I've spent the last 12 days using the Nokia Lumia 1020 as my primary phone. Are the build quality and camera good enough to make me give up my iPhone 5 and move to Windows Phone?
" />

An iOS user takes the Nokia Lumia 1020 and Windows Phone for a spin

Lumia-1020-Infographic2

Ever since the release of the iPhone 4, Apple has been at the forefront when it comes to smartphone cameras. Each of the last three years, Samsung and HTC have updated their flagship hardware in the middle of Apple’s release cycle, but then Apple would just top them again when the next iPhone model hit the street. But this year may prove to be different. A few months ago, HTC released the One, with its new Ultrapixel camera technology. Instead of following suit in the race to higher megapixel counts, they scaled back to 4 larger megapixels. Combined with optical image stabilization, it has vastly superior performance in low light. And, of course, Samsung has come out with their yearly installment of new camera bloatware, ahem, I mean software.

In the past, I would have expected Apple to still find a way to come out as the top camera. The HTC low light performance is a tough one, but surely they will bring their A game with a little extra pressure on them this year. But in case you haven’t heard, the smartphone photography landscape changed again last week. Nokia released the Lumia 1020, the company’s first Windows Phone with a 41 megapixel true PureView camera.

lumia-1020-back

After spending the last week and a half using one (you can see the full review at our sister site, WinSource), I can assure you that this round, and more than likely the next, goes to the underdog. When it comes to photography, no other current smartphone can touch the Lumia 1020, and it’s not even close.

lumia-1020-leaves-high-res

High Resolution 35 megapixel image taken with the Lumia 1020. Click the image to see the full-sized high resolution version of the photo.

lumia-1020-leaves-reframed

A reframed version of the same image. Notice the clarity, despite the 6X zoom.

 

Briefly, what makes Nokia’s PureView camera tech special is the combination of different elements that they are bringing together. First, they are using the largest imaging sensor available in a smartphone. 41 megapixels would actually cause more harm than good with a traditional smartphone sensor, but the larger size allows for that higher number, without creating problems like extra noise in the resulting photos. The larger sensor is also capable of capturing more light and a much greater amount of detail.

The 1020 has a 6 element glass ZEISS lens array, which is the most available in a smartphone. It also has a f/2.2 apeture, which provides an adequate depth of field. To top off the hardware, Nokia included a larger and powerful Xenon flash, as well as an independent LED focus lamp. All together, the 1020 has the most impressive collection of camera hardware available in a real smartphone (Nokia’s earlier 808 PureView ran Symbian, so that doesn’t really count) by a wide margin.

Even the most impressive hardware can be drug down by poor or buggy software, so it was critical for Nokia to nail the camera backend and interface right out of the box for the 1020 to be successful. They did a terrific job in my opinion, especially considering that this is a first generation product for Windows Phone. The background software is a bit slow when producing high-res images, but the 35 or 38 megapixel end products are something to behold. That level of image detail makes this camera really special. Because of it, you can “reframe” a photo at any time, basically zooming in as much a 6 times with little to no loss in quality.

lumia-1020-tiger-high-res

High resolution photo

 

lumia-1020-tiger-reframed

5 Megapixel Reframe

Once you decide how you want the end result to look, the 1020 saves a 5 megapixel version of the photo with your desired zoom and aspect ratio. However, the high-res image is still preserved, so you can always go back and work with it again, later. The only major drawback that I found with Nokia’s system is that the high-res images aren’t made available to any other apps, and that they can’t be accessed for sharing or backup except through a computer via a USB connection.

nokia-pro-cam-app

To top it off, Nokia created the Pro Cam app that allows users to change settings rarely if ever made available in a smartphone camera. You can set white balance, focus, ISO, shutter speed, and exposure compensation, as well as control the flash and focus lamp. The app is leaps and bounds better than anything else I’ve tried, and paired with Nokia’s Camera Grip for the 1020, it makes the phone feel more like a point and shoot camera than any other I’ve tried.

lumia-1020-camera-grip

Oh, and then there’s video. All of the elements that I’ve laid out also greatly benefit the 1020 when it comes to shooting video. Now, the iPhone 5 is definitely no slouch in this department. If there is any area where the two phones are close in performance, this is it. However, the 1020 does have one major advantage. It can also zoom while shooting video, as in the example below.


The Lumia 1020 isn’t the first smartphone camera to do this, but combined with its large, high resolution imaging sensor, the end product has much more clarity than any competitor.

 

Apple’s Response?

