Review: Nokia Lumia 920 is big, bold, and beautiful
At a Glance
Although much fuss has been made over Windows Phone 8’s shortcomings and its supposed inability to compete in the smartphone market, no one seems to have told the Lumia 920, which reportedly sold out in many locations the first weekend it was available. And it’s easy to see why folks are eager to get their hands on it: It’s a big, bold handset with fantastic camera technology, unique features, and a beautiful display.
However, it won't appeal to all users, many of whom are firmly entrenched in the iOS or Android ecosystems. But those who are platform-agnostic, are more focused on productivity than playing, or who are interested in a something fresh and unique can find much to love about the Lumia 920.
The phone is a beast of a handset and impossible to ignore. Constructed from a single piece of polycarbonate, the Lumia 920 measures 5.12 inches tall, 2.7 inches wide, and 0.42 inches thick and is available in both glossy (yellow, white, red) or matte (black, blue) finishes. We did our testing on the glossy, bright yellow version. The 4.5-inch screen is framed by a bezel that houses the three capacitive Windows buttons (back, home, and search) and curves neatly into the body. The physical buttons (volume, power, camera) are ceramic and are all located on the right-hand side.
The bottom houses the micro-drilled speakers and the micro-USB input; the top holds the 3.5-mm headphone jack and micro-SIM card. The rear features the flash and the 8.7-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss wide-angle optics (much more on that later), while the front-facing camera is tucked next to the earpiece and the ambient light sensor.
The first thing you notice when you hold the Lumia 920 is its size and weight—at 6.5 ounces, it’s significantly heavier than the iPhone 5 (3.95 ounces) or the Galaxy S III (4.69 ounces). It feels both large and substantial when held, no surprise given Nokia’s history of solid build quality. I’ve heard the 920 described as a “beast,” a “heavyweight player,” and a “monster truck,” and while there’s no denying that this is a sizeable smartphone, that’s not necessarily a drawback. I had no trouble operating the 920 one-handed, and my fella (who is 6’5”) was pleased that I’d finally brought home a handset that fit his large mitts. I should note that the glossy finish available for the yellow, white, and red colors does pick up smudges and fingerprints; you might prefer, as I do, the soft feel of a matte finish.
One place where the Lumia 920 really shines is its screen, a 4.5-inch high-contrast IPS (In-Plane Switching) display that Nokia calls PureMotions HD+, sealed in a coating of Gorilla Glass 2. It is drop-dead gorgeous. Capable of deep blacks, rich colors, and sharp text, the 920 is rocking a slightly higher pixel density—332 ppi—than the iPhone 5’s Retina Display, which has 326 ppi. Images are crisp and popping with color, text is pleasant to read, and videos look amazing. Not only does the Lumia 920 provide a stellar viewing experience on an expansive screen, but it is also capable of great visibility in sunlight, and the Synaptics-powered capacitive touchscreen can respond to gloved fingertips, as well as fingernails and some pens. And not to be outdone by appearances, the touchscreen on the 920 is impressively responsive—Assistant Editor Armando Rodriquez kept calling it "zippy," and I was similarly delighted by how quickly the 920 responded to commands.
While all handsets running Windows Phone 8 have benefited from the upgraded hardware requirements of the new OS, the Lumia 920 pushes the limits by packing in a remarkable camera, as well as NFC capabilities, Bluetooth 3.0, and built-in Qi wireless charging. With a dual-core Snapdragon S4 1.5GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and a 2000mAh battery, the 920 is loaded with solid specs. It does lack expandable storage, but Microsoft throws in an additional 7GB of cloud storage for all new SkyDrive accounts.
Nokia claims that the 920 is capable of 9 hours of talk time, 52 hours of music playback, 5 hours of video playback, and 2.6 hours of video recording. When we ran our battery tests, the 920 lasted for 6 hours, 13 minutes worth of video playback (with brightness set to medium, and in airplane mode)—slightly less time than the HTC Windows Phone 8X, which ran for 6 hours, 33 minutes.
While some apps took a moment to load, overall the Lumia 920 had no problem running apps or playing games—although the rear of the phone did become quite warm after more than 20 minutes or so of continuous use. Web browsing and searching was similarly effortless; the 920 quickly loaded Web pages and displayed search results without a hitch. It did well on our page-load tests, and aced both our SunSpider and WebVizBench tests, where it pulled slightly ahead of the HTC 8X.
Call quality was good for every call I placed; I encountered no problems making calls either locally or long-distance. In each case, the conversation was clear, and I had no trouble understanding what was being said, even for lengthy calls. No real shock there: Nokia was able to cram 11 different bands onto the 920, so it's covered a lot of bases for cellular support.
Wireless charging was effortless; all I had to do was set the Lumia 920 onto a charging pad, and it gave me a tone to let me know it was charging. Granted, the charging pad itself does need to be plugged in, but if you’re going to set your phone down, it may as well be charging so it’s ready when you pick it up.
