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If you've ever watched a poker match, you'll be familiar with the phrase "all in" — and holding the Lumia 920 in our hands, it feels like this is the message from Nokia. All in, everything we have, the best of our best. But is it enough?
Nokia phones have always been easy for us to spot. The Finnish phone company, which was once king, has a knack for designing iconic handsets; phones that are easily recognised as Nokias from across a room. This is true for the Lumia 920, which looks a lot like the Lumia 900, which in turn looked like the Lumia 800 and the N9 before it.
The big difference here is that Nokia has opted for a glossy, smooth plastic finish for its polycarbonate chassis, rather than the rubber-like soft-touch finish we saw on the earlier models. For us, this is a minor misstep. The glossy finish looks great, but it feels really slippery, and although we haven't dropped our review unit, we wouldn't be surprised to hear many stories of dropped or smashed Lumias after launch.
It's also quite a heavy handset. At 185 grams, it is about 50 per cent heavier than the Samsung Galaxy S3 and the iPhone 5, and you can definitely feel this weight when you hold it. But then, this might just be the price you pay for the outstanding, sturdy build quality, which includes a sapphire coating on all of the external buttons and the frame around the camera lens.
The real showstopper is the phone's 4.5-inch IPS LCD screen, which uses a display technology that Nokia is calling PureMotion HD+. This screen is a gem, with great colours, great off-axis viewing angles and sharp, crisp text and images, thanks to its 330 pixels per inch (ppi) resolution. It also does a great job of showing deep, rich blacks, so much so that it is difficult to tell where the screen ends and the glossy plastic bezel around the screen begins.
The rest of the phone's design is pretty standard. There is a headphone socket on the top of the phone, a micro-USB port on the base and three buttons down the side, covering volume control, power standby and the camera. There is a slot on the top for a micro SIM, but no microSD card-reader ports.
A great phone design will mean very little if the software below the surface is poorly put together. The Lumia 920 has the honour of being the unofficial Windows Phone 8 flagship, the phone that most people will associate with the relaunch of the Microsoft mobile OS.
In many ways, Windows Phone 8 is a lot like Windows Phone 7. There have been major changes below the surface, namely around the kernel architecture that Windows Phone 8 has been built on, but on the surface it looks and feels like previous versions of the OS. The home screen is still a vertical list of Live Tiles parallel to a similar vertical list of all installed applications. The core features, like the People Hub, the Store, Xbox Games, email and the calendar, are all basically the same.
In some ways, this is a good thing. Windows Phone is one of the easiest systems to learn how to use, so it is perfect for people who are unfamiliar with smartphones. There are a few new elements, too, like a new Xbox Music app to replace Zune Music and Videos, and a Wallet app to digitally collate all of the rewards cards in your real-world wallet. There is a Kids Zone feature now, too, which lets you create a restricted playground of apps and tools, so that your kids can play with your phone without there being a risk that they will send garbled emails to your work colleagues. There's also a new Rooms section in People Hub that lets you create a collaborative messaging area for a selection of contacts, and internet sharing over Wi-Fi is now a standard feature.
To access Kid's Corner, you swipe the lock screen from right to left. Inside, only the apps you pre-select are available.
(Screenshot by CBSi)
Perhaps the most important improvement for us is the quality of the web browser. Surfing the web on Windows Phone 7 devices was a tedious chore, where web pages would load slowly and render poorly, if they loaded at all. Now, the browser is based on the same backbone as the Internet Explorer 10 browser in Windows 8 for PCs, so it is far more reliable and much faster.
However, there's a number of frustrations that are still present in Windows Phone 8. For starters, you still can't change the volume for specific tasks, like turning down the volume on a video or games without affecting the ringtone volume for calls and notifications. Also, changing the status of wireless connections, like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, means that you have to dig around in the settings every time you want to make an adjustment. Luckily, there are apps to help with this second gripe. Perhaps the most annoying oversight is that large downloads can't continue as background tasks for some apps. In Nokia Maps, for example, you have the ability to download map packs for all of Australia in a single 250-megabyte file, but you will have to sit with this download and make sure the screen doesn't time out, or else the download will automatically pause.
Overall, the feeling we are left with after using Windows Phone 8 is that it is a reliable and impressively fast system. There are dozens of apps that we would love to see available, like Dropbox, Flipboard, Instagram and Spotify, but it seems unfair to judge a system too harshly for the decisions made by third parties.
If you've heard anything about the Lumia 920, it's probably about the new features that Nokia has built in to this impressive shooter — and about the company faking the use of these features in its advertising. Marketing meltdowns aside, this is one truly fantastic smartphone camera; among the best, if not the best, camera we've seen packed into a phone.
