Lumia 920 Challenge – Review

Red ones go faster. Also, welcome to 2013.

A while back I did a Galaxy Note Challenge, where I tried to go from an iPhone to a Galaxy Note. It didn’t end quite so well (I went back to the iPhone). Can Windows Phone 8 and the Lumia 920 break Apple’s hold on my mobile devices? Windows 8 managed to make me ditch my iPad, maybe this one will be different. The Lumia 920 is Nokia’s flagship phone and probably the greatest hope for Windows Phone 8 (along with its little brother, the 820). It’s been a rough ride for WP up until now – WP7 and 7.5 never managed to gain much of a following and never got decent app support. Will things changed? It’s too early to call, but we can at least look at the device. Over the next month or so I’ll be using my Lumia 920 in place of my iPhone 4S as my daily driver to see who is the one phone to rule them all.

Overview

It's a box.
It’s a box.

I ended up getting a white glossy phone. This is a problem because I ordered red what the hell? I’d send it back but I had to go through a lot of effort to get it, and I don’t really care after this long. Also white probably won’t show up damage as easily as red, so maybe it’s for the best. Comparing it to the Galaxy Note and iPhone 4S, the 920 is a midsize phone. It’s nowhere near the size of the Note, but it is appreciably bigger than the iPhone 4S. It’s also thicker than both of them, and noticeably heavier. In the hand it feels comfortable and not at all unwieldy.

Weirdest charging adapter I've ever seen.
Weirdest charging adapter I’ve ever seen.

The 920 sports three soft-touch buttons on the front, with a 1280×768 4.5” IPS screen. There’s also a front camera. The side has a volume control, lock/power button, and a dedicated camera button (which I appreciate). The top has a micro SIM card slot and a headphone jack. The back has a camera and a flash. We’ll get to that soon enough. It has 32GB of RAM, but in typical Windows fashion only about 26GB is actually usable. Unlike the 820, the 920 doesn’t have a port for a micro SD slot or a removable battery. Coming from an iPhone I’ve learned to live without both, though it’s a bit of a curious omission not to have an SD card slot. For charging the phone has a micro USB port on the bottom, but it also supports “wireless” charging by sitting the back of the phone on a charging pad. I don’t have one, so I can’t say how well it works.

I should have cropped this but I didn't. Sorry.
I should have cropped this but I didn’t. Sorry.

First Boot

It took about 45 seconds for the phone to boot into the setup from being turned off. It defaults to US English, which isn’t acceptable to me as an Australian. Swapping it to “English” (which I presume is UK English) causes the phone to reboot. Setup feels like a Windows setup, including the option to turn off a bunch of things like sending usage feedback to Microsoft and snooping for WiFi locations to help discover nearby hotspots. Before anyone accuses Microsoft of snooping, I remember similar options when setting up my Galaxy Note (except for sending feedback) and they can be toggled off.

Signing in with a Microsoft account will enable synchronisation with that account. If you’re using Windows 8, it effectively acts similar to iCloud. It can backup your phone to SkyDrive, including automatic photo upload. After that, you’re ready to go. Since I do sync my stuff with my Microsoft account, lots of things like my email were set up automatically, saving me a load of time.

Home Screen and Settings

This comment is redacted.
This comment is redacted.

If you’re familiar with Windows Phone, or if you’ve used Windows 8, you’ll be at home with the home screen. (Heh, geddit?) Tiles are spread across the screen similar to Windows 8. There’s a bar at the top which contains the clock, and little else. Tapping this bar at the top will cause the network, wifi, and battery details to display.

The phone is incredibly responsive and very fluid – absolutely no complaints here at all. It feels a LOT smoother than the Galaxy Note ever did, and probably matches iOS. The default theme for me was a dark screen with blue tiles – you can swap to a light background if you want, but it’ll chew through battery life since the screen can conserve power with a black background.

