Objectively, the Nokia Lumia 900 is a very nicely made smart phone with a wonderful hand feel that rivals any high-end handset on the market. Subjectively, however, the Lumia 900 is the most beautiful electronic device I’ve ever owned and is the highest quality smart phone I’ve ever seen.
Nokia Lumia 900
Now, before any of you Apple fans fire up Mail app or whatever you’re using these days, relax. This statement doesn’t obviate or change my opinions of Apple’s newest iPhone and iPad devices. Both are beautiful and well-made, with gorgeous glass and metal enclosures. They’re understandably and undeniably lust-worthy. Nokia’s hasn’t made Apple passé. It’s simply offered the first viable competition from a design perspective.
If you’re a Windows Phone fan, this is a big deal. All of the first and second generation devices we’ve seen in the US, to date, are cheaply-made, plastic-based devices that offer none of the hard to describe tactile and visual flair of Apple’s products. The handset market already has a cheap, mass market alternative to the iPhone called Android. So Windows Phone, to date, has been somewhat lost in the mix.
The Lumia 900, like the Lumia 800 before it, comes in a unibody polycarbonate form factor that offers a terrific hand feel. (Nokia calls it “monobody.”) It’s a weird thing to describe. But when you pick up a Samsung Windows Phone handset, there’s no religious experience, no emotional connection. In fact, it’s hard to know up from down: With the Focus S, I found myself constantly flipping it around.
Nokia Lumia 900 (upside-down, left) and Samsung Focus S
The iPhone 4S is clearly well made when you pick it up. But it’s also curiously brittle, with sharp edges that catch on your fingers and hand in ways that are not actually very nice. You almost have to convince yourself that its prickly metal edges are a sign of quality, so those little bursts of pain aren’t bad, they’re just reaffirming.
iPhone 4S, top, and Lumia 900, bottom
The Lumia 900 hand feel is different from both. First, it’s a solid and even heavy device, an SUV among cars and hybrids, designed very clearly for the American market, with our big and beefy hands. But it’s smooth and well-designed, milled with curved, not sharp, edges that fit nicely in the hand. Because all of the edge buttons are on one side—something I’ll try to get used to—you can always tell up from down, without looking. The buttons are not sharp or painful, just readily apparent. Simple.
Focus S, top, and Lumia 900, bottom
I have big hands, so this is a bit unfair for a general statement, but the Lumia 900 feels better in hand—in my hand—than does any other phone. My hand swallows up the tiny iPhone, and its sharp buttons and edges are unwelcome. The Lumia 900 feels just as well made. But it feels right. Better.
While Apple champions unibody designs for its laptops, it obliterates that superiority in its mobile devices. Where the iPhone is a mess of small, fragile parts—glass front and, unnecessarily, back pieces that beg to be encased in thick covers, and several thin, foil-like metal bumper bits—the 900 is a single, well-made, block of polycarbonate. It’s bulletproof, solid. Not frail.
iPhone 4S, top, and Lumia 900, bottom
One of the things I really liked about the Samsung handsets—including the original Focus as well as the Focus S and Focus Flash-was that they were indestructible and didn’t require ugly, form- and weight-altering cases. Sure, they would explode into three pieces—body, battery, and back panel—when dropped. But you could put them back together and rest assured that they would work every time when rebooted.
With the iPhone, such falls would be catastrophic, resulting in cracked glass and dented corners. People fondle these handset partially out of fear that anything will ever happen to them. It’s the way we treat small babies. And puppies.
The 900 elicits a vibe that is somewhere between that of the Samsung and Apple devices. I’m not afraid to drop it because it seems so solid, so well made. And I’m certainly not going to cover it up with a case that it doesn’t need. This thing is durable.
But because of its unibody design, and non-replaceable battery, the 900 isn’t going to come apart when dropped either. (Well, hopefully not. If it does, it’s toast.) So I’ll probably still be very careful with it simply because of that. It’s a strange combination of brawn and beauty. You know it can save itself, unlike the defenseless iPhone. But you still want to protect it.
