Nokia's Lumia 710: Solid Smartphone Faces Windows Phone Challenge

Nokia's Lumia 710 is a well-designed midlevel smartphone running Windows Phone "Mango." But it faces a challenge in Windows Phone's tiny market presence.

The good news for Nokia is that its first Windows Phone for the U.S. market, the Lumia 710, is a solid smartphone.

The bad news for Nokia is that the Lumia 710 is, well, a solid smartphone.

In other words, despite its handsome exterior and smooth user interface, 4G support and respectable battery life (7 hours) and processor (1.4GHz Snapdragon single-core), the Lumia 710 doesn't boast any extraordinary features that would make it stand out for a customer contemplating, say, an iPhone or a higher-end Google Android device. In fact, many aspects of the device are conspicuously ordinary: the 5-megapixel camera, the black backing, the 3.7-inch screen. Nokia argues the latter's 800x480 resolution is enhanced by what it calls ClearBlack technology, but ultimately the display is virtually indistinguishable (in multiple different lighting conditions) from other good-quality screens on the market.

Nokia and T-Mobile, its carrier partner on the venture, recognize that they're marketing a midlevel smartphone. In that spirit, their campaign for an audience focuses on price ($49 with a two-year contract) and Windows Phone's supposed ease of use. This is a device meant for customers who've never owned a smartphone before, they argue, or find some higher-end rivals too intimidating.

Windows Phone "Mango" does offer users a facile experience. Integrating one's various email and social-networking accounts is a snap, and Mango's bevy of new tweaks and features makes Windows Phone a much more robust platform than just over a year ago, when it launched in relatively skeletal form.

Indeed, at this point Windows Phone can offer something for nearly everyone. Frequent shutterbugs will appreciate the ability to activate the camera simply by hitting the mechanical button alongside the phone's frame, as opposed to wasting precious seconds hunting for the camera app. Those who feel compelled to load their new devices with apps will appreciate how Microsoft's app marketplace has expanded over the past few quarters. Other new features, most notably Local Scout, make navigating and finding new places a quick and-depending on the circumstances-even fun process.

For business users, the Office hub includes access to the user's SkyDrive, Office 365 and SharePoint, along with the ability to open Excel, Word and PowerPoint documents. OneNote Mobile syncs notes with SkyDrive, eliminating the need to keep track of notebooks across multiple devices. The whole hub is easy to use, and gives road warriors the ability to perform at least some lightweight tasks while on the move.

The question is whether, tweaked interface aside, Windows Phone can pull users away from iOS or Android. Certainly the design, which concentrates apps and Web content into a series of subject-specific Hubs, seems tailor-made for those who want a fast way to access email and Facebook updates, play a few minutes' worth of Fruit Ninja, and just as promptly forget about their smartphone for another few hours. In other words, users with precious little interest in customizing or altering their device's user interface, or utilizing it as a platform for processes arcane to 99.9 percent of the population. Based on that metric, Windows Phone (at least in theory) should appeal to a significant majority of the population.

Yet Windows Phone has, in fact, failed to seize the imaginations of a huge customer base. Microsoft executives such as CEO Steve Ballmer have acknowledged the low sales, while defending the platform overall as one with significant consumer appeal. Microsoft reportedly plans to more aggressively promote its devices in conjunction with carriers and device manufacturers, a strategy seemingly still in development.

With the Lumia 710, Nokia made all the right moves in crafting a midlevel smartphone with potential appeal to a broad audience. And Windows Phone as a piece of software, thanks to the Mango update, is pretty much ready for primetime. But Nokia's next big hope still faces a considerable challenge thanks to Microsoft's lack of traction in smartphones.

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