What's unique about this particular refresh? It builds on the Amber update with several new features, many of which can be found on the Glance screen. As you may recall, this screen lets users check the time when the display is turned off, but that's about it. With Black, you'll now have access to the same notifications that are found on the lock screen, as well as custom text and calendar info, pedometer support and red, green and blue color options while the screen is in Night mode. The new hues are extremely subtle so they shouldn't be distracting (that would, of course, defeat the purpose of Night mode).
Outside of Glance, Black also delivers a few more imaging features, including the Refocus Lens, support for the RAW picture format in the 1020 and 1520 and a few new camera algorithms for tone mapping and noise reduction on the 1020. But wait, there's more: The Black update also ensures that all Lumia devices can get the new Nokia Camera, which combines the Pro Cam and Smart Cam apps. We'll go into much more detail on these new imaging features in the next section.
Finally, the update also brings support for Bluetooth 4.0 LE -- a feature that's becoming increasingly common in fitness trackers like the Nike FuelBand SE and the Jawbone Up24. Additionally, the update adds another new app called Nokia Beamer, which "beams" multimedia from your phone to your TV, laptop or other smartphones. It's not a new concept in the mobile world, but we'll happily welcome more opportunities to share stuff to other devices.
Another new feature is Storyteller, which is being introduced on both the 1520 and the 2520. Basically it's a clever interface that takes your geotagged photos and lets you group them into collections called "stories." If you like, you can group them by location, date or event -- it's up to you how to present them. Additionally, you can split stories up, merge them together or separate each individual photo. It's a nice feature, but it's nothing more than a fancy photo album viewer that may confuse users who are accustomed to the standard Windows Phone viewer.
One positive side effect of using a Windows Phone with such a large screen is a much more pleasant typing experience. It's true that we've been spoiled over the last couple of years by fancy third-party Android keyboards capable of swipe gestures and word predictions, but we've always enjoyed the Windows Phone keyboard thanks to its ease of use, larger keys and smart autocorrection. On a 6-inch display, that same keyboard is even easier to type on -- provided you're willing to use both of your hands. Additionally, we noticed that one-handed use is a little easier on a large Windows Phone than an Android device of the same size, and it's primarily because Live Tiles can be so much larger than your typical Android app icon.
In many ways, Microsoft's original mantra of "Glance and Go" is even easier on a 6-inch display, thanks to an extra column of medium-sized Live Tiles on the right side. On smaller screens, we sometimes worry that the largest Live Tiles will take up too much of the available real estate, but that's not the case on a panel this big. There's plenty of room to customize the screen as you see fit, but we can think of at least one downside: A few screens, such as the app switcher or application list, don't take advantage of the extra space afforded to them on larger displays. In those specific cases, then, a smaller display actually feels more ideal.
Outside of what Nokia has added on the software side, Windows Phone feels the same as it ever did. The ecosystem is getting much more exciting, but otherwise any issues you may have had with WP8 devices won't magically go away with Update 3. (One such complaint is the lack of a robust notification center, but we recognize that many users' needs are met with Live Tiles and toast notifications.)
The Nokia Lumia 1020 made waves with its 41-megapixel camera, which featured some new imaging technologies that even put some point-and-shoots to shame. After such a fantastic introduction, what's the best way to follow up? Well, something tells us that the real follow-up to the 1020 is yet to come, as the 1520's shooter is actually a downgrade. But we can't really blame Nokia for this: It clearly had to cut some corners in order to make room for some of the 1520's other new features mentioned earlier, and if a 20-megapixel camera counts as "cutting corners," you know that Nokia's certainly doing something right.
We won't do another recap of how Nokia's PureView technology works -- we spent a considerable amount of time discussing the nitty-gritty details in our review of the Lumia 1020, so add that to your essential reading list -- but let's dig into what makes this particular version of the PureView special. Just like the 1020, the 1520 offers oversampling options, but due to the lower resolution, you'll get a high-res image taken at 19 megapixels along with a 5MP lower-res shot, which will come in handy for uploading your photos to Instagram, Facebook or whatever service you want. By the way, the higher-res image can also be taken in RAW format, which you can switch to in the settings (Nokia refers to it as DNG, or digital negative). Nokia also claims that since the 1020 came out, it's improved many of the imaging-capture algorithms involved in snapping shots.
The 1520's lens uses an aperture of f/2.4, compared to the 1020's f/2.2; it has a sensor size of 1/2.5 inch, which is significantly smaller than the 1020's 1/1.5; it features optical image stabilization (OIS) and offers a focal length of 26mm, which is the same on both. Finally, the 1520 matches the 1020 with a max ISO of 4000.
Nokia Camera and Refocus Lens
When we reviewed the Lumia 1020 this past summer, we noted that the new Nokia Pro Camera app was one of the best -- if not the best -- we've ever had the pleasure of using, but there was one thing missing: integration with its other clever imaging app, Nokia Smart Camera. A shame, since it offers cool options like action shot, eraser mode, best shot and motion blur. These were incredibly useful tools for imaging enthusiasts, but the fact that they were contained in a separate app felt inefficient. Fortunately, Nokia found a way to merge the two, and is calling the final product "Nokia Camera." To access the Smart Camera features, just slide up on the toggle switch to the right -- the one that previously only let you switch between video and photo mode. It's faster to use it this way, and you stand a much better chance of selecting the right type of picture you want to take in a split second.
The user interface is still mostly the same as it was on the 1020, but the row of icons on the top can be transformed into a much simpler "auto mode." This consists of two switches: one for the flash, and the other to change to sport mode and night mode (apparently the result of another algorithm Nokia is using to make for better low-light shots.
Nokia's added another lens to the phone, and this one's a doozy: It's called Refocus Lens, and in many respects, it's Nokia's answer to the Lytro, which can change a picture's depth of field after the fact. Press the shutter button and the Lens will take a few seconds to do its magic. Once it's ready to go, you can choose any part of the image and change the focus to the area you selected. We found that this feature works best when your picture includes a close-up object and another object in the distance. The color pop feature is also now included as part of this Lens, so keep that in mind if you plan to experiment with color. The Lens is a lot of fun to play with, but if you have a critical moment that needs to be captured in a short period of time, we wouldn't recommend going this route -- it's still a separate app for now.
An unmistakable advantage the PureView-branded Lumias have over any other smartphone is the large number of manual settings: ISO, shutter speed, white balance and exposure are among the options you can tweak to make the picture do what you want it to, rather than having it go the other way around. Sure, you're not going to get as many details in the 19-megapixel stills as you would in the 38MP images that were taken by the Lumia 1020, but what you get in the 1520 camera still far surpasses anything else on the market today. In other words, you may have to sacrifice just a small amount of the quality you can enjoy on the 1020, but we have a feeling it won't matter to the vast majority of users -- especially if you aren't trying to replace your point-and-shoot. The colors are mostly accurate, although we noticed that the white balance was sometimes off in dimmer shooting conditions. Depending on the angle, some pics taken in direct sunlight would look slightly washed out, but these kinds of things are easy enough to address by tinkering with the settings.
Lowlight performance is another area of intense focus for Nokia. Few other companies can match the latest PureView devices, with the 1520 being just the latest triumph. I was elated when I was able to take a Night Mode picture of my kids in a nearly pitch-black room and still easily pick them out. As expected, there's still a little bit of blur if you keep the shutter speed too low, and there's also more than enough noise to go around when you try to show off your latest triumph.