|Introduction and Specifications|
|In a sense, it feels like Windows Phone 8 is Microsoft's first real foray into the smartphone space post Windows Mobile. Of course, Microsoft made a concerted effort with Windows Phone 7, but there's something vastly different about version 8. WP8 borrows from the underpinnings of Windows Phone 7, but there are so many differences in the operating system -- along with its incompatibility with WP7-class hardware -- that it feels like we're evaluating an entirely new product. And in reality, we are.
Nokia's Lumia 920 is one of the first Windows Phone 8 products, along with HTC's 8X, in a holiday smartphone lineup that has become amazingly crowded. Microsoft is trying its best to carve out a niche despite Windows Phone 8 being overwhelmed on shelves by the iPhone and Android-based products. But Nokia's expertise in the hardware business shines through in the design of this particular phone. A lot is riding on the success of the Lumia 920, not only for Nokia but for Microsoft's mobile team as well.
Before we dig in too deep, let's look at the specifications and take a quick tour of the device:
From a technical perspective, what's immediately clear is that Windows Phone 8 hardware has finally caught up to the iPhone and high-powered Android phones that the platform is competing with. WP8 added support for high-res displays, NFC, wireless charging and multi-core processors. All of those things were necessary to truly rival Android and iOS in terms of features and potential performance.
Let's delve deeper into Microsoft's new handset OS, its capabilities and this new flagship smartphone by Nokia.
|Design and Build Quality|
|The first thing you'll notice about the Lumia 920 depends on how familiar you are with Nokia's recent devices. If you're aware of the Lumia 900, the company's flagship Windows Phone 7 device, you'll immediately recognize the lineage. The 920 is a direct successor to the 900. The same polycarbonate shell, pastel color choices and minimalistic frame are present here, but it's quite obvious that the 920 is more refined. Whereas the LCD protruded up and atop the shell on the Lumia 900, the screen is flush with the frame in the 920. The same "feel" of that rugged polycarbonate is here. It's tougher than shoe leather, as the saying goes, and it's one of the only smartphones on the market today where we'd feel comfortable carrying it without a case. The shell of this thing really is rugged. Good luck trying to take a chink out of this armor.
Now, for those who are only being introduced to the Lumia line with the 920, here's what you'll recognize: the girth. I handed the phone around to a few people who had never handled a Lumia before, but that had handled an iPhone 4S, an iPhone 5 and a wide range of Android phones (including an original Galaxy S). Their instant reaction? "Cool tiles, but wow, why is this phone so huge and heavy?" That's a serious issue for Nokia, and in turn, Microsoft. At 6.5 ounces, the phone easily dwarfs most competing phones, and it's nearly a full ounce heavier than the Lumia 900. Even the HTC Windows Phone 8X tips the scales at just 4.5 ounces. The iPhone 5 weighs 3.95 ounces. The DROID RAZR M weighs 4.4 ounces. Even the DROID RAZR MAXX HD, with its enormous battery, weighs just 5.5 ounces. These minute differences may not seem like a lot on paper, but in practice, they're significant.
I'm a believer that a good phone with outstanding battery life can get away with being a little heavier than average, but the ho hum 2,000mAh battery in the Lumia 920 means that you won't see significantly improved life here. Why is it so thick and heavy? Well, there are a lot of potent internal hardware, including an LTE radio, wireless charging and an NFC transponder, but most other companies have figured out a way to include similar without breaking the 6 ounce barrier. Is it a nuisance in practice? For me, no. But for shoppers with no allegiance, they are likely to be put off by the weight when they feel how much heavier the 920 is compared to everything else around it. And that's a shame, because most people won't ever look beyond the weight to see the other outstanding features on this phone.
