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Nokia Lumia 810 Review

by Michael Fisher on

In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.

-Coco Chanel

We’re not sure whether Coco’s perspective applies in every situation, but America’s number-four wireless carrier has certainly taken the advice to heart with its latest Windows Phone offering. T-Mobile USA claims the Nokia Lumia 810 as an “exclusive,” and indeed, no other carrier currently offers this Lumia variant for sale. While its internals are effectively identical to its close cousins, the Lumia 820 and Lumia 822, the 810 differs significantly in terms of its physical design, and T-Mobile has made sure to furnish it with other magenta-hued differentiators, as well.

Are the 810′s special attributes a boon to the Windows Phone community, or is this special offshoot of the Lumia midrange trying too hard? More importantly, is it worth the money its freshly-printed price tag demands? Read on to find out.

Video Review · Specs · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me

Video Review

Specs

As might be expected given its model number, there’s not much here for true spec-geeks to salivate over. That said, the Lumia 810 is well-equipped to handle the demands of a well-optimized platform like Windows Phone 8.

At the 810′s heart sits a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 running at 1.5GHz, backed up by a gig of RAM. In keeping with T-Mobile’s LTE-less existence, on-board connectivity includes only GSM, EDGE, and “4G” data in the form of HSPA+, supporting up to 42Mbps on the download side. WiFi a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 3.0 is here, as is the aforementioned NFC support. Only 8GB of on-board storage is provided, of which almost half is taken up by the OS and carrier bloatware out-of-the-box; fortunately there’s a microSD card slot under the battery cover for expansion up to an additional 64GB of space.

Speaking of the battery cover: our unit came as the matte black version, but a cyan variant is available which thickens the device somewhat in exchange for adding wireless charging support. The stock cover snaps on with ease, covering up the 1800mAh battery but leaving the lens for the 8MP primary camera -and its LED flash- exposed.

The window into the software, the AMOLED panel up front, will be familiar to anyone who used the Lumia 900: it’s an 800 x 480 ClearBlack display with “color boosting” and the same user-controllable, glove-friendly “super sensitive touch” featured on the Lumia 920. As is typical of AMOLED panels, its saturation is quite high; whether that’s a plus or a minus in your book will depend on how much value you place on authentic color reproduction. It definitely makes the accent colors within Windows Phone 8 pop, and other smartphone displays do appear somewhat muted by comparison.

Nokia claims to have included “sunlight readability enhancements” here as well, and the display certainly does better than some others in bright daylight. The screen’s last-generation resolution, though, is definitely noticeable. It pales in comparison to the 1280 x 768 panel on the Lumia 920, for example, and it will no doubt look positively archaic in 2014, at the end of a two-year contract. Still, its enhanced color saturation and deep blacks will appeal to many. Ordinary folks with good eyesight looking for a mid-sized smartphone will find plenty to enjoy about the Lumia 810′s screen.

Index

Hardware

Anyone taking a first look at the Lumia 810 could be forgiven for thinking it unremarkable. Nokia’s penchant for minimalistic design is well known, but the 810 takes it to an extreme. The rounded edges and blended seams of higher-end models like the Lumia 920 are absent on this model, replaced by sharp, plumb sides which give the replaceable back cover a bucket-like appearance. The device is fairly thick at 10.9mm, a full millimeter heartier than the Lumia 820, and the added padding makes it feel heavier than its 145 grams would suggest.

The battery cover -black on our unit- is coated in a soft-touch material that seems scuff-resistant enough, and it contains the necessary hardware for wireless charging, if you’re into that kind of thing. The camera window is the same metallic rounded rectangle found on the Lumia 920, the most obvious indicator that the devices share a common lineage. The buttons on the device’s right side -Windows Phone’s standard power/standby, volume rocker, and shutter release- feature good responsiveness and solid travel. That’s especially evident in the latter button, which lets you know with a sharp “click” when you’ve half-pressed to focus.

Around front, there’s the usual Corning Gorilla glass protecting the display, below which sit the standard capacitive buttons for Windows Phone’s home, back, and search keys. The bezel thickness to left and right of the display is substantial. Above the screen, a 1.2MP front-facing camera lives beside the earpiece, sandwiched between the small, subtle T-Mobile and Nokia branding. These few adornments are all that break the monotony of the device’s glossy black front side; from a few angles, the phone resembles the unbranded reference hardware first used to demo Windows Phone 7. It’s a very plain-looking product.

