Reviewing the Lumia 800 is a hard and, dare I say, unprecedented task. Never before have we seen a phone like Nokia's N9 — a benchmark setter in some design aspects, yet a complete dead end in terms of software ecosystem — and now the 800 arrives ensconced in a nearly identical physical body. How do you begin to grade a device that feels, superficially at least, like a cuckoo — a parasite occupying the shell that rightfully belongs to another? Well, you probably start by dispensing with such romantic notions and treating the Nokia Lumia 800 as what it is: a Windows Phone 7.5 handset with a competitive, if unremarkable, spec sheet and the full backing of Nokia's engineering, development, and marketing might.
The similarities shared between Nokia's Harmattan and Windows Phone devices aren't actually the most pertinent topic of inquiry here. What will truly matter to end users of the Lumia 800 is how much of an upgrade this new flagship phone represents relative to previous, Symbian-powered generations of Nokia hardware and, potentially, the rest of the current Windows Phone crop. Whether you're actively contemplating jumping aboard the good ship Microkia or just a curious onlooker, read on for all the answers.
Hardware / design
The effortless grace of the N9's design has been reproduced with the Lumia 800
Photographing the Lumia 800 is an exercise in deja vu. Except for the addition of a dedicated camera key, the relocation of the dual-LED flash, and the introduction of capacitive Windows Phone keys up front, this is the N9. I'd usually be first to protest if a company decides to recycle a design quite so flagrantly, but in this case, it's more a matter of why wouldn't you? My lasting impression of the N9's case was that it was akin to Apple's unibody MacBook Pro — so tantalizingly close to perfection as to make you wonder where future upgrades could possibly come from. Three years after its introduction, that MBP design is still going strong and Nokia should have to make no apologies for sticking with a similarly splendid piece of engineering.
The Lumia 800 / N9 design ethos is all about effortless simplicity for the user, but it's backed by a stupefying amount of calculation, modeling, and testing behind the scenes. What you see and feel in your hand is a seamless piece of soft-touch plastic, curved on all sides and gently tapering toward flattened-out top and bottom surfaces, fronted by a curved screen. It's natural and pleasant to the touch, with great ergonomics and weight balance — the diametric opposite of the cold and impersonal appearance of most modern technology. Being able to meld that aggressively minimalist monobody design with a fully functional smartphone is where Nokia's manufacturing chops really shine through.
It's natural and pleasant to the touch, with great ergonomics and weight balance
Perfection does elude the Lumia 800, however, and it's almost entirely down to the few physical keys this phone is adorned with. Its right side plays host to a volume rocker, a power / lock button, and a dedicated camera key, neither of which does a great job of what are typically routine tasks. The volume rocker and lock button sit too close to one another and are almost flush with the phone's side, making for difficult tactile recognition. They're also a bit loose and generate an innocuous, though irritating, rattle when you move the 800 around. The shutter release button is better: it's firmer and more pronounced, has more travel, and reacts to pressure without a definite click at the bottom (something that can introduce motion blur in the resulting photos). The latter is a good thing for camera results, but it's less intuitive from a user perspective. While I'm bemoaning buttons, it's arguable that the Windows Phone capacitive trifecta under the screen is a little too close to the touchscreen, leading to some unintentional taps.
Nokia is sticking to the three color options introduced with the N9 — black, cyan and magenta, all featuring a soft matte finish — with each of those being the hue of the actual polymer the phone is built out of. That means no matter how deeply you may scratch the Lumia 800, it'll maintain the same consistent color. It'd actually be quite the challenge to force any nicks or scuffs to appear on this handset as that polycarbonate stuff it's made of is deceptively strong and resistant to abrasions. The same can't be said of the elliptical metal plate built into the center of its back — finished to a mirror sheen, that surface seems a magnet for little scrapes. Nokia bundles in a very good silicon case with the Lumia 800, however it has a cutout specifically designed to expose the reflective metal on the back, rather offsetting its protective qualities.
Minor issues aside, the Lumia 800 is exactly the sort of delight for the senses that you will have expected an N9 clone to be.
