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    Lumia 830 review: bringing the Icon down to the mid-range

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    When Nokia released the Lumia Icon earlier this year, it took its polycarbonate design philosophy and went a bit metal -- aluminum, specifically. The result was a premium phone with a fancy body to match. But the Icon's exclusivity on Verizon limited its appeal, and its sibling, the Lumia 930, has yet to make it to US shores. Into that void comes the Lumia 830, from the freshly minted Microsoft Mobile.

    With the Lumia 830, priced at $100 with a two-year contract on AT&T ($450 contract-free), Microsoft looks to bring the metal frame and PureView camera branding of high-end Lumias down to the mid-range smartphone level. Of course, there's always the risk of making the wrong sacrifices when trying to lower the price, so did Microsoft shave too many corners off of the 830's aluminum body? I've spent the past week with the global version of the phone as my daily driver to find out.

    Gallery: Lumia 830 review | 19 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Solid aluminum frame
    • Impressive, image-stabilized rear camera
    • Good everyday performance
    Cons
    • Struggles in some games
    • Merely average front camera
    • Quirky white balance (though pending updates may improve things)

    Summary

    The Lumia 830 strikes a good balance with its premium aluminum frame and mid-range internals. Those looking for a solid camera experience at this price range should take a good look.

    Hardware

    While the lower-tier Lumia 735/730 handsets stick to tried-and-true polycarbonate bodies, the Lumia 830 follows in the aluminum-ringed footsteps of the Icon and 930. A solid frame of metal surrounds the 830's squared-off body, interrupted by two pairs of thin plastic strips on the top and bottom edges (for the radio frequencies to pass through). At 139.4 x 70.7 x 8.5mm, it checks in at 2.4mm taller, 0.3mm narrower and 1.3mm thinner than its higher-end predecessors. Its 150g weight puts it 17 grams lighter as well.

    That metal frame is flanked on the front by a sheet of Gorilla Glass 3 that rises slightly above the aluminum body. Thankfully, the display gently tapers at the edges, making for a smooth transition from the glass to the thin metal along the bezels. No sharp, abrupt borders here.

    Around back, a removable plastic cover allows access to the swappable battery as well as the nano-SIM and microSD slots. The latter of which supports up to 128GB cards to supplement the 16GB of onboard memory. (Sorry, no 32GB or higher model here.) The backplate puffs out even further from the aluminum frame than the front display, creating a curved rear that makes the phone actually quite comfortable in my palm despite the flat-sided aluminum frame. Its matte finish feels nice to the touch, while also resisting greasy fingerprints. If you're not a fan of my review unit's orange hue, there other colors to consider -- though the selection in the US may differ from what's offered elsewhere. Microsoft is also offering various colorful flip cover shells (with wireless charging support) if you'd like some extra protection.

    As for ports and buttons, the Lumia 830 mostly sticks to the standard set seen on many a Lumia over the years. On the right edge, you'll find a volume rocker near the top, a power key in the middle and a dedicated camera key toward the bottom. The headphone jack sits front and center along the top edge. I was somewhat surprised to find the micro-USB port up there as well (it's been on the bottom on most of my past phones). In regular use, I found that placement a bit tricky when I had the 830 mounted in a cradle in my car -- it was a bit odd to see a charging cable sprouting upward out of my phone. That said, there's always the built-in, Qi-compatible wireless charging if you find the charge port's location troublesome.

    The most notable feature on the rear, of course, is the Lumia 830's PureView camera module, located in the top-center of the backplate. Here, Microsoft Mobile mimics the look of the Lumia 1020's signature camera, with a black, circular panel surrounding the 830's 10-megapixel camera and LED flash. Of course, this is more "inspiration" than it is direct "imitation." You won't find the 1020's massive, Ritz cracker-size main shooter protruding from the back. No, we're dealing with more modest equipment here, so the disc on the 830's rear is much smaller than its ancestor's. What's more, the removable cover adds a slight ridge around the rear camera, providing a bit of protection.

    Toward the bottom of the back panel is the 830's main speaker grille. While that location might not be as ideal as, say, the 1020's bottom-edge speaker, it's placed where the rear starts to taper, giving it a bit of breathing room when the phone is placed face-up on a table.

