Nokia Lumia 930 review

Since Microsoft acquired Nokia's phone hardware business there's been some confusion about where things go from here. Take the Lumia 930, the top-spec Windows Phone 8.1 smartphone that we've been reviewing for the last few days: Microsoft has left the "Nokia" name absent from all its press materials, yet the Nokia name sits proudly on the phone's rear.

Clearly we're in a period of transition. But what's in a name - and does it even really matter? Only time will tell. What we're most interested in is how the Lumia 930 embodies the evolving nature of Windows Phone 8.1. It showcases the ever-strong Lumia hardware - which is better built than plenty of top-spec Android rivals - and, perhaps ignoring the Lumia 1020's camera prowess, represents the most compelling Windows Phone package to date.

It's been a long time coming though. After first seeing the handset in April, the release date slipped back to mid-July in the UK; while those in the US will never see the 930 in this particular format. What with LG, Samsung and HTC having already outed their respective Android phones and with Apple supposedly due to announce a bigger, bolder iPhone in September has Nokia (or Microsoft - take your pick) got the guts to stand out - or is it a phone and operating system combination still scrabbling to keep up with the pack?

Windows 8.1: The new Android?

The thing that's always been levelled at Windows Phone is its lack of apps. In the latest 8.1 operating system the key ones are on board - Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, the list goes on - and some Lumia exclusive creations, such as Video Tuner for on-board video editing give the system some pomp.

But some of the better known games are absent. There's no Candy Crush Saga, King fans, as just one example of many, so Windows Phone isn't as strong a gaming platform as the competition.

READ: Best smartphones 2014

Whether that will improve with Microsoft now at the helm is anyone's guess. Heck, the company owns Xbox but seems to keep that at arm's length from its mobile division. Perhaps that's no surprise given that Windows and Surface aren't exactly known for their vibrant nature, but what's apparent about Lumia is just how cool it is, or some might say is trying to be. The luminescent green rear a design klaxon if we ever saw one - but that's the Lumia calling card, love or loathe it (or just pick from white or black instead).

Gaming ignored, the actual operation of Windows Phone 8.1 is as good as it's ever been. In the latest version, known as Lumia Cyan, the system feels more familiar, more accessible, more, er, Android? Take that as you will: it means Nokia/Microsoft is catching up in the usability rankings, and that can only be a good thing.

In 8.1 silly mistakes of previous system versions have been fixed - no more is app and call volume adjusted as one; calendar adds the obvious week view; there are quick-access actions via a swipe-down action - while a prettier interface offers multiple tile sizes. We'd still like additional customisation, plus the settings menu is a mish-mash with no order and the never-ending apps list is an alphabetical yawnfest, but the addition of distinct features such as Wi-Fi Sense for intelligent auto network sign-up spearhead Windows Phone's point of difference. For the full lowdown on 8.1 check out our full review below:

READ: Windows Phone 8.1 review

Luminescent Lumia

When Nokia embarked on premium Lumia devices it went big, and then some. The original 920 was a serious wedge of phone - something the Lumia 925 admirably trimmed down to a more manageable scale.

With the Lumia 930 things haven't continued that trend: the device's 9.8mm thickness is up on the 8.5mm of the Lumia 925 and the newer 5-inch screen makes it the largest non-phablet device in Nokia's stable. As a result it feels fairly hefty, no surprise given that it's 20g heavier than even the Lumia 1020, but not too heavy.

But big is the current beautiful. Laid over the top of the 5.5-inch LG G3 and there's only marginal millimetres of difference in size between the two devices. Although we've found the Lumia comfortable to hold, thanks to its slightly curved rear, it'll be too big for some - especially if you're upgrading from iPhone.

READ: LG G3 review

What the Lumia does have down is the build quality. We've revelled about this in all recent handsets, including the budget ones. Whether the green finish is for you or not, the rear panel - which isn't removable, so the battery is fixed - has this soft-touch feel and exudes quality. Even the 930's silver-colour metal band that encases the whole design appears to be a single piece, whereas the earlier 925 had dividing plasticky intrusions toward the top and bottom sides that broke up the quality aesthetic.

There are other cool elements too: the wireless charger included in the box means you can plonk the Lumia 930 on a platform to charge without fiddling with the micro USB port at the base. Order within the first two weeks of release and you can add a portable wireless charger and portable speaker to that for no additional cost (UK only, 17 - 31 July).

Hardware hike

The top build quality is matched by top spec hardware too. Under the hood the Lumia 930 runs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core 2.2Ghz chipset, married to 2GB of RAM. Ok, so it's not the latest Snapdragon 801 processor, as already on the shelves in the Sony Xperia Z2 and other devices, but the differences between the two are fairly minimal.

READ: Sony Xperia Z2 review

The point is this is Windows Phone getting up to speed and offering a comparable experience to the competition. There's barely anything between platforms now. Everything runs smoothly, multi-tasking is no problem, and with Windows Phone 8.1 you know what you're getting - no unwanted window dressing, so to speak, or nasty bloatware - plus the bump in resolution to a Full HD 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution AMOLED panel is most welcome.

It's not a Quad HD display as offered by the LG G3, but that high resolution panel actually brings some issues to the Android competitor: you won't (yet) be able to play some games such as Real Racing 3, for example, which undoes some of our earlier gaming argument.

The Lumia panel looks great too. It's crisp and clear and we've been using it out and about in sunny Vienna, Austria, where it's dealt well with all we've thrown at it. It's more vibrant than the LG G3 we've been using over recent weeks, handles sunlight really well and is brighter overall.

