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November 26, 2011 · 5 minute read

I bought a Lumia (the £500 blog post)

It’s no secret that I’ve been growing frustrated with Apple recently. Their trend of skeuomorphism is alienating me as a designer and making me question the future of their products. I’ve been interested in the direction Microsoft are taking for a while, though until now there haven’t really been any killer devices to take advantage of it yet. So I’ve stuck with my iPhone. I think this is all going to change with the brand new Nokia Lumia 800 - a high end, beautifully designed phone that really does the Windows Phone 7 operating system justice.

Actually, I was so curious about the Lumia that I spent £470 of my own money on one to put it through its paces. I should probably just ask for a review copy in future. But hey, I have a great phone and I want to tell you all about it!

I’m not great at writing tech reviews, and over the past few drafts this post has taken all different formats. Perhaps the best way is to just note down some thoughts and then open up for questions and discussion in the comments? I’m happy to answer anything, try out apps, take screenshots or check your websites are rendering properly.

So in no particular order, my thoughts on the Lumia 800.

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The hardware is a stroke of genius - after every generation of the iPhone it’s surely the nicest phone on the market. It’s actually comfier to hold that an iPhone without the bargain-bin tackiness of Android devices. Really sensational, and I’ve been getting a lot of comments about it. One of the only bad bits about the hardware is the screen - it’s an AMOLED PenTile and every bit as bad as the Androids with similar panels. It warps colours and distorts images, and really puts me off developing for the device.

The other thing is battery. The majority of my second day with the Lumia was spent without it - I forgot to charge it overnight and apparently my MacBook Pro doesn’t provide enough juice to charge it. Neither does a 240V iPad wall charger. So I had to wait until I got home to use the Nokia charger. Sidenote - but in the intervening hours (not realising what was wrong with it) I’d tried hard resetting the phone to get it to boot up. So I lost all my data because of the shitty power management. Oops!

Describing what’s great about this device keeps coming back to Metro though. Metro - Microsoft’s new visual language - is absolutely breathtaking. Metro makes almost all apps look fantastic, not just those by A-list developers. The UI elements are gorgeous, the animations are gorgeous and the icons are gorgeous. The phone, as I’ve mentioned before and as everyone who sees it remarks is also gorgeous.

The Twitter app is beautiful. The Spotify app is beautiful. All of the apps are beautiful. Perhaps I’m overly keen to like Metro, but it seems like a solid framework for good apps. With the trend towards skeuomorphism I’m more worried about the legacy of apps designed outside the still-talented towers of Cupertino. With UI guidelines as strong as Metro I’d hope everyone will be producing aesthetically beautiful apps. Time will tell.

The scroll physics are generally great - not as perfect as iOS, but infinitely better than the jarring, jerky, strobe physics of Android. This is a huge coup for Nokia - if only because it kills dead Android’s argument that fragmentation means you can’t optimise for smooth scrolling. Nokia have done, and it makes the device a pleasure to use.

What lets it down is ecosystem. Not the Zune/Xbox Live ecosystem—I’ve only ever had bad experiences buying media through the iTunes Store—rather just the feeling of using the device. Matthew Panzarino points to the lack of quality apps in his review, which is definitely something I noticed. Everything you’d expect (Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, 1Password, WordPress etc) is there, but there are none of the gems that make iOS a delight to use. TweetBot, Reeder, Instapaper, OmniFocus are sorely missed, and I could never consider giving up my iPhone without decent replacements for them. Pretty typography in apps seemingly doesn’t make them good. D’oh!

Bing Maps is awful and unreadable. It’s a shame, especially considering how much richer Android is as a platform for its superior maps. But that’s not a WP7 problem - it’s a Microsoft problem.

There’s no way to take screenshots on this device. There’s no way to take screenshots on this device. Seriously? There’s this hack, but it seems like a bit of a cludge. Come on guys, I have a blog full of people I want to show the beautiful interface to!

Having all of your social media accounts baked into the phone is a nice touch - the system level integration with Facebook that lets me see my girlfriend’s photos on the same card as her phone number and email address is great.

The Lumia seems to support the latest and greatest in web standards - one painful example for designers is the lack of Helvetica on the device, so either embed it with @font-face or get used to seeing lots of Arial! Media queries have been fine in my testing - as with web fonts, if you want me to test anything please let me know in the comments.

When asked how I like the device I keep catching myself prefixing the review with ‘actually, surprisingly, it’s really nice!‘. Not ‘it’s really nice’. But a patronising semi-excuse. And this is the problem with Microsoft and Nokia. They might have produced a fantastic product but at least on this occasion it will not be viewed on a level playing field. Remember rooting for the underdog North Korean football (soccer) team during the 2010 World Cup? That’s this.

The flip side is I have to keep questioning myself and what I believe in. Cellphones should not prompt an existential crisis. It’s just a phone. But I keep having to ask myself whether I want Apple to win, or I want better to win. As a designer I hope I always go for better. Metro is undeniably gorgeous but I still can’t form an objective opinion about whether the phone as a whole is good enough to replace my iPhone.

The facts say it’s good enough. My heart says no.

I just can’t rationalise living outside of the Apple safety net. 80% of the population probably can, and will love a phone that smokes Android.

I’m going to be auctioning off the Lumia when I’ve finished having a play with it, with any profits going to Movember. If you’re interested, get in touch.


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Jon Gold

Jon Gold is a technologist, musician, and attention activist researching the long-term future of computation at Airbnb, focusing on the intersection of Artificial Intelligence & the creative process. Contact