Nokia's slick Lumia 920 ticks a lot of boxes, but only if you're prepared to put your faith in Microsoft's fledgling Windows Phone 8.
It's important to judge every product on its merits, but reviewing gadgets in a vacuum often does readers a disservice. In an age where the ecosystem is king, it's important to look at the big picture when assessing any one piece of the puzzle. Never is such a conundrum more clear than when reviewing innovative Windows 8 gear such as the Microsoft Surface or Nokia's slick new Lumia 920 running Windows Phone 8.
On its own the $829 Lumia 920 is a worthy competitor to the Apple and Android superphones, but if you look at the big picture Windows Phone 8 users are still second-class citizens when it comes to apps and services -- a pain Android early adopters remember all too well. The situation is improving and Windows Phone 8 now has access to 46 out of the 50 most heavily used mobile apps, according to Microsoft's Windows Phone program manager Joe Belfiore. It's worth searching the Australian app store yourself to assess whether you'll find all the apps to meet your needs.
As a handset the Lumia 920 has a lot going for it once you get past the initial shock of its bulk. With a 4.5-inch display, this Lumia offers an almost identical footprint to Samsung's Galaxy S III. In fact the Lumia is actually a few millimetres shorter. But as soon as you pick it up you're struck by the Lumia's weight -- tipping the scales at 185gm compared to the Samsung's 133gm and the iPhone 5's 112gm. Nokia's Lumia is also the thickest of the bunch. In this age of wafer-thin smartphones some people might see the Lumia 920's bulk alone as a deal-breaker, but it still feels elegant in your hands and is by no means a brick. It actually feels solid and sturdy, whereas the Samsung and iPhone can feel a little flimsy. The glossy polycarbonate unibody comes in a choice of several colours which should satisfy the needs of fashionistas.
Fire up the Lumia 920 and you're met with a bright, vivid 1280x768 IPS LCD screen -- offering vivid colours and deep blacks to produce exquisite images. This Lumia actually pips the iPhone 5's retina display in terms of pixel density, but screen quality is more than a numbers game. The iPhone 5 holds its own against the Lumia, if anything the iPhone sometimes looks a little sharper. Both phones offer vibrant but accurate colours, with great skin tones. Both are easy to read outside but the iPhone 5 is slightly brighter which helps combat outdoor glare and makes it a little easier to read in direct sunlight.
Of course this is side-by-side nitpicking, a tech reviewer's luxury. On its own the Lumia 920's display will certainly make a great first impression and soon distract you from the handset's bulk. The IPS LCD screen can hold its head high alongside the iPhone 5 and puts many of the early AMOLED screens to shame. The Lumia also draws on Nokia's cameraphone heritage to deliver one of the best pocket snappers on the market, delivering sharp images and crisp video while handling difficult lighting conditions admirably. There's a dedicated camera button which falls under your right index finger when you turn the phone on its side. The Carl Zeiss lens and impressive optical image stabilisation helps those of us with shaky hands get much better results from the Lumia than from the iPhone.
Delve under the bonnet and the Lumia 920 continues to impress. The dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor keeps Windows Phone 8 feeling snappy, while support for LTE offers high-speed mobile broadband access -- falling back onto not-too-shabby pentaband HSDPA once you wander too far from the city.
- micro-USB connector (but no micro-HDMI)
- DLNA wireless music and video streaming (coming early 2013)
- 32GB onboard storage (but no micro-SD card slot)
- access to 7GB SkyDrive cloud storage
- 1.2 MP front and 8.7 MP rear camera
- 1080p 30 fps video capture
- five-band LTE, five-band HSDPA
- 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi (2.4 GHz & 5 GHz)
- support for Wi-Fi hotspot
- Bluetooth 3.0
- Near Field Communications
- Wireless charging
- 2000 mAh battery (non-user-replaceable)
There's plenty to like there but Near Field Communications is perhaps the most eye-catching item, particularly as it can tie in with Windows Phone 8's Wallet features to let your handset act as a loyalty card and perhaps even a contactless credit card if the banks and telcos get onboard. It's also worth mentioning the $649 Lumia 820 which sacrifices surprisingly few features compared to the more expensive Lumia 920. It's a tempting combination for businesses looking to standardise their mobile fleet but not needing to give everyone the latest and greatest.
From here it's easy to drift off into a review of Windows Phone 8, but it's worth touching on a few highlights along with a few extra features Nokia brings to the party.
Windows Phone 8 is elegant, slick and mostly intuitive, although you can spend a little time digging for advanced menu options in apps (true of any platform when you first switch). Windows Phone is designed from the ground up for touchscreen mobile devices and is a world away from the cumbersome Windows Mobile of old. As with the Microsoft Surface running Windows RT, Windows Phone 8's strength is its tight integration with the various arms of the Microsoft ecosystem. This includes Hotmail (now Outlook.com) as well as the Xbox gaming and content platforms, but for business users it's Office and cloud integration which are more likely to be of interest.
From the handset you can create and edit Word, Excel, Powerpoint and OneNote files, as well as access documents in Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud service. Cut and paste features feel cumbersome until you get the hang of them. SkyDrive syncs changes between your phone, the cloud and other Windows-powered devices you might own. You can also access SkyDrive from any browser on any computer, with the ability to edit documents in the browser using an Office-like online environment.
Along with Office features are the email, contacts and calendar cloud services that you'd expect from any modern smartphone platform. Obviously Google, Apple and others also offer such functionality, but if you're a Microsoft-centric business already using Windows 8's Modern UI tablet-style interface then Windows Phone 8 could feel like a natural fit. It also plays nicely with Office 365, SharePoint and Lync -- catering for the Microsoft-specific needs of businesses of all sizes.
IT departments will appreciate enhanced mobile device management features on top of Exchange and ActiveSync support, such as the ability to remotely report what is installed on a device and remotely update applications. It's also easier for organisations to install customised Line of Business applications from sources such as SharePoint servers.
Windows Phone revolves around the concept of "hubs" which gather data from various sources and combine them in the one menu. Windows Phone 7 was built around consumer-focused hubs tapping into social media, but Windows Phone 8 allows businesses to create their own in-house hubs which let staff keep track of important information at a glance.
Apart from an impressive camera, Nokia's key contributions mostly revolve around mapping. Nokia Maps is a worthy alternative to Google Maps with the advantage of full offline caching. Nokia Drive is still in beta but already has more bells and whistles than Apple and Google's free but spartan sat-nav offerings. Perhaps most intriguing is Nokia City Lens, an augmented reality app which superimposes information about local businesses and landmarks on the screen as you pan around with the camera. It still feels like a bit of a novelty but the technology certainly has potential. Third-party developers can also tap into the Lenses feature and it will be interesting to see how they expand it.
So what's the verdict? Nokia's Lumia 920 will certainly satisfy the Windows Phone faithful, but to be brutally honest that's not enough. While it's an impressive handset, you're entitled to ask why you'd opt for the Lumia 920 over an Apple or Android smartphone with a more established ecosystem, app store and range of accessories.
You'll need a good answer to this question before taking the plunge with Windows Phone 8 -- an answer that's likely to involve the tight integration with Microsoft applications and cloud services. Apple and Android users have probably already dealt with these issues and Microsoft may have more luck winning over new smartphone owners than converting the Apple and Android faithful. If the tight Microsoft cloud integration and growing app store already meet your needs then the Lumia 920 could be a good fit, but think long and hard before you throw your lot in with Windows Phone 8 over Apple or Android.