Nokia Lumia 800

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012 at 10:01

You’ve probably seen the ads: Nokia released the Lumia 800 in Belgium this month. The Lumia has been called the best Windows Phone so far and the OS has received a lot of praise as well. Many of the UI mechanisms used Windows Phone will be present in the upcoming Windows 8. Naturally, as an interface designer wanting to stay on top of my game, I was curious.

I contacted Nokia and they sent me a Lumia to test (Thanks Nokia!). Unboxing the Lumia you’ll find a plastic cover similar to the iPhone’s bumper case, headphones and a power charger. Shipping a case by default is a sensible idea to me and it pleasantly surprised me.

After a couple of hours I already knew this device was going to be used way more than my Android phone (which I put in the closet after a couple of hours of disappointment). The UI direction is lovely and consistent: it’s fast, typing and keyboard accuracy is good and the hardware is beautiful. The device is clearly built with care and quality. It also feels very light, which is a plus for something you carry around and handle all day long.

Metro UI and interaction design

The Metro UI works very well and the minimal look is refreshing compared to the ‘gradient candy land’ that is iOS. The main font used everywhere (Segoe WP — the WP stands for Windows Phone) is a pleasure to ones eyes. I would love to show you screenshots but unfortunately Windows Phone does not offer a way to do this.

You can switch color schemes to your liking: there’s an option for a light or dark background and you can change the accent color (this mostly changes the color of the tiles on your home screen).

I personally prefer a dark background, especially because it blends in well with the black device. The black is very “black”, if that makes any sense. Nokia calls it “Clear Black” but it’s really just the same AMOLED tech that you’ll find in some Android phones too.

It may sound like a minor detail but the default wallpapers are very stylish pictures, which I liked more than the iPhone’s defaults. Props to the photography department!

Jon Gold notes:

Microsoft’s new visual language – is absolutely breathtaking. Metro makes almost all apps look fantastic, not just those by A-list developers.

I largely agree with this sentiment. But even A-listers can get it wrong. The FourSquare app is pretty ugly (screenshots here) proving that it’s also possible to misunderstand the UI completely. Interestingly enough if I look at screenshots of the first iteration of this app, things look much better.

Metro largely depends on spacing, font sizes and a solid app hierarchy. A lot of the 3rd party apps I downloaded were every bit as bad as most Android apps. The default apps get it right though and are a leading example every WP7 app designer should try to emulate.

I’d like to make a statement here saying that it’s way more important to make your app fit into the OS than making it look the same across all platforms. Nota that I’m talking about productivity apps here: a game like Angry Birds can look the same across platforms since the interactions don’t tie deeply into the OS.

The basic interaction design and screen flow is great, but when digging deeper and doing harder things it becomes clear Metro is not quite there yet.

There are tiny interaction problems that make a huge difference in practice. For example, tapping is not as accurate as on the iPhone: let’s say you want to hit a link in the Twitter app. Instead of going straight to the browser (like on the iPhone) sometimes nothing happens. I don’t think it’s a hardware problem but more of a software design problem. The tappable areas are sometimes just too small.

The UI for rearranging tiles is an exercise in frustration. I already hate rearranging apps on the iPhone (and I’m glad you can do that in iTunes instead); but because the multi touch interactions are just a tiny bit “off”, it becomes extremely frustrating if you’re forced to keep doing what you actually didn’t want to do, over and over again.

At the bottom of most applications you’ll find a row of icons. Just icons, no labels. For the obvious actions (+ for add for example) this is no problem but as I noted before not every action can have a clear icon, or an icon can have multiple meanings. For those interested, there’s a whole section on icons from slide 152 on in my Design for Developers presentation.

Comparing speed and task completion the iPhone wins hands down. e.g. for example, in the Twitter app the tweet detail screen does not have a ‘favorite’ option. The animations between every screens, albeit nice, make interactions slower. Main interactions are often hidden behind a “more” menu even though there is sufficient screen space to display them. In a lot of ways these apps feel like a v1 and I bet Twitter and Facebook are giving their iPhone apps more love and development time.

In the meantime iOS and Android development continues. There’s a point to be made that iOS and Android as a platform are one year, if not more, ahead of the competition.

