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Nokia Lumia 920 Review

The house of Nokia is in a very peculiar place at the moment. While the brand name still carries quite a bit of weight with it, the actual amount of active mindshare it currently possesses is nowhere near what it once was. Ultimately, the folks at Espoo need to convince loyalists that the company remains strong while also managing to once again catch the attention of consumers who have long since abandoned the Finnish ship. With a plethora of options- great options, at that- available from competitors in the smartphone market, Nokia needs a new flagship to rally behind. In today’s fast-paced world of tech, said flagship doesn’t need to endure point duty for long… it just has to remain timeless. Examples of such would be the original Apple iPhone. Samsung’s Galaxy S. Motorola’s Atrix. All of these phones proved to customers that the company behind them was aware of the demands of the market and wasn’t simply playing catch-up.

Nokia’s decision, therefore, to create the Lumia 920 comes as a bit of a no-brainer. Point-and-shoot cameras are being more and more often replaced by smartphones in everyday usage, so why not equip said phone with a great camera? All of the other in-demand specifications are there, too… a large screen, dual-core processor, LTE and even Qi wireless charging. These features, if found on an Android phone, would immediately put it near the top end of the crowd. Or would have, had quad-core Droids not become somewhat commonplace. Nokia, it seems, still retains much of its old sloth ways. Even HTC, which announced its Windows 8 offerings after Nokia, managed to get their products out the door and into customers’ hands much sooner than Nokia could.

So what we’re looking at is Nokia’s latest and greatest. However on account of the immense delays and extremely competent competition, we’re also judging whether or not Nokia has what it takes to continue to run with the dogs. It’s a rather poor position to be in, but that’s where we are. With such drool-worthy hardware as the Google Nexus 4 coming in with an unsubsidised price tag of a penny short of three hundred dollars, one naturally has to look at the 920 and ask it to prove itself. Let’s dig in.

Following in the footsteps of the Lumia 800 and 900, the new flagship 920 features a similar unibody construction. Whereas the progression from the 800 to the 900 saw the loss of the curved glass panel atop the display, said curves are back on the 920. And they sure are a welcome sight, lending to the device’s premium feel. (The 900 felt more or less like a knock-off, oversized 800 if you ask me.) The body sports the same durability feature as its predecessors: the polycarbonate body is injection molded with colored plastic. Should the body ever be knicked or scratched, the plastic underneath is the exact same color as the top surface, thereby camoflaging the damage.

The 920 also sports ceramic buttons, which are supposed to stand up to wear-and-tear a lot better than plastic would. While one has to ask what was wrong with simply using metal, it’s undoubtedly a nice touch. At the back of the phone, the nameplate inlay is also made of the same material. This is where one of my first criticisms is to be found: the nameplate does not lie truly flush with the back of the device.  It’s obviously a construction flaw and ruins my impression of the back. There’s another obvious flaw to be found at the SIM card tray on the top of the phone; the tray doesn’t sit centered into the slot that was cut out for it, creating a very noticeable and lopsided gap. This might just be nitpicking, but considering iPhones have been equipped with a similar SIM mechanism for years without such nuances, I can’t help but feel bothered. A phone this expensive should not be sporting such trivial annoyances.

 Thankfully this is where my physical criticisms of the phone end. The rest of the phone comes in exactly as you’d expect it to. The centered stereo jack and Micro-USB jack on opposite ends of the phone is a very nice touch, as is the perfectly-located lock/unlock button on the side of the device. (That location needs to be adopted by more manufacturers.) The two-stage camera flash has excellent tactile feedback and movement and is something I’d also love to see implemented elsewhere.

 Not really a good phone for those with small hands, the 920 is a rather big phone. Heavy, too. Add to that the fact that my Lumia is already making creaking noises when I pick it up. If the phone was equipped with a removable battery cover, this would be acceptable and even expected, but given that this is supposed to be a tight and taught unibody construction, I’m rather disappointed. Lightly squeezing the phone doesn’t always result in a creak, but it annoys me regardless that it does just enough that I’ve gotten used to it.

