One year ago, I attended the New York launch event for Nokia's Lumia 1020, with its stunning 41 megapixel camera. That it quickly became my favorite smart phone and my daily driver is no surprise. That it is still both one year later, however, is quite both surprising and unprecedented. I don't know what the future holds, but the 1020 has won out over every imaginable competitor since it first arrived last July.
I'm thinking about this now because my family is preparing for our annual home swap, which is usually in Europe and is usually three weeks in length. This year, we're heading to Barcelona, but you may recall last year that we swapped with a home in Amsterdam and visited various places in The Netherlands and Belgium.
July 2013: Bee (zoomed in)
I wrote about that trip in Lumia 1020: Nokia's Newest Phone Goes on Vacation and then again in Lumia 1020: 1500+ Photos. As that latter article's title suggests, I took a lot of photos with the Lumia 1020 on vacation. (And you can see some good shots in both.) But I've also taken a lot since then, too. In fact, I've taken over 4,000 personal photos with the device in this past year, and an uncountable (because I permanently removed them) number of work-related photos (product shots, for the most part) too. The thing is a trooper.
Smart phone + camera: What to choose
From a picture taking perspective, a few related topics are worth mentioning. If you're going to rely on a smart phone for all your photos, you're going to need two things: A smart phone with an excellent camera and some form of extra battery power.
August 2013: Coffee (Amsterdam)
For the former, the Lumia 1020 is not quite in a class by itself: My tests of the Lumia 1520 ($475 on Amazon.com unlocked; see my review), with its "lesser" 20 megapixel camera indicated originally that it took better pictures than even the 1020, though I've since toned that down to "comparable." But the iPhone 5S ($585 and up on Amazon.com unlocked; see my review) and Samsung Galaxy S5 ($580 on Amazon.com unlocked; see my review) both have excellent cameras too, at least compared to other smart phones.
Your battery choices will vary by device. Of the phones noted here, only the Samsung offers a removable battery, which I have to say is really convenient: You could carry around two extra batteries with you and never even notice the weight. They're thrifty, too: You can get this battery on Amazon for just $12. Are you kidding me?
September 2013: Boston Red Sox game
For the iPhone 5S or the two Lumias, you're faced with an internal, non-user-serviceable battery, which means you'll have to rely on external power. The iPhone has a litany of such accessories, given its popularity and terrible battery life, but I'm leaning towards Mophie's products, which add battery power while making the phone a lot easier to hold. There are three: The Juicepack Helium ($80 direct), Juicepack Air ($100 direct), and Juicepack Plus ($120 direct), each of which adds progressively more thickness, weight and, of course, battery life.
October 2013: Fall colors
The Lumia 1020 will need something external. I own two Nokia Universal Portable USB Charger (DC-16) units, and can recommend them. But they're hard to find in the US and can be a bit expensive at $40 from Amazon. Obviously, you have a wide range of choices for external power, though nothing Mophie-like exists for the 1520 to my knowledge.
Back to the 1020. Last year, I picked up a Nokia 1020 Camera Grip at AT&T Wireless before we headed to Europe. This intriguing solution is available for $75 at Amazon, which is obviously not inexpensive. But it adds additional battery power, a useful camera grip for steadier shots, and an equally useful tripod mount. You can learn more in Lumia 1020: Get a Grip, but I found this accessory to be a no brainer for anyone using the 1020 for photography, especially on trips.
November 2013: Chimenea
Looking forward, I have all of these phones, of course—the Lumia 1020 and 1520, the iPhone 5S, and the Galaxy S5—so I'll probably bring each on vacation this summer. The question is which I'll use for my daily use, and for our family's vacation shots.
Given how successful the 1020 was last year, it's still in the pole position. But a year is a long time. And over these many months, I've noticed some things that are a bit troubling too.
December 2013: Toro sushi
Lumia 1020: The good, the bad and the ugly
I do love my Lumia 1020. And while I've probably reviewed over a dozen phones since this amazing device arrived at my home, I've always gone back to using the 1020 as my daily driver. Before getting into the negatives of doing so, however, I'd like to reflect for a moment on how amazing that really is. As you might imagine, I have my choice of PCs, tablets, smart phones and other devices. I can use whatever I want. As such, I often move along to newer and newer devices at a fairly fast clip. And no device type is improving as quickly as are smart phones.
The 1020's survivability can be tied to a few factors.