A bunch of applications are included – the Messaging, Calendar and People apps are similar to their Windows 8 counterparts, as is the Mail client. You’ve also got a mobile Internet Explorer version, as well as alarm, calculator, phone (obviously), and multimedia apps. Notably, there’s also a mobile version of Office. Nokia bundles Nokia Maps, Nokia Drive, and Nokia Transport. Local Scout rounds out the headline list, though there are others as well.

Settings for a new tomorrow.
Settings for a new tomorrow.

Before we do anything else, let’s hit up the Settings app. You can select from a bunch of ringtones and alert tones, and can even use your own by putting them into their appropriate folder. Sounds can be set for a new text/IM, new voicemail, and a new email. In terms of themes, you can set the background colour and the colour of the tiles, but that’s it. Personally I prefer a very clean home screen, but I wish I could set the colour of individual tiles. Having them all a single colour (unless the app specifies otherwise or displays a logo or other content) just makes them all look the same.

You can also add in accounts. Frustratingly, despite having things synced with my Windows 8 PC, my Facebook and Gmail accounts weren’t automatically added in. It works fine on my Surface RT, why does this have to be such a pain? On the plus side, native support is offered for the many different Outlook accounts, Hotmail, Nokia Mail, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and pretty much any POP or IMAP account. There’s plenty of support. Adding Facebook triggers a request to link your FB account with your MS account.

Most of the other options are standard for smartphones by now so they’re not worth repeating, but you can share the phone’s data connection via WiFi and screw around with other things. There’s also a Find My Phone option similar to the iPhone counterpart which works reasonably well, but seems to be fairly inaccurate whenever I try to use it.

It’s worth mentioning the live tiles again, even though I’m sure we’re all familiar with them from Windows 8. In WP8 they have three sizes: the big and reduced sizes we’ve seen from Windows 8, but also a quarter-size version. The quarter-size has very limited live functionality and just displays a small icon but can display some information. The half-size can display a few live elements (like how many unread emails you have) while the full size will display expanded information (like the first few lines from an email).

General Use

Well, moment of truth, what’s it like as a phone? As a remarkable coincidence, a friend phoned me right while I was playing around with it, giving me the chance to play with it as a phone. Call quality was fantastic, better than on my iPhone – it didn’t sound muffled or dull at all. The dialer works very well and is very quick and fluid. No complaints there. One complaint I do have, which seems to be common to every phone that isn’t an iPhone, is that setting it to vibrate only can be a pain. Your options are to turn the volume down to nothing, or to press a volume control once and then tap in the top-right corner. Why can’t we have a switch on the side?

Not pictured: Profound status updates.
Not pictured: Profound status updates.

The contacts aspect is a bit mixed initially but makes sense later on. It’s merged into the People app. Now on the one hand the People app is a fairly decent idea – it combines most of your social networks into one big place, and I can totally appreciate that. But it’s a bit of a mess, particularly if you’ve got Facebook contacts enabled. Fortunately, you can filter out all of your Facebook contacts, leaving behind just those from your Microsoft or Google account (or whatever, it’s up to you). They will still show up when searching though. You can of course also search by name, and by holding down the Windows softkey, you can yell at the phone to call someone, sort of like Siri except not. It also uncovers a bit of a bug in the Win8 Metro app – creating new contacts on the phone seems to add duplicates in the Metro app, which can’t be edited or deleted. Some things don’t sync – photos set on the phone for example are valid only for the phone itself. Maybe it’s an issue with me having so many accounts, but it’s a pain either way.

This is where we plan your lives.
This is where we plan your lives.

