Nokia Lumia 820 review Another Windows Phone that's a little cheaper

The Lumia 820 has been tucked away behind the shadow of its bigger brother ever since it was revealed, but if any phone represents the Windows Phone 8 vision -- different phones for different people -- it's this next-generation Lumia. Avoiding the unibody build of the rest of the family, this phone has an outer shell that's removable and can work with a range of cases: glossy, not-glossy, ruggedized and capable of wireless charging. It's a nice option, one that offers a taste of hardware customization before you've even started swiping around the Live Tiles and customizing the color schemes.

Under the lid, there's a removable 1,650mAh battery, with access to expandable microSD storage. Other specs include 1GB of RAM, the same 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 processor used in the Lumia 920 and a 4.3-inch OLED 800 x 480 display, albeit with the same glove-courting super-sensitivity found on that other new Lumia. On AT&T, it'll be $50 upfront, half the outlay for the 920, while in the UK, it's priced SIM-free at £360 in the UK, again compared to £445 for the bigger model. At this reduced price, you won't get to sample Nokia's optical image stabilization, but you'll still get a Carl Zeiss lens paired with an 8-megapixel sensor. So there's some understandable drawbacks compared to Nokia's statement phone and its two greatest strengths, but how does Windows Phone 8 fare on a cheaper handset? Join us after the break as we see what 50 bucks less gets you.

Gallery | 61 Photos

Nokia Lumia 820 review

Hardware

The Lumia 820 was a little starved of publicity at Nokia and Microsoft's big press event, with the emphasis mainly on new technologies being introduced with the Lumia 920. Unfair? A little, perhaps, and while the 920 channeled the design philosophy of older Lumia handsets, the 820 takes a different tack. The edges aren't quite as rounded, and while the phone is fairly hefty at 9.9mm thick, we had little trouble exploring the screen and handling the smartphone with one hand. At 5.64 ounces (160g), it's another weighty Nokia addition. All told, it's 15 grams less than the 920, but still heavier than the HTC Windows Phone 8X and 8S. It feels denser, but given the 4.87 x 2.7-inch dimensions, isn't as unwieldy as the 920. The removable shell on our unit was bright matte yellow. More importantly, though, it housed Qi-standard wireless charging beneath that color. While it isn't built into the hardware, it doesn't seem to add much to the weight or the thickness of the case and thus the device itself.

Nokia Lumia 820 review Another Windows Phone that's a little cheaper

While we love a yellow glow, the soft-finish wireless charging shell doesn't evince that premium feel we got from the Lumia 920 just a few weeks ago. It's not all bad: the removable cover offers up access to the battery, and this is also the first Windows Phone 8 handset to arrive with microSD expansion in tow (supporting cards as large as 64GB), meaning more leeway after you've filled up the 8 gigs of built-in space.

The design is inoffensive enough, but it doesn't look like a Lumia to us. While the 920 is unequivocally part of Nokia's "fabula" lineage, this one's a design riff more comparable to the Lumia 710. The button layout follows the Windows Phone template -- there's the trio of capacitive buttons below the screen, with three physical plastic buttons along the right edge. The two-stage camera button is a little over-sensitive -- the phone often took pictures when we only wanted to focus, which is frustrating when you're trying to grab those spur-of-the-moment shots. Along the bottom edge, you'll find the micro-USB port next to a single speaker that's pleasingly loud -- we only had to hit the middle settings for a decent playback volume. Just above the screen, a VGA front-facing camera will be able to deal with (admittedly low-resolution) video-calls.

Inside, you'll find connectivity through NFC, 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.1 support and both A-GPS and GLONASS -- Nokia's taking no shortcuts with its location skills. The Lumia 820 doesn't hold back on radios either, with GSM / GPRS / EDGE (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900MHz), UMTS / HSPA+ (850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100MHz) and (on the 4G model) LTE (800 / 900 / 1800 / 2100 / 2600MHz) bands ready to go. Unfortunately, there's no MHL support through the micro-USB port (and no HDMI socket either) so you'll be hoping that Microsoft's SmartGlass app fulfills your big-screen hopes and dreams.

It's the little touches that disappointed us, however, like the plastic finish across the camera unit and physical buttons. There's no micro-drilled detail here, while a substantial screen composed of the border around the AMOLED display, the phone's edge plus the casing around it makes the phone wider than it perhaps needs to be.

Display

Nokia Lumia 820 review Another Windows Phone that's a little cheaper

The Lumia 820 offers a mediocre 800 x 480 resolution 4.3-inch display, something better-suited for a last-generation Windows Phone, not the start of a new era as a possible third power in the smartphone world. Yup, it's an RGB Stripe AMOLED, but our least favorite flavor, PenTile, but we found that whites arrive tinged with a slight blue-green haze, especially when comparing it alongside both the HTC 8X and Lumia 920. Nokia's ClearBlack tech keeps those blacks black, but we have a feeling we saw something very similar (if not identical) on the Lumia 900 -- it's the same size, the same resolution and the same AMOLED tech.

