Not long ago, Research In Motion was sitting pretty on the smartphone throne. Now the BlackBerry maker's ranks are thinner and RIM is refocusing on its core business customer base, while largely ceding the consumer kingdom to rivals Google and Apple.
Nokia hopes for a more favorable outcome as it competes for the affections of the U.S. smartphone buyer with the Lumia 900, which reaches AT&T and other retailers Sunday. The struggling Finnish handset maker is trying to buff its faded image. Nokia has never been much of a factor when it comes to smartphones sold in the U.S.
Its latest efforts are indelibly linked to Microsoft and the fortunes of the well-reviewed Windows Phone mobile operating system. (Devices based on the OS are not quite leaping off store shelves.)
The Lumia 900 I've tested runs Windows Phone version 7.5, or Mango. I like the hardware, and I like the operating system. Windows Phone is fresh and different from iOS and Android and offers a strong alternative to the status quo.
Windows Phone is built around a people-first interface of colorful, customizable tiles that are dynamically updated with pictures, or to show, say, the number of e-mails in your inbox. Tap the People hub tile to see folks you recently called, or to see updated posts and activities from pals or those you follow on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Windows Live, all conveniently collected in one place. You can "pin" other tiles representing people or apps to the Start screen.
Nokia, Microsoft and exclusive U.S. carrier AT&T are betting big on Lumia 900. It initially arrives in black or blue versions; two weeks later, a white model becomes available.
The launch will be backed by enormous TV and in-store marketing. And the phone's alluring $99.99 price (with the requisite two-year AT&T data plan) is a disruptive sum for a smartphone of this caliber. Pricing appears to be a critical piece of Nokia's comeback strategy. Earlier this year, it launched a cheaper entry-level smartphone, the Lumia 710, with T-Mobile for about $50. That phone is now free some places with a contract.
Nokia's flagship Lumia 900 is thin, but at 5.6 ounces, it's not the lightest. You can't expand the 16GB of internal memory, though free cloud storage is available through Microsoft's SkyDrive. Techies may decry the single-core Snapdragon processor. Rival phones sport more-powerful dual-core chips and, in a few cases, quad-core. But Lumia 900 never felt like a laggard.
The phone can tap into AT&T's zippy 4G LTE network -- said to be up to 10 times faster than 3G -- in the 31 markets where it is available. If LTE is out of reach, Lumia 900 operates off a slower flavor of 4G known as HSPA+, up to four times faster than 3G. Battery life is always a concern with 4G, but I got through a workday of mixed usage on the device's large, sealed battery.
You can use the phone as a mobile hot spot to provide wireless Internet to up to five other devices ($50 for 5GB).
The Lumia 900 has a decent 4.3-inch Amoled display. Inside is a cellphone camera system based on Carl Zeiss optics: wide-angle lens, f/2.2 aperture, and dual LED flash. It can record up to the 720p HD video standard, not the higher-quality 1080p standard on the iPhone or other devices. By pressing and holding a dedicated camera button, you can summon the 8-megapixel camera to take a picture even when the phone is locked.
As is often the case with a cellphone camera, the quality of my pictures was all over the map. You can easily upload a picture to SkyDrive or share via Twitter, Facebook, Hotmail or other services. There's also a front-facing camera -- not available on the less expensive Lumia 710 -- you can use for video chats through the Tango app.
Overall, there are about 70,000 apps available for the Lumia 900, a respectable total that still falls far short of the number for iOS or Android.
Microsoft's ecosystem is evident via tie-ins to Bing, Xbox Live, Office (create and edit Word or Excel docs from the phone; edit-only on PowerPoint) and Zune. You can buy music from the phone but not movies or TV shows. You can buy those on the PC and sync (using USB or wireless) to the phone. A mobile version of AT&T's U-verse is on board for subscribers to that video service.
Against the iPhone and Android, Nokia faces formidable competition. But with an attractive price, refreshing operating system and a growing supply of apps, Nokia may be well on the way to crafting a compelling comeback story.
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