Nokia Lumia 920 review

It's been almost a year to the day since we reviewed Nokia's first Windows Phone and now we're staring at its second-generation flagship, the Lumia 920. Since the Lumia 800, Nokia's taken a pretty big role in improving Windows Phone's standing in a crowded (but lucrative) smartphone battlefield. While it may be sharing the spotlight with the new HTC 8X, this slab of hewn polycarbonate has garnered plenty of admirers. No doubt, a large chunk of those would-be phone buyers are, for better and worse, lusting after the phone's PureView imaging tech -- and after our early tests, it looks like it could be just as impressive as the lossless optical zoom seen on the PureView 808.

The Lumia 920 dominated Nokia's presentation at Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 press event a few months ago, with the smaller Lumia 820 barely getting a look-in. It's got a "better-than-HD" 1,280 x 768, 4.5-inch high-contrast IPS display, built-in contactless charging, solid build quality and more of Nokia's exclusive software additions. This time, at least on hardware specifications, the company aims to put its flagship on equal footing with the likes of the Galaxy S III and the iPhone 5. Can Nokia's biggest and (literally) brightest smartphone maintain its place at top of the Windows Phone pile? How does that camera fare with extended use? And will the Lumia 920 offer enough to pull you away from Android or iOS for your next phone?

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Nokia Lumia 920 review

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Nokia Lumia 920 review (AT&T model)

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Nokia

Nokia Lumia 920

Pros

  • Rich display
  • Smooth video capture
  • Best-in-class low-light camera performance

Cons

  • Some softness in photos
  • Device feels unwieldy
  • App selection still lacking
  • Sluggish refresh on social networks
Summary

It's Nokia's greatest Windows Phone yet. The Lumia 920 packs a superb screen with great visibility and sensitivity, but the camera gives a mixed performance.

Hardware

We'll be frank: Nokia has crafted one substantial smartphone. After experiencing the curves and lightness of HTC's Windows Phone 8X (4.5 ounces), the Lumia 920 makes the scales tremble at 6.5 ounces. While other phone makers are pushing the limits of lightweight materials and structures, this beast is noticeably heavier and feels bigger in comparison to almost every other recent phone. Granted, Nokia's Windows Phone flagship has a larger 4.5-inch screen, but that incremental difference (HTC's display is 4.3 inches wide) doesn't completely explain how different the two Windows Phones feel in-hand. Measuring the pair, the Lumia 920 is 0.42 inch thick to the 8X's 0.4 inch. Their footprints are also comparable. But the 8X's tapered edges felt more at home in our hands than this new Lumia. That said, we were able to reach the outer reaches of that PureMotion HD+ screen. What's more, despite that larger screen size, one-handed navigation is quite possible, though it might be a stretch for smaller hands.

Thankfully, Nokia has carried across several design licks from the Lumia 800 and avoids one of the hardware design complaints we had with its bigger brother. Yep, this particular phone's screen curves into the frame and doesn't awkwardly protrude like the one found on the Lumia 900. Our white model -- unfortunately those eye-catching yellow and red models weren't available for review just yet -- has a glossy (but fingerprint- and smudge-prone) coating, but if you're looking for another matte-finish smartphone, thankfully the black AT&T LTE version has that shine-free look.

DNP Nokia Lumia 920 review Something something PureView

However, it's nonetheless another beautifully crafted smartphone from the Nokia design team, with tiny details like micro-drilled holes in the base for the pair of loudspeakers reminding you that this is a company that knows how to make desirable hardware -- even if the final product is a bit weighty. The rounded sides and that slightly curved back make this phone easier to grip than its predecessors. This time around, there's also a darker finish on both the rear camera unit and the physical buttons lined up on the right edge (update: these are actually ceramic and according to Nokia, will be less prone to scratches), while the flash is the only other detail on the otherwise smoothly curved back. Along the flat top edge, you'll find the pin-accessible micro-SIM slot (no nano-SIM just yet), some tiny perforations that connect to the secondary mic and headphone socket. The lower edge offers immediate access to the micro-USB port and the aforementioned two speakers.