The ClearBlack Display lives up to its marketing bluster
Sticking with the N9 lineage and a recent preference for AMOLED in its flagship phones, Nokia has installed an 800 x 480 AMOLED display inside the Lumia 800. What was a 3.9-inch panel on the N9 has shrunken to 3.7 inches (and lost 54 horizontal lines of pixels in the process) in order to accommodate the Windows Phone keys. Yes, the Pentile Matrix RGBG subpixel arrangement is present here too, though as with the N9, I have to stress that it has almost no distinguishable impact on the display's quality. If you put your eye right up to the screen, you may notice some color fringing on white text in front of a black background, but that's it. Pixel density at this 3.7-inch size and WVGA res feels just about right for Windows Phone and the Lumia 800 does it justice with very clear, richly saturated imagery. As usual with AMOLED, some users will find the colors rendered a little too rich, though there's sadly no option to tone down saturation as there is on Samsung's Galaxy S II.
One thing nobody can complain about, however, is the way the Lumia 800 renders — or doesn't render, to be precise — blacks. It features the anti-glare polarizer that earns it Nokia's ClearBlack Display designation, which to us simple humans just means that its screen is less reflective than most and dark shades appear truly dark. Most of the time, you'll struggle to distinguish where the display panel ends, creating the wonderful illusion that onscreen imagery is simply suspended atop the surface of the phone — it's a very organic appearance that lends Microsoft's Metro tiles an extra air of sophistication.
Nokia's spec sheets don't list it, but a visit to Corning's website confirmed that the Lumia 800 does indeed have a Gorilla Glass front, much like the N9, N8 and E7 before it. That should provide you with an extra sense of security when using this phone since Gorilla Glass has shown itself to be a reliably rugged screen for mobile phones.
Battery life, reception, and audio
From my brief time with the Lumia 800, I'd say its battery life has been marginally less impressive than the N9, though that's not unreasonable given it's having to power a 1.4GHz processor. Anyone coming from Nokia's previous Symbian family — which typically sacrificed brute firepower for longer endurance — will have to adapt his or her expectations to a new reality. I got to 23 hours while subjecting the 800 to my usual routine of push email updates, web browsing, music playback, photo and video capture, and lots of idling. It's an effort to simulate real world use, but the only thing constant about the real world is that it's different for everyone, so take it as nothing more than an indicator. Nokia lists the Lumia 800 as offering longer talk time (13 hours on GSM / 9.5 hours over 3G) than the N9 (11 and 6.5 hours, respectively) but shorter standby time. When it comes to the Windows Phone competition, HTC's 1.5GHz Titan lasts just about as long as the 800, though the 1GHz Radar offers a little more stamina than both.
Reception on the Lumia 800 has been consistently good, allowing for clear calls and generally speedy web connectivity. While on the subject of wireless connections, I do have to express disappointment at Nokia's decision to disable Windows Phone's Internet Sharing feature. That's the facility that allows you to share your Lumia's 3G connection with nearby Wi-Fi-capable devices, turning it into a mobile hotspot. Nokia may look to enable it in a future update, however it wasn't deemed a top priority for launch and the company chose to focus on improving other areas of the phone experience. Also missing from the Lumia 800 is the NFC connection included on the N9. NFC is still a rarely used sideshow for the smartphones that have it, so I can definitely see why Nokia nixed it, but almost everyone is pushing for its wider adoption and its absence from the 800 casts a bit of a shadow over its long-term prospects.
What the Lumia 800 does have is Bluetooth, which is harnessed nicely by a Bluetooth Contacts Transfer app. It does what its name suggests and helps to bridge the software incompatibility that arises between Nokia's new Windows Phone and its line of legacy devices — provided they too have Bluetooth on board, of course.
The loudspeaker at the bottom of the Lumia 800 may look identical to the one on the N9, but it's subtly different. Whereas the N9's speaker was impossible to muffle, the 800's is much more susceptible to being muted by pressing something against it — that basically rules out listening to music on the phone while standing it in an upright position. Aside from such an eclectic concern, the sound produced by the Lumia 800 is very good indeed. The usual size limitations imposed by the smartphone form factor do apply, but it's good enough that you will actually want to listen to music through it. Nokia's bundled ear buds, on the other hand, are not. They're quite terrible, sit loosely in the ear, and your best course of action may be to never unpack them so as to keep up the phone's resale value.