Moving along, the pastel cyan shell is really a looker. In a world of "me too" phones with cheap, black plastic frames, this is one area where Nokia really innovates and sets itself apart. You'll never mistake this slab for anything other than a Nokia device. It looks great, and handles even better. The gentle slope around the back ensures that you know the front from the back when pulling it out of your pocket, while the 3.5mm headphone jack is planted squarely in the center of the top. Along the right edge, there's a volume up / down rocker, a power / sleep button and a dedicated camera shutter button. The rear of the phone features a slew of fine perforations for sound to emit from the internal speaker, with a standard microUSB port in the center. As for the left edge? It's perfectly smooth, and perfectly bare.
There's a 1.2MP front-facing camera (perfect for Skype video calling), as well as an 8MP backside-illuminated sensor with an enviable f/2.0 Carl Zeiss autofocus lens. It's a match made in photographic heaven, that's for sure, and Nokia's expertise in optics really shines through. The front of the phone is dominated by a 4.5-inch, high-contrast IPS touch panel, complete with a 1280x768 native resolution. It's one of the best panels we've seen on a mobile product. Blacks are insanely deep, and the colors of WP8's live tiles pop. You really need to see it to believe the color, sharpness and accuracy, even when tilted at extreme angles.
Internally, there's an LTE radio (at least with AT&T's model; there's a global variant that's also available), an NFC transponder, and support for Qi-based wireless charging. There's also a zippy 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor, which is a potent SoC by any measure. Windows Phone has just recently been able to support such hardware, and the response times are noticeably quicker compared to the 1.4GHz single-core Lumia 900. It also ships with 1GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage, which Nokia hopes is enough to satisfy every user; this is the most storage offered on the Lumia 920 and it cannot be expanded.
|Software and User Experience|
|As with other Windows Phone 8 devices, there's no OS skinning, like there is with Android. What you see with Windows Phone 8 is what you get. Microsoft has held pretty firm in its mission to make its WP8 system uniform, with the only major additions to the vanilla WP8 offering being a handful of AT&T apps and a few Nokia exclusive apps. Thankfully, every single AT&T app (U-verse TV, MyAT&T, YP.com, AT&T Navigation, etc.) can be easily deleted. Just long press each icon in the app list, and select "Uninstall." We're not so fond of these, but at least they're easy to remove.
On the other hand, the list of Nokia exclusive applications is quite good. Nokia's apps actually make the Lumia 920 standout. Nokia's mapping system is truly outstanding, and while it doesn't get much credit, it's easily as good as Google's mapping platform in many ways. Perhaps the most outstanding addition is Nokia Drive, a completely offline mapping solution that blows the doors off Google's attempt at an offline solution. Why? Because with just a few clicks, you can download every road in America if you wanted to (around 2.6GB), and it actually works even in airplane mode. There are also over 100 countries to download, so those planning an international trip will have offline guidance without needing to find a local SIM or use expensive data roaming. If you travel a lot, you need to give the Lumia 920 a lot of consideration.
Nokia also includes a couple of photo and video editing programs, as well as a couple of awesome apps for finding new things in your own town, or in places you visit. Nokia City Lens and Local Scout both give you a quick look at nearby eateries, venues, attractions, etc., complete with contact information and ratings. It's all done very elegantly, and it's built right into the fabric of the operating system.
Nokia's camera software just about matches the hardware in terms of impressiveness. You can easily jump into the camera app by just holding the shutter button for a couple of seconds, and you'll have a wealth of options for tweaking the shot. It's not quite like a full manual mode as with a handheld camera, but it's close, and it's much closer than iOS' camera software.
The company also makes syncing pretty easy. Windows Phone 8 supports full OTA downloads of system updates, and there's a pretty lightweight piece of software available for Mac and Windows systems that enables the transfer of media from one's computer. In fact, the Mac client even supports photo transfers from iPhoto and music transfers from iTunes, without any fuss whatsoever.
While we're on the topic of new and different, it's worth talking about Kid's Corner. That's a new feature that parents should love, as it allows you to carve out certain sections (think of it like a guest account) where your kids (or guests) can't access.
