The Nokia Lumia Icon is just about to get the big Windows Phone 8.1 update, which had promised to catch the mobile OS up to its competitors in certain features. The phone is essentially Verizon’s version of the brand new Lumia 930. The two phones are almost identical, save for the color choices available on each and a few software tweaks.
As the first smartphone of 2014 with Windows Phone 8.1, it comes with a lot of anticipation. Does the update make for a phone that can truly compete with the best of Android or iOS?
The Icon is a stunning piece of hardware. It has a 5-inch 1080 × 1920 resolution screen, but the overall dimensions are only a bit taller and wider than the iPhone 5s. The display is an AMOLED panel and boasts an impressive 441 pixel per inch (ppi), which is a nice upgrade from the Lumia 1020 or Lumia 925 of last year. In the end, it’s nothing special when you look at other flagship Android devices, but the fact that this is the first 5-inch 1080p Windows Phone device is a big deal. It means Windows Phone can finally play in the big leagues.
The good news is that the front glass, metal wrapped sides, and a solid plastic back all fuse together in a very attractive unit—if not a bit generic looking. The materials combine to give the device quite a bit of heft, but it’s not unbearable and ultimately makes the phone feel very sturdy. It’s also thicker than most devices that it competes against thanks to its gradually curved back. The weight and thickness are negatives on a spec sheet, but in person the phone is a pleasure to hold and looks fantastic. It’s a testament to Nokia’s design team, which has been so successful in industrial design in the past.
The biggest problem with the nice hardware isn’t anything about it specifically. In isolation, the Icon might seem revolutionary, but compared to pretty much any other flagship phone available today, it feels a bit outdated. It’s just a little too thick and heavy compared to the LG G3, the iPhone 5s, or HTC’s One (M8) problem that has plagued Windows Phone devices for some time now. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the sturdy, unibody feel or even the bright, colorful aesthetic of last year’s Lumia devices—making it feel like a step back in some way. It just might be the most utilitarian Lumia device Nokia has never designed.
The camera works well, but if it’s the reason for the extra bulk, it isn’t warranted. The device has a 20-megapixel camera rear camera, which is a higher megapixel count than what you’ll find in other flagship devices, however, you won’t notice the difference in a positive way. Ever since the release of the Lumia 1020 with its 41-megapixel camera, Nokia phones have earned a reputation for their cameras. Unfortunately, I came away a bit unimpressed with my time with the Icon. It wasn’t bad—the images were usually sharp, but it wasn’t quite up to snuff with what the iPhone 5s, LG G3, or Lumia 1020 offers, especially in low light situations.
Take it or leave it, if you want the coveted Nokia hardware, you’re going to get the Windows Phone software. Whatever you may think of Windows on the desktop and despite what you’ve heard, Windows Phone has actually become quite a good mobile OS. It hasn’t always been that way, but since Windows Phone 8, and now 8.1, it is able to go head to head with Android and iOS—at least, for the most part.
With the 8.1 update comes a lot of desperately needed items like Cortana, action center, and updated layout. Cortana is the personal assistant for Windows Phone. Much like Windows Phone in general, the personal assistant takes the best of Apple’s and Google’s versions making for a very intriguing offering.
The most interesting thing about Cortana, however, is how she stores the information you give her—in her notebook. It’s the holding place where she puts reminders, information about you, as well as information about people connected to you. Siri, on the other hand is just a black box, so you have no idea what information she’s learned about you. With Cortana, you can see the personal data and add or remove specific items it at any point.
So, for example, if you want her to know that you’re interested in hearing about the San Diego Padres, but not the San Diego Chargers you can manually add or subtract that data at any time. There’s also specific places to add people to your “inner-circle,” see previous music searches, and dictate quiet hours.
On the design side, Windows Phone’s live tiles have been a compelling feature from the beginning. Being able to move them around and make them square or rectangle was always a great option. In earlier versions of the OS, however, the two sizes of live tiles made for a lot of unnecessarily wasted space on the home screen.
With the 8.1 update comes the ability to have a multiple sizes of tiles combined with three columns—on some devices, the Icon being one of those. The blocks fill more of the screen and make for a much nicer visual atheistic. Not only for looks, the home screen usability gets better being able to place more tiles where you want them.
Action Center is the pull down window for quick access to settings and notifications, just like on Android and iOS. The Action Center isn’t a big deal now that it’s here, but not having an area where missed notifications went was a glaring omission—so catching Windows Phone up in this way is essential.
There’s also some cool things you won’t see anywhere else such a feature called Wi-Fi Sense. When it’s turned on, Windows Phone learns where the open Wi-Fi connections are around you and connects automatically. It gets this information anonymously from other users and shares what it learns with everyone.
Wi-Fi Sense can also accept the terms and conditions automatically so, for example, if you’re in an airport it could connect to the open network, say that you agree to the terms, all on its own. It’s a pretty powerful little feature which could keep you watching more videos without eating into your cellular data plan.
Unfortunately, Windows Phone still lacks some of the polish of Android and iOS. Windows Phone is the most tightly designed and closed operating system, especially compare to Android. Don’t like all those animations or the keyboard or some other aspect of the OS? Too bad. Even iOS 7 has more flexibility than Windows Phone. The lack of customization and choice goes to the app market as well, where Windows Phone still lags behind the competition.
They’ve got the biggest bases taken care of—Twitter, Facebook, Netflix, Spotify, and Evernote. But the depth of choice is just not there, and that’s a big issue for a lot of smartphone users. People flock to iOS for the breadth of Grade A innovation in the App Store, while the Google Play Store’s open policies and increasing depth attracts a lot of people to Android. It’s hard to say that Windows Phone has either of these things, making it still feel like a distant third place in the smartphone race.
If you’re on Verizon and want a Windows Phone, this is the one to get. If you’re tired of iOS and Android for whatever reason, or are particularly plugged into Microsoft services, then get this phone. But if you’re just the Average Joe looking to buy a new smartphone, the trade-offs just still aren’t really worth it.
The hardware is nice in a lot of regards, but it’s just not in the same league as the other top tier devices. What’s worse, in attempts to streamline the design and bring it closer to Android, the unique quality of 2013’s Lumia designs have been lost here, as well as some of the other features that really made devices like the Lumia 1020 stand out.
The Windows Phone OS has come a long way and really has become a good mobile OS on its own, but third party apps are still a fairly large weakness. If you’re set on this phone or the Windows OS, you’ll be happy with your choice with the Lumia Icon. If you’re on the fence, there are a handful of other smartphones in the market that offer higher specs, better design, and a more fully supported app market than what you’ll find here.