REVIEW: Nokia Lumia 1020

Nokia's new smartphone is admittedly more of a camera than a phone. But, if you're into photography and your favourite apps are already on Windows, it's a worthy upgrade.

Last year, Nokia made headlines when it released the first 41 megapixel camera smartphone, the Nokia 808 PureView.

The tech behind the PureView sensor in the 808 was the culmination of five years of research and development and set a benchmark in smartphone camera performance.

While the handset exemplified Nokia’s engineering prowess, it also amplified the company’s inability to stay ahead of the software curve with the severely dated Symbian OS.

It was the Finnish firm’s last hurrah on it’s very own Symbian platform before the former mobile giant went exclusive with Windows Phone.

Nokia’s gigantic camera sensor is now back in the form of the Windows Phone flagship, the Nokia Lumia 1020.

But how well does it perform and is it enough to stand out in a market dominated by iOS and Android?

The best smartphone camera to date. Period.

Let’s get this out of the way - the Nokia Lumia 1020 is the best camera you will find on a smartphone.

It outperforms, by some distance, the Android and Apple competition when it comes to still shots and video recording and even gives some dedicated point-and-shoot cameras on the market a run for their money.

It won’t replace your DSLR of course, but there’s something to be said for a device that can take excellent quality snaps while still being able to fit inside your pocket.

On paper, it’s easy to see why the Lumia 1020 offers class leading performance.

Firstly, it has a huge 1/1.5-inch sensor which is up to five times larger than what you would normally find in a smartphone; Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) is also on board for better low light performance topped off with six Carl Zeiss lenses. 

In addition, you will find a dedicated Xenon flash for stills and a LED flash for video.  You also get full manual control over ISO, exposure, shutter speed, white balance and focus, all of which are critical settings that help to produce the shot you're after.

Although it is technically a 41MP sensor, you are restricted to capturing either 34MP images at 16:9 aspect ratio or 38MP images files in 4:3.

Nokia puts all those extra pixels to work with a high resolution zoom which the company claims is lossless, effectively allowing you to zoom in and crop a part of the image you have taken without any noticeable loss in quality.

As an example, I took some shots of an outdoor building and I was still able to zoom right in on the surrounding environment and make out the detail on the individual blades of grass.

Similarly, the high resolution zoom works while recording 1080P video, allowing you to focus right in on your subject while standing back a fair distance without any noticeable degradation.

In case you're wondering, the high resolution zoom is limited to 3x for stills, 1080P video can be zoomed up to 4x and 720P video offers up to 6x zoom.

The nice thing is that you can do all of the zooming, re-framing and cropping within Nokia’s very own Pro Cam app and it will also save the cropped photo next to the original full resolution image in case you decide to make further adjustments later on. 

But what about those snaps that you end up sharing to social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram? After all, who wants to upload a 10MB plus image every time?

For this reason, the Lumia 1020 saves a much smaller 5MP version of your images for easier sharing, but this time, those extra left-over pixels are put to use by oversampling the image which Nokia claims gives you the accuracy of a 41MP image in a 5MP equivalent filesize.

We couldn’t see much reason to argue with that claim with our oversampled 5MP images looking just as detailed as the native 38MP shots.

Unfortunately, the only way to get the full resolution 38-megapixel images of the phone is by connecting the phone to your PC via USB, which is rather archaic. It’s a shame that Nokia didn’t see it fit to implement a wireless means of transferring the images across.

Low light shots were also very impressive. Again, it’s not going to challenge a DSLR or a high-end point and shoot camera, but it absolutely destroys the smartphone competition when it comes to producing a detailed low light image with very minimal noise.

We did find that we needed to resort to using the Xenon flash whenever there was a bit of movement in a dimly lit setting to avoid blurring. The Xenon flash does however do a far better job in lighting up a scene than the single or dual LEDs that we are used to seeing on smartphones. It also has a superior reach of around four metres so you don’t need to be right up close to your subject while taking a low light shot with the flash enabled.

Of course, if you really want to take good low light shots, you will need the $90 camera grip accessory which will give you a steadier hand, additional battery and a port for connecting a tripod.

Our only qualms with the camera shooting ability of the Nokia 1020 is the 4-5 second delay between shots and the time it takes to boot up the camera app from standby. We also experienced occasional stutter when playing around with some of the manual controls. These aren’t exactly deal breakers when you consider the size of the images that the phone has to deal with but it’s something to be aware of.

Another neglected feature in smartphone cameras is the ability to adequately video record loud environments such as a music concert or windy weather. Normally, the sound would be severely distorted and unbalanced.

To overcome this problem, Nokia has incorporated what they call “Rich Recording” which consists of two specially designed digital microphones embedded inside the handset that can record high sound pressure levels in full stereo without distortion.

