When I first proposed this article, it was with mixed emotions. I almost bagged the whole idea, in fact. More than once. The road to this little editorial was fraught with more wishy-washy back-and-forth double-talk than (choose any candidate) in the (choose any political race) of (choose any year).
Here’s my problem: for much of its twelve-year history, Pocketnow was a Microsoft-centric website, a bastion of highly devoted fans of the Windows Mobile platform. Much of that reader base remains, and those folks are certainly the most vocal component of our comment sections. Most of the negative comments on my recent piece bemoaning the iPhone 5’s lack of a modern UI were scolding me for being too generous toward Apple. It doesn’t take the sharpest eyes to see which side of the divide the majority of our reader base sits on.
So a piece like this, on why I’m personally choosing to buy a Microsoft-based smartphone over Apple’s new flagship, is basically click-bait, right? It’s essentially a given that an article in this vein is just pandering, yeah?
That’s the argument that kept me away from writing this piece for a few days. But here’s the thing: it’s not just that I’m making a choice for new hardware that happens to jive with a lot of our readers’ opinions. That’s not really newsworthy, even for an editorial. The important thing is what my choice says about each of these respective companies -Nokia and Apple- and the platforms they represent: Windows Phone and iOS.
In short: one of these companies is doing new, exciting, bold things that really are amazing. The other is building iterative products that aren’t all that different from their predecessors, and calling them amazing. Here’s three reasons why Nokia’s product is more interesting to me than Apple’s, and why they’ll be getting my dollars whenever they get around to actually releasing the Lumia 920.
Bold, Different Hardware
Before it even stuck its big toe into the Windows Phone waters, Nokia was already taking its industry-leading industrial design a step further with the N9. After the “burning platform” switcharoo, the company didn’t waste any time porting that design to its Microsoft-based offerings with the Lumia 800 and Lumia 900, giving us the most innovative Windows Phone designs to date.
With the Lumia 820 and 920, Nokia has continued that trend: the polycarbonate build, pillowy shape, curved glass, and playful colors have all been taken a step further. I don’t agree with all of the changes; I’d take a matte finish over glossy any day, and as a fan of cooler colors, the (temporary?) elimination of a cyan offering hit me hard. But these are quibbles over details; as an evolution of the design language Nokia pioneered last year, the overall thrust is still worthy of the title AT&T’s marketing bestowed on the 900: the new Lumia’s are indeed “beautifully different.”
Contrast that with the design of the new iPhone, essentially a stretched version of the iPhone 4 chassis we’re familiar with from 2010, and it’s easy to see why someone who values unique hardware might be a little let down.
That differentiation continues on the inside, as well. While Nokia has never been one to load up on internals to satisfy those who measure their self-worth based on spec sheets, the new Lumias bring innovation where it counts: real-world usability. The 920’s PureView camera might diminish that sub-brand slightly, but if the improvements it brings in low-light capture and image stabilization are as good as Nokia says they are, the Lumia 920 stands a chance of delivering a camera experience unmatched by anyone else.
There’s also the souped-up “Super Sensitive Touch” display sensitivity allowing use by gloved hands, and a WXGA display featuring ClearBlack technology and a very high refresh rate. It remains to be seen whether it features the super color saturation Apple claims for the iPhone 5’s display, something we talked about extensively on last week’s Pocketnow Weekly podcast, but from what we saw in our brief time with demo devices, things are looking promising.
Wireless In Every Sense
One of the coolest things Nokia showed off on the road to the N9’s announcement was its NFC-based wireless-music-play feature, which allowed users to start playing a track through the phone’s speaker, then tap the device to a wireless dock accessory to start playback through its larger speakers. No cables, no connectors, no fuss. As a chronic listener of music via smartphone, and with my appetite whetted by some similar webOS features back in the day, this notion seemed ideal.
With the Lumia 920, Nokia has not only brought the idea to Windows Phone, but it’s improved on the concept. The company showed off new a new JBL-sourced accessory with its new lineup, a big honkin’ speaker dock that not only pairs with the new Lumias sans physical connection, but also charges them while they’re mated – also wirelessly.
The wireless charging aspect is a big deal in itself. With the exception of some as-yet-unrealized promises from Samsung, only one major smartphone manufacturer has tried pushing the mass adoption of wireless charging ability by including the feature out-of-the-box. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is a wireless world. Ports and cables are nice for traveling, but wires shouldn’t be a part of our at-home charging reality if we don’t want them to be.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Apple divide, the new iPhone 5 has a new dock connector. Sure, it’s smaller, and it’s reversible, but it’s still a physical cable port, chaining us to yesterday via a proprietary connection. And we’ve gotten word that it’ll be with us for many years to come. I don’t know about you, but that sure doesn’t sound like the future to me.
Software that Stands Out
We’ve complained for ages about iOS’s user interface looking stale, and Apple being Apple, no UI changes are on the horizon for iOS 6. We’re still confronted by the same static grid of icons for a homescreen, with no glanceable information, no widgets, clunky multi-tasking, and very little customization to speak of.
Windows Phone 8 doesn’t have much to gloat about in terms of being a revolutionary product, either; visually, it’s very clear that it’s an iteration of Windows Phone 7 (the renovation of its lower-level framework should be invisible to end users, so we’ll leave that point for another piece). But WP8 packs a boatload of improvements into a user interface that’s still fresher, cleaner, and more useful than its Cupertino-sourced counterpart. Tiles can now not only be rearranged, but resized; live tiles continue to provide useful information without the need to jump into the apps they represent. New notification options for third-party apps seem to be in evidence as well, and of course there’s support for the new higher-resolution displays that Windows Phone users were formerly shut out of. There might even be an Instagram app in the works for the platform, which you might not care about, but which definitely provides a good barometer reading of Windows Phone’s increasing “hip factor.”
There are significant hurdles Windows Phone still needs to overcome, of course, in order to steal significant market share from iOS and Android. But with the Lumia 920, Nokia has finally delivered a product that makes those hurdles manageable. There’s so much new and good here, and so much of it fun and flashy rather than drab and “distinguished,” that it’s not so much a matter of talking myself into jumping (back) over to Windows Phone, as it is a matter of breathing easy while I wait on a release date.
That’s something Apple still has that most of its competitors don’t: the ability to place a release date shortly after an event and stick to it. While I wish it was a trait Nokia shared, it’s not a deal-breaker. For a good enough product, I’ll wait though the interminable periods of pre-release doldrums, rather than joining the 2 million or so who’ve already pre-ordered the announced, impending device.
And this time around, given the impressive array of set-offs the new Lumias bring to the table, I don’t think I’ll be alone.
Update: Some photos of the Lumia 920 used in this piece are mockups. (Thanks, Jimmy Lee!)