Hardware

About the hardware then. I’ve already talked about the screen – obviously it’s not a retina display. If you look closely the the pixels are obvious.

There are 3 hardware buttons on the front: back, Windows (= apps) and search. The back button is a big win: it liberates you from thinking in terms of apps, it just simply goes back. If that means switching apps for that, it just does.

The middle button takes you to your list of apps, very similar to the home screen button in iOS and thus very natural to me.

The third hardware button is a search option, which uses Microsoft’s Bing search by default. This is a huge problem to me: Bing’s search results are crap compared to Google’s. For example, Bing is very bad at context: if I’m in Antwerp and I search for “These Days” in the maps application I want the advertising company, not the lyrics to the Joy Division song. Google handles these kinds of things perfectly.

It would be awesome if you could remap the search button to a Google app but considering the Nokia-Microsoft deal I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Bing accepts speech input but it doesn’t work very well. Wolf’s Little Store was parsed as Wolf’s Liquor Store. To be fair the iPhone didn’t understand me either so maybe I should take some English dictation lessons (Siri does a good job at most input but not people or place names).

The Camera

There’s a dedicated hardware button on the right side to access the camera, which I think is a great decision. iOS’s “fast” way to get to the camera is not fast to me at all (double click the home button on the lock screen and then click the camera icon).

The camera itself is pretty good, but not great. The lens is a Carl Zeiss Tessar lens opening up to f/2.2. It’s very comparable to the iPhone 4 camera in terms of image quality. One thing to note: the white balance is seriously off sometimes in low light situations. I am spoiled here coming from an iPhone 4S of which the camera is mind blowing for a phone.

Photography nuts will be happy with settings for white balance, ISO, metering mode, exposure compensation and more. I feel this is a bit of an overkill for a phone; if you care about these settings you take pictures with a camera.

I didn’t try any video recording but apparently the camera records 720p video. There is no front facing camera but I don’t mind, I almost never used it on the iPhone. There are some WP7 phones out there that do have a front facing camera like the HTC Titan and Radar.

Default apps and commonly used functionality (calendar, phone, maps)

The calendar app looked great and I wanted to display my 4 calendars (home, work, birthdays, meetings) in the app. Turns out that by default only 1 calendar can be shown. The problem is supposedly at Google’s end and after a bit work I found an intricate solution which involved changing user agents and then changing settings to calendars on some obscure Google page somewhere. Not quite what you expect as the user.

On the home screen, you see tiles to launch app. Microsoft calls these “Live tiles”: some of them contain a bit of information e.g. the calendar tile displays up your next appointment, which I liked, especially when compared to the static iOS home screen.

I didn’t try the maps application yet. Because of the battery life problem (see later in this review) I mostly carried two phones, and I relied on the iPhone for Google Maps. The map application uses Bing Maps; one review I read about the Lumia states that it was frustrating that Bing Maps doesn’t always show every street at detail level, making it hard to find a specific place.

Bundled software

The Lumia comes with Nokia specific software. One of the bundled apps is Nokia Drive. It’s a GPS application, kind of like Android shipping with a Google maps with step-by-step directions. I like the idea of a bundled GPS app. I never dared to try the rather expensive TomTom iPhone app (currently €59,99 in the store). I talked about this before, no demo’s in the marketplace is bad for users, and is one of the biggest app store problems to me (especially when we talk about €100-€1000 software). Worth noting is that the Windows app marketplace does have a demo option for most apps.

I already own a dedicated TomTom GPS unit and just got my driver’s license so I didn’t really try Nokia Drive. It looked pretty solid but don’t take my word for it. In the initial setup the app asks you which country you want to download maps for and which voice you want (e.g. Dutch – Female). There’s a plethora of options.
There’s another app called Local Scout: it’s supposed to find restaurants and nearby highlights but it didn’t show any results for Antwerp. Bummer.

The marketplace: apps, apps, apps

I wanted to test the marketplace so I went looking for some games to download. There’s not a lot of games in store besides some major ones (e.g. Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja). There are some specific Microsoft games like Kinectimals. The first time I tried to download a game I got a weird error code. Parts of the marketplace are inexplicably in French even though I told the UI to be English. In a lot of ways “app shopping” on WP7 reminds me of app shopping on Android: walking through a store feeling disoriented while trying to find some hidden gems.

