Review: Nokia Lumia 800

Nokia Lumia 800 Home screen

There’s been a lot of hype concerning the Nokia Lumia 800 – both Microsoft and Nokia have seen to that. This is after all the first phone released as part of the new Nokia-Microsoft partnership that sees Microsoft’s latest Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) operating system replacing Nokia’s previous operating systems. Both companies have failed to adapt to the Android and iPhone challenge. Both companies are banking a lot on the outcome. So how does the Lumia 800 stack up?

Design

Physically, the device is nearly identical to Nokia’s existing N9, which was a wonderfully built device – but that also means this design is hardly new and exciting. The Lumia 800 feels nicely cool and weighty in the hand, and is made from a hard polycarbonate shell that feels similar to a lightly brushed magnesium case. It’s certainly tough and scratch proof. However, without the supplied rubber case, this shell also made the phone quite slippery. It has a tendency to go flying out of your hand if you’re pulling it out of your pocket quickly to answer a call.

The screen is curved Gorilla Glass which looks stunning and is as tough as it gets, but will attract fingerprints. The screen is a 3.7-inch AMOLED screen at 800×480, and the colour reproduction and vibrancy is second-to-none. Photos especially look very sharp and clear. It is definitely among the best I’ve seen, and is brilliant in broad daylight.

Nokia’s beautiful design is let down a bit by a somewhat rudimentary flip top flap which accesses the USB cable/charger. It feels extremely fragile and I see it breaking. The charger/USB plug is also fiddly, requiring a bit of wiggle to get it charging.

The button placement is also poor. There are three buttons down the right hand side of the phone (including the volume -/+). One is your on-off/lock button, the other near the bottom of the unit is for the camera (but is customisable). They are all ever so slightly raised, with the power button beside the volume. By touch, particularly in the dark, it is tricky to feel your way around this phone to find which way is up, or which button is which. Stacking all the buttons on one side of the phone doesn’t feel like a good decision. With an iPhone, for example, you always know your single power button is on the top of the phone.

The 800 is also missing a front facing camera (which the N9 had), which will bother video-callers. A moot point really, since Mango doesn’t support Skype. Bizarre given Microsoft owns Skype. It has also removed the N9’s handy notification LED.

Nokia Lumia 800 - Top Flap

User Interface
Mango’s interface is certainly striking. No other smartphone interface jumps out and grabs your attention quite like Mango’s beautiful Metro does. The start screen, consisting of large, colourful and ‘live’ tiles is an attention grabber and once users get the hang of it, extremely satisfying and fun to use. Rather than flicking through pages of small icons, Mango runs up and down and utilises larger, brighter and fully customisable tiles – I actually found it easier to grab what I wanted, quicker. It definitely feels like a high end design team has been hard at work.

Unfortunately, once you get into the backend and into various apps and add-ons, it’s easy to see that the design ethos overruled practicality and functionality concerns. The OS feels like it’s trying to do too much, and not letting the interface breathe. Beyond the elegant front menus, there is so much crammed on every back end or app screen that it becomes less than user friendly, and quite messy. Buttons don’t have clear visual borders or separations, so opening the wrong item is a regular occurrence. Similarly, when page ‘flicking’ through the menus, the phone regularly misconstrues this as pressing an icon on the screen – opening wrong windows and programs. This is incredibly frustrating, especially when you are trying to access functions in the phone quickly.

The games section, titled Xbox Live, is obviously designed to be integrated with future online services and the Xbox video game console. For anyone who just wants to quickly pop open a game on the tube – too bad. The layout means you will be flicking through several pages – an ad page ‘Spotlight’, a page where I have to design an avatar character, requests (for multiplayer online games) and finally ‘collection’ – which actually has my downloaded games in it. No free games come with the Lumia 800 unfortunately.

Luckily, Mango allows you to pin individual games to the start screen, which helps – but is hardly intuitive, especially for rookie users. Once this is done, most users will never go back into the games/Xbox menu.

The same problem pops up with email – most users want an Inbox and their Sent Items. Mango supplies a page of ‘all’, ‘unread’ and ‘urgent’. How about something more intuitive? I am not saying these options are completely unwelcome, but how about the basics first, rather than something that looks cool?

The Music and Video sections are the same kind of mess. Again, it looks fantastic design-wise, with band photos and album covers making up menu backgrounds, but do I really need a History, New, Applications and finally a Zune menu to flick through? Fortunately, I can skip this Zune centred interface and use the Nokia Music app – which has Artist, Album, Song and Playlists pop up like every other device. Which begs the question – why two separate menus to get to the same thing? Yes, Zune incorporates video and audio apps, and the marketplace, but it really seems like a clash between the two companies which neither wanted to back down on.

But most critical is the mess the UI makes of traditional functionality. When you go through the exhaustive setup process (which also forces you to set up a Windows Live account), you will have to enter all your email addresses, AOL and Yahoo accounts, and Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook accounts. It then dumps all these accounts into your phone in an intrusive manner, such as merging all these accounts with your contact book and messaging section.