We tested this feature while recording video alongside a passing train and it worked extremely well with our voice coming through clearly while managing to balance the sound of the passing train.

The audio quality while video recording a live band was also quite incredible with not even a hint of distortion that captured a clean level of detail in the treble, bass and vocals.

A 41-megapixel camera stuck inside a Lumia 920 body

Outside of the camera, this is a Nokia Lumia 920 inside and out and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It has the same polycarbonate body that feels solid in the hand, though it is ever so slightly lighter and thinner than the 920.

One notable omission from the 920 is the integrated support for wireless charging which now requires an additional back cover (sold separately) and will also add a bit more bulk in the process.

There is a pronounced hump on the back for the camera that will prevent the handset from laying completely flat on a table, but the phone was still very comfortable to hold in the hand and will easily fit in your pocket.

We were impressed that Nokia was able to get the camera down to the size that it did especially when considering the number of optics inside.

Like the Lumia 920 and 925, the phone comes with a 4.5-inch 1280x768 AMOLED display with a pixel density of 334 ppi. It’s powered by the same Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 1.5 GHz dual-core processor that Nokia has been using with it’s other Lumia flagships.

Nokia has tweaked the internals by opting for 2GB of RAM this time around, making it the first Windows Phone on the market to do so.

Windows Phones were never home to cutting edge mobile specs mainly due to the platforms lack of support for 1080P displays and quad-core processors.

Microsoft has recently rectified this issue by releasing the GDR3 update earlier this month. It’s a bit mystifying that it has taken the software giant this long to release the update when you consider that the same hardware features have become standard fare in the Android world.

You could argue that the Windows Phone 8 OS performs better on lower spec hardware than Android but it also means that high end games and other processor intensive apps miss out on the much needed performance gains.

The Lumia 1020 is also a smartphone that would have benefited greatly from a 1080P display for viewing those high resolution images and a faster quad-core processor could have helped to reduce the 4-5 second delay between shots and improve the camera’s overall boot up time.

Given the frequency of Lumia related releases by Nokia this year and with the GDR3 update now out in the wild, we wouldn’t be surprised if an updated version of the Nokia 1020 with more powerful internals is on the cards.

That said, outside of Nokia’s Pro Cam app, the Windows Phone OS runs as quickly as it always has and we were able to zip between apps and menus quite comfortably.

We were also impressed with the battery life, which got us through a full day of moderate use.

Taking snaps does tax the battery quite heavily, though, and we would definitely recommend purchasing the additional camera grip accessory for the extra juice if you plan on taking a lot of shots.

It’s also worth noting that we did experience significant battery drain while on standby but this could just be an issue with our review unit.

A steadily improving app market

Lack of apps has always been the achilles heel of the Windows Phone platform and the situation remains true here, though it is improving.

Admittedly the app drought is felt less here thanks to Nokia’s own suite of excellent apps.

Nokia includes everything from turn-by-turn navigation with Here Drive Plus (supports up to 95 countries and offline access) to Here Transit which provides public transport times in all of the major states across the country in addition to Nokia music which offers free music streaming that is also ad-free from the company’s music catalogue of over 22 million tracks.

You’re also covered when it comes to photo and video editing thanks to Nokia’s full suite of creative apps.

As you would expect, Microsoft has tightly integrated its core services into Windows Phone, making it an ideal platform for those that already inhabit the company’s ecosystem with Microsoft’s Office suite for productivity, Outlook for email, Skydrive for cloud storage, Skype for VOIP calls and XBOX Video and Music streaming apps for entertainment.

But for others, the lack of apps such as an official YouTube app that doesn’t just bump you off to the mobile version of the site, Dropbox, news aggregator Pulse and alternative music streaming services such as Sony Music Unlimited app, will likely frustrate.

There are third-party apps that attempt to fill the void such as MetroTube and Filebox but these apps lack critical functions of the official versions such as being able to upload videos to YouTube and the ability to automatically upload photos to Dropbox.

The situation is slowly changing though with long holdouts such as Instagram, Flipboard and Plex, all expected to land on the platform by the end of the year.

As it stands, there are currently over 160,000 apps in the Windows store and you should be able to find most of the popular apps in the store, or, at the very least, suitable alternatives from third party app developers.

That said, Windows Phone continues to be an afterthought for most app developers, a trend that is likely to continue until the platform gains greater traction in the smartphone market.

Final thoughts

In many ways, Nokia has delivered what Windows Phones has always lacked - a killer feature that differentiates it from a crowded smartphone market. The compelling feature here is the camera and, yes, it definitely delivers on that front.

If a good camera is high on the priority list when shopping for a new smartphone, then you don’t need to look any further than the Nokia Lumia 1020. Just make sure that your favourite apps are available on the platform before you jump ship. 

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