While there are many reasons for choosing a Nokia handset over other Windows Phones or competing smart phones, one of the key reasons is the bundled and unique Nokia apps and services you get with such a purchase. And some of these apps and services are truly excellent.
The Lumia 900 may simply be a case of, “I came for the design, but I stayed for the apps and services.” What first draws you in with this device, obviously, is the stunning unibody form factor, unique and superior to anything in the marketplace, including the curiously parts-heavy iPhone 4S. But as you use this device, the longest-lasting benefit, I suspect, will be the amazing array of Nokia apps and services that are bundled with the handset.
So far, I’m impressed.
To recap what’s happening here, let’s step back about a year to when Microsoft and Nokia announced their strategic partnership. As you recall, Nokia revealed that it would adopt Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform as its principle smart phone and would begin innovating on top of that platform, particularly around imaging, a traditional Nokia strength.
But Nokia’s contributions to Windows Phone would be two-fold. On the one hand, we’d see Nokia driving improvements directly into the platform, improvements that would appear in future Windows Phone software updates that would be made available to all devices, regardless of the manufacturer. On the other, Nokia would continue to differentiate with its own software and services initiatives, building them on top of Windows Phone, but made only available on Nokia devices.
Today’s focus is on those latter contributions, which can be seen in the form of several unique new Windows Phone apps that are only made available to Lumia users. With the Lumia 900, specifically, sold as it is through AT&T exclusively for the moment, some of these apps are not preinstalled on the phone, so you’ll need to visit the Nokia Collection in Windows Phone Marketplace to download and install them. They’re all free.
Better still, some of these apps represent amazing value. Where AT&T wants to sell you an AT&T Navigator subscription for voice-guided driving navigation at a cost of $9.99 per month or $2.99 per day, Nokia provides an arguably superior Nokia Drive app for free. As I noted in Day 2 of this series, one of the first things I do when configuring any Windows Phone handset is remove the superfluous apps I don’t need and then install the ones I do. So I remove most of the AT&T apps and, with the Lumia 900, I then installed some key Nokia apps.
I’m not going to “review” every single Nokia app for Windows Phone. And there are many, including several that aren’t “made” by Nokia but are rather offered through the Nokia Collection either exclusively (ESPN) or just because they’re seen as valuable and filling a hole in Windows Phone’s core functionality (Tango Video Calls).
Likewise, Nokia provides an interesting app called App Highlights that sits “outside” the Windows Phone Marketplace but provides information about a tiny but useful subset of the apps inside this marketplace. App Highlights is basically Nokia’s attempt to communicate what it feels are the most important or useful apps in the Marketplace, and it includes lists of featured apps, staff picks, games on sale, and an apps “starter kit” with such apps as USA Today, Xbox Companion, Spotify, Netflix, Groupon, eBay, Weather Channel, various Amazon apps, Shazam, Flixster, Facebook, Evernote, Flickr, Twitter, Adobe Reader, and the like. You know, because Windows Phone supposedly has no good apps, or not enough apps, or whatever the frick it is that clueless tech commentators are complaining about this week. (Read my editorial about this topic, Don’t Fear the Windows Phone App Apocalypse, for more information.)
App Highlights may seem superfluous, but it’s not. The issue with any mobile app store—and this is even worse in Apple’s App Store or the Android Marketplace, frankly—is that it’s really hard to find the best apps. For example, if you’re looking for the right streaming music app, how do you choose when there are 11,000 of them available, with 1,100 that all target the same backend service? Sometimes too much choice is just as bad as no choice. Worse, really, because great apps can easily get lost in the monsoon of crap apps that Apple and Google approve every single day in a mad bid to keep their “app superiority.” Sometimes being big is a liability.
The App Highlights app, much like Amazon’s AppStore for Android (though that latter service is quickly outgrowing its usefulness in this area) represents a curated subset of the wider marketplace with only the very best selections made available. For those new to Windows Phone—and you have to think with the Lumia 900, there will be millions of them—this is a great, great place to start.
