Review: Nokia Lumia 1020

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The Nokia Lumia 1020 features the massive 41 Megapixel Pureview camera, the largest of any smartphone and larger than most DSLRs. While that camera is the lead item on the spec sheet, we take a look at how the phone works as a package. The 1020 has suffered some criticism for being a camera forced into the phone form factor, but I disagree, the camera bump is a small sacrifice for what you get.

My main comparison for this review is the Lumia 920 and have considered upgrading multiple times. Having the opportunity to spend the last few weeks with the 1020 means I now know if its worth the upgrade, but you’ll have to read on for that.

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Hardware

Camera
That 41 megapixel camera sensor is complemented by carl zeiss optics, OIS, a physical lens cover and Xenon Flash. These components, paired with Nokia Camera software add up to a seriously impressive package, but it’s not all good news. You may think that a camera of this quality takes perfect photos every time, that’s really not the case as a great photo still requires close attention.

Nokia sell the 1020 as ‘Zoom reinvented’ as the detail afforded by the massive sensor allows you to zoom in post-production, rather than having to be concerned with physically getting close to the subject matter. This actually works pretty well most of the time. If you push past about half way, things do start to get grainy or blurry pretty quickly, but for some level of zoom, it works.

I have found myself in multiple situations where I couldn’t get physically closer to the action and without a big zoom lens. To have the option to still get the shot from something that fits in your pocket, allows you start to understand this phone’s power.

Something you need to realise with image quality is that moving to a camera with higher quality sooner, will mean more of you photo collection is in a higher resolution. When I got my first digital camera, it was 4Mp.. those photos are rubbish by today’s standards. So moving to a better camera (read better phone) sooner will serve you well when reviewing photos in the years to come.

In the time I’ve had the 1020, I had two quick jobs come up where a DSLR or even a point and shoot where not available in the timeframe required. We’ve heard the saying the best camera is the one you have on you and this was absolutely the case here. These two jobs requires images of high enough quality for print on flyers. I took the photos, transferred the high-res versions of 3 photos and they are now being used on flyers. This would have turned out very differently had I not been carrying the 1020.

It’s not all positive when it comes to the camera though, something you definitely need to be aware of is the inability to take macro shots. If you want to take a photo closer than about 10cm, then you’re out of luck, the camera can’t focus that close. While Nokia will argue you can zoom later, this doesn’t give you the same result with strong DOF effects.

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Display
The 4.5′ display is relatively small by today’s standard, but actually feels like a great size with most operations possible with one hand. The screen is large enough to display a decent slab of information, even with an app bar at the bottom taking up some valuable pixels.

What is important to mention at this point is that since the 1020’s release, Nokia announced the 1520, the first 1920×1080 resolution Windows Phone. This allows for up to 6 app tiles horizontally. It’d be really great to see that in a device smaller than 6” so you get a decent sized device with less vertical scrolling.

That said the clear black, 720 display looks great and certainly shows off those high resolution photos really well. One of the things Nokia gets very right is the outdoors mode. WP8 enables this, but the light sensor included in the 1020 works great to make sure you can read form the screen regardless of the sunlight around. Sure this chews more battery when it kicks in, but when in the sun, I found it’s often the quick glance and go kind of operation rather than extended usage.

Weight
I never had an issue with the weight of the Lumia 920, but when I first picked up the 1020 it felt like there wasn’t a battery inside. It’s a significant difference, but absolutely not a reason to upgrade. The weight has been a completely overplayed issue, given the phone spends most of its time in your pocket or on a table, your hand simply doesn’t get tired holding it.

Battery life
The battery life of the two devices is very comparable, with most full charges easily getting me through a days use. There is one thing that’s sure to eat your battery fast and that’s photo backups to SkyDrive. Turn this off and you’ll get through a full day of serious use.

Wireless charging
Sure the 1020 introduced a bigger camera, but the weight is less, so what got cut? The answer is wireless charging. Qi wireless charging shouldn’t weigh a significant amount, but apparently it does. This is a big omission and a tradeoff that wasn’t worth it. Nokia cater to the wireless charging fans by adding an optional wireless charging shell for around $40.

It feels like creating a gorgeous Ferrari, then putting a car bra on it. It’s not just the fact I had invested in wireless accessories for the 920 that are unusable with the 1020, but that more and more Android phones are now supporting Qi as well. This is a standard that’s gaining momentum, so to take a step backwards is a disappointment for the 1020.

Accessories
Those of you who currently own a Lumia 920 should know that accessories like a car mount, will likely have to replace them as the camera bump means the edge clips won’t fit. By now you’re probably starting to get the picture that 920 owners may want to look elsewhere as the upgrade equation isn’t a rewarding or cheap one. The 1020 thankfully does retain the NFC chip, so connecting to speakers or transferring data between devices is possible.

