Lumia 800 – my hands-on

It’s here. It’s in my hand. The reputed saviour of Windows Phone 7 as a platform. The Nokia Lumia 800.

If you hadn’t guessed, I’m a big fan of Windows Phone 7. (See the tiles on the right hand side?) I feel like I’ve been the unofficial, unrecognised and unrewarded one-man marketing department of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 on the Isle of Man due to the shocking support previously shown by our local Telco’s. Microsoft are crap at blowing their own trumpet, and it took someone like Nokia – and the precarious position they are in – to jump in and back the platform, despite the naysayers. And they have done a really good job, transforming even the idea of a black-slab Smartphone to a chiselled, striking and robust design. Now we have hardware as great looking as the operating system!

Throw away your prejudices of Microsoft’s mobile phones, and close the “technical journalists'” blogs that spout doom for Redmond’s efforts. Empty your mind, and just have a play with the phone. You might not like it, but you cannot deny it is striking and is just what the market needs.

I was practically sitting on the doorstep of Manx Telecom’s shop when Windows Phone 7.0 was launched and soon bagged myself an HTC HD7. Not having used an HTC before, I was dubious. I was also dubious of the total touch-screen interface, but the device and the operating system were a dream. But, after 18 months of heavy use (including being dropped through the TT Grandstand seating from 10 foot up onto concrete) it was time to move on. Besides, the curves on the Lumia were … curvy.

But which Lumia? 800 or 900? Get the 800 and the price would be marginally cheaper but the phone was smaller than I was used to. Get the 900 and pay full whack at launch, but then even Siri agreed it was the Best Smartphone on the market. The elephant in the room is Windows Phone 8, which is due out at the end of the year. As a developer, I “need” to get hold of one of these phones, but that would immediately cut 6-months of life off the phone I was about to buy. The seemingly endless delays to the 900 coming over due to he huge demand in the US was also causing me concern. So, I decided to go for the 800, which has had time to be bug fixed and dropped in price slightly, and redeploy it to a grateful owner in 6 months time.

Nokia Lumia 800 phonesOverall, I’m very impressed with the phone. It is sleek, damned sexy and it just wants to be held. No operating system could look as good on the device, and no other device looks as good with the operating system. It is a perfect match. A problem Microsoft may find in their [rightful] clamping down on customisations and modifications to the OS, however, is that as all phones will essentially only be differentiated by slight hardware differences or external appearance, the urge to upgrade an existing Windows Phone 7 is somewhat reduced.

In the same breath, if a user upgrades their Windows Phone 7 handset to another Windows Phone 7 handset, they should expect a very similar experience. Bar a few OEM apps and hardware modifications, there should be no difference.

Alas, not so with Nokia – and not in a good way. I left Nokia because they had made a perfectly good operating system (Symbian) into a hideous mess after taking a controlling interest in it. But making a hideous mess isn’t necessarily going to mean the death of the platform (look at Android); failing to realise what the market is crying out for will. Their phones were largely incompatible (“app” writing was often in C++, a fairly high barrier of entry that other platforms didn’t have) and the processors in the phones often performed extraordinarily poorly after a few months’ use. On the other hand, they did get one thing right which still eludes Smartphones: battery life!

Letting down Windows Phone 7

Using the Nokia Lumia 800 has been mostly a pleasurable experience, but for one thing … and this is the killer as far as a pleasurable Windows Phone 7 experience is concerned: the display has a tendency to lag. Swooshing and swiping those tiles and feeling the inertia as you hit boundaries is a fundamental part of the Metro experience. As soon as your finger disconnects from this [almost] kinetic experience, the feeling is lost. And when the screen does not work at all for touch? Well, the phone is now totally useless. This tends to happen after a day’s use, often when plugging in the power on an evening. I suspect this is to do with the synchronisation with Zune Windows Phone 7 does transparently in the background when plugged in with a known WiFi connection. But this is transparent, and should not be noticable to the user. It certainly wasn’t for the HD7. The only thing that has changed is the handset.

