire a signal and be ready for use. Just 20 seconds. Add 2 seconds if you like – from pressing the button to appearance of the Nokia logo.
Screen and display resolution – Looks great but …
Lumia 800 uses Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) OS, has a 3.7 inch gorilla glass display that sits almost edge-to-edge across the width of the phone and is curved outward which makes the phone a bit more conducive to touch. I read reports of the curved glass helping readability in the sun but I cannot verify that. The contrast-heavy WP7 OS shines on this screen but the 800x480 screen – a limitation imposed by the OS - is a bit disappointing as I would have liked to see more on its gorgeous black screen.
Sound, Music and Ringtones – Nokia has forgotten that the ringtone is like a calling card
Sound is loud and clear whether on phone calls, while listening to music with the supplied, better-than-usual quality earphones or on speaker. Nokia has included a Nokia music app with a Mix radio function that streams music at no extra cost. If you don’t have data usage constraints, this is a great feature that also allows offline storage of the mix you like and play it later. If Location is turned on, the “gig finder” shows live music gigs nearby, displays a map to the location, let's me buy tickets and share information about the gig with friends (via SMS, Facebook, Twitter). This is quite cool.
The Nokia default ringtone has a chime-like sound that is not very audible, odd considering how ubiquitous this ringtone was. I replaced it with the polyphonic ringtone found in phones from 8 years ago. The “new SMS tone” is a “beep-beep” not a “beep-beep beep-beep”.
Camera - Needs more effort
The Nokia Lumia 800 sports a conveniently located camera with Carl Zeiss f/2.2 lens and a dual LED flash. It can be triggered with a dedicated camera button even if the phone is locked and focusing can be achieved by a button half-press or by tapping on the subject on screen. The camera works quite well in daylight but not as well in low light despite the Carl Zeiss optics. Nokia has some work to do on the camera software and it is surprising they didn’t nail this. This might be fixed by future updates but it could have been a great feature, and what we have instead is an ordinary camera. I am yet to use all the options of the camera but it mostly works ok and I will mostly use it to capture spontaneous moments when I can’t get to my Nikon D90 quickly enough.
In a nutshell,
Nokia Lumia 800 is a phone that looks beautiful and feels sturdy, has a gorgeous black display where colours come to life. The Micro USB port door is an annoyance and the camera could be better but there’s more to the phone than just the hardware. The phone was ready for use within 20 seconds of turning it on, but what after that? I will update this post with my thoughts on the phone’s software experience, performance and battery life.
Part 2 – Software, Performance and Battery Life
A phone is as good or as bad as the software that runs on it. The Nokia Lumia 800 is based on Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) and again, there are better reviews of the OS. I will touch upon my experience with the OS.
The bootup is FAST, really FAST and that is just the beginning. The lock screen shows a wallpaper, time, day of the week and date in large, sharp lettering. Below that is the the next appointment on the calendar and notification icons to indicate new messages or phone calls. This is nothing special but useful to decide whether I should put the phone away or do more. But there is nothing to indicate where to go next, and this is not an annoyance as this is a screen begging to be touched. Slide the screen up and 8 bright blue high contrast blocks pop on the Lumia’s black screen. These blocks are called “tiles”, big enough to touch but it is mostly white text or a big white icon on the tile.
There are tiles for Phone, People, Text messages, Emails, Pictures, Zune, Calendar, Marketplace, XBox, Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office. Nokia has pre-installed Nokia Maps, Nokia Drive and Nokia Music. A set of big blocks are boring and these tiles don’t take up the full screen, leave a gap at the top and the bottom tile is cut off – giving a sense of incompleteness but trigger a curiosity to scroll the screen up, which reveals more tiles. Hitting the bottom of the tile draws attention to the small arrow that bounces at the top right of the screen, and tapping on this arrow smoothly transitions into a list of apps that you can display by scrolling up and down. Each app has an icon and a description and large enough to touch (no stylus needed)
The first thing I did was to transfer contacts from my Blackberry to the Lumia 800 using Nokia’s Contacts Transfer app. It has been the simplest contacts transfer process that I have gone through in almost a decade of mobile usage. With Bluetooth switched on and entering a password, all my Blackberry contacts were on my new phone within a couple of minutes. No hitches.
The next part is set up of the Windows Live account and if you avoided Hotmail/used it for spam mails, you are going to have to use it for a lot more. I set up a new Windows Live account to escape past sins as the setup was easy enough, gave me 25GB free space on Microsoft’s Skydrive, will store my contacts and calendar, and manage the phone from the Web.