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Around front, the 920's 4.5-inch screen is underlined with a slightly thick bezel that houses the capacitive Windows button trio. These all light up and, as we'll also cover in the display section, they all work through your winter gloves or freshly manicured nails. Along the top of the screen, Nokia branding has this time been ushered to the right corner, with the earpiece housed above center of the screen. Both the ambient light sensor and a front-facing 1.2-megapixel camera take their place between the two. Underneath the screen, Nokia has installed Qi contactless charging for the phone's 2,000mAh battery. Our review model arrived with a contactless charging pad to test it out with, and it works exactly how it should, resting the majority of the phone on top of the pad will start it charging immediately, if slowly. The non-removable battery is tasked with powering a dual-core Snapdragon S4, alongside 1GB of RAM and a generous 32GB of storage. Microsoft's also throwing in 7GB of cloud storage for any new SkyDrive accounts and though it's quite possible you're already grandfathered into 25GB, there's no microSD slot for expanding the physical memory.

As is to be expected, our global model crams in quad-band radios with GSM / GPRS / EDGE (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900MHz), UMTS / HSPA+ (850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100MHz) and LTE (800 / 900 / 1800 / 2100 / 2600MHz) bands, while the device will launch exclusively on AT&T in the US, and only on (for now) EE in the UK -- the country's first 4G network. And if there's no 4G near you yet? Well DC-HSPA+ (42Mbps) is also stuffed inside that polycarbonate shell.

Display

The Lumia 920's screen packs so much new stuff from Nokia that they even wrote their own white paper on what's going on behind that sliver of curved glass -- we've linked to it at the bottom of this review. The 4.5-inch, 1,280 x 768 enhanced IPS screen is titled PureMotion HD+, and while the 332ppi means Windows Phone 8 looks crisp and images are superbly showcased, new technology here also improves the screen's transition response. While typical IPS LCDs have an average pixel transition time of 23ms, the Lumia 920 apparently trounces it with an average of 9ms. Can you tell the difference in real life? Well, barely -- we noticed reduced blur as we poked around the UI and swung the camera around. It's unlikely to be immediately noticeable to new smartphone users, but we can't fault Nokia for trying to push the envelope.

Conversely, the Lumia 920's outdoor performance is a true selling point. While the Lumia 900 was no slouch in outdoor performance, the Windows Phone 8 sequel boosts contrast, brightness and color composition, meaning photos and websites are noticeably clearer -- and games and apps are easier to pilot under bright lights. Nokia has also improved its ambient light sensor, and we found the screen not only adjusted faster to lighting changes, but noticeably cranked up both color and contrast settings to improve viewing depending on whatever environment we were in. While November isn't the best time to test a phone's screen against full sunlight, we had no problems with the screen outdoors or under harsh show floor spotlights. These winter months, however, did prove ideal for steering the Synaptics-powered capacitive screen while wearing gloves, and the phone performed just as well as it did when it was first unveiled. The surface even picks up nails and some pens -- something we had no fear of testing ourselves thanks to the protection offered by a coating of Gorilla Glass.

Camera

Nokia Lumia 920 review Windows Phone 8 and a little bit of camera magic

Where to start? Reading down the Lumia 920's spec sheet, there's plenty to get us excited: an 8.7-megapixel backside-illuminated sensor paired with an f/2.0 autofocus Carl Zeiss lens, the return of Nokia's PureView branding, the promise of superb low-light performance, 1080p video capture, and (on both stills and video) optical image stabilization -- the first floating lens and sensor in a phone that will ignore minor trembles while letting in more light. So after all that build up, does the Lumia 920 live up to that PureView appellation? Well, that's a little harder to say.

