Nokia's Windows Phones: Worth the Wait?

Last week, at a rousing Nokia World conference in London, Stephen Elop and other Nokia executives revealed the handset giant's plans for Windows Phone and how it will compete with Apple and Google going forward. The event was an interesting chance to virtually meet some of the previously faceless Nokians responsible for the company's phone strategy and see, for the first time, its first-generation Windows Phone handsets.

I didn't attend Nokia World in person because of prior travel arrangements, but I didn't have to: Nokia World is available in virtual form online, including a replay of the keynote address and a handful of other videos.

In case you missed the news, Nokia announced two Windows Phone handsets, which will be marketed under the new Lumia brand. Both feature 1.4GHz processors, which are single core but significantly faster than the 1GHz processors common to Windows Phones.

The Lumia 800 is the flagship device, with a gorgeous metal form factor that's available in three colors, a 3.7-inch AMOLED "ClearBack" display, a superior 8-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, and 16GB of non-expandable storage. It's a beautiful, professional device, and the quick peek I received a few months back wasn't enough: I can't wait to get this phone.

The Lumia 710 is aimed at the middle of the market, and at consumers. It comes in a less expensive white or black plastic, but the back cover can be removed and replaced with one of several bright, colorful covers. Its internals, too, are a bit more pedestrian, with a 3.7-inch TFT screen, a 5-megapixel camera, and 8GB of non-expandable internal storage.

(For a roundup of the Lumia specifications, see my article "Nokia Lumia 800 And 710 Specs Comparison." I also have a Lumia 800 and Lumia 710 screenshot gallery.)

Nokia hasn't explicitly explained how it intends to attack the US market, which is disappointing, but both of these Lumia handsets will begin selling in Europe soon and then in other markets by the end of 2011. The Lumia 800 will cost about 420 Euros, unsubsidized, Nokia says, whereas the Lumia 710 will cost 270 Euros. Based on my understanding of the European smartphone market, this means that the high-end device will cost less than an iPhone 4S and the lower-end unit will cost significantly less. So I'm curious to see what the US prices look like.

That assumes, of course, that both devices are headed here. According to the Nokia website and press materials, it does appear that the Lumia 710 is a lock for the US. But there's no mention of the Lumia 800 anywhere. My sources tell me that a modified version of the 800 could be heading to this market, which would be interesting depending on what changes. And that's because I'm already hearing some complaints about these new devices from readers.

The first complaint concerns the lack of a front-facing camera. This strikes me as a bit of a red herring, since I don't believe many people actually perform video chats regularly on their phones, but I do see the need for Nokia's flagship device to tick all the boxes. According to the company, it simply didn't have time to add that feature to the 800 before launch, which suggests that perhaps the US version of the 800, or a future revision, will include a front-facing camera.

Others have complained about the relatively small size of the Lumia screens and the fact that neither sports expandable storage. As part of an iPhone 4S review I'm preparing, I've been comparing the screen sizes of various smartphones and find the small (3.5-inch) screen size of that device to be a bit of a problem; in my unscientific testing, it appears that 3.9 to 4 inches is the sweet spot. I'll need to use a Nokia phone before I can determine whether its size is a problem.

The memory issue is perhaps more controversial. Microsoft doesn't directly support expandable storage in Windows Phone handsets, but bowing to requests from its partners, it did allow hardware makers to build this capability into their own devices, but with the stipulation that wireless carriers would have to handle the support. Only a few first-generation Windows Phones support expandable storage, and it's been a point of concern since it only works sporadically. (I did expand the storage in my Samsung Focus and was apparently pretty lucky as it has always worked fine.)

I would be surprised if any second-gen devices supported expandable memory, so I'm not surprised the Nokia devices don't. But I am surprised that there aren't different versions of the Lumia 800 with more storage; in a world in which Apple offers a 64GB version of the iPhone 4S, surely Nokia's flagship device could be more competitive from a specification standpoint.

Hardware aside, Nokia also showed off some of the software innovations that will differentiate its handsets from those of other Windows Phone makers. (Nokia and Microsoft are separately collaborating on other Windows Phone features that will be shared with all devices, but those features will apparently show up in future Windows Phone OS updates.) There were two major apps here, Nokia Maps and Nokia Music.

What's curious about these apps, to me, is that Microsoft already includes both mapping and music apps and services in Windows Phone already. So why duplicate this functionality, even if it's better than the built-in features? It turns out that one of Microsoft biggest weaknesses – the geographical availability of many of its services – is one of Nokia's biggest strengths. So in addition to rising above the built-in functionality, these two apps will bring map and music functionality to locales in which Microsoft alone cannot.

There's more, including some new Nokia accessories, and some S40-based Asha phones for the lower end of the market. But I'm excited by what I've seen, particularly of the Lumia 800, and I'm eager for the chance to review and then potentially buy that device myself. Will the US version be more impressive? We'll see, but even in its current form, the Nokia Lumia 800 looks like a superior smartphone and a credible response to the Android and iPhone competition.

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