EXCLUSIVE: How Nokia Built The Phone That Will Save Windows Phone

vance kim nokiaVance Kim, Product Marketing Manager for Nokia.

Photo: Ellis Hamburger, Business Insider

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, Nokia absolutely blew away the competition.Nokia’s booth was always mobbed, and its brand new Lumia 900 Windows Phone won “best in show” from various big-time publications.

In short, the Lumia 900 is Windows Phone’s best hope of escaping its minuscule market share (and mindshare) in the smartphone market.

It will launch on AT&T’s 4G LTE network within the next few months. (Early reports suggest March.)

I was lucky enough to sit down with Vance Kim, Product Marketing Manager for Nokia in the United States, to talk about the Lumia 900—a product he has toiled over for almost a year.

“We don’t see the daylight some days,” Kim mentioned, and that’s precisely why the Lumia 900 is so incredibly good.

Skip the story and check out pictures of the Lumia 900 here >

It’s All In The Details
Kim explained that with the Lumia, Nokia sought to “get it right” on its first shot. Nokia, unlike just about every other smartphone manufacturer at CES, only had three phones in its booth: the Lumia 710 (entry level 4G T-Mobile device), the Lumia 800 (high-end 3G device for Europe and Canada), and the Lumia 900 (high-end 4G device for AT&T).

One aspect of the Lumia 900 that Kim is particularly proud of is how solid the phone feels in your hands. It doesn’t flex when you squeeze it, like most plastic phones

nokia lumia 900 10

Photo: Ellis Hamburger, Business Insider

Kim had me grab the device with two hands and try to break it. No luck. The injection-moulded chunk of polycarbonate plastic refused to budge.

The device itself has no seams, top or bottom. It’s one solid piece of hard plastic that’s soft to the touch.

“We have two floors of our facility dedicated to trying to break the device,” Kim said. “Never underestimate the first tactile feel a user experiences when they pick it up.”

Nokia’s design lab in San Diego doesn’t stop there. Phones undergo the notorious “tumbler test” where they’re subjected to a washing machine full of rocks for hours. There’s even a machine that scratches phones for days with a key-like instrument.

Take a break and check out a 6-minute tour of the Lumia 900 with Vance:

Despite months of design and testing, the Lumia 900 Nokia demoed at CES is not quite finished and needs a bit more polishing before launch. “The buttons are not proud enough yet,” Kim said about the chrome side-buttons of the Lumia 900.

Proud is design lingo for “not protruding enough.” Most people will likely never notice the subtle differences Kim and his team will make before the product launches.

Why Nokia Didn’t Launch The Lumia 800 In The States
Frankly, I like the Lumia 800 more than the Lumia 900, but apparently I’m not the typical American consumer. While I prefer a sub 4-inch screen (the Lumia 800 has a 3.7-incher), AT&T insisted on a much larger screen (4.3 inches) for Nokia’s high-end U.S. debut.

While AT&T had some say in how the Lumia 900 would be different from its European counterpart, Nokia also made some adjustments itself based on its perceptions of the U.S. market.

nokia lumia 900 lumia 900 topsThe top of the Lumia 900 (left) has an exposed USB port, whereas the 800’s USB port is under a flimsy door.

Photo: Ellis Hamburger, Business Insider

Europeans like the “door” that protects the Micro-USB port, Kim noted, whereas Americans want something a little different.

While some have complained about the phone’s USB port being on top (versus on the bottom), Kim said that this was an intentional choice. It might be a little more difficult to talk on the phone while you’re charging it, but many people use their smartphone in the car, and having a USB port on top means it can rest comfortably in your cup holder. 

Ultimately, the Lumia 900 just had to be a lot bigger because Nokia had to cram in a larger screen, 4G LTE radio, and a front-facing camera. Kim asked me, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is to stuff a bunch of antennas into a device this small?”

The Lumia 900 isn’t small by any means, but it feels thin. It’s weighted evenly in your hands. It’s impeccable industrial design.

“We’ve been working on this device for 20 years, though,” Kim argued. “It all starts with data, so it’s impossible to pinpoint when work began. Smartphones begin life as ideas. A smartphone is a device that does X, and with this one, we’re going after the high end.”

The 900’s Backside Is As Meticulously Designed As Its Front
Another difference between the Lumia 800 and Lumia 900 is the placement of the LED flash on its back. On the 800, the flash is placed above the camera, whereas on the 900, the flash is placed to the camera’s left.

“We wanted to keep a family resemblance,” Kim said, “but we also realised that putting the flash above the device’s camera is preferred, since people often take pictures in a horizontal orientation. The pictures come out better.”

nokia lumia 900 lumia 900 backs

Photo: Ellis Hamburger, Business Insider

If you look closely, the Lumia 900’s camera bezel says “Carl Zeiss” instead of NOKIA in big letters. Why? “Because if you look at the lens on high-end cameras, the ring around the lens doesn’t say the camera manufacturer, it says who made the lens.”

Another treat for camera nerds is the Lumia 900 camera’s widescreen aspect ratio. Unlike conventional smartphones, which shoot in rectangular 4:3, the 900 shoots in widescreen 16:9, almost like a movie.

Lastly, we asked Kim about when the device would launch on AT&T. He couldn’t confirm a launch date, but we’ve since heard from an independent source that the device could launch as soon as March.

The Lumia's 4.3 inch screen and ClearBlack technology make Windows Phone tiles pop.

The Lumia is a good deal bigger than the iPhone.

Here's the Lumia 800 (left) and the 900 (right).

The Lumia 900 (far right) will come in cyan and black, like its cousin.

There's an 8MP camera with a Carl Zeiss lens and dual flash on its back.

Unlike the Lumia 800, the 900 doesn't have a flimsy SIM card slot, which we like.

The side of the device features a volume rocker, lock button, and camera shutter button (bottom).

There's a 1 MP front-facing camera on the top left corner of the device. The Lumia 800 disappointingly did not have a front-facing camera for video chats.

The Lumia 900 (left) and the Lumia 800 (right).

The top of the Lumia 900 (left) and the Lumia 800 (right).

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.