Tucked away in the menus there is also a Display Settings options where presets for standard, vivid and cool are available - but an advanced setting also offers colour balance correction. So if you think things are too warm or cool then adjust an on-screen slider as appropriate, while green/purple tint and neutral/vivid saturation are also available. There are preview images to see your handiwork too, just to ensure it doesn't make human skin look alien-like by accident. Within the same section the somewhat simplistic low/medium/high brightness level is also available as a more accurate slider too.

Extras and oddities

With the display brightness high you will see a lessened battery life, and given the 2420mAh capacity cell tucked into the unit we've found it fine for a day's use but no more. Given the thickness and scale of this phone we were hoping for something a little more considerable - not that it's bad by any means.

Sound is delivered through the to-ear speaker at the top of the phone and we had no issues with call quality. If you want to pop a call onto speaker phone or listen to your favourite jingles then sound is output from a small speaker to the rear. The curve of the phone means you won't block it with a stray finger, and the sound quality is reasonable - but it's not a patch on the HTC One's front-facing BoomSound speakers.

READ: HTC One (M8) review

For some reason the 930 has adopted the nano SIM - presumably hoping to scoop up iPhone users looking for a larger handset - which seems pointless in a handset of this scale. The SIM try is barely any smaller than a micro SIM tray, so the perils of cutting and sanding down a SIM card to fit - you won't need to, as carriers will provide proper ones, but Microsoft didn't provide one for this review unit - wasn't an aspect we enjoyed about using the Lumia 930 at all.

There's also no Glance screen - the quick-look screen feature that we were rather fond of in the Lumia 1520. No idea why, as it seems an obvious absence in the 930 model.

READ: Nokia Lumia 1520 review

Camera

On board the Lumia 930 is the Nokia Camera app which tucks into the 20-megapixel sensor on offer. Nokia has a recent history of some great camera efforts, led by the Lumia 1020, but it's also made its whole concept of "PureView" - first seen in the 808 PureView model - somewhat overcomplicated between its various devices.

The reason is down to sensor size: the 808 had a massive sensor (1/1.2in), the Lumia 1020 reduced the size a little (1/1.5in) while maintaining the 41-megapixel resolution, while the Lumia 930 reduces the size once again (1/2.5in) but with 20.1-megapixels it finds a happy medium in the resolution stakes. All those numbers look mind-bogglingly confusing, but all you need to know is this: the 930's sensor is roughly the same size as you'd find in a dedicated compact camera. So no bad thing.

READ: Nokia Lumia 1020 camera review

And it's a pretty decent camera in operation too. There's all the full manual options to easily select through on screen if you want them, otherwise full auto mode does a decent job of knowing what's what. Exposures aren't always that accurate and we've seen colour balance off too, but if that's a probelm then the advanced snapper can access raw (DNG) files to do a bit of additional processing. No other smartphone camera system can offer that.

There's also optical image stabilisation that, and just like the Lumia 1020, does a really great job of counteracting handshake to deliver a steadied preview and, crucially, sharp shot even when the light's not great. In dim conditions we didn't find the focus to struggle, although resulting shots can be a little soft when inspected at their full 20-megapixel size. There's also a maximum f/2.8 aperture to let in bags of light which further assists in low-light shooting without using the flash.

If you want to zoom then a pinch on the 930's screen will "cut in" to the image, producing lower res shots, but ones still ample enough in scale. We found the preview sometimes looked really noisy with on-screen grain dancing around the frame in dimmer conditions, which isn't something the LG G3 suffered when we took it out to compare.

In good light we've found the results to be really impressive too. Lots of detail makes shots sit well against even dedicated compact cameras; we would argue the gentler processing of the Lumia 930 even outsmarts crossover devices such as the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom.

However, it all goes a bit awry when higher sensitivities are used - these are often used to "boost" the signal when dim conditions are required for exposure - as more aggressive processing produces soft results that also show odd colours and image noise.

Another issue arises from sending shots from the phone to a recipient. Email a 20-megapixel image, for example, and by default the phone will forward it as a 1.5MP shot. It's not this scale that's necessarily the issue - it's fine for social media - but that the downscaling is handled really poorly. Jagged edges and overcompression destroy a lot of the subtle detail shown in original capture.

The 930 is another example as to why Lumia is held in high regard when it comes to imaging, but just like the original 808 PureView it still shows minor imperfections and niggles. Overall there's a lot to like, although the presence of super-fast autofocus and ocassionally more polished competitors - such as the LG G3 - will certainly give this Windows Phone device plenty to think about.

Verdict

The Lumia 930 is as close as we've got to Windows Phone's wow moment. But, in saying that, we're still on the fence about whether it's enough to lure new customers in.

We love the 5-inch Full HD screen, the camera good in decent light, and the solid build quality separates the device from all those plasticky competitors with removable back plates. It's a touch on the thick size and is a large device overall, but we think the Lumia 930 gets away with it. We're not sure about all the colour options though.

Now in version 8.1 the Windows Phone experience is also more complete than it's ever been before. Although, in many respects, that just means it's caught up with the competition - and if you're a gamer then the lack of apps will still disappoint. There are still some fussy points in use too, but the lack of bloatware otherwise keeps the Lumia experience pure.

The Lumia 930 is big, bold and has touches of brilliance. As much as it wows, though, there's still work to be done to truly set it apart from the competition. This is one that will divide the crowd, but is a device that can't be ignored for its positives and its aspirations. Whether it can be so highly praised in two months' time from now is another matter, but right now this is the best Windows Phone device that money can buy.