Nokia Icon Review

Nokia Icon Review

Honestly, this is it

Available now on Verizon Wireless—and coming soon internationally as the Lumia 930—the Nokia Lumia Icon is a perfect combination of size, screen, camera and capabilities, and the single best smart phone on the market today. If you were on the fence about this device or perhaps disappointed with its plastic-feel Lumia 928 predecessor, you're good to go. The Lumia Icon is the real deal.

I will get one thing out of the way up front, however. A number of people have asked me whether I would replace my current daily-use phone, the Lumia 1020, with the Icon. With the understanding that I don't target myself in these reviews—I get that everyone has different needs and so on—this is in fact a fair and relevant question. And while it's easy to answer—I'll be sticking with the 1020—there are caveats all over the place that have more to do with my particular situation than with the respective quality or capabilities of these devices. I wish I could use the Icon instead.

At the time of my Nokia Lumia Icon: First Impressions and Photos article, I noted that if it weren't for the fact that the Icon ran on Verizon Wireless—I'm a dedicated AT&T customer—I'd have likely switched from the 1020. That's still true. But with the release of Windows Phone 8.1 I have another reason to stick with the Lumia 1020: With its many improvements, including the ability to display more tiles onscreen—Windows Phone 8.1 has given that older device a new lease on life. I've been using the Lumia 1020 since last July—and amazing amount of time for someone like me, when you think about it, and I've never reset it, not once—and that is going to continue.

But make no mistake: There is something special about the Lumia Icon. For anyone on Verizon, this is an absolute no brainer. And if you're somehow in a position to choose between the Icon and AT&T-based devices like the Lumia 1020 or the "phabulous" Lumia 1520, it gets really blurry quick. Honestly, I'd choose the Icon.

Why? Mostly because the screen is better, while the camera is just about as good. Let's start with the screen.

These things are highly subjective, I know. But the 5-inch size of the Icon's screen is right, dare I say just about perfect. With the Lumia 1520's ridiculous 6-inch screen proving too unwieldy for daily use—and, yes, I've gone back again and again and tried to make it work—it's clear that the optimum smart phone size, at least circa mid-2014—involves a device with a roughly 5-inch screen. The Samsung Galaxy S5 is right there. So is the Icon.

OK, that was quick. Advantage Icon. But what about the camera?

With its large but surprisingly unobtrusive camera bump, the Lumia 1020 offers a superior camera experience on paper. It offers an amazing 41 megapixel camera sensor, and by default saves two versions of every photo (when you use the excellent Nokia Camera app): A 34 megapixel "original" that can be edited over and over, and a 5 megapixel version that is used for sharing. (You can configure that original to be highly compatible JPEG or higher-quality DNG, your choice.) I've been using this phone's camera as my only camera since last July, and on virtually every trip—three weeks in Europe last summer, skiing this winter, all of my business trips—and every event since, the 1020 has faithfully recorded my memories. I've taken well over 3,100 photos with the device. It's almost part of the family.

But like the Lumia 1520, which shares the same camera hardware in the Icon, the 1020's slightly less well-outfitted siblings often rise to the challenge in surprising ways. The Lumia Icon features a 20 megapixel camera sensor that is physically smaller than that in the 1020 and thus doesn't require the same kind of circular bump. It also saves two versions of each photo you take with Nokia Camera, in this case a 16 megapixel "original" (JPEG or DNG) and a 5 megapixel JPEG for sharing. You don't need an advanced degree in mathematics to know that 34 megapixels is bigger than 16 megapixels. And you don't have to be a camera expert to look at the specs—or heck, just look at the cameras on each device—and expect anything other than a clear victory for the 1020.

The thing is, that's not what happens. Not always, anyway. When I reviewed the Lumia 1520, I was consistently surprised to see that device take what appeared to be visually superior photos. We're quibbling here, of course, since both are excellent. But, yeah. The 1520 was better overall. So when I tested the Icon, I was less inclined to disbelieve my eyes.

One of many photo comparisons: Lumia 1020 (left) and Lumia Icon (right)

Here's what I found over a series of shots. Outdoors on both cloudy and sunny days. Indoors. Day and night. As long as I was shooting in sets of three and always picking the best high-res version from either device, this very unscientific test showed that the cameras are in the real world essentially identical. There were times when the 1020 beat out the Icon, but only barely. And there were times when the reverse was true, also only barely. The 1020's photos can of course be zoomed in more, thanks to the larger pixel size of the resulting picture. But zoomed to the same levels, I see parity. These cameras provide very similar results. I declare a tie.

