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.
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.
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.
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.
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.