Every time I visit Facebook my browser asks me if it should go ahead and translate the website. That’s what happens when you’ve been living in a foreign country for over four and a half years and nearly everyone you know speaks English as a second, and in most cases third, language. During my time in Finland I’ve made a lot of connections, especially at Nokia, where I worked between March 2008 and May 2009. The only reason I bring this up is because something incredible happened last year. Something I never thought would be possible. Out of the 92 people who I know well enough to call a Facebook friend, the number of them who work at Nokia hit zero.
At one point more than half of my friends were Nokia employees, so what exactly happened? It all started when the company reported their Q4 2008 financial results. The numbers showed that profits compared to the same quarter a year ago were down 69%. In response to the dismal figures Nokia announced a voluntary resignation package (VRP). In other words, if you knew you were a talented employee who could easily find another job somewhere else, all you had to do was resign and you’d get up to one year’s salary depending on how long you’ve been with the company. If that sounds odd to you, then know that this is the result of Finnish labor laws, which offer an incredible amount of protection to employees. As a company you really can’t fire someone unless you go out of your way to prove that they’re no longer fit for the job. The VRP was so successful that it was extended several times, though with slightly less generous terms.
Shortly after the initial VRP was announced I found myself sitting opposite a good friend of mine at a downtown restaurant in Helsinki. He told me that he and his wife have been thinking about taking some time off for a while now, and that they wanted to pursue their love of traveling. After he resigned it wasn’t too long until another friend of mine decided to do the same thing. One by one more of my friends announced their intent to leave Nokia. Some went back to school to finish that PhD they never got around to handing in, some left to work at companies that aren’t even related to the mobile industry, and a few even joined some of Nokia’s competitors, namely Samsung and Apple.
After Stephen Elop (pictured above, left) became the CEO of Nokia on September 20th, 2010, the resignations kicked into overdrive due to an increased sense of uncertainty. Everyone started asking themselves: What path would the first non-Finnish citizen in charge of a 140+ year old company choose to go down? Less than five months later, on February 11th, 2011, we found out. Stephen announced that Nokia would ditch Symbian, the platform that once held a dominant position in the smartphone market, but failed to evolve fast enough to catch up with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. He also said the company would ditch Maemo/MeeGo, the Linux based operating system that was going to put Nokia back on the map thanks to its innovate “Swipe” user interface.
The future, according to Elop, was going to be Microsoft’s Windows Phone. That came as a surprise since the platform, at the time, had thus far failed to gain any traction. Most would say that’s still the case today. Then common sense kicked in and it seemed like an obvious move due to Elop’s relationship with Microsoft. Between January 2008 and September 2010 he was in charge of Microsoft’s Business Division, the unit responsible for Microsoft Office, one of the company’s main sources of revenue. He was also on Microsoft’s Senior Leadership Team. Conspiracy theorists and those with some pretty wild imaginations have said some interesting things about these facts, and it’s not that hard to see why.
All that back history is necessary to understand the significance of the Nokia Lumia 800.
Now reviews aren’t something I particularly enjoy doing, and I’m thankful that my colleagues at IntoMobile love to play with the latest gadgets and possess the ability to go on and on about yet another smartphone, but as soon as this device was announced I felt that it was my duty to get my hands on one just to see what the new Nokia was all about. Why then is this article going up now when the Lumia 800 has been out on the market for more than two months? Because I live in Finland I’m quite difficult to deal with from a logistical standpoint. Nokia USA couldn’t send me a review unit, and it was the same story with Nokia UK. As for Nokia Finland, I had to wait until the device was close to launching, which in this country is next Wednesday, the first of February. I probably could have scored one earlier had my friends in Nokia’s marketing department still been with the company, but they all left before the Lumia 800 was even unveiled. But enough of the behind the scenes, let’s dive right in.