But that’s all it is, a great place to start.
Dig a bit deeper and you’ll find some real gems. Key among them is the aforementioned Nokia Drive. I assume most readers have experienced smart phone-based GPS services by this point, and you probably know that Apple bundles a decent Google Maps experience with the iPhone, albeit one that lacks voice navigation, arguably a key feature for any smart phone, but especially one with such a small screen. AT&T’s solution, of course, is to buy a Navigator subscription. But on the Android side of the fence, you see a competitive advantage: On Google’s own platform, Google Maps includes voice navigation for free, and I have to think this is a key selling point for Android.
So what’s the deal on Windows Phone? The base platform includes a decent Bing Maps app with driving instructions, but only for automobile generally, though walking routes are available in select locations. (Google Maps supports more walking directions and public transportation too.) There’s voice, but the presentation is top-down only, with no 3D view, as was common with dedicated GPS devices.
Nokia Drive turns things up a notch and then some. In fact, even my Android-loving wife started pondering a previously inconceivable switch to Windows Phone after using it on a few local trip.
Nokia Drive provides maps for hundreds of different regions, including individual maps for the US states. So you have to download them, but that also means they can be used offline. Drive sports a 3D view that is vastly superior and more usable than a traditional 2D map, erasing the weird “which way is up?” effect that seems to plague such maps. And the maps are truly useful, with side street names always called out, along with nearby gas stations, restaurants, and other landmarks. It’s just immediately useful. (You can switch to 2D if you like, however.) You can configure map colors (day/night), which maps to store locally, a speed limit alert (which my daughter immediately used to criticize my driving), an amazing repertoire of (downloadable) navigation voices and languages, and more. It’s just an amazing app.
Nokia also provides its own mapping app, Nokia Maps, and I have to think that Nokia Drive + Maps could and should simply replace Bing Maps on Windows Phone going forward. Nokia Maps differs from Drive in that it’s about finding places around you. So it’s the type of thing you could use in the car, but you’re more likely to use it walking around in a city, whether it’s familiar to you or not.
Maps provides a nice, default 2D view that’s similar to Drive, but also satellite, public transportation, and traffic views, all of which are useful in their own rights. I’ll play with this in Boston, of course, but the big test will come in other cities, especially when we’re visiting Europe. You can test it easily enough by viewing maps of other cities and then virtually roaming through landmarks using the app’s built-in photos, reviews, guides, and other information. Nice!
Nokia Maps, highlighting Paris landmarks
And if the public transportation features of Maps aren’t enough, Nokia even offers a dedicated Nokia Transit app that features the timetables of public transportation routes in almost 90 regions worldwide. Boston is nicely covered, and given the variety of ways we can get in and out of the city—using the MBTA and various commuter rail lines, each with its own routes and times—being able to figure out the most efficient way at any given time is hugely convenient.
Nokia Transit helps you get from here to there ... on public transportation
There are other Nokia apps—a Creative Studio photo editing and sharing solution, a Contacts Transfer app that uses Bluetooth to import contacts from an old phone, and so on—as well as third party apps for news and sports that are, for now at least, exclusive to Nokia’s handsets. But as a US citizen, I’d never really been able to benefit from some of Nokia’s clearly superior mobile apps ands services over the years. So it’s nice to finally have that chance and see what all the fuss was about. It’s well deserved. Say what you will about Nokia, but they do a great job with mobile apps and services.
The photo editing capabilities of Creative Studio
So great, in fact, that one might argue that, with these apps, Nokia has done through software what it did with hardware when it designed the smooth, high quality unibody Lumia 900 (and 800) shell: Create something that is unique and differentiated from the competition. In a world of me-too black plastic phones, the Lumia 900 stands out. But even from a software standpoint, it stands out. Not just from the uniqueness of Windows Phone but also from its own excellent mobile apps and services, which are unique to Nokia devices. When you combine these advantages—the amazing hardware, the Windows Phone OS, and Nokia’s apps and services—you see the complete picture, and why one could and should choose this phone over the competition.