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Nokia Lumia 920 and 820: Further impressions

Yesterday in New York, Nokia introduced the Lumia 920 and the slightly lower-end Lumia 820, the company's first two phones running Microsoft's brand-new Windows Phone 8 OS. These two handsets are widely regarded as Microsoft's best chance to launch Windows Phone 8 in a convincing manner.

Remember that Microsoft abandoned Windows Phone 7.5 earlier this year – even as devices such as the flagship Nokia Lumia 900 remained on sale – in an apparent recognition that it was going to have to step up its game the next time around. Windows Phone 8 introduces a host of improvements, such as a shared kernel with the Windows 8 desktop OS, resizable live tiles on the home screen, and support for multi-core processors and 1080p video recording, among other features.

We’ve been able to spend a little more time with several Lumia 920s and 820s now, and thought we’d share our further impressions of these smartphones. However, much as with the Microsoft Surface tablet event a few months ago, access to the devices was pretty restricted. In addition to the lack of any pricing or release date details, we also weren't allowed to see any screens past what Nokia and Microsoft wanted to show us.

That makes at least some sense, since there's likely going to be a bigger Microsoft event at the end of October introducing both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 in much more detail as they become available to the general public. Still, it's pretty disappointing, as it's tough to lust after a slab cell phone, much less "switch to Lumia," as Nokia telegraphed to us loudly yesterday, without knowing a lot of these things up front.

Lumia display and camera

All that aside, the Lumia 920 looks and feels great. The yellow model I held was entirely glossy polycarbonate with the exception of the glass screen, though the yellow shouldn't show any fingerprints. A slate grey model I checked out later had a matte finish, so it looks like there's more to it than just the colour shade. The Lumia 820, meanwhile, is ever so slightly smaller, and looked just as sharp and vibrant in bright red. Both devices feel solid and well crafted. No one will confuse these things with an iPhone.

The Lumia 920's 4.5in IPS WXGA screen looked beautiful and extremely colourful, but not hugely bright; hopefully, that was down to the weird lighting in the demo room I was in. Scrolling definitely seemed smooth – Nokia says its PureMotion HD+ screen has its own RAM, and buffers pixels to display accordingly, in an effort to eliminate any last traces of motion blur even when scrolling through web page text. But we'll need to do back-to-back comparisons with a Samsung Galaxy S III and an iPhone 4S to really see what Nokia is talking about here.

Speaking of which, Nokia spent a good deal of time at yesterday’s launch talking up the PureView camera, which does look to be a killer feature for the Lumia 920. It's 8.7-megapixels, but that doesn't matter at all. Instead, we were treated to a long series of demos showing off features like its all-new object image stabilisation, which lets the Lumia 920 keep its shutter open ever so slightly longer without adding excess blur to the photo. The entire lens assembly floats on a series of tiny springs inside the device. That also benefits HD video recording, which Nokia compared to those expensive rigs you'll find on a movie set that allow for stable movement tracking.

Combine all this snazzy hardware with some clever software, and you get results like the following shots which Nokia has made available, complete with comparisons to a “leading” rival’s smartphone snaps:

Here's another one:

These are impressive looking indeed, with the difference in light levels clear to see.

GPS, AR, and wireless charging

On the GPS front, Nokia has had plenty of experience with location-based services, and appears to be delivering a cohesive, full GPS navigation experience that rivals and in some ways surpasses what Google offers, even in Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. The demo Lumia 920 popped up public transit schedules for New York right down to individual city bus arrival times, as well as step-by-step directions that one-upped anything I've seen on Google Maps or on a portable navigation device. But again, I wasn't allowed to actually touch it and run my own searches.

The best part here, though, may be City Lens, the Lumia 920's Augmented Reality (AR) feature. Point the phone at a city street outside, and it will overlay the names of restaurants, cafes, and shops on the building surfaces themselves. You can tap on each one and it will display additional information. Nokia Maps also gets the same feature.

Companion accessories were another impressive aspect of the Lumia 920 and 820 launch. Thanks to the new wireless charging feature, the Lumia 920 will arrive with a cadre of Nokia and third-party gadgets. The most notable is the JBL Power Up, a wireless speaker dock roughly 12in long, which pairs and unpairs instantly with any Lumia 920 or 820 via NFC and then transmits music wirelessly over Bluetooth.

You can also charge either phone just by sitting it on top of the box. This brings back the original conveniences of an iPod dock – charging and instant music – while preserving wireless listening from your main cell phone, and one that doesn't have to be an Apple product. It's a big selling point for the Lumia and Windows Phone 8.

Sound quality-wise, in the extremely noisy demo room, I can say Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" sounded clear and full through the JBL Power Up, with decent bass punch given the unit's small size. (Hey, it was the Microsoft rep's choice, not mine). And I like the idea of going to a friend's house and saying, hey, let's listen to this phone instead of that one, and being able to pair it with a small wave over the top of the dock.

Overall, the Lumia 920 and 820 both look to be really sharp pieces of hardware. It's also great to see that Windows Phone 8 is real and running, even if we couldn't really get to see it properly yet. But without pricing and release dates, it's tough to make any kind of rounded judgment on these devices. The Android market is pretty mature now, but Nokia and Microsoft are probably waiting to see what happens with the iPhone 5 launch before making the final calls on those issues. Stay tuned for more.