With the contacts transferred, I set up my Linkedin and dormant Facebook accounts and all my contacts are now available on the phone with negligible effort. Work email (no Exchange for me) and Gmail set up was a breeze and all Gmail contacts are also available on the phone.
Windows Phone 7 is possibly the first OS that has tried to deviate from the “click on icon – open app – do something” interface paradigm that has been around since graphical user interfaces became the norm. While icon – apps – activity still exists, the primary interface is focused on activities rather than icons and apps via a series of hubs – one each for people, music & video, pictures, games, office and Marketplace. It is tempting to assume that these hubs are “folders”, but instead each hub is organized around a series of actions. Clicking on each hub shows the name of the hub – in an oversized font and cut-off at the right. The three hubs that I have used the most are People, Pictures and Marketplace.
Remember the contacts transfer and setup above? This is where they all end up – in the People hub – which is made up of 3 sections – What’s New, Recently used contacts and an alphabetical directory of contacts. This is where the OS starts to shine. Touching the People hub flips to the “What’s New” section which is a self-updating news feed of contacts from Facebook. I no longer need to specifically go to Facebook, instead Facebook comes to me with the latest updates from my friends and I can like/comment on updates right here. Since this feed is retrieved by the OS, the scrolling is smooth and fast.
The ‘Recent’ section peeks out at the edge and the incomplete/cut-off look starts making sense as you intuitively touch the screen to scroll to the right, showing 2 rows of 4 tiles – 2 and a half tiles at a time. Yes, that cut-off look again.
Scrolling further to the right brings up the alphabetical directory which lists all the contacts transferred from my old Phone, Linkedin and Facebook. I can create new contacts or contact groups and access existing contacts by scrolling or alphabet “tiles”. Tapping on any of the contacts displays the profile with phone number, email, home address, birthday, etc. and if the contact has Facebook, you can directly write to their wall. At the bottom are 3 icons – for pinning the contact to the start screen for instant access (like a speed dial), linking multiple profiles of the contact (Facebook, Linkedin) and for editing the contact’s profile. And if you want to know more about what your contact has been up to on Facebook, touch the gray “what’s new” tab and the contact’s feed is instantly available. Touching the grayed out, cut-off “Pictures” tab will show the pictures uploaded by your contact and the “History” tab lists all recent conversations or calls with the contact. The profile, news feed, pictures and history functions works similarly for the Recent contacts as well as for a contact group.
This might sound a bit nested but it makes perfect sense visually and is very intuitive. Everything about a person is at my fingertips, in one place, the implementation is brilliant and looks great.
As I observed in part 1 of the review, the Lumia 800’s camera is decent but needs more work. Photos taken by the camera can be viewed in the “camera roll” view. Additionally, pictures can be stored and viewed by album, date and people – WP7.5 shows off its excellent integration again as this will display photos shared by a contact.
There is a section for favourite pictures and photo applications I have downloaded (Apict, PhotoFunia, Pictures Lab, Thumba). Scrolling through the pictures in an album works as expected but tapping the 3 dots ( . . . ) at the bottom of a picture offers more options for sharing, adding to favourites and Applications. Instead of starting an app and opening a picture in it, you can start application for the picture you have open and directly work on it. Conceptually simple and very well executed.
Live Tiles, Interface/Usability, Multi-tasking and Background apps, Phone dialer, Browser, Apps, Performance, Battery Life and Conclusion
(This review is taking longer than I expected. It was supposed to be a series of 10 or 15 tweets, and maybe I will still do that but I thought it best to elaborate on my experience)
Look & Feel
WP7.5 is a combination of dark (or white) blackgrounds, bright colourful tiles (with white icons in them), big (lowercase) headings and fonts, cut off lettering and screen transitions. While that sounds jarring and unappealing, it creates a look that is refreshingly different and seem to have a purpose. The bright tiles and white icons draw attention, the text looks crisp and easy to touch, the cut off lettering induces an instinctive swipe to see if there is more – and there usually is, and each swipe or touch is accompanied by elegant, slick transitions. It feels like a Powerpoint presentation and for the first time, someone seems to have put its animation features to perfect use. And design likes and dislikes aside, there is no denying the smoothness and speed of the UI throughout the phone.
I was curious if phone functioned like it looked and it took me just a few minutes to get used to it. There are some rough edges but does not interfere with usability (I don’t recall some of the annoyances that made me think – ROUGH EDGE). Touch is responsive (sometimes a little too responsive) and accurate, swipes work as intended, information is not immediately available where you might expect it, but takes only a couple of iterations to figure the overall pattern of the interface. The big (black or white) headings that double as “tabs” that can be accessed by touching or swiping in the direction of dimmed text, a set of icons at the bottom for specific actions, three dots ( . . . ) indicate additional options or description of the icons.
