Nokia Lumia 800 Review (Video): Editor’s Choice

Once a dominant player in the phone industry, through a series of mis-steps Nokia had ceded the U.S. smartphone market to Apple, various phone-makers who are using the Google Android operating system, and Research in Motion, which itself is struggling to keep pace in the competitive market. Nokia didn’t want to play ball with carriers and had objected to bloatware during the glory days of Symbian and instead focused its attention in other parts of the world. When the iPhone came out, a stunned Nokia was caught off-guard as the world began to focus on touch technology. In the years since, Nokia has released numerous touchscreen models, but none could captivate fickle consumers to the same degree that Android and iOS could. Over four years since the original iPhone debuted, Nokia now has a contender, a device named Lumia, which means light.

The Lumia 800 is the more feature-rich phone of the two debut Windows Phone 7 devices from Nokia–the other one being the mid-range Lumia 710. Can the Lumia 800 shine a beacon of light for Nokia to sail through the unchartered smartphone waters of the U.S. market? Or will it be more like a dying star that will implode and take Nokia down with it? In short, the Nokia Lumia 800 could be the breakout phone of the year for 2011, but read on to find out in this full review.

Summary:

Pros. Bright AMOLED display with Clear Black Display technology for readability under direct sunlight, compact size, dedicated camera button, added value through apps (Nokia Drive, Nokia Maps, Location Scout, Nokia Music, and others), zippy performance and conservative hardware requirements, stunning design, ergonomic design, Carl Zeiss optics and 8-megapixel camera, touch to focus (a first for Nokia) on camera UI, comes bundled with a gel case, and Windows Phone 7 provides for a refreshing change of pace from iOS and Android.

Cons. Some push notifications may be lost due to non-centralized notification system, camera performance is great, but not excellent, chrome strip that holds the camera pod on rear prone to scratching, no NFC support, no front-facing camera, no HDMI output, not all third-party apps updated to support Mango’s new instant resume feature, more limited app selection compared to rival platforms, battery life is mediocre especially when compared to Nokia’s Symbian phone lineup.

Biggest Con. Though Nokia has promised that Windows Phone and Lumia will be invading the U.S. market in 2012, it’s unclear if the Lumia 800 will make the cut or if it will be the entry level Lumia 710.

Hardware:

Design. Much hyped and much anticipated by fans, consumers, and industry observers alike, the partnership between Microsoft and Nokia has placed the phone-maker in the spotlight with a lot of expectations. And those expectations are shouldered on the brilliant 3.7-inch screen and unibody construction of the phone, and like the famed Greek god Atlas, the Lumia 800 is able to hold its own ground.

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In order to understand and truly appreciate the Lumia 800, users would need to understand Nokia’s design considerations for the phone. The Lumia 800 utilizes a seamless unibody polycarbonate construction that is only broken on the top by a curved piece of Gorilla Glass that fits perfectly into the plastic body so as to not even provide the slightest of gaps where lint can get stuck.

This is a phone that is unassuming when looked at–especially in pictures–so you really do have to hold it to understand how great it feels in your hands. When I had initially had my hands-on time with the Lumia 800 at Nokia’s U.S. offices in Silicon Valley, I noted that it feels like the Lumia 800 is an extension of my body–both organic and effortless to hold–that it doesn’t feel like a tool. In fact, the way it fits in my hands would make it seem like a Nokia engineer had molded the phone specifically to the curves on my palm.

What sets the Lumia 800 apart from other iconic smartphone designs–primarily the iPhone 4 and the Droid RAZR–is that it doesn’t sacrifice usability in an attempt to achieve minimalistic, modern design. Nokia CEO Stephen Elop says that the Lumia is functionally beautiful, and I couldn’t agree more. Nokia engineers were able to achieve a minimalist design ethos with the Lumia 800 while at the same time ensuring that ergonomics were not sacrificed in the process. Unlike the Droid series of smartphones–which feels and looks like a machine–and the iPhone 4–which is cold to the touch, the unassuming design of the Lumia 800, which itself is understated and elegant, invites users to hold, touch, feel, and sense.