Disappointing to see NFC and Internet Sharing omitted from the 800
There are some color balance issues, but the camera takes some very detailed shots
Yet another hand-me-down from the N9 production line, the Lumia 800's camera is composed of the same 8-megapixel sensor and f/2.2 Carl Zeiss lens as on the MeeGo Harmattan phone. That's generally a good thing, as the Lumia 800 is capable of filling those eight million pixels with tons of detail and Nokia's been very frugal with its noise reduction. Nonetheless, issues of color fidelity do arise, ostensibly caused by Nokia's post-processing which occasionally introduces an artificial green hue to pictures. This probably has to do with the camera's automatic white balance misreading the scene; whatever the reason, it takes away from the ease of use and reliability of the Lumia 800's camera, which are the two most paramount considerations when you're building imaging equipment for phones.
Less critical, though still important, is the speed of operation and this is where the Lumia 800 shines. Microsoft has emphasized quick camera operation with Windows Phone from its start, and the Lumia 800 keeps up that standard beautifully. A long press of the side-mounted camera button sends you right into the camera app and tapping anywhere on the screen instructs the camera to focus and auto-expose the image based on the information in that spot. You can also half-press the physical camera key to get the camera to do the same in the center of the picture. Focusing speed isn't sublime and there are none of the N9's special software optimizations for speeding things up — the Lumia 800's camera software is stock Windows Phone — but relying on Microsoft's already strong platform isn't a bad choice here, performance is still satisfyingly quick.
Motion blur detracts from what's otherwise very high quality 720p video
The dual-LED flash works very well on nearby objects and avoids washing out scenes when it's called into action. It's intelligent enough to recognize how much light it needs to provide, so if you focus on your hand in a dark room, it'll light it accurately, but if you focus on the black phone in your hand, it'll readjust for the phone and over-expose your hand. That may not sound ideal, but the good aspect of it is that it works predictably and reliably.
Video recording, much like stills, benefits from some really nice detail, however motion blur is exhibited a bit too readily for my liking. If the Galaxy S II was capable of handling motion perfectly at 1080p resolution back in April, your new flagship phone should be able to do the same at 720p without bother. Nokia doesn't live up to that standard with the Lumia 800, unfortunately. Another way in which this phone falls short on the imaging front is in its omission of a front-facing camera. Sure, most people consider them gimmicky and video conversations aren't exactly threatening to overtake regular voice calls, but front-facing cameras have become essentially standard equipment nowadays and it's odd to see Nokia skimping on one here.
Nokia's historic move to a new mobile operating system is finally complete. Gone are the days of trudging through outdated Symbian menu systems, no longer will you be laughed at by your trendy app-loving peers. Nokia's latest handset runs Windows Phone, a truly up-to-date OS with a future bright enough to justify the Lumia branding.
So why does it feel so underwhelming?
The first issue is one of familiarity. We've seen both Windows Phone 7.5 and the Lumia 800's chiseled physique already, so combining the two is like making yourself a banana sandwich, new and potentially tasty, but not an altogether unpredictable combination. The Lumia 800 is a device embodying all of Nokia's phone manufacturing nous and relies on Microsoft's best mobile software to date, but what it doesn't do is create something new and altogether better out of those components. The two parts are welded together, whereas what the world really wanted to see was for them to melt into one spectacular new juggernaut that would do battle with iOS and Android. Windows Phone isn't there yet and if any one phone will push it into that stratosphere, the Lumia 800 won't be it. The Lumia 800 equipped with all of the N9's software bells and whistles might have been that hero device, but alas, time constraints have forced Nokia to serve up a very ordinary helping of Mango with almost no improvements of its own.
Nokia has been consistent in saying that it'll endeavor to bring the swipe gestures, the double-tap-to-wake, and everything else that was good about the N9's UI over to Windows Phone, but the fact remains that those goodies are not present in the Lumia 800 today. What you get are sadly superficial tweaks: Nokia alerts, ringtones, wallpapers, and a "Nokia blue" theme are scattered around the phone, while the Metro tiles, email client, calendar, and all other native apps are left untouched. There aren't obvious ways to improve on them, mind you, as Microsoft has done a really stellar job of refining the basic Windows Phone user experience. Still, it would have been nice to see Nokia implement the awesome onscreen keyboard of the N9, along with its terrific haptic feedback, in the Lumia phone that's probably being built on the exact same manufacturing line.
