Nokia Lumia 900: Microsoft’s big bet on the smartphone market has software issues

April 3, 2012

The Lumia 900 is a pretty big deal for Nokia and Microsoft. For those of you who don’t know the backstory, the new LTE-equipped, AT&T-bound smartphone represents what could be the beginning of a new era for both companies in the mobile race — at least in the United States.

The Lumia 900 is a culmination of years of Microsoft’s work on trying to create a Windows phone, and Nokia’s hardware design and execution, packaged in the hopes that the American consumer will suddenly notice that not only does the Windows phone exist, but it’s worth buying.

It’s an attractive offering in many ways. Stylistically, the Lumia 900 looks like nothing else on the market. It offers LTE service that — where you can get it — is shockingly fast. And most important, the top-tier, flagship device is being offered at the incredible discounted price of $99.99 for new subscribers.

But does the phone have what it takes to court buyers away from its Apple and Android competitors and establish a beachhead for Microsoft and Nokia?

The Lumia 900 is gorgeous. It may be the best-looking phone on the market. It’s a monolithic device — a slab of high-test polycarbonate with little more than a display and a handful of slit-like, silver buttons along the side. Its smooth, matte plastic is shaped to appear rather rectangular from the front but has subtle curves around the edges that give it a satisfying feel in your hands.

Not only does the physical design of the Lumia stand out, but so does its coloring. I tested a bright cyan version of the phone, and I found the stark color extremely pleasing. In fact, it reminded me of how stale and lacking in playfulness industrial design has become in the smartphone market.

Inside, the Lumia 900 packs a single-core processor and 16 GB of internal storage (which is not upgradable). The device has the requisite LTE and GSM cellular radios onboard, as well as WiFi and Bluetooth.

The display on the front of the device is a 4.3-inch, 800 by 480 AMOLED “ClearBlack” screen, fronted by Corning’s nearly unbreakable Gorilla Glass. I found it to be a little lacking in resolution and a little over-saturated on colors.

The specs are unremarkable, but performance on the phone was not. The Lumia 900 was snappy and responsive, with few hiccups or pauses.

On the device I tested, the rear camera was capable of producing fine photos, although generally the Lumia shot somewhat grainy and very washed-out images. Additionally, its camera can sometimes produce faint pink spots in the center of the display — particularly visible on bright white surfaces. It’s not the kind of thing you’d notice in most photos, but you can definitely see a discoloration that shouldn’t be there.

Phone calls were crisp and clear on the handset. I didn’t have a single dropped call.

Microsoft tightly regulates what kind of hardware can be put inside Windows phone devices, so the company isn’t letting these handsets bite off more than they can chew. But I do have a problem with the Windows Phone software. Though I’m aware of the hard work and dedication Microsoft has put into this platform, at the end of the day, it’s simply not as competitive with Apple iOS and Android as it should be.

Many of the problems with the Windows phone are small. But it’s a death by a thousand cuts.

I saw issues with scrolling long lists in some apps, where content would just disappear. I also had problems with some Web sites displaying properly in the handset’s mobile version of Internet Explorer. Multitasking on the device was a hit or miss affair, with some applications having to completely reload when I switched back to them. Windows phones also handle some actions clumsily, hiding menu items or forcing you to go through multiple steps to do something as simple as check a Twitter message.

And all of this is to say nothing of the third-party-app offerings on the platform. Besides the fact that there is a serious dearth of good software for the operating system, even in places where you would expect Windows Phone to excel, it lags. Gaming, for example.

Don’t misunderstand me: Windows Phone can offer some very good experiences in its core apps, and it’s probably the most cohesive piece of software Microsoft has ever released. But after nearly two years on the market, I struggled to find a single thing this platform could do better than the latest versions of Android or Apple iOS.

I really wanted to love this phone, but the software issues make it hard to consider as an alternative to a top-tier competitor. The device is generally easy to use, and the low price point, coupled with the beautiful hardware and solid LTE service, could be persuasive. But for me and most of the people I know, there’s still something missing here, and until Microsoft and Nokia figure out what that is, Windows phones will continue to struggle upstream.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (theverge.com), a technology news Web site. To read previous columns, go to PostBusiness.com.

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