The first thing you notice about the Lumia 800 is just how small the box it comes in actually is. I don’t have the box that came with my iPhone 4 anymore, but from memory alone I’d say it’s comprable in size. The packaging is very Apple like, which is to say clean, compact, and appealing to the eye. Besides the device you get one of the prettiest wall chargers I’ve ever seen in my life. Again, it’s very Apple like, and I say that with the best possible intentions. It’s white, ridiculously small (pictured below), and has a standard female USB port. The microUSB cable that comes inside the box isn’t white however, it’s sort of black, but not really. Some might say that’s a flaw, but whatever, I’m fine with that. There’s also a pair of headphones inside, though I never bothered unwrapping them. They look terrible, and honestly, if you have enough money to spend on the Lumia 800 then don’t you have enough to also buy an awesome set of headphones?
Focusing now on the actual device, I’m torn. Looking at the Lumia 800 reminds me of the Nokia N9, the last real Nokia smartphone. Having played with the N9 on several occasions, I can’t believe Elop decided to get rid of Maemo/MeeGo. Myriam Joire, Editor in Chief of Engadget Mobile, agrees. In her Nokia N9 review she admits that she would “pick MeeGo over Mango, despite its weaker ecosystem.” Sibling rivalry aside, there are few things I loathe more than shiny plastic, and the buttons on the side of the Lumia 800 are incredibly cheap and reflective. The buttons on the Lumia 710, Nokia’s cheaper Windows Phone, are matte and the same color as the rear of the device. Can you guess which one I like more? Another flaw of the side buttons is that they rattle. Watch the video below to get an idea of what I’m talking about.
The rest of the device, the black plastic, which Nokia likes to call polycarbonate, because the word plastic has some negative connotations, seems solid enough that it can withstand a drop or two. I wouldn’t know though since I haven’t dropped this thing during the two weeks I’ve been using it. On the flip side, the few times I’ve dropped my iPhone 4 I nearly had a heart attack. It wasn’t until I cracked the back of my iPhone 4 that I finally invested in a case, which makes me sad because the iPhone 4 is gorgeous and most of that beauty disappears when you wrap it inside a thick piece of plastic, but hey, it’s good to be practical sometimes. Speaking about cases, the Lumia 800 comes with one. It’s a silicone shell that wraps around the whole of the smartphone. Putting it on was extremely difficult and it took me a good five to ten minutes. Less than a few minutes later, after deciding I’d rather go without the case, taking it off was even more challenging, so much so that I cut my thumb in the process!
@WhatTheBit Totally. Has a nicotine hue
— Natasha (@riptari) January 17, 2012
Next up is the screen, which measures 3.7 inches diagonal, uses AMOLED technology, and has a resolution of 800 x 480 pixels. The Nokia N9, which is the exact same size as the Lumia 800, has a 3.9 inch screen. Blame the required Windows Phone buttons for that necessary shrink. Something to note, the pixels are arranged in a PenTile configuration. What the hell does that mean? The folks at Ars.Technica do an incredible job at explaining PenTile, but the short version is that not all colors are represented equally, and text can appear somewhat fuzzy. Going from the 3.5 inch 960 x 640 pixel screen on my iPhone 4 to the Lumia 800 was painful. Forget about the text being less sharp, the color reproduction simply wasn’t right. My “killer app” on mobile devices is the web browser, where nearly all content is displayed as black text on a white background. The white on the Lumia 800 isn’t white at all. When I complained about this on Twitter I got an @ reply from Natasha Lomas, Mobile Phones Editor at CNET UK, who described the white perfectly by saying it has a nicotine hue. It really is like the color of a filter of a cigarette butt.
The top of the Lumia 800 is an area you’ll be spending a lot of time fiddling with. For some strange reason the people who designed this thing decided to hide the microUSB port behind a door that needs a few seconds of manual dexterity to open. Every time you want to charge your phone, you have to flip open the door. Luckily Nokia decided not to include this frustrating “feature” on the Lumia 900 that’s going to launch later this year on AT&T. Next to the door is the SIM card slot, which only takes microSIM cards. I already cut my SIM card back when I got an iPhone 4 in September 2010, but I know lots of people who don’t want to cut their SIM because shoving a microSIM card into an adapter that then goes into a phone is easily an experience that will shave a few months off your life. The first time I put my SIM in the Lumia 800 and powered it on the device didn’t recognize it. After I took it out, checked that I actually did everything right, it finally worked. Beats me what I did wrong in the first place.