At launch, only the black version is available, though a cyan blue and magenta edition of the phone will be coming by year’s end to markets where Nokia will be targeting the Lumia 800. The black variant is really an unassuming monolithic slab of glass and plastic, but when you pick it up, these inorganic materials suddenly feel like they’re connected to you. With the AMOLED panel providing deep, dark blacks and rich, vibrant colors, the net effect of this is that you really can’t tell where the screen ends and where the bezel begins. If you take that a step further, the design melds hardware and software together so beautifully that you really can’t discern where one ends and the other begins, creating an elegant, well-crafted package.

Hardware. The hardware is really unassuming at first. Nokia’s Lumia 800 isn’t going to win any thin competition nor does it try to be anything that it isn’t. Cloacked in either a matte black, cyan, or magenta polycarbonate shell the front of the Lumia is dominated by a large 3.7-inch curved AMOLED display with Nokia’s Clear Black Display technology. While the same size as the Nokia N9, which runs the experimental MeeGo operating system, the display on the Nokia Lumia 800 is a bit smaller because it has to accommodate the three capacitive touch Windows navigation buttons for back, home (Windows), and search. At the top of the display is a discrete slit where the earpiece speaker rests.

On the top of the device, you have an exposed 3.5 mm headphone jack on the left spine. Next to that are two covered opening. The first of which is a covered micro USB charge and sync port, which is accessible once you push the button on the left to reveal the latched cover. To the right of that is the micro SIM tray–yes, the same diminutive SIM format that’s utilized by Apple in the iPhone 4/4S–which doesn’t require any fancy SIM Ejector Tool. Instead, to access the SIM try, just slide it over to the left and it begins to pop out.

Moving onto the right spine of the device, you’ll find the volume up and down keys at top, followed by a power button, which sits almost at the center of the spine. While Android users may not be accustomed to this layout, Symbian users moving from an older device, like the Nokia N8, will feel right at home here as the the power button essentially takes place of the display lock toggle on the N8. And then towards the bottom is the dual-stage camera button where you can depress the button halfway to focus, and then push in fully to capture your image.

The bottom is clean except for a small grill in the center. The grill essentially is creating from drilling holes into the polycarbonate and gives the device a sleek look. That grill houses the microphone and mono speaker.

The right edge is completely devoid of buttons or ports, and highlights the nice side curvature of the device, which makes it not only elegant to look at, but ergonomic and comfortable to hold.

Moving towards the back of the device, you do have a similar curvature effect that’s mirrored from the curved glass on the front. The nice thing about this curve is that it helps the device nestle itself comfortably in your palm when holding the Lumia 800. Additionally, while the Lumia 800 is made of plastic, you shouldn’t fear scratching the plastic body as the paint is actually mixed in with the plastic, and not just coated on the surface. What that means is that no matter how deep you scratch the Lumia 800, you’ll still see matte black (or whatever color your handset comes in). On the back, a chrome strip–highly scratchable–occupies the center rear in a vertical manner, which houses the 8-megapixel Carl Zeiss Tessar optics. The camera can also take 720p HD videos and is accompanied by a dual-LED flash.

Display. The 3.7-inch AMOLED display with Nokia’s Clear Black Display (CBD) technology is quite stunning to look at. Both bright and vivid, but not way over the top hyper-saturated in coloration, the AMOLED display really helps to make the Metro Live Tiles UI on Windows Phone shine. As AMOLED display doesn’t require the entire screen to be lit, you’ll see deeper, darker blacks and more vibrant colors. Essentially, as the Metro UI has ‘open space’ as part of Microsoft’s UI design language, the Live Tiles leave exposed a black strip at the top and at the right hand edge.

Beautiful curved Gorilla glass screen

With AMOLED, the un-used space on Windows Phone 7 disappears and blends into the body. Staring into the screen, you won’t even know where the screen begins and ends, and you’d imagine that the colorful blue tiles are floating in a sea of glass, rather than be rendered pixel by pixel on the AMOLED screen.

