Longer terms impressions of Nokia Lumia 800

I have now used the Nokia Lumia 800 for two weeks and in this post I would like to summarise the longer term thoughts. I was very impressed in the first couple of days, but the honeymoon period has now worn off and I believe I can now judge the phone more objectively.

Further below you can find comments regarding specific parts of the phone. However, before getting into that, I want to dedicate a few paragraphs to the holistic experience of the phone. These comments are particularly about the Windows Phone platform, as opposed to the hardware.

Windows Phone as a platform

Many before me have commented on the elegance and uniqueness of the Windows Phone user experience. I can only confirm that. There is something about it that makes you want to use it. It looks good, is well thought out and has a high level of consistency throughout the OS and across third party applications – I was particularly pleasantly surprised by the latter.

That being said, the immaturity of the Operating System does continually show and they hamper the user experience, as I explain below in the part about performance. This is the reason that the SIM didn’t stay in the phone the whole 2 weeks. However, I always came back to it, because it is a really attractive experience and I wanted to use it.

Therefore, if Microsoft handles the future development well and doesn’t take too long (version 8 needs to be a significant upgrade and be here before the end of 2012), I really think it may be a very compelling platform for users, which in turn makes it attractive for developers, operators and manufacturers. This doesn’t mean though that I discard Windows Phone for the time being. In fact, there is a lot to like and I believe that it is a very good choice for starting/light smartphone users that use facebook pretty extensively. If you are already (heavily) into iOS or Android, I doubt it will sway you at the moment.

Why do I think that? Well, read below my thoughts on the Lumia 800, broken down by subject matter.

Design and hardware components

The Lumia 800 is a real looker. Even after 2 weeks, I was still very much into the design and materials. Everything about it feels solid and looks great. There is not much more I can say, Nokia: really nice job. I feel for the design team that has the task of meeting or surpassing this.

I personally own a Galaxy S2, which is a slightly bigger phone with a much bigger screen. It is not the form factor I would recommend to everybody, in spite of me being very pleased with it. In turn, the Lumia 800 is a very nice size for one-handed use. I do feel, though, that the form factor should have have had a 3,9 or 4 inch screen in order to make the design fully optimised. As for the actual screen, the quality is good enough, though not spectacular.

A last important hardware aspect that deserves a few comments is the camera. From what I gather, the Lumia 800 has the same camera hardware components as the Nokia N9. Apparently, the camera on the N9 is quite a bit better, due to the fact that the image processing algorithms on the N9 are much more tweaked and give better results. I can’t wait for Nokia to work that magic on the Lumia 800. Outside pictures generally came out well, but pictures taken inside were consistently poor, no matter how much artificial light there was. I wasn’t impressed, and hope improvements in software will come.

Performance, Battery Life and Connectivity

Before I get into the details, in general, the Lumia 800 has good performance. It may not be a dual core smartphone with a Gig of RAM, but that does not get into the way of a nice user experience in terms of responsiveness and slickness while swiping through the OS.

That being said, there were things that would get a little on my nerves and took away from the seemless user experience:

  • Supposedly with Mango, applications can make use of something called quick resume. However, this only very partially seems to solve the consequences of a lack of “real” multitasking. The app state is only saved if you re-enter the application through a card you access by a long-press of the back button. However, as that “card view” only shows the 6 most recent apps/screens, it doesn’t always feel very relevant and I ended up using that very little and normally went back to the homescreen – a la iPhone style – in order to hop into the next app. When you do that, apps always need to reload from zero and this hampers the fluid user experience.
  • Another real issue is the fact that the phone doesn’t really download content in the back ground. Sure, it has notifications that you have a new mention, tweet, or Whatsapp message, but when you want to read the message, you hit the app, then it first needs to load the app from 0 and then still needs to download the actual content it had allerted you to. With few daily interactions of this type, it may work well, but in my eyes it really hampers the fluid user experience and is particularly jarring when you want to have a fluid asyncronous IM conversation while also doing other tasks on your phone.

Naturally, these issues are not hardware related, but rather have to do with software. However, I wonder whether the RAM on the Lumia 800 would be able to handle the background processes I am sorely missing.

As for connectivity, all worked well for me. Typical Nokia quality, I found. However, there were two features I missed. The first is the fact that bluetooth does not have the complete stack. You can’t send or receive files (and particularly photos) over bluetooth. Secondly, the phone did not offer Internet Sharing (tethering). I understand this will come at some point, but in the latest OS version it was still not present.

Lastly, I quickly want to touch on the issue of battery life. Apparently, the Lumia 800 had a software problem that affects/affected battery life and Nokia is looking to fix that with two updates. When I got the phone, I had one of these updates applied, but did not yet have the more important one. About a week into the trial, I got the update as well.

Before the second update, I found battery life to be terrible , really. I would completely drain the battery in 9-10 hours with medium usage (listening to audio for 2 hours; reading news/twitter for about an hour and the rest was reactionary use – viewing the occasional email/Whatsapp/calendar/notes). That is of course completely unacceptable.

