Nokia Lumia 900 Review: A Solid Slab of Windows Phone

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Jared Newman for TIME

Nokia’s Lumia 900 has the makings of the ultimate tech comeback story: A once-proud mobile phone maker makes a desperate pact with Microsoft, which despite its own juggernaut status in the PC market is similarly downtrodden when it comes to smartphones. The pair find a willing wireless carrier in AT&T, and together, they spend a fortune–$100 million, by one estimate–to market what is supposed to be the first Windows Phone in the United States worth caring about.

Mind you, the Lumia 900 is not the first Windows Phone, nor is it Nokia’s first. But in the United States, the Lumia 900 will be the biggest Windows Phone launch to date when it hits AT&T on April 8 for $100. It’ll also be the first Windows Phone by Nokia to include 4G LTE data speeds. Seeing as Nokia’s Lumia 800 is not available at subsidized prices stateside, the Lumia 900 is the best Windows Phone you can buy.

(MORE: Nokia’s Lumia 800 Windows Phone: Why You Should Care)

On paper, the Lumia 900 doesn’t offer anything that the smartphone market hasn’t seen before. Its 4.3-inch AMOLED display is bold and crisp even in bright sunlight, though it lacks the pixel density of the iPhone or of 720p-resolution Android handsets. Its 1.4 GHz processor consists of but a single processing core, though you’re not likely to encounter any major performance setbacks. In other words, the Lumia 900 comes up average in a game of specs.

But as Windows Phone fans are no doubt saying in their heads right now, specs aren’t everything. What sets the Lumia 900 apart from most other phones is its design. I’ve waxed poetic about Nokia’s design chops before, but it’s worth repeating that the Lumia 900’s look and feel is a cut above that of its competitors.

The phone’s outer material is polycarbonate, a type of plastic that feels more durable than the cheap casing of too many other phones. Aside from a few cut-outs for buttons, jacks and ports, the shell is a single slab that wraps all the way around the phone until it meets the display panel. If you don’t care for the cyan model pictured here, black and white models will be available, but personally, I dig it. In a way, the shade of blue screams Finland, where Nokia is headquartered.

Ignorance might have been bliss if Nokia hadn’t sent me a Lumia 800 for review several months ago. Unlike the 800, which never launched with a U.S. carrier, the newer Lumia has a larger display, a front-facing camera and 4G LTE support, but its design suffers from the additions. It’s heavier, chunkier and therefore more unwieldy than the Lumia 800. I often found myself grasping near the bottom of the device for easier one-handed use, but in doing so would feel the phone’s sharp corner digging into my palm. The Lumia 900 also lacks the convex glass of its predecessor, which added some extra pop to the display. I still like the design, especially for its looks. It’s just not the triumph that the Lumia 800 was.

Ultimately, though, Nokia plays a bit part in this comeback story. This is still Microsoft’s show, with the Lumia 900 running Windows Phone 7.5. If you’re sick of Android’s lack of polish, but don’t care for the iPhone’s one-size-fits-all hardware, Windows Phone is worth considering. It’s a smooth operating system with some clever ideas, like the “People” app that groups all your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn buddies in one place, or the “Live Tiles” that can show weather info, calendar snippets and photo thumbnails directly on the home screen. More than either of its rivals, Windows Phone is fun.

Yet it also drives me crazy sometimes. Bing is your only choice for search in the Windows Phone browser, so if you don’t like it, too bad. The browser can also be cumbersome, requiring three distinct taps to switch between tabs and dumping you into a separate Bing app when you want to search the web. For some reason, extremely long Gmail conversation threads drive the phone’s Mail app into fits, often causing it to crash. And of course, Windows Phone doesn’t have nearly as many apps as the iPhone or Android. No Instagram, no TweetDeck, no Temple Run, no MLB At Bat.

On the bright side, Windows Phone’s bloatware situation isn’t nearly as offensive as it is on Android devices. Although AT&T loads up the Lumia 900 with a bunch of worthless apps, such as its subscription radio and navigation services, you can delete all of them. Meanwhile, Nokia’s own apps are relegated to a special section of the Windows Phone Marketplace, but some of them are worth getting. The free Nokia Drive app is a must-have, providing voice-guided, turn-by-turn directions that are better than those of Microsoft’s own navigation software.

A couple other notes about the hardware: I didn’t do extensive battery testing on the Lumia 900, but after a day of moderate use that included a few hours in New York on AT&T’s LTE network, I still had about half my battery left. With lighter use off the LTE network, the phone breezed through two days before needing charged. Unfortunately, you can’t turn off LTE in the phone’s settings, so you’ll risk losing battery life faster in those coverage areas.

As for the phone’s 8-megapixel camera with Zeiss lens, too often it shot blurry photos in no-flash situations, especially at close range. (I had the same issue with the Lumia 800.) The camera is capable of taking pretty pictures, but the experience doesn’t live up to the Zeiss name.

Although the Lumia 800 was a better realization of the Nokia-Microsoft alliance, the Lumia 900 comes close to the mark with its striking design, and it brings some of its own perks such as a front-facing camera, LTE support, and a low price with a two-year AT&T contract. It’s the most noteworthy Windows Phone yet. As far as comebacks go, that’s a start.

(MORE: Windows Phone 7.5: Microsoft’s Overachieving Underdog)

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