While the screen is really great indoors and outdoors–providing enough contrast to be usable under the brightest of sunlight–there are some minor complaints with the screen. First, it appears that the panel used by Nokia utilizes a PenTile sub-pixel arrangement, meaning you’ll see some pixelation when rendering photos and text. The second complaint that I have is that the display setting for Windows Phone only allows for a limited number of brightness setting. While the auto-brightness adjustment works fine, uf you can only jump from low, medium or high. Unlike Android, there’s no granular control for the brightness, and moving from medium to high level brightness is enough to blind you in a darkened room.

Under the Hood. Thanks to Windows Phone 7′s more conservative power requirements, the Lumia 800 is very responsive with its single-core 1.4 GHz processor. The device comes also equipped with Bluetooth, WiFi, and GPS. There’s no NFC support, no tethering, and no HDMI port on this device. Nokia outfits the Lumia 800 with 16 GB of on-board storage, but thanks to Microsoft’s cloud-connected SkyDrive ecosystem, you do get an additional 25 GB of cloud storage gratis with your Live account.

Multimedia:

Camera. Given Nokia’s experience and leadership in the camera phone market thanks to the company’s innovative N-Series devices in the past, most notably the Nokia N8, there’s a lot of expectation for stellar camera performance on the Lumia 800. Nokia does deliver on a lot of those anticipated expectations, and adds a couple goodies that are not found on the Symbian line, but the camera lacks the pizzazz that Nokia is known for.

Windows Phone gives access to a number of settings in the camera UI

Rather than boast an insane megapixel count, like the Nokia N8 at the time that device was announced, the 8-megapixel Carl Zeiss shooter on the Lumia 800 sounds rather pedestrian. There are a few nice parts about the camera, however.

The first nice thing is that Nokia had outfitted the Lumia 800 with a dual-stage shutter. This means that not only do you get to push in halfway to focus on the image, but it makes the camera a lot easier to use in dark environments. When you have the flash set to on or auto, the nice thing is that when you push halfway to focus, the Lumia 800 will shine the flashlight briefly, which not only allows you to see if your subject is in frame if you’re in total darkness, but also allows the camera to focus on the subject so you don’t get any unintended blurs.

The second nice thing is that this may be the first smartphone from Nokia to be blessed with a touch to focus mechanism. Rather than depressing the shutter halfway to focus, users can tap on the screen at a particular area where they want to focus. This gives for more interesting photo effects where you can keep the subject in focus and blur the background, like on a more expensive DSLR, or blur the subject and focus on the background.

In reality, most shots worked fine, but sometimes the camera had a hard time focusing if you’re too close to the subject while sometimes the camera focuses fine at approximately the same distance. If you’re using touch to focus and are moving from an iOS or Android smartphone, you’ll notice that Microsoft’s paradigm for the experience is a single-step process. Rather than tapping to focus, and then tapping the shutter button on-screen on rival platforms, Windows Phone 7 will automatically focus and capture your image without requiring the shutter activation. While this saves time, you really aren’t sure if you’re able to get the correct effect that you’re looking for, or even if your subject is in focus, until you review your previous shot, which is done by swiping from left to right to expose previous shots on the camera roll on the viewfinder.

Chrome strip on the back may be proned to scratches.

Another negative thing to talk about is that the camera sometimes cannot get an accurate reading of the type of lighting and cannot therefore correct for it. Usually, camera sensors apply automatic color correction to make colors more realistic by automatically sensing if the image is captured under sunlight, fluorescent lighting, or or other types of lighting. Given that images tend to come out with a slight green tint to them, it seems that the software may not be able to correct for certain lighting. Additionally, while the images on the camera appear properly saturated–not hyper-saturated as is customary with AMOLED-based displays–the images seem a little lacking in color once you view them on a regular LCD monitor.

Video camera. The camera can also record videos in 720p HD resolution. Video quality is good, and in an age of 1080p resolution found on most high-end cameras, this may be the biggest stumbling block currently of the Windows Phone architecture, which only supports single-core CPUs. Typically, 1080p encoding is limited to dual-core systems. Though you won’t notice any slow downs in system performance with a single-core CPU currently, you are limited on the video recording resolution.

