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Nokia Lumia Icon review: 5-inch Windows Phone nails it on specs, screen

An aluminum border, a speedy quad-core processor, and a 20-megapixel camera are just some of the things this 5-inch smartphone has going for it.

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Franchises, How-To, Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads CNET Franchises, How-To, and Performance. With over 15 years in journalism, her experience includes mobile phone and software reporting and reviews, and delivering advice on expansive topics ranging from personal finance to travel and home. Jessica got her start at Download.com and holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).

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10 min read

Good things may come to those who wait, but they also come to large, powerful carriers with tremendous bargaining power. Such is the case with the Nokia Lumia Icon (also known as the 929), a 5-inch, quad-core smartphone with a 20-megapixel shooter and a soberer look and feel that Verizon can claim as its very own. The addition of the $200 Icon to Big Red's roster -- it goes on sale February 20 with a new, two-year service agreement -- marks a much-needed refresh to Verizon's Windows Phone lineup.

Nokia Lumia Icon
8.3

Nokia Lumia Icon

The Good

The feature-packed <b>Nokia Lumia Icon</b> has a gorgeous screen, a fast processor, and a proven 20-megapixel camera. Low-light image quality is excellent.

The Bad

Its flat, slab design is uninspiring, and the Icon is a little heavy and thick. Call quality was mediocre, and media hounds won't be able to expand storage with a microSD card.

The Bottom Line

Buy the Nokia Lumia Icon for its beautiful display and well-rounded features, but skip it if you require gobs of storage, are on a budget, or prefer a power user's OS.

Staunch Nokia supporter AT&T still claims the glory for both the largest Windows Phone handset and also the most advanced camera phone you can buy in the US, the 6-inch Lumia 1520 and 41-megapixel Lumia 1020, respectively. Don't let that deter you. The Icon's proven features and competitive specs make it a strong contender for any superphone-seeker on Verizon, and one of the top three Windows Phone devices anywhere in the world.

Portrait of a Nokia Lumia Icon (pictures)

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Design and build
Although it can count the round, bright Lumia 1520 as a sire, the Lumia Icon more closely resembles another Verizon-only phone in the looks department, the 928, than it does the supersize smartphone.

Never mind that it's smaller; it's also boxy, with squared-off edges and sides flat enough to balance the Icon upright. A barely curved back adds some in-palm comfort and a real aluminum rim tries to class up the white or black polycarbonate backing. I'm not personally a fan of the phone's tile aesthetic; to me it lacks the personality I prefer in Nokia's screamingly colorful finishes.

That said, pretty much every Nokia phone also comes in black and white, and this steep-sided design does make the rounds from time to time. Nokia also combined aluminum parts with a muted palette in the Lumia 925, sold with T-Mobile in the US, but that phone's rounded spines and contouring gave it a much more visually interesting and premium look and feel.

Nokia Lumia Icon
The 5-inch Nokia Lumia Icon isn't small by any means, but it does fit in the hand. Josh Miller/CNET

The Icon's dimensions -- 5.4 inches tall by 2.8 inches wide -- slot right in to today's array of larger phones, though it does seem like a thick, hefty slab of smartphone, at 0.4 inch thick and a solid 5.9 ounces. It isn't so large I couldn't carry it around in my back pocket, and I could even maneuver it one-handed. Overall, I found it comfortable enough to hold and use without complaint.

A 5-inch 1080p HD AMOLED screen is the star of the show, and as usual, Nokia gives the Icon's display its best. Rich color, brightness, and pixel density to the tune of a 441ppi make photos, videos, and high-definition images leap off the screen. Nokia's ClearBlack Display filter cuts down on glare outside, and the ever-so-slightly curved Gorilla Glass three-topper promises to keep viewing angles wide enough for friends.

If you're in need of more juice to beat extra-bright environs like sun and snow, you can ratchet up the screen brightness; and if you're wearing gloves or tend to navigate with fingernails rather than the pads of your digits, there's a setting for that, too.

Nokia Lumia Icon
Verizon commissioned the Icon in two shades: white with a silvery trim and all black. Josh Miller/CNET

Around the edges, buttons for volume, power, and the camera shutter cluster on the right spine; you do your charging business at the base, and plug in your headset at the top. There's an oddly shaped nano-SIM card tray up there too, which you have to pry open with a perfectly angled fingernail, or else cast about for a useful tool.

Over on the back is where you'll find the 20-megapixel camera module and dual-LED flash. The front-facing camera rests above the screen, to the right of the speaker grille. Four microphones address your audio needs, one each at the top and bottom of the front and back sides.

The only other features to point out are things that aren't here: a unibody handset means you won't be able to pull out the Icon's battery, and there's no microSD card slot for external storage (read more on this below.)

OS and apps
One of the first things you'll notice when looking at the display is that there are three columns, not just the usual two. This is a direct result of the Windows Phone 8 Update 3 OS version, a clunky name to describe a few extra features, like this tri-column view. That means you can dramatically increase the number of icons on the home screen before having to scroll down for more.

