Review: Nokia’s Low-End Hail-Mary Pass, The Lumia 710

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Features:

  • 3.7 inch display (480×800)
  • 8 GB storage, 512 MB RAM
  • 1.4 GHz Qualcomm MSM8255 Snapdragon
  • Microsoft Windows Phone 7.5 Mango
  • MSRP: $50 with two-year contract

Pros:

  • Small and light
  • Windows Phone 7 Mango
  • Bright, crisp screen

Cons:

  • Weak plastic case
  • Odd, huge main button
  • Some odd port placements

 

Windows Phones, like Android phones, are hard to review. The operating system is obviously the same across the board and so the real question is “How does the hardware stand up to competitors?” The most important thing to consider here then is whether this phone stands a chance against similarly-priced Android feature phones and whether or not Nokia’s big gamble on WinPho has paid off? I’m leaning towards “Yes.”

First, I won’t address Windows Phone Mango (WinPho 7.5) in this review. We’ve written plenty about it in the past and we did a full review of the platform here as well as a discussion of the Mango update. There is plenty to love about Windows Phone, but we’re really talking about Nokia’s hardware.

Nokia did very little to change the stock Windows Phone experience. They added Nokia Drive app and a special “We Care” button that basically says they collect information about your phone and your use of services to improve Nokia products, a nod to a post-Carrier IQ world where we assume our phones are spying on us. Other than that, you are looking at a fairly standard Windows Phone 7 installation.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about…

The Phone
The phone itself is solid and slim, with a bit of a bulge on its rounded back. The 5 megapixel camera, while usable, is no great shakes but call quality and battery life were good. I got about 30 hours of standby with only a little use (with push enabled) and in my stress test (constant website updates over wireless) I saw 90 minutes. This evens out to about a day of strong use but you will need to recharge this thing every evening.

The phone is quite comfortable to use and the excellent Mango updates add a few interesting features to Windows 7.5. Nokia’s tweaks include a new color scheme (aptly named “Nokia Blue”) and the Nokia Drive application. T-Mobile has stuck their T-Mobile TV service on the Lumia and, for some reason, another navigation app in the form of TeleNav. You also have Xbox connectivity through the Xbox live apps.

The Good
I’ve been playing with a great number of phones this month, culminating in the truly excellent Samsung Galaxy Nexus. We have, however, avoided looking into lower-end Android phones because the experience has been poor. Burned too many times by phones like the Motorola CLIQ, the shambling, me-too models weren’t for us.

This phone changes that attitude. Many believe Windows Phone is too little, too late. Heck, I most of us thought the same thing. But it’s not. Carrier availability, aside, if I were to lay out three lower-end phones in front of a consumer – even a savvy consumer like you! – and you had to choose among, say, the iPhone 3GS (at 99 cents or whatever the price is on AT&T as there is no T-Mo iPhone analog), the LG DoublePlay at $49, and the Lumia 710, the Lumia and the iPhone would be the ones to pick. If you’re a T-Mobile customer on a budget? It’s a no brainer. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m bullish on Windows Phone.

The Bad
All is not roses and petunias, however. This thing costs $50 after two-year contract and you can tell. The front glass panel, while delightfully dark with a small bezel, features the goofiest-looking buttons I’ve seen this side of an N95. Nokia’s design language likes to place multiple features on a single, long button, so this button handles the “back” function, the “home” button, and search on one long piece of plastic that looks like a puffy sticker. It works, but it ain’t pretty.

The phone has no front-facing camera, which suggests that video chat won’t be available for the 710 any time soon. Mango brings support for mobile hotspot/internet sharing functionality, but it seems to be strangely absent on the 710. The plastic casing is also fairly chintzy, implying less “luxury” and more “phone you get for a penny at the T-Mobile store.” This is by design (and I mean that in a good way.) The Lumia 710, in short, is Nokia’s first commodity Windows Phone. While many oohed and ahhed over the Lumia 800, there will be none of that here. This is a good, solid phone for good solid folk. It is the good brown gravy in Nokia’s kitchen arsenal while the 800 is the bechamel.

Do these factors matter? Sure, but considering some of the unmitigated garbage that populates the lower price sections of most carriers, I’m happy to overlook some minor cosmetic affronts for the value for money offered here.

This phone reminds me of Windows Mobile devices like the Wing and the Blackjack. Those phones – aimed at, I’m not making this up, “scheduling moms” (or something to that effect – were designed to wrest the final Motorola RAZRs from consumers around the world and replace them with smartphones. Then iPhone came along and did just that, leaving Microsoft with unsold hardware and an OS that was by all rights garbage.

Microsoft regrouped – and took its own sweet time doing it – and figured things out. Thus the 710 was born.

The Bottom Line
Be aware that this is not an encomium of the Lumia 710 in particular but a sort of “Wow, they really did it” for Microsoft and Nokia. The 710 is obviously competing against the Radar 4G on T-Mobile and Windows Phone is still missing a few features like unified inbox and a video chat service, but you’re dealing with a few trade-offs. Microsoft is acting like Apple with WinPho, meting out improvements over time rather than fragmenting the OS over multiple devices.

If Microsoft knows anything it’s how to make code work on disparate and underpowered systems. If Nokia knows anything it’s how to make cheap phones for the millions. Together, these guys are creating a sort of low-end vortex that could pull the base out of the phone sales pyramid. See, the manufacture of the low end supports the mid-range which supports the high end. Until now, Android owned both the low-end while sharing the mid- and high-range with Apple. When Nokia floods the low-end with capable, usable, and fun devices, someone will have to worry.

Is this the Windows Phone to buy? If you’re in the market now (and you’re on T-Mobile), go for it. As Ross Miller notes CES is next week but I have my doubts that anything announced there would steer you one way or the other. Otherwise, keep an eye on Windows Phone. It’s only going to get better (or at least more popular) and when it does, expect a sea change in the way we think about feature phones.

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