Nokia Lumia 1020 review

80/100

WhistleOut
18 October 2013

It’s difficult to tell if Nokia’s latest offering should be considered a flagship, or a niche device. Our expectations were that it would be the latter, based on its bulky size and seemingly narrow target audience. We were pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn’t entirely true.

Design

The Lumia 1020 is definitely bulky, there’s no way around that. It’s a bigger, heavier Lumia 920 without the built-in wireless charging. Surprisingly though, in the pocket it always fit quite nicely and in the hand it was easy to hold, despite the camera lens sticking out the back.

Like on the Lumia 920, the bezels around the edge of the screen are pretty thick. We would have preferred to see Nokia finally start to tackle this issue, but it looks like we’ll be waiting a while longer.

The 3.5mm headphone jack is located right in the middle of the top edge. This is preferable to Nokia’s habit of smooshing it right up against the left-side corner, which makes a phone awkward to hold in landscape when headphones are plugged in.

User Experience

The 1020’s 4.5-inch 768x1280 AMOLED display is colourful, crisp and offers wide viewing angles. A year ago it’d be a fantastic option, but this far in to 2013 it’s good but not great. Nokia’s ClearBlack technology still offers unrivalled inky blacks, but the Finnish company can’t keep riding on this one accomplishment forever.

For general use, the Lumia 1020 was exactly what we got from the Lumia 925 and the Lumia 920 before that. If WP8 is your OS, then there’s definitely nothing wrong with the 1020 from a functionality perspective. However, considering that the little has changed in the 11 months since the 920’s release, it’s difficult to praise.

The problem with the current WP8 build is that it’s riddled with tiny inconveniences that could be fixed by small patches. These add up to give the feeling that you’re somehow working with an incomplete phone. Facebook chat stickers don’t display, the text cursor can only be placed before or after a word, many of the apps are more about beauty than utility (Facebook, Xbox Music, Spotify), a decent audio book reader is difficult to find, etc.

One of the more common annoyances is that there’s only one set of volume controls. If you’re wearing headphones and crank the music up, when you then unplug those earphones you’re left with a phone on high volume. Turn the volume down to zero to silence potential noises from games and you’ll end up missing alerts and even alarms. Separate volume settings for earphones, notifications and alarms have been standard in the mobile market now for years. There’s no reason Microsoft couldn’t make this fix.

Camera

Nokia has put a lot of stock in the 41MP camera of the Lumia 1020 and it’s paid off. The level of detail in nature shots is often remarkable and we wouldn’t hold it against anyone to confuse some of the portraits with a dedicated camera.

The low-light shots are also quite impressive. A picture that would be total blackness on some other phones comes out like you’ve shone a halogen bulb on the target. You can even use the camera to see in the dark. Dark surroundings are more detailed on the screen than from your own eyes.

Using the flash was also a delight. Instead of the bright white/blueish tint that often accompanies these shots, the flash lent a gentle yellow hue to most photos. This created a much more natural-looking image.

Obviously you can’t go sending or uploading a 41MP pic every time you want to share a photo. That’s why Nokia created the two-image system where both a 34MP and 5MP photo is saved. The photo that is shared via message or upload is the 5MP image.

The interesting part is that the smaller 1.5MB/5MP image is almost always of noticeably higher quality and sharpness than the 8.5MB/34MP one. In some of the lower-light shots the smaller images are a little over-sharpened, leading to some mottling, but in general we found the whole thing quite mysterious. We think this may be because the 34MP photo is meant to act as a base from which other photos, such as zoomed-in portions, can be generated and therefore hasn’t been treated to a sharpening process.

This isn’t just a point and click camera, either. There’s a detailed and well laid-out settings menu for the more photographically-educated user. Sliding the on-screen camera button towards the centre of the screen reveals a host of sliders. You can adjust for lighting conditions, manual focus, ISO, shutter speed, and exposure. The great part is that this is all super-easy to do quickly and one-handed, adding rarely-seen versatility to this smartphone camera.

Not all gravy

Unfortunately, there are still a few usage issues. The Lumia 1020 suffers the classic Nokia camera problem of motion blur. Sometimes pictures come out fine, other times the tiniest movement can ruin them. It also takes quite a long time to focus. Furthermore, the autofocus is useless. You’ll have to use the half-press feature of the shutter button to get any real kind of detail and right up close, such as if you were photographing a business card, you'll need to adjust the manual focus slider.

This extra effort, plus the time it takes to launch the app, led to us missing some photo ops that we feel we could easily have made with an HTC One or iPhone 5S.

Performance and Battery Life

In terms of speed and power, the Lumia 1020 is once again reminiscent of its two predecessors. It opens apps quickly but not impressively so, has a tendency to lag but not so much that it's annoying and it doesn't overheat.

Battery life is quite impressive, considering the powerful camera. We we positively snap-happy with it almost every day and yet it always lasted until lights-out at night. Even after playing some pretty graphically-intense 3D games it still just kept chugging along.

Speaking of games, we didn't find any that seemed to tax the 1020 to the point of lagging. We tried a fair few and it took them all in its stride.

Using the flash too much did prove a bit taxing and you should be careful if you're on under 50% if you're going to be taking a lot of night shots. This is true for just about every camera with a flash out there, so we didn't attribute any negative marks for it.

Verdict

The real question we really wanted to answer for ourselves when we got this device was “is the bulky size worth it?” The answer is “absolutely, yes”. The camera more than earns the girth that it adds to the Lumia 1020. Pictures are fantastic and I found myself photographing things that I would never even attempt with another phone.

We know we’ve harped on about this phone’s shortcomings and that’s not without reason. The WP8 operating system desperately needs an update and Nokia really needs to work on autofocus plus the speed at which its camera aps open. Despite these issues, we think the 1020 is a success. It’s a relatively unused form-factor that we'd be happy to see more of thanks to Nokia’s efforts here. We just hope that the GDR3 and Windows Phone 8.1 updates do enough to get the general usage experience on par with the fantastic camera.


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