What's the best Windows Phone from CES 2012?

This edition of Ask Maggie offers advice on choosing the best Windows Phone and offers a prediction of whether the Galaxy Note will show up on other U.S. carriers.

LAS VEGAS--Microsoft's handset partners are finally coming out with some interesting hardware for the Windows Phone operating system.

Nokia and HTC each announced new high-end smartphones using the OS. So which one is best? Ask Maggie shares some advice. Also in this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer some advice to a reader interested in the jumbo-sized Samsung Galaxy Note.

Finally, the U.S. gets decent Windows Phone hardware

Dear Maggie,
I have an HTC Droid Incredible from Verizon Wireless. And to be honest I never really loved it. I've had all kinds of problems with it since the beginning, like the fact that it makes random phone calls when I haven't dialed anyone. And it's never been the same since the last software update.

Now, I am seriously considering a Microsoft Windows Phone. But I've been waiting for a good one. Now it looks like there are some good choices that were introduced at CES this week. My contract with Verizon will be up soon. So here's what I want to know. Which new Windows Phone do you think I should get? Is it worth it to switch to AT&T for one of these phones? Or do you think I should wait until better Windows Phones come to Verizon?

Thanks,
Bruce

Dear Bruce,
You were wise to hold off on buying a Windows Phone until now. The previous crop of devices available through U.S. carriers have been little more than Android devices with the Windows Phone OS slapped on them. Even some Microsoft folks have admitted to me that they were not terribly impressed with the hardware their partners were using for the Windows Phone devices on the market.

HTC Titan II for AT&T
HTC's second pass at the Titan, a Windows Mobile phone. HTC

But now companies, such as Nokia and HTC, are designing products specifically for Windows Phone. To be fair, it makes sense that companies such as HTC and Samsung, were hesitant to fully embrace Windows Phone initially. After all, they've seen such great success with Android.

But since Nokia announced last year that it will only use Windows Phone for new smartphones, the other device makers have realized they need to up the game in hardware if they're going to include Windows Phone as part of their portfolio of products. The HTC Titan II, which was announced here at CES this week, is an example of this increased commitment. HTC packed the phone with all kinds of goodies, including a 16-megapixel camera and a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera, a 1.5GHz Snapdragon 2 processor, support for 720p HD recording and a 4.7 inch screen.

Also at CES, Nokia introduced its first U.S.-specific Windows Phone: the Lumia 900 . Highlights for this device include support for AT&T's 4G LTE network and Carl Zeiss optics in the camera with an F2.2 aperture lens with a 28mm focal length, a front-facing camera as well, a dual LED flash, 16 GB of internal memory, and a polycarbonate case available in black or blue. The device is also on the bigger side, although not as big as the HTC Titan. The Lumia 900 is 4.3-inch. (By comparison, the Apple iPhone's screen size is 3.5 inches.)

Both smartphones offer great specs, but I think the Nokia Lumia 900 is the best choice right now for a new Windows Phone in the U.S. market. I'm not the only CNET person impressed with the Lumia 900, CNET's mobile reviews team also awarded the device Best In Show for the smartphone category at CES this year.

While the Titan II is certainly a fine device, I think that the Lumia 900 phone just feels better in my hand. It's big, but the Titan II seems a little too big. What's more Nokia has a good track record of building quality devices. In particular, cameras on Nokia devices have always been market leaders. And the camera on this device is no exception. While it may not have as many megapixels as the Titan II, Nokia has done more with the camera to improve the focal length and the quality of the pictures. When I spoke with Nokia's CEO Stephen Elop earlier this week he told me that Nokia is committed to offering superior camera technology in its high-end devices.

Nokia's new Lumia 900
Nokia's new Lumia 900 Nokia

"It's not just about speeds and feeds," he said during an interview with CNET. "There are a lot of things you can do to improve the camera on a cell phone through the science of photography with focal length and aperture."

The other bonus is that the Lumia 900 will operate on AT&T's new 4G LTE network. I wouldn't necessarily buy the phone for this feature, since AT&T is still in the early stages of deploying this network and coverage is still spotty at best. The Titan II also supports LTE. But Nokia's CEO said that the Lumia would likely have better battery performance than other LTE devices on the market today.

So should you switch carriers for the Lumia 900? That's a good question. And to be honest, it really depends on how satisfied you are with Verizon Wireless service and whether or not AT&T offers comparable coverage in your area. AT&T doesn't have the best reputation in terms of service.