The phone also gets topped up with the Nokia Black software update, which adds a bunch of Nokia apps and also support for low-energy Bluetooth.

If you're unfamiliar with Windows Phone, you'll find some typical features, like multitasking, voice actions, and music identification. There's Wi-Fi, GPS, NFC (with security built into the SIM to go with the e-wallet), and Bluetooth 4.0. Integrated Qi wireless charging is also on board.

Nokia Lumia Icon
The SIM card tray takes a little effort to pry open. Josh Miller/CNET

The Microsoft Office suite is one of the advantages of the Windows Phone OS, but Nokia also adds value with a whole bundle of its own apps, especially for the camera. You're looking at image editors and panorama, but also Nokia Here maps, MixRadio, Nokia Beamer, and Drive+ navigation. Bing Weather and Bing apps are other Microsoft additions.

Amazingly, Verizon keeps the preloads to a minimum. You'll see NFL Mobile, Verizon Tones, and VZ Navigator, but not much more.

Windows Phone as an OS has a clean, fresh design and a few nice touches all its own (like Xbox integration and the aforementioned Microsoft Office.) It has legitimately gained its share of fans. And yet, there are problems that need fixing, and a slow rate of growth over the last three and a half years. The Icon represents Windows Phone well, but in some respects, the OS quite simply trails behind Android and iOS.

Camera and video
Just like the 1520, the Icon comes with a 20-megapixel camera sensor with a six-lens Carl Zeiss optical assembly and optical image stabilization.

The high megapixel count sounds impressive, and it is, though you won't really nab 20-megapixel images. Instead, Nokia relies on a technique called oversampling to capture a 5-megapixel image at the same time it stores a 16-megapixel copy. When you crop (and zoom in), you take advantage of the full-resolution image, which you can store in the default 16:9 aspect ratio, or as a 4:3 ratio (19-megapixel). The camera has an f/2.4 aperture.

Nokia Lumia Icon
Buttons on the side include the camera shutter. Josh Miller/CNET

What's image quality like? Very good. Many of my indoor and outdoor pictures were crisp and detailed, with sharp edges. Even casual photographers will appreciate uncovering the details captured in an oversampled shot. One downside, though, is that the camera configuration doesn't handle macros and close-ups very well. In a sense, cropping is the only way to really get right up to your subject.

Not all of my photos were perfectly in focus; some never shaped up despite several attempts. Nokia cameras also tend to tint scenes blue, but I didn't see a whole lot of that in my test shots. What I did notice are slight variations between the image I was seeing through the viewfinder and the resulting photo; usually the photo was a little worse.

It's important to note that Nokia's Pro Cam app is the installed default here. A tutorial helps guide you through the not-always-sensical buttons and modes. If you'd like, you can update to the very similar Nokia Camera app, or switch "lenses" altogether, like to the native camera app.

In addition to image quality, shot-to-shot time is also an important factor. Because of the extra processing required to save two versions of an image, the Nokia camera often takes longer to process, which means that photography has felt slow and it's easy to miss shots. Nokia has clearly sped this up in the Icon, so that even with autofocus and flash, you're waiting about 3.5 seconds between shots, and not 6.

Nokia Lumia Icon
A major benefit of the 20-megapixel camera is lossless cropping for 5-megapixel images. Josh Miller/CNET

Here's an interesting twist: the Lumia Icon has a 2-megapixel camera on its front side, but you'll only get that resolution (and 720p HD video) when video chatting. Your still shots, on the other hand, resolve as 1.2-megapixel images. They're predictably noisy all over and loosely defined. A little built-in airbrushing, if you will. Colors are more on-point in natural lighting, and get a little gray under artificial glow.

1080p HD video capture was as strong as usual on the Lumia Icon, which records at a rate of 30 frames per second. Nokia touts its directional audio speakers as making sounds more realistic, and pickup worked well in my limited tests (aka, not at a drag race like Nokia's demo.) However, the closer and louder someone or something is to the mic, the better it sounds.

Video image quality delivered an eyeful of vibrant color and detail, and optical image stabilization helped keep panning shots from bouncing around too much. The phone handily dealt with color and lighting adjustments as scenes changed.

Here's a sample of photos taken with the Lumia Icon, including our standard studio shot. You can compare the studio image with those taken from other smartphone cameras via this gallery.

I was happy with the colors and sharpness of these outdoor flowers. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Even better is the level of detail on the petal fibers and dark-green leaf in the center of the shot after zooming in. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
A photo of a photo. Capturing CNET Español editor Juan Garzon using another Icon. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
This immense looped statue is a local type of icon. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
The Icon accurately reproduced colors of this complex desktop apparatus. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
These tennis shoes were shot in an almost lightless hallway using just the Icon's focus light. The results are impressive. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
We don't often see such a brown cast to this standard studio shot, taken with flash. Click to enlarge. Josh Miller/CNET

Performance: LTE, processor, battery
Any way you look at it, the Nokia Lumia Icon is a fast phone. Verizon's 4G LTE can be variable, just like any network, depending on coverage strength where you are and network congestion at any given time. As a whole, though, Web sites loaded quickly.

