Nokia's back, and they're here with their best game this time around. Too long has Nokia been dormant in the US handset market, a market which is as ruthless and cutthroat as they come. While they managed to maintain a sizable worldwide market with their Symbian-based operating system, Americans weren't quite as thrilled to see handset after handset running the been-there-done-that operating system on handset after handset, no matter how much the hardware changed. Very little did it help that Symbian experienced a very crude and awkward move from button-based navigation to the first S60 touchscreen-based devices, being merely patched up and shipped out. If anything, that approach did more harm for Nokia than anything, driving the biggest share of the market far, far away.
However what you're looking at this time around doesn't tick like your first Nokia, the one which came with the universally-known Snakes game capable of making even the most lengthy of commutes quite a trivial matter. Never mind the fact that Nokia managed to make their name synonymous with "boring" here in the States during the past few years, because this time Nokia is playing for keeps. They've tag-teamed their effort with Microsoft and released three phones of late with a Microsoft Windows Phone 7 brain at the center of the action. Beginning by retooling the design of the N9 to fit the hardware requirements of the WP7 UI with a smaller display and some soft keys, the Lumia 800 was released internationally but not given a very big marketing effort in the US.
Many began to ask... what's the big deal with the Nokia/Microsoft partnership if nobody (here (in the USA)) ever gets to experience the result for themselves? As it turns out, Nokia wasn't simply sitting back and relaxing, as two new phones were released specifically for the US market, although the one concerned in this review had an international release as well: the Lumia 710 on T-Mobile USA and the new king of the hill, the Lumia 900 for AT&T. While the latter is definitely a premium device designed for the American market (and as of yet has no announced plans for an international debut), the 710 is aimed at a much different market.
If you wish to learn who exactly the 710 was designed for and what makes it special in detail, then continue reading. Otherwise, if the Lumia 710 is a device you are giving serious thought to and you're here to read more about whether or not you'll regret the purchase, then I'll tell you this right now: it is my opinion that you will not ever regret it. There is no reason to read another word further, because this Lumia is akin to that first Nokia you had, with all of the refinements and upgrades phones since then have enjoyed while still maintaining that special cozy Nokia-feel. For what I mean exactly, read on.
As the second WP7 device I've had the pleasure of owning (I say that loosely, because technically this device has been put into my possession under the agreement that I'll be sending it back once it's asked for), playing around with the WP7 UI wasn't immediately on my list of things to do. I was, however, initially intrigued by how my interacting with the UI would be affected by the much smaller 3.7" LCD, for example. I also wanted to see exactly how well Nokia had managed to create a WP7 device for the budget-minded in addition to how they managed to differentiate themselves from what is a growing portfolio of WP7-powered devices.
To start things off in reviewing the 710 it's important to note that this is a $50-or-less device on-contract from T-Mobile (or $350 without a contract and presumably unlocked). This is important to note, as T-Mobile doesn't currently offer any other smartphone with this much bang-for-your-buck at a price point under $100. However much more expensive devices do exist, so this is something to keep in mind. The ideal consumer for this phone is the not-yet-converted feature- or dumb-phone user that has decided to take the plunge and see what owning a smartphone is all about, those who shop on a budget or those who have simply become tired, bored and frustrated with iOS and Android.
The overall aesthetic of the 710 is part familiar and part new without too much of a foreign departure. Set next to the Nokia 700 and 701 handsets, it is obvious that many features have carried over and yet certain features present mostly for design's sake have been left on the cut away to give everything a nice clean look. From a big-picture starting point, the phone has one flat plane which makes up the face of the device, interrupted only by a small earpiece cutaway and the physical buttons located below the display. Wrapping around the back, literally, is a piece of soft-touch plastic that curves around the back edges of the phone. This is also the removable battery cover that can be replaced with a plethora of colorful options to spice up one's phone.
On top of the device is where Nokia has put most of the important power and connectivity-related items. A Micro-USB port for computer syncing, 3.5mm audio jack and the power/standby button are all situated on this plane. The centrally located 3.5mm jack's central location does a lot for the phone's overall aesthetic, though not absolutely necessary. Gone is the dust-flap cover and LED charge-indicator that used to accompany the Micro-USB port on older Nokias, but those were just as useful as they were annoying; the cover used to get in the way and make accessing the port a bother and the indicator light, while useful for checking charge status at a glance, was bright enough to cause a disturbance in a dark room at night when trying to sleep.