Firstly, Nokia seems to be a bit limited as to how much it can bring to Windows Phone 8 camera UI. Load up the camera app (or hold the physical camera button) and you'll be greeted with a familiar camera interface -- it's simple, but a little sparse. Sure, compared to the all tweaks and options available to 808 PureView users, this might disappoint, but given that we were supremely impressed by that Symbian device's shots on auto, we weren't all that worried. Nokia's tried to amend this to some extent by adding its extra functionality through the Windows Phone 8's Lens system. Both from the Windows Phone marketplace (and from Nokia's own collection) you can install panorama functions, burst shot and even a GIF maker; these apps can be accessed both from the phone's program list and the arrow icon inside the camera UI.

We got to work shooting samples and seeing how the Lumia 920 stacked up against both its PureView predecessor and current smartphone heavyweights. Throughout the course of our testing, we pitted Nokia's new Windows Phone against a number of other capable cameraphones, including the 808 PureView, the HTC One X+, Apple iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S II and Galaxy Note II and the LG Optimus G. We came into these testing scenarios with exceedingly high expectations, and in extremely low-light situations, where most phones fall flat on their face, the Lumia 920 indeed hit its stride. Yes, there was often some ISO noise to be seen and the results weren't always spectacular, but the 920's low-light shots were always the best of the bunch. Images were blur-free and reasonably clear, a definite improvement from the frequent messy quality induced by longer shutter times in the other cameras. Everything from contrast to color reproduction in low-light imagery was truly superior in the 920 to any other shooter we sampled it against, living up to Nokia's claims on that front.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for daytime photography. Here the tables were often turned, with the 920 frequently producing shots that were subtly soft. Different situations showed the problem more than others, but it was consistent across all shot types, whether macro or focusing on subjects farther away. We made doubly sure the lens was smudge-free and tested on four separate 920s to be sure, but on each we saw the same symptoms. It's as if the lens mechanism isn't quite focusing correctly. We spoke with Nokia at length about this and were told it's at least in part thanks to some pending software tweaks to increase sharpness -- but that doesn't explain why we didn't see any such aberrations when we visited Finland to test a 920 last month. This softness often resulted in some excess fuzziness in low-light too, but we found we could compensate by lowering the exposure settings to -1/3 or -2/3.

That's not to say the daytime images looked bad, necessarily -- in fact they generally looked reasonably good. But in this case, the Lumia 920 failed to consistently deliver images that beat the rest. In fact, it was often the 920 that ranked mid-pack compared to the heavy-hitters we listed earlier. Another minor complaint was the white balance, often off in cloudy conditions outdoors (the 808 PureView had similar issues with fluorescents indoors), left some of our shots with a yellowish tinge -- the manual settings did remedy this, however.

We look forward to testing the revised software on the device to see if it improves things, and we genuinely hope it does, but for now 920 shoppers may be forced to choose whether high-quality photography in the dark is truly enough to make up for occasionally middling performance when the sun is out. It's worth reiterating that the smartphone's image stabilization is a marvel, rescuing some shots we thought would be a blurry mess. It's another example of genuine innovation coming from Nokia -- but it's not quite there yet.

We also found that the Lumia had difficulty metering the scenes we presented. We often had to decide between capturing a detailed skyline or a well-lit subject. An HDR mode certainly wouldn't go amiss. Admittedly, the low-light performance, as we'd already teased, beat everything else outright, but that performance has somehow cost your well-lit images a degree of detail you might not want to give up. We suggest take a look through our image gallery -- we were sure to run the camera phone through as many different environments as we could. Noise artifacts are low (again, especially in low light) and file sizes suggest that Nokia hasn't compressed much away. But we can't fight our disappointment with these results; after all that fanfare, the all-round imaging performance still leaves something to be desired.

