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Tech Lab

Nokia, Microsoft’s Lumia 900 gets it right

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / April 5, 2012
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The new Lumia 900 from Finland’s Nokia Corp. might just be the ultimate Windows smartphone. Unfortunately, the word “ultimate’’ can mean either the best of its kind, or the last - or both.

It is definitely the best phone running Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Phone 7 software. The sleek, high-performance Lumia is a worthy rival to the more costly iPhone from Apple Inc. and the horde of high-end phones running Google Inc.’s Android software. But Nokia, the world’s leading cellphone maker, surrendered the US market years ago. And Microsoft, which started making smartphones in the 1990s, now has only 2 percent of the market. So this may also be the last chance at a comeback for both companies.

The Lumia 900 is a major upgrade from the Lumia 710, a January release developed through an alliance struck last year by Nokia and Microsoft. The idea was to roll out a new generation of phones running Windows software, and the 710 delivered solid performance at an entry-level price of $49.95 from T-Mobile USA.

When you’re as far behind as Nokia and Microsoft, you can’t charge premium prices, even when you’ve got a premium product. Exclusive US carrier AT&T Inc. is charging only $99.99 for the Lumia 900 (with a two-year contract), or $49.99 for New England residents. Amazon.com will also charge $49.99 to new AT&T customers.

The Lumia 900 is certainly better than its bargain price would indicate. Its sleek, polycarbonate plastic body feels as solid as an iPhone 4S, but with rounded corners that make it friendlier to the hands. The touchscreen isn’t as sharp, but it’s made with OLED technology, so colors are rich and deep. And unlike the iPhone, it supports AT&T’s high-speed 4G LTE wireless data networking, the only 4G cellular service worthy of the name.

AT&T hasn’t deployed LTE service in as many places as rival Verizon Wireless, but we’ve got it here in Boston. Download speeds were all over the map during my tests of the Lumia 900 - as low as 6 megabits per second, as high as 12. Either way, a lot better than the 3G technology found on the iPhone.

But of course, 4G service is a battery hog. With the phone fully charged, I streamed a full-length movie via Netflix; the Lumia’s battery power was below 50 percent by the time the credits rolled. But when I used a Wi-Fi hotspot for data instead of 4G, and laid off the video viewing, the Lumia easily made it through the day on one charge.

Nokia didn’t shove a dual-core processor chip into this phone, even though the top iPhone and Android phones all have them. I didn’t care; like every other Windows phone I’ve tried, it delivered quick, responsive performance.

Much of the credit is probably due to Microsoft. Its Windows Phone 7 software is snappy, easy to use, and stuffed with attractive features. There are the animated tiles with images of your favorite people that show when any of them send you a message. Or the way you can instantly send messages or upload photos to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Touch the Local Scout feature and instantly see nearby restaurants and other points of interest without having to search. Activate the Bing image search feature while shopping, point the camera at a bar code, and get instant price comparisons.

On the downside, there are only about 70,000 apps for the Windows Phone, compared with half a million for Androids and iPhones. But Nokia’s helping out with some cool free apps. One of them offers public transportation schedules for major cities all over the world, Boston included. At a glance, I could see when the next six trains would pull into the JFK/UMass Red Line station, down the street from the Globe.

Also free is a GPS-based directions app with downloadable maps of every state. That way, it keeps working even when the phone is out of 4G range.

Many missteps from Microsoft and Nokia bought them to their current plight, but the excellence of the Lumia 900 leaves no doubt that they have learned their lessons. But have they learned well enough? Ultimately, the consumers will decide.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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