Reliability of the phone is also less than great. I know a three others with Lumia 800s and while they praise the phone’s look and feel and operating system, they all have similar – or worse – experiences:


After just 4 days’ use, the phone crashed. My HTC HD7 crashed once in 18 months, and even then it was with a Beta version of the “Mango” operating system – and you expect that to crash! With the HTC HD7, it’s simple, you pop the battery and you’re back up and running again. But the Lumia 800 is a sealed unit, and as such, you cannot pop the battery – or anything else for that matter. So it was straight to me HTC HD7 to look up on the internet how to reset my Lumia 800. Ah, good old black slab HTC HD7. Sexy you are not, but sometimes the most unsexy is the most reliable.

The touch-screen occasionally fails to respond. This seems to be due to a CPU issue, as it sometimes comes back to life once it has completed processing whatever it was doing. Now don’t get me wrong, Android users; this is NOT due to a single-core processor. The same operating system works flawlessly on my HTC HD7 and the HTC Trophy. It is a hardware deficiency. Now here’s the problem for Nokia: my HTC HD7 had a 1GHz processor, but the Nokia Lumia 800, has a 1.4GHz processor. Something is very wrong.

Nokia Lumia 800 phonesOverall, the phone has crashed about 6 times in the last 3 weeks. I have now turned off Wifi synchronisation when I plug in the power and the phone is a lot more reliable. So, Nokia, you broke something.

Person #2:

Equally impressed with the phone, this user was keen to take it out and road-test it by tracking his progress around his many hikes on the island. While he does have frustrations with regards the task switching – or lack of – in the navigation apps he uses, he has a largely positive experience. But then, the phone crashes. His phone has crashed a number of times, probably occurring about once a month and typically when using GPS applications.

Person #3:

Having switched from BlackBerry, this user was expecting great things from Nokia and Windows Phone 7. Initially very pleased with the device, he was keen to show it off to help me in my own buying decision. Then, the phone stopped updating his social media updates. He tried rebooting. Now the phone is completely dead and is requiring to be switched out by the operator.

So, Nokia, that is 3 out of 3 failures. Based on users I know who are succesfully using HTC, LG and Samsung devices, this is a horrendous record. I left Nokia because of their wrecking of Symbian. And now it seems they are about to take a perfectly good operating system and wreck that, too. Maybe it’s a symptom of having rushed the Lumia 800 to market. It certainly was not without teething troubles, but these were swiftly addressed through software updates.

But I need to be clear. The phone is very nice and the Lumia 900 has gone down a total storm around the world. The Nokia Drive application is brilliantly simple AND FAST. I was very pleased that Nokia jumped on board the Windows Phone 7 wagon, it was the push it needed to succeed and I’ve evangelised about both Nokia and Microsoft’s contribution since launch. More importantly, this in no way implies anything about the quality of Windows Phone 7. The beauty of having a “locked down” OS is that the experience should be the same across handsets bar minor customisations. It’s about setting expectations, and maintaining those across not only difference mobile phones, but with XBox 360 and Windows 8. Now, I feel I have been let down and I have let down those users I suggested look at Nokia and how they have received a negative impression of an awesome OS.

But if you’re still undecided, check out my  “No sexiness required” guide.

Plantronics Backbeat Bluetooth Headset

Plantronics BackBeat headphonesI’m a big fan of my HTC HD7 Windows Phone 7, and particularly of the Zune Player application on it. Unfortunately, I am not a fan of the crappy headphone set typically supplied in the box with high-value smart-phones. They’re neither use nor ornament. Previously I have been using some Sony Walkman wired headphones, which had really good reproduction of sound. Unfortunately, and inevitably, the microscopic cabling was going to fail sometime and now I have no right-ear speaker. So a replacement is in order.

I have been struggling to find a suitable set of earphones that provide good sound reproduction, with minimal sound leakage to avoid annoying my colleagues and with phone headset controls so I can answer the phone without forgetting than my headphones are masking the microphone. Surely there would be some good quality wired headphones suitable for use with the HTC HD7? Seems not. If you want all the above, it’s all iPhone. This is very frustrating and discriminatory for an open market. Understandably, there are a lot of i* devices out there, but surely there could be some compatibility struck?

