The Lumia 900 is not a specced-out superphone for the early adopters. The dominating forces in the mobile hardware race — Apple, HTC, Motorola, Samsung — have got that area covered, with beefy handsets offering the fastest processors, the highest resolutions and all the other things that matter to the top echelon of consumers.
Microsoft and Nokia have decided (wisely, one could argue), to focus their Windows Phone endeavors on a different audience — the booming ranks of first-time smartphone buyers just entering the market, and the millions of us looking for a solid smartphone at a budget-friendly price.
Whether or not the duo’s strategic move pays off is still a big question. I wouldn’t doubt that every exec at Nokia and everyone in Microsoft’s mobile division are sitting at their desks right now, biting their nails as reviews and order numbers roll in. Windows Phone needs a hit — a big hit — in the U.S. if it’s ever going to crawl out of the dismal “other” category of smartphone market-share charts.
The good news is that the Lumia 900 may just be the phone to turn things around. It’s a beautiful phone with a big screen that runs on AT&T’s fast 4G LTE network. It has a lively, user-friendly operating system. And it’s only $100 with a 2-year AT&T contract, a price that betters other flagship handsets by at least half.
All curves and polish, the 900 has plenty of curb appeal. This isn’t a phone for someone who wants to blend into the crowd, at least in the eye-popping cyan hue of our test unit (it also comes in black and white). The 900 shares the same bold polycarbonate shell as its smaller cousin the Lumia 800, but in a larger 4.3-inch package. My only design quibble is the flat raised screen of the 900 isn’t quite as elegant as the slightly rounded glass on the 800.
On the top of the device is a headphone jack and microUSB port — Nokia has ditched the 800’s bothersome mechanical flap that covered the charging port. Along one side of the device is a silver volume rocker, power button and camera shutter, and a speaker grate hides out along the bottom of the device.
The bright 800×480 AMOLED screen isn’t as pixel-packed as a Retina display or one of Samsung’s stunners. The only time the Nokia 900’s resolution really showed its weakness was in watching streaming video. Although videos are watchable, colors are visibly blocky and details aren’t crisp — it’s definitely not HD-quality.
The 8-megapixel camera (topped by a Carl Zeiss lens) on the rear of the device takes pretty great shots in bright light, on par with similarly specced shooters we’ve reviewed. Performance in low light, however, was less admirable. Shooting pictures in mixed light or in twilight without the dual LED flash caused a large amount of striated noise to show up in the pictures.
Since both iOS and Android have photo apps filled with filters in their app stores (and since both now have Instagram), the lack of built-in filter offerings on the handset is a noticeable weakness. The camera app does, however, offer a number of customizable settings, including night mode and sports mode (and other scene settings), as well as adjustable exposure, white balance and ISO.
But my dissatisfaction with the software experience largely ends with the camera. I’ve never handled a Windows Phone Mango device that wasn’t pleasantly zippy and responsive, and the Lumia 900 is no exception. The phone’s 1.4GHz processor keeps games and videos humming, and the system doesn’t seem to be slowed by multi-tasking apps. For those unfamiliar with the OS, it’s extraordinarily polished, with subtle animations at every turn: things like text folding into or away from the screen when you tap a link or navigate to different feature, or a springy physicality when you flick to the end of the app listing.