Review: Nokia Lumia 920

posted by Jeff | Friday, November 16, 2012, 4:42 PM | comments: 0

Two years ago this Sunday, the first Windows Phones started to roll out, and when my officemate at Microsoft rolled in late one morning after picking up his Samsung Focus, I jumped in my car and went to get one myself. A few days later, I got one for Diana as well, since AT&T was doing a buy-one-get-one promo, and mine was already a reimbursed expense through work. We both had iPhones at the time, but we really embraced the new operating system. I wrote three reviews that December, for the hardware, the OS and the development experience.

While we have been eligible to upgrade our phones since mid-summer, we waited patiently for Windows Phone 8 to be released. The Samsung Focus phones that we had were reasonably nice, with beautiful screens and a nice size and weight, but we were never fans of the camera. As the announcements rolled out, the Nokia Lumia 920 was an obvious "want" for me because of the camera. Diana wanted something smaller, so she decided on the 820. Both have similar internal specs, though her screen is smaller and lower resolution. It's a really nice phone.

I'll break up my review into the three parts, but keep them brief since this isn't a totally new platform.

Hardware

The 920 is a tank. It's huge, and it's heavy. These aren't deal breakers or things that are not manageable, but it's worth noting. With its tapered edges, it reminds me of my old iPhone 3GS, only a little taller and slightly wider. I actually like the feel of the heft.

The screen is amazing. It looks good outside in sunlight, and it has one of the highest pixel densities of any phone. You can't see pixels. Text is super readable, whether it's the Segoe font that defines "Metro," or a more traditional serif font in the Kindle app. Photos and Web pages look insanely great.

One of the big deals about the camera is that it has optical image stabilization, essentially spring mounting the lens to compensate for shaky hands. Combined with a wide-open lens at f/2 and 8 million pixels, the camera looked good even on paper. In real life, it pretty much verifies the expectations. I've done a lot of comparing to the photos my Canon S95 takes, a slightly higher end point-and-shoot I got about two years ago, and the truth is that they're not all that far off from each other. The Nokia does tend to blowout highlights at times, but the S95 does too. There is some softness here and there, but part of that is that the lens actually does narrow depth-of-field for stuff that's close to you. I contemplated not taking the Canon with me on my next vacation, because it's that good. However, I came to my senses because the Nokia does not have a zoom lens.

The overall industrial design is pretty solid. I praise Nokia for using a standard micro-USB to charge, so I don't need a special cable. The buttons are all on the same side, so you don't push two of them when you squeeze the phone. There's a slight curvature to the glass on the front. They also seem to coat the glass with some kind of exotic material that makes it super smooth to touch, and somewhat resistent to smudges. It doesn't get as gross as the touch screens on previous phones, or my iPad or Sufrace. I'm much faster when playing Wordament!

Did I mention the screen? I can't stop looking at it, changing the color and watching the live tiles dance.

The battery seemed like a disaster at first, but after a full drain/charge cycle, it seemed to right itself. Games will of course be brutal to it if you play them for hours, but otherwise, I seem to be ending the day with a charge between 40 and 60%. More gaming will get me down to the 20% battery saver threshold. I have NFC turned off, but I use ActiveSync for my Gmail accounts, and leave the chat availability on. I think I let Weather Channel do its background thing as well.

It's worth talking about the upgrade to AT&T's LTE network from a 3G phone. Put simply, it's ridiculous. I'm getting speed tests that run at 28 mbits downstream, which buries my cable modem speeds at home. Using connected apps and Web sites, it's hard to tell sometimes if it's the better hardware or the better bandwidth that makes everything feel so fast.

The OS

Windows Phone 8 looks mostly the same, but there are little changes all over the place that collectively make it more compelling. As I've said from the start, the thing that makes it so awesome is that it's useful before you even leave the store. Enter your Microsoft ID (formerly Live ID), your Facebook account, your e-mail account (particularly Gmail, since it does such excellent contact syncing), and the thing lights up. You already have photos because all of your Facebook albums are there indistinguishable from those you'd normally sync from your computer. My contacts and phone numbers are all there from Gmail.

