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Nokia Lumia 900 AT&T review: Nokia Lumia 900 AT&T

Nokia Lumia 900 AT&T

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Editorial Director, Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Thought Leadership, Speed Desk and How-To. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica led CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
Expertise Content strategy, team leadership, audience engagement, iPhone, Samsung, Android, iOS, tips and FAQs.
Jessica Dolcourt
13 min read

Nokia Lumia 900 - black (AT&T)

Nokia Lumia 900 AT&T

The Good

The <b>Nokia Lumia 900's</b> eye-popping unibody design sets a new direction for smartphone style. Its LTE speeds, vivid 4.3-inch screen, and 8-megapixel camera are high points.

The Bad

Problems with call quality and minor design flaws like some gaps in the construction and weirdly placed buttons get in the way. The designer camera optics are good, but they don't live up to the hype. The phone shoots 720p video rather than 1080p video.

The Bottom Line

The Nokia Lumia 900's unique design and high-end features make Windows Phone look fantastic, and the $99 price is extremely fair. Despite some flaws, this is my favorite Windows Phone yet.

Nokia sorely needs a "hero" smartphone with the looks, the speeds, the specs, and a price that will hush the doubters. With the Lumia 900, Nokia proves that it has the chops to compete. We thought so at CES, where we awarded it best new smartphone, and I think so now.

But is the Lumia 900 a breakthrough device? The features are high for Windows Phone's threshold (the OS doesn't yet support multicore processors), but the phone lacks a halo-making feature like the Nokia PureView with its gasp-inducing 41-megapixel camera. While a revolutionary new feature could clinch Nokia's victory, what it has now in the Lumia 900 is the best Windows phone I've tested yet, and it's perfect for the mainstream market. Of course, my assessment could always change in a week when the HTC Titan II launches, with its whopping 16-megapixel camera, though to me, the Lumia 900 is ahead in style points. It's also half the price: $99.99 versus $199.99.

Beyond the looks, I'd recommend the Lumia 900 without hesitation to anyone considering a Windows Phone -- although I'm psychologically incapable of leaving out important caveats. I love the Lumia 900's bold look and the way that the phone's style and screen make the Windows Phone interface pop. With Windows Phone nearly identical on all handsets, Nokia really only has the hardware to control, and in terms of specs, it did a great job (mostly). LTE...check. Strong camera quality, check. Fast processor, sturdy construction, check and check. There are still some changes I'd make if Nokia had asked for my opinion, including the placement of some buttons, quality control when it comes to calls and on a couple external components, and 1080p HD video rather than 720p. However, none of these flaws would keep me from using the 900.

If you imagine the cell phone section of a funky, Scandinavian design shop run by avant-garde youths, the Lumia 900 would fit right in. Its lightly sculpted unibody chassis and deliberate use of color scream "lifestyle product." Bold as an exclamation mark, the Lumia 900 has pure pop-art coursing through its electrical veins.

This is the classiest "Smurf" phone you're ever going to see.

What makes the Nokia Lumia 900 so eye-catching? Even without the electric blue version that I have, the bright white color arriving April 22, or the more-understated black color, the 900's profile stands out. The chassis has a perfectly flat top and bottom, with round sides and a slightly curved back, which Nokia then topped with a large, glossy screen.

At 5 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide by 0.45 inch deep, it's a large phone. The smooth, matte finish helps it slide into pockets and purses, but because of the width and flat back, the Lumia 900 did feel a little flat in my hand. However, it was comfortable on the ear. It may feel a bit heavy at 5.6 ounces, but it's also very solid. I'm a little worried about the long-term effect of finger grease and residue on the color, but in the short term, the finish survived my residual hand lotion and the direct application of a goo-gone solution without marring the color.

Back in its heyday, Nokia phones were largely synonymous with solid construction and thoughtful -- and sometimes daring -- design. The Lumia 900 may not present a strictly new design, since it's clearly adapted from the Nokia N9 Meego-based phone released in Asia, and the Lumia 800, the European version of the N9 that runs Windows Phone, but it's a good one that offers slight variations.

The smooth body helps it slide into pockets. Because of its size, the Lumia 900 fits better in my back pocket.

