I’ve recently learned that there are two things about being a mobile-phone reviewer.
The first thing: you get to handle awesome gadgetry days or weeks ahead of its official release date, and you’re not just allowed to use the heck out of it; you need to, in order to do your job. That’s the awesome thing.
The other, less-awesome thing: you eventually have to give it all back.
“Empty Nest” is a recurring column discussing what I miss -and what I don’t- about the devices I’ve had to return.
The Nokia Lumia 900 review unit I just sent back came to my door under somewhat atypical circumstances. The Lumia 900 had already been on the market for a few weeks when I mentioned to someone at AT&T that I was thinking of buying one. I had used Windows Phone as my daily driver before, on a Samsung Focus in 2011, but Nokia’s marketing buzz was taking its toll on my willpower, and I wanted to experience Big Blue’s new LTE network on the WP7 platform. My contact at AT&T happened to have a spare Lumia 900, so she generously arranged for me to test drive it after the initial torrent of reviews. This allowed us to create a few pieces with unique angles, like the Nokia Lumia 900 vs. HTC One X video and the first installment of the After The Buzz series. It also allowed me to experience firsthand what it was like to be part of the “beautifully different” crowd. A week after wiping its memory and beaming it back to live with its own kind, here’s what I miss -and don’t- about the Nokia Lumia 900.
It’s Good To See You
A week spent re-settled with my Galaxy Nexus has afforded me comfort, familiarity, and relative reliability. I know its quirks and its strengths, its needs and its moods. We’re a good pair.
But after my time with the Lumia, I can’t help feeling like a man who rented a fancy sports car while his Camry was in the shop, now forced to live the normal life again after the repairs are complete. Or, if you prefer a more sultry example: like someone returning to a predictable, stable marriage after a steamy but guilt-ridden affair.
Anyway, most of all, I miss the hardware. I’m talking about the casing design and appearance more than the equipment under the hood, of course. The Lumia 900 is a show horse. As with my previous Empty Nest piece on the HTC One X, I find myself enduring a form of sex-appeal withdrawal without the 900’s flashy, bold styling. The audacious curved-but-not casing design was highlighted by the equally bold cyan color of my review unit, which caught many eyes on escalators, trains, and at restaurants. In a world of dull black Android superphones and iPhones in ugly cases, the Lumia 900 was a beacon of interest to curious eyes, almost guaranteeing a reaction of “hey, what’s that?”
That initial burst of curiosity from onlookers was only amplified when the screen flashed to life, WP7’s distinctive Metro tiles seeming to float across the surface of Nokia’s ClearBlack display. And they floated seamlessly, at that; though my Galaxy Nexus is no slouch, I miss the smoothness Windows Phone has come to be known for, and the general responsiveness throughout the OS.
There’s also the matter of WP7’s built-in functionality that expands aspects like the social networking experience: the People and Me hubs, in particular, were a joy to use on this latest encounter with Windows Phone. Sure, I had a variation of this available in HTC Sense on the One X, and there are countless apps available to provide a similar experience in stock Android, but in my opinion, none of them do so as elegantly as Windows Phone, and none of them do so at a core level.
Finally, I miss the core fundamentals of the smartphone experience that Nokia has built a reputation providing: excellent call quality and rock-solid reception. Whether it was LTE or HSPA, when the Lumia was connected to the network, it didn’t easily let go of that connection.
It’s Good To See You Go
The important qualifier there: “when the Lumia connected to the network.” Occasional connectivity issues were some of the several bugs that frustrated me during my tenure with the Lumia 900, both before and after a software update that briefly raised my hopes for a more solid experience. The Lumia 900 would sometimes stop transferring data even in the presence of a solid network connection, necessitating a restart- and even that didn’t always solve the problem. Because these bugs were short-lived and because I couldn’t verify that they weren’t problems unique to my review unit or AT&T’s network in my area, though, I didn’t expound on the service issues in my previous pieces.
Still on the subject of bugs: they weren’t confined to network connectivity on my Lumia 900. When using Bing Maps to guide my way to a bar one evening, the phone suddenly became completely unresponsive, the app crashing and dumping me to a black screen, only the clock showing in the upper-right-hand corner of the display, itself frozen in time at the moment of failure. Despite my unpopular point of view on removable batteries, I would really have appreciated one just then. Not knowing about the soft-reset option on the Lumia 900 (holding volume down and power until a restart), I just had to bide my time for about ten minutes until WP7 restarted on its own. That’s something I’m somewhat used to on Android -FourSquare routinely crashes my Galaxy Nexus- but it’s not something I’d come to expect from Windows Phone in my time with the Samsung Focus last year.
Then there was the awful camera. Truthfully, my Galaxy Nexus’ shooter isn’t much better than the Lumia 900’s, but I’ve discussed why the latter is a bigger disappointment in my previous pieces linked above. In short, Nokia’s history of providing stellar optics, in concert with the “Carl Zeiss” branding, raised the bar for excellence, and the Lumia 900 simply failed to live up to that reputation. The easily-scratched lens bezel didn’t help matters, either.
Finally, that cutting-edge design came with a price: the corners were so sharp that the Lumia 900 was pretty uncomfortable to operate one-handed. I didn’t mind the trade-off for the short time I had the device, enjoying the eye-catching aesthetics too much to complain, but I imagine I’d have developed some pretty respectable palm callouses after two years with the device. Don’t believe me? Check out the After The Buzz video linked above to see the blister the Lumia 900 gave me after just a few weeks. Then again, maybe my dish-pan hands were to blame.
The Nature of the Beast
What it comes down to, of course, is a question of compromise. Returning to my Galaxy Nexus has been great in some ways and disappointing in others. The question with owning any device is what you’re willing to compromise, and what you aren’t.
For me, the traits I miss about the Lumia 900 just about balance out the aspects that annoyed me, so ultimately it’s a wash. I miss the attention that the phone garnered, but what I think about most is how the Lumia 900 opened my eyes to the potential of what Windows 8 on a smartphone will offer.
So while I’m happy for those who snagged the Lumia 900 at the bargain-basement prices it’s been going for on AT&T, I’m happy to stick with the duller, more commonplace Android as my daily driver … at least until the next iteration of Windows Phone comes along.
Has your attitude changed since buying (or not buying) a Lumia 900? Have you had better luck with your camera bezel? Do you have strong opinions on skin care? Drop us a line in the comments. Till then, stay tuned for the next installment of Empty Nest.
Scratched bezel photo source: The Inquirer