There is one area in which the Icon's camera handily beats out that of the 1020, however. It is about twice as fast. I'm not entirely sure if the 1020's pokey camera performance is because of its heavy use, and something that could be at least partially fixed with a reset, or whether it's because—as I suspect—that experience with the faster Lumia 1520 and now Icon cameras has simply made it all the more obvious. But when you take a shot with the 1020, you can slowly count to four—1... 2... 3... 4—before you can take the next shot. That's an eternity when something memorable is unfolding in front of you, believe me. And it's twice as long—1... 2---as is the case with the Icon.

Given this, there's only one logical conclusion. The camera in the Icon, overall, is in fact better than that in the 1020. But either would be perfectly suitable to replace a point and click camera. Unless you're a professional photographer, this could be all the camera you ever need. It is for me.

Beyond these most crucial of issues are a host of other considerations.

The device itself is a bit monolithic, a semi-thick slab of well-made modern technology that borrows a bit too much from the iPhone design without actually looking like an iPhone. This is especially true of the white version of the device, which features an iPhone-like silver band on its edges. Some may find the Icon big and bulky, but I don't, and all you have to do is weigh this device in the hand side by side with a Lumia 920 to understand the difference between well-weighted (Icon) and overly dense (920). The squared off edges may bug you a bit, but not the weight, density or girth.

Lumia 1020 (left) and Lumia Icon (right)

The Icon comes in bling-free black or white versions, and I very much prefer the white, which has that differentiated silver edge. (The black is all black, front, back and sides.) If you live outside the United States, you can soon get a Lumia 930 instead, and this device—which, yes, is an Icon with different wireless radios—can also be had in fun green or orange choices too. I think those are great choices, and would love to see them in the US, too. Heck, I'd love to see the Icon/930 on AT&T. That would make me switch, I bet.

Lumia Icon in white (top) and black (bottom)

(Yes, I know I'll be able to eventually buy an Icon outright on Expansys or similar sites and use it on AT&T. Believe me, I'm considering that.)

Nokia is really pushing the video recording capabilities of the Icon, but I'm somewhat embarrassed to say I've not adequately tested this. I was able to attend a few concerts early on with the Lumia 1020, and came away impressed with the results of both the audio and the video. The Icon steps things up with 4 microphones and should provide minimal distortion and even background noise removal. I tried to hold off on the review until I could test this, and will of course continue trying to in the future, but this apparent advantage didn't weigh in my own appraisal of the device, sorry.

Some have pointed out that the Lumia Icon lacks the nice "Glance" screen that Nokia has added to its other phones. This is true, and for once a missing phone feature is not the fault of a wireless carrier. It turns out that Glance isn't compatible with the device's screen (though it works fine on the 1080p Lumia 1520's screen). Nokia says it's working on a fix, but let's get real: Glance is great, and I like it, but it's no reason on which to base a phone buying decision.

The Lumia Icon ships with a 2.2 GHz quad core processor, 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage, but no microSD storage expansion, a feature that I feel should be part of every Windows Phone handset. This compares to a 1.5 GHz dual-core processor, 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage (and no microSD) in the Lumia 1020. I've never found the 1020 to be a slouch—except when waiting to take the next photo—but it's safe to say that the Icon is a bit more future-proof as a result.

(The Lumia 1520 has the same basic specs as the Icon, but that model does include microSD expansion. Good to know if that's a big deal for you, especially with Windows Phone 8.1 significantly improving the microSD experience.)

Overall, the Lumia Icon is the single best Windows Phone handset I've ever used, and is also the single best smart phone available today in my opinion. It is superior to the recently released Samsung Galaxy S5, with a smarter and cleaner OS, a better camera, and comparable screen size and quality. (The iPhone 5S doesn't even factor at this point thanks to its tiny, almost unusable screen, and despite its still surprisingly excellent camera.) If you're on Verizon, the Lumia Icon is a no-brainer. If you're not, it's one reason to switch.

But what about me? My situation is a bit more complex. I've been on AT&T since 2007 and have three phone lines, and for my uses traveling both domestically and internationally, AT&T remains the better choice. So you might say that I'm "stuck" on AT&T in a way, and that in some ways I'm settling on the 1020, at least for now. I'll continue exploring my options with a Lumia 930, of course, but the state of the art in smart phones is always moving forward too. Who knows? Within a few months, there may be other choices to consider as well.

The Nokia Lumia Icon is highly recommended. This is a wonderful smart phone.

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