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Nokia's Lumia 900 for AT&T

May 15th, 2012
Nokia takes aim at US smartphone buyers with Lumia 900

Nokia's Lumia 900 represents the pinnacle of the company's new smartphone strategy, pairing premium components with a unique design and Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system. In our full review, we try to determine if the LTE radio, large display and other high-end features will help Nokia and Microsoft fulfill their dream of finally reestablishing themselves in the US smartphone market. Nokia's Lumia 900 represents the pinnacle of the company's new smartphone strategy, pairing premium components with a unique design and Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system. In our full review, we try to determine if the LTE radio, large display and other high-end features will help Nokia and Microsoft fulfill their dream of finally reestablishing themselves in the US smartphone market.


We've become a bit bored with the industrial design among most smartphones. Designers are repeatedly tasked with building a compact slab fitted with a touchscreen and a few buttons, but there has been room for refinement. Most devices, aside from a few notable exceptions, can easily be confused for others, while many of the distinct designs are only recognizable because of cosmetic 'enhancements' that do not serve to improve usability.

When Nokia once reigned supreme, back in the '90s and continuing into the early aughts, the Finnish handset maker introduced a number of iconic designs that led the industry toward smaller, more sensible handsets that were mimicked by competitors. The company's commercial success culminated in the 1100, an entry-level device that paired an attractive yet refined design with an affordable price. To put things into perspective, the 1100-series phones blasted past 200 million units around the same time Apple sold its 100 millionth iPod.

It is no secret that Nokia for the past few years has struggled to maintain influence in the cellphone market in the age of smartphones. Interestingly enough, the Nokia 7710 arrived in 2004 with a 3.5-inch 640x320 color touchscreen, a fledgling smartphone OS, removable storage, and a one-megapixel camera capable of recording video in several formats. The company had a three-year advantage on the iPhone, and a four-year head start on Android and the first touchscreen BlackBerry.

Getting closer to the point—and our current era—we've been waiting for Nokia to reassert itself as a leader in phone design and functionality. We liked the N8, in terms of aesthetics and basic functionality, but Android and iOS had already proven superior to Symbian by the time Nokia's 2010 flagship arrived. The N9 was even more impressive, but the switch from Symbian to MeeGo left us disappointed and doubtful of the phone's chances to catch on.

At least a few Nokia executives appear to have been thinking along the same lines. Although the N9 was already promised to the world, the company decided to scrap plans for a US launch while it secretly upgraded the hardware and reworked the electronics to run Windows Phone. We like Microsoft's latest smartphone OS, though most of the early Windows Phones, from a hardware standpoint, left little incentive to switch from iPhone or Android.

The Lumia 900 is a relatively large device, not living among the Android giants but still considerably bigger than the iPhone 4 and thicker than the Galaxy S II. Like Samsung's second-generation Galaxy S, the Lumia 900 integrates a 4.3-inch display.

Aside from the the raw specs, Nokia designers have found a unique way to combine curved and flat surfaces. The back housing starts as a broad convex near the center, nearly flat, before steepening toward the left and right edges as the surface wraps around to meet the flat display bezel. The top and bottom caps are perfectly flat, though the front and back panels are curved inward to reduce the area of each cap.

The overall shape results in one of the best-looking and easiest-to-hold phones that we've had a chance to try out. Keeping rounded edges on the left and right edges makes the device secure in the hand and comfortable to use for extended periods of time. When typing with one hand, placing our small finger diagonally across the bottom surface, we found the flat cap be conducive to accurate typing and more comfortable than a curved surface.

We are fans of metal housings, though the Lumia 900's one-piece polycarbonate shell feels more like anodized aluminum than plastic. The solid construction does not flex under normal use, and we did not hear any creaks or hollow sounds. We suspect that a tall drop onto concrete could prove that a well-designed polycarbonate shell can absorb slightly more force than aluminum without warping, however both materials can be easily scratched and chipped.


Nokia chose to equip the Lumia 900 with a Gorilla Glass-protected AMOLED display packing 800x480 resolution, matching the pixel count of other Windows Phones. We like the 4.3-inch layout, however we found the pixel density to be a significant shortcoming. Several high-end Android phones bring 1280x720 displays, while the iPhone 4 offered a 640x960 panel when it was released nearly two years ago.

The AMOLED panel is particularly stunning when used in conjunction with the Windows Phone OS, allowing the colorful panes to float atop the deep-black background, though some users may find the color saturation to be a bit too exaggerated.