So here’s where the fun begins, the part where I talk about Windows Phone Mango. Let’s start with the startup process. Despite the Lumia 800 having a SIM card inside, and thus a connection to a cell tower somewhere outside my flat, the phone asked me what’s the current date and time. It’s a minor annoyance, I’ll concede that, but it’s something that gets under my skin since one of the first things I used to do after setting up a Symbian smartphone was to tell the phone to go fetch the correct time and date from my operator. Your phone shouldn’t have to ask you what time it is and what day it is, it should just know. Another niggle is that I had to go a few screens into the setup process before the phone asked me what language I can understand. My Finnish is terrible, but it got me through to the menu where I finally selected English and the device rebooted and continued the setup wizard.
Once you’re all set and done you go to the start screen, and it’s so sparse that I immediately went to the full list of applications to see what was really on my device. I wonder, how many people are going to do that? How many people are just going to use the default start screen that’s configured at the factory and that’s it? As an experiment I tried to delete everything off my start screen, and the phone actually let me do it. This let me setup the device with the things I truly cared about, which in my case are just eight tiles: Calculator, Alarms, Internet Explorer, Messaging, Phone, Facebook, Twitter, and a shortcut to one of my favorite sites on the internet, Techmeme.
Before I get to the apps, let me mention the things that the phone doesn’t have. First, there’s no world clock, so I can’t tell what time it is in New York, San Francisco, or Dallas. Second, there’s no countdown timer, which I use in the kitchen multiple times a day. Third, there’s no ability to read PDF files out of the box, you have to go to the Marketplace and download Adobe Reader. What kind of crazy back room politics prevented that feature from being a part of Windows Phone? All of this is on the iPhone, by default.
As for the apps, you shouldn’t need to install Facebook or Twitter because that functionality is baked right into the operating system, but the way Microsoft does it goes counter to the way those services actually work. See, in Microsoft’s view of the world it doesn’t matter what services your friends are using. You simply go to your friend via the People app and then see everything they have to say about their love life, their job, and their cat. In the real world people use different services differently. There’s stuff I post to my highly curated list of Facebook friends that I’d never post on Twitter, and vice versa, because I don’t bring my work life to my social life. Microsoft thinks that all social networks are the same, and that’s fundamentally a broken concept since the reasons multiple social networks exist is to mirror how humans have multiple social circles in the real world. Hence why I opted to install Facebook and Twitter and not go through the People app.
There’s also limitations with what you can do with the baked in integration. Last week while flipping through a magazine I saw an ad for a concert that I knew my girlfriend would enjoy seeing. Instead of typing out the details of the concert, which would have been time consuming, I just snapped a picture of the ad thinking I could easily post it to her Facebook wall. Turns out I can post photos to my Facebook wall, but no one else’s. If I go to my girlfriend’s contact listing in the People app I can write something on her Facebook wall, but I can’t upload any photos. What do I end up having to do? Opening up the Facebook app, going to her wall, and posting the photo of the ad for the concert. All that effort just because I wanted to save some time by not having to type everything out.
Another similar anecdote is photo albums. There’s an album that I maintain on Facebook that has pictures of movie ticket stubs. When I go see a movie I snap a photo of my ticket, upload it to that album, and then throw the ticket in the trash. Can I upload straight to that album from the camera app using the integrated Facebook functionality? Nope. I have to load up the Facebook app.
This exposes yet another problem, one that no one likes to talk about. When a developer bakes the features of a service into their application, or in this case the whole operating system, by the use of APIs, they’re always playing catchup to what the service is actually capable of delivering. There’s a reason people want to use an application dedicated to a particular web service, because that app will have not only all the features said service provides their users, but because the app also uses similar design and experience metaphors that users are already familiar with. What happens when Twitter or Facebook add a new feature, does Microsoft guarantee that they’ll port that feature to Windows Phone? iPhone and Android users don’t care, they’ll just grab the latest version of the Facebook app.
