In Androidland, there are so many manufacturers pumping out so many phones that there’s something for everybody. With the iPhone, there’s just Apple, a company which likes to keep things simple — it was big news last fall when it went from one model to two.
Then there’s Windows Phone. Though multiple companies make handset that run Microsoft‘s mobile operating system, the dominant one by far is Nokia — which, barring any last-moment shocker, is about to sell its entire phone business to Microsoft. Lately, it’s been producing a profusion of Lumia models: cheap phones, upscale phones, big phones, small phones, different phones for different carriers. It’s Android-like diversity, all from one company.
Nokia’s announcing its newest model, the Lumia Icon, today. This one’s exclusive to Verizon, where it’ll go on sale on February 20 for $200 on a two-year contract, the going rate for a well-appointed smartphone. It’s a high-end-but-mainstream model — the sort you might gravitate towards if you were also considering an iPhone 5s or Samsung Galaxy S 4.
The screen is a 5-incher, which once would have been considered ginormous, but now, with the existence of the 6-inch Lumia 1520 and 1320, merely counts as nice and roomy. As with other Lumias, the display is wrapped in a classy polycarbonate shell; like an iPhone, it’s all sealed up, without a removable battery or a slot for additional storage beyond the standard 32GB. The angles are more sharply defined than with most Lumias, with a metal band around the circumference forming a real edge rather than the back tapering into a curve. As with any phone this big, it’s a bit of a handful.
If you’ve read this far, I assume you’re an open-minded sort who’s willing to at least consider spurning an iPhone or Android model in favor of Windows Phone 8, which is still very much an underdog among smartphone operating systems. Its tile-centric interface looks great on the Icon, which has a 1920-by-1080 OLED screen, a 2.2-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and 2GB of RAM. In concert, they make for a vivid, fluid, fast and fun experience.
Though the Icon doesn’t share the Lumia 1020‘s super-high-end camera, it does play up its photographic features, which Nokia promotes with the PureView brand. The 20-megapixel sensor offers pixels aplenty, but by default, the camera gives you images in a more space-efficient 5-megapixel form; the big advantage of the additional pixels is that you can zoom in by up to 3X magnification without the resulting picture being a blocky eyesore. (Serious shutterbugs can transfer 16-megapixel versions to a computer via USB cable, and even shoot in uncompressed RAW format, just like with an SLR camera.)
Here are some of the pictures I’ve snapped in the brief time I’ve had to try out the phone — click them to see them at full resolution:
And here’s a quick video:
I was pretty pleased with the photos and videos I shot, but still found the camera less than delightful. By current standards, it’s decidedly laggy for still images: You can’t just rifle off shots with virtually no lag, as you can with an iPhone 5s or 5c or any number of Android models. After you’ve snapped a picture, there’s a distracting iris-out effect — like you’d see at the end of a Looney Tune — which makes the whole process feel even more sluggish. And though there’s a dedicated physical shutter button you can press to launch the camera even if the phone is locked, it takes several seconds to wake the phone from its slumber.
Besides Windows Phone’s standard Camera and Phone apps, the Icon comes with something called Nokia Pro Cam, which you’ll want to update through the Windows Store to a newer version called Nokia Camera. It’s a solid app, with niceties such as the ability to zoom by swiping with your thumb so you can shoot with one hand, plus more advanced settings than the smartphone norm. But a bunch of other photo- and video-related features are scattered through other Nokia-only apps, including Nokia Cinemagraph, Nokia Creative Studio, Nokia Storyteller and Nokia Video Trimmer. For instance, if you want to blur backgrounds for a fake Lytro effect, you use Creative Studio; to browse photos by the location where they were shot, you head to Storyteller.
It’s a disjointed experience, especially since Windows Phone’s standard Camera and Photos apps are still around, too. At some point after Microsoft swallows up Nokia’s phone operations, I assume it’ll take a hard look at all of Nokia’s apps and weave the best features in with Windows Phone’s existing capabilities. The result will be more coherent phones…or so I’d like to think.
The clunky camera is a shame, since so many other things about the Icon are so nice. There are four — count ’em, four — microphones, which help the Icon strip out background noise when you record a video or talk on the phone. The speakers can produce louder music than the average smartphone, with fidelity that’s good enough that you might actually want to listen to it. As with most other Lumias, the Icon supports wireless charging, and the $80 Fatboy pillow is the coolest way I’ve seen to do it: You just plop the phone down for a rest at night.
The Nokia Icon is the best Windows Phone for Verizon, no doubt. Assuming you’re willing to consider a Microsoft-powered handset, it deserves your attention. (The biggest downside is still that the Windows Store’s offerings fall so short of what’s available for iOS and Android, though with the recent arrival of holdouts such as Instagram, that’s become less of a dealbreaker.) But whether it carries the Nokia logo or the Microsoft one, I hope that there’s a future phone with all of the Icon’s virtues — and a much snappier camera.