We pointed out the lack of qHD or 720p resolution before Microsoft cast aside Windows Phone's low-res requirements, and six months later it's still an issue.

While this isn't completely a bad thing, given the admirable outdoor performance we saw there, we return to the same issues with the resolution that we had then. We pointed out the lack of qHD or 720p resolution before Microsoft cast aside Windows Phone's low-res requirements, and six months later it's still an issue. What's more, it's even more pronounced in front of its own PureMotion HD+ relative, and there's no excuse for it when this phone is just $50 less than the Lumia 920. Those Windows Phone logos and Live Tiles look decidedly jaggy on this screen, but the gap between Nokia's new pair of smartphones is especially pronounced during web browsing and on-screen reading on the Kindle app.

However, the Lumia 820 demonstrated better viewing angles than the higher-resolution (non-AMOLED) Lumia 920 and the device has also been treated to the same super-sensitive capacitive screen tech, meaning you'll be able to navigate through Windows Phone with gloves or even nails. You should know, though, that the glass here is merely scratch-resistant; it's not the wondrous Gorilla Glass seen on Nokia's other phones and on rival hardware, so we'd temper some of that enthusiasm to scratch away.

Camera

Nokia Lumia 820 review Another Windows Phone that's a little cheaper

As we've already mentioned, you won't be getting that revolutionary optical image stabilization. But Nokia has a reputation for quality smartphone cameras, and the Lumia 820 maintains that, though it lags a little behind the 920. According to Nokia's spec sheets, there's no backside illuminated sensor here, but there's still a powerful dual-LED flash and Carl Zeiss lens (f/2.2, unlike the Lumia 920's f/2.0 glass), paired here with an 8-megapixel autofocus camera unit. The interface is the same as on other Windows Phone 8 handsets, with options for white balance, exposure and ISO all squirreled away in the settings "cog." While a preset backlit mode can salvage some shots, we're still screaming out for an HDR mode. Photos can be captured by either tapping the screen (which will focus on that area) or using the two-stage button. Now, maybe it's because our expectations were slightly lower than when we put the Lumia 920 to the test, but we were pleasantly surprised by the results. All of our captured images didn't suffer from much compression and Nokia's imaging expertise has offered up some great images with a low level of noise and without over-processing colors.

Gallery | 38 Photos

Nokia Lumia 820 sample shots

Nokia Lumia 820 review Another Windows Phone that's a little cheaper

Let's make it clear, the Lumia 920 still takes better pictures. It looks like the automatic white balance is more intelligent on the Lumia 920 and macro shots appeared clearer, brighter and more colorful on the pricier model. We were, however, impressed with the low-light performance from the 820, despite the lack of any physical image stabilization, with pictures often capturing more light from the scene than our eyes did, and a minimal amount of image noise across all our test shots. The dual-flash is also powerful enough to fill nearby scenes with light, although the camera sensor continued to have trouble balancing out areas with high lighting contrast.

The video recording skills on the Lumia 820, unfortunately, weren't on the same level as the rich, stable footage we got with the image-stabilizing 920. Without any optical image stabilization, you can capture some crisp (albeit wobbly) high-definition video up to 1080p, but we found quality was a little duller, a little foggier. Like several preceding smartphone models, however, Nokia's new phone offers up excellent audio recording capabilities -- you can clearly hear our voice on the video below and wind didn't interfere as much as we've noted before on other smartphone clips.

Software

Gallery | 26 Photos

Nokia Lumia 820 screenshots

There's not much to add to what we covered both in our software overview and in our review of the Lumia 920, but suffice to say we're still missing some of our favorite (and core) mobile apps on Windows Phone. The Lumia 820's AMOLED screen shows the Live Tile interface at its best, with satisfyingly deep blacks between those colorful blocks. These are also richer, with more updating with new messages and notifications, while you're able to pick between three different sizes, adding to the visual appeal of the operating system. Kid's Corner is here and painless to setup, while Angry Birds Star Wars is a rare on-time gaming entry available to Windows Phone at the same time it arrives on rival mobile operating systems.

Nokia continues to add to the experience with its own exclusive apps (and user-friendly mapping), including extra Lens apps for the camera (covering functions like panorama, burst shot and lens effects), Nokia Music (free cacheable music that's also seen a recent upgrade), while City Lens gives the phone some augmented reality skills that you'll either find hard to put down -- or never use.