Maybe the best way to describe the Lumia 810′s physical being is to call it the “Nexus 7 of smartphones.” Its design might not turn many heads -it’s not going to win any prizes for thinnest or lightest phone on the block- but it feels solid. Unlike its glossier siblings on the higher end, the 810 feels like it can handle getting roughed up a bit without showing too many scars. And its utter lack of ostentation, its almost-total disregard for aesthetics, is somehow reassuring. If it were a character from pop culture, this smartphone would be Dragnet’s “just the facts, ma’am” Joe Friday, just here to get the job done.

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UI

The Lumia 810 runs Windows Phone 8, which our own Adam Lein thoroughly reviewed a couple weeks back. For an in-depth look at the platform itself, we’ll point you there.

The 810, though, is a Nokia phone — meaning it comes stocked with the full array of custom apps the manufacturer has built for the Windows Phone platform, available exclusively on Nokia devices. T-Mobile has included some of these out of the box, along with the usual helping of bloatware. A quick word on that: though easily removed, the carrier-provided bloat on the 810 is some of the most aggressive we’ve seen on a Windows Phone; there’s enough of it to make the device feel, out of the box, more like a sales-floor demo unit than a brand-new smartphone.

Maybe it’s the magenta.

Back to the useful stuff. The remainder of Nokia’s custom apps -the ones not preinstalled on the device- are available for download in the “Nokia Collection” section of the Windows Phone 8 Store; of these, we made the most use of the more prominent titles: Nokia Drive, Nokia Maps, and Nokia Transit.

These apps are welcome additions to the 810′s user experience; they all help fill significant functionality gaps still present in the vanilla build of Windows Phone 8. Adam Lein will be providing a detailed look at these in a forthcoming article, but we’ll share a few words about our experiences with them on the 810.

After we downloaded the local area map for Massachusetts, Nokia Drive navigated us very competently through an 80-mile day trip, even coping well with several wrong turns that required some creative re-routing. The GPS fix remained strong throughout the journey, and the navigation was clear and straightforward, both visually and in the voice prompts. The app features some nice touches, such as the ability to download different guidance voices and an optional warning annunciator if you exceed the local speed limit.

Just call us the Leadfoot League.

We used the public-transportation helper app Nokia Transit rather extensively in and around Boston. Again, this is a gap-filler application; while third-party titles like HopStop are available for route planning or predicting city bus and train arrivals, none of them are as polished as Nokia Transit, which blends straightforward utility with Windows Phone’s Modern UI to create a very attractive and useful product. Its extremely sparse interface may be off-putting to some, and it’s not a perfect experience; sometimes selecting “transit nearby” produces a list with gaps where stops should be, and there’s precious little visual augmentation to make the list easier to quickly navigate. But these are issues common to many such applications, and we have hope that future updates will correct them. In all, Transit performs quite well on the Lumia 810.

Nokia Maps, whose data powers all Windows Phone 8 navigation across the product family, was probably the most disappointing of the bunch. We expected it to provide significantly enhanced functionality over and above the stock Bing Maps offering, and while it does provide a heartier experience, it’s still a very lean app. In some ways that’s a good thing; visual clutter is kept to a minimum, with no extraneous interface elements between the user and the content. In others, though, it’s very frustrating. It’s safe to say that a user coming to the 810 from an Android device will be disappointed.

Windows Phone 8′s Nokia Maps, showing various layers

Google has spent years carving out its dominance in the mapping arena, and the difference between that expertise and Microsoft’s lack thereof became apparent during a recent trip to New York City, when we were struck by the sudden desire for a midnight slice of pizza. Searching local results for pizza shops on both the Lumia 810 and a Galaxy Note II delivered wildly divergent results, with the Android device handily beating the Windows Phone in speed, accuracy, and usefulness. One tap on a local result on the Android device yielded information on the shop’s hours, its contact information, and a glimpse at user reviews. Getting similar results from Nokia Maps was possible after a few swipes to left and right, but the information provided was nowhere near as detailed.

The app also isn’t terribly “smart,” in a broad sense: searching for specific business names routinely yields a result with the right name, but in a location nowhere near the device. In New London, Connecticut, we tried searching Nokia Maps for “Cross Sound Ferry,” whose Connecticut office we could see through the window of our train, about 500 feet away. Our Lumia 810 dutifully returned a result for the Cross Sound Ferry offices … sixteen miles away, at the other end of the ferry route in New York. No local results were returned. Meanwhile, our Galaxy Note II had no trouble finding what we were looking for on the first try.

These lapses in basic functionality are annoying enough near home, but they can be positively infuriating when you’re out and about with literally no idea whether the information you’re getting is correct. Such lapses can easily shake a user’s confidence in his or her device — just ask Apple.

Android wants me to go to the location that’s a 15-minute walk down the road. Bing wants me to go to dinner 3 miles away for some reason.

