Nokia Lumia 2520 declassified: Inside the punishing development of a new tablet

Nokia sat on the sidelines of the tablet race for years, but it's finally entering the game with the new 2520. This is the story of how that tablet came to be, and of how Nokia hopes to build many more.

Tim Stevens/CNET

It could be said that Nokia is late to the market with the Lumia 2520, a 10-inch tablet running Windows RT that launches in the US on Wednesday. But dig a little deeper and you'll find that the $500 slate is something of a return to a form.

By today's definition, 2005's Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, with its 4.1-inch WVGA display, would rank as a low-end smartphone -- minus the phone bit. Lacking cellular connectivity, it connected over Wi-Fi or, if you were lucky, tethered to something with a cellular connection over Bluetooth. It was a compelling little device that didn't exactly light the world on fire.

If we move ahead to 2008's N810 WiMax Edition we find a closer relative to the new 2520 slate, pausing to quietly mourn the silent death of 2011's promising MeeGo tablet before returning to the present.

Today, it's easy to call all those Internet tablets irrelevant -- too far removed to matter in this rapidly evolving world of consumer technology. But then Nokia isn't your typical consumer technology company, famously dating back to the mid-19th century. Its lineage may have made Nokia a bit more conservative than the competition, but possibly wiser, and so less likely to dive into an ultra-competitive market without a very clear goal.

"A product needs to know what it wants to be... Just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should rush to do it."

Heikki Norta Tim Stevens/CNET

That's Heikki Norta's explanation of why it's taken Nokia this long to tap into the now-lucrative tablet market. Norta, an intense but easily likable man with cropped hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and a rapid-fire Finnish accent, has 22 years of experience, an entire career spent at Nokia. He's now a vice president and general manager of the company's Connected Devices division.

Norta moved from Finland to San Diego expressly to get the Lumia 2520 off the ground. Tablets, says Norta, require an intimate blend of hardware and software. If either side is lacking, the whole thing fails, and without talented resources driving both sides, your product will suffer. "There are few places in the world that you can attract and keep talent in both," he says.

San Diego is one of those places. "From a partner standpoint, we made the decision we were going to be on Windows, so having time zone proximity with the team in Redmond was helpful, and equally so with Qualcomm." Qualcomm provides the Snapdragon 800 chipset and integrated modem that form the core of the 2520 tablet. Its offices are a scenic 15-minute drive away.

San Diego

Tim Stevens/CNET

Nokia's presence in San Diego is far from new, having set up shop years ago, but the office got a major boost in late 2011 as the 2520 project kicked off. The team would ultimately expand to a second building and fill it with testing equipment and talented people. How do you hire for a project that doesn't exist? Norta pulled up one of the job postings, dated March 15, 2012, and read it aloud:

"Connected devices: a team that will help Nokia address new opportunities in adjacent categories to mobile devices. The team will define what's next for Nokia in our aim to deliver great mobile products and experiences and what kind of new, unique, and differentiated product experiences we come up with to delight consumers."

He couldn't help but laugh at the vagueness of the thing. "Would you join that?" Plenty did, but Nokia wasn't just looking outside the company to staff up for this tablet effort. "We wanted to make sure that we didn't build a pirate ship inside the company, because the company knows what it's doing." That's an interesting contrast to Microsoft's Surface design team, which one designer described as exactly that: a pirate ship, internal yet largely independent from the greater corporate ways.

Nokia needed its expertise to make this product work because it isn't just a typical Wi-Fi-enabled tablet that will spend its days idly serving up eBay auctions and Pinterest boards from close proximity to the couch. The 2520, you see, is a mobile tablet exclusively available with LTE, and while that may seem like a minor distinction, that concept of mobility justifies its very existence.

A tablet to take with you

Tim Stevens/CNET

Norta draws a curve on a whiteboard, a curve with one hump at the left and a second over on the right. On the X-axis, moving left to right, is time of day. The Y-axis, meanwhile, represents the frequency of tablet usage. According to Nokia's research, users pick up their tablets in the morning to check in on e-mail and the social networks, then set them down until they get home from work. Usage then spikes again for a few hours in the evening, and that's it. Nokia designed the Lumia 2520 specifically to fill in those gaps.

"We spent a tremendous amount of time focusing on the consumer. Consumers were in love with their tablets...but they were itching to do more." Norta points at the curving line on the whiteboard: "We wanted to make the camel-like curve look more like a stallion!"

"This is the tablet made for mobility from the company that created mobile." That became a sort of unofficial mantra of the device, according to Paul Bischoff, product manager at Nokia. This would be a tablet designed to go with you, an objective that surely inspired one of the project's multiple code names: Sirius, Orion's faithful dog that followed him to the stars. To deliver on that promise, Nokia had to create a device with great battery life, quick charging, an outdoor-compatible display, a comfortable organic shape, and, of course, high-speed connectivity wherever you go.

Paul Bischoff Tim Stevens/CNET

That last part is where the team, and Bischoff in particular, would be able to tap in to Nokia's mobile expertise. "This category with the operator channel is not as mature as it is with the retail channel." Translation: the carriers don't really know how to sell tablets, which is why many of their previous efforts have failed. (Remember the Xoom?) That becomes doubly problematic when you try to get those carriers to sell devices running a PC operating system like Windows RT. "The operator world is still phone-centric...They have total control over that experience. That control is lost in the PC domain."

This is a situation that anyone who's been waiting for months for an Android update knows too well: without hacking, the phone likely isn't getting revised until the carrier says so. Imagine having to wait for Verizon or AT&T to certify and approve every driver version and browser update on your PC. It would never fly, and Nokia worked hard to get the carriers to compromise. "They've lost a tremendous amount of control in what they're approving, what they're testing, what their philosophy of what device certification means. That's been a big challenge for us."