Messaging is a bit mixed too. As with the People app, it combines SMS/MMS and instant messaging services. It’ll try to use an IM service first but will fall backon SMS. It can operate Facebook Chat and Live Messenger, which might be a bit pointless because Live Messenger and Skype will probably be amalgamated in the not too distant future. In that way it operates sort of like iChat, but Facebook chat is obviously a pretty goddamn big drawcard if you’re into Facebook. Personally I’m not, but maybe you are. It’s quite functional, but it can look a little bit messy. Hopefully we’ll see full Skype integration in the future, now that Microsoft own it. Otherwise it’s a competent messaging app which does exactly what you’d expect. It also seems a bit sporadic as to when it wants to work – sometimes messages from Live Messenger will appear, sometimes they won’t. I’m not sure what the issue is. SMS messages always go through though. Skype also finally has a client, though it’s not exceptionally good. You’re either on or invisible, there’s no way to sign out, so having “toast” notifications (pop up notifications) will get incredibly annoying incredibly quickly. Since putting yourself to “invisible” will affect all Skype clients you’re signed into, it’s not really an option. But it works, I suppose.

The hidden email is just eBay correspondence before anyone gets excited.
The hidden email is just eBay correspondence before anyone gets excited.

Email is good, if only because it supports a bunch of accounts. By default your added accounts each get their own separate inbox and tile, but you can merge them from the app’s settings – this isn’t readily apparent. Email works via a conversation view similar to Gmail, and it’s a very competent email client for a mobile phone.

Typing away on the phone is about the same as for iOS or Android, though it also supports a large number of emoticons. No, I mean a bunch of them, ones I don’t even see in regular use. It’s insane. Accuracy for me was about as good as on iOS – I have a few misses but otherwise it’s very good. It’s not uncomfortable to use one-handed. It also supports predictive text but isn’t as over-zealous as the iOS version where Apple’s way is the default way of Now and Forever.

Notifications seem a bit sporadic in their effectiveness. Some of them will pop up nicely, others are sort of quiet and inconspicuous. Phone calls and SMS messages are loud and noticeable, even while using the phone. Email messages are a bit more sedate – they’ll play an alert tone and vibrate, but the screen won’t light up. Is that an issue for you? For me it is, since emails are still a remarkably important part of getting things done around here, but maybe you prefer it this way. The Lock screen can display one detailed status along with another 5 icons representing the number of notifications for an app. One issue I have with this though is that the notification text blends in with the clock text, so it’s not immediately apparent that there’s a notification. The icons are also a little small and inconspicuous, so you might need to do more than glance at the screen (like iOS, where notifications are blatantly obvious).

Note that I won’t be covering battery life – I’ll wait for a few days of use before I comment. Right now I’m playing with it an awful lot which isn’t indicative of regular use. Initial impressions though are fairly good.

Camera, Nokia Apps

Alright, let’s check out that camera! The Lumia 920’s camera has received a lot of attention – it’s supposed to be the best thing in the goddamn world. Generally I find all smartphone cameras to be abysmal but let’s give them a try anywhere. Check the gallery at the bottom for the comparisons – first up is the Lumia 920, and next is the iPhone 4S. Granted, the 4S isn’t as good as the iPhone 5, but I haven’t got one. The results are reasonable but not clear. The 920 appears to have richer colours, but sometimes this leads to a false image. The outdoor scene is much darker than it should be – the iPhone 4S more accurately reproduces the colour. I can’t upload full resolution images, but for the most part the 920 is better but not by much. It also takes pictures in 16:9. But looking closely, the iPhone 4S seems to pull out more detail, while the 920 has a lot of blur. In low light the 920 destroys the 4S, but I’m slightly disappointed. Nokia are supposedly prepping a software update to fix the problem, but I’m not overly impressed by the performance so far. Panorama mode is another story, it’s way better on the 920 than under iOS. It’s not as smooth or fluid to use, but the output image is of a much higher quality. An update is on its way to rectify the blur issue, but unless you’re on AT&T or some other carrier in Canada, you’ll have to wait until February.

Cropped detail. iP4S on left, 920 on right. Look at the wheelbarrow - the iP4S gives the better image.
Cropped detail. iP4S on left, 920 on right. Look at the wheelbarrow – the iP4S gives the better image.

Nokia bundle a few apps with the phone. Nokia Maps is their own mapping solution, going up against Apple Maps and Google Maps. And you’ll need it, because there’s no Google Maps app here (unless you want a third party solution). The satellite map is laughably out of date for my region, but it does seem to have a fair number of businesses and can search in your local area for some. You can download maps for your region, which makes it a useful offline solution. It can also check local traffic and offers transit information, though in Brisbane all it seems to do is highlight railway tracks. It’s not as good as Google Maps though, that one still holds the balance of power. It’s better than Apple’s horrific map app though. A recent update also further integrated it with Nokia Drive, making it a lot more useful since you can now easily select locations from the maps and then parse it to Nokia Drive.

Maps are fairly decent if a little Spartan.
Maps are fairly decent if a little Spartan.

Nokia Drive+ Beta is a turn-by-turn navigation solution, and something that I rely on. I normally rely on MetroView for navigation, so I’m keen to see how Nokia Drive stacks up. Overall, it isn’t too bad, but it’s not the best. It’s competent and can read off street names and gives decent directions, but it lacks a few important features. Firstly, it needs a proper route overview feature. Without it, you might as well be blind. Yes, it shows you a zoomed-out map which you can scroll around but that’s not good enough, I want street names! The route marker obscures the street names too, so even when browsing the map you can’t see where you’re going. It’d be nice if it considered traffic reports too. Otherwise it does a good job at routing, it gives good directions, and it displays speed limits. It’s not perfect though, and I’m considering bringing out the old Galaxy Note for use as a dedicated GPS. With the new updates to Nokia Maps you can get

Nokia Transit is practically useless here in Brisbane. It tells me what trains are nearby but that’s it.

Media and Syncing

What sucks about the iPhone? Okay there’s a lot to choose from, but iTunes should have been somewhere near the top. iTunes is terrible, and makes doing simple things like putting music or files across way harder than it needs to be. Fortunately, WP8 phones act as USB mass storage devices these days, so copying music or other files across is as simple as using Windows Explorer. You get a pair of earphones with the phone, but mine were of poor quality and the left earbud wouldn’t work properly. My a-JAYS Fours worked. Curiously, the volume control doesn’t work, but the central button to control playback does. I use that more than the volume control, but it’s a curious omission from WP8 – the included headphones only have a single button too. Still at least it works, and the audio quality was good, better than the Galaxy Note.

Shout out to Beefy. Consider it free advertising.
Shout out to Beefy. Consider it free advertising.

For synchronisation, there’s a Metro UI app to import photos and to copy music and whatnot across should you choose to use it. Personally I’d rather do things manually and have an auto-upload of pictures to Skydrive. Note though that uploading photos to Skydrive when your region is set to Australia prevents uploading full resolution images. Why? I don’t know, ask Microsoft.

Overall Impressions

I haven’t touched on most of the OS yet, nor most of the included software, but this article is approaching 3200 words so I’ll leave it here for the moment. Initial impressions are favourable – it has a great build quality, feels good to hold, and does a good job at being a phone, something the Galaxy Note doesn’t manage. It’s fast, fluid, and immediately I have few complaints or issues. The ingredients for a top-notch smartphone are all present straight out of the gate. But the camera isn’t as good as I was expecting – it’s vibrant and does a good panorama shot, and a dedicated button is great, but on closer inspection it isn’t as clear or sharp as the iPhone 4S, which doesn’t make sense. Maybe I’m doing something wrong, but if Apple can get it right without having the exposure and ISO options that the Lumia 920 offers, then Nokia are doing something wrong. But there’s an update on the way, so maybe it’s just a software issue.

We’re yet to really dig deep into how capable the 920 is stacked up against the other smartphones, and much of that means a review of Windows Phone 8 and its ecosystem as things stand now. Nokia and Microsoft are going balls-out to promote Windows Phone 8 and to elevate it above iOS, but they’ve got an uphill battle, particularly when it comes to applications. We’ll get to that. But for an initial 5 or so hours of playing around with it, I’m fairly impressed. It’s fluid, smooth, and can do a lot straight out of the box. It’s big, but not unwieldy like the Galaxy Note. Also there’s no sync client being a pain. But can it last the distance? Tune in next time.

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