The bottom line is that Android users heavily dependent on maps and navigation still have reason to think twice about making the leap to Windows Phone, even taking Nokia’s enhancements into consideration. Delivering a reliable mapping experience isn’t easy -again, ask Apple- but until Microsoft and Nokia are able to deliver more consistent results, Lumia 810 buyers will want to consider downloading a third-party alternative such as gMaps to fill in the gaps.

Otherwise, the Windows Phone experience is much the same here as on many other devices running version 8. On the good side: live tiles flip and animate, Toast notifications flare up and fade away, and the rest of the interface glides smoothly along under a fingertip, just as Metro as ever. Though it’s two years old, the Modern UI is still one of the most eye-catching and responsive user environments out there, and it’s filled with more eye-candy in its latest iteration, with accent color finding its way into much deeper layers of the interface than in the previous version. There’s also more utility here, best exemplified by the ability to pin almost anything to the start screen for quick reference.

On the bad side: the simplicity that gives the platform its unique personality and its top-shelf performance also hinders its usefulness, especially in social-networking respects. While the Me and People hubs are an ingenious means of integrating Facebook and Twitter into the core OS experience, they offer no provision for actions as simple as “liking” a comment someone leaves on your status, or auto-completing a Twitter username or hashtag. Multiple-Twitter-account management is still unsupported. Third-party apps, while greater in number than before, still often lag behind their Android and iOS counterparts in terms of quality; especially troublesome during our testing were Evernote and Foursquare (though the former’s constant failures resulted in a happy accident: they introduced us to the excellent OneNote). While the new voice features baked in to Windows Phone 8 are outstanding, voice dictation still lags behind competing platforms.

In all, Windows Phone 8 on the Lumia 810 offers the same thing to a new user that any platform does: a choice of compromises. Those who value responsiveness, stability, and a bold, pronounced aesthetic in their smartphones will find much to love here. Those who need more bells and whistles, or those for whom mapping and navigation are key concerns, should probably look elsewhere.

Index

Camera

The midrange Lumia 810 lacks the optical image stabilization of the 920, and therefore it also lacks the PureView branding of its more-luxurious sibling. Despite this, the camera packs almost the same raw resolution (8MP vs 8.7MP on the 920) and the same Carl Zeiss optics. In camcorder mode, the 810 can capture video at the same full 1080p resolution as the 920, and there’s also support for Windows Phone 8′s new Lenses capability built into each. On top of all this, the viewfinder software on the 810 offers exactly the same experience as on the 920.

All this is to say that despite the much-ballyhooed “PureView” branding the Lumia 920 enjoys, the experience of shooting stills on the 810 isn’t much different. The results, too, are similar, right down to the artificially-boosted light levels and somewhat fuzzy edges, evident when zooming in. The 810 is a very comfortable device to shoot with; we’ve already mentioned the satisfying tactile response of the shutter button, and the phone’s beefy casing offers a lot of purchase with which to get a stable grip. Users thinking about the involuntary jostle introduced by a physical shutter key needn’t worry; Windows Phone’s tap-to-focus-and-shoot functionality is alive and well here. Thankfully, so too is the platform’s awesome swipe-left-to-gallery action in the viewfinder, still one of our favorite Windows Phone features. Video performance was quite good, offering clear shots and quick white balance correction, though continuous auto-focus was a bit on the slow side. We wish some increasingly-common features like burst shot and the ability to take photos while shooting video were included, but it’s likely we’ll see those soon.

Please note that, due to problems we experienced with the Windows Phone Connector for Mac, some of the photos in this gallery have been compressed. 

Thanks to an impromptu NYC street shoot with Adam Lein, we can also show you how the Lumia 810 camera stacks up against some others on the market today via a 100% crop comparison. Be sure to check out Adam’s Nokia Lumia 920 review for his thoughts on this lineup.

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Performance

Windows Phone is a polarizing platform, a love-it-or-hate-it part of the landscape whose merits and failings have seen endless debate. One thing almost never questioned, though, is the OS’s performance: Windows Phone 7 is almost universally lauded as one of the smoothest operating systems ever, and its sequel seems determined to continue that excellent record. Through all points of the Windows Phone 8 user experience, the Modern UI continues to float along atop a liquid layer of what enthusiasts might call “buttery goodness.” If there were any detrimental effects of transitioning Windows Phone to a new kernel, they aren’t apparent in the UI. That’s just as true on the Lumia 810′s hardware as on any other Windows Phone 8 device.