It’s as if every game I tried to download wasn’t available in my region… Why list them at all then? There are more oddities in the marketplace: an app named Facebook that is not the official client and lots of crap with shitty icons. Very reminiscent of the Android marketplace. iOS has a lot of crap on the market too, but generally the top lists of a category indicates a certain quality.

Kinectimals is a good demo to show off that the Lumia can do some cool 3D graphics. The last Nokia phone I used before this was the N95 and then before the N-gage. The graphics are a big step up. Unfortunately there are no games to actually enjoy those.

There is no built in timer app. This puzzled me when I was cooking rice. Siri is easy for this: just yell “set the timer for ten minutes” (that is the only usage I get out of Siri, I would recommend to people looking to buy an iPhone to get an iPhone 4 unless the camera is important to you).

The lack of apps is a problem. If you’re an iPhone user some things you’re used to are missing from the default apps (e.g. a timer). If you go to the marketplace there’s lots of apps but few quality ones: only the major social networks have a good Windows Phone 7 app.

As an example of an app I missed: the Train Info app on iPhone has no equivalent, except for an unofficial app by the iRail guys. There’s a lot of app ground that isn’t covered yet: from “local” media apps (newspapers, magazines) to specific functionality (software telephony).

I miss the iOS notification center. For example it’s 3 PM on a friday now and I have received 3 SMS messages and 4 e-mails. I didn’t know about any of them until I explicitly looked in the apps. Maybe this is a way to lead a more peaceful offline life?

There is an app for syncing contacts from an iPhone (and I guess most phones) to the Lumia via Bluetooth; it worked well and saved me a lot of transferring pains. Hooray.

As an OS and especially as a platform, Windows phone is not nearly as mature as iOS. Some features are missing and the third party app market is small and doesn’t fill the feature gap.

It sounds mighty obvious but Windows Phone is probably a better experience as a Windows user, just like I can imagine having an iPhone is a better experience when you own a Mac. There’s features in Windows Phone I’ll never use that might be handy to a Windows person e.g. Office, SkyDrive and Outlook/Exchange server sync.

There is no option as far as I found for internet tethering. When I was in an internet-less situation and needed internet for work, I switched back to my iPhone. I was told it’s in the works and you have to have a developer account to enable it.

Battery life

The battery is a big point of failure. The phone gave up on me twice before midnight. One night even when I just charged it that the evening! Even on days without much usage, something seems to be draining the battery. I have learned to live with the iPhone battery life in the past (approx. 1 1/3 days) but this is pretty bad. 2/3 day to a full day is not enough. 1 day is past the “tipping point” because I charge when going to bed.

(Note: this review was written before a software update was issued that supposedly fixes a lot of the battery issues)

Verdict

The Windows Phone 7 is a platform with a lot of potential. The OS has the basics nailed. Unfortunately, feature-wise WP7 lags behind Android and iOS, both in bundled apps and third party apps. Microsoft has a strong developer community: I’m very curious how this is going to develop. They have a chicken and egg problem here, where people won’t develop for the platform if there are few phones out there running on it; and few people will buy the phones because there aren’t enough (quality) apps for it.

In a lot of ways, the Nokia Lumia 800 is an impressive hardware feat. It’s beautiful and the screen is really black. The battery life however is a big issue, and this is why I can’t recommend it.

2 comments to “Nokia Lumia 800”

  • Nice article, unfortunately I don’t have the phone to test. But i’ll be sure to check it out if I see someone using it. I personally like my HTC sensation, but always wondered how the windows phone is. Correct me if i’m wrong but from your review I had the feeling that the windows phone is a bit the same as android systems… It’s not just about the OS but how they implement it in their device. But it seems that the one you tested was a good one… shame about the default Bing search though, but it’s their product so I kind off understand why they do it (microsoft). I think that would be one of the reasons I wouldn’t want a Windows phone. Did you found any way to work around this? (apps/widgets) or is it hopeless?

  • Nice review, was thinking bout buying it for my girlfriend. Maybe better to wait a bit.

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