For example, the Lumia 900 is larger than the 800 and features a front-facing camera in addition to that all-important LTE and a larger battery. Then there are the more-minor surface variations, which you'd only really notice holding the two phones side by side. On the 800, the display bubbles out about 2.5 millimeters, like the surface tension curving a drop of water. The 900's screen, on the other hand, looks more like a slapped-on postage stamp. My review unit had a few gaps that were barely perceptible, but were there nonetheless. The most obvious was large enough for me to stick my fingernail into the space around the SIM card slot, and pull up a corner of the locked door -- that's sloppy. There was also a thin gap where the right side of the screen meets the body of my review unit, with no gap whatsoever on the left side of the screen.

I had no complaints with the display itself, though, and it's easily one of the Lumia 900's key selling points. The beautiful 4.3-inch AMOLED screen features ClearBlack display technology and Gorilla Glass. Colors look richly hued, bright, and sharp. I compared the Lumia 900 with the Samsung Focus S, which has an identical screen size and WVGA resolution (800x480 pixels). In both brightness and richness, the Lumia 900 absolutely blows away the Focus S, which at the time I hailed as a beautiful Super AMOLED Plus screen in its own right. At the same levels of full and automatic brightness, the Lumia 900 shone about a full level brighter than the Focus S.

I also compared high-res photos on the two handsets. While they both looked terrific, the Lumia 900 showed noticeably greater contrast, with blacker blacks, more color spectrum variation, and greens so bright they looked a bit unnatural.

I compared the Lumia 900 to the iPhone 4S screen (above) and the Samsung Focus S (below), with brightness on full blast.

Beyond the screen, there's the front-facing camera and three touch-sensitive navigation controls on the phone's face. Nokia's sense of chic minimalism extends to the silvery controls on the right spine. From top to bottom, you encounter the volume rocker, the power button, and the camera shutter button. I'd prefer a different placement for the power button and volume rocker, but I could get used to it. The top of the phone houses the ports: the 3.5mm headset jack, the Micro-USB charging port, and the micro-SIM card slot behind the push-in door. As with the iPhone, you can insert a narrow "key" (or thin, unbent paper clip) into a hole to pop out the small SIM. Nokia kindly tapes a key right in the box, saving you from paper clip mutilation.

Thanks to its unibody construction, the back of the phone is smooth, with no openings whatsoever. There is, however, the 8-megapixel camera lens and a dual-LED flash.

Operating system and Nokia apps
Thanks to a close partnership between Nokia and Microsoft, the Lumia 900 runs the most recent iteration of Windows Phone OS, version 7.5 Mango. As a result, the Lumia 900 can perform every software task that other Windows Phones do, too.

Nokia doesn't have much leeway on the software side beyond these apps.

Unlike Android, Microsoft keeps its OS pretty locked down, so Nokia has little room to add its own flair on the software side, a strategy I appreciate for uniting the phone experience across devices, but one that makes it harder for manufacturers to stand out. Still, Nokia does make a mark with the nice Nokia Blue color theme (it's the Lumia 900 default) and with a suite of Marketplace apps that include Nokia Drive, Nokia Maps, Nokia Transit, and Nokia Contacts Transfer. This section also highlights partners' third-party apps, like ESPN and CNN. It's a shame that the Lumia 900 doesn't have Nokia's music app, Music Mix Radio, like its European counterparts, and I hope the right deals are signed soon. The absent app, which serves streaming radio and creates mixes, is similar to a Windows Phone feature, but it's also an alternative that could give Nokia some additional cred.

Since Windows Phone OS pretty much behaves the same on every handset, it's the extras that are important. LTE was the most crucial feature Nokia needed to sell this phone on our shores, and it'll be one of the first two Windows phones with LTE. (The HTC Titan II, which goes on sale the same day, is the other.)

Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth are standards, though sadly, the Lumia 900 ships with Bluetooth 2.1, practically antique compared with the new Bluetooth 4.0 standard we're starting to see in mobile devices.

Windows Phone OS handily provides e-mail and social networking integration through account log-ins in the settings, an option for linking inboxes together, and support for group messaging. There's also threaded text and multimedia messaging, and a cool feature that can weave together messages sent between IM and traditional texts. Task-switching, voice search, and scan searches with Bing are also included, as are conference calling and voice dialing. (For even more on Windows Phone OS, read my full Windows Phone 7.5 review.)

