Nokia’s Lumia 800: the new phone for hipsters?

It doesn’t include portable WiFi, but it sure has the root-for-the-underdog cool factor

Sang Tan/AP Photo

Everybody likes to root for the underdog, which is why Microsoft and Nokia are weirdly attracting a lot of positive vibes these days. As the New York Times pointed out just before the Consumer Electronics Show started in January, Microsoft in particular was getting rave reviews for its new Windows Phones, a trend not usually associated with the storied software maker.

It’s funny that both companies are now underdogs, given that only a few years ago they were the undisputed kings of their respective realms–Microsoft in software and Nokia in phones. But in the span of only a few short years, Google and Apple largely displaced both titans and relegated them to also-ran status in the mobile world, which prompted their team-up–in large part engineered by Nokia’s chief, Canadian Stephen Elop–last year.

The fruit of that tag team, the flagship Nokia Lumia 800 smartphone, has finally come to North America via Telus. I’ve been playing with it for the past week with an eye to answering one question: is it a big deal?

First, there are the positives. If you’ve seen the new-ish Windows Phone operating system in action, you know it’s dramatically different than just about everything else out there. Rather than having several screens with grids of apps, Windows Phones have a vertical stack of square tiles. Many of the tiles, such as the “pictures” one, are live so they’re constantly updating with new information.

It’s a very cool interface that makes the phone feel like it’s living and breathing, with new stuff always going on–just like its user’s life. And because it’s so different, it’s a near certainty that Microsoft will manage to avoid the ridiculous patent wars going on between Apple and Android manufacturers over who ripped who off.

Some of the key apps are also designed to resemble the operating system itself. Facebook and Twitter, for example, are organized into columns that are accessed by swiping horizontally. Checking out your Twitter mentions or Facebook friends’ photos is thus accomplished with smooth swipes, rather than pushing an icon and waiting for a new screen to load.

The Lumia 800 itself is slick and feels good in the hand. With the black model (it also comes in cyan and magenta), it’s hard to see where the screen ends and the phone’s edge begins, which gives it a nice, polished look.

The phone also has better integration with Microsoft’s Office than any other device I’ve seen, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. You can open Word, Excel and Powerpoint files, tweak and then save them to the phone or to Microsoft’s Skydrive cloud storage. It doesn’t work flawlessly, though, with the phone having some version problems. I wasn’t able to edit Word documents saved as .doc files, for instance, with the phone preferring the newer .docx format. On the plus side, the phone’s keyboard is fast, accurate and responsive, so it works well with all those documents.

Being primarily a Mac user, I was curious about how easy it would be to transfer photos, videos and music over to the phone. It turned out to be a snap–the downloadable connector software looks and works very much like iTunes, so there’s a sense of familiarity for people in that camp. The software on the PC is also similarly easy to use.

Nokia’s flagship device, though, is lacking in some regards, particularly in some of its specifications. Its processor isn’t as fast as some of the top-of-the-line Android phones out there and it doesn’t pack as much RAM either. Admittedly, neither really makes that much of a difference in everyday use, as everything on the phone moves around swimmingly. Still, it leaves you wondering whether it will still perform well two years from now after the hardware experiences wear and tear and app developers crank up their offerings? I’d wager it won’t, but then again, with today’s accelerating tech cycles, most people will be ready for a new phone by then so the point may be moot.

There are a few things about the Lumia 800 that do bug me. The first is the camera: it’s eight megapixels, which is about standard for high-end smartphones these days, and some reviewers–like the guys over on Mobile Syrup–have found it to be pretty good. I must be snobby when it comes to phone cameras, since I’ve yet to find one besides the iPhone 4S that has even come close to impressing me. Most smartphones, the Lumia 800 included, take decent photos in ample sunlight, but beyond that they’re nowhere close to real cameras. Nokia’s device also doesn’t have a front-facing camera, so there’s no video conferencing.

Perhaps the biggest issue I had with Nokia’s device is that its WiFi sharing feature–which turns the phone into a portable hotspot–has either been disabled or is entirely missing in action. Whether Nokia, Microsoft or Telus is behind this is unknown, but for me it’s a deal breaker. I connect my laptop to my phone all the time, so if doesn’t have portable WiFi, there’s no way I’d buy it.

The Windows Marketplace app store is also behind the times. While the offerings are growing–the current number of apps is north of 40,000, according to Microsoft–navigating through the store is a bit like sorting through a dog’s breakfast. The app listings don’t include pictures, so you can’t get a sense of what they might look like before downloading them.

And needless to say, some key apps–such as Skype–are still missing. Microsoft recently made the app available as a beta version, although it needs to be installed from a computer. The fact that there still isn’t a full version even though the Windows Phone operating system is more than a year old–and that Microsoft bought Skype nearly a year ago–is a little perplexing.

So, to get back to the question at hand: is the Lumia 800 a big deal? Well, it’s clearly a step in the right direction for both Nokia and Microsoft. It shows both companies are capable of designing a sleek, handsome phone that can at least hang with the other guys. There’s still a lot of catch-up to be done, particularly in the specifications department, but Windows Phones are ironically starting to become counter-culture. Whipping one out in public might elicit derisive snorts from techno-enthusiasts, but the average Joe is more inclined to say, “Ooh, can I see?”

In other words, the Lumia 800 and other Windows Phones are so different, they could easily become the official devices of hipsters everywhere. How ironic is that?

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