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Nokia Lumia 1020 review

MobileReviews
8/10
by Jim Fisher, Sascha Segan, 26 Jul 2013Reviews
Nokia Lumia 1020 review

The Nokia Lumia 1020 is the best camera phone on Earth. That's a given. The question here is whether that makes it a best buy – and the answer, we're afraid to say, is not quite. While the Lumia 1020 is an easy to use smartphone that takes gorgeous images, a relatively slow shot-to-shot time and the generally maverick state of Windows Phone means that this handset falls short of being an obvious choice.

Design

The Lumia 1020 feels like a massive slab of a phone, much in the spirit of the Lumia 920. It measures 70 x 10 x 130mm (WxDxH), and weighs 158 grams. The 1020 is an unusually wide phone, and the camera lens bump on the back tends to make it float over a table rather than sit directly on it, making the handset appear even thicker than it is. If you push down on the phone while it's sitting on a table, it wobbles a little like a see-saw. The phone's width made it difficult for me to use it entirely one-handed, but I have small hands.

The 1020 is clad in the now-traditional Nokia matt polycarbonate, coming in black, white, or yellow. The 4.5in, 1,280 x 768-pixel Gorilla Glass 3 AMOLED screen has crazily oversaturated colours, and I saw a little visual colour bleed when scrolling quickly back and forth. The touchscreen can be used with gloves.

The 1020 is a good voice phone. It has a sharp, slightly harsh, but loud enough earpiece and a very loud if tinny speakerphone. Noise cancellation was adequate if not total, reducing construction and traffic noise to a background hiss. Transmissions through the speakerphone had a tendency to sound a bit distant, but nothing too awful. The 1020 doesn't measure up to the Galaxy S4 in terms of voice quality, but it'll certainly do.

Like all Windows Phones, the 1020's voice dialling is fine, as long as you stick to dialling; I haven't had much luck with voice commands or dictation. The 1020 had no problem connecting to Jawbone or Plantronics Bluetooth headsets.

We're still testing the sealed-in 2,000mAh battery and we'll get back to you later on that. It's the same size as the US Lumia 928's battery, though, which produced 9 hours and 30 minutes of talk time, and with the same processor, OS, and screen size on the Lumia 1020, we'd expect the results to be similar.

The Lumia 1020 supports 4G LTE, and will hopefully be stocked by EE – although nothing is confirmed yet – plus it also supports HSPA+ too. The phone packs 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi on the 2.4 and 5GHz bands, NFC, and GPS, although wireless charging requires a separate cover.

Performance and OS

The Lumia 1020 runs Windows Phone 8 with Nokia's "Amber" updates (and plenty of other extra Nokia software) and the same 1.5GHz Qualcomm S4 processor that you see in the Lumia 925, and for that matter a bunch of other Windows Phones as well. The phone benchmarked very similarly to those other devices. The UI is smooth and fluid, but the Internet Explorer browser doesn't render pages as quickly as the latest version of Chrome on Android superphones, according to the Browsermark browser benchmark.

Windows Phone's problem, as always, is not that it doesn't have apps, but that the apps are often different (and sometimes not as good) as the ones you find on iOS and Android. Most notably when it comes to photographers there's no Instagram, although there's a bunch of third-party clients: Instance, Wpgram, and Metrogram. Vine and Hipstamatic are coming sometime in the vague future. Games are often just different; for example my daughter loves Max and the Magic Marker, a WP exclusive, but I can't play most of the Square Enix or Kemco RPGs I like on other platforms. And one major category, downloadable video stores, is just plain missing.

Nokia's major contributions are a slew of location-based and photography apps. The camera apps get a little overwhelming: There's not only Nokia Pro Camera, but Nokia Smart Camera, Cinemagraph, Panorama, PhotoBeamer, and Blink, each of which add special modes to the camera. From Nokia's mapping department we have HERE City Lens, HERE Drive+, HERE Maps, and HERE Transit. The driving and transit directions are excellent, but HERE Maps and City Lens suffer badly from an out-of-date business database which turned up too many closed restaurants in my area; also, the search functions aren't nearly as flexible as Google's.

The phone has 29GB of available memory and no memory card slot. Windows Phone uses a PC connector app to reformat music and video for the phone – it can handle most unprotected video formats, as well as music formats other than AIFF and WAV. Unsurprisingly, music and video sound good through wired or Bluetooth headphones, and Nokia offers a five-band equaliser if you like to tweak your sound. An FM radio works with wired headphones.

The camera

The first super-megapixel smartphone to hit the market was last year's Nokia PureView 808. We lauded it for its image quality, while at the same time struggling with its Symbian operating system. The Nokia 1020 doesn't have quite the same image sensor as the 808, and the camera app is vastly different, but the idea is the same. By capturing a huge amount of pixels the phone has lots of room to apply noise reduction, and can save photos as a full resolution (38-megapixel) JPG, or as a downsized 5-megapixel photo.