    While the 830 matches the 5-inch screen size of the Icon/930 line, Microsoft shed some pixels (and helped lower the price) by opting for a 1,280 x 720 display instead of a 1080p panel. We're also dealing with an IPS LCD here, rather than the AMOLED unit found on its older siblings. Whether that's a plus or a minus likely depends on how much you enjoy/detest AMOLED's highly saturated colors. I find the 830's screen pleasing for the most part, with accurate colors and good viewing angles in most directions. However, I did notice washed-out colors while watching movies at extreme positions, especially toward the lower left and right in landscape mode.

    Software

    Recent improvements to the Windows Phone OS have more or less put Microsoft's mobile offering on an even footing (as far as core features) with the likes of Android and iOS. The latest upgrades to WP8.1 include support for folders on the home screen, more options and languages for the Cortana voice assistant and faster browsing through Internet Explorer. In addition, Lumia models will be getting an update called "Denim," which tacks on camera improvements, more options for the Glance Screen feature and voice activation on certain Lumia models (the Icon, the 930 and the 1520) -- just say, "Hey, Cortana" to fire up the voice assistant while the phone's idle. On top of those additions, the OS also boasts a solid notification center, home screen wallpapers and swiping support in the keyboard.

    The Lumia's Glance Screen, which offers the time, date and some notifications when the display is off, makes the 830 a perfect bedside alarm clock since it stays onscreen while the phone is charging. No more groggily trying to find your phone's power toggle in the middle of the night just to see how much time you got left to sleep.

    Out of the box, my unlocked review unit came with the standard Lumia offerings (including Here Drive, Skype and Mix Radio), as well as a smattering of third-party apps like Facebook and Flipboard. Thankfully, if you're not interested in any of the preloaded options, they're easy enough to uninstall to reclaim some storage space.

    Of course, it's not all great news. The continued additions to the OS (plus other, Lumia-specific features) have resulted in an unorganized and ungainly settings menu. The latest incarnation of WP's stock music player has you flicking upward on the album art to change tracks. After years of swiping right to left (since back in the Zune HD days), I'm finding this new gesture annoying and less intuitive. And then there's the app question. While the situation has greatly improved of late, there's still a chance your favorite app or game may not yet be offered on the platform.

    Beyond that, Google still refuses to offer official options for services like Gmail, Hangouts and YouTube. So if you're deeply integrated in Google's ecosystem, but prefer the feel of Windows Phone, you'll need to resort to third-party options like IM+ for Hangouts or Metrotube for YouTube. Of course, Microsoft offers its own suite of tools, like Office, OneNote and OneDrive, that play quite nicely with Windows Phone 8.1.

    You may consider alternative apps even when official support exists. Case in point: While there is a beta-tagged version of Instagram available, it lacks several editing tools seen on Android and iOS. Meanwhile, the third-party app 6tag offers some interesting options, like collages and letterboxing photos with wide aspect ratios to fit them in Instagram's square format.

    Whether that app deficit actually affects you depends, of course, on your specific needs. Can you get by without dedicated Gmail or YouTube apps? Will you be satisfied with an official Instagram app that's not yet as robust as its Android/iOS counterparts? Comfortable with resorting to third-party alternatives? I can't answer that for you, unfortunately. So if you are considering Windows Phone, be sure to check the app marketplace to know what you're getting yourself into.

    Camera

    With the Lumia 830, Microsoft isn't bringing just the design language of the Icon and 930 down to a lower price bracket. It's also placing the "PureView" badge on a more affordable option as well. Sure, the 830 doesn't boast the resolution of the 20MP Icon or 930, much less the Lumia 1020's 41 megapixels. Instead, it stakes its claim to the PureView name via optical image stabilization and the promise of improved responsiveness.

    Before I dive into the details, though, it's worth stating that my review unit didn't arrive with the Lumia Denim update. So, I was unable to test that firmware's biggest additions, including much-improved overall speed, a Lumia Camera app that replaces Nokia Camera and a capture mode that lets you merge the results of flash and non-flash versions of the same shot, letting you set a balanced look for the final image. I'll be sure to update my thoughts once I spend some quality time with the new features.