There's also something that resembles an iCloud equivalent here, as the phone will back up your texts, app list, Internet Explorer bookmarks and photos / videos to the cloud in case you need to restore it all to a new phone.
The Lumia 920 also has a Wallet feature built-in, which is Microsoft's own attempt to rival Google Wallet and the litany of other options out there. As with every one of those "others," we see very little adoption. In theory, this would allow you to pay for things with your phone using NFC, but in practice, it's very difficult to pin down which carriers support the feature, which shops support it, etc. So, a neat thought, but phones-as-payment engines still have a long way to go before it's even close to ubiquitous.
Microsoft's e-mail experience in Windows Phone 8 continues to be lacking. In fact, it's one of the weakest parts of the OS. Gmail users will continue to be underwhelmed at the lack of functionality here, while Hotmail users will feel most at home. It's also strange how the Mail live tile works. It only shows new unread messages from the last time you looked at your inbox, instead of how many unread messages are truly in your inbox.
For avid Skype users, you'll appreciate the integration at the OS level. Much like FaceTime is to iOS, Skype is baked right into the fabric of WP8 (though you still need to download the app). There's really not much special beyond that, but the icons and notifications are really beautiful, for what it's worth. On the gaming side, this phone is clearly geared to interface most with Xbox users. If you're an Xbox 360 owner, you'll love SmartGlass and the ability to have your profile right on the phone. If you don't own an Xbox, you'll feel discriminated against. There's simply nothing here for Wii / Wii U and PlayStation users.
WP8 maintains the People hub from WP7, which is great at first glance but limited on the second. While it's nifty to see tidbits from varying social networks pulled into one hub, you can't really interact with those tidbits without hopping out of the People hub and into specific apps. So, in a way, why would you ever bother to use the People hub instead of just cruising through your Facebook or Twitter app? Speaking of which, the Facebook app is perhaps the most beautiful Facebook app on any platform, but the Twitter app is lacking. And, thanks to Twitter's new API policies, you best not bank on seeing too many third-part options.
Internet Explorer 10 is your only legitimate surfing option. There's no Firefox, and no Chrome to download. Thankfully, IE10 is pretty snappy, so we don't have too many gripes there. Unfortunately, those who routinely use Chrome on their desktop won't be able to use Chrome on WP8, so your tabs, bookmarks, accounts, etc. won't transfer over. Also, a multitude of Google programs, including Gmail and Drive, render terribly in IE10. They're practically unusable, which makes no sense for a modern day mobile browser with this much horsepower behind it.
Now, let's talk about the downsides that simply can't be ignored. Unlike iOS and Android, Microsoft doesn't have a "pull-down notification area," per se. Yes, you can get banner notifications for upcoming appointments and such, but there's no real repository where these things can be viewed in sum. Moreover, the voice capabilities in WP8 are sorely lacking, particularly compared to Google Now. You can search Bing via voice, but beyond that, you won't be spending much time talking to your WP8 device. Of course, the biggest downside to any Windows Phone product, the Lumia 920 included, is the Marketplace.
Apple and Google both have fostered app stores with hundreds of thousands of high-quality apps from respected developers. Their ecosystems are remarkably robust, with all of the "big apps" being available across both platforms. We're talking about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Pocket, Instapaper, Evernote, Spotify, MOG, Pandora, Rdio, Gmail, Google Voice, Google Drive, and Dropbox -- just to name a few. Some of those have WP ports, but many do not. There are a host of third-party equivalents, but few of them offer polished experiences. It feels like you're using a knockoff, and that's no good for anyone. Amazingly, avid Google users will find more friction here than with iOS products. At least on the iPhone, you'll find Google-made apps for Drive, Gmail, Voice, Latitude, and most other Google services. On Windows Phone, there's only a search app. If you rely heavily on Google's suite of services, Windows Phone will be a letdown -- there's just no two ways about it.
