Nokia Lumia 920 Windows Phone 8 Review

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,, 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.

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