January 2014: Retracing my steps in the snow
It's Windows Phone-based, of course, my favorite smart phone platform, and the release of Windows Phone 8.1 (read my review) has given the 1020 a new lease on life, with a denser Start screen layout that I really appreciate. (On a related note, I cannot tell you how much I miss the dedicated camera button when I use phones like the iPhone 5S or Galaxy S5; it's like going back in time.)
That no phone has surpassed the photo-taking capabilities of the 1020 is a big factor for me, since I really use and enjoy this functionality. The iPhone 5S and Galaxy S5, as noted, have great cameras. But they're not comparable to the 1020's overall. Not even close. (There are always exceptions, of course. See below.)
February 2014: Blue Hills Brewery, Canton MA
As a Lumia, the 1020 is durable to the point of being ludicrous. After dropping the device repeatedly on the cobblestoned streets of Europe last year, the device's ability to withstand anything became a running joke with my family, and when it seemed to crack a huge tile after one such drop, the legend was born. My kids have probably destroyed 5 non-Lumia screens between them since I got this phone. But the Lumia 1020 just continues on, unfazed by bumps and drops that would make an iPhone an unidentifiable pile of metal and glass shards. It's truly impressive, and aside from the Camera Grip I use on big trips only, I've never used a case or protective cover.
But it's not all good.
Over the past year, it seems that the performance has gotten worse. Some aspects of the device have always been slow—picture-taking performance, in particular, is glacial—but it's not clear if the slowness I perceive is the device really slowing down or that newer devices are just faster.
March 2014: Outdoor heater
Some of it is hardware-based. The Lumia 1020 was designed when Nokia was still separate from Microsoft and the former firm didn't have any way to add dedicated image processing hardware to the device because Windows Phone didn't (may still not) support that. So there was always a 2-3 second lag between shots. But this week in Quebec City—where I'm doing a sort of dry run for Europe and testing the 1020 against other devices—the performance has been bad. Just launching the camera app (which in this case means the Nokia Camera app) takes a painful couple of seconds, which is tough when you really want to take a picture. The Galaxy S5, by comparison, takes pictures so quickly you almost don't trust it happened. It really is night and day.
But here's the thing: Tied to my amazement that I've used this one smart phone for a full year is another little bit of unprecedented news: I've also not ever reset the 1020. It literally has every personal photo I've ever taken (all 4000+ of them) sitting in its internal memory, and I've added and removed apps both beta and released, installed multiple Windows Phone software updates, and more. I wipe out my PCs like it's a monthly holiday, but I've never done so with the 1020. I'm curious if doing so will help performance, if only a little bit.
April 2014: Boston, MA
While photography is clearly a major advantage, one curious issue with the 1020 is that it doesn't perform well, generally, in low light situations. I've tried every manual setting imaginable, and it's lousy. I think this is because the device's optics system is trying (maybe too hard) to overcome for the lack of light, but I'm surprised I've never been able to work around that. Walking around Quebec City last night, I was able to take several gorgeous shots with the S5, and the Lumia 1020 was just at a loss.
So I'll reset the 1020 and see what happens. I've already backed up all the photos, though of course I had acquired the higher-res versions over time as I took them. As is the case on the phone, it's fascinating to see a full year laid out like that in over 4,000 sequential shots.
May 2014: Dance recital
With Europe less than four weeks away, I'm also going to proactively address the many issues that come with bringing technology to other countries, accessing the Internet, and so on. There's a lot going on there, and of course things change and improve all the time. But we've had a miserable experience this week in Quebec with connectivity—witness my absence over the past few days—and I obviously can't afford for such a thing to happen on a much longer trip. This year, I'll be prepared.
June 2014: First tiger lillly of the season
Is now the time to buy?
If you are interested in getting a Lumia 1020, it looks like the device is available for as little as $413 on Amazon in an unlocked GSM version, which is the one I'd recommend. (The yellow version is about $424.) But if you don't mind being locked to AT&T Wireless, as I am, you can get an otherwise unlocked Lumia 1020 now for just $395. That is actually quite a good deal for this phone, I think.
July 2014: En route to Quebec City, in Montreal
So good, I'm kind of considering grabbing a second one. I think it will be several months before we see a true 1020 replacement, something that hopefully combines this device's amazing PureView camera with better and better performing internal hardware. For now, the 1020—despite some admittedly troubling issues—is still the king of the hill in my book. What a year.