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

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Even though Nokia’s Lumia 800 is just one Windows Phone among many, there’s a lot of hubbub about it, and for good reason: the partnership between Nokia and Microsoft is a desperation move by both companies as they try to reclaim business lost to the iPhone and Android. For techies, this is high drama.

But that’s not the best reason to care about the Nokia Lumia 800, which I’ve been playing with a little over a week. In a smartphone market dominated by cheap plastic and uninspiring design–Apple’s iPhone excluded–Nokia’s first Windows Phone looks really, really good. And it runs software that also looks really, really good. The Lumia 800 won’t show up in the United States until next year, if at all, but this phone, if not this Microsoft-Nokia partnership, still deserves a spot on your radar.

The most interesting thing about Nokia’s Lumia 800 is its construction. This phone is neither the thinnest nor the lightest–its heftiness is actually satisfying–but it’s a striking slab anyway, carved from a single piece of polycarbonate. Frankly, the name of the material means little to me, but in the hands the Lumia 800 is soft to the touch yet solid. Both the front and back sides have gentle convex curves, forming a little pillow of high technology. At least someone besides Apple cares about cool design.

Not that it’s perfect. The volume and power buttons are squeezed too close together on the right side of the phone, so it can be tough to tell them apart without looking. Nokia also put a dedicated camera button on the same side, so it’s always underneath your fingers or palm, breaking the smooth feel of the unibody shell. And about that camera: it’s got an 8-megapixel sensor with Carl Zeiss optics, but despite the impressive name, I had trouble taking blur-free photos indoors when the flash was off.

The tech specs–3.7-inch display, 1.4 GHz single-core processor, 16 GB of storage–aren’t cutting edge compared to the iPhone and high-end Android phones, but they’re par for Windows Phones. There’s no front-facing camera, however, which is disappointing given that Microsoft will eventually build Skype into the Windows Phone software.¬†Besides the camera issues and my design quibbles, the Lumia 800 hardware is adequate for showing off Microsoft’s flashy mobile software.

Windows Phone 7.5, codenamed Mango, is a stylish OS, whose touch responsiveness and animations are more fluid than any Android phone I’ve seen, and on par with the iPhone. And it’s a fun operating system, with “Live Tiles” that bubble all sorts of information to the home screen. Got a group of best buds? Throw them together in the People app, and the home screen will show you glimpses of what they’re doing on Facebook and Twitter. Got an album you want to listen to in Rhapsody? Pin it to the home screen for easy access later. Picking up someone at the airport? Create a live tile in Flight Monitor to check the status at a glance. It’s funny that Microsoft once advertised this OS as “the phone to save us from our phones,” because once you call up the home screen, you’ll get sucked in.

Start playing around, though, and you’ll find some cracks in Microsoft’s beautiful facade. Some apps froze up or stuttered on occasion; Gmail sometimes took a long time to load messages; games that run smoothly on other operating systems, such as Fruit Ninja, are throttled down to 30 frames per second. (UPDATE: Mango allows games to run at 60 frames per second, but not all developers have taken advantage yet.) The mobile version of Internet Explorer is zippy, but it desperately needs a faster way to switch tabs and access bookmarks. I want folders on the home screen, too. Although the Mango update added crucial features like multitasking and custom ringtones, the fundamentals still need some work.

Nokia’s loaded the phone with some of its own software, the most valuable of which is Nokia Drive, an app for voice-guided, turn-by-turn directions. Although other Windows Phones also have navigation, they require you to tap the screen at every step, making for a potentially dangerous distraction. Nokia Drive, however, is a worthy adversary to the navigation built into Android phones. There’s also a mapping app, which is redundant next to Microsoft’s Bing Maps, and a music app that plays your songs, shows nearby concerts and streams Internet radio.

Nokia will launch the Lumia 800 this week in¬†France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom. The company’s official line is that it’ll launch “a portfolio of products” in the United States next year, but I’ll be shocked if the Lumia 800 isn’t one of them, simply because Nokia’s PR people sent me one for review. Or maybe they sent it just to prove that the Microsoft-Nokia partnership will bring good things, to Europe for now and eventually stateside. If that’s the case, I believe it.