With all of that laid out, let’s turn our attention back to Apple. For the last three years, Apple execs have been able to trot out on stage and confidently say that they are releasing the best smartphone camera on the market. That’s going to be a tough sell this Fall, because from the looks of things, there is very little chance that it will be true. Even if the iPhone 5S has more megapixels, a larger backside illuminated sensor, a better flash, and can zoom during videos, there is little chance that it will be able to touch the 1020’s key features. I would honestly be shocked if it can even get close.

While there are Apple patents that point to research in technology similar to Nokia’s PureView oversampling, it is highly unlikely that we will see any fruits of that any time soon. Current rumors point to a bump from 8 to 12 megapixels, and the possible inclusion of a slow motion photo/video mode for the 5S. If that’s it, then the job of Apple’s marketing department will be a lot tougher this year. Look for a lot of creative language when it comes to the 5S’s photography features compared to its current competitors.

I’m not trying to sound like the gloom and doom analysts here. The iPhone 5S will take excellent photos and video, and Apple will sell a boatload of them. That’s what they do. However, I can’t help but notice that yet another of Apple’s strongholds is being eroded by the competition. Google’s Android has steadily narrowed the gap in the quality of their app ecosystem. Both Google and Amazon have cut into Apple’s once huge lead in digital media, and streaming music services such as Spotify have hit them from the other end. Now it’s camera.

I know this all sounds a bit dramatic, but bear this in mind. Apple basically created the current mobile photography craze. Would Instagram have taken off the way that it did 7 or 8 years ago? It’s highly doubtful. It probably wouldn’t have 4 or 5 years ago with the iPhone 3G or 3GS, either. It was the combination of the iPhone 4 and above’s quality photos with pick up and shoot ease that made it stand out. This, in turn, helped propel mobile photography to the social network pastime of choice.

Unfortunately for Apple, the fast moving competition picked up on that success, and have passed them up in several key areas of photography specs and software. It’s the same old complaint that many other tech writers and bloggers have had.┬áThe areas that company used to be able to rely on as strengths aren’t so reliable any more. Apple may not be in any imminent danger, but it’s time to see more hardware innovation from them outside of the thinness and materials of the iPhone’s external shell.

 

The Lure of Great Photography

I’ve never been able to get too excited about Android, despite playing with several phones and tablets spanning everything from Eclair to Jellybean. However, despite the comparative weakness of the ecosystem, I’ve always been intrigued by the elegance and simplicity of Windows Phone. Now, with the platform finally getting the flagship hardware it’s been needing, with a killer feature that no one else has, it has even more appeal. I am a sucker for a great camera, smartphone or otherwise, and I had an upgrade open on my Family Plan, so I took the plunge when the 1020 launched.

Don’t get me wrong. I had no intention of completely leaving iOS for Windows Phone. I’ve had the 1020 for 12 days now, but I’ve been carrying either my SIM-less iPhone 5 or a 5th Gen iPod Touch along with it at all times. And besides them, I also still have my iPad Mini, and a slew of iOS devices in my household spread between my wife and kids. I knew there were certain apps and services that I wouldn’t be able to get or use on the Lumia, so the litmus test for me was whether I could effectively use the 1020 as my primary phone, with my iOS device serving as a tethered media device.

Over the last 12 days, I’ve learned to work around most of the limitations of the 1020, but I still find that there is still just too much missing for me to make the switch at this point. Windows Phone is lot better than it was when I briefly owned a Samsung Focus two years ago, but the ecosystem still has a ways to go. I don’t depend on Google services to the extent that a lot of tech-savvy users do, but I still have an issue with their almost complete absence from the platform. I back up all of my photos to Google+, meaning that my photo management got a lot more difficult with the 1020. Since photography is such a big component of the 1020, I really felt this absence. I couldn’t even get the Picasa apps that were available to work properly. But, if this was the biggest issue, I would probably be able to get by

The two biggest problems for me are with voice services and PIM software. As for voice, I’m surprised to say it, but I REALLY missed Siri while using the 1020. The voice dialing on Windows Phone is just awful. Terrible. BAD. Considering how much I drive and need to use voice dialing, this became a major hangup. Despite Siri’s flaws, it rarely misunderstands and dials the wrong contact, and I rarely have network issues or dropped request now, even with the beta versions of iOS 7. Unfortunately, the performance of Windows Phone’s voice services just wasn’t up to Siri’s level. It either failed, or required touch input to select between groups several times while I was driving and using the 1020, which I found very distracting.

The other big issue with voice is that fact that dictation is only available in the email and search apps, rather than system-wide. This is a big omission by Microsoft that they need to address soon. Android has had this capability for years now, and iOS has had it since iOS 5. When you are used to being able to dictate within any app, it’s difficult to take a step back and not notice. I definitely missed having it in apps like the People Hub.

