Nokia Lumia 1020 review

Sometimes it's easy to confuse the abundance of smartphones that release throughout the year. Many of them are the same thing as the year before, but with an upgraded chip, crisper display or smaller bezel, at best.

Then, every now and again, a new smartphone comes along and turns heads … usually because of one standout feature, like a 41-megapixel camera. It's even more interesting when such a smartphone ships running a third-party OS like Windows Phone 8 - and yet it still manages to stand out among a sea of iPhones, Nexus devices and HTC Ones.

The Lumia 1020, Nokia's new 41-megapixel camera phone, is that kind of smartphone. It's a Window Phone 8 LTE-enabled device that costs $299 on contract through AT&T. While it is most certainly a phone, its high-resolution camera is what makes other smartphones and point-and-shoots look like the same old same old.

Sure, the Nokia 808 PureView from 2011 had a 41-megapixel camera as well, but it came with Symbian OS. Need we say more? Windows Phone 8, while not quite up to snuff with iOS or Android, makes the 1020 much more desirable.

Design

The 1020 is huge. Let's just get that out of the way. It's thinner than the Lumia 920 at 10.44mm thick, but it's much beefier than the svelte Nokia Lumia 925. The camera lens also bulges out of the rear, making it impossible to lay the smartphone flat and equally difficult to hold comfortably at first.

The power button, volume rocker and shutter are on the right edge, while the SIM and headphone socket are on top and USB port and speaker are on the bottom. It's an interesting arrangement. The power button's placement definitely kept annoying us. We inadvertently turned off the smartphone almost every time we tried to adjust volume or snap a pic, but it's pretty standard for Nokia's Lumia line and something you get used to.

The polycarbonate unibody is the same thing found on other Lumia devices, so nothing new to report there. That said, if you want a good indication of what this smartphone looks and feels like, think of the 920, but with a mammoth lens. It's not as bulky or as heavy however, which is something of a saving grace.

As with other Nokia Lumia handsets, it feels great. It's solidly built and finished well, something that Nokia seems to have mastered.

Hardware and performance

The Lumia 1020 performs well. It has a 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 chip and 2GB of RAM, and that's enough for smooth scrolling and fast-loading of apps.

Booting the smartphone itself is a bit on the slow side. There's also a four-second lag when unlocking the 1020 and opening the stock camera app. The Pro Cam app would also sometimes load slowly; snap slowly and just run slowly altogether. This usually happened when the phone grew too hot, which it most definitely did in our time with it.

We took the 1020's camera for a spin in New York City, snapping close to 300 photos, and noticed that a fully charged battery depleted to zero in five hours. The phone also felt like it was on fire during our photo session. We always harboured a suspicion that this phone would have to work hard and that seems to be reflected in how hot it gets.

We even turned it off two hours in to save battery life and stop the phone's innards from melting as we were worried about it. It has a 2000mAh Li-ion battery, meaning you can have a day of normal use - just don't take too many pictures - but with all that said, not a single app crashed during our testing of the 1020, and that's noteworthy.

Call quality over AT&T’s network in New York City was decent. There was no hiss or static, and the device's sound volume was adequate until walking through noisy touristy places like Time Square. We also experienced a drop call in this area, but call quality will obviously vary depending on where you live.

Display

The 1020 offers a 4.5-inch AMOLED display with a 1280 x 768 pixel resolution. That's the same screen found on the 925 and 928, and it's a nice enough offering, with a 331ppi. It's not the most highest-resolution display you'll find on a modern smartphone, but that doesn't seem to affect the Windows Phone experience, which is well suited to a display of this size. Nokia's new Lumia 625 offers a larger display at 4.7-inches, but we feel that, given the size of the 1020, the display is just about the right size.

It goes a little opaque when looking at it from an indirect angle, but it does the job. Nokia's ClearBlack technology makes the display quite visible when outside, so that's a big plus. You can use the touchscreen when wearing gloves, something that Nokia has enabled on a number of its devices.

Software

Much of the software experience of the Nokia Lumia 1020 is the same as elsewhere in the Lumia line. It takes Windows Phone 8 and adds dashings of Nokia innovation to it. We've often said that if you're after a Windows Phone then Nokia is the way to go and the company is certainly working hard to bring exclusive features to handsets and enhance Microsoft's offering. We won't talk too much about the stock Windows Phone experience here, rather concentrate on the specifics for this device.

Nokia wanted the 41-megapixel sensor to shine on the 1020, and so it helped the camera along by including a bunch of handy software tools for zooming, re-framing and editing photos. Nokia's "Pro Camera" app can save cropped photos alongside full photos, and it captures those full photos in high-resolution. The other camera apps - including the Windows Phone camera app - put a 5-megapixel limit on photos. That's a ridiculous scale-down, considering the smartphone's star feature is its 41-megapixel capability.