Xbox Live games look great on the Lumia 900's ultrabright screen.

On the apps side, you'll find basics like the clock, a calendar, a calculator, Internet Explorer 9 (with HTML5 support but no Flash), and podcast subscriptions in the Music + Video hub. There's also a Maps app, with turn-by-turn directions for walking and driving, Microsoft offers Xbox Live integration through the Games hub, an FM radio, and the SmartDJ feature that creates mixes from your collection. When it's time to get to work, you can create and view Microsoft Office apps from a variety of sources.

I already mentioned Nokia's app contributions above, but AT&T also preloads some programs. There's the carrier's usual bundle: a bar code and QR code scanner; AT&T Navigator with turn-by-turn directions; AT&T Radio; and AT&T U-verse Mobile, (the mobile version of U-verse TV for streaming shows; it costs $9.99 per month if you create a new account from the phone). For video chats, the Lumia 900 gives you the Tango video chat app, as well as YP Mobile for yellow pages. For everything else, there's the Marketplace.


The Lumia 900 has an 8-megapixel camera with dual-LED flash, autofocus, and its celebrated Carl Zeiss optics.

Nokia boasts that its 8-megapixel camera on the Lumia 900 has Carl Zeiss optics, which, along with its dual-LED flash and autofocus, are meant to boost image clarity. I took about a hundred photos on the 900, outside during bright daylight, inside with artificial lighting, front-facing, and in low-light situations. As with all smartphone cameras I've tested, the Lumia 900 did best in outdoor shots with abundant natural lighting. Also, like all the camera phones I tested, photos ran the gamut of excellent and very sharp to slightly fuzzy and disappointing.

Outdoor shots looked good, but the Lumia 900 made shots more yellow.

The camera managed to focus on a greater depth of field than other cameras, say, for instance, the iPhone 4S, but it also seemed to struggle when focusing on more-distant scenes. The Lumia 900 cast a yellow tone on most images, making the color shift away from real life. (Compare our studio shot with those from other camera phones.)

Indoor photos weren't always the greatest, especially when taken from a distance.

I compared about 15 photos I took on the Lumia 900 with identical pictures I snapped on the iPhone 4S, the Samsung Focus S, and the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx, which all have 8-megapixel cameras. No one camera came in best for every shot, but the Lumia 900 and iPhone 4S were my favorites every time (and the Droid Razr Maxx came in a disappointing fourth almost totally across the board.)

When you check out my photo comparison gallery between the Lumia 900 and iPhone, you'll see that the iPhone 4S photos are generally sharper and slightly more vibrant, with greater contrast and a cooler color temperature. The Lumia 900 photos, on the other hand, have a yellow cast, but keep more of the background image in focus.

The Lumia 900 did a great job taking shots of close-range subjects, so long as the subject stood still long enough to take the shot.

Shutter lag is another area that smartphone-makers set out to dominate. The Lumia takes some time to focus on a scene before rendering the shot. I wouldn't call its shutter delay much slower than average, except when I repeatedly missed shots of a fat, buzzing bee; adorable but squirmy dogs; and perfect beach waves. When that happened, I found myself yearning for the HTC One X's ludicrously fast shutter speed, reportedly 0.7 second.

Photos with the Lumia 900's 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera were fine: sharp enough to define features without scaring the neighborhood kids with up-close detail best saved for vanity mirrors. After all, it's mostly meant for video chats, or for the occasional self-portrait.

Video playback was pretty good. Streaming-video quality partially depends on your data network connection.

I was generally happy with video, which shoots at a rate of 30 frames per second, though I wish it shot in 1080p HD resolution rather than in 720p. The picture was clear, audio was strong, and playback was smooth. There were some weird moments when the camcorder darkened a scene, but if I shot with the right lighting, my home videos were pretty good.

Call quality
I tested the quad-band (GSM 8500/900/1800/1900) Nokia Lumia 900 in San Francisco on AT&T's network, and Brian Bennett tested it in New York.

Call quality sounded muted and muffled on my end, but was otherwise loud. Thankfully, I didn't hear any beeps or blips marring the call's clarity. Brian heard clear and crisp audio when he dialed out. He also experienced one dropped call in Manhattan, but that's not a usual number for any carrier. When I called Brian from the Lumia to his landline phone, he said the quality was clear and crisp on his end, without any static unless he listened very closely. In that case, he said my voice did sound a little scratchy, with a slight metallic tinge, but nothing distracting.

