Fans of underserved mobile platforms, rejoice! AT&T today announced the impending availability of two important flagship Windows Phones: the Titan II from HTC, and the Lumia 900 from Nokia. Each is available starting April 8, and each offers its own take on a premium Windows Phone experience. The biggest difference is pricing: HTC’s offering comes in at $199, a full Benjamin more expensive than the more-buzzworthy Lumia. Why is there such a divergence in price between these similarly specced phones, and who would opt for the Titan over the Lumia? Let’s take a break from Android and iOS and check it out.
The Metro Straitjacket
In terms of its customizability (or lack thereof), Windows Phone is most similar to iOS out of the box: it’s very locked-down and regimented. Users are limited to choosing which homescreen tiles are present or absent, their color, and where they’re positioned. These same restrictions apply to carriers and most OEMs, so there’s none of the rampant skinning and theming that Android devices are (in)famous for.
Whether you consider this an asset or a limitation will depend on how highly you value Metro, the WP7 UI design language. Regardless, though, it’s indisputable that this restriction on skinning the OS makes life harder for manufacturers. They need to find other ways to differentiate their products from their competitors as a result, and the most obvious alternate route is hardware.
HTC has never been shy about throwing a bunch of high-end specs into a new phone design to make it stand out, and the Titan II is no exception. The monster 4.7-inch display is equaled only by similar panels on the previous-generation Titan and upcoming HTC One X, and bested only by the Galaxy Note and its phablet ilk. In addition, there’s a 16MP camera around back, a higher megapixel count than any other phone offering on the market. It delivers these standout specs while maintaining a slim profile at 10.2mm and a pocket-friendly 147g, slightly heavier than the Galaxy Nexus LTE (which I find a little too light).
Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, Nokia is taking a different tack. Their Lumia 900 is slightly thicker and heavier, with a smaller display at 4.3″ and a camera sensor of half the resolution. Other specs are similar, with the Lumia edging out the Titan II in battery life and tying with it in most other metrics.
Those Cunning Finns
If that were all Nokia were bringing to the table, we’d be halfway justified in calling the HTC device the smarter buy despite the price difference. Of course, that’s not the whole story: Nokia’s status as Microsoft’s “special friend” means they get to build in some advanced features on the software side. Nokia Drive, Music, Maps, Transport, and Music are all custom apps, available only on the Lumia line of Windows Phones. And unlike some of the bloatware offered by other OEMs and carriers, which many users remove at first power-on, some of those apps are very useful. A turn-by-turn driving application is a big value-add to a platform without this capability natively baked in. Bing Maps certainly isn’t for everyone, either, so the option to use Nokia Maps instead is a welcome addition. Same goes for Music and Transport: once again, they won’t be attractive to everyone, but the option to use them is nice. And it’s an option you’ll only find on Nokia phones like the Lumia 900.
The Lumia series has become something of a golden child in the tech press, even though it has yet to prove itself over the long term. Here in the United States, the Lumia 900 will be the first high-end Nokia Windows Phone released by a carrier; no one knows how successful it will be. But there’s a lot of confidence in its potential as the flagship Windows Phone brand, because Nokia is doing something different.
In addition to the family of custom apps mentioned above -which we can expect will only grow as time goes on- Nokia has really captured the market’s attention with its hardware design. The “pillowy” form factor of the handset, simultaneously embracing both rounded edges and mercilessly-straight right angles, makes for a truly unique piece of kit. This is evident even in the low-profile black finish, but the eye-catching cyan and forthcoming glossy white options are proof that these designs are built to be remembered.
That memorable design is crucial in an industry whose products are, like it or not, as much a fashion statement and status symbol as a communication device. Considering the tendency of the market to devolve into a sea of same-ness, it’s refreshing to see something different.
If this excites you, congratulations: you’re not a typical person.
Nokia also brings something else to the game with the Lumia 900: a reputation for excellent optics in their camera phones. The Titan II has it soundly beat in megapixel count, to be sure, which will no doubt earn them some extra sales from the same people who value having an oversized display. But even normal folks are starting to catch on to the fact that megapixels are only one small part of the equation when it comes to image quality. Both phones feature relatively wide-angle 28mm lenses in their cameras, but only the Nokia device can claim Carl Zeiss optics.
Those display figures can be deceptive as well: the Titan II’s screen, while larger, is an SLCD panel, while the Lumia 900 packs an AMOLED variant with “ClearBlack” branding. While preferences will vary widely, those who value true black in their displays, instead of the washed-out gray that backlit LCDs generally produce, will probably find the Nokia display superior.
Two Flavors of Awesome
So, we’ve got a spec-packed gigantor-beast of a device, put up against a polycarbonate pillow with features never before seen on the Windows Phone platform. Which combination of attributes is more attractive to you will depend, as always, on your priorities.
But the Lumia 900 has one more differentiator up its sleeve. It’s launching at a low $99 price point with a two-year contract, making it one of the cheapest LTE-enabled phones available from a US carrier. No doubt this is a result of some extra subsidies offered by Microsoft and/or Nokia, a strategy used in concert with the arming of AT&T sales reps with Lumia phones to boost WP7′s market share.
Whether that overall strategy will pan out for Windows Phone is, once again, anyone’s guess. But come April 8, consumers hunting for a top-shelf LTE WP7 device will be faced with the choice of Titan II or Lumia 900. For me, paying an extra $100 for a bigger (but not really better) screen and bigger (but again, not necessarily better) camera, not to mention a less-inspired design and no standout custom apps well, I’ll just say HTC has a tough sell on their hands.
Agree? Disagree? Something I missed? Sound off in the comments, and we’ll weather the storm of impatience and anticipation together.