Turning to more fundamental aspects of the device, how’s the keyboard? There’s a learning curve, but I can safely say it’s good. It’s not iPhone 4 good, but it would be highly unfair of me to judge a device I’ve been using for two weeks to a device that I’ve been using for 16 months. And I really gave the keyboard a beating too. Besides the web browser being my killer app, I also text like a 14 year old girl. The Messaging application in Windows Phone is hands down amazing. It’s so delicious that I want to eat it. Every text message has a time stamp, there’s no fancy graphics, it’s just a threaded list of text that looks like a designer’s wet dream. Thumbs up to Microsoft on that one.
And as for the browser, it’s good when it wants to behave. Rendering isn’t too bad, though scrolling through a long block of text makes the browser want to zoom in on the text for some odd reason. One thing that’s incredibly disappointing is that the HTML5 version of Google’s Gmail service doesn’t work. The browser forces you to use the mobile version of the site optimized for feature phones. Why am I not using the Windows Phone email app? Because I don’t want to, that’s why. I’m not a fan of push email, I’d rather check my email on my own time, and as I said earlier, I prefer to use a web service with the design and experience metaphors that I’m already used to. Google designed a mobile site that does just that. Android has the best implementation of how Gmail should work on a mobile device, but of course that’s expected.
Looking at Windows Phone applications, that’s where things get downright depressing. Shout all the numbers you want about 60,000 apps, but there’s no official BBC app. Twitter’s app is prone to not only crash, but it stutters as well. Video playback, in any app, is also problematic. Whereas the iPhone will not play a video unless a certain amount of it has been buffered, Microsoft likes to play videos immediately and will resort to skipping frames and then speeding up a video as it’s being downloaded in the background just to prevent a delay between when you hit play and when you see something on your screen. It’s not that Windows Phone isn’t capable of playing videos properly, it totally can, it’s just that the philosophy of giving people something to look at instead of making them wait a few seconds is really hurting them here.
Regarding application discovery, I’ve looked at what the Marketplace recommends, I’ve looked at what Nokia’s own “App Highlights” app recommends, and I’ve even installed “AppFlow App Discovery” to try and find some awesome apps that take advantage of all the features that Windows Phone gives developers … and I didn’t find anything compelling. Nothing really stands out and screams quality. Not even the third party Twitter clients that people have been recommending I try out, apps like Peregrine, Rowi, and Seesmic; my benchmark is Tweetbot on the iPhone.
Looking to get some other people’s thoughts on Windows Phone, I had lunch with my girlfriend and some of her friends. I’m kicking myself in the ass for not recording the ensuing 60 minute discussion. First and most telling is that none of them figured out how to unlock the device. They all tried to swipe the lock screen image to the left or right, but not up like Microsoft would have them do it. After they got to the start screen all of them lasered in on the Internet Explorer icon. That brand comes with so much baggage that Microsoft should have just called the browser “Web” or “Internet” or anything really, but not Internet Explorer. One of the first questions they asked me was why wasn’t I using Firefox or Chrome? They thought that because I have a “Windows Phone” I could install full blown Windows apps.
To give you an idea of what kind of girls I’m talking about here, they’re all in their early 20s, my girlfriend has a Nokia N8, her best friend has a Nokia feature phone that she flat out refuses to replace because it does calls and texts just fine, another girl has an iPhone 4, and another has a Nokia E72 that she loves because of the keyboard. After demoing Facebook integration, Messaging, and the web browser, none of them were interested. In fact, the girl with the Nokia E72 said she’s in the process of saving up for an iPhone 4 and that my demo of the Lumia 800 actually made her even more confident about purchasing Apple’s smartphone.
What else am I forgetting here?
Oh right, how does the Lumia 800 connect to a computer? I’ve got two laptops, one of them runs Windows 7, the other runs Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. The Windows 7 machine is more of a travel laptop and home theatre PC, so I didn’t even bother testing the desktop integration. My MacBook Pro however, that’s my work laptop and the machine that has all my contacts and calendar entries. One quick Google search and the first result points me to the Windows Phone 7 Connector for Mac, which I can’t install myself, instead I have to install it via the Mac OS X App Store, something I’ve never done before. The process itself wasn’t painful, but getting the Lumia 800 to talk to my Mac was. The trick is to connect the device to the computer, then launch the Connector. If you launch the Connector and then connect the phone, it doesn’t work. After getting everything talking to each other I realized that the app only does media syncing, not contact and calendar syncing.
