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Nokia Lumia 900 vs. HTC Titan II: Which Windows Phone to buy

They both have large screens, 4G LTE speeds, and boast-worthy cameras, but if you're only going to buy one, let Jessica Dolcourt guide you.

Nokia Lumia 900
The Nokia Lumia 900

It was a good day for Microsoft and AT&T yesterday, when the carrier opened its registers for two 4G LTE Windows phones: the Nokia Lumia 900 and the HTC Titan II.

Both have the most recent version of Windows Phone OS, large screens over 4 inches, and 16GB of storage, with 25GB of extra storage online. Yet the Titan II lives up to its name with a hulk of a body, a mega 16-megapixel camera, and -- at least compared with the Lumia 900 -- a price tag to match.

Until technology advances enough to throw me in your head in a creepy (but useful) "Being John Malkovich" moment, I clearly can't tell you which phone you'd personally prefer. However, I'll tell you which one I'd choose, and hopefully help steer you toward your own conclusion.

HTC Titan II

First off, the Titan II and Lumia 900 are both solid phones. Since Microsoft controls so much of the operating system, there's little variance from device to device. Often, which is the "better" phone comes down to the hardware specs and design, and to slight software perks like some extra camera features. For me, although call quality and battery life are also important, the characteristics that make the most difference are a phone's design, screen, camera, and price. I'll focus on those four traits here.

Anyone who's read my Nokia Lumia 900 review knows that I love the splashy design, especially in bright blue. The contouring is interesting and bold in its minimalism. It's a statement piece.

I also got my hands on the HTC Titan II at CES and again now (in fact, as I write this, the two phones sit side by side on my desk), and I appreciate its design, too. The Titan II isn't actually much taller or wider than the Lumia 900 and it's about the same thickness. Although it's much more buttoned-up than the Lumia 900 in the looks department, HTC gave it some nice contours on the back cover, especially a dimpled, rubberized area that offers a great, tactile grip.

I personally prefer the Lumia 900's design in blue and white (the black color looks more understated), but the Titan II is by no means unattractive.

The phones' screens share a WVGA resolution (800x480 pixels), but two things make it stand out on the Lumia 900. First, the smaller screen (4.3 inches versus the Titan II's 4.7 inches) makes the display sharper. In addition, the Lumia 900's AMOLED screen material and ClearBlack display technology make blacks look darker and colors pop.

Side by side, with brightness on both screens set to the highest settings, the Lumia 900's display looks richer, deeper, and far more vibrant than the Titan II's. That isn't to say that the Titan II has a subpar display. It's fine, it just doesn't pop.

HTC Titan II (left), Nokia Lumia 900 (right)
Comparing screens on the HTC Titan II (left) and Nokia Lumia 900. Josh Miller/CNET

In my view, the Titan II's 16-megapixel camera is HTC's single best argument against the Lumia 900, and not just because the Titan II produces photos with double the megapixels. CNET's Brian Bennett and I independently took photo comparison shots using the Lumia 900 and the Titan II.

We both agree that while the Lumia 900 photos have a yellowish cast, the Titan II's are bluer, perhaps truer to life. I also found the Titan II photos a little darker, but the hues seemed richer, especially indoor shots of living, breathing humans (camera phones are usually really good at washing us out).

The Lumia 900, with its 8-megapixel lens and Carl Zeiss optics, did keep more of the photo in focus when it shot. While that's an outcome I personally liked, a shallower depth of field might be something you'd prefer since it keeps the central subject in focus and blurs the rest. You can check out Brian's photo shoot-out here, and in the slideshow above.

Beyond its photo quality, the Titan II also has much more varied photographic options, including panorama mode and burst shots, more effects, smile detection, and red-eye reduction. Nokia's list of settings doesn't strike me as deficient, but HTC has gone above and beyond to give the exacting photographer options to flick through and adjust.

Of course, how useful those options are to you is a valid question. I seldom futz with camera settings, apart from forays into macro mode and night mode. Instead, I generally rely on the smartphone's camera for a quick shot that I pray will come out well using just the automatic settings. It'll either be good enough to e-mail or upload, or I'll fix it in postproduction when I get it on the computer.

If your photographic style is more exacting and you'd rather set up the perfect shot the first time, then I think that the Titan II will make you happier in this arena.

The $199.99 price tag for the Titan II is reasonable by today's smartphone standards, with many high-end phones coming in at between $200 and $300 with a two-year contract. The Lumia 900, at $99.99, however, is a steal. Pricing decisions are negotiated between the carrier and manufacturer, and with the Lumia 900, that means that both have aggressively driven down the Lumia 900's initial asking price.

It's an artificial, arbitrary decision that benefits you, the phone buyer. Unfortunately for HTC, the 16-megapixel camera is the Titan II's one clear selling point against the Lumia 900's price -- or at least until its own price drops. For me that's not enough, but camera buffs might shell out the extra cash or wait for Titan II prices to fall.

My money goes to...
When I add up the design, the screen, the camera, and the price for the two phones, my scale tips in favor of the Lumia 900. It isn't without its flaws, and the Titan II isn't without its charms.

I happen to use a smartphone camera frequently, so to me picture quality is important. However, I'd enjoy using the Lumia 900 on an everyday basis more, mostly because of screen quality and a unique design I can really connect with. HTC has a lot to offer Windows Phone users, but in this head-to-head, Nokia's efforts in creating a unique Windows Phone experience that's priced to sell have certainly paid off.