Hands on with Nokia’s Lumia 920 and Lumia 820

Nokia’s (NOK) press conference on Wednesday definitely had its ups and downs, and investors weren’t convinced that Nokia’s new Lumia 920 and Lumia 820 smartphones will fare well against Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone 5, which is expected to launch on September 21st following next week’s announcement, shares of Nokia stock were trading down more than 13% during Nokia’s presentation. We spent some time with Nokia’s new smartphones on Wednesday morning, however, and they really are a breath of fresh air in many ways.

First, the build quality of these Windows Phone 8 handsets is fantastic. Compared to smartphones from vendors such as Samsung (005930), Motorola and LG (066570), Nokia’s Lumia phones are in a completely different league. There are no flimsy plastic covers or cheap-feeling buttons, just a high-quality unibody plastic case that feels terrific in the hand. Granted, we were only able to spend a minute or so with each handset before our Nokia rep was informed by a colleague that the press wasn’t supposed to handle the devices, but it was long enough to confirm the same great build quality seen on the Lumia 900.

Beyond the build, the “PureMotion HD” display on the Lumia 920 was clearly the star of the show where hardware is concerned. This display is easily among the best we’ve seen on any smartphone, and a quick walk over to a window to get some direct sunlight on the screen what little sunlight there was in New York on Wednesday morning, at least did little to impact visibility. The curved glass adds a nice unique feel to the handset as well, and it really is a solid total package.

Are these two Lumia phones enough to put Nokia and Windows Phone on the map following the lukewarm reception the vendor’s previous Windows Phones received? We’re not sold just yet. Windows Phone 8 brings plenty to the table, but Nokia’s timing is terrible. The most highly anticipated handset of the year, Apple’s iPhone 5, will be announced next week, and it will probably go on sale before the Lumia 920 or Lumia 820 launch. This is a big problem for Nokia and Microsoft alike.

Beyond the competition, one of Windows Phone 8’s biggest selling points will be its deep integration with Windows 8 and likely the next Xbox as well but consumers can’t see the complete picture yet because Windows 8 hasn’t launched. Neither has the next Xbox. Instead, potential users are left looking at sleek designs, an awesome camera, and a platform they know precious little about.

Convincing users to choose the still-emerging Windows Phone platform while everyone they know carries an iPhone or an Android handset would be a very hard sell in a world where Windows 8 had already been widely adopted by consumers. In a world where Windows 8 hasn’t even launched yet, however, the task of selling Windows Phones is exponentially more daunting.

How might the pitch to consumers get even more shaky? Nokia did not share pricing or launch details for either new Lumia phone.

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