Refined Nokia, HTC Phones gamble on Microsoft

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How should we think about the Nokia Lumia 920 and HTC 8X?

Should we view them as the twin flagships of Microsoft's new Windows Phone 8 operating system? By that standard, they're impressive: two polished, highly capable new devices that show off Microsoft's colorful, innovative software to great effect.

Or do we take into account external issues, like the business struggles of both companies and the fact that WinPhone 8 versions of such critical applications as Spotify, Instagram and Pinterest are missing in action? In that case, these look more like desperate efforts by two also-rans in hardware to hitch their fates to an also-ran in mobile-device software.

I prefer to think the former. But a little caution is in order.

On the surface, Windows Phone 8 looks a lot like its predecessor, Windows Phone 7. It preserves the same distinctive, tile-based interface, albeit with a few tweaks.

You can now, for instance, choose from three sizes of tiles, giving you additional control over your start screen. New "Kid's Corner" parental controls let you lock down certain features and content before you hand the phone over to Junior to play with.

While the visible changes are few, things are vastly different beneath the hood. Essentially, Microsoft pulled out the engine and rebuilt it from scratch.

Powerful processors

The operating system now supports more powerful processors and higher-resolution screens than Windows Phone 7 could handle. The flip side is that apps written for the new software won't run on WinPhone 7 hardware.

As for the new phones, if you put the Lumia 920 and 8X side by side, it isn't easy to tell them apart. The Lumia has a marginally larger screen -- 4.5 inches, versus 4.3 inches for the 8X -- but both displays are beautiful, with bright colors, deep blacks and even more pixels per square inch than the iPhone 5's 4-inch Retina display.

The glass is also rounded at the corners and framed by very thin bezels. Both phones have polycarbonate bodies and are available in a selection of colors.

Pick them up, though, and a big difference becomes apparent: The Lumia is a brick.

Heavy duty

At 6.5 ounces, it's one of the heaviest current-model smartphones -- 65 percent heavier than Apple's iPhone 5 and 39 percent heavier than the Samsung Galaxy S III, which has a larger screen. It's even heavier than Samsung's Galaxy Note II, which, with its enormous 5.5-inch screen, is almost more tablet than phone.

And speaking of tablets, the Lumia is almost 50 percent thicker than an iPad mini. In short, this is one big hunk of hardware.

There are, however, offsetting benefits.

Start with the price: In the US, the Lumia costs only $100 on a two-year contract with AT&T. For that, you get a generous 32 gigabytes of storage, a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor and, a specialty of Nokia's, a high-quality 8.7- megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics.

It also runs over AT&T's ultrafast 4G LTE network, if you're lucky enough to live in one of the 100 or so markets where the service has been rolled out.

Neat extras

Then there are the extras. One is the ability to charge the phone wirelessly simply by laying it on top of an optional $49 charging pad. (AT&T is including the pad for a limited time at no extra cost.) And there's an excellent maps application. (Nokia owns Navteq, one of the world's major providers of geographic data.)

While the Lumia 920 is so far available only on AT&T, HTC's 8X is appearing on both AT&T and Verizon Wireless, where it can access LTE, as well as on T-Mobile, whose non-LTE "4G" network generally provides slower speeds. The Verizon version also supports wireless charging, though I wasn't able to try it out since my test unit was from AT&T.

The 8X has the same processor as the Lumia 920 but costs twice as much for half the storage: $200 for 16 gigabytes. (AT&T is also offering an eight-gigabyte model for $100.) It also has a less-beefy battery (though both should get you through a full day of normal use) and an eight-megapixel camera that's OK, but that I didn't like as much as the Lumia's.

On the other hand, the 8X is a far more compact package, both lighter -- 4.6 ounces -- and thinner. And HTC has put some extra effort into the audio, including Beats technology and an amplifier for cranking up the volume.

So that's your choice: value, power and camera versus comfort, elegance and sound. With just a little question mark about what the future holds for all three companies.

By Rich Jaroslovsky
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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