Nokia Lumia 1020: hands-on preview

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Nokia's Lumia 1020 still feels more like a phone than a camera, and that's a victory for Nokia. This 41-megapixel monster Windows camera phone was launched last week, and we were lucky enough to get some hands-on time with the beast – and snap a few test photos.

Okay, let's get the elephant on the back of the phone out of the way: yes, the Lumia 1020 has a camera bump. Overall, the 1020 feels very similar in the hand to Nokia's Lumia 900 and Lumia 920; it's a large but not phablet-sized phone made of smooth, brightly coloured polycarbonate that rolls around the edges to cradle a 4.5in, 1,280 x 768 screen. As you use it, the bottom half of the phone gets a bit warm, but not unpleasantly so; the polycarbonate seems to distribute the heat pretty evenly.

The 41-megapixel ubercamera projects out very slightly as a black disc on the back about an inch in diameter. This isn't the Samsung Galaxy Zoom; the bump won't prevent it from sliding into your pocket, and it won't snag on things. It does, however, prevent the phone from lying flat on a table; when you set it down, it's at a slight downward tilt, and if you press on the top of the phone, it'll rock.

The phone's dual-core – a 1.5GHz Qualcomm MSM8960 processor ploughed through apps well, with one disappointing exception: I actually made the camera app crash so hard I needed to reboot the phone. Pre-release firmware? But of course.

In terms of the on-board software from Nokia, there’s Cinemagraph, Creative Studio, Here City Lens, Here Drive+, Here Maps, Here Transit, Nokia Care, Nokia Music, Nokia Pro Cam, Nokia Smart Cam, Panorama, and PhotoBeamer.

Yes, that means there are at least three camera apps on the 1020: the standard Windows Phone one, Nokia Smart Cam, and Nokia Pro Cam. Pressing the camera button defaults to Pro Cam, which specialises in a terrific array of easy manual settings. Drag the shutter icon on the right side of the screen and you can tweak exposure, shutter speed, ISO, manual focus and white balance. It's the easiest and best set of manual settings I've seen anywhere other than on the Samsung Galaxy Camera.

What makes this particularly compelling – aside from how easy it is to, say, lock shutter speed to prevent blur – is that you can watch the preview image change as you alter the settings. Change the focus point and you can watch the focus point actually change; move the exposure indicator and you can see your image get darker. That makes it really easy to compose nice looking photos.

As I took some photos, I was a little bit worried about the shutter lag and time to save shots, though. Not worried enough to condemn the phone, but enough to want to make sure our camera expert Jim Fisher gets hold of it. The 1020 took a noticeable amount of time to lock focus, and saving a duo of a 7-10MB, 41-megapixel images, and a 1-2MB, 5-megapixel image appeared to take at least a second.

Also, you may have to keep an eye on your storage with all those photos, because the 1020 comes in one model with 32GB of built-in memory and no microSD card slot. Nokia's CMO Chris Weber reminded me that this will be enough storage space for 1,700 photos, but obviously he isn't adding a bunch of Xbox games and his whole music library to that mix.

Zooming with the camera is smooth and lossless – just pinch and drag for up to 5x digital zoom. I experimented with the zoom and found that indoors, you need to keep an eye on your shutter speed to prevent things from looking blurry. (That's true with any camera, of course). All the same, a 5x zoomed image looked just as good as a 5-megapixel camera phone does without any zooming, which is pretty amazing.

Nokia also showed off the 1020’s low-light capabilities by shooting a dancer in the dark, with the Xenon flash, pitted against an iPhone 5, Lumia 928, and Samsung Galaxy S4. The 1020 captured fast motion with the flash much better than any of the other phones, all of which struggled with blur. You can see the results below (aside from the iPhone 5’s effort) – the Lumia 1020’s photo is on top, with the Lumia 928 underneath, and the Galaxy S4 on the bottom.

That said, my Samsung Galaxy Camera captured the sharpest image of all, but as Nokia pointed out, that's kind of cheating. You’ll have to wait until the autumn to try out the Lumia 1020’s snapping capabilities yourself, with the latest rumours citing September as the UK release date.