There were performance fluctuations for sure in my diagnostic tests taken with the Speedtest.net app. On the lower end of the spectrum, speeds ranged from 3Mbps to 7Mbps down and hovered around 8Mbps up. Faster speeds peaked at 34Mbps down and 12Mbps up. In the real world, Web sites loaded quickly, large apps downloaded in about 30 seconds, and YouTube videos streamed without jerkiness, downgrading, or delay.

Speed tests taken with the Speedtest.net diagnostic app (LTE) and AnTuTu benchmark (processor). Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

As far as the chipset goes, processors don't get much faster than this. The Lumia Icon is the second Windows phone to feature a quad-core processor, a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (MSM8974), with an Adreno 330 GPU. This is pretty close to the top of the line, though with the breakneck rate of development these days, it won't take long for quad-core phones to fall into obsolescence.

At any rate, navigation was smooth and seamless across the phone OS, the phone booted up in a reasonable length of time, and games were immersive.

Nokia Lumia Icon Time on Verizon
Install Endomondo (3MB) 24.5 seconds
Load up Endomondo mobile app 2.5 seconds
CNET mobile site load 4.2 seconds
CNET desktop site load 17 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 35 seconds
Camera boot time 2.3 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 2.5 seconds with autofocus, no flash. 3.5 seconds with autofocus, flash

The Icon is smaller than the Lumia 1520 and, appropriately, so is its battery: a 2,420mAh juice pack compared with a 3,400mAh ticker. Battery life behaved as expected in my short, intense test period so far -- which is to say that it didn't drain alarmingly quickly, and I had to charge it after a full day streaming and downloading content. During our battery test for call duration, it lasted an impressive 17 hours and 10 minutes.

Storage space isn't an issue for most people, who can get by just fine on 16GB ROM. However, media hounds who store large amounts of photos and music and video files will really value deeper coffers. The majority of prospective buyers should be content with the Icon's 32GB of internal storage, with a user-accessible capacity of about 23GB. Plus, Windows phones come with an additional 7GB in free SkyDrive storage, if you sign up. However, there's no external storage for those who like a little backup. The Icon has 2GB RAM and a digital SAR of 0.7 watt per kilogram.

Call quality
If there's one perplexing aspect to the Icon's performance, it's with call quality, which I tested in San Francisco using Verizon's CDMA network (850/1,900MHz).

While volume was very loud (I kept it at half its full potential), voices sounded uncomfortably muffled, like callers were eating the microphone. I also heard subtle forms of distortion that never truly ran their course. At times, voice were both fizzy and gauzy, and a little robotic and thin. On the plus side, I didn't hear any white noise obstructing the call's clarity. On his side, my main test partner agreed that I sounded distorted and muffled, but also properly loud. He thought he picked up a tinge of white noise, which later disappeared.

Nokia Lumia Icon call quality sample Listen now:



Audio quality didn't improve a bit when I tested speakerphone at hip level. Volume dropped noticeably for both of us, and voices took on both a distance and an indistinctness that made it hard for each of us to discern what the other was saying. If there was any noise in the room at all, we both found that it would drown out the audio. On the plus side, the line was completely clear of noise.

Buy it or skip it?
Ever since Nokia began its assertive Lumia campaign, nearly each phone we've seen has built on the one before. Verizon's Icon is more of a step to the side, combining the high-powered features of the Lumia 1520 with a (comparatively) smaller size and a look that earned Verizon's stamp of approval.

If you're a fan of the 5-inch screen size or below, it's arguably the best Windows Phone around -- unless you're all about the camera, in which case AT&T's Lumia 1020 is still best in class. The Lumia 1520, another AT&T phone, has the vaster screen, but at the same resolution, the picture doesn't look as arrestingly sharp as it does on this Icon. Call quality was a disappointment, since Nokia usually excels in this area, but it won't be a dealbreaker for those who keep calls to a minimum -- and call quality can and does vary by location.

For me, the Icon's humdrum design is another low point, but it's balanced by the excellent display. When you weigh the Icon's hardware features and price, the $200 smartphone deserves its rank. Its faults are minimal, and its strengths are evident.

Buy the Nokia Lumia Icon if you:
- Like the Windows Phone OS
- Seek an impressive camera experience
- Strongly value low-light image quality
- Have a flexible budget

Skip the Lumia Icon if you:
- Dislike the Windows Phone OS
- Desire a light, slim, or small phone
- Prefer a bright device or a statement design
- Are on a tight budget

Nokia Lumia Icon
8.3

Nokia Lumia Icon

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 8
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