Central to this camera's success is a new optical image-stabilisation mechanic, which has the lens "floating" on tiny springs that move the lens ever so slightly to counteract the shaking in the photographer's hands. The results speak for themselves, with 90 per cent or more of the photos we've taken turning out in sharp focus. This is truly a huge step forward for mobile photography.
Photo buffs will also love the new "Lens" feature built in to the Windows Phone camera app. This tool collects all the apps you have installed that can manipulate an image as you take the shot. Nokia's panorama app is a great example, as is third-party app CamWow, which adds funky photo filters before you take your pics. More on Nokia's photography apps in a moment.
The Lens feature UI is easily accessible in the camera app.
A special mention needs to go to some of the great apps that are available by Nokia exclusively for people who buy Lumia phones. Differentiating Windows Phones needs to come down to who has the bigger screen and better handset colours, and Nokia has done a great job, so far, of giving its customers a little bit extra.
Nokia Maps and Nokia Drive are the standouts, giving great maps and turn-by-turn directions to Windows Phone 8 users. The maps are great, too, with full offline functionality via regional map downloads, decent point-of-interest searching and a great, clear visual layout. Nokia also offers a maps app called City Lens, which is an augmented-reality (AR) tool, but it seems a bit unnecessary when the standard maps searching is so good.
Mapping apps are a dime a dozen these days; in fact, you don't even need a dime in most cases. What sets Nokia Maps apart from the competition in smartphones is the ability to download the maps for entire countries or regions, so that you can use them for directions even when you don't have access to data.
There are also four Nokia-made photography apps, which plug in to the new "lens" feature of the Windows Phone 8 camera app — an option that lets you use the features of a third-party photography app without leaving the standard camera tool. Nokia has a panorama tool for stitching together pics, and another called Smart Shoot, which takes a burst of photos and then lets you select the best one for each person in the photo, so that the end result could be photo number three with faces from photos one, four and five.
Without a doubt, the Cinemagraph app is the most fun. If you're not familiar with the concept, a cinemagraph is a photo with moving parts. This is achieved by shooting a few seconds of video, and then giving the user a "brush" to select which elements of the photo will move and which will remain still. It seems like such a simple tool, but the result is an addictive photography experience. When you are done making your moving masterpiece, you save the file as a .GIF file, which you can send to friends or post online.
Who's a pretty boy?
Unlike many of the 4G phones we've reviewed so far this year, the battery life in the Lumia 920 is surprisingly good. It's not better than the battery life in 3G-only phones, necessarily, but it managed to hold enough charge to see us through busy work days with plenty to spare.
Your mileage is likely to differ, though, and if you find that the 4G connection is sucking through your power more quickly than you'd like, you can actually turn it off. In Settings, under the Mobile Networks menu, you'll find a drop-down box with the title "Fastest connection speed". Here, you can dial back your network speeds from 4G to 3G, or even back to 2G.
If I'm honest, I wasn't expecting to like Windows Phone 8, and the Lumia 920 by proxy. It seemed to be more of the same, and I was expecting much more from Microsoft this time around. But the truth is, the longer I use the Lumia 920, the more I like it. The basic phone functionality is rock solid, like calling, messaging and email. The browser is much better than before, and it's hard not to make use of the excellent People Hub for catching up on what your friends are saying and doing. That Nokia's hardware is so solid is a bonus on top of this great software, and the PureView camera is the cherry on top.
Is it better than buying an iPhone or one of the big-name Androids? This is a much more difficult question to answer. Features wise, WP8 is on par with much of what we've seen from the big players this year, and the Lumia 920 supports the best of it with 4G connectivity, near-field communication (NFC) and fast processing hardware. There are still big gaps in the apps market for Windows Phone, and it is impossible to tell when these gaps will be filled, if ever. That said, there is often a serviceable alternative to most of the apps we've been missing. There's no Spotify, but there is the Xbox Music Pass, for example; no Instagram, but there is a dozen image editors to choose from. You won't find some of the most popular iOS games for Windows, but, conversely, there are dozens of games on this platform that you won't get anywhere else, and some of them are very good.
If we can make one recommendation with confidence, it's that Windows Phone is very easy to use, and would suit someone who wants a smartphone but is a little technology shy. Big, clearly labelled buttons make navigation easy for first timers, and the settings menus are well laid out. Not that experienced users wouldn't like it, but we would point smartphone newbies toward Windows Phone as easily as we would point them in the direction of a new iPhone.