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

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The Good The feature-packed Nokia Lumia Icon 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.

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8.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8

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.

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.

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.