Windows Phone has grown up a lot lately. The Lumia Icon is the platform's new poster child, offering specs that would make even the most discerning of power users drool. That includes Nokia's 20-megapixel PureView camera, a 5-inch 1080p display, top-of-the-line quad-core Snapdragon processor, 32GB of internal storage, 2GB of RAM and a 2,420mAh battery, to name just a few specs. You can check out the full list below, but for now, you get the idea.
All told, it's hard to find fault with the specs, but the hardware itself is potentially... polarizing. With its square shape, sharp corners and flat sides, it's as if Nokia took the Lumia 928 and changed the material from glossy polycarbonate to aluminum on the perimeters and matte polycarbonate on the back. Nokia used this same combination of materials on the Lumia 925, but that phone had a less severe design, one marked by gentle curves. What's more, the non-removable back here bulges out slightly from the rest of the chassis. The idea was for the camera to sit flush with the device, but even so, a flat back would have made for a more streamlined look. Finally, at 5.86 ounces the Icon is a little heavy -- heavier than the 4.5-inch Lumia 1020, anyway. That said, it's still significantly lighter than the 6-inch 1520, which means it's also more comfortable to carry around.
On the other hand, the aluminum sides and polycarbonate matte back make the Icon feel reassuringly sturdy. In particular, its 5-inch frame is small enough to fit snugly in my hand, and the edges have a blunt cut that left my fingers plenty of room to grip the device. At 9.9mm thick, it's thicker than most high-end smartphones, but the arched back helps make its size less of a detractor from our enjoyment of the device. Oh, and speaking of durability, Nokia and Verizon must have focused on making the Icon as iron-clad as possible, because in addition to the metal sides, the phone rocks a Gorilla Glass 3 display. The glass itself curves slightly outward, so it's exposed a little more than a standard flat sheet; it makes sense, then, that Nokia would want the glass to be as scratch-resistant as possible. It's not shatterproof, so you still don't want to drop it face-down on concrete, but you should at least feel comfortable putting it in the same pocket as your car keys.
As an aside, although those metal sides look nice and do indeed provide some extra durability, they're also quite prone to dings and scratches. This is an issue we've experienced with the latest iPhones and the HTC One, to name but two examples. We didn't see anything show up in our time reviewing the device, but if you're going to be using the Icon for a year or two, the sides may look like the surface of the moon by the time you're done with it. It may do a good job protecting your phone from impact, but it probably won't emerge without a few battle scars.
Farther down the back, you'll see two Verizon logos next to the external speaker grille. The sound comes out loud and clear, despite its awkward placement toward the top of that sloping back cover. You'll also notice two tiny holes on the back for microphones (one near the top, one near the bottom). These make up just half of the phone's four-mic setup for directional audio recording; the other two are located on the front. And, as with most Verizon phones, you also have the option of wireless charging, thanks to an embedded Qi module.
The right side of the Icon features the typical three-button layout that Windows Phone users have become accustomed to (for novices, this includes a volume rocker, power button and two-stage shutter button). The Icon's keys stick out pretty far, but for some reason I had a difficult time pressing the camera button gently enough that I didn't cause shaking and camera blur. Ultimately, I felt more comfortable taking shots with the virtual on-screen shutter button.
The micro-USB charging socket sits along the bottom edge of the phone, while the 3.5mm headphone jack lives up top. For symmetry's sake, both ports are flanked by a pair of antennas. However, there's a nano-SIM slot on the top-left corner that renders pointless any effort to make the sides look symmetrical. The Icon's SIM slot features a small divot instead of a pinhole, so you'll need to dig out the SIM card using your fingernail. As I discovered, this makes it much more difficult to open if your nails happen to be well-trimmed.
When we saw the Lumia 1520's 6-inch, 1080p display, we couldn't wait to see how that kind of screen quality would look on a 5-inch device. Having finally gotten our wish, we're happy to say the Icon doesn't disappoint. This time Nokia went with a 1,920 x 1,080 AMOLED ClearBlack panel, with a pixel density of 441 ppi. As expected, the dark colors are darker here than on the 1520's LCD screen, while the whites are just a shade dimmer. One of the nice things about this type of display is that the darks blend in with the bezel, making the screen feel more expansive than it actually is. Color saturation is on par with the 1020's OLED display as well, but if you don't like it, Nokia offers the ability to adjust it, along with the color temperature. In addition, we could easily see the bright, 500-nit screen in direct sunlight, and the viewing angles are some of the best we've seen.
Since the Icon is a Verizon exclusive, its LTE radio runs on Verizon-compatible bands (700/AWS, to be specific). When 4G isn't available, it also supports 3G CDMA. Although we're disappointed that it doesn't feature global LTE roaming of any kind, international travelers can use it on most GSM networks around the world; it has quad-band HSPA (850/900/1900/2100) and quad-band GSM/EDGE (850/900/1800/1900). In fact, since it's unlocked, we were able to use an AT&T SIM and get an HSPA signal.
Windows Phone 8 is now on its third major update, and the latest firmware allows the Icon to have all of the best specs on the market. Nokia took this update, bundled it with its own suite of software features and functionality and called it the "Black" update. This is the same setup that we enjoyed on the Lumia 1520, as well as a litany of older devices that also run the new software.
Aside from the obligatory Verizon apps, which are limited in number and can all be uninstalled, the Icon comes preloaded with the usual Nokia and Microsoft necessities: You'll have roughly 500 Nokia apps (slight exaggeration), a handful of Here apps for navigation, the upgraded camera app, Data Sense, a few Bing apps and so on. There's nothing out of the ordinary here, and nothing we haven't touched upon before.
One thing worth noting is that since the Icon has a 5-inch display, it qualifies as a "larger screen" and is rewarded with a third column of icons on the Start Screen, just like the 1520 has on its 6-inch display. Despite the fact that you get more screen space on the Icon than the 4.5-inch Lumia 1020, the Live Tiles are actually smaller on the Icon so you have more room for that additional column.
High-end Lumia phones and good imaging seem to go hand-in-hand. Nokia's always excelled at mobile photography, and it's recently raised the bar with its PureView tech, which we earlier saw in the Lumia 1020's 41-megapixel camera. That camera was so impressive, in fact, that even something as stellar as the Lumia 1520's 20-megapixel shooter felt a little like a downgrade. The Lumia Icon's camera is closer to the 1520's, since it shares many of the same specs and characteristics. If that counts as cutting corners, then we can live with that.
As with the 1520, you'll get optical image stabilization, a six-element lens, an aperture of f/2.4 and a sensor size of 1/2.5 inch (much smaller than the 1020's 1/1.5 inch). It uses the same software algorithms and oversampling technology featured on the 1520. As you might expect, the experience is near-identical too. We won't go into great detail on how the PureView model works -- look no further than our Lumia 1020 review for the full explanation -- but on the Icon, 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. (This is for shots taken in 4:3 mode; you can also snap images in 16:9 assuming you don't mind a dip in resolution.)
The best part of Nokia's photo experience is the camera app, which gives you a full suite of manual settings to help you get the perfect shot -- ISO, white balance, exposure and shutter speed can all be adjusted in real time, so you're not wasting time poking around the settings menu. And, as part of Nokia's Black update, you now have the option of getting a copy of your high-resolution photo in RAW (DNG) format. If you're limited on storage (32GB is a lot, but there's also no microSD slot), we'd recommend you switch over to the standard high-res JPEG option, since each RAW file takes up nearly 25MB of space.