    Even without those Denim improvements, I enjoyed my time taking photos with the 830's 10MP main shooter. On a daytime stroll through downtown Tacoma, Washington, the phone capably handled any shot I attempted. White balance in good light was accurate, though it occasionally took a few seconds to settle on the right color temperature. It did tend toward cooler (bluer) temps in low-light situations, though the Nokia Camera app's manual options let me fix that quickly.

    Interestingly, the 830 also preferred bluish white balance when I tried to take orange-heavy photos of autumn leaves or pumpkin patches. For what it's worth, images of the same fall leaves taken with an iPhone 6 produced much more accurate colors, but that's admittedly competing in a completely different price bracket.

    Quirky white balance aside, the camera's optical image stabilization let me take some solid photos in low-light environments, both indoors and out. Close-up shots of sushi in a dark restaurant and portraits of fellow passengers on a bumpy car ride produced relatively clean photos, though if your jitteriness is simply out of control, the 830 won't produce miracles.

    Image quality starts declining when the light gets seriously low. A few interior shots of a dark, empty chapel showed a significant amount of noise, a loss of detail and muted colors, but not quite what I'd label as "unusable." Of course, what's unacceptable for a huge wall print isn't the same as what's unacceptable for an Instagram post. By that I mean, if you keep your expectations in check (e.g., using a mid-range phone for social network-worthy photos), you should be fine with the results in most settings.

    The rear shooter's stabilization also applies to video recording (up to 1080p/30). Quality in good light is nice and sharp, though it tends to struggle in darker settings. It also takes slightly longer to adjust to different lighting levels than an iPhone 6. On the plus side, that stabilization feature does a respectable job smoothing out video, especially when you're on the move. We're not talking pocket Steadicam here, of course, but back-to-back videos of me jogging around with an iPhone 6 and the 830 resulted in steadier footage on the Lumia.

    Unlike the selfie-targeting 5MP front shooter on the lower-tier Lumia 735/730, the 0.9MP unit we have here is strictly average. It's fine for quick snaps and Skype, but not much else. Fortunately, the available Lumia Selfie app lets you use the rear shooter for self-portraits (an audio cue signals when your face is in the frame).

    For the most part, the Lumia 830 does the PureView name proud. It doesn't have the megapixel count of the 1020 or the Icon/930, so you'll have less leeway when it comes to cropping. But it's a mid-tier camera I would be happy to use on a daily basis. The auto white balance could be more reliable and the LED flash is simply average, but these are minor flies in a largely effective ointment. If the Denim update only improves things, I'll have even less to complain about at this price level.

    For high-resolution photo samples from the Lumia 830, click here.

    Performance and battery life

    The quad-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 and 1GB of RAM powering the Lumia 830 may be decidedly mid-range, but its general performance doesn't leave too much to be desired. Apps launch and close swiftly, and general navigation around the Windows Phone 8.1 UI is fluid and stutter-free. Browsing mobile web pages was a pleasant experience, though there was a good bit of tiling when zooming in and out of desktop sites. If you prefer hard numbers to gut feelings, have a look at the benchmarks below.

    Nokia Lumia 830 Nokia Lumia Icon Nokia Lumia 735
    WPBench 252 471 245
    SunSpider 1.0.2 (MS)* 1,235 538 1,237
    AnTuTu 12,154 25,750 12,060
    "SunSpider: Lower scores are better.

    In general, we're talking about a solid performer here. Push the phone hard enough, though, and you can see the limits of its mid-level hardware. In a fast-moving, 3D game like Asphalt 8, the Lumia 830 turns in merely adequate, and definitely not silky-smooth, frame rates. And if the game's graphics don't clue you in, the frequent audio breakup during races should be a clear sign this isn't going to be a mobile-gaming powerhouse.

    Other games can give the 830 a workout as well. While endless runner Temple Run 2 stays smooth most of the time, certain turns, especially during water slide areas, cause things to slow down a bit. It's not just fast-moving 3D games, either. Strangely, frame rates in the relatively simple Jetpack Joyride dip noticeably whenever you hit a large patch of coins. You'd think that would make the frantic game easier, but it's really a bit jarring.

