Nokia launches dazzling new phones on make-or-break day

David Phelan reports from New York on smartphones and Windows Phone 8

New York

You used to be the biggest-selling phone maker in the world, a spot you’ve held for over a decade and just lost to Samsung. You’ve been struggling to make a success of smartphones for some time now. So what do you do?

This was the conundrum facing Nokia this afternoon as the Finnish company launched two stylish and highly attractive phones in Manhattan. Nokia’s operating system of choice is Windows Phone, a fresh and innovative interface that’s strikingly different from Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android systems.

Microsoft, Nokia and a pair of good-looking handsets – a recipe for success, surely? Both companies are hoping so, and the new phones are laden with cute new features, but with the iPhone 5 being announced next Wednesday, it was important to grab the headlines while they could.

In the event, the two phones, called the Lumia 920 and Lumia 820, are deeply impressive, feeling good in the hand and offering responsive, dazzlingly bright displays. The 920 squeezes a 4.5in screen into its case, the 820 a slightly smaller 4.3in one. Both are designed to be easily readable in even the brightest sunshine – something that defeats many smartphones. Reading your emails while sunbathing is now possible, Nokia promises. Though whether that’s your ideal for a beach holiday may be another matter.

There are lots of software innovations, too. Such as Super Sensitive touch. Capacitive touchscreens, the ones in most smartphones, work by means of a weak electrical field across the display which responds by interruption from another electrical field, ie a finger making contact with it. So they don’t work with gloves or long fingernails.

In what may prove to be a neat differentiator, Nokia announced a proprietary technology which works perfectly evenly with your gloves on (though woolly ones may be a bit slippy on the glossy screen). The display can spot your finger is there even when something – a layer of glove – means it’s not making contact.

The phones also have wireless charging capabilities, so you can plonk them on a charging pillow or pad, or even a compatible speaker, and the phone is rejuiced.

Then there’s Nokia’s emphasis on photography. The 920 has PureView, the Nokia camera tech label. The sensor may not match the 41MP model in the earlier 808 PureView, but this phone is much slimmer in the hand. A combination of optical stabilisation feature and optics designed to suck in five times as much light as many rivals led Jo Harlow, Executive Vice President of Smart Devices at Nokia to claim that it was more advanced than many digital SLR cameras.

“In an SLR, the optical imaging stabilisation, the floating lens is a component in the camera that is floating. In our case it’s the entire camera that is floating, so in that way it’s more advanced,” Ms Harlow told the Independent. This stabilisation allows the shutter to stay open longer without the image becoming blurred.

There are also several eye-catching features like SmartShoot which combines video elements in still photos to bring them to life. And another which lets you delete moving objects from shots. So if you’re taking a portrait of a friend and someone walks through the shot, it saves multiple images, deletes the passer by and leaves you with a perfect photo.

Then there are the Nokia speciality apps which aim to set the company’s phones apart from rival Windows Phone handsets. Like Nokia Drive which allows users to download maps in advance, for free. Then the phone can be used as a capable satnav with turn-by-turn directions without using up those data costs that mount up outrageously when abroad.

Now, those downloadable maps will work in the sister app Nokia Maps and both can now do fun things like calculate how long your commute will take. You’ll never be late again, right?

New apps that were announced include Nokia City Lens, an augmented reality program so that when you hold the phone up in front of a street it shows the names of shops and restaurants floating in the air onscreen.

But Windows Phone isn’t the only phone operating system in town. Next week, Apple launches its iPhone 5 with accompanying updated software and BlackBerry has its desperately needed BlackBerry 10 refresh.

Last week, RIM, makers of BlackBerry, exclusively talked to the Independent about the new system and it’s undeniably good stuff, with innovations that will appeal to consumer and business users alike. The phenomenon of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) where companies encourage staff to use their own phones for work use has hit BlackBerry’s dominance of enterprise.

So the new handsets, which are sleek and surprisingly glamorous in their design, aim to attract customers who want just one phone but still want it to be as secure as BlackBerry handsets are known to be.

BlackBerry 10 will have around 100,000 apps when it launches in January. The only fear is that for RIM, and for Nokia, its latest actions may have come too late to make a difference.

Perhaps not. Some users complain that Apple’s system has become over familiar and that Android, with endless updates arriving sporadically across different handsets, is too chaotic. If Nokia or BlackBerry can ride that wave of discontentment, their cutting edge software, matched with great phones like those launched by Nokia today, could be enough to change the game.

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