Sample Camera Images:

Focusing in on the background subject with touch to focus.

With flash

Focusing on the foreground subject with touch to focus blurs the background subject

Software:

Windows Phone 7 Mango. The Lumia 800 marks a radical shift for Nokia as the company begins to transition its focus away from Symbian and tie its fate to Microsoft’s with Windows Phone 7. Seeing the results of the OS and the hardware, Nokia’s bold and radical decision should be lauded. Not only is Windows Phone 7 a refreshing change of pace from grids of app shortcuts and cluttered widgets, but it is intuitive and fits beautifully with Nokia’s hardware.

Home--'Start'--screen with Metro Live Tiles.

Windows Phone 7 has two major paradigms. First, rather than a multi-screen home page, like with Android, you only have two screens to deal with that are important. The first screen, which is also known as the Start screen for legacy Windows Mobile users, is a long scrollable list of Live Tiles that is commonly referred to as the Metro UI. The Tiles–depending on developers–can automatically update themselves and alert you of new notifications. Similar to widgets, but you get a scrollable page of them rather than many pages, which makes it easy to remember where exactly you placed the weather widget, for example.

The second screen is the app screen, which is similar to the app drawer in Android. You swipe from right to left to access that, and with this gesture, Nokia’s curved side edges and the bubbly curved AMOLED display fits nicely here in a union of hardware-software bliss. The hardware really makes swiping easy to switch between the Live Tiles and the apps screen. On the apps screen, you again have a vertical scrollable list of apps arranged in alphabetical order.

While animations are buttery smooth, my main complaint so far with Windows Phone 7 is that the OS doesn’t have a centralized notification engine like on iOS 5 or Android. You have several ways to access notifications on Mango, including on the lock screen where you can see missed calls and messages, on the Live Tiles where you can see how many messages are awaiting for you on each app, and Toast Notifications, which appear at the top of the display no matter which app you’re in.

The Toast Notifications are more akin to iOS notifications of yore, but without the obtrusiveness of the notifications pop up of iOS 4 or earlier. What that means though is that you get the same complaint that you’re going to not get all your notifications. For instance, if I get an instant messaging Toast Notification, quickly followed by a news alert Toast Notification–the Toast system will only show me the latest notification so any previous notifications won’t be displayed readily. That means, I’ll have to physically look at all my tiles and apps to see if there are any pending notifications that require my attention.

The second paradigm of Windows Phone 7 is that you really define your experiences by Hubs rather than apps. You have several standard hubs–Office, Music, Pictures, and People. These hubs aggregate common apps so that information can be displayed and grouped together. For instance, in the Music hub, which comes with Microsoft’s Zune ecosystem for either subscription-based or a la carte music purchases, can also aggregate other third-party apps together that are related to music. I had downloaded the Last.fm app, and that was automatically added to the Music hub. If I wanted to just access the Last.fm app, I can do so on that scrollable list of apps.

Music hub integrates third-party music/video related apps.

Likewise, the Pictures hub aggregates photos from my camera roll, from my SkyDrive albums, and from Facebook.

Pictures hub showing panoramic screen

The People hub is an interesting concept that’s nice and refined, but its functionality has really been copied by HTC in HTC Sense. You essentially get a third paradigm here for Windows Phone 7, and that’s panoramic screens. Panoramic screens show the content of the screen you’re looking at, and a tiny hint of the screen panel to the right so you know there’s more content to swipe through. In the People hub, you get an aggregate list of contacts from various email accounts, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Drilling into a contact, you can see all the ways you can message and communicate with them, all their recent status updates, all your prior communications with the contact, and also all the contact’s uploaded photos on Facebook.

Muktitasking and Search. Two highlights of the Mango update for Windows Phone 7 are multi-tasking and search. We’re going to briefly cover these two functionality here.

