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First look review: Nokia Lumia 900 is the best Windows phone so far

Consumer Reports News: April 03, 2012 09:08 PM

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The Nokia Lumia 900 is one of the first Windows phones to run on AT&T's high-speed 4G LTE network as well as its HSPA+ 4G network. After using a review sample of the Lumia 900 for several days, I can comfortably say that it's the best Windows phone I've tried so far.

Though it's not perfect, the new version of the Windows Phone 7 (Mango) OS, Version 7.5, which is used in the Lumia 900, is much better than previous versions. It has a greatly improved ability to interact with our network-connected world. Enhancements include People Hub, a feature that puts all of your contacts and social-network updates and interactions in one place, and Me, a feature that lets you blast posts to any combination of your Facebook, Windows Live, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts.

With Mango, you can also use QuickLink with Internet Explorer (QuickLinks are shortcuts that help users share content with apps) and check in to share your location with contacts. You can dictate text messages but not e-mails. And you can upload videos directly to Facebook but not YouTube; also, you can't yet attach videos to texts and emails. An OS update called Tango, coming later this year, may add this capability.

The Lumia's 4.3-inch ClearBlack AMOLED display is stunning. It has an 8-megapixel camera with a wide-angle (28mm), large-aperture (F2.2) Carl Zeiss optics, a front-facing 1.3 megapixel camera for video chats, a reasonably fast 1.4GHz Snapdragon processor, and a healthy-sized 1830mAh battery.

All of this is neatly packed in a matte-finish blue or black plastic case with rounded sides that measures a palm-friendly 5 x 2.7 x 0.45 inches. It weighs about the same as other phones of its size: 5.6 ounces. While the Lumia 900's case isn't particularly rugged, a Gorilla Glass coating protects the display.

On the downside, you can't open the phone to swap out the battery or increase the phone's 16GB storage capacity. Also, built-in memory is on the puny side—just 512MB. Microsoft provides 25GB of free storage on its SkyDrive cloud server, though. But this beautiful Mango operating system has a few inexplicable limitations that marred my experience with this intriguing phone.

The details:

Controls. In addition to the Microsoft Back, Home, and Search keys just below the display, the Lumia has hard-button Volume, Power, and Camera buttons on its right side, well placed for right-handed users. As with all Microsoft smart phones, pushing the Camera button launches the camera mode, even when the screen is off. But oddly, the Volume rocker does not work if the screen is off. If you wish to adjust the volume while listening to music, you have to first activate the display—a minor but annoying extra step for such a common action.

Display. The Lumia's 4.3-inch display has a resolution of 400 x 800 pixels, which comes out to a decent 217 pixels per inch. Though not as dense as the display pixel count of the Apple iPhone 4S (330 ppi) or the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx (256 ppi) and other recent Android phone releases, it's more than adequate for most phone tasks. At worst, you won't be able to make out some of the smallest type on some Web pages.

But the colors are simply dazzling. The Windows Phone tiles and program icons looked almost three-dimensional against the OS's jet-black background. Web and camera images looked sharp with rich, natural colors. The Windows Phone OS has the best-looking fonts of any smart phone platform. On the Lumia's display, these fonts looked especially large, sharp, and smooth, making the words on any screen—from an e-mail to calendar appointment—effortless to read.

Camera. CR's imaging engineers are currently assessing the Lumia's camera performance, but I was pleased overall with images and videos taken in my informal tests. Pictures were generally sharp, and the wide-angle (28mm) lens pulled in lots of background, even in close-up shots. The same could be said of the videos I took, even though the current version of Windows Phone OS limits video resolution to 720p instead of the now-standard 1080p. As with most camera phones, objects in shadows appeared somewhat murky. The camera itself launches quickly, whether you tap the tile on the Start menu or press the Camera button on the side of the phone. Next-shot delay also was short: about a second.

Content aggregation, importing, and sharing. Besides the Me and People features mentioned above, Mango adds a GPS-enhanced feature called Local Scout: This clever app lists the details of nearby restaurants, shops, events, and other places of interest, often with reviews from Citysearch and directions via Bing Maps. You can also order tickets for some venues, such as movie theaters, directly from the app.

Unfortunately, there's no built-in option for importing your Local Scout finds into your contacts, which is bound to frustrate many users. As a consolation, you can add any of the places culled by Local Scout into a Favorites list or pin them to the Home page, but these lists can become unwieldy as they get longer.

GPS maps and navigation. The Windows Maps feature has been upgraded to show your car as a moving blip on a map trudging between your starting point and final destination. But Nokia Drive, a free download from the Nokia Collection within the Windows Phone Marketplace, provides the more desirable, voice-activated directions that Android phone users have been enjoying for years.

The phone also displays your car's speed and warns you when you exceed the speed limit. Best of all, the Nokia Drive stores its maps on the phone instead of on a remote server, enabling it to function even when there's an interruption in cell service. The hitch: Nokia Drive does not have access to your phone's contacts, so you have to manually enter each destination.

Bottom line: With its large, beautiful display, handy controls, and nimble camera, the Nokia Lumia 900 (available on April 8 for $100 with a two-year contract) looks like an excellent choice for tapping into the increasingly compelling experience of the Windows Phone operating system. It will only get better when (or if) Microsoft fixes some minor but annoying limitations in its OS.

Mike Gikas

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