I asked at XDA Developers Forum for suggestions and I was suggested to get a pair of BlueTooth headphones, specifically the Plantronics BackBeat 903+ Stereo Bluetooth Headphones. I was reluctant to try BlueTooth headphones out because my previous experience with BlueTooth (albeit v1 of the specification) was very poor and the last thing I need is yet another battery I need to remember to charge. But they came highly recommended so I gave them a try.

They paired really well with the HTC HD7, the Metro UX makes it an absolute snap. Getting the headphones on and off your head can be a little tricky as they need to fit around/through your ears for a good and secure fit. You’ll get the hang of it, over time. If you wear them for longer periods of time, however, they do start to make your ears ache. This isn’t an audio ache, more of a physical ache associated with having to bend your ears around the headphones. Maybe I’ll get used to them in time. Interestingly, they also repeat ambient noise so you still hear around you, and having just heard the phone ring while listening to music, seemingly during playback. It’s not a distraction as such, I guess it reduces the opportunity of you ignoring your colleagues. But what about the music quality?

They do block out noise (at sufficiently high volume), though have no noise cancellation. They don’t seem to leak, having had no complaints from my colleagues. The music quality is … okay. I’m not an audiophile, but I get wound up by poor quality in audio reproduction – particularly when I know the source is good. Most songs are fine on these headphones, but some songs do exhibit deficiencies. Specifically:

  • Elbow: Some Riot (3:20 in)
  • Elbow: Friend of Ours (2:16 in)
  • Take That: The Flood (1:30 in)

These were listened to on volume level 16 of 30. Not sure how high the headphones were, but I prefer high amplification in the source, low amplification in the speakers.

So while they are acceptable for most music, I do find that there are more variables in play when it comes to streaming the music than if I used wired headphones. But where was the deficiency creeping in? Was it BlueTooth bandwidth? A deficiency with the original source? Or maybe the headphone speakers were poor quality?

Consider the following stages we identified in a typical audio playback:

  • Bandwidth of the original recording, about 44.1Khz (CD quality)
  • Down-conversion during ripping of CD to 192Kbps on a typical MP3, resulting in loss of definition. (I use 320Kbps MP3 at home, and down-convert MP3s to 192Kbps WMA for the phone, to match the Zune-sourced music quality)
  • MP3 Player application (Decompression of source)
  • Amplifier in mobile phone
  • BlueTooth transmitter (v2.0 practical is 2.1Mbps, theoretical 3.0Mbps) and compression for over-the-air. It seems that a stereo 192Kbps audio stream is on the very edge of practicalityfor BlueTooth.
  • BlueTooth receiver (Decompression)
  • Re-encoding of data stream back to audio by DACon headset
  • Speaker capabilities (bass reproduction, definition, etc.)
  • Location of phone in relation to headset (metallic cases or your head may attenuate the signal!)

Plenty of opportunity for problems to creep in. It seems that the overlaying of the 192Kbps source, with the BlueTooth bandwidth creates a combined effect as a result of the headphones being unable to compensate for errors in transmission from the original, already lossy source.

That said, putting other sources such as Björk through them did work quite well. Björk is always a good test for audio quality, though it can often be difficult to pick out deliberate distortion and incidental distortion in her work.

So I think it might come down to application. I’ll probably use these headphones for walking to work, where background noise is sufficient for me to not be bothered by very minor deficiencies in the audio and a wired set at my desk for total immersion (Have a set of Sennheiser MM70’s on my desk waiting to be tried). If you’re not as unnecessarily fussy as me, buy them, they’re a great set for most music. Just keep in mind that extra battery to keep charged!

Update: Having now listened using the Sennheiser earphones (the control test), the quality is much better on the wired set. proving my assertion that BlueTooth adds unnecessary processing stages to the detriment of audio quality. The wired headphones work well with the HTC HD7, I can play/pause music and answer/end calls using the control button on the headphone lead as you would expect. The volume buttons and track advance controls don’t work, however, which is to be expected on i* headphones, I guess.

Once again, I’m not an audiophile, nor am I anything more than an amateur physicist. If you can clarify or improve my modest findings, it would be appreciated.