This is where the “Contacts Transfer” app on the Lumia 800 comes in handy. I totally forgot I had it, thanks to it being buried in a long list of apps, but after I loaded it up and made the app connect to my iPhone it failed to actually do anything. At this point I’m practically pulling my hair out and I’ve resorted to manually entering in the names and numbers of some very important people. Soon after doing this I load up the Marketplace, can’t really remember what I was looking for, and the phone says that there’s an update available for the Contacts Transfer app. One click install, start it up again, connect it to my iPhone, and now the damn thing actually works!
As to the cellular portion of the Lumia 800, there’s no easy way to say this without offending someone, so I’ll just go ahead and say it: Dead zones are things that do not exist in Helsinki. No matter where I am, even on the subway, I have full bars, and that’s true on every device I’ve ever owned. Did I speed test the Lumia 800? No, not really, I never felt the need to since browsing was comprobable to my iPhone 4. As for voice calls, the two people I called said I sounded fine, they couldn’t even tell I was using a different phone, but both those people sounded tinny compared to memories of previous calls. It was as if the EQ setting on the device was set to “extra treble” or something.
How’s the battery life? In two weeks of testing there was only one occasion where the phone died on me before I could get it to a charger. That being said, this is a device that needs to be charged nightly. With my usage patterns there’s no way in hell I’d get two full days out of this thing. Compared to the iPhone 4, the Lumia 800 is only about half as good.
Maps are another killer app for me. I often joke that I can’t even cross the street without my smarpthone in my hand, but it’s painfully true since I’ve been using GPS enabled phones since the Nokia N95 way back in 2007. The Lumia 800 comes with three map applications installed by default. Yes, three. There’s Microsoft Maps, Nokia Maps, and Nokia Drive. Microsoft Maps is beyond horrible. I tried searching for a restaurant and Microsoft Maps couldn’t find it. I then typed the address in, and it still couldn’t find it. Nokia Maps on the other had no problem finding the place, though I had no idea how to get the compass working so I could tell which way I should walk down a particular street. It’s “good enough” I’d say, but I’d much rather have Google release their own Maps client for Windows Phone. And Nokia Drive … I haven’t had a car since the summer of 2007, so that’s that.
How’s the WiFi connection manager? Easily on par with that of the iPhone. It does a great job in my flat, where there are more access points than I care to count, and it does great with my favorite cafés too. When you’re connected to WiFi, everything goes through WiFi. When you’re not, everything goes through your operator. Simple. Worlds better than Symbian.
The multitasking, is that any good? No, it’s half baked. Apps take about half a second to resume, and depending on the app it doesn’t return to where you used to be within the app. In other words, the app basically relaunches. Kind of disappointing, though the platform is admittedly only 15 months old. It took Apple four years to put multitasking into iOS!
So here we are, over 4,200+ words later, can you guess what I’m going to say about the Lumia 800? It’s pretty much exactly what I’ve been saying since as far back as I can remember, that everyone should just stay away from Windows Phone until Apollo comes out, Apollo being the next major version of the operating system. Even Nokia believes that consumers will have to wait until Apollo to see the best of what they’re capable of delivering. These words were said back in October of last year by Niklas Savander, Executive Vice President of Markets for Nokia:
“When you look within the Windows Phone ecosystem and compare how the Lumia performs, there we have a contractual agreement with Microsoft for a certain amount of engineering which we can use for differentiation. However, we have to be very careful on how we use that one because we cannot fragment the developer ecosystem. If that starts forking, that’s not useful at all. We made the decision to go to Windows Phone when Mango was pretty much done, so we were able to impact some elements of it but you’ll really see the fruits of what we can do with Microsoft when the Apollo version of Windows Phone comes out.”
And that pretty much sums up Nokia. With the Lumia 800 they essentially slapped together some parts from China in a body that was designed for the company’s last flagship device and then loaded up Microsoft’s software on it. With the next version of Windows Phone a little bit more effort will be put on making it look like it actually had some design decisions made by the folks sitting in Finland, but really, all bullshit aside, Nokia isn’t in charge of their future anymore.