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Review: Nokia's first Windows Phone shows promise

Mark Milian, CNN
The Lumia 800 is Nokia's first Windows Phone, which comes after the major partnership with Microsoft.
The Lumia 800 is Nokia's first Windows Phone, which comes after the major partnership with Microsoft.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lumia 800 set to be released in the U.K. on Wednesday
  • Phone features an 8-megapixel lens that shoots nice-looking pictures
  • Few apps are available and they tend to go stale because of developers' neglect
  • This phone from Nokia won't be the savior for Microsoft's slow-growing smartphone platform

(CNN) -- The love affair between Microsoft and Nokia that has transpired over the last year has finally born fruit.

The Lumia 800, Nokia's first smartphone that runs Windows Phone 7, is set to hit some retail chains in the U.K. on Wednesday.

Nokia says the Lumia 800 and the Lumia 710, which is the lower-end version, will arrive in other European countries this month and in parts of Asia by the end of the year. They won't come to the United States until early next year, the company says.

After testing the Lumia 800 for a week, I have been impressed by some aspects and confused by others. For example, I like the bold hardware design, but I don't understand why I have to choose between two apps for music, two for downloading more apps and three for maps.

Fact Box
Gadget Review: Nokia Lumia 800

Features: Windows Phone 7 software, exclusive Nokia apps, 8-megapixel camera, 16 GB of memory

Price: 399 British pounds

Our Verdict: A solid smartphone and standout Windows phone, but it's not the savior some were hoping for

Microsoft and Nokia seemed well matched when the partnership was formally announced to much fanfare in February. The software giant's Windows Phone platform is well made but has attracted little attention from phone manufacturers, app developers or customers.

Nokia builds exquisite hardware, but its existing lineup of smartphones relied on an outmoded operating system called Symbian. The company is still the world's largest maker of mobile phones by volume, but it has very little presence in the United States or in the minds of early adopters. Nokia sees the Lumia 800 as a chance to change that.

The phone is quite solidly built. The rounded, unibody exterior, which is topped with a 3.7-inch touchscreen, is attractive and comfortable to hold. The polycarbonate material looks and feels somewhere in between plastic and metal. It is not slippery. The version I have been testing has a dark gray finish, which resembles a granite stone.

Nokia has invested a great deal of resources into the cameras built into its phones through a partnership with German optics maker Carl Zeiss. The Lumia 800 has an 8-megapixel lens that shoots nice-looking pictures and a separate button for taking pictures that gives the feel of a standalone digital camera. The pair of small flashes together produce plenty of light for nighttime shots. Some photos have red eye, but with one button press, the software can fix most issues automatically.

Its battery can last a full day, but the battery pack cannot be removed or replaced. Phone calls are clear, but the speakerphone is dinky. On calls, the mono speaker at maximum volume is not loud enough. For some reason, the volume can go higher when playing music through the built-in speaker. However, the sound quality, like on most phones, is low.

The Lumia 800 has a fine-tuned 8-megapixel digital camera with a bright flash.
The Lumia 800 has a fine-tuned 8-megapixel digital camera with a bright flash.

The Lumia 800 can replace an iPod thanks to the Zune function built into Windows Phone. The device has 16 gigabytes of storage, which cannot be expanded with a memory card like in other phones. The phone comes with black earbuds similar in quality to the ones included with iPods.

Connecting the phone to a Windows computer in order to transfer songs or photos is a straightforward process. On a Mac, Microsoft has successfully mimicked the iTunes device-management software in its own app.

However, once my music was loaded and I was ready to listen on the go, confusion set in. Do I open the Zune Music + Video app or Nokia Music? As it turns out, either will do the trick. The former has more robust options for browsing and buying music, but the latter has a handy list of local concerts. A Nokia spokeswoman said more features will be added this week to its music app, including a radio function.

A similar scenario comes up when trying to browse apps. The phone has an icon called App Highlights, which is managed by Nokia, and another called Marketplace from Microsoft. They both appear to fish from the same pool of apps. I suspect each company maintains its own storefront for business reasons because, as CNN reported, Microsoft and Nokia have been offering various incentives to woo developers to the Windows Phone platform, such as promotion on the store pages.

The same sort of functional overlap occurs with the Maps and Nokia Maps options. Nokia's app, which carries a "beta" tag meaning it's unfinished, looks more like Google Maps, except it's not. The Maps app uses Microsoft's Bing Maps technology. The two apps are not significantly different.

Then there is Nokia Drive, a GPS navigator that requires a hefty 1.7-gigabyte download that occupies about one-eighth of the phone's total storage capacity. A GPS companion is a welcome option. However, Drive makes it difficult to input locations, and it's not integrated with either of the other map programs.

Nokia is only able to offer these unusual utilities because of its special partnership agreement with Microsoft. Other Windows Phone makers do not have that luxury. From a user's perspective, it's obvious why Microsoft has not allowed most companies to do so; it gets confusing.

The Lumia 800 is not drastically different from other Windows phones, meaning it has well-designed software but few apps.
The Lumia 800 is not drastically different from other Windows phones, meaning it has well-designed software but few apps.

However, like with every Windows phone, the tiles on the home screen can be rearranged, and the Nokia apps can be ignored. The Lumia 800 benefits from all of the things that make Windows Phone an operating system that's pleasant to use. Apps are organized by function rather than by service provider, meaning Facebook and Twitter status updates are contained within a single section called People. Features are interwoven seamlessly between the various programs. For gamers, the Xbox Live integration is fantastic.

On the flip side, the Lumia 800 suffers from many of the same problems that have stunted Windows Phone adoption. Relatively few apps are available. This has improved in the last year, but glaring omissions remain. Worse, developers tend to forget about their Windows Phone software once they do put a version out, and so the apps go stale while ones on other mobile platforms get new features.

People drooling over fancy iPhone features like the Siri voice-assist technology or FaceTime video chat won't find solace in the Lumia 800. It has a Bing voice search feature that is similar to Android in its limits. Dictation, searching the Web and calling contacts is about all I can do using the voice function. As for video chat, the Lumia 800 does not have a camera on the front.

Among the available Windows phones, the Lumia 800 stands out. Nokia is an industry juggernaut and has pledged to continue rolling out new software to customers, which may be worth downloading despite the lackluster first batch. However, the Lumia 800 alone is not, as some had suspected, the savior for Microsoft's slow-growing smartphone platform.

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