Nokia Lumia 800 review: solid hardware marred by Windows Phone 7

Nokia's Lumia 800 leaves a solid first impression. I had a few minutes to play with it when the phone was first unveiled, and I came away from that thinking that this was finally it. The Nokia Lumia 800 was Windows Phone 7's killer smartphone.

That prototype Lumia 800 felt great in the hand, ran the latest Windows Phone 7.5 Mango and was lightning fast, even without any fancy dual-core processors. The Lumia 800 felt like the best Windows Phone 7 device to ever arrive.

I finally had a chance to use it for a few weeks (this review would have arrived sooner if not for a battery charging-related software update that couldn't be done manually and Wi-Fi issues that required us to get a replacement) and I'm sadder than I was that brisk October morning.

Read on to find out what happened.


Nokia Still Understands Hardware

Don't get me wrong, the Lumia 800 is a very handsome smartphone. Nokia understands hardware, but it's because Nokia didn't understand how to efficiently integrate software (RIP Symbian and MeeGo) with its phones that it decided to hop in bed with Microsoft's Windows Phone 7.

Like a certain other company, Nokia knows how to build cellphones that don't just look desirable but feel like high-end products. Don't take my word for it, go watch Nokia's detailed seven-minute video on the design process.

From the solid one-piece polycarbonate body that's dyed outside and inside, the slightly tapered corners, the fast 8-megapixel camera with LED flash, the great 720p HD video recording and the lovely curved screen, the Lumia 800 is a delight in your hand or pocket. Inside, you'll find 16GB of storage and a battery that's rated for up to 9.5 hours of talk time, 55 hours playing music and seven hours playing video.

Sizing Up Lumia 800

The only major hardware gripes I have with the Lumia 800 is the placement of the power/hold button below the volume rocker buttons on the right side of the phone, which led to many unintentional presses. It's also missing a micro SD slot for expandable storage, and the battery is sealed in so you can't replace it. But hey, the iPhone 4S doesn't have expandable storage or a removable battery either, so the Lumia 800 is on equal footing.

At 142 grams, the Lumia 800 is only slightly heavier than an iPhone 4S, although it is much thicker at 12.1mm versus the iPhone 4S's 9.3mm. Dimensions notwithstanding, the Lumia 800, with its super responsive 3.7-inch AMOLED ClearBlack touchscreen just feels perfect to hold. The Lumia 800 has nearly the same dimensions as the iPhone 4S, but isn't nearly as large as any of the standard 4-inch to 4.5-inch smartphones running Android or even HTC's gargantuan Titan running WP7.

Sadly, this is where where the charm starts to wear off, because no matter how great a smartphone looks and feels, it's the software that matters, and boy does WP7 still have a mountain to climb.


Windows Phone 7 Still Stumbles

There's a reason why the Lumia 800 only has a 1.4GHz single core processor and 512MB of RAM, and that's because it doesn't need more than that. Unlike iOS or Android, WP7 is a nimble OS that runs on modest specifications. (Hell, Microsoft's low spec requirements for WP7 don't even need what Lumia's packing).

In my initial impressions, I noted that the Lumia 800 was a speedy little guy. Our review unit performed just as admirably. OS animations transitioned smoothly, Web browsing on Internet Explorer 9 was speedy enough and apps opened up in a timely manner. It's a great experience, really, especially since the touchscreen — aided by its lovely curved glass edges — makes navigating such a finger-friendly affair.

The issues start to appear when you see just how restricted WP7 is. While I do think that WP7's MetroUI live tiles and its emphasis on huge textual menus is a wholly refreshing approach compared to Android and iOS's sea of homescreen app icons, the modernist design is more eye-candy than it is practical for daily use.

Some early turn-offs: managing open Web browser tabs is a two-click process (something I'd like to see disappear on any mobile OS), the URL bar hogs up precious pixels along the bottom of IE9 (you can't make it disappear and it doesn't vanish), there's no button to go forward, the default video recording resolution is set to VGA (why?), you have to manually click "save" before the settings update themselves and there is no orientation lock.

