Finally, with the Nokia Lumia Icon, Verizon Wireless has a $199 flagship Windows Phone 8 that can go head-to-head with the best Android smartphones out there. Hoping that the Icon will be an iconic smartphone that stands out from the pack of coveted modern smartphones available today, both Nokia and Verizon are gunning with the best specs available–a 5-inch vibrant full 1080p HD display, best-in-class quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, and blazing fast 4G LTE speeds, along with the best 20-megapixel ZEISS camera available on a smartphone for low-light photography. Can Nokia deliver a best-in-class Windows Phone to compete with the likes of Samsung’s popular Galaxy S4?
Pros: Stellar low light camera, amazing audio recording, solid build quality and understated design, and a fun UI thanks to Windows Phone’s Live Tiles
Cons: A boxy design and limited color palette may limit the Icon’s appeal to consumers. The Icon is also a weighty phone as well.
Bottom Line: Though the phone doesn’t quite deliver the rich ecosystem that Android and iOS are known for, the Icon is in a league of its own competing for the attention of those who want to preserve memories through quality photos and videos. It’s an understated phone in many regards, and one that delivers a lot of power if you give it a chance.
The Icon is truly an icon–with an iconic design that differs radically from many of Nokia’s best smartphones, many of which are available on rival carrier AT&T Mobility in the U.S.–and build quality along with specs are superb. We would go as far as proclaiming the Icon as the best all-around Windows Phone on the market today, but the platform still has some growing to do to catch up to iOS and Android.
Rather than curved and tapered side edges, the Icon’s boxier design stands out and shows that it is a natural successor to Verizon’s current Nokia Lumia 928 smartphone. The Lumia Icon has straight side edges made from machined aluminum, a slightly curved back side formed from polycarbonate, and an overall unibody design that’s very similar in concept to the Lumia 925 on T-Mobile and AT&T. Available in either black or white hues, Verizon opted for a more conservative palette with the Icon.
Moving from the Lumia 928 to the newer Icon, Nokia did away with the