The Lumia 920 is one of Windows Phone 8’s flagship phones, the other being HTC’s Windows Phone 8X, and it certainly does the revamped OS justice. The Lumia’s brightly colored hardware is echoed by the software’s Live Tiles, which can be resized, and the OS now supports Office documents—easy to read and edit thanks the to 920’s large, crystal clear screen.
In addition to the standard set of Windows Phone 8 features (Groups and Rooms, Kids Corner, DataSense, SkyDrive integration, Xbox SmartGlass), Nokia includes its own suite of software goodies such as City Lens, Drive + Beta, Maps, and Music.
Nokia Music now offers Dolby sound and has a built-in equalizer; both features are available for use with headphones. Turning on Dolby sound did in fact add a nice layer of bass to songs. Though Pandora will soon be available, Nokia also includes its Mix Radio service—which offers free music to stream and download, so you can create playlists to listen to anywhere.
While Nokia powers all of the Maps on Windows Phone 8, Lumia 920 users get the bonus of free turn-by-turn navigation, and they can download maps of entire countries and the inside of popular venues. You don't get street-level photos, and therefore nothing like Google's Street View, but both the Places function within Maps and the City Lens app offer services similar to Google's Places. City Lens relies on TripAdvisor and other third-party databases to provide data for this augmented-reality app that displays nearby businesses through the camera. The Local Scout app does much the same thing, but nicely filters results into categories like Food + Drink.
Overall, Nokia Drive, a Lumia exclusive, provides a more robust mapping experience, while the Windows Phone 8 maps provide more detailed information on nearby businesses.
Internet Explorer 10, though not a desktop favorite, performs well as a mobile browser, loading quickly and looking sharp. The Xbox integration continues with SmartGlass, which allows you to use your Windows Phone 8 handset as a console controller; however, the full version will require an Xbox Live subscription. It's a neat, if not fully realized, feature that could use some further integration. At the moment, it lets you use your Lumia as an additional controller for your Xbox, but it would be nice to see more interactive content.
The major reason that most people will look into the Lumia 920 is the camera. And oh, what a camera it is: 8.7 megapixels with a backside-illuminated sensor, an f/2.0 autofocus Carl Zeiss lens paired with Nokia’s PureView technology, and the first-ever floating lens and sensor for optical image stabilization. All of which basically means that the camera takes impressively stable video and superior low-light images. While we saw some ISO noise, the low-light images were heads above the rest. Images taken during the day were often warmer, and softer, than those taken with our other test cameras (an iPhone 5 and a Samsung Galaxy S III).
During our photo testing, the Lumia 920 did very well in capturing color in low light, though the image wasn't as sharp as we would have liked. Likewise, for our still-life images, the 920 did very well in capturing color and skin tone, but suffered a bit in sharpness. It also did very well in capturing low-light video, although it fared slightly worse in capturing normal-light video, scoring below the Galaxy S III and the iPhone 5.
The camera includes six scene modes (auto, close-up, night, night portrait, sports, and backlight), as well as adjustable ISO settings (from 100 to 800), adjustable exposure value, and five white-balance settings. That is… a lot of settings for a camera that will likely be used by a lot of folks who don’t know what ISO stands for. While it's a stellar camera with impressive technology, it may be a bit too advanced for those who don't understand the various settings.
Lenses bring additional features to the camera courtesy of third-party apps (although there are admittedly not that many of those yet) such as Panorama, SmartShoot for group photos, burst shots, and Cinemagraph GIF-making functions. The floating lens technology did a stellar job of keeping videos stable; the short test videos I took walking around San Francisco were clear and steady. Autofocus did a good job keeping up, although the white balance sometimes had a hard time doing the same.
The Nokia Lumia 920 is an all-around impressive handset: It has solid, eye-catching hardware with some impressive features and makes a case for Windows Phone 8 as an operating system. It has a truly beautiful screen, a camera capable of incredible low-light images and stable videos, NFC functionality, and wireless charging (if that's something you think you'll use). It provides a full suite of Office programs, integrates with the Xbox, has turn-by-turn navigation, offline maps, and Mix Radio. This smartphone has a full host of services; although none of them are iTunes or Google Maps, that doesn't mean the Lumia can't provide music or directions.
Choosing a Windows Phone 8 handset means some adjustments, both good and bad. While you're still missing some essential apps (Instagram, Dropbox), that list is steadily improving, and Windows Phone 8 provides features that other smartphones lack (Office documents, Groups and Rooms, Xbox integration) that make it worth considering—especially if you're looking for your first smartphone or are a business user. Nokia's Lumia 920 is a champion for Windows Phone 8, and while it may not win the smartphone war, it is more than capable of winning its share of battles.