Nokia Lumia 920 review: Windows Phone's most powerful handset yet

Camera and video
Nokia boasts a very high-resolution 8.7-megapixel camera that uses Carl Zeiss optics, springs for stabilizing images, and most importantly, the PureView algorithms introduced in the Nokia 808 PureView , with its enormous 41-megapixel sensor and lens.

Nokia Lumia 920
Nokia boasts an 8.7-megapixel camera, PureView rendering algorithms, and great low-light shots. Josh Miller/CNET

Here are my observations as a casual photographer. The first thing you'll need to know is that Nokia defines "PureView" as the rendering software, not as the camera sensor size. However, the 8.7-megapixel module is larger than most, and in that sense it gets a head start when letting in light. The Lumia 920 has photographs in a 16:9 ratio and has a 26 millimeter focal length.

Photo settings in the Nokia Lumia 920
Photo settings are sparse in the Nokia Lumia 920, paling in comparison to controls on the Nokia 808 PureView. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Image quality was pretty good most of the time. Shots were largely consistent; while some photos looked crisper and higher contrast on other phones, only one picture out-and-out bombed (a sun flare overtook the entire image). The Lumia 920 produced colorful images with crisp lines, but I did notice that at least once the image looked clearer and better-defined through the viewfinder than it did post-rendering. Colors weren't always 100 percent natural; the 920 enhanced pinks in some shots, and like the Lumia 900 before it, often added a blue tint.

Giants' victory parade
Revelers welcome the San Francisco Giants home after their World Series sweep. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The iPhone 5 outperformed the 920 in a few notable pictures, like a close-up of a flower, and the HTC Windows Phone 8X captured some screens with sharper contrast and lines. You'll want to see photos in my camera shootout versus the HTC Windows Phone 8X and iPhone 5 to see for yourself.

Nokia Lumia 920 camera.
Selling Giants gear near the parade route. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

True to Nokia's promise, the Lumia 920 pulled a lot of color and definition from low-light shots. The camera achieves this by turning on the flash, metering, then turning off the flash to take the picture. It takes longer this way, so a little patience is necessary.

Nokia Lumia camera test
Strangely, this image looked sharper before I took the picture. I retook it three times to make sure I wasn't seeing things. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

While we're on the topic of speed, Windows Phone OS doesn't prioritize shot-to-shot time the same way that other OSes do with their burst modes. One of the reasons is that Windows Phone uses touch-focus when you tap the screen, then takes the shot as part of that action. You can also focus by pressing down on the physical shutter button halfway, then pressing again to take the picture. Unfocused, shot-to-shot time is fast, but will give you blurry photos. I'm personally a fan of continuous autofocus.

Nokia Lumia camera test
This low-light photo came out the best on the Lumia 920. I also took it on the iPhone 5 and on the HTC Windows Phone 8X. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

One main issue I had was a much more limited choice of camera settings than with other cameras, even other Windows phones like the HTC Windows Phone 8X. This 920 gives you a choice of scenes, even two to handle backlit scenarios and nighttime portraits. You can select an ISO setting, white-balance presets, exposure value, aspect, ratio, and a focus-assist light. And that's it. There are no choices for sharpness or saturation, no effects, and no dropping down to a smaller resolution. I'd also have hoped that Nokia would take the opportunity to introduce panorama mode, a popular Android and iPhone feature.

Nokia Lumia camera test
The Lumia 920 takes aim at another nighttime statue, this landmark by artist Keith Haring. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The Lumia 920's 1-megapixel front-facing camera doesn't take stellar shots, but the self-portrait I snapped was passable, and it's certainly good enough for video chatting.

Video on the 920 looked great. Colors were natural, and the 1080p HD picture was crisp and smooth at 30 frames per second. My voice did sound more echoey than usual, though, and subjects' voices were harder to hear until I raised the volume. Luckily, video settings have continuous focus turned on by default, though video quality is set to 720p HD unless you switch it to 1080p. White balance is your only other video settings option.

Nokia Lumia 920 studio shot
The Nokia Lumia 920 produced a balanced, accurate, and sharp shot of CNET's studio. Josh Miller/CNET

The Lumia 920 comes with AT&T's 4G LTE. My data connection was strong, and content streamed quickly during testing, consistently riding in the high teens for downlink. I used two diagnostic apps, Free Speed Test and my SpeedTest. Results are much harder to read on the latter, which also switches the upload and download results and lists them in kilobits rather than megabits.

Testing LTE speeds on the Nokia Lumia 920
View full gallery (6 Photos)
Both the Free Speed Test (left) and my SpeedTest showed fast download speeds over LTE. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I also ran the Lumia 920 through a gamut of performance tests to see how fast it boots and completes certain tasks. Since there's no official CNET app yet for Windows Phone OS, I substituted the Endomondo app and the speed test app, just as I did on the HTC Windows Phone 8X.