The settings in the Pro Cam app are very easy to handle. Just tap on white balance, ISO or whichever option, and then slide through the semicircle to adjust. As noted above, the app can run slow after a while. And it will also lag when it adjusts frames to changed settings.

For retouching and other creative options, just use the appropriately dubbed "Creative Studio" app. The 1020 can also take panoramas and animated GIFs. But don't get us started on the panorama feature. It's quite possibly the most complicated camera feature on the market. And it made us want to hurl the 1020 across the room.

Now, let's talk about photo sharing. Or lack thereof. There's no Instagram or Google+ on Windows Phone 8. There are a few second-tier apps for photo sharing, but none that will upload the 1020's high-resolution images. You could go with Flickr, but the latest version is optimised for Windows Phone 7. Oggl by Hipstamatic will let you share to Instagram, but it's a stopgap rather than a dedicated Instagram app. This in time will change, but on day one it might be an issue for you if you are tied to services not available yet on Windows Phone. Newcomers won't see this as a problem however.

The bottom line is that the 1020 is meant to rival the iPhone 5 and GS4, and it certainly can in some areas, but Windows Phone 8 and its app ecosystem are undoubtedly holding it back.

Camera

We already have a brief review of the 1020's sensor, stock camera app, Pro Camera app and panorama functionality, so go check that out for a full breakdown. Nevertheless, it's worth going over some additional bits in this review.

Read: Nokia Lumia 1020: We test the new camera in New York, is it really that good?

Only the Nokia Pro Camera app uses the 41-megapixel sensor delivering 38-megapixel photos (confusing we know), weighing in at over 10MB each, whereas the other apps shoot at 5-megapixels. With that said, because of the 41-megapixel beefiness, you can only retrieve photos by syncing the 1020 to a computer, which is a pain.

Still, the impressive 1/1.5-inch sensor allows the 1020 to capture better pictures than any other smartphone, camera phone or dumb phone. Ever. Part of the reason is because of the camera's powerful 6x digital zoom. Yes, digital zoom is usually a grotesque feature, but the 1020 takes it to another level with impressive image stabilisation. Nokia also attributed this to oversampling. The camera captures so much data - 7 pixels worth of information into one - that the result is a super high-resolution photo. You can then zoom in really far without losing any detail.

However, like most digital cameras, the 1020 has mediocre low-light capabilities. It takes bright shots, and offers up a ton of processing, resulting in noisy images. That's even with the ISO turned down and other manual settings adjusted. The sensor is super-meticulous, but most of the night time photos we captured were quite underwhelming.

The xenon flash helps with more close-range stuff, and even reduces blur since it instantly flashes, but most photography enthusiasts would shudder at the thought of using a little flash to light up a subject or landscape.

As for video recording, it's available in 1080p with three features. There's oversampling for saturated colours, image stabilisation and an improved microphone with adequate noise cancelling. It works well, and we could definitely see vloggers picking up the 1020 for easy-yet-HD filming while on the go.

Lastly, when compared to the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4, the 1020 seems like a top-of-the-line cameraphone. It offers decent colour accuracy, although it can sometimes snap darker images - even in bright daytime shots - due to over-correction. The 1020 makes up for this, however, by providing amazingly sharp images.

Phones like the iPhone 5 are known for offering a combination of colour and detail, but the 1020's ability to capture adequate colours with incredible sharpness is even more stunning. That said, the Galaxy S4's night mode performs better. It captures low-light shots, serving up softer images but with less noise.

The Pro Camera app makes the 1020 the new smartphone to beat. It basically bridges the gap between smartphones and point-and-shoots. The average person could most certainly abandon their personal camera for good and use the 1020 for all their picture-taking needs.

Verdict

We also thought a lot about how the 1020 compares to the DSLRs from Canon, Nikon, etc. It certainly has many of the manual settings, creating a DSLR/phone-like combo for consumers.

Therefore, in that sense alone, the 1020 is an ideal option for people who look at the camera as the most desirable feature in a smartphone. However, is it ideal for professional photographers? In our experience, photographers are rarely seen without a DSLR hanging from their neck. We also highly doubt that this specific Windows Phone 8 camera phone would suddenly allow them to leave - or even want to leave - their precious DSLRs at home.

This phone is for that small niche group of people who either aren't OS-specific or prefer Windows Phone 8 to iOS and Android. Because, lets face it, you either want a Windows phone or you don't - and a 41-megapixel sensor isn't going to change that for anyone.

So, if you want a Windows Phone 8 device and desire the ability to capture mammoth, high-resolution photos, than the Lumia 1020 is the smartphone for you.



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