Nokia takes the technology one step further with 'ClearBlack', a polarization technique that aims to reduce reflections from ambient light. Rather than relying solely on anti-reflective surface coatings, the company developed an ingenious system that combines linear and circular polarizers to block most of the light that would normally reflect off the AMOLED panel and back to the user's eyes.

ClearBlack clearly sounds gimmicky, but we observed a noticeable improvement in sunlight readability. The display even looks better indoors, eliminating the minor reflections that typically indicate where the display edge terminates and the bezel begins.

Software performance

There is not much to say about the Lumia 900's performance that hasn't been noted in earlier Windows Phone reviews. The device integrates a single-core 1.4GHz Snapdragon processor, keeping to Microsoft's platform specifications.

Although it would be easy to dismiss the single-core chip as inadequate alongside the dual-core iPhone 4S processor and quad-core Android offerings, we continue to find the Windows Phone software/hardware combination to be effectively optimized for a consistent and generally positive experience throughout normal use. The interface smoothly reacts to the flick of a finger, flowing through visual elements. The native apps and many third-party titles show comparable performance, though some apps still have problems when scrolling.

As expected, we did find a perceivable performance gap when loading complex websites. Load times seemed excessive compared to what we've experienced with the iPhone 4S or high-end Android devices, and Internet Explorer failed to properly render certain items. Serious users may find the gaming experience to be lacking, whether from limited performance or the simplicity of most titles in the Marketplace.


Despite the drawbacks to Nokia's N9 and 800, both devices integrate fantastic cameras. The Lumia 900 keeps to the tradition, utilizing an eight-megapixel primary sensor and a f/2.2 lens produced by Carl Zeiss. Like many high-end smartphones, the new Lumia enables users to tap on part of the viewfinder screen to focus on a particular area. The system also takes advantage of dual-LED flash for low-light shooting, along with exposure compensation and automatic white balance.

The primary camera's pixel count is not the highest among phones, but we agree with the approach taken by Nokia and Apple. Both handset makers focus on image quality rather than inflating the megapixel spec, aside from Nokia's 41-megapixel PureView offering.

We found the Lumia 900's camera to be an excellent smartphone shooter in most situations. Images show great detail and color vibrance, though our experience with the iPhone 4S suggests Apple's camera configuration results in marginally better shots depending on the circumstances.

We were surprised to find that the device is incapable of shooting 1080p video. Most camera-centric phones now shoot at the higher HD resolution, but Windows Phones are still limited to 720p until Microsoft makes the upgrade.

Battery, LTE performance

Many smaller Windows Phones are not known for their battery life, leading us to have lackluster expectations when a 4.3-inch display is thrown into the mix. Nokia utilized a portion of the extra internal space for a relatively large battery, however, which came as a pleasant surprise. We confirmed that the device does generally meet its "all-day battery life" promise, including a few hours of talk time, though we lacked the gumption to determine if the talk time could extend for a full seven hours.

Most of the hardware specs between Windows Phones are comparable, though the Lumia 900 is one of few to offer LTE support. It joins HTC's Titan II on AT&T's LTE network, while taking advantage of HSPA+ in other markets. We were unable to test the LTE performance until traveling through the Atlanta airport, where we achieved 17Mbps downloads and 2.5Mbps uploads. Tests on a Verizon device showed 15Mbps downloads and 5Mbps uploads. We caution that out brief tests did not include many repetitions or movement around the metropolitan area; service is notoriously erratic for any carrier around busy airports.

Final thoughts

We feel that the Lumia 900 is one of the most distinctive and well-designed smartphones to arrive on the market since the iPhone 4S. Microsoft appears to be falling behind Apple in Google in the race to improve and refine their respective mobile platforms, however Nokia's flagship is arguably the best example of Windows Phone's potential.

Through their tight partnership, both Nokia and Microsoft seem to understand that the Lumia 900 must compete among entry-level handsets rather than going up against devices such as the iPhone 4S and Galaxy Nexus. Its $99 price tag is an enticing offer for a full-featured smartphone that compares well spec-for-spec against midrange Android handsets, and undercuts the refurbished iPhone 4S by $50.

While the Lumia 900 is a great buy for anyone moving from a feature phone, midrange Android device, aging iPhone or another Windows Phone, Nokia and Microsoft still face challenges in their efforts to gain momentum against the market leaders. If Microsoft can commit to hastily refining its mobile platform, and bring such improvements to the Lumia 900 instead succumbing to the same form of fragmentation that plagues Android, the alliance may finally bring a new player into the two-horse race.

- Attractive design

- Excellent camera

- Display easier to view in sunlight

- Long battery life

- Low-resolution display

- Lacking in processing power

- Victim of slow Windows Phone development