The chicken-and-egg issue cannot be understated. Microsoft's Windows Phone OS has under 5 percent of the global mobile OS market share, and developers aren't likely to exhaust resources on an OS where so few people are using it. But, how can Microsoft expect to expand that market share presence without developer support? The facts are simple: if you dive into Windows Phone right now, you're doing so with the knowledge that your app experience will not match the app experiences offered on Android or iOS. Granted, neither Apple nor Google could trumpet the size of their respective app stores at launch, but Microsoft is well over a year into this era of mobile computing, and its app store is still the runt of the litter.
|Performance: Display, Camera, and Battery Life|
|When we tested the Lumia 900 in April, we saw it notch fairly impressive scores with a single-core 1.4GHz processor and 512MB of RAM. While the Snapdragon within the Lumia 920 is only clocked at 1.5GHz (and paired to 1GB of RAM), the scores we witnessed here place the Lumia 920 on an entirely different level. It's tough to even compare the two, and it's clear that this breed of Windows Phone products are built to handle the most complex software being cranked out by developers.
In our experience, we never noticed a hiccup. Even with live tiles scattered about, 10+ apps in rotation, and 5-6 programs receiving push updates, we never witnessed an OS hesitation. Windows Phone 8 as it is represented on the Lumia 920 is slick and speedy.
The 8MP rear camera is on par with, if not outright superior, to the sensors found in high-end Android devices. The Auto-Fix is a nice feature, and there are quite a few Instagram-like apps for those looking to edit shots right on their phone.
Nokia stuffs a 2000mAh battery in this phone. That's slightly larger than the battery in the Lumia 900, but in our testing, we found it to not be large enough. In a normal day -- surfing the Web, making a few calls, sending 10 to 20 texts, checking in on Foursquare and just generally keeping tabs on the world -- we managed to squeeze around 10 hours out of the device. This is with quite a bit of screen and data usage, too. Average users should easily get a few more hours out of it. The battery isn't user-replaceable, so you'll need a USB port somewhere to charge it up if you start running low.
We also utilized WP Bench's Battery test, obviously to test the Nokia Lumia 920's battery life, which keeps the screen on and loops a CPU intensive task in the background.
The numbers here speak for themselves. Nokia's Lumia 920's "worst case scenario" battery life is the lowest of the bunch, though to be fair, all of the rivals ran Windows Phone 7 and utilized a single-core processor -- which obviously drains less power. Still, we never were thrilled with the battery life on the 920. Given how huge it is, we expected more in terms of longevity.
|Performance: Web Browsing|
Browsing the Web is certainly a key feature of any smartphone, so we also conducted some formal speed tests to see how well the Lumia 920 compares to some of today's hottest smartphones.Due to the limitations of Internet Explorer within WP8, we weren't able to run our full gauntlet of mobile speed tests as we usually do with Android handsets. That said, we want to make clear that the Web browsing experience with the Lumia 920 is very good. Surfing was brisk and fluid, and we loved Microsoft's decision to place the address bar at the bottom of the screen, not top.
When looking at the SunSpider test, our Lumia 920 notched a 927ms, which smokes every other smartphone we've tested to date, including the iPhone 5. IE10 doesn't necessarily feel like lightning when browsing -- it feels about on par with the iPhone 5 and most Android flagships -- but the numbers sure paint a rosy picture.
BrowserMark has recently moved on to a newer generation of benchmarks, using a new scoring scale as well. As we build up a new database of scores, we're posting the Lumia 920's results below. Here, it doesn't perform nearly as well, only matching some 59% of tested phones. Of course, this is still a new slate of tools, so it'll be interesting to see how the metrics shift in the months ahead.
AT&T's LTE support is also a plus for this device, but we certainly wish that Verizon Wireless would've received the phone as well; it's LTE network is far more vast than AT&T's. For now, AT&T's LTE network hits just a fraction of the cities that Verizon's does, so you'll need to be located in one of those areas to fully take advantage. However, AT&T's LTE network is so sparingly used right now, speeds are impressive. We found ourselves hitting 20Mbps down and around 7.5Mbps up routinely. AT&T's 3G woes are well-documented, and those in NYC / SF should take the usual precautions before buying the Lumia 920 on a network that has proven to be less than stellar in their neck of the woods. That said, both 3G and 4G performance (as well as Wi-Fi) was great on this phone, and we also loved the subtle notification bar message whenever a nearby Wi-Fi network was in range. This prevented us from having to barge into settings and refresh the list each time; a small thing, but a useful thing.
