Lumia 2520: How Nokia's new tablet embodies all of Microsoft's dilemmas in one elegant device

Nokia's Lumia 2520 is a well crafted package, but beyond that tells you much about the state of Microsoft's assault on the tablet market.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

The Lumia 2520 is Nokia's first attempt at building a Windows tablet. The device runs Microsoft's Windows RT, an operating system dropped by other hardware manufacturers who found little appetite for hardware running the OS; as a result, apart from Microsoft itself, Nokia is the only company left still making RT-powered devices now.   

I've been using the Lumia 2520 as my everyday tablet for the last couple of weeks and I like it a lot. However, it seems to embody the issues that Microsoft has to tackle when it comes to tablets and the decisions it needs to make around operating systems and the future of Office. (Nokia's devices business will soon be part of Microsoft when its €5.4bn acquisition is complete, of course, and the pair have been collaborating closely on hardware for several years now).

First, my take on the device itself. As you'd expect from Nokia, one of the great powerhouses of consumer electronics design, the hardware is graceful, well-engineered and nicely built.

The screen, for example, is particularly fine — the 10.1-inch HD display (1920x1080 resolution) is great for watching video. The matte black chassis on the ZDNet review model looks fantastic and even the back of the unit has an lovely Apollo-era sci-fi feel to it. The throb of feedback from the Windows home button makes the tablet feel alive — a nice touch.

The Bing weather app looks great, as does maps (which I prefer to Nokia's Here), and there's an understanding across the device that big, sharp images play well on tablets. There's clearly a strong design principle behind the UI — the tablet as a next-generation magazine; beautiful, curated, interactive.

But it's striking that the 2520 is also still very much a PC experience, including the irritation of Windows updates. That 16:9 aspect ratio screen that makes it so good for watching video also means that I never felt any desire to use the tablet in portrait mode at all, while the lack of a rounded and bevelled corners (such as on the iPad) made holding it for too long quite uncomfortable and had me longing for a kickstand.

And, while an iPad doesn't feel diminished by the lack of a keyboard, to me the 2520 does — in the same way that the Surface only really makes sense with the keyboard attached. As such, there's something a little bereft about this device, almost as if it's mourning its lack of a keyboard, but soldiering on anyway. Still, Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 processor keeps everything zipping along.

The Lumia 2520 runs Windows RT 8.1, which does a fine job of the basics. Unfortunately,  just doing a fine job of the basics doesn't win prizes anymore. While the default apps are nice, the lack of variety available in the Windows Store (compared to Google Play or Apple's App Store) also reinforces the sense that deep down this machine really wants to be a PC.

One of Microsoft's issues is that Windows has never been a competitive advantage when it comes to selling hardware to consumers: for decades, for most people, it was the only choice they really had.

In the tablet world that's no longer the case: few care that their Kindles or iPads don't run on Windows, even fewer that it doesn't have Office.

And worse, because Microsoft was slow to craft its app strategy, developers are far more willing to build their apps for iOS or Android. Having Windows, Windows RT and Windows Phone dilutes that developer interest to all but homeopathic levels, and an operating system is only as good as its ecosystem (as outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously said).

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Microsoft has been too slow to acknowledge and act on this new reality, and that still shows in Windows RT. Microsoft's heritage is in the PC but it's future probably isn't. Windows RT is likely to be a transitional product which is hardly going to encourage consumers to buy; Microsoft needs to decide and clarify its operating system strategy quickly if it wants to build momentum.

Resorting to the wisdom of crowds is occasionally instructive, and if you type 'Nokia 2520' into Google, the first suggestions it throws up are quite telling: price, specs, 'Vs Surface 2', keyboard and 'Vs iPad Air'.

Price is a key consideration and at £400 the price tag on this tablet will do little to persuade Kindle Fire or Android purchasers to think again. Even throwing in the RT version of Office isn't much of a selling point for the Instagram crowd, and again reflects how Microsoft's attitude towards tablets is still inflected with PC era attitudes. There's been some talk of Microsoft giving away Windows RT and Windows Phone to manufacturers in a Google-like move, swapping licence revenue from manufacturers for search and services revenues from consumers. It could work by bringing down cost to end users which is certainly one barrier right now, and it can hardly hurt adoption of Windows RT.

Microsoft's Surface 2 is the only other RT tablet out there (well, that and the mountain of first-generation Surfaces) so it's hardly surprising that Google searchers are trying to compare them, but that also flags another problem for Microsoft: what to do, post-merger, with the Lumia and Surface brands, and how to take the best of Nokia (design, apps) and use it to infuse and inspire Microsoft's products.

All of these issues can be fixed: Microsoft's pockets are deep enough that it can arrive late (as it has done so many times before) to a market and still buy its way in. But it also needs to accept that it is now the new entrant, not the incumbent. Microsoft needs to do something it hasn't had to do for a long, long time — explain why consumers would want a Windows device.

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