If I were to use 3 words to describe the WP7.5 UI experience without resorting to superlatives – smooth, fast, functional. And those big bright colourful tiles go beyond one-sided communication.
The start screen is made up of tiles used for launching a task or an app but these tiles are not static. They can do some useful things – like showing the next appointment or event on the calendar, number of emails or text messages, weather forecast or a picture slideshow from the camera roll or those you have assigned as a favourite. Any app or contact can be pinned to the start screen for easy access and I use it for the most common functions and it alerts me if a contact has uploaded a new photo so I can tap and explore. This is a great concept but it will be only as good as the apps written for it (remember sideshow?) and at this time, not a lot of apps seem to be taking advantage of it.
There are downsides to these Live Tiles – it impacts battery life as dynamic content like weather, pictures or any content that requires access to data on the phone or the internet. While this is understandable, switching off Live Tiles or using it moderately to preserve the battery defeats the purpose of “glance and go” as Windows Phone is touted to be. The other problem with tiles is there are only 8 tiles visible at a time on the screen and adding more tiles to the start screen means more scrolling. Even if the tiles are easily recognizable with icons and text, I have gotten lost in scrolling as things don’t seem to be where I left them. The scrolling is a nuisance and I think it is one of the worst things about the Windows Phone interface.
Since this is a phone, there is a phone tile at the top left of the tile grid. Touching this tile brings up the Phone app and defaults to a “history” view showing the latest phone calls made. At the bottom are 4 icons – voicemail, dialpad, accessing contacts and a search function – and 3 of these icons don’t do things the way I want it to. The dialpad is just that – a dialpad – and typing 3-4 characters of a contact’s name does not work as a “search” function. I can’t see how or why this functionality has been omitted unless there are patent issues.
My second complaint is about accessing contacts which brings up a list from the “People” hub and while this should be a simple thing, scrolling to the right contact is cumbersome, even when I choose to list them starting with a specific letter. And the “Search” icon is not a saviour as it only searches the history and not the list of contacts. Another glaring miss. I expect my phone call to go through in 3 clicks – click phone icon/button –> select contact by searching –> call. Instead, it can take up to 6 clicks to make a phone call. I have replaced the default dialer with TrueDialer but this should have worked perfectly out of the box.
Calendar and Email
The first comment I heard about the calendar was “It’s so modern” – must be the high contrast look, crisp text and smooth transitions. There are three views – Agenda (list of appointments/events for the day), day/month view and a to-do view – and they are easy to use. The only thing missing is a weekly calendar option. My calendar is a combination of my work calendar, a Windows Live birthday calendar drawn from the phone contacts, a couple of Google calendars and Facebook events (great for birthday reminders). Each calendar can have a separate colour, can be switched on/off and work very well - as I would expect from a calendar. If you get lost in the calendar, there is a handy little icon to return to Today’s agenda. The one thing missing is a “weekly calendar” function and I can’t see why this was left out.
Email defaults to dark text on a white background and supports threaded conversations. While I dislike this on a desktop, it is perfect on a mobile and well-implemented on WP7.5. There are 3 default views for emails – all , unread and urgent – and each view can be accessed by touching or swiping. Each email conversation lists the emails in the thread and works as I expect it to. It is easy to add attachments (only pictures) and assigning priority, cc or bcc. There’s a neat little touch for selecting emails (for marking them as read/unread, deleting, moving to folders) – touch the left edge of the screen and it will bring up checkboxes for selection. I like this very much. There is also a search function that works perfectly.
I have not used the to-do functionality as I haven’t settled on a task management workflow, so I can’t comment on it but Calendar and Email look great and work very well too. The views for unread and urgent emails is very handy, and selecting multiple emails is a breeze. Barring the “weekly” view that I would have liked, the functionality is well put together.
Keyboard, Navigation and Copy/Paste
A touchscreen keyboard comes nowhere near the experience of a physical keyboard. Having said that, the keyboard is easy to use and finger/touch friendly, text prediction is very good (only English), multi-touch typing is great (with shift key), the tap-tap sound while typing is not irritating, it is simple to switch from characters to numbers/symbols and there is a separate smiley key :-) A clever touch again.
It is quite easy to copy / paste text – tap on a word and drag the markers to select text, hit the copy icon that appears and that’s it. An icon appears above the keyboard indicating that text is available on the clipboard and can now be pasted anywhere. But there is no option to “cut”. While it is easy to navigate to the start of a word, I found it difficult to go to the exact position inside a word or to the start of the first word in a line.