The new start screen gets a lot of attention because you can customize the crap out of it. It supports three tile sizes now, and you can arrange it any way you'd like. It seems like more apps now have deep link pinning ability too, like a specific OneNote, though not every tile size can do live tiles. They added a lot more colors as well, which seems superficial, but I have to say that it really adds to the like factor. I change it almost every day.

One of the features I didn't think much about was the "rooms" available in the People hub. You add people to a room, and then they share photos, OneNotes, calendars and messaging. That's something that was already achieved to some degree through other services. For example, I get Diana's calendar because it's on the Google, and I just flip a switch in the settings to see it.

But what the feature enables is the ability to share this stuff and not think about it, because it just works. We actually use a OneNote for the grocery list. We also skirt our text message allocation because the room feature routes through the Microsoft Messenger service (soon to be Skype), though it transparently looks just like texting. It also works with iOS devices too, since the foundation is all these underlying services that they can both hit.

That's one of the more interesting things overall, that it's hard to see where the lines are for messaging. Text, Facebook and Messenger are all kind of stuck together, so if someone is connected in one of those ways, you can ping them immediately. We only get 200 texts a month because we're cheap and don't use it that much.

I'm not much of an app user (because the Web is the app), but I don't find anything to be missing. Microsoft is boasting that most of the top 30 apps or something like that are available on the platform. The only one that I would like, which would make the music syncing irrelevant, is one for Amazon Cloud Player. A job posting last July implied they were working on it, but no love yet. In the mean time, I still sync a lot of music and still dig the UI for it.

The Nokia apps sure are nice. The photo panorama is the best implementation I've ever seen. The turn-by-turn directions are as good, if not better than any GPS you could buy. They're really fantastic. City Lens, while not something I'll use much, is an augmented reality app that superimposes links to businesses in view of your camera.

The game opportunities are still fun, and it was nice to see Angry Birds Star Wars launch at the same time as the other platforms. Wordament is still my favorite game, and I love that you can play it from the phone and from Windows 8/RT. Brilliant in its execution of 2-minute games.

There are a few things that are a bit broken. The Kids Corner feature is supposed to let you side-swipe the lock screen and open up a limited start screen for apps and media that you choose, but the problem is that requiring a PIN to unlock also blocks the Kids Corner. That kind of defeats the purpose of letting the kid run wild. The OS still uploads Facebook video with the name of the video file as the title, which is supremely stupid. Internet sharing doesn't work unless the carrier allows it, which isn't Microsoft's fault, but it sure is annoying. (AT&T will only enable it if I decrease my data plan from unlimited.)

The most broken thing right now is Bluetooth. I can't pair the phone with my car, and Diana's phone won't do it either. There are a whole lot of forum posts with Microsoft and Nokia about it, and it doesn't seem specific to the Nokia phones. Granted, I've taken maybe a dozen calls in my car in the last year, but still. That's going to piss off a lot of people if it doesn't get fixed. I do like the way it reads text messages to you and allows you to reply verbally.

Overall, I'm really pleased with the OS as a whole. The new features really put polish on something I already liked. 

The development experience

There was a lot of fear and anger over the fact that WP8 apps would not be Silverlight. Well, that's not really true. They might not call it Silverlight anymore, but the XAML skills you had transfer very well here. There are some changes to get used to in terms of the state management and app lifecycle, but the new stuff to learn is not extensive.

So far I've only partially jumped in with some experimentation, but what I can't understand is why they didn't get the feature and framework parity as close as possible to that of Windows 8 "store apps." There's a huge opportunity to build stuff once, for both platforms, and they kind of blew it. When you attempt to make a portable class library for both, you end up with a pretty low common denominator. For example, the fantastic HttpClient class, essential for talking to services, isn't available on WP8. Huh?

I'll have to write more when I actually finish something, but it sure is curious. That explains too why the SDK wasn't released until the phones were.


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