I’ll save you the school lesson on Windows Phone 8 and simply jump right into things, beginning with battery life. Not having an LTE network (whatsoever) where I’ve been using the Lumia 920, I expected the phone’s big battery to more than handily manage a full day’s worth of frequent usage. However I was disappointed to find battery saver having activated itself by around lunchtime on most days. On many occasions I would even pull the phone out of my pocket to be greeted with a dead phone. When one is in an unfamiliar city, a dead phone can spell disaster, and I found myself wandering completely lost more than a couple of times on account of a 920 which refused to turn on. If you choose the 920 for your next smartphone, you would be wise to purchase a battery-powered on-the-go charger so as to ensure you’d always have some juice to call for help.

As I had no access to a Qi charger, I cannot comment on how well the wireless charging feature actually works. I can tell you, however, that charging the 920 from completely empty to full was a process that took quite a bit of time.

Cellular reception on the 920 was usually right about par in comparison to other devices. Data rates were more than acceptable even without LTE service and phone calls were always crystal clear.

This is not so much a fault of Nokia’s as it is that of Windows Phone, but I frequently find that the software makes some rather questionable choices about how to use the network when on a subway or train. In informal tests against Android handsets, I’ve consistently found Google’s operating system to consistently manage to efficiently use the network available to it. While WP8 might temporarily pause at the drop from 3G networks to EDGE, a Droid will happily switch down to EDGE seamlessly and then jump back to 3G when the network makes itself available again. Not really a big deal, unless one finds themselves frequently travelling cross-country by train.

Then there’s the camera. Ignoring Nokia’s inexplicable OIS demonstration fabrication, the system built into the 920 simply works. Low-light images taken without flash are suddenly more than just possible, they’re actually worth sharing. I’ve taken pictures of owls, medieval streets at midnight and so on, only to be amazed by the results. I can’t say which road is the better to take, larger sensors and big apertures or fancy OIS systems, but in the case of the 920 it definitely works. (I hope to see a combination of all of those things in a phone one day.) Having disassembled the OIS unit to see what was inside in addition to attending a lecture (in German) on the technology by a representative from Carl Zeiss, I know that a significant amount of work went into the construction of the OIS system. In fact, one of my favorite things to do when I’ve demonstrated the phone to my peers is to have them record a simple video in which they pan a room, then play it back. While it’s no Hollywood blockbuster, the smoothness of the video quality never fails to amaze. It’s a wonder how we went so long without this technology.

[NOTE: Example pictures to be added once I have access to a more reliable internet connection to upload full-size copies from.]

If one were to ask me whether or not they should buy a Lumia 920, I would hesitate to answer their question. Should they be selecting from a list of subsidized handsets, amongst which the Lumia 920 was a choice, I’d likely persuade them to give it a look at the very least. However unsubsidized, I couldn’t make the same recommendation. The reason is very simple: price.

Factory unlocked without a contract, the Lumia 920 costs 650€ in Germany. I don’t care which way you look at that, it’s a lot of money for a big, weighty, battery-killing and possibly gaudy-colored phone. I’m all for phones that are an extension of one’s personality, but a yellow phone simply looks like a toy almost anywhere it is used. By comparison, an unlocked Nexus 4 runs only 300€ in Germany. The three hundred and fifty Euros spared earns you a smaller and lighter handset equipped with a larger screen, two more processor cores and nearly unlimited customizability options and vastly greater number of apps. The only losses are built-in storage and the camera.

That’s the thing though: Nokia’s gambling that you’d rather pay more to have your point-and-shoot built into your phone. Something tells me that if you were to ask a photographer whether or not they’d take one sweet camera phone or a smartphone with a 350€ camera of their choice, they’d pick the latter option without hesitation. What Nokia has done is created a handset that only really works if one is never confronted with the sticker price of the thing.

With that in mind, I have to admit that I once was looking forward to the Lumia 920 more than anything. Yet the marketplace changed and once again the Nokia ship plowed on into an iceberg. Remaining a Nokia fan is starting to become depressing.

UPDATE (15th of January, 2013): I've begun to think that Nokia sold this phone long before it was actually finished. The quality of audio via bluetooth was terrible out of the box, fixed a week or so later by a software update. Following an update shortly before I returned this phone to Nokia Connects, I was shocked to find that the stock camera app no longer wanted to bring anything into focus. 3rd party apps continued to work as expected, however. Nokia used to have a reputation for using its consumers as guinea pigs. If I didn't know better, I would say that they're still up to this old practice.