There are a couple of reasons behind this tactic. Firstly, it allows for digital zoom without significant loss in image quality. Secondly, downsizing the pixels allows the camera to fight digital noise, which can detract from image detail when shooting at the higher ISO sensitivities that are required to get a blur-free shot in lower light.

The image sensor isn't quite as large as the 1/1.2in chip found in the 808. Instead Nokia has opted for a 2/3in design, roughly the same size as found in the Fujifilm X20. That's a 12-megapixel enthusiast-oriented point-and-shoot with a comparatively massive lens, and when you consider that the sensor size and aperture at the widest angles are just about the same, it's impressive just how small the 1020's lens is.

Unlike the 808, the 1020's CMOS sensor features a back-side illuminated (BSI) design. This moves the circuitry behind the light-sensitive pixels to reduce noise. The lens covers a wide-angle 27mm (35mm equivalent) field of view when shooting in a traditional aspect ratio; it's a bit wider, 25mm, when shooting 16:9 stills or HD video.

The lossless digital zoom (a zoomed image is shown above – click to enlarge it to full size) is about 2.8x for stills and 4x for HD video – this means that 4:3 stills cover a 27-74mm range, and 1080p HD video covers 25-100mm.

Nokia has introduced a new camera app, Pro Camera, which gives you much more control over shooting a photo when compared with the basic camera app included with Windows Phone devices. Its interface is not too far off what Samsung has put into its Galaxy Camera. You can tap icons to change the white balance, ISO, focus setting, shutter speed, and exposure compensation settings. Serious shooters will notice one crucial control is missing – aperture. There's no way to change the f-stop of the 1020's lens; it's fixed at f/2.2.

You can tap an area of the frame to focus and take a picture, and there's a physical Shutter button as well. I found it to be adequate, but the 1020 proves just as challenging for me to use as other mobile phone cameras. I prefer to capture photos with straight lines when possible, and holding the phone perfectly plumb and parallel to my subject is challenging with such a slim device.

This is where the optional camera grip comes in handy. It adds a bit of depth to the handset without sacrificing the ability to slide it into a trouser pocket. I was able to hold the device more comfortably with it attached, and was better able to avoid the keystone distortion that can show up when taking a photo with the camera slightly up. The grip offers the added bonus of delivering a larger Shutter button with a two-stage release (a half-press locks focus and a full-press takes the photo), a standard tripod socket, and a microUSB port (so you don't have to remove the grip to charge or sync the phone.) What's missing from the grip is a zoom control; you'll still need to slide your finger up the screen to zoom in, and down to zoom out.

Photo image quality

The image quality the Lumia 1020 is able to muster is pretty impressive. We used Imatest to check its performance at ISO 100, and found its sharpness results to be excellent. At 5-megapixels it manages a solid 2,121 lines per picture height, which is in excess of the 1,800 lines that we require of a sharp photo. At 38-megapixels its score is 2,218 lines; the extra pixels will give you an advantage in quality if you plan on printing your photos. If you only plan to share on the web, shooting at 5-megapixels will be sufficient, and won't eat up as much space. Full resolution shots were around 13 Megabytes on average, compared to just 2 Megabytes apiece for the downsampled images.

The lens is not sharp from edge-to-edge, however. It's quite impressive in the centre and mid-parts of the frame, but as you reach the outer edges and corners things get a bit muddy. Edge sharpness hovers around 900 lines when shooting at 5-megapixels, and is weaker still at full resolution – just 700 lines. Chalk the more impressive edge performance at the lower resolution up to the success of the downsampling technology.

We performed our tests in the 4:3 aspect ratio, which puts a bit more stress on the corners of the lens. If you shoot photos at 16:9 the corners will be cropped out of the image, but edges will still appear a bit soft. When looking at photos in web resolution it’s unlikely you’ll notice this; but if you plan on using the 1020 as a more serious photographic tool the limitation will be more obvious in prints or at large screen resolutions.

This is one area where the lack of aperture control comes into play – edge and corner resolution can be improved by stopping a lens down, but since that's not possible with the 1020, you're limited to the quality the camera can deliver at f/2.2. The lens is prone to flare when shooting a backlit subject, more so than with the compact cameras I’ve used.

Imatest also checks images for noise, which makes photos appear grainy and robs them of detail. We consider a photo to be acceptable if there is less than 1.5 per cent noise, but we always take time to view images on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W, as sometimes a slightly grainier image captures more detail than one that has had excessive in-camera noise reduction applied.

The 1020 handles noise differently in 38-megapixel and 5-megapixel images. When shooting in the lower resolution, it only manages to keep noise below the 1.5 per cent threshold at its base ISO of 100; it jumps to 1.7 per cent at ISO 200 and hovers around there through ISO 800. At ISO 1600 the noise jumps to 2 per cent, and it hits 2.6 per cent at its top sensitivity of ISO 3200. Detail is crisp through ISO 800, and colours are accurate. I noticed some issues with exposure at ISO 1600 and 3200 when shooting under the bright lights in our test studio; normally you won't be using such a high ISO in bright conditions.