A physical keyboard let me on the move without looking, but the typing experience on Lumia 800 is as good as it can get on a touchscreen and I would like some way to navigate to a specific place in a word using cursor keys as touch doesn’t work for me.
Lumia 800 with Windows Phone gets the standard IE9 mobile browser and is launched via the Internet Explorer tile. The first thing to notice is that the browser URL bar is at the bottom of the screen and this does not degrade or enhance the experience. It also functions as a search box and gets results from Bing. Web pages render quickly and are usually true to their desktop versions. Scrolling, zooming in or out is mostly smooth but sometimes a page scrolls before it has rendered fully, giving a blocky effect. There is also no Flash on this phone but while mobile browsing experience has come a long way in the last 4-5 years, IE9 manages to provide a reasonable experience if not a great one and has some catching up to do.
Apps (and app list)
Besides user experience, availability and quality of apps have been a differentiator across desktop platforms but on mobile platforms, apps have had a much larger impact. There are 5 aspects that I consider important about apps –
- Number of apps: As a relatively newer platform, Windows Phone has over 40,000 apps but numbers don’t mean much, so we go to the next important aspect
- Availability of essential/popular apps: All apps I needed are available – Twitter, Facebook, Evernote, weather apps, alarms/timer, notes, IM+ (there is no Yahoo messenger or Google talk)
- Consistency with UI: All the 40-50 I have installed are consistent with the Windows Phone look & feel and design language. Some apps did not have the high contrast look I have gotten used to, but that is usually up to the app developer.
- Speed/Smoothness: Apps load quite fast, some within a second, some a few seconds longer but I have rarely had an app freeze on me or take more than 3 - 5 seconds to load.
- Nice to have apps: There are quite a few such apps – Ones that allow quick access to switching on/off Wifi or Bluetooth, Photo apps like Thumba and Pictures Lab, a notes recorder, Microsoft Office, Soundhound, Ringtone downloaders
I wanted to keep comparisons out but a comparison with iOS is inevitable when it comes to apps. iOS and Android are miles ahead in terms of number of apps or availability of essential/popular/nice to have apps.
I would also like folders for apps. With about 50 apps, finding apps is beginning to get difficult and while the alphabetical list is useful, it is badly organized. Folders in the form of a Tile that opens another series of Tiles are badly needed so apps can be found quickly. The need to search for apps from the app list has been remedied for pictures due to the task driven pictures hub, but a better search function (voice + system-wide search with the search button) and folders will make life a lot easier.
When Windows Phone 7 launched, multi-tasking was a major exclusion and this was apparently done to get to the market faster. The good news is it finally made an appearance in Mango and the bad news is the implementation. Third party apps can multitask and can be accessed by pressing and holding the back button which shows screenshots of the running apps for easy selection, but this is where the problems start.
- The third party apps don’t exactly “run”. Instead, they are “tombstoned”, i.e. suspended
- WP7.5 has fast app switching, it can take up to a couple of seconds for some apps to resume – a visible delay
- There is also a restriction on the number of apps (5-6) running in the background.
- There is no obvious way to close a running app – except by switching to the app and pressing the back button
- Some apps can run in the background to update live tiles if the developer has taken advantage of it
- All of the above can impact battery life
Multi-tasking on Windows Phone is far from perfect, doesn’t have some of the basics sorted out and important compromises have been made to balance speed, functionality and battery life.
I have not used this functionality much and while I saw some videos of Indian accents being recognized, WP7.5’s TellMe engine does not seem to like my accent. Voice commands can be triggered by pressing and holding the start button and I managed get some things done – like open applications, read out a text message and send it. Web searches also work quite well with voice when it recognizes my accent. The implementation is limited to a specific set of commands/instructions and while dictating a text message is another nice touch, I expect this functionality to improve in coming releases.
One feature that could make a significant impact on my usage is the ability to add voice labels for contacts so that names pronounced differently in English are recognized easily. I don’t expect to have a relationship with my phone but yes – adding a task or creating an appointment will be a huge improvement even if the conversation is one-sided and robotic.
There are 3 touch-sensitive buttons towards the lower end of Lumia 800, under the curved gorilla glass and it vibrates lightly on touch.
- Start button: press to return to the start screen or press+hold to trigger voice commands
- Back button: to return to start screen from an app, or to navigate back within an app. Can also close apps.
- Search button: Opens “Bing”.
These buttons work as expected but there is one big miss – the search button can only search on Bing. Microsoft seems to be bent upon thrusting Bing down everybody’s throat and while they have a right to integrate it tightly (and Bing is a decent search engine), I cannot help but feel that they are fighting yesterday’s battle that Google already won – on the desktop and also on mobile. Instead, I would like to see the Search button used for more than Bing. For example, a system-wide search for apps or pictures or appointments. This is clearly a lost opportunity on WP7.5.