    On the bright side, the Lumia 830 offers solid battery life with its removable 2,200mAh cell. In our standard video-rundown test, where we loop an HD video while email, Facebook and Twitter run in the background, the 830 managed 10 hours and 39 minutes before calling it quits. That's actually a bit longer than the 10 hours Microsoft estimates for video playback. In real-world use, the phone regularly saw me through full workdays filled with emails, social networking, lunchtime Instagrams, gaming and even a few actual phone calls.

    Speaking of, voice calls featured clear conversations on both ends and the speakerphone performed admirably in my car. Even with the phone face-up on a table, the curved back allows enough clearance for sound to be heard without being muddled. That rear-facing speaker puts out voice and music at a decent level, though don't expect much, if any, bass to shine through

    Overall, if mobile gaming is important to you, it may be worth investing in a phone with a bit more oomph to tackle current and future games. If you're mainly using your smartphone for more... serious pursuits, the Lumia 830 should handle those needs without breaking much of a sweat.

    The competition

    Since AT&T hasn't yet announced a US release date or price for the Lumia 830, it's a little tricky to size up how it'll fare against the competition here. AT&T recently announced US pricing and availability info for the Lumia 830. Starting on Nov. 7th, you can snag an 830 on a two-year contract for $100, while contract-free pricing comes in at $450. The carrier's also offering a free Fitbit Flex if you're among the first to sign up. That pricing puts it in the company of last year's Apple flagship, the iPhone 5s, among others. Despite its age, the 5s will offer faster performance, especially on games -- if that's important to you. Its camera chops shouldn't be ignored either, though between the two, I'd probably prefer the 830's rear shooter thanks in part to the OIS and that hardware shutter key. Mobile OS preferences aside, it seems worth noting that while both offer 16GB of storage, the 830 backs that up with microSD support.

    Speaking of year-old flagships, $100 on a two-year AT&T contract could also get you an LG G2. While we were impressed with its 5.2-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 display and overall performance last year, its camera didn't draw universal praise. As for more recent entries at this price, you might also consider the second-gen Moto X. We were smitten with its near-stock Android build and customizable design, but were a bit frustrated at times with its rear camera.

    The 830 is also available elsewhere and in the UK, for example, EE is offering it on pay-as-you-go for £280 (about $450). Meanwhile, Amazon is offering an unlocked international version for around the same price. On EE, that puts it in roughly the same bracket as the 8GB iPhone 5c and the Ascend P7 (both listed at £300). I'd be quick to dismiss the 5c, as it offers less onboard storage (and no microSD slot) and what's essentially two-year-old hardware. The P7, on the other hand, represents a solid competitor at this price range. You won't get the Lumia's full-featured camera app, but it does boast a 1080p display and an 8MP front-facing camera.

    If you can do without the 830's solid, aluminum chassis and stabilized camera, take a look at its lower-priced sibling, the Lumia 735 (around €219, or about $279). It offers the same Snapdragon 400 heart in a polycarbonate body, with a much better 5MP selfie camera on the front. Although, if you're looking in that lower price bracket, don't forget the Moto G ($180), which also features similar quad-core internals, along with official support for Google's ecosystem.

    Wrap-up

    In the end, the Lumia 830 is clearly a "bridge" device. It's got the high-end looks and capable camera of flagship-level phones, along with the performance and display resolution of mid-range and budget models. Whether Microsoft Mobile made the right trade-offs really depends on what you want out of your smartphone. Does having a solid camera (that's due to get even better) trump average gaming performance? Does using an ever-improving voice assistant mean more to you than having official support for Google's ecosystem? Personally, I can live with most of the sacrifices that have been made. I don't think I'm missing much with the 720p screen and merely average front-facing camera. But the spotty performance in games and Microsoft's continuing struggle to land the latest and best apps give me pause.

    If you're in need of an anecdote, here's one: After more than a year of happily using the 41MP Lumia 1020 as my daily driver, I made the switch to the iPhone 6. Then, a week or so after that switch, I received the Lumia 830 to review and went about using it as my everyday phone. And guess what? For the most part, I didn't really miss my shiny, new iPhone. Of course, it's by no means a complete replacement -- there are still games, features and apps on iOS that I can't get elsewhere (hello, AP Stylebook Mobile). But in general, life was rather pleasant with the 830. It's an Icon(ic) phone that cuts most of the right corners.

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