We snapped some low-light shots outside of our studio and found the image quality at the upper ranges of the ISO spectrum to be relatively free of colour noise, but there was a bit of luminance noise (graininess), and detail did suffer. Be aware, if you're shooting in dim conditions the camera tends to default to a slower shutter speed, rather than bump the ISO up to its maximum. Shooting some objects on my living room bookshelf using only window light, the camera defaulted to a 1/9-second shutter speed at ISO 2000. The optical stabilisation system did an impressive job of preventing blur, but that would not have been the case when shooting a moving subject.

In 38-megapixel mode the noise results are a bit different. The 1020 keeps noise below 1.5 per cent through ISO 200, and only records 1.6 per cent at ISO 400. At higher ISOs, noise is higher than the downsampled photos – 1.9 per cent at ISO 800, 2.5 per cent at 1600, and 3.1 per cent at ISO 3200. It's easier to zoom in and see what kind of pixel-level detail you're getting with the larger files. At ISO 100 the detail is very, very impressive – see the 100 per cent crop of a 38-megapixel sample image below.

However, it starts to suffer as soon as you increase the sensitivity to ISO 200. I'm happy with the results through ISO 800 – see the ISO 800 sample pic below.

However, at ISO 1600 the fine lines of the foreign banknote in our test scene start to turn to mush – see the image below.

The Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS compact camera does a noticeably better job at high ISOs. It controls noise through ISO 1600 and delivers acceptable results for web sharing at ISO 3200.

Where the 1020's camera really suffers when compared with a good compact camera is in terms of speed. It takes a full 6.1 seconds to launch Pro Camera and capture a photo. Focusing and firing a shot results in a shutter lag of about 0.7 seconds, though if you are shooting in manual focus mode or if you half-press the shutter to prefocus, the lag dips to a much more usable 0.1 second.

Shot-to-shot time varies based on the file size, but expect to wait about 3.6 seconds between 5-megapixel photos and 4.2 seconds between 38-megapixel shots. There's no dedicated burst mode or self-timer in the Pro Camera app, but holding the shutter down will cause the camera to continuously focus and fire.

Verdict

The iPhone 5 has been the camera phone choice for photographers for a while now. That isn't just because of the iPhone's lens, although it has a solid 8-megapixel shooter; it's because of the huge third-party app, service, and accessory ecosystem built around iOS devices, along with its iconic cultural status in the creative community.

The Lumia 1020 takes better pictures than the iPhone, but it doesn't take them that quickly, and it exiles you from that cultural community. That's tough. We don't want to minimise the 1020's advantages: Pictures are sharp, the "live zoom" is useful, Nokia Pro Camera and Creative Studio give you great control over your images, and this is the only camera phone we've seen recently with a truly usable flash. That shutter delay, though, is a downer: You're going to struggle with the shutter lag, especially if you like to grab candid shots of family and friends, your children, or your dog.

We're conservative – we still recommend buying a standalone digital camera for “proper” digital photography. Even an inexpensive point-and-shoot like the Canon Elph 330 HS we mentioned is going to deliver better performance at higher ISO settings, and also gives you 12-megapixel images, much snappier performance, and built-in Wi-Fi. For a truly connected camera, the upcoming Samsung Galaxy NX features a D-SLR-sized APS-C image sensor, interchangeable lenses, Android, Wi-Fi, and a microSIM slot for 4G connectivity (though granted, you’ll pay through the nose for that).

Let's also note that at $660 over in the US – which translates to £430, but of course it will cost far more than that in the UK when the price is confirmed – the Lumia 1020 is more expensive than many competing smartphones, and even a smartphone/camera combination.

That said, the Lumia 1020 is a big step forward for camera phones, but the step isn't complete. Nokia's sensor and lens advances must be paired with a CPU and image processor fast enough to make shooting effortless, and Windows Phone's creative app gaps need to be filled in. We'll recommend this impressive camera phone, to be sure, but bear our reservations in mind.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Nokia Lumia 1020

Screen Resolution

1280 x 768 pixels

NFC

Yes

Dimensions

70 x 10 x 130mm (WxDxH)

802.11x/Bands

802.11 a/b/g/n

Video Camera Resolution

1080p

Processor Speed

1.5GHz

CPU

Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 Dual-Core

GPS

Yes

Total Storage

32GB

Usable Storage

29GB

Weight

158g

Screen Type

AMOLED PureMotion HD+

Operating System

Windows Phone

Physical Keyboard

No

Camera Resolution

41-megapixel Rear

High-Speed Data

LTE, HSPA+ 21

GPU

Adreno 225

microSD Slot

No

Form Factor

Candy Bar

Screen Size

4.5in

Bluetooth Version

3.0

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