Lumia 800 does not have the fastest processor but Emails open quickly, apps load fast, the camera starts within 1 – 2 seconds, transitions are instant. Limiting the number of third-party apps for multi-tasking has helped but Windows Phone seems to be designed to perform well on mobiles with limited power. Fast app switching/resuming could be quicker but Lumia 800 is incredibly fast and Windows Phone performance is excellent on it. This is a great hardware – software combination.
I was very concerned in the first few days as it felt like I was running out of battery life all the time but 4-5 days later, I got used to 10-14 hours on it with emails, internet usage, running multiple apps (including background apps), downloading ringtones, using IM, Whatsapp, text messages and making calls. The phone received an update last week (7740) and battery life seems to have improved although I can’t quantify it conclusively yet. There is another update expected as Lumia 800 apparently uses only 1300 mA of its battery’s 1450 mA, so I expect things to get better.
I don’t run unnecessary background apps anymore (except IM+, Whatsapp), 3G usage is not very high but 3G drains the battery faster than anything else, and since I like Live Tiles, I can make do with a little less battery life for better function. I could go 1.5 - 2 days on my Blackberry before the next charge – with push mail, heavy Twitter usage but limited browsing – and Nokia Lumia 800 compares weakly to it.
Final Thoughts about Nokia Lumia 800 running Windows Phone 7.5
Nokia Lumia 800 is the best looking phone I have owned – it is plastic but a beautifully constructed device that looks and feels expensive. If it had not been for the silver buttons on the right and the flimsy charging slot door, this phone was perfect. And this before you switch on the phone – which is when the Lumia 800’s clear black display comes into play, it’s ability to render deep blacks accentuating the bright colours of Windows Phone. The tiles and the colours may not work for some, but I like how it looks and it stands out on this phone.
WP7.5 has deviated from the old but tried and tested “click on icon –> open app –> do something” model and taken a task-based approach to user interface, which works very well, for instance in the People or Pictures hub. The social experience is baked right into the phone so you don’t have to open an app to check a social update. And there is Facebook chat built into the phone too. Live tiles are a great concept and for the few apps that have implemented it so far, it works exactly as intended but it will remain a novelty if there are no apps using it.
Apps are a limitation but not a major one depending on who you ask. Windows Phone has all the apps you might need, but iOS/Android has the apps you didn’t know you needed – and other than the sheer number of apps, this is the biggest differentiator between Windows Phone and iOS/Android. Market share will further impact the number and quality of apps that will be developed for the platform and despite 40,000 apps, the risk of developers not giving their best to Windows Phone is very real.
Multi-tasking needs improvement in allowing more open apps, quicker resuming from tombstone and battery usage. IE9 mobile browser works ok while rendering pages, scrolling or zooming. I would have expected battery life to be good from the start, but updates are expected to bring improvements. I received the first update within 2 weeks of purchasing Lumia 800, so it seems that both Nokia and Microsoft are on top of this problem. I also think future updates will be smooth based on the experience with update to build 7740.
There are 5 things I don’t like about the Lumia 800 (in descending order) – the smooth but unnecessary amount of scrolling I have to do on the Start screen/app list, multi-tasking, battery life, phone dialer – fixed by using TrueDialer and Search functionality.
In conclusion, this is a gorgeous phone that boots and is ready to use within 20 seconds and the speed extends beyond bootup into every single function. The phone performance is fast and the combination of bright colours, oversized fonts, cut-off lettering and slick, smooth transitions come together in a delightful way creating a well-integrated social experience and a new, fresh user experience.
Note for potential switchers
If you are looking for your first smartphone: This is a great buy even if the UI might take some getting used to.
If you are an iPhone user: I am surprised you even care about this phone to read a user review.
If you are an Android user: If you are big time into customization, don’t bother. For the rest of the 95% who can afford this phone, give it a try.
If you are a Nokia fan: Get over the platform argument. Symbian is dead. This is the best phone Nokia has made in the last few years – where everything from hardware to software works well together.
If you are a Nokia user: see “If you are looking for your first smartphone”
If you have already/almost decided to buy this phone: It will not make you part of the cool gang, but this IS the sexiest looking phone out there that works just as well. When your iPhone and Samsung smartphone owning friends start touting the excellent features of their phone after they see the Lumia 800, just smile back at them. They know you have the sexier phone.
P.S: The irony is that Windows Phone might very well turn out as the Linux of smartphones.