With multitasking, if you hit and hold the back capacitive navigation button, you’ll be able to pull up recently opened apps. Unfortunately, with the walled-garden approach to third-party apps like older versions of iOS, a lot of third-party apps aren’t allowed to run in the background, except for a few like a radio streaming app. However, Microsoft cleverly implemented a fast saved state resume, so you can re-open an app and it will quickly resume to where you were last at. A nice feature, but this requires developers to update their apps to Mango support for the feature to work, otherwise you’re left waiting for the app to open and starting your experience from scratch.

Speaking of apps, a big drawback here is that cloud-connected apps take between 5-10 seconds usually to connect to the cloud, refresh the content, and update before they’re usable to you. While native apps are usable right away while the update is happening, with third-party apps the delays and lags for updates can drive you nuts if you’re in a hurry.

Search is another feature that got a makeover. The new search allows you to not only type what you’re trying to look for in the Bing search bar, which is accessible by hitting the search capacitive touch naviagation button, but will also allow you to search via various means. On the Bing search page towards the bottom, there’s now a local search button, a music search button, a visual search, and voice search option. The local search will utilize your GPS location to pull up restaurants and shops of interest while the music search will replicate the function of Shazam or Soundhound and help you identify songs that are playing on the radio. With visual search, you can now use your camera to scan barcodes or snap pictures of books or DVD covers for identification. Voice search will let you search by voice.

Apps. So far, we’ve only talked about the standard Windows Phone experience from the software side. However, Nokia has also created its own proprietary apps–some are accessible to the entire Windows Phone ecosystem, like Maps, while others, like Nokia Music and Nokia Drive, will only be accessible to Nokia’s Lumia-branded Windows Phone devices.

In meeting with Nokia, the company says that in the future, we should expect to see increased collaboration with Microsoft on the mapping front. As Nokia owns mapping provider Navteq, we can potentially see Bing Maps being integrated into that mix.

For now, though Nokia Maps replicates a lot of function of Bing Maps, which allows users to search for businesses, discover what’s around them, and navigate (minus voice guidance) to a destination. That application will be available to all Windows Phone devices.

Bing maps on magenta Lumia 800; Nokia Maps on cyan.

Exclusively to Nokia devices is Nokia Drive, an application that provides turn-by-turn voice-guided GPS navigation instruction in a number of countries and different languages. This will be a great value to those who travel frequently as a standalone app like Navigon for Windows Phone 7 that provides the same functionality typically costs between $30-$70 per country or region. So if you travel frequently between U.S., Asia, and Europe, for example, you can save anywhere between $90-$210 instantly with Nokia Drive by not having to pay for added maps.

These maps are locally stored on your device so you don’t need Internet connectivity while navigating.

Nokia Music is another interesting app, which currently isn’t yet available in the U.S. where I am trialing the Lumia 800 as Nokia is still working on U.S. rights to music content. The app will provide users wither personalized Internet radio content and users can listen to and discover music for free–no subscription costs like Zune. The app will also allow Nokia users to download songs and store them to listen to in areas where they don’t have or cannot access the Internet, such as on an airplane.

Still, there are hardware features that limit the growth and use of third-party apps in the future on the Lumia 800. As the device lacks a front-facing camera, those looking to make video calls will find themselves needing to upgrade to a device that supports the hardware in the future.

Network, Battery Life:

Network. Thus far, the unlocked version of the Lumia 800 eschews Nokia’s support of a 3G penta-band radio, which would have made the device compatible with T-Mobile USA and AT&T in the States. However, as it stands, those looking to import the Lumia 800 in the U.S. will make due on either AT&T’s 3G/2G network or on T-Mobile’s 2G EDGE network.

Reception. It’s interesting that the competing HTC HD7S and the HTC Titan, both Windows Phone 7 devices, were able to maintain a relatively strong 3G AT&T signal in my abode, yet the Lumia only is able to grab a weak 3G signal and usually defaults to EDGE after a while. Elsewhere, the Lumia 800 was able to hop onto 3G on AT&T’s network, though the software signal indicator showed weaker signal strength than on other devices, though that isn’t the best measure of signal strength. It’s baffling though that the Lumia 800 only works on EDGE in my home where I have good AT&T coverage.