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Nokia Lumia 920 sample shots

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Nokia 808 Pureview comparison sample shots

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Samsung Galaxy Note II comparison sample shots

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HTC One X+ comparison sample shots

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LG Optimus G (13MP) comparison sample shots

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Apple iPhone 5 comparison sample shots

In better news, video capture is crisp and amazingly stable -- thanks to that OIS. Walking with the phone introduces minimal stutter -- especially compared to what we're used to on other smartphones, while autofocus is able to latch on to points of interest quickly. You'll make the prettiest video clips you've ever seen on smartphone, all lacking any motion sickness-inducing shuttering. As you might see in our samples, the phone often produced some slightly muted colors in our videos -- though we reckon this was still an accurate representation of the scene. Similarly, sometimes the auto-white balance would change in the middle of filming, meaning our videos would occasionally jump from warm yellows to cool blues and greens; something that would certainly benefit from some software adjustments.

Software

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We'll leave the finer details of Windows Phone 8 to our in-depth review, but it's worth touching on how WP8 fares on the new Lumia. The slightly more customizable Live Tiles give you something to mess around with as soon as you switch it on -- and they still feel fresh, if only incrementally different from what we became accustomed to with Windows Phone 7. Covering some familiar software highlights; Nokia Maps is a superb app and free turn-by-turn navigation is hard to sniff at. Also, Internet Explorer 10 is swift, and looks sharp on the Lumia 920's high-response PureDisplay.

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Nokia Lumia 920 screenshots

The Live Tiles are a common-sense setup and are easy to understand and adjust, while everything is largely organized in a sensible way. However, plenty of issues still remain; the lengthy refresh time for social apps like Twitter and Facebook, lightweight Google integration (which is admittedly better than what Microsoft's mobile OS offered in the past), and the jarring gap in app selection. While Microsoft was quick to claim it's catching up, the new iteration (at the time of this review) oddly lacks Spotify, already out on Windows Phone 7, while the likes of Dropbox, Instagram and Flipboard still remain absent.

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The gaming selection, despite the Xbox Live connection, seems littered with titles of yesteryear and doesn't give mobile gamers enough to pull them away from the rich delights of both iOS and Android. Xbox SmartGlass replaces the My Xbox Live app, handing you another way to interact with your console. The full version requires an Xbox Live subscription (and a capable broadband connection), and throws up some touchscreen controls that map to controller buttons along with a content browser. SmartGlass-compatible content is signposted with its own icon, although unfortunately not all of it (notably Xbox Video) has been switched live just yet.

We were able to connect to Netflix, but again, this requires a subscription. The contents don't appear to be fully fleshed-out yet -- presumably more contents will go live when the devices hit stores and while a keyboard is available when you browse through the phone, some parts of the Xbox UI still require typing through the UI -- and controller. We'd love to see further (possibly in-game) integration using Windows Phone as Microsoft continues to flesh out the feature -- because at the moment, there's not much here for us to do. We'll stick with the controller.

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While our ecosystem complaints remain, Nokia has continued to offer its own "hero" apps, and even improved some of them in the process. Nokia Music continues to expand its music offering, despite obvious competition. The app itself now supports Dolby sound and has its own built-in seven-channel equalizer, while the gig finder feature now taps into location data for search results. The app will even spin out navigation results and the ability to buy tickets for your show of choice -- as long as they're still available. While anyone that's already signed up to Spotify, (or Pandora) will likely ignore the function, Mix radio still offers a raft of free (mainstream and not) music to stream and download, with the ability to take several playlists offline for use anywhere.

Unsurprisingly, Nokia's included plenty of additional camera and imaging apps, ranging from the reality-augmenting City Lens, which was more than capable of leading us to the nearest cafe or pub across London, to the GIF-crafting skills of Cinemagraph. However, that last one feels like it isn't quite ready for public use just yet. After recording a brief clip, you can then select areas of the image to keep animated, while pausing the rest. This file can be then shared as a GIF file -- well, at least through a convoluted upload to SkyDrive.