Then came the update. This certainly improved the situation a little. I reckon it added some 15-20% of battery life, but I still think I could not get through a whole 15 hours (7am to 10pm) with one charge, which is the bare minimum in my book. I hope Nokia have done their research and given the Nokia Lumia 900 what it needs.

Operating System

The actual Operating System of the phone is pretty singular. It aims to be a bit smarter than iOS while being easier than Android. That is of course a good middle ground and I found that Windows Phone does achieve this goal. It is easy enough to explain to anybody, but is still pretty functional.

However, arguably, the uniqueness can also work against it. It took me some three days to get into the unique flow of the OS, which I felt was pretty long. Will it hurt adoption? Probably not, because its attractiveness will get you through those first days with relative ease.

One of the nicer things is the fact that it integrates all sorts of accounts. You just enter your Google, Facebook, Linkedin and twitter accounts (and others) and it starts syncing and integrating the data. It is certainly not perfect yet, as it doesn’t sync the photos you have on Google, you can’t configure two twitter accounts, and I did not manage to get my Exchange account set up, but it is really pretty great when it works. The most obvious points where you see this integration is in the People hub and Pictures hub. While the latter is nice, the former is fantastic.

The People hub integrates the information you have on someone in different social networks. For instance, I am connected to my brother on twitter, facebook and linkedin while having him also as a contact on Google. In the People hub he shows up as one entry (naturally only if the OS manages to match a person’s accounts up, but in general that worked well and I had to do little manual linking). When I go into his entry, I can check all his updates on all three platforms right there, and I can write on his facebook wall straight from there. Furthermore, the People hub allows you to create groups of up to 20 people that allow you to see all the updates filtered by just the people in that hub. I can go on, but you get the idea… this is pretty powerful stuff. Well done, Microsoft.

The homescreen in general is a very distinct implementation when compared to iOS and Android. While in the iOS world there is no home screen, in the Android world it is a very flexible and full-featured setup. On the Lumia 800, the homescreen came preconfigured with some tiles, but you can add, delete and re-arrange them.

Before starting the trial, I wondered whether the tiles would be sufficient for me. Naturally, a tile can only give rather limited information when compared to an Android widget; however, I was surprised by how complete it felt. The lack of information on a tile is compensated by the ease with which you can pin different aspects of an app to the homescreen. For instance, a particular location on a map, your @replies for twitter, a specific evernote note, a particular radio station, etc. Very flexible, and nice to play with.

There are a few things though that I really miss. They are the notifications and the centralised Share function.

In terms of notifications, it is all done through “toast” notifications, but that only works when you can see the phone. If you miss that type of notification, there is not really a centralised place to see your missed notifications. If you have an app pinned to the homescreen, it is very likely that the app will show you a little badge that says that you have a notification. It works well enough if you have few notifications, but if you have a lot going on, I find that the system does not scale.

Lastly, I am used to Android’s central Share hub, and once you get used to that, it is difficult to live without it, particularly if you use lots of Web services. On Windows Phone there are some sharing features, but it doesn’t feel like a full list nor is it system wide. I encourage Microsoft to look at Android and create a version of what they have.

Application ecosystem

I first want to offer my 2 cents on the big issue related to the Marketplace: the numbers. Windows Phone is way behind its main competitors – iOS and Android. That is something you can’t argue about. In my personal experience, though, it was not at all bad. If you are an app junky, though, then you should probably stay away from WP for the time being.

Whenever you come fresh to a new platform, you need to find the applications that work for you. For instance, there are plenty of Google Reader and Twitter clients, but not all suit your needs equally well. In the beginning I used a few that were not my cup of tea, but now I have a few that work just fine.

What I think is more notable is the fact that applications in general work nicely and look great. There is a real sense of cohesiveness about the OS, the core apps and the third party apps. That is quite an achievement and the result is very pleasing. As a result of fitting the OS, I feel that apps are generally easy to navigate and have a clean and pretty design. Furthermore, they work very smoothly.

As with any OS, the developers need to get used to the tools they have available. Version 2 apps are always a lot better than version 1 apps. On Android I feel that we are well past the version 2 point, whereas with WP I feel they are just getting there. That is not a bad thing, though. I felt that things were really shaping up and if you are not an app junky, I think you will be pleased with what is available.

Wrap up

So, in summary, I can say that I was drawn to the device, time and time again, but was hardly ever able to make it my main device for more than 2 days in a row. I just ended up missing out on some things that my Samsung Galaxy S2 does so well and I have gotten so used to: notifications, background updating of apps and centralised sharing hub.

That being said, I would happily recommend this phone to a light smartphone user (given the battery life and apps available) that is into facebook and likes a phone that looks good. What share of the population that is? Certainly not negligible.

For me, I am looking more forward to what WP8 brings than what the Lumia 900 can do for me.

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