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Software

In many ways, Nokia is to Windows Phone 8, what Samsung is to Android. Technically there may be other device manufacturers, but they don’t really matter. Nokia may have been purchased by Microsoft, but the deal is yet to be made official. The real reason is their software, Nokia’s apps, particularly around photography are some of the best in the game.

It’s clear that Nokia are committed to the development of the apps, with multiple updates coming in the past few weeks to further improve their offering. There’s now more than 1 screen’s worth of Nokia apps, Nokia Camera (previously Nokia Pro Cam) is the stand out leader. I’d suggest you set this as the default app as you won’t be able to leverage the 41Mp image if you use just the WP8 camera.

What happens when you hit the shutter is that the 1020 takes both a 41Mp and 5Mp image. The later is typically used by 3rd party apps along with shares to social networks. You’ll need to transfer the high-res version of the photo to your computer to access and share it at full res. In the future the Nokia Black update will add support to take photos in Raw DNG files for even more editing in post.

Recently Nokia released their software based Nokia Refocus app which emulates what Lytro cameras offer. That means multiple photos are taken each with a different focus point. When this is published and shared, friends can tap different areas of the photo and focus after the photo is captured. It’s a neat trick, but does take longer to upload given there’s multiple files being sent to Nokia’s servers.

Gallery

To compare the camera, I took the same photos with a Lumia 1020, Lumia 920 and iPhone 5. The photos are designed to show how each phone compares across different conditions. The results are somewhat surprising, with the 1020 not winning across the board, but it does make me look at the 920 with disappointment. What was the best camera (particularly in low-light) a year ago, has been surpassed by a decent margin.

One of my favourite shots taken with the Lumia 1020 was a spontaneous one. During a trip to Melbourne, a Ferrari a Subaru drove past and by the time I snapped they were some distance away. I snapped the shutter expecting the result to be pretty average given the distance and a fixed lens. Actually the post-photo zoom resulted in a perfectly acceptable photo, especially as its destination (like most) was just Facebook.

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Indoors with difficult light

Nokia Lumia 1020

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Nokia Lumia 920

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Apple iPhone 5

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Indoors, close up, colours

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Nokia Lumia 920

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Apple iPhone 5

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Outdoors, depth of field

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Nokia Lumia 920

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Apple iPhone 5 (ignore left of photo)

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Outdoors, full sunlight, landscape

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Nokia Lumia 920

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Apple iPhone 5

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Night shot, low light

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Nokia Lumia 920

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Outdoors, Sign colour with rainbow refraction

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Nokia Lumia 920

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Apple iPhone 5

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Zoomed image

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Zoom Comparison

Apple iPhone 5

Zoom Comparison

Video

One of the latest features in cameras is optical image stablisation and when it comes to video, it’s easy to see why it’s important. Below is a video comparison of the Lumia 1020 vs the iPhone 5, the difference is severe.

Price and Availability

When it comes to price and options, first I want to touch on the colours available. Nokia says they make all colours available to all retailers, so I find it strange that Telstra opted to take just the black model, while other like Harvey Norman offer Yellow, White and Black. As with most high end smartphones sold in Australia, you can get the 1020 free on a 2 year plan.

To buy the phone outright, you really need to hunt around to get the best price. At AllPhones you’ll pay $749, at Kogan you’ll pay $639 but that’s a grey import. If you have to get one urgently, at Harvey Norman you’ll pay $833, so like I said, choose wisely.

If you buy a new Lumia 1020 or 925 before the 15th Feb 2013, you’ll get a free $20 app voucher. For more details on the offer, head to http://www.nokia.com/au-en/apps20/

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Overall

Now for the ultimate question, should you buy it, or upgrade to the Lumia 1020. During my time with the 1020, I’ve gone back and forward a lot on this. In many ways it feels like the camera isn’t enough to ignore the other shortcomings like lack of wireless charging and macro photography. After doing the comparison shots, I was certain I was going to upgrade considering the significant jump in not only colour accuracy and sharpness of photos, but the extra functionality afforded by the post-zoom quality.

The 1020 really is an impressive piece of hardware and could certainly do with some improvements like an increase in speed to launch the camera app and fire repeat photos.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the 1020 isn’t the hardware itself, it’s the availability. Australia’s largest mobile carrier Telstra received the device more than 4 months after it’s release in the US. Given the regularity in which phones are released these days, this is a significant chunk of time consider you’ll likely be on a 2 year contract. Even Nokia has moved on to some degree with the 1520, although that won’t suit a lot of people, it can’t be that long until we see the 1120 with a 1080p screen and Qi included.

Ultimately it’s a camera upgrade for 920 owners, given the camera was one of the main selling points of the 920, that may be enough for you. The camera is amazing and Nokia’s investment in software gives you confidence it’ll only get better with time.

For those in the market for a new phone, let’s say you’re contract recently expired, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better way to spend your cash. The Windows Phone interface is great and app support is now vastly improved, the Nokia Lumia 1020 is a great device that should be on your short list.

  • Simon Yeo

    Very well written review, great job!