Earlier today, Microsoft announced three new additions to its Windows Phone range: the Nokia Lumia 830, Lumia 735 and Lumia 730 (although the latter two are different versions of the same device - the 735 with 4G LTE connectivity, and the 730 with 3G and dual-SIM support).
While the new handsets were being unveiled in Berlin, we joined Microsoft's team in London for the launch, where we had a bit of hands-on time with the Lumia 830 and 735 - just long enough to form some initial impressions, but we'll have to wait until we can review the devices more thoroughly before we can deliver a more complete verdict.
Unlike its cheaper siblings - the Lumia 530, 630 and 635 - the Lumia 735 has a front-facing camera, and indeed, this is the handset's key selling point. "It's time for a better Skype experience, time for a better selfie," Microsoft said, shortly before revealing the device for the first time.
With over 50 billion selfies taken last year, taking photos of oneself is clearly of huge importance to smartphone users around the globe. While Microsoft has succeeded in delivering extraordinary photography experiences on many of its devices, all of these have been focused (if you'll pardon the pun) on the rear-facing or 'primary' camera. With the Lumia 735, Microsoft is putting all of the emphasis on the front-facing camera instead,
The 735 features a 5-megapixel sensor and a wide-angle lens to optimize image capture with the front camera. In my brief time with the device, I took a few quick shots with the selfie-cam and I was really quite surprised by how impressive the results were. As Microsoft itself points out, many of the photos taken with front-facing cameras on other devices are "grainy, out of focus... with poor light saturation".
Four out of the five selfies I took came out remarkably well, although the fifth was, unfortunately, a little blurry. This may simply have been because my hands were shaking from the vast amounts of coffee that I had consumed, but with the lack of optical image stabilization on the front camera, this is something we will need to explore further when we come to review the device in the weeks ahead.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get the images off the device in the short time available (the demo handsets hadn't been set up with any accounts or connectivity), but rest assured that you can look forward to some snaps of me grinning cheesily at the camera in our future review. (The new Lumia Selfie app is available to download from the Windows Phone Store now, and works with Windows Phone 8 and 8.1.)
Even though the attraction of the Lumia 735 is the selfie cam, there is of course much more to the device than this.
Let's start with the design, for example. If you were a fan of the original Nokia Windows Phone, the Lumia 800, you're probably going to love the Lumia 735. The new device is almost like an 800 that's been flattened out a bit with a rolling pin - it has a much larger HD display (4.7-inches at 1280x720px), but it's also a good deal thinner (8.9mm, versus the 800's 12.1mm).
The size is just about perfect for one-handed use - any larger and it can become a real stretch for your fingers to reach every corner of the display, but at this size, using the device with one hand feels pretty comfortable, even for someone who doesn't have giant hands.
At just 134g, the Lumia 735 is also not too heavy, but it still feels remarkably solid, thanks to its polycarbonate build. It feels a good deal more expensive than its €220 EUR price tag, that's for sure. That's a point that Microsoft was keen to emphasize today; the company said that it is "bringing flagship experiences to more affordable devices", and the Lumia 735 seems to be a good example of this.
With such a limited amount of time handling the device, any assessment of the device's performance is more or less meaningless (especially on a brand new handset with so few apps and very little other data installed), but I can say that navigating through the OS was as smooth and speedy as it is on even the most expensive Windows Phone flagships.
Microsoft executives that I spoke with today proudly noted that this is one of the great advantages of Windows Phone - the overall experience of using the OS is universal across all devices, not just in terms of the look and feel, but also in how well the OS performs and runs on the most expensive handsets all the way down to the most affordable ones. The Lumia 735 appears to be no exception to this, but the true test will come in extended real world usage, of course.
There are some features available on higher-end Lumias that won't make it to the 735, though. By far the most annoying is the lack of a hardware camera button - and if you've read our review of the Lumia 630, you'll know how irritating that can be. There's no Glance Screen support either (although this is also missing from the flagship Lumia 930), and that cool new 'Hey Cortana' feature is also MIA (as a Snapdragon 800-series chipset is needed for this, whereas the 735 has a Snapdragon 400).
The new Lumia 830 is just one step above the 735 in Microsoft's Windows Phone range, but the gap between the two handsets seems much larger. Microsoft is positioning the Lumia 830 as "the first affordable flagship" - and at around 30-40% cheaper than most range-toppers, the €330 EUR device is certainly an interesting proposition.
Let's not beat about the bush: the Lumia 830 is a stunning handset, and looks even better in the flesh than it does even in Microsoft's carefully crafted marketing images. It feels like a true flagship when you hold it in your hand for the first time - from the matte polycarbonate rear to the metal 'halo' that runs around the edge of the device.
The design is a curiously elegant amalgamation of elements from several Nokia devices; there are hints of the Lumia 925 in the placement and styling of the rear speaker; the metal frame and bonded polycarbonate rear echo the Lumia 930; and of course the black plate over the camera module is pure Lumia 1020.
To my eyes, it's a successful fusion of these elements - but of course, your opinion on this may vary. The bright orange and green may not be to everyone's tastes, but less ostentatious black and white models are also available. In my brief time with the device, its look and feel completely won me over, and the fact that it is just 8.5mm-thick and 150g greatly adds to its appeal.
The Lumia 830's display is the same size (5-inches) as its pricier Lumia 930 sibling. But where the 930 has an AMOLED screen with Full HD (1920x1080px) resolution, the Lumia 830 makes do with an IPS LCD at 1280x720px.
Don't panic though - the 830's display is rather nice. The lower resolution is hardly an issue - if you'd simply handed me the phone and told me it had a Full HD screen, I'd probably have believed you at first glance (although closer scrutiny would soon reveal that that was not the case). The contrasts are deep, the colours are fairly vibrant and text appears pretty sharp at normal viewing distances, while viewing angles are decent too.
It's a bit much to suggest that this display is truly 'flagship-class', but it still looks pretty good, and I imagine that the majority of users will at least be satisfied with it, if not impressed.
This article is, as mentioned, no substitute for a proper review by any means, but it will hopefully give you some idea of how these devices come across in the flesh.
Indeed, in many ways, the brief amount of time that we had with the two new Lumias is similar to the length of time that potential buyers are likely to spend perusing devices in stores before they make a decision on whether or not to buy - just long enough to appreciate some of the most visible and significant elements of the devices, but not long enough to fully get to grips with how they will perform outside of a controlled environment.
Both the Lumia 730 and the 830 appear to be compelling new handsets in quite different ways - and we will certainly be looking forward to giving them a much more thorough test to see if they live up to their potential.