The contact book, called the ‘People’ hub, merges all your online content and contacts with your on-phone/SIM contact book. This means everyone on Facebook that has any kind of phone number or email listed will end up in your ‘People’ menu. Previously my phone had around 20-30 work and friends’ phone numbers. It now has 150+ Facebook friends I spoke to occasionally (if at all), from all over the world, clogging up my contact book. God help the younger generation with 1000 Facebook friends. Their contact books will be unmanageable.

Even worse, this means my existing contacts are merged with their online profiles (or duplicating them). I know a lot of people who aren’t rigorous in updating their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. I ended up with my existing contacts being flooded with 2-3 year old Facebook phone numbers, old work numbers from LinkedIn and any other clashing phone numbers in any of these online spaces. Anyone that has got used to tapping someone’s name and having their phone call them will now find they will have several, unknown numbers to choose from. If I had wanted to add all these numbers Microsoft, I would’ve done it myself. You have effectively ‘broken’ my contact book.

Yes, users can go back and customise, group and put all these people into separate lists – but I shouldn’t have to. A smartphone is a phone first, and it should default as such, rather than forcing me to edit, chop and change and undo these changes to get more basic functionality out of my device.

Text messaging has the same problem. I don’t want Facebook chats and wall posts, tweets from Charlie Sheen, and LinkedIn posts from long lost school mates appearing, mashed in with my text messages. My message folder is now, in a word, spammed. This can be turned off, but it is a key feature of the phone. I also shudder to think what this continuous, push-style feed of information is doing to the phone’s battery life, and my data caps.

The other problem is the onscreen keyboard is very cramped. The keyboard is too skinny, too fiddly and inaccurate. Enter and backspace is reversed from other operating systems, making for several falsely sent texts.

The lack of a physical mute button or any easy access to changing profile settings is also troublesome. To put your phone on vibrate before a meeting or a trip to the movies, you have to press volume up or down, then press on the screen to toggle between vibrate and ring+vibrate. No full blown mute (i.e. no ring tone, no vibrate) is available here. The flicking of a simple physical switch without entering the interface, like the iPhone, is needed. You also can’t build up several profiles, such as general, meeting, loud and silent.

This is a design that wants you to sit down and immerse yourself in its interface. Unfortunately, smartphones by design are required to be used on the go. Quite frankly Mango doesn’t hold a bar to Android, Apple or even BlackBerry’s operating systems when it comes to simple, practical and high speed functionality.

The amount of times I went through the interface going ‘wow what a cool idea’ and ‘that looks stunning’ very quickly gave way to – why can’t I find my music playlist quickly, where is Angry Birds hidden on my system, and why can’t I find that email I sent to my boss half an hour ago!? Mango feels like it’s all design, no practicality.

Nokia Lumia 800 - Mango Start Screen

Features
Where the Lumia 800 and Mango really shines is in its newest features – Nokia Drive, Skydrive and the integration with Microsoft Office, all of which are excellent.

The office integration I found to be truly indispensible. The ability to open word docs, PDFs, PowerPoint and excel spreadsheets is a huge advantage for this phone. Yes, these functionalities can be provided in rudimentary form on rival devices, but nothing functions as smoothly, quickly and effortlessly as it does here. It’s an absolute breeze to do a quick edit of a word doc while on the tube, and then zap it off via 3G while you walk out of the station. Bravo Microsoft.

Combine this with the company’s new cloud service, Skydrive, which makes accessing and storing documents, music and photos a breeze, and this functionality is a winner. Microsoft even supplies 25GB of free storage.

For GPS drivers, Nokia Drive is pretty close to a killer app for mobiles that could be a decent threat to TomTom. It is a fully featured Sat-Nav device that covers 90 countries. Download the country you want and go. This also means the information is also available offline. The coverage is at least as good as Google Maps, if not better, and it functions in full 3D at street level, complete with customisable voice output in several languages.

Nokia Music adds to its stock player by giving you access to its free Mix Radio service. This is basically a streamed online radio station with musical themes, such as ‘Golden Era Hip-hop’ or ’70s Rock’. However, on launch it repeatedly warns you to use a wi-fi connection as it will run up huge data bills. So mostly pointless for anyone on the move. The service partially overcomes this flaw by allowing the device to cache a certain amount of radio time, which will be saved to the device. Also, as part of the Zune service, the phone also supports Zune’s Smart DJ, which learns from your listening habits and suggests similar music, similar to rival services. The Lumia 800 also has a traditional AM/FM tuner, which I used far more often.

Annoyingly, the Lumia 800 will force you to use Microsoft’s proprietary Zune software to copy music and video to the required formats and copy it to the device. It is a poor program with an unintuitive interface that will take some getting used to. The BlackBerry Playbook manages to do drag and drop through Microsoft’s own Windows Explorer. Why not here?

You also can’t use the device as USB mass storage, like old iPods and Android devices. It also won’t let you take photos off the device via USB – extremely annoying, considering rival devices allow this.