Download Endomondo app (3MB) 25 seconds
CNET mobile site load 4 seconds
CNET desktop site load 14 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 35 seconds
Camera boot time 2 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 1.5-2 seconds with flash and autofocus; 1.5 seconds, no flash, no auto-focus
Load up app (mySpeedTest) 3 seconds

The Lumia 920 comes with an embedded 2,000mAh battery that you won't be able to remove on your own. Nokia rates battery life at 9 hours talk time and 13.3 days of standby time over 3G. Nokia also rates music playback at 52 hours, with 5 hours of video playback. Battery tests continue; I'll update this section with details from our lab tests.

According to FCC radiation tests, the Lumia 920 has a digital SAR of 1.08 watt per kilogram.

Call quality
I tested the Nokia Lumia 920 in San Francisco on AT&T's network (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; LTE 700/1700/2100). On my end, call quality impressed. Volume was strong on the medium-high setting (7/10), and absent of any background noise and interference. Voices sounded natural and easy to understand. The only deviations I really noticed were small distortions while my test partner spoke, but those were infrequent and brief.

Call quality took a dive by the time it got to my test partner's landline. He declared the audio somewhat distorted, a little muffled, and, worst of all, flat. High frequencies cut off, making my voice overprocessed, he said, with an unpleasant quality. That aside, I was intelligible, and there was no white noise.

Nokia Lumia 920 call quality sample Listen now:

At waist level, the Lumia 920's speakerphone immediately dropped a few volume levels, so I bumped it back up. Although not as high-quality as the standard cellular mode, this wasn't a bad speakerphone experience at all. It was very slightly muffled, but there was no background noise or blips, and echo wasn't too bad. While I've heard better, there wasn't really any glaring detraction I could point out. I'd call the experience a success.

Once again, voices came through clearer on my end than on my tester's landline. Volume dropped for him, but was still OK. Call quality went from bleh to worse, he said, when you threw in the room echo and a little more distortion.

How it compares with the HTC Windows Phone 8X

HTC Windows Phone 8X and Nokia Lumia 920
HTC's Windows Phone 8X (blue) is lighter than Nokia's Lumia 920. Josh Miller/CNET

Both phones are worth buying, but even if you overlook the Lumia 920's $99 cost versus the 8X's $199 initial price tag, there are trade-offs. HTC's 8X device has a slightly smaller screen, but it's lighter, much more portable, and handles better than the clunkier Lumia 920. Yet the Lumia 920 has the advantage of wireless charging from the get-go. There are rumors that Verizon's version of the 8X will get it, too, but if the capability is built into the unibody phone, HTC hasn't turned it on yet.

The Nokia Lumia 920 (top) is uniformly thicker than the tapering HTC Windows Phone 8X (bottom.) Josh Miller/CNET

The Lumia's advantages come in custom apps that bring turn-by-turn voice navigation and music caching for offline listening. It also has 32GB, double the 8X's 16GB capacity, and you can use it in cold weather without removing your gloves. The 8X did take some better shots with its camera than the Lumia 920, but the 8X gives you far more editing options in its add-on editor app. On the whole, I found Nokia's camera app more consistent across the range of lighting scenarios, and I like that the 920's camera doesn't default you to 6 megapixels as the 8X does.

Nokia Lumia 920, HTC Windows Phone 8X
From left to right, the Windows Phone 8X and Lumia 920 side by side. Josh Miller/CNET

If AT&T is out of the question, the choice is easy since the 8X is coming to Verizon and T-Mobile as well. For AT&T customers, I say buy the Lumia 920. It's more powerful and is half the price. However, if cost isn't a factor, size and weight are, since the phones' many other specs are so similar: LTE, high-res camera, identical processor, and large, HD screen.

Head over to my more-detailed comparison between the two phones if you're looking for a spec-to-spec showdown.

Who should buy it?
The Nokia Lumia 920 is a good all-around smartphone, but because of its size and weight, I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. There is no one broken, terrible, or unfinished feature to push you away, and innovations like Wi-Fi charging and gloved use are unique draws that no other competitor can offer. The Windows Phone OS, however, brings some trade-offs for those who are also considering Android and iOS.

Buy the Lumia 920 if you:
- Like Windows Phone 8's big, bold interface
- Enjoy a large, clear screen
- Rely on turn-by-turn voice navigation
- Need 32GB storage
- Want to dive into wireless charging
- Often wear gloves
- Take a lot of low-light photos
- Want to seamlessly sync with Windows 8
- Own an Xbox

Skip the Lumia 920 if you:
- Prefer a light phone
- Want a mountain of apps and games at the ready
- Seek granular photo control
- Rely on voice dictation for composing e-mail and notes
- Live in Google's or Apple's app ecosystem

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