Before you make a decision, I would make sure to ask your neighbors and co-workers who are already using AT&T how happy they are with their service. If it completely stinks where you work and live, then I wouldn't switch. I think consistent and reliable service is the most important thing in choosing a cell phone.

If the services are comparable, then definitely consider switching. Verizon Wireless currently offers one Windows Phone smartphone. I expect that over time Verizon will get more devices, but judging from conversations I've had with executives there, they aren't chomping at the bit to add new ones. Verizon didn't have a great experience with the Microsoft Kin. And it's never offered a Nokia smartphone on its network.

Meanwhile, AT&T has a long-standing relationship with Nokia. And AT&T also is the largest seller of Windows Phone devices. While Verizon bet big on Google Android, AT&T is betting big on Microsoft. At CES, executives from AT&T, Microsoft and Nokia appeared on stage together multiple times touting their relationship and partnership to promote Windows Phones into the U.S. market.

What all of this means for consumers, such as you, is that I wouldn't hold my breath for a lot of new Windows Phones on Verizon. So if you're ready to ditch Android for Windows Phone now, AT&T is your best choice. And the Nokia Lumia 900 is the phone to buy. I hope that advice was helpful. And good luck!

Correction 5:45 a.m. PT: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of Windows Phone devices supporting AT&T LTE. The story has been corrected. The HTC Titan II also supports LTE.

The super-sized Samsung Galaxy Note

Dear Maggie,
The Samsung Galaxy Note breaks my heart!

See, I love that phone. My current 4.3-inch phone is just not big enough. I have big hands and weak eyes. The Galaxy Note is the perfect phone for me. But two things stand in my way: I'm a Verizon customer with an unlimited data plan, and by most accounts, AT&T is terrible.

At first, I was willing to bite the bullet and buy it on AT&T, but then...Sprint got the Galaxy Nexus. To my knowledge, there were no rumors of that. Could my magical, fabled Galaxy Note somehow wrestle free from the shackles of AT&T, or am I just chasing rainbows?

I also have a deep fear: What if the Galaxy Note is a sales dud? The Dell Streak failed. I might not have the luxury of waiting.

And if AT&T is really that bad, should I pay $700 for an unlocked Galaxy Note and run it on T-Mobile?

Love the column.

Thanks,
Jonathan

Dear Jonathan,
The most important thing when it comes to buying a new phone is making sure you are satisfied with the carrier that offers it. So if AT&T is really horrible where you live and work, then the Samsung Galaxy Note may not be a good choice for you. You could buy it unlocked to use on T-Mobile USA's network, but you won't be able to use it on T-Mobile's 3G network. So I wouldn't recommend it.

Samsung's Galaxy Note
Samsung's Galaxy Note Samsung

Do I think the device will be offered on other carriers? That's hard to say. I asked a Samsung representative at CES this week this very question, and he was tight-lipped about future plans. You are right that Sprint's addition of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus was a surprise to most people. Sprint has invested a lot to offer the Apple iPhone, and many people thought it wouldn't announce any other "flagship" Android devices that might compete with the iPhone. But the Galaxy Nexus is likely to be a very popular phone in its own right. It's a pure Google phone, and that appeals to a lot of Android fans, who might not consider an iPhone anyway.

At any rate, I don't see the Galaxy Note as a top contender for Sprint's network, given the carrier's aggressive iPhone targets and the recent addition of the Galaxy Nexus. Verizon Wireless might get it, but it's doubtful. Even though Verizon sells several different models of Android phones, the company has a more focused portfolio of products than AT&T, which offers a wider variety of devices.

The problem with the Samsng Galaxy Note is that it's a niche product . It's significantly larger than other big smartphones with a 5.3-inch screen. And it's simply not for every consumer. That said, the Samsung has built a solid product. And the stylus and touch capability of the screen is better than similar devices in the past. So I'd say, it's a great device for someone such as yourself who wants a much bigger screen or for someone who wants to take handwritten notes or make digital sketches.

But I think most consumers are going to think it's simply too big as a phone. I also think the size puts it in a confusing category of products. Even Samsung seems somewhat perplexed about how to categorize the device. In its marketing campaign for the Galaxy Note at CES it asked the question: "Phone? Tablet?"

What this means for you is that because the device is likely to appeal only to a small number of consumers, it's probably less likely to make it to Verizon, which tends to have devices that will appeal to a much larger group of customers.

In short, I think AT&T may be your only option for this device. And if you can't live with AT&T service, then you might be out of luck, since I don't think this device has a strong chance of showing up on either Sprint or Verizon Wireless anytime in the near future. That said, I will keep my fingers crossed, for your sake, that I am wrong.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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