There's more, and I'll be the first to admit these are tiny gripes. They add up, and are made all the more frustrating by the fact that for every one of those, there's an equal number of features I like about WP7, such as Xbox Live integration (I really like looking at all the dancing avatars) and one-button Bing search (with built-in song identifier, QR code scanner and a voice-to-search). The things I like are, again, tempered by dislikes. Everything is tied almost entirely to a Windows Live account (I couldn't remember my Hotmail account and had to look on my Xbox 360 and go through half a dozen guesses before I got the right password), which can be annoying if you left Windows Live (previously called MSN) ages ago like I did.

Spiraling Down, Down, Down

The Lumia 800 has the expected bloatware apps (which can be uninstalled) in the form of Nokia Drive, Nokia Maps (redundant to the default Maps app) and Nokia Music (redundant to the built-in Zune player). That's not a mark against WP7, but in getting rid of the bloat I came to realize something about the WP7 app store, Marketplace: it's pretty barren. The latter drove me especially crazy — I couldn't even find an AIM app! Although Microsoft just announced that Windows Phone Marketplace is now home to 40,000 apps, it's still an extremely small pile to pick from when you stack it up next to the iPhone's 500,000 apps and Android's 300,000. Pity, all I ended up playing on the Lumia 800 was mostly — you guessed it — Angry Birds.

Diving deeper still, I thought the "Peoples" hub — combines your contacts and "friends" from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn into one place — was a stroke of genius at first until I realized it was adding every single person I had in all my social networks into my contacts. Microsoft thinks it's handy to have all the networks concentrated in one place, but I just found it to be overkill. I discovered I like to keep my real Facebook friends separate from the celebs I follow on Twitter and professionals on my LinkedIn account. I recall one Microsoft rep at a recent holiday showcase event saying it was "so cool" to have Justin Bieber and Kanye West in his list of contacts. I just found all my Internet friends to bloat up my hub. You can pick and choose what networks you cull from to try and keep it tidy, but it would have been even better if Microsoft included separate hubs that let you manage several Twitter accounts all together, or several FB profiles in another hub, and so on, but alas, it's not a feature.

I don't even want to go into how many app icons are practically indecipherable, how bothersome scrolling becomes after you start pinning everything to the homescreen (why not include additional homescreens, or folders for apps?) and why there isn't even a front-facing webcam for camera whoring Skyping with my dear grandma. Last I checked, Microsoft owns Skype. The company should be slapping it on major product it pushes.

DOA In 2012?

The Lumia 800 that we tested was the European model and it's been available there for a few weeks. Nokia hasn't officially announced any North American carriers (we popped in an AT&T micro SIM card) for the Lumia 800, but it's widely rumored that AT&T will be the first to get the smartphone and with 4G LTE to boot in 2012.

From a hardware standpoint, the Lumia 800 is one well-crafted smartphone and easily one of the best for its size. From a software view, the Lumia 800 can't compete with what's happening on Android (Ice Cream Sandwich is going to be a bang) or iOS 5.

I want Windows Phone 7 to be the little train that could (and to love it as much as these girls do). I want it to give Android and iOS a run for their money. I genuinely believe Microsoft's evolution on its mobile OS is completely outward in thinking, but when even Samsung's own Bada OS (anybody even have a smartphone with this?) manages to out-ship WP7, things look grim for Steve Ballmer's team.

Nokia faces a huge uphill battle to really break into the American market. The Lumia 800 would be great smartphone to release as a flagship device to woo us smartphone-loving Americans, if only it wasn't coming late to the party — again.

By the time 2012 rolls around, Android 4.0 ICS will be on a boatload of devices, the next iPhone will probably be making the rounds and BlackBerry's own BBX-powered BlackBerries will be working on reinventing RIM's business. So where will Nokia and WP7 fit in? Nobody likes to wait for the latecomer. In this case, nobody's going to wait for the Lumia 800 to arrive next year. It needed to be released this year in the U.S. and Nokia gave up what I think is the only fighting chance the Lumia 800 had.

Via Nokia Lumia 800

All photos for DVICE by Raymond Wong.

For the latest tech stories, follow DVICE on Twitter
at @dvice or find us on Facebook