The Lumia 810 ships with Windows Phone 8′s standard browser, Internet Explorer 10, with support for XML, CSS3, HTML5, HTML 4.1, and CSS. As is becoming typical across mobile devices, there’s no Flash support here. The browser performs well in most use cases, rendering pages quickly and offering good responsiveness overall.  In the SunSpider Javascript Benchmark, the browser achieved a total score of 925.5ms.

The spartan nature of Windows Phone 8 is evident here as well: while tab support has been carried over from Windows Phone 7, there’s not much else in the way of goodies. You won’t find support for anonymous browsing, folder-based bookmark organization, or desktop syncing in the browser’s options. Maddeningly, the inexplicable decision to make the status bar inaccessible from the browser continues in this version of the platform: to check the time, you need to exit to the home screen.

In short, there’s nothing new here — or at least, nothing we haven’t already covered in our Windows Phone 8 review. The Lumia 810 appears to run Windows Phone 8 as well as any other hardware; as we mentioned before, the question buyers will face is where their priorities lie. If they determine that Microsoft’s OS is the platform for them, the 810 will serve them quite well.

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Battery Life

The Lumia 810 delivered above-average endurance over the course of our test period. During one particularly busy day, we unplugged the device at 1:30pm and proceeded to run it hard: an hour’s worth of Netflix and some navigation around town, lots of texts and emails from two accounts flying in and out, social media syncing between two Twitter accounts -one via app and one via People hub- as well as Facebook’s constant syncing -again, courtesy of both app and hub- and almost continuous uptime throughout the day. There was also constant syncing of Evernote and OneNote, and the usual stretch of time spent outside of network coverage on the train. Even under such abuse, the device didn’t die until 2:30am, thirteen hours later.

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Call Quality/Network Performance

We tested the Lumia 810 on its native T-Mobile network in and around Greater Boston, New York City, and the Northeast Corridor joining the two. Results were generally unimpressive, especially given T-Mobile’s continued insistence on labeling its mediocre network “4G.” When we were able to connect to the network, we averaged 4919 Kb/s on the download side -peaking at 8110 Kb/s- and we averaged 1845 Kb/s upstream -peaking at 3204 Kb/s- with generally faster speeds experienced in New York.

That “when we were able to connect” qualifier shouldn’t be overlooked; we found T-Mobile’s network performance in the northeast to be substantially inferior to that of AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint. In several cases, our Lumia 810 couldn’t connect to the network at all in areas where devices on larger carriers had adequate coverage. Other times, full LTE signal was indicated on our Verizon unit, while the 810 reported only 2G connectivity. That’s not a strike against the device, but rather a sobering reminder that T-Mobile USA is the most affordable of the national carriers for a very good reason. Of course, your own experience will depend on coverage conditions where you live and work; you’ll want to research that situation heavily if you’re planning on jumping to T-Mobile from another carrier.

Voice quality was just fine on both sides of the equation with the 810; callers sounded fine to us, and they reported the same about our voice on their end. Both the earpiece and speakerphone delivered clear, loud sound.

Index

Pros

+ Durable, comfortable feel in hand
+ Impressive camera, especially for a midrange device
+ Very smooth, stable OS with beautiful UI
+ Nokia apps improve functionality
+ Excellent battery life

Cons

- Design is thick, uninspired
- Even with Nokia apps, Windows Phone 8 has functionality gaps
- Maps experience is horrible
- Price too high compared to alternatives

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Pricing and Availability

The Nokia Lumia 810 launched November 14th. It’s available at T-Mobile’s website and in retail stores for $149.99 with a two-year contract, though pricing varies depending on the plan selected.

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Conclusion

The Nokia Lumia 810 is T-Mobile’s attempt to stand out from the competition with its own custom variant of a midrange Windows Phone 8 device. In that respect, the phone succeeds: it’s a unique piece of hardware that delivers a serviceable experience overall. We’re not sure why T-Mobile and Nokia decided to depart so drastically from the 820′s design in crafting the 810, but its boxy design, and the suggestion of ruggedness accompanying it, will doubtless appeal to some customers.

We also think the asking price is a little steep for a device like this. $149.99 isn’t a negligible amount for a midrange device, nor is the special $99.99 price point available to customers with qualifying T-Mobile plans. For that same hundred dollars, a customer could walk across the street to an AT&T store and pick up a much higher-end Lumia 920 (though it’s true the monthly cost would probably be higher).

Are the custom apps, above-average camera, and solid battery life enough incentive to lay out a little more dough than usual for a midrange smartphone? Well, we don’t think it’s is the best option for everyone, but if you’re sweet on T-Mobile and Windows Phone, the Lumia 810 is the closest thing to a premium experience you’re going to get from a carrier store. And for all its compromises, there’s a lot to like in this hardy little smartphone.

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Scored For Me

Desktop Version