Nokia Drive and Nokia Music are the two big additions on launch day. Drive provides offline navigation with voice turn-by-turn instructions and Music includes a Mix Radio streaming service that's loaded up with genre-based playlists of free music. Both are actually very good at what they do and are sure to figure in your long-term use of the Lumia 800. The Mix Radio library is being built out continually, so there'll be more and more content for you to access in the future, while the Music app also pulls in the venues for upcoming gigs near you. I still would've liked to see Nokia do more than just throw in some added apps, although unlike HTC's underwhelming Hub for WP7, Nokia's additions offer real added value for the user. Moreover, Nokia Maps — the new name for Ovi Maps — will be available for the Lumia 800 and all Windows Phones within the next couple of weeks, so we can at least say that the Microsoft-Nokia partnership is headed in the right direction.
Perhaps the main reason for Nokia's abandonment of MeeGo and embrace of Microsoft was the need to have a thriving software ecosystem to empower its handsets with. The Windows Phone Marketplace isn't quite up to that standard yet, however Microsoft is putting good tools in developers' hands and Nokia's presence adds extra clout and credibility to the platform. Stephen Elop's vision of Windows Phone as "the third ecosystem" behind Apple's iOS and Google's Android looks set to indeed materialize, meaning that prospective Lumia 800 owners should have plenty to look forward to. Skype's absence from the Marketplace, for example, will soon be rectified by the folks working in Microsoft's freshly inaugurated Skype Division.
The gravitational pull of Microsoft and Nokia's collective determination can reasonably be expected to produce the critical mass of good apps for Windows Phone to truly compete with the best — it's just that at this particular moment in time, it continues to lag. While closing the gap on Android and iOS, Windows Phone doesn't improve on them in any dramatic way. Its multitasking overview is good, the live tiles offer information more quickly and easily, and its calendar is arguably the best of the bunch, but those are small advantages. iOS still wins when I want to browse the web or check out a new app and Android is still the best platform for users of Google services.
The gravitational pull of Microsoft and Nokia's collective determination should attract plenty of dev talent
I've been using the Lumia 800 alongside an Android handset and an iPhone 4S recently and one thing's abundantly clear: all three platforms are getting the basics right. Push email is arriving at more or less the same time, calendar alerts are going off simultaneously, notifications are mostly unobtrusive, pinch-to-zoom is smooth, web browsers are rendering pages correctly, and email conversations are threaded. What will make the difference going forward are things like the extra layer of polish that iOS can offer, and Windows Phone, as the new entrant to this competition, will need to beat the others to such new features and improvements if it wants to attract defectors to its cause.
An honorable mention is earned by Microsoft's windowsphone.com website. As the name suggests, it's the web portal unto your ownership of a Windows Phone, and allows you to browse the Marketplace and send apps directly to your device. There are also guides for novices as well as a pretty comprehensive My Windows Phone menu. The latter allows you to find your phone (with disturbing accuracy), ring it, lock it up with a password and a message for its lock screen, or even wipe it completely. In a classy little touch, Microsoft has also made the color theme of the website match the theme of your phone, which can actually be useful if you're managing multiple Windows Phones and need a visual way to distinguish between them online. Everything on the site worked exactly as advertised, and though the functionality it offers isn't unique, it's a great extra to have and a wonderful base from which to build and expand the WP web ecosystem.
The Lumia 800 is exactly what it looked like when it was first announced at Nokia World: it is an N9 running Windows Phone. Ironically, in moving from the wildly imaginative Harmattan to the more straight-laced Windows Phone OS, this smartphone has undergone the reverse of the transition Stephen Elop wants to see Nokia make. He wants the company to stop being known for unexciting reliability and to start inspiring greater emotional attachment in its users. The N9 was that irrationally loved device, and no matter how hard the Lumia 800 tries, it simply isn't as thrilling.For anyone still stuck on one of Nokia's Symbian devices, the 800 is an obvious upgrade. It lacks the N8's superb camera, but otherwise it easily trumps anything and everything in the company's recent portfolio. Windows Phone provides a modern and attractive user interface and the Lumia 800's hardware maintains Nokia's reputation for attention to detail and insistence on high build quality. The picture is less clear for those considering alternative Windows Phones, as the Lumia 800 actually falls behind by not including a front-facing camera or mobile hotspot capabilities. Choosing your favorite there will depend on how much you love the Lumia 800's sterling physical design and how much faith you place in Nokia's ability to execute on its ambitious plans for software differentiation. The Lumia 800 has the potential to be great, but today it's merely good.