The brutal side of mobility

Tim Stevens/CNET

If a product is to be truly mobile, to leave the safe confines of the living room, it must be ready for the challenges that lie ahead. These include such things as sun-tan lotion, dust, rain, and gravity. Gravity alone poses quite a challenge. Karthik Govindhasamy, head of engineering for the Connected Devices division, says that the question wasn't so much whether you could drop the 2520, but how far could you drop it. A design goal was to "be able to drop on all four corners without breaking the glass."

Drop testing is something Nokia's designers are already intimately familiar with, but moving up to a far-heavier 10-inch device poses a new suite of challenges, and thus, a new suite of tests. Nokia already had a series of comprehensive gadget torture chambers in San Diego, equipped with enough nefarious tools to make a Spanish inquisitor blush as red as his robes. In one room, a line of robotic arms tap, prod, plug, and unplug test devices thousands and thousands of times to ensure basic longevity. The devices are also subjected to chemical abuse, smeared with Crisco and foundation to see what stains and what washes off.

Next door, things get a little more intense. Here, a row of tumblers cause phones and tablets to fall one meter before carrying them up to the top and dropping them again. Nokia has vibrating chambers full of dust; a precisely calibrated rain simulator; a 50-degree Celsius "damp heat" chamber; presses that twist and squash tablets; and a fully configurable, remotely controlled drop chamber that lets you release any device from any angle and any height.

I was given the opportunity to do just that, dropping a black 2520 from a height of about four feet onto its corner. The rig holds the tablet in place by suction cups and then, with the squeeze of a trigger, releases it into the incompetent hands of our gravitational field. The tablet, already battle-scarred from countless drops and tests before, landed with a solid thud. Its screen stayed intact and the case looked no worse, but the display now showed only a series of lines. Yes, I broke a priceless 2520 prototype, but this one had obviously survived weeks of hell long before I came along and put it out of its misery.

A dead Lumia 2520 Tim Stevens/CNET

It may be the last tablet to be destroyed in Nokia's torture chamber, but it certainly wasn't the first. The teams, here and in the Quality Automation Lab upstairs (where a suite of custom, automated tests verify software functionality), often worked multiple shifts around the clock, testing chassis and component iterations until everything met Nokia's durability constraints. This included the eventual addition of a series of shock-absorbing "crush zones" built into the corners, one of hundreds of chassis iterations conceived by the design team led by principle designer Boris Landwehr.

The design of the 2520 is, of course, largely derivative of the Lumia smartphones that came before, offering the same basic shape and polycarbonate feel. Still, Landwehr (who previously worked on the X7, Lumia 900, and Lumia 822), says the team struggled with reformulating plastic resins and crafting new molding processes to support this much larger polycarbonate unibody. Getting big, flat sheets of plastic to come out of a mold while maintaining tolerances of a fraction of a millimeter is, as it turns, out, a challenging thing.

Boris Landwehr

"We had to find a vendor that would work with us. When we first went out, everybody said 'No, this is not possible with this size.'" All of Nokia's production partners wanted the company to break the mold up into smaller pieces, introducing unsightly split lines into the final product. This, Landwehr says, was not acceptable to the team. "We were pretty firm. We stayed true to the philosophy. We're not backing off that easily." Indeed, other than a physical home button and slightly different dimensions, it's difficult to tell the unbranded concept mockup apart from the fully functional, Verizon version of the 2520. The initial vision for the design, unspoiled by engineering constraints, was maintained.

They figured it out, eventually, creating an organic shape made of a material that some may actually prefer to the competition. It's certainly a bit more welcoming on chilly mornings than the cold, harsh metal of the iPad Air or Surface 2. Of course, we humans have come to perceive metal as a premium surface. The Lumia phones have bucked that trend, and even Jony Ive has come around to the potential of polycarbonate in the iPhone 5C, but it must be said that plenty of others will consider the plastic body here a detriment.

Uniquely differentiated?

Tim Stevens/CNET

While the tablet market isn't as oversaturated as the smartphone market has become, it's rapidly approaching parity, and yet only Apple and Samsung have really shown proper success when it comes to sales. Even Microsoft, with a massive marketing budget and retail partners, has struggled to establish momentum for the Surface line.

Will the Nokia Lumia 2520's focus on mobility really help it stand apart from the teeming Android and iOS masses? Perhaps more importantly, how will it avoid being compared to the Surface 2? Aesthetically the two are miles apart, but intrinsically both are 10-inch devices running Windows RT 8.1 hitting the market with similar prices: $450 for the 32GB Surface, $500 for the 2520, though Verizon will take $100 off for those who don't mind two years of indentured servitude. That they both offer a battery-packing keyboard case that attaches by magnets only invites more comparison. (That said, it's actually difficult to compare the two cases, as the typing experience on Microsoft's is miles better.)

Nokia has bet big on this device's success. It poured more than $7 million into outfitting its second San Diego location with test equipment and numerous massive, fully insulated anechoic chambers specifically designed for testing tablets. The 2520 was the first to run that full-spectrum gauntlet, but it was never intended to be the only one. If Heikki Norta gets his way, and if his future overlords at Microsoft allow it, this will not be the last tablet launched by Nokia. This will become a family of devices in multiple sizes, devices offering portability and productivity, all very clearly and very proudly made by the company that created mobile.

About the author

Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to videogame development. Currently he pursues interesting stories and interesting conversations in the technology and automotive spaces.

 

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