However, something new did appear: SkyDrive's official Windows Phone 8 app finally arrived this week, ameliorating at least some of our issues with Microsoft's mobile cloud storage hook-up. The file transfer system works both ways between the cloud and your Windows Phone of choice, meaning we could soon start swinging our favorite galleries and music across to the extra space afforded by the microSD card. You can also create public links to your photos, à la Dropbox, with ease, while there's also the ability to search through your SkyDrive files and folders and avoid browsing the entirety of the free 7GB offered from the outset. Still, we have a few niggles: unless you browse into your backup settings menu to ensure your auto-uploaded photos are being uploaded at their best quality -- which currently requires a WiFi connection -- you'll be left with a collection of lesser images (with compression squeezing that file size down).

Nokia Lumia 820 review Another Windows Phone that's a little cheaper

While there is an option to decide on whether uploaded and downloaded images are transported in their original size or resized for your phone, we'd prefer to choose which connection to upload on and the level of quality -- who wants to store lower-quality images from a phone that's got some of Nokia's top imaging tech inside? Unfortunately, the initial setup will upload your first pictures at "good quality" -- a pitfall that's sure to frustrate camera phone fans, at least initially. We'd also like a touch more storage, particularly since Dropbox has struck up deals for up to 50GB of free space just for registering certain Android phones to their app. Given that, 7GB sounds a little measly, though it's still substantially more than what you'll get with Apple's iCloud.

Performance and battery life

Nokia Lumia 820 Nokia Lumia 920 Nokia Lumia 900 HTC Windows Phone 8X
WPBench 224 227 92 221
Battery rundown 2:07 2:36 4:29 2:30
SunSpider (ms, lower numbers are better) 909 914 6,902 914
AnTuTu (*GFX test off) 11,506 10,957* 2,596 11,775

With a smaller battery, but less screen (and fewer pixels) to power, we were looking forward to seeing how the Lumia 820 managed to cope with the WPBench's processor stress test. We're currently using benchmarking apps that aren't calibrated for Windows Phone 8 just yet, so we'd advise considering these figures with a touch of skepticism. Battery life is a little shorter than on rival Windows Phone 8 devices, presumably due to the smaller 1,650 mAh battery. At least users have the option of carrying a spare. However, its smaller screen meant we registered a lengthier battery life compared to the competition during more typical use. For over a day, we carried on unconcerned with charging, and when we did need to top up the cell, wireless charging was there for our convenience. Like the Lumia 920, charging on the pad wasn't nearly as swift a solution as charging over USB, but hey, at least the future's getting here, slowly.

Unsurprisingly, our benchmark scores match both the Lumia 920 and the HTC 8X (all three handsets run on the same dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor). SunSpider results continue the Windows Phone trend for sub-1,000 ms scores, while our AnTuTu results are also in line with the other Windows Phones devices we've seen so far. Packing the same processing muscle as the two leading Windows Phones, the Lumia 820 proved to be very responsive, with website, games and video streaming apps all loading swiftly and without issue. Likewise, the maps app (now powered by Nokia data) was also quick to detect our own location and plot routes to where we were looking to go -- and we're sure the combined A-GPS and GLONASS support doesn't hurt.

When playing back video, quality was hampered by the screen resolution, which won't offer you anything in 720p, although audio playback was certainly meaty enough. At least existing apps (designed for similar 800 x 480 screens) didn't look out of place.

Call quality was as reliable as ever from Nokia, with two "distortion-free high amplitude" mics taking care of audio quality both on calls and video capture. On our model, we noted average download speeds of around 6 Mbps on HSPA, while uploads were typically below 1 Mbps on our O2 UK SIM.

Wrap-up

Nokia Lumia 820 review Another Windows Phone that's a little cheaper

If you've still got some concerns with joining the Windows Phone 8 ecosystem, the Lumia 820 is a hard sell. While its off-contract price is substantially cheaper than the 920, the difference in subsidized cost is so minuscule that we can't recommend it. The screen is hampered by a last-generation resolution and the camera (while not without its charms) doesn't pack the advanced technical skills of the 920.

The display is smaller than the Lumia 920, but the hardware doesn't feel all that much lighter for it. In its favor, there's a replaceable battery for power users and the inclusion of microSD storage. Again, Nokia's propensity for eye-catching color schemes will help these phones stand out from duller safer hardware designs and the inclusion of a free wireless charging plate and case (both in the UK and from AT&T) is a welcome extra. But we'd just as soon pay the premium for the Lumia 920.

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Nokia

Nokia Lumia 820

Pros

  • Flagship-quality processor
  • Covers offer wireless charging, extra functionality
  • Decent low-light photography

Cons

  • Disappointing screen
  • Lacks all the camera skills of the Lumia 920
  • Unwieldy
Summary

Unfortunately the Lumia 820 can't offer enough to warrant not splashing out the extra cash for the 920 model.