In addition to using the Lumia 920 in a variety of everyday usage scenarios, we also conducted some formal performance testing to see how well the handset compares to other smartphones. WP Bench is a performance-oriented benchmarking application within the Windows Phone Marketplace. To date, it's one of the only effective ways to test the small-but-growing stable of WP7 handsets. We've compared CPU, Data and GPU benchmarks below with the Dell Venue Pro, Samsung Focus, Lumia 900 and HTC Arrive.
|Summary and Conclusion|
|Nokia's Lumia 920 makes quite a few statements. For one, it's one of the most uniquely designed phones of 2012. The flat, pastel color options and the choice to use a unibody polycarbonate shell instead of the typical "cheap, black plastic" sets Nokia apart. The company's hardware design choices have been elegant for some time now, and the Lumia 920 is a quality piece in and of itself. The hardware feels smooth to the touch, sturdy and solid in the hand, and the camera optics here are truly best in class. That said, an excellent design, great camera, NFC and an LTE radio doesn't excuse the size and weight. At 6.5 ounces, this is amongst the heaviest phones on the market. And its unclear as to why it's so heavy. With a sealed 2000mAh battery, this phone also has relatively meger battery life. We could understand increased weight alongside increased battery life, but as it stands, you can grab a DROID RAZR MAXX HD with hugely improved battery life -- and that phone weighs significantly less.
On the software front, Windows Phone 8 offers plenty of reasons to give Microsoft's mobile OS another chance. Kid's Corner opens up guest accounts and provides security that isn't available on rival operating systems, and Nokia's exclusive suite of apps are world class. Nokia Drive, for example, offers the best offline guidance platform on any phone, bar none. But in our opinion, none of these points can overshadow some very real drawbacks. First off, it's nearly impossible for Google users to have a complete experience here. The integrated Mail app doesn't handle Gmail well, and you won't find native apps for Drive, Voice, Latitude, or any Google service outside of search. Microsoft's voice integration is also well behind Google's, and the Marketplace void cannot be overlooked. There are still too many flagship applications that cannot be found on Windows Phone, and the overall quality of apps in WP8 (compared to iOS, in particular) is lack luster. After some two years in the mobile world, it's really time for Windows Phone to have a better app store.
Would we recommend the Lumia 920? It depends on your requirements. Despite being priced at $99.99 on a 2-year contract at AT&T, there are still too many holes in the Windows Phone ecosystem to recommend this phone to everyone. In the same price range you can easily acquire an iPhone 4S (or a refurbished iPhone 5), or one of literally dozens of outstanding Android phones, including the DROID RAZR M. When you mix in the phone's heft, poor battery life, and a lack-luster app selection, all of the positives don't make up for enough of the drawbacks.
It's a shame, but Windows Phone is not much more competitive in the current market than it was when we reviewed the Lumia 900 in April. The problem is bigger than Microsoft -- it's an ecosystem problem, and it's one we've covered before. At this point, most people who would be interested in a smartphone have already found themselves slotted into the iOS or Android ecosystem, and Windows Phone just doesn't offer a compelling reason yet to uproot and start anew with a phone like the Lumia 920.
That said, from a pure hardware standpoint, the Lumia 920 has a number of standout features, like its gorgeous, highly responsive 4.5 inch IPS display, arguably one of the best HD cameras on the market and a build quality that's second to none, even if it is a bit of a tank. If that's enough to sway you into being an early adopter of Windows Phone 8 and Microsoft's latest effort to better penetrate the handset market, then perhaps you should go for it.