This is where the real question gets to be asked: how's it all work? When Nokia's hardware gets coupled with Microsoft's software, who wins? Well, in a nutshell, everybody. Windows Phone 7 isn't something that everybody is going to like, I'll admit to that right now. Power users will crave for root access and linux-based roots while the "Think Different" crowd will continue to sheepishly buy the latest phone that is preceded by an over-used and all-too-familiar vowel.
But once in a while, the same power user will ask himself why he wanted root access and begin to look for a refreshing alternative that doesn't begin with a vowel. Simultaneously the white-headphone-toting me-too kid will ask himself why he is spending such a premium on a device that's essentially being repackaged each year with a new price tag. And when they see Nokia's name on a product in-store they'll wander over to see what new laughable product Nokia has brought out this year, while reminiscing over their love for their first Nokia handset, when suddenly their jaw will drop and they'll be sold on the spot, unable to believe that their beloved Nokia has finally hit the gym, had a haircut and is suddenly getting compliments left and right.
It won't matter that the operating system is still relatively young and their favorite apps from ecosystem this or ecosystem that hasn't been ported over yet, because they're having too much of a blast using a device that lets them live their life instead of focus on working the device. Clean. Simple. Quick. Ready to go, right from the box, with cloud support. The best on-screen keyboard they've ever used. And it's a Nokia, a brand they've always had a place in their heart for.
That's just the story of the converts, though. For then there's the tale of the smartphone holdout, who isn't quite ready to make the plunge. Ever since their first (few) Nokia phones, all quite similar to one another at least from a software level, they've been trying to find a phone that they can understand and use without being bothered by apps everywhere, confusing menus and multitasking spiraling out of control. When they see Nokia's name, they walk over and pick it up. It has a familiar heft and size to the candybar Nokias they owned in the past. Once they find the power button, they figure out the UI within a minute, less time than it took them to understand how to even change the volume on their first Nokia. This is just the kind of invitation they were looking for, and they confidently take the plunge into the smartphone era.
But I almost forgot! Just in case the familiarity of the modern hardware wasn't enough to win you over, there's Nokia tweaks to be found in the software as well. Present here is an exclusive (to Nokia) ESPN app, which offers one-glance access to the most important information one might want. (I'll leave reviewing this app to others more in-the-know with these sorts of apps.) There's also the Nokia Blue theme that one can select for the Metro tile UI, which sounds gimmicky but actually manages to put an entirely different and highly desirable mood into the interaction experience.
Worth its own paragraph is Nokia's Drive application, seen on earlier Nokia devices under many different names, but essentially the same with many updates. Free offline turn-by-turn navigation is the name of the game here, though simple mapping is also possible as well. All one has to do is download the applicable maps ahead of time via WiFi in addition to the navigation voice they wish to use and away they go. Forget to download the map before leaving home? No problem, Nokia Drive can buffer the necessary parts of the map over the cellular data connection. Maps exist for pretty much the entire world, at no cost, a very good reason to go Nokia over other manufacturers on a WP7 purchase.
The overall feeling left by the Nokia 710 is one of a very complete device, which is something of a head-scratcher for a user of many past Nokias, as I can't quite remember one that I didn't have at least a few suggestions for improvements. Battery life is good, but it could be exceptional, the same as it could with just about every other electronic gadget out there so this isn't anything new.
At the end of the day, I can't help but secretly adore the 710. Being a bit of a nerd, I also can't help but secretly lust for a Lumia 800 or 900, as they are the arguably "better" devices but, being a T-Mobile USA subscriber, the lack of 3G on my network has driven the idea of buying one far away. The Lumia 710, on the other hand, is virtually identical to its big brothers, cameras and display size/technology excluded. As I said at the beginning of this review, if someone were to tell me they were looking at a Lumia 710 and didn't know whether or not to get it, I wouldn't hesitate to encourage the purchase and then commend them on their decision. The Lumia 710 is that good.
Would I ever buy this phone? Yeah, I would. I don't even know why that had to be a question. Nokia is back, and they're playing for keeps on this one.