I called another tester twice. He described one call as loud and clear, and one as just loud. He said there was a hint of distortion, which made me sound flat, but again, didn't distract from the conversation.

Nokia Lumia 900 call quality sample: San Francisco Listen now: "="">

Nokia Lumia 900 call quality sample: New York Listen now: "="">

Hold onto your seats, because speakerphone is actually pretty good. It was very loud, with some pronounced echo, but I found conversation very successful. Thanks to the warm voice tones and stronger bass in the speaker than in the earpiece, I found speakerphone more comfortable.

One caller found speakerphone extra echo-y, which made the distortion he heard in my voice more noticeable. I also sounded muted and flat, according to my caller, and he had to ask me to repeat myself. Brian noted that I sounded distant and a bit muffled.

Dual-core phones may be all the rage (with many thirsting for quad-core), but Microsoft claims that its single-core processors are just as efficient for performing top tasks (Windows Phone OS isn't yet compatible with multicore processors). Combine AT&T's 4G LTE data speeds with a 1.4GHz processor for overall performance that seemed zippy enough. I can't say that the internals blew me away, but I didn't have too many complaints, either.

To test LTE speeds, Brian Bennett and I both used the BandWidth app in our respective cities. AT&T performed great for Brian, averaging 19.5Mbps down and about 6.13Kbps up. My speeds in San Francisco were much slower, and averaged closer to 6Mbps down and 2.5Mbps up. Read the full rundown here.

Admittedly, the diagnostic LTE speeds I saw on the Lumia were much slower than those I've seen on other LTE phones. However, it's also possible that with more LTE customers, there's also more congestion now. Both San Francisco and New York are notorious markets for slower speeds on more than one network.

In real life, I was able to download and upload images and Web pages quickly and without issue. CNET's graphically rich desktop site, for instance, finished loading in about 15 seconds.

Battery life
The Lumia 900 has a rated talk time of 7 hours over 3G, with 12.5 days of 3G standby time on its 1,830mAh battery. In our in-house battery drain tests, talk time on the Lumia 900 lasted 6.86 hours. Nokia also calculated 60 hours of music playback time and 6.5 hours of video playback time.

Anecdotally, the phone lasted a full day without charging under moderate-to-heavy use. Expect to plug in your phone more often if you stream audio and video over LTE.

Every cell phone emits radio frequency. The FCC measured a digital SAR of 1.49 watts per kilogram for the Lumia 900.

Who should buy it?
The LTE speeds, high-end features, and crazy-reasonable $99 price tag make the Lumia 900 a sure choice for Windows Phone fans looking for a statement piece to help them stand out. It's also great for people on the fence with Android or iOS who are interested in trying a new operating system, and for people transitioning to their very first smartphone. There's definitely a youthful vibe to the phone, but I don't think it would alienate people looking for a less in-your-face handset, especially if they chose the black version with a darker color theme.

Compared with the plentitude of black phones out there, the blue version of the Lumia 900 stands out.

Those who value highly customizing the OS experience should stick with Android. I think most people will be happy with the camera in a wide variety of scenarios, but if you care about shutter speed most, then you may want to wait for the HTC One X to arrive before making your final decision. If you plan to use photos in the highest resolution, you might also likewise check out the HTC Titan II Windows Phone, which promises double the megapixel count.

Final thoughts
It won't outsell the Samsung Galaxy S II or iPhone 4S (which together gobble up 95 percent of all smartphone profits), and the design isn't strictly new, but the Lumia 900 is nevertheless a successful handset for the Microsoft-Nokia partnership.

Of course, not everyone likes Windows Phone and not everyone will like the design, but in my view, Nokia has provided a great handset on a platform that's frankly still immature, but with the camera and call quality, it has left room for the upcoming Titan II and its jaw-dropping camera to do a better job. We'll have to wait until we review that phone to compare.

In the meantime, it's Microsoft's turn to help out Nokia by issuing software features that will make Windows Phone a smoother, smarter, and stronger OS that can compete more completely against the much more mature Android and iOS.

Nokia Lumia 900 - black (AT&T)

Nokia Lumia 900 AT&T

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8