That said, performance on EDGE in the browser, which is based on Internet Explorer 9, is still zippy. While I usually balk at the idea of 2G EDGE coverage, in basic app usage–not streaming Netflix–the Lumia does an admirable job. In fact, it’s the only device thus far that I would consider despite just EDGE coverage–I had skipped out on the original iPhone when that device was released due to lack of 3G support.

Call Quality. Call quality, both through the earpiece speaker and the mono loud speaker were good. Calls sounded warm and clear and the loud speaker is plenty loud. At the highest volumes, the loud speaker does suffer from distortion.

Battery Life. Those who are migrating from a Symbian device with multi-day battery life from Nokia may find the battery life on the Lumia to be lackluster. However, the Lumia 800 has a battery life that’s on par with other modern smartphones, and can last a full day with moderate browsing, push email, and a few short calls.

Performance:

Looking at specs alone may be deceiving for Windows Phone 7 as the OS is conservative on system performance. In an age dominated by dual-core the single-core CPU on the Lumia does a stellar job with handling animations and transitions very fluidly. Performance of the device is exceptional, but to release a device in under a year since the partnership was announced with Microsoft, Nokia had cut a few corners and the Lumia 800 shows its first-generation hardware roots. That’s not to say that performance was bad, but it does show that Nokia has room to improve upon. The Nokia Lumia 800 is still highly competitive in the market today, but a second-generation Lumia device may show more of Nokia’s innovation and the Finnish company’s DNA.

Despite being the only smartphone-maker to have access to Windows Phone 7′s source code, Nokia still hasn’t injected much of its fingerprint on the Lumia. Without the added Nokia-branded apps and the exquisite hardware, the Lumia 800 could be easily mistaken for another device. It still lacks a front-facing camera, NFC support for easy pairing with other Nokia accessories, and its PenTile-based display does show pixelation even despite a smaller 3.7-inch footprint. Nokia’s camera performance is not the best.

In  spite of those shortcomings, Nokia’s debut Windows Phone 7 can tackle most jobs you handle with ease. Video calling won’t take off for a while and on the NFC front, more partners still need to be added for digital wallet systems to be functional. At this time, for today’s needs, you’ll wind up with a strong, beautifully crafted phone with the Lumia 800.

Conclusion:

The Lumia 800 may be Nokia’s first Windows Phone 7 device, but it also is part of a lineage of strong smartphones from Nokia, and Nokia’s expertise in smartphone manufacturing really shows. When the company’s CEO Stephen Elop took the stage at Nokia World several weeks ago, he announced that the Lumia 800 is the first real and true Windows Phone despite Microsoft’s other strong partners. And on many levels, Elop’s vision really is true.

With a brilliant AMOLED display, you really can’t tell where the software ends and where the hardware begins. With deep dark blacks on the screen, it really looks like the OS–with its vibrant colors and friendly fonts–really floats on a sea of black glass. And the hardware really does complement the software as well with subtle curves that help to define the user experience that’s highlighted by swipes. Unencumbered by seams, hard lines, and drastic transitions, the hardware really lets Windows Phone 7 Mango shine through.

While some reviews liken the Lumia 800 to the MeeGo-powered N9, the Lumia 800 is more akin to the gradual evolution of the Nokia N8, with tapered ends, curved sides, and solid unibody construction.

The phone is simple, minimalist, clean, elegant, and beautiful. However, rather than focusing on form, the device is as equally functional as it is beautiful. Compared to the iPhone 4, which has hard lines, cold materials, the Lumia 800 evokes warmth and an organic experience. Though it’s currently only available in a black slab, it’s dynamic and really feels like it’s an extension of one’s own body. It’s the first phone since the iPhone that I would switch for based on the phone and OS experience. And that’s saying a lot considering I only get 2G EDGE speeds here where I am using it.

The Lumia 800 is definitely a shining star for Nokia, and it’s exciting to see what the future holds for both Nokia and Microsoft.

Final Rating: 8.7/10

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