We were unable to get our animated pictures to send through email, Twitter or Facebook without the files being automatically converted to JPEG. In the end, the SkyDrive option does give you the animation, and even the chance to embed into your own blog, but it's a convoluted workflow for what could be a fun little extra. You'll also need a SkyDrive account just to see your uploaded pictures. Yep, Microsoft's cloud storage, while stitched into the very seams of the Windows Phone 8 is often rather unintuitive, especially when it comes to transferring pre-existing images to our phone. We just wanted to make the most of those photo tiles, but we found both the web and mobile side to the cloud storage system unclear and frustrating.

Performance and battery life

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Alongside that newer software comes fresher hardware -- and the arrival of dual cores on Windows Phone. The Lumia 920 packs a 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 processor, meaning it's more than capable of breezing through transitions, content-dense websites and the current crop of available games. We've tested the phone on WPBench and AnTuTu, both Windows Phone 7 benchmarking apps that aren't calibrated for the latest version just yet. However, results line up with the HTC 8X and yet another impressive SunSpider score that's been borne out in our real-life experience with the handset; the device is more than capable of rendering the desktop versions of sites -- something that the big screen is also well-suited to.

Nokia Lumia 920 HTC Windows Phone 8X Nokia Lumia 900 Nokia Lumia 800
WPBench 227 221 92 86
Battery rundown 2:36 2:30 4:29 2:40
SunSpider (ms, lower numbers are better) 914 914 6,902 7,200
AnTuTu (*GFX test off) 10,957* 11,775 2,596 2,398

It's also worth considering that the Lumia 920 has both a larger and slightly higher-resolution display than HTC's device, meaning the internals are being taxed a little more. Its battery, at least, is more substantial, at 2,000mAh, and in WPBench's CPU-taxing battery test (which is based on Windows Phone 7), we reached 2:36, incrementally more than the 8X. In typical use, the phone was more than able to keep up with a day's regular use, although we found that increased outdoor use (and thus a brighter screen) did make noticeable dents in the battery life. Using the Lumia 920's contactless charger was a bit slower than simply plugging it in, but that's what you pay for convenience. We're just glad to see the charging function arrive without a clunky case ruining a phone's design.

Wrap-up

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Nokia arguably offered up the best hardware for the last iteration of Windows Phone. Does it repeat that success here? Yes, but it ties with the HTC 8X for that honor. The Lumia 920 feels substantially chunkier, despite having similar by-the-number dimensions, but it remains another glorious piece of hardware from Nokia. That large shell has afforded more space for the latest PureView camera, which delivers superb low-light performance and effective optical stabilization across stills and video. While these features worked as well as we'd hoped, well-lit shots lacked the clarity and detail we saw during earlier test sessions. Overall, results were a little too smoothed out (and many smartphones have a tendency to over-sharpen), and fell short of our expectations for Nokia's latest PureView phone.

All your incredible shots of that great night out will also be tinged by SkyDrive frustrations and limited ways to share them -- something that Microsoft's mobile OS is going to have to deal with if they really want to become the third choice in smartphone operating systems. Meanwhile, alongside its imaging advances, Nokia has pushed forward on its screen hardware, besting the outdoor visibility of the Lumia 900 and adding color and contrast tweaks from a new ambient light sensor -- this is all on a capacitive touchscreen you can now handle with gloves on. Nokia may crown it the most innovative smartphone, and alongside embedded wireless charging, there's plenty here to demonstrate that. But, for all that Windows Phone 8 does right (superb maps, zippy browser, simplicity), those holes in the app selection remain something that needs to be plugged.

Update 1: We've added our missing (conspiracy anyone?) gallery of iPhone 5 comparison shots, and here's a ZIP file containing most of our Lumia 920 images along with matching pictures taken with other cameraphones.

Update 2: We've also tested Nokia's Lumia 920 for AT&T, and outlined the differences right here.

Myriam Joire and Tim Stevens contributed to this report.

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Nokia Lumia 920 review: Windows Phone 8 and (a little bit of) camera magic