Why Nokia’s Windows Phones Are Better Than Good Enough

Why Nokia’s Windows Phones Are Better Than Good Enough

Nokia just announced two gosh darn attractive Windows Phone handsets. The first “true” Windows Phones, the company says — and makes a pretty convincing case that they are. But rather than making everyone hot and bothered, Lumia seems to be leaving people cold. Here’s why that’s wrong.

There’s not much disagreement that the Lumia 800’s got looks; the collective shrug seems to be rooted deep in the spec sheet. So let’s walk that down.

First off, Fearless Leader Joe Brown, who’s got boots on the ground in London today, reports that the Lumia 800 is fast. Joe currently uses the Samsung Focus — the best Windows Phone out there right now — and used the iPhone 4 for a stretch, too. He knows fast from fast. So if you were looking for first-hand assurances, there you go. His full, favourable hands-on impressions are here.

Still not sold? OK, let’s take it strictly by the numbers: 1.4GHz single core Snapdragon processor (yawn); 512MB RAM (double yawn); only 16GB of storage (bleargh); not a “Super” AMOLED screen (uhh… yeah that probably sucks!). To listen to some of the noise out there, each and every of these supposed half-arseries should be enough to sink a modern day mobile telephone before it even launches. But here, for these phones and on this platform, they don’t matter very much at all.

Let’s talk RAM. (It’s always the RAM.) Look, folks, a lot of RAM is nice, but it’s an unnecessary luxury on phones, especially Windows Phones. The iPhone 4S gets by just fine with its own 512MB of RAM, and while Android’s top-tier handsets mostly come with 1GB, that’s not really analogous to Windows Phone. The latter doesn’t support full-on background multitasking, for one. Mango lets apps run in the background, but in a suspended state, with APIs running for doing things like playing music and transferring files. When you switch back to the app, it “rehydrates” itself, but apps aren’t truly running parallel in the OS, like they do on Android. WP also limits the amount of memory that an active app can use, so even if a handset were loaded with bonus RAM, it wouldn’t matter. And with Microsoft’s battle against fragmentation being what it is, it’s doubtful that any manufacturer would get the green light to prove different.

For similar reasons, this “just a single core” processor business is bunk: frankly, there’s not all that much that Windows Phone does right now that a dual core chip would help. Graphics would see some gains, yes. But Windows Phone devs are working for the whole ecosystem, and that ecosystem is single core. But beyond that, consider battery life. A phone that lasts for days has always been one of Nokia’s most endearing/enduring qualities; the company will almost definitely squeeze a full day out of the Lumia 800’s middle-of-the-road 1450mAh. With a dual core chip? No chance.

Sticking with single core chips is Microsoft’s decision, not Nokia’s, but it’s the right one. Take the iPhone 4S, which runs on the dual core A5 but was blasted for not including a 4G radio. Its battery life has taken a hit compared to the iPhone 4, enough to be noticeably frustrating. For the marginal gains that dual core can bring to Windows Phone, it wouldn’t nearly be worth it.

As for the screen, no, it’s not “retina” or “Super” AMOLED. Just ClearBlack, if you need an adjective to rest your head on. It runs the Windows Phone standard 800×480 resolution, which sounds tired by now, but like Arya Stark might tell you, numbers aren’t as important as what you can see with your eyes. The screen looks noticeably better than the Focus’s in person, and heaps ahead of lesser WP handsets. Again, Microsoft isn’t going to let anyone fly out ahead of the pack with a crazy resolution that would have to be designed for specifically. It wants a uniform platform. But if the new screen’s better than the current best-and-actually-damn-good WP screen — and in-person side-by-side says it is — then I think we give it the benefit of the doubt.

According to our hands on, the camera sparkles, the phone feels great in hand and pocket alike. It’s enjoyable to have and to use. All the intangibles seem, at least at first blush, pretty darn wonderful.

The one legitimate gripe you could have is lack of storage; if you’re not going to go 32GB, a uSD card slot is kind of requisite at this point. But 25GB of free SkyDrive space certainly helps mitigate that, unless you’re a heavy A train commuter.

So the performance certainly seems to surpass the specs. But Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak also told us that it’s going to be very aggressive with pricing in the US, which is a hugely important bit that’s easy to overlook. We knew that Windows Phones were going to get cheaper to make, but this is confirmation. Android’s flagship Galaxy Nexus, starts at $US300. By contrast, “aggressive pricing” would almost definitely imply a sub-$200 price point. Maybe $US150, maybe $US100. And while that’s not the biggest of deals over the course of a two-year contract, it targets one of the biggest growth markets: the I’m-not-sure-if-I-want-a-smartphone crowd. WP’s already the (non-Apple) mobile OS that you’d probably want to point your parents to, and if its flagship handsets are the ones that make the most sense to their wallets, too, it could end up being the spark the platform needs.

What could make all of this moot? Timing. An “early 2012” US launch is, well, hugely disappointing. It’s not just that it’s going to miss the holiday season (kind of a big deal), but it’s ceding precious months to the ever-churning iPhone and Android flagship cycles. If you’re Nokia or Microsoft, the last thing you want is to delay the release of these phones long enough for people to say, “Well, those are nice, but I think I can just wait for the next iPhone to come out.” If that happens, you’ve lost. Especially with the flak the specs are taking. And especially especially if, as Nokia has implied, the US launch comes staggered across carriers.

Look, I get why these phones were met with a resounding “meh”. But any real assessment of Microsoft’s platform means looking beyond the spec sheet. Windows Phone represents something refreshing in tech: It’s a disengagement from the specs and apps race. Yes, it needs to be competitive in those areas — and “competitive” is about the most accurate description for the Lumia phones — but it’s more overtly about user experience than how its phones stack up on a spreadsheet. The Lumia 800 is the first realisation of that philosophy in a piece of hardware that you could legitimately hold up and say, “This. I would rather have this than an iPhone.” And that’s pretty damn great.