Despite my issues with voice, it was the calendar app that really killed it for me. Sure, the stock calendar in iOS is nothing to write home about, either, but I haven’t used it in years. Thanks to Apple’s app ecosystem, there is no shortage of replacement calendar and task apps in the App Store. I have used WebIS’s Pocket Informant since it was released, and I can’t go without it at this point. I handle all of my work project management in its task manager, which is really powerful. I also love that it can combine my various calendars and tasks into one view, which really fits the way that I do things.

Unfortunately, not only is PI not available for Windows Phone, it never will be unless Microsoft changes its calendar database access policies. As it stands, third party apps can read the device’s calendar database, but none can write to it, effectively putting up a big stop sign for any developer looking to make a better PIM app. This is completely insane. Has Microsoft failed to notice the large number of popular third party calendar, email, and task apps available for iOS and Android? REALLY? For a company looking to grow their platform fast, locking down an area where power users would like to see more features and faster innovation is just plain stupid and shortsighted.

The sad irony is that Pocket Informant actually got its start on Windows Mobile, where I used it for years before switching to the iPhone. I know that Microsoft is taking a different road with Windows Phone, but come on. This is just ridiculous. Any platform that makes itself more locked down than Apple and iOS is doing it wrong. Apple can get away with it thanks to their head start in the world of apps. Microsoft can’t. They need to accept this and move on.

 

Back to the Store

lumia-1020-front

After playing around with several other devices and OSs, including a previous look at Windows Mobile, I’ve always happily stuck with the iPhone as my main device of choice. I’ve never been seriously tempted by any of them, which has actually surprised me a bit. However, this time things are a little different. Despite my issues with missing features and apps in Windows Phone, I actually really enjoyed aspects of using it. I love the design of fluidity of the OS, and I find the concept of Live Tiles far more interesting than iOS’s Springboard as a home screen paradigm.

Then, there is the Lumia 1020 itself to consider. I absolutely love the hardware. Like Apple, Nokia has always been one of the few companies truly invested in great design and device build quality. The 1020, with its colorful polycarbonate body and crisp, clear 4.5″ screen, certainly didn’t disappoint at all. I actually care about this aspect of a smartphone, so Nokia is one of the few companies currently making a phone that I would even consider leaving the iPhone for.

lumia-1020-bird

When it comes to photography and video, I wouldn’t just ditch my iPhone 5, but also my small Sony point and shoot camera for the 1020. I have better cameras, but I keep that one around because it takes 1080i video at 60 frames per second with a 6X zoom. It also takes decent pictures and easily fits in a pocket. However, even though the Lumia 1020 is limited to 30 FPS video, it kills the Sony in every other respect. My iPhone 5? It isn’t even in the conversation.

If I could afford to do so, I would simply switch the roles of my devices around, putting the SIM back in my iPhone 5, but keeping the Lumia 1020 as a media device and camera. Unfortunately, the prospect of paying $299 and using my upgrade, or paying $659 outright to NOT use the 1020 as a phone is more than I can stomach. Unfortunately, this is the big issue for Microsoft and Nokia. They have made a really nice piece of phone hardware that is unrivaled as a camera, but that people will have a hard time leaving their current platforms for.

This my sound crazy, and it probably is, but if Nokia released an iPod Touch version of this device for $250, I would be first in line to buy it. It doesn’t really fit the way they market and sell devices, and the company’s low brand profile here in the US doesn’t help, either. However, if they truly are interested in getting people to take a good look at this camera tech, then that’s the way to go. Get them to buy into the camera WITHOUT having to switch smartphone platforms. Then, when the Windows Phone platform is more mature and competitive, you have a track record and better brand recognition with some consumers. Maybe then, they will consider switching.

As it stands now, I am returning the Lumia 1020 tomorrow, but I’m not happy about it. I will miss using it, especially the camera. For the first time, I will be less than excited going back to the iPhone as my daily driver. When the price of the 1020 inevitably falls later in the year, or they start to show up at a reasonable price on eBay or Craigslist, I may just pick one up again. I would gladly pay $300 outright for one to use primarily as a portable camera.

If my experience is any indication, Nokia still has big problems on its hands. People buying bargain priced or second-hand 1020s isn’t going to help their bottom line. Even though they’ve made a great looking device with the best smartphone camera to date by a wide margin, I still couldn’t make it work as my main device. That’s even while carrying other iOS devices to help pick up the slack. Most average users aren’t going to consider going that far just to carry a great camera everywhere. Until Microsoft steps up their game and adds features and APIs that users and developers want to see, both are going to avoid this platform. That’s unfortunate, because this is one HELL of a camera, and it would be a shame for this tech to go the way of so many innovations in webOS. Right now, that’s exactly the direction they still seem to be headed in.

 

 

 

Continue reading:

TAGS: , , , , , ,