Compared to the Lumia 800, the Lumia 900 is of course, bigger, but it’s also subtly different. On the 800, the screen doesn’t quite match the width of the device, causing an interesting effect where it appears to float above the device. The Lumia 900 doesn’t have this same effect, and the screen instead is very clearly stuck to the top of the device, providing a natural lip for your fingers to pause over as they grasp the device. I guess the way to describe it is that it’s a natural side-effect of the increased size.
Speaking of which, when it comes to screens, bigger is better ... to a point. And that point, that optimal screen size, is indeed 4.3 inches, the exact size used by the Lumia 900. Some have complained about the “low pixel density” of the Lumia 900 screen, which, like all pre-devices is stuck at 480 x 800. (And I wonder—not really--how that once-curious phrase entered the common language.) But that’s silly. This screen is beautiful, vibrant, and a compelling frame for your digital photos, videos, and other content. It’s just one of many straw man arguments that the Apple-centric media tries to inject into the conversation to undermine the competition. Point being, higher res is generally better, yes. But the iPhone screen’s small size somewhat undermines that quality, I think. It’s still a postage stamp. Text, graphics, everything looks wonderful on the Lumia 900. It just does. Sorry.
The camera, which I’ll discuss in a future article in this series, is mounted in the middle, upper portion of the device’s back, and not up in a corner as with most other phones, including the iPhone 4S. I found this curious until I started actually using it. As it turns out, you’re far less likely to place a finger in front of the camera or flash with this positioning, and it kind of makes me wonder how it is that Apple other phone makers haven’t figured this out. Clearly, Nokia’s many years of phone design are paying off here as well. But if you’re interested in taking 100 photos this year that feature the blurry edge of your own finger, by all means, use the competition.
The capacitive front buttons—Back, Start, and Search—are far less easy to trigger accidentally, a long-lived problem on Samsung’s Windows Phone handsets. I had previously figured that physical buttons would be better, but it appears that Nokia got this right.
Even sound quality from the device’s bottom-mounted speaker is excellent and loud. I like to use a smart phone for podcasts while shaving and getting ready in the morning, especially when traveling, and with this device, no external speaker is required. Bravo to that.
I’m not a fan of all the design decisions, however.
I mentioned before that all of the edge buttons are on one side. On the Focus S and other Windows Phones, the volume buttons are on the left edge of the device, and the power button is either on the top or the right side. The camera button is generally found on the bottom right side. I like this arrangement, am used to it, and am confused why the Lumia 900 goes in a completely different direction. On this phone, the volume buttons, power button, and camera buttons are all on the right side, in that order from top to bottom. So there are no buttons on the top or left side. And to power on the device, you need to hit the middle button of the right-mounted set. It’s weird.
The USB connector is on the top of the device, which is non-optimal. On the Focus S, Samsung was nice enough to place it on the bottom, which I prefer. (That said, those who use the device in a car may prefer the top-mounted USB port if they typically rest the device in a cup holder.)
And it’s a small thing, but I wish there were more color choices. Nokia is launching the device in just black and cyan, and a white version will arrive in a few weeks. But when you open up to a few colors like this, it makes me want more. I’d love to see a deep red version, for example. It seems like a half dozen colors should be doable. That said, the cyan device is gorgeous. (Though I’m curious why it wasn’t matched to an identical accent color in the themes interface.)
Put simply, the Nokia Lumia 900 is a beautiful, beautiful handset. It’s as nice as anything Apple has made while not aping the iPhone’s look, feel, or materials. By using a polycarbonate unibody design, Nokia has created a smart phone that features none of the fragile or painful edges of Apple’s devices, but feature instead smoothly curved edges that fit naturally and comfortable in your hand. So like Windows Phone itself, the Lumia 900 isn’t just different to be different. It’s both different and better.
For the first time, Windows Phone has a handset that matches the quality and superiority of the platform that powers it. And as a fan of Windows Phone from day one, I salute this entry into the market. And I’ll be using the Lumia 900 as my day-to-day phone until something better comes along. I suspect that won’t happen anytime soon.