Nokia Lumia 800 - Nokia DriveNokia Lumia 800 - Microsoft Office

Performance
The Nokia Lumia 800 performs wonderfully. Changing orientation, swiping screens, playing video and music all run smoothly without so much of a shudder. It has been given a 1.4GHz Qualcomm processor paired with 512MB of RAM and 16GB of storage. The N9 by comparison had a 1GHz chip with 1GB of RAM and up to 64GB of storage – so cost cutting has been at work here.

Graphically intensive games and applications don’t miss a beat. Kinectimals, one of the launch titles and a spin-off of the Xbox 360 video game looks brilliant. I haven’t experienced any load times for any app or game of more than a few seconds, no matter how many programs are open.

Audio quality on phone calls is the same quality as an iPhone 4 – excellent, as is the sound quality of MP3s and videos.

One of the star features of the Lumia 800 is the Camera, which boasts 8 megapixels through a wonderful Carl Zeiss lens. It takes brilliant photos by day (comparable to a low end compact cameras), and shoots 720p HD video. However, like most smartphones it struggles at night. The Lumia does have built in geo-tagging, and photos can be uploaded to Skydrive instantly – saving the phone’s 16GB storage. Again, this kind of internet integration does make me worry about data caps, but anyone on unlimited data plans will love it.

Nokia claims the Lumia 800’s battery will last for 9.5 hours under normal usage. I found it realistically to hover around 5 hours maximum. It never lasted a full work day. It didn’t go much further than 2-3 hours using wireless, playing music or video or playing games, and required more than daily charging. After a full charge, leaving it idle for 24 hours (admittedly without a SIM card installed) saw half the battery drained. This is quite simply not up to par with other devices in the market. Nokia is now claiming its a bug, and will be resolved with a software update in 2012.

Nokia Lumia 800 Camera

Miscellaneous/Extras

The phone comes with a rubber case – much welcomed when most don’t bother. This does however make the aforementioned problem concerning the physical buttons more pronounced. As a plus, it makes the phone far grippier, but hides the Lumia’s sexy polycarbonate shell.

The headphones supplied are poor, far worse than even Apple’s average pack-ins. I would recommend throwing them out and purchasing a new set, because the device does output good audio quality.

The biggest hurdle for new users to overcome will be Microsoft’s product eco-system. Alongside the poor Zune software for managing media, you will be required to have a Windows Live and Xbox Live account. Finally, the Windows Mobile App Store is not up to scratch.

The offerings are limited and, despite Microsoft’s claims that 35,000 apps are available, I’d say 80-90% are rubbish. You will find a few of the major (and expensive) franchises game wise – such as Angry Birds, Bejewelled and Plants Vs Zombies – but nowhere near the scale of Android or Apple’s offerings.

More importantly, useful utility apps are pretty limited. You won’t find all your newspapers, no decent camera apps, Skype, or Google Maps.

There are still a ton of broken and spam/scam apps on the store. Microsoft is obviously not monitoring it as carefully as it should. On the UK store a ‘Find my McDonalds’ App describes the nearest store as 7000km away – in Asia. Another App/scam promised to allow access to the Android store – several 1 star reviews suggests it’s a ‘dead app’ or that it has installed something malicious. There were several other broken apps or spam floating around here.This is worrying.

Final Verdict

Pros

  • Beautiful body and screen
  • Fantastic camera
  • Integration with Office is brilliant
  • Free 25GB Skydrive cloud service

Cons

  • OS favours style too much over usability
  • Cluttered design and inaccurate touch screen
  • Poor product eco-system, especially app store
  • Poor battery life

One of the harsh lessons of the modern vertically integrated tech world is that reviewing a device 5 ago could be just about the first party physical device and OS in your hand. Now the app store, music stores and other third party offerings make or break a device.

Frankly, the lack of apps for the Lumia 800 severely curtails its functionality as a device. Apps are no longer toys, or optional extras for goofing around. They are very important tools.

For example, I consider the lack of decent mapping software (excluding Nokia Drive) to be a critical flaw in any modern smartphone. I use Google Maps continuously – for accurately plotting exercise routes, quickest routes to meetings, finding addresses, restaurants, post offices and bars down to the street number. Bing Maps is so broken; it couldn’t find Blackfriars Bridge in the middle of City of London. Bing Maps is absolutely, thoroughly incompetent in this regard.

Microsoft has made the decision to push its own IP, and in doing so has crippled their own device. Users do not care about patent and format wars. Apple begrudgingly has Google Maps on their device, because they accept it’s the best. Microsoft won’t do that.

Its a tough spot to be in when playing catch up, very ‘chicken or the egg’, as developers wont flock to a device until it’s built a decent user base. Users also wont gamble on any new device that doesn’t have access to the tools they’ve come to know and love from the Android and Apple app stores.

The Lumia 800 feels like a work in progress. It is a nice, well designed phone with a wonderful camera and stunning screen. The front end menu system is beautiful and a refreshing change from the stale Apple iOS and Android based operating systems. Beyond this however, its touch screen is inaccurate and functionality has taken a back seat to building a pretty design.

If consumers want to use the device simply as a feature phone, with some texting, it would be fine. But this isn’t a feature phone, it’s a £430 smartphone. Until Microsoft tidies up its operating system and boosts its app store offerings, it’s hard to recommend.

System specs are available here.

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