Technologizer

The Nokia Lumia 1020′s Landmark Camera Does Not a Perfect Camera-Phone Make

The image quality is impeccable; the software has some quirks.

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Harry McCracken / TIME

Since 2010, when Microsoft released its all-new Windows Phone smartphone software, all of the handsets that have run it have had one thing in common. The most notable thing about each of them has been that they’ve run Windows Phone, an underdog of an operating system that departs from Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android in multiple ways, some of which are pretty clever.

And then there’s Nokia’s Lumia 1020. Like all new Nokia smartphones, it’s a Windows Phone 8 model. But that’s a secondary fact. The most interesting thing about the 1020 is that it packs a breakthrough camera, one so good that it’s as reasonable to think of this gadget as a camera that makes calls as a phone that takes pictures.

People — myself included — got excited when Nokia announced the 808 PureView last year, a phone which offered similar camera capabilities but ran the moribund Symbian operating system. With the Lumia 1020, the technology arrives in a phone you might actually want to buy. It’s available from AT&T for $300 with a two-year contract, or $660 without any strings attached. That’s for a model with 32GB of non-upgradable storage.

Like other Nokia phones I’ve used dating back to the last millennium, the Lumia 1020 is made of sturdy, high-grade plastic, feeling more like a solid hunk than a shell stuffed with electronics. (At 5.57 oz., it’s noticeably heavier than the iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One.) It’s got a 4.5″ AMOLED screen — roomy, but not remarkably so by today’s standards.

Nokia Lumia 1020

Harry McCracken / TIME

Even the most casual glance at the 1020 will tell you that it’s an uncommonly photo-centric phone. From the back, it looks more like a slender point-and-shoot camera than a smartphone, with a circular protrusion containing the lens and flash. You certainly know the bulge is there when you cradle the phone in your fingers; prospective owners should head to an AT&T store and fondle the phone for themselves before plunking down any money. But I didn’t find it particularly off-putting — and hey, if you’re sufficiently jazzed about owning a phone with an exceptional camera, you might even see it as a lumpy badge of honor.

The bump is there for a reason: Everything about the 1020′s photographic hardware represents an upgrade over even the more-than-decent cameras sported by most major smartphones of 2013.

The 1020 has a camera capable of capturing a jaw-dropping 41 megapixels of resolution — it says so right below the lens — but the maximum resolution of photos you can shoot is only 34 megapixels.

Wait, did I just say “only 34 megapixels?” That still a ridiculously high count compared to the cameras on other current phones, which tend to max out at between 8 and 13 million pixels. It’s far more than you’ll ever need for the reason that most people think you want more pixels: for more detail, especially in printed photos.

For pictures you plan to post on the web, 34 megapixels is just plain pointless. And, at the same time, amazing. The pictures are too expansive to fit on the screen at full resolution, but they capture details that would devolve into blocky pixels in photos from other smartphones. You’ll see what I mean if you click on the image below to see it in its full 4352-by-7712 glory.

Embarcadero

Harry McCracken / TIME

(Incidentally, you can’t upload 34-megapixel photos directly from the 1020 to Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft’s SkyDrive or other online repositories. Instead, they get 5-megapixel versions, which is just fine. You copy the 34-megapixel monsters off the phone and onto your PC using a USB cable, whereupon you can do with them what you will.)

All those pixels the Lumia’s sensor can collect do deliver one big benefit: You can zoom in — or crop after the fact — without killing the resolution. The 1020′s digital zoom, which you engage by swiping up while composing a picture, is the equivalent of a 3X optical zoom on a real point-and-shoot camera. It’s the first smartphone zoom I’ve encountered that isn’t worthy only of being ignored.

And the phone’s optical excellence isn’t just about megapixels. Its imaging sensor measures .67″ diagonally, compared to .31″ for the one in the iPhone 5; bigger sensors take better pictures and shoot better video, particularly in low light. The 1020 also has a xenon flash, an upgrade over the dinky, harsh LED ones that are standard fare in smartphones.

See below for some of the photos I took with the Lumia 1020. I smooshed them down to fit on this page, but didn’t otherwise tweak them. You can click to see higher-resolution versions.

Ferry Building

Harry McCracken / TIME

Flower

Harry McCracken / TIME

Flowers

Harry McCracken / TIME

Vespa

Harry McCracken / TIME

Dish

Harry McCracken / TIME

Willie Mays Plaza

Harry McCracken / TIME

Here’s something a tad confusing: The Lumia 1020 comes with Windows Phone 8′s standard camera app, but you probably won’t want to use it. I took the above snapshots with Nokia Pro Cam, a custom app that lets you choose to save either 5-megapixel versions of your photos or both 5-megapixel and 34-megapixel ones. Pro Cam lets you focus manually and fiddle with settings like exposure compensation, white balance and ISO, like you can with a camera that doesn’t happen to double as a phone.

Another Nokia app, Smart Cam, shoots multiple copies of the same photo and then lets you perform tricks similar to the ones available with Samsung’s Galaxy S4: It will automatically choose the best shot of the bunch, for instance, or let you edit in faces from different photos so everyone in a group portrait has just the right expression. As with Samsung’s equivalent features, Nokia’s are gimmicky good fun, but I’m skeptical that many folks will use them often.

The Lumia 1020 doesn’t need any gimmicks. I took lots of nifty pictures with this phone — not nifty smartphone pictures, but nifty pictures period. There isn’t another phone on the market that’s a more serious photographic tool.

But the thing is, great camera technology alone does not guarantee a great camera experience. I didn’t have as much fun taking pictures with the 1020 as with handsets such as the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4 — or, come to think of it, as with a top-notch point-and-shoot. In certain respects, the phone’s camera features were downright frustrating.

A few of my quibbles:

  • Like other Windows Phones, this Lumia sports a feature every phone should have: a dedicated shutter button in the spot where you’d expect it to be on a point-and-shoot camera. When the phone is powered down, you can press this button to turn it on and go directly into camera mode. But it takes what feels like a loooooong time — a little over four seconds, in my experience — before you’re in Camera Pro and ready to shoot. (You know a feature is sluggish when the operating system has to display a “Loading…” message while it’s starting up.)
  • Similarly, pressing the shutter button results in an achingly long pause, with a “Saving” message and a little animated flourish. It’s impossible to fire off a bunch of photos in quick sequence.
  • The icons in Pro Cam for functions such as the flash are microscopic. When you tap one, a giant identifier pops up — but it’s on the lower left-hand corner of the screen. If you hold your phone in your left hand — as southpaws (like me) often do — your palm will obscure the label.
  • Pro Cam’s menu is needlessly counter-intuitive. Do you tap the item “review on” to turn on the review feature? Nope — it’s telling you that it’s already enabled. You tap “review on” to toggle review off.

Let’s see. I mentioned that this is a Windows Phone, didn’t I? Every time I spend time with one, I come away impressed with the basics of its novel interface — tiles and swipe-able screens, which are at least as efficient a way to navigate your information and world as anything in iOS or Android. They make Windows Phone a pleasant place to be.

Traditionally, all reviews of Windows Phones must carp about the platform’s skimpy selection of apps. As more and more major titles have become available, that downside has become a little less daunting. But holes remain, and users still suffer indignities unknown to iPhone and Android types. Microsoft and Google are squabbling over the YouTube app for Windows Phone, for instance, and using the third-party Instagram clones available for Windows Phone can be a crapshoot.

In the end, Windows Phone 8 remains a dark-horse choice in the smartphone wars, but not an irrational one. Still, I’d only recommend the Lumia 1020 to people who are genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of using Windows Phone; it would be a mistake to adopt it half-heartedly.

As for the overall bottom line on this phone, its camera makes it a landmark, but the slow, clumsy software gets in the way of picture-taking bliss. Its annoyances seem solvable to me, though. And an update to this phone that fixed them — let’s call it the Lumia 1120 — would be more usable and lovable.

18 comments
treesonthebeach
treesonthebeach

I have to say I really love my Windows Phone.  It's the best phone OS made, imo.

flyezz
flyezz

The person that wrote this ARTICLE IS A HATER. The Nokia Lumia 1020 is a great awesome phone and right now the best camera phone in the market.

AnangTaz
AnangTaz

Before you want to buy Nokia lumia 1020 , We recommend that you first know about Complete Nokia lumia 1020 Review,Explaining about the specs, test the camera, the interface is comfortable to use and application, as well as speed in trying some applications.
Just watch the video of his impressions in >>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8p8yChqp0w
 

MikeConners
MikeConners

The quirks this reviewer had were from his own experiences with the OS not the camera itself - the little quibbles and whatnot... The truth is, the 1020 is a great phone, with great battery life, and on the occasion you need to take a photo, you have the best camera phone on the market - bar none.

FredFlintsone
FredFlintsone

I just returned my Lumia 928 after 30 days of apps, battery life, update,audio and text issues(windows discussion groups are full of posts on these issues) . Its a fantastic low light photo device, no doubt.  VZ introduced its flagship 928 windows phone in mid May. By mid august "flagship" was selling for free on VZ.  I got lost twice (one for 30 miles) waiting for MapQuests "voice,turn by tun nav app that adjusts to drivers route" to do its thing. That app never did. 2 emails to Mapquest "customer service" for this issue went unanswered. Hope the 1020 works out The 928 is a very nice phone ,when it works.

rjkumr
rjkumr

if only they had it in Android

danchiriac
danchiriac

Actually maximum resolution is 38 MP, 34 MP is max in 16:9 mode.

lefthando
lefthando

Thanks for this item, it's helped a bit.

observer_1925
observer_1925

I use a Nokia Lumia 920. The Windows Phone OS is not as slow as the author had made it out to be. It is very user friendly, smooth, efficient and reliable. 

The Nokia Lumia 920 was a replacement for my 2 year old Samsung Galaxy S that would freeze when receiving incoming calls. A phone that cannot handle incoming call is no "smartphone". Neither is it a phone.  

treesonthebeach
treesonthebeach

@FredFlintsone I don't use MapQuest--I use Nokia "Here" maps, and it's great.  As for your other complaints, I can't imagine what you're talking about.  My Nokia 920 goes all day long while I am using it from work without a charge.  I sometimes put it on the charger after I get home (8-10 hours), and sometimes I don't.  It's rarely dead when I arrive home.  I am active in WIndows Phone forums, and I'm not aware of any audio, update, or text issues.  Well, other than people wanting the new Amber update, but that's not a real "issue"... that's just people wanting to get the "cool, new stuff."

CuthbertInglebert
CuthbertInglebert

@dashphunk Pity two thirds or owners are having horrendous battery problems, where the battery goes flat in 2 hours...................go look wp or nokia sites, as someone said they are full of these horror stories with no apparent fix.

brian_st
brian_st

@rjkumr I too wish they had it in Android. I need my Google integration. I hope Nokia moves to Android soon. (I don't mean they have to leave WP8, just get Android as well.) It's sad, unless they are already doing something like making an Android version, they will probably just die. WP8 just isn't giving them enough sales to make up for their alarmingly decline in the feature phone business. They may run out of cash next year. Their bonds are now sub-junk status.

Seriously, they are in very poor shape: http://computingcompendium.blogspot.com/2013/08/nokia-may-die-taking-windows-phone-8.html

Anyway, there are rumors that Sony may be doing some nice camera things in Android... may be announced September 4th.


AmmarSalman
AmmarSalman

@observer_1925 lol i've seen my friend's Galaxy S3 freezing when receiving a call, then he removed the battery, and put it back and restarted and then called back the caller...it happened twice in a row...

FredFlintsone
FredFlintsone

@treesonthebeach @FredFlintsone . Good for you.If you are active in windows mobile forums and you missed page after page of posts describing  issues I mentioned  than you weren't looking or you need glasses. I was able to get great battery life from mine provided I did not use any nav, music or game app. When I did use any of those apps I would get battery drainage usage rates of 11% in 19 minutes and was not the only one. Battery life issue is the no 1  928 issue/complaint on windows forums; check again

MikeConners
MikeConners

@brian_st @rjkumr  - Nokia will not support Android - there is no reason to. Windows Phone is establishing itself as the 3rd echo system and is slowly gaining traction. My first Windows phone 8 device is the HTC 8X, and I have to say I like it very much. It does not lock up like my previous two Android phones, and I have only had a couple of apps crash in the last few months - unlike Android apps which would crash/force quit quite frequently.

CuthbertInglebert
CuthbertInglebert

@AmmarSalman lol i reminds me of that Lumia bug where you could not end a call lol !!!!! - at lease the Galaxy battery is removable !!!!!

brian_st
brian_st

@MikeConners @brian_st @rjkumr Sorry, but if they don't do something drastic like support Android, they will die. While Nokia is indeed selling 86% of the Windows Phone 8 devices, that is still a rather small number (6 million or so last quarter). Worse, in order to convince people to buy them despite WP8 (which is not very popular), Nokia has to cut its profit margins to make the phones relatively cheap.

If you check out the article I linked to above, you will find links to sources explaining all this in detail. But one thing is clear, even if Nokia were to continue to sell the bulk of WP8 phones and even if WP8 continued to grow quickly (even doubling each year), Nokia will run out of cash before WP8 could support it. [Part of the problem is that Nokia is losing its share of the feature phone market at an alarming rate.] At this point, it looks likely that Nokia will face bankruptcy in late 2014/early 2015.