How Nokia’s Lumia 900 Windows Phone Won CES Before It Even Started

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The 2012 Consumer Electronics Show didn’t technically kick off until Tuesday morning, but already, Nokia’s Lumia 900 has become one of the most buzzed-about products.

What’s the big deal? The Lumia 900 is Nokia’s first high-end Windows Phone for the United States, announced for AT&T on Monday. As I wrote in my review of the Nokia Lumia 800, which launched overseas late last year, Nokia’s Windows Phones stand apart from those of its competitors. The company has an eye for design, constructing the Lumia 800 and 900 from a single piece of polycarbonate — essentially plastic, but with a smooth, premium finish. These phones have a denseness that makes them feel like high-dollar items.

(MORE: Check out Techland’s coverage of the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show)

In short, Nokia’s Windows Phones exude style, and that goes a long way toward impressing tech journalists overwhelmed by dozens of aesthetically similar phones and tablets at CES.

There’s more: In mobile, Microsoft has become the beloved underdog of the tech press. Windows Phone is fun, and it’s silky smooth like an iPhone without mimicking Apple’s interface of apps and nothing else. Instead, it presents users with tiles full of updating information on the home screen, such as Facebook activity, e-mails, upcoming flight times and the weather.

(MOREAT&T’s 4G LTE Lineup: Six Android Devices and Two Windows Phones)

The problem is that Windows Phones aren’t selling. Horror stories abound of retail employees telling customers not to buy Windows Phones. But rumor has it that Nokia, Microsoft and AT&T will spend $100 million marketing the Nokia Lumia 900 (or $200 million on Nokia Windows Phones in general). The appearance of AT&T Mobility’s CEO, Ralph De La Vega, at the Lumia 900’s launch event is a good sign that the carrier is ready to give Windows Phone some love.

Nokia’s partnership with Microsoft gives tech watchers a narrative to latch onto: an underappreciated software platform paired with a beleaguered hardware company that’s trying to re-enter the U.S. market. And together they’ve created something that actually looks good. It’s the ultimate comeback story.

I’ve tried the Lumia 900, and frankly I don’t like it quite as much as its overseas predecessor, the Lumia 800. Its 4.3-inch display makes it more unwieldy, especially with the extra weight of Nokia’s build materials, and it doesn’t have the convex glass that gives the Lumia 800’s display some extra pop. Although AT&T may be excited for its 4G LTE network, it won’t matter much to consumers until it’s available in more cities, and battery drain is still an issue for all LTE phones.

But compared to the competition, who are going through the predictable motions of building slimmer phones out of cheap plastic and boosting tech specs in undetectable ways, Nokia has shown up at CES with a striking smartphone and — this is the important part for us tech journalists — a story to tell.

MORE: Highlights from Day Two of the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show