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Tech  |  Reviews

Lumia 1020 Review

November 16, 2013  |  9:00am
Lumia 1020 Review

Imaging has been a big part of the smartphone revolution. Snapping two by two inch, low-resolution pictures while at picnics may have been a welcome novelty on feature phones of old, but today, we rely on the cameras in our phones for capturing all of those special moments. Today, phone cameras run the full spectrum in terms of quality—but few strike the balance between quality and quickness the way that Apple’s iPhone does. With it’s quick shutter and autofocus, Apple’s offering is perfect for the novice looking to grab a few shots at the bar, but what if we want more?

The smartphone user of today has a more informed opinion when it comes to what they think their pictures should look like, and Nokia is betting big on those sophisticated tastes with the Lumia 1020.

The 1020 is the company’s latest flagship to build on the 920 which was released last year. It has the same dual-core processor from Qualcomm, the same Windows Phone 8 operating system, and the same design language which can be traced back to the N9. Unfortunately, Nokia decided to go with the 720p AMOLED screen from the 925, which is great and seems to have been more finely tuned than in the old flagship, but still lacks the speed and brightness of the IPS display from the 920. Because of that comparatively low brightness, the screen is difficult to view outdoors but performs admirably with media playback and color reproduction. If the white balance and saturation levels on the screen aren’t to your liking, they can be tuned with a trip to the settings menu, but the stock profile was as impressive as any other high-end device on the market.

Performance and build quality have never been a problem on Lumia devices and not much has changed with the 1020. Lumia’s signature hardware design is here on full display—the bright yellow color and unibody polycarbonate shell included. The device is quick, solid and eye-catching, but the hump left by the camera all but ruins the ergonomics. The disk makes the phone uncomfortably top-heavy and 1020’s slim but less rounded body exacerbates any problems stemming from that. It’s a sacrifice that doesn’t always feel totally justified—especially when seeing what Apple has done with its camera in the incredibly small body of the iPhone. In some ways, it even feels like a step backwards from the fantastic way the Lumia 925 felt in the hand.

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Speaking of the hump on the back, the 1020’s camera is the real story here—a raised disc about an inch across with a monstrous 41-megapixel camera. Megapixels are far from everything in a camera, but the 1020’s PureView Plus sensor comes equipped with optical image stabilization, a dual-LED flash, and a mechanical shutter, which lets the camera pull of some impressive tricks for a smartphone camera.

While the camera is accompanied by a litany of features that can be found in the new smart camera app, what Nokia is hyping more than anything is it’s “Reinvented Zoom” technology. In essence, it means that any picture you take with the 1020 is a composite of several images and, after taking that picture, the user can pinch to zoom in just as they would while initially snapping the photo without losing any detail. Do you wish you’d zoomed in on your niece’s face more while at the park yesterday? Now you can, without ruining the picture like you would on any other camera on the market. The technique also works in reverse, assuming you zoomed in while taking the shot to begin with. Digital cameras of the past used this technique to get around using lenses from bulkier cameras of the time, but none could match Nokia’s intuitive implementation on the 1020.

Reinvented Zoom is nice, but it is just a parlor trick compared to the other things you can pull off with the 1020’s camera given the time. The Smart Camera—which is the default camera app on the 1020—does its best to put the full range of SLR functions at your disposal. While other cameras limit you to controlling zoom and perhaps a point of focus for the picture, Nokia’s app incorporates ISO, manual focus, flash settings, and white balance into easily-managed sliders. The app also does a good job of providing a preview of what manipulating each slider will do to the resulting exposure, making it easy for novices to pick up on. With that level of control, the well-initiated could be uploading eye-popping images to Instagram in the future—now that it’s available—and those who aren’t can always rely on auto-mode and HDR to get the best image with minimal effort.

When I let the camera do the work for me, images came through crisp and clear but with quite a bit of waiting involved while indoors or in low-light conditions. The pictures came through nice and clear, but there is something to be said for speed and the 1020 falls dreadfully short in this regard. For the average picture, taken at mid-range, indoors under fluorescent lights, pictures were just “good” and that’s not good enough when images take nearly twice as long to process as with the latest batch of competitors.

The camera’s many bells and whistles also come in handy while recording video. Images are crisp but while moving, the camera does enough refocusing to be annoying, especially considering the great job the 1020’s optical image stabilization does at eliminating the shake caused by hand tremors. So long as lighting is vaguely consistent in your background, the 1020 handles video as well as it does stills, and the stereo microphones on the camera are nothing short of fantastic at capturing audio. Even at a distance, the microphones picked up even soft voices with crystal clarity that was evident through the phone’s booming mono speaker.

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After a long day of snapping great pictures and snapping great pictures, the question becomes: What do you do with them?

SkyDrive is deeply integrated in Windows Phone 8, providing one way to get pictures off of your phone. Perhaps the best news this year for Windows Phone users is that Instagram has finally reached the platform, giving you one more way to show off those beautiful images. However, there is still one problem. The 1020 has a 41 megapixel sensor, but the images it captures are closer to 36 megapixels. Also, the camera can not send or upload the full resolution picture, instead it uses a “sharable” 8 megapixel image for those occasions. RAW support was announced for the device at Nokia World a few weeks ago, but until then, getting the memories you’ve captured off of your phone in full detail will be a tough task.

Then there is the inevitable question of Windows Phone’s ecosystem. Vine and Instagram have officially reached the platform and that is a big deal—but is it enough for you? Games are still sparse on the store, especially if you’re not willing to dive into the world of emulators, and other apps seem to have a significant lack of quality compared to their siblings on other platforms. Windows Phone 8 is beautifully designed, however—and any apps that reach the platform will certainly be the most carefully designed. Especially now that all of the basic sharing platforms have hit Windows Phone, you—the user—will just have to decide what you use your phone for. If it’s the center of your life and you’re constantly looking for new ways and apps designed to optimize your workflow or game from dusk ‘til dawn, then the Windows Phone still may not be able to properly support the excellent hardware of the Lumia 1020. But if you want innovative, beautiful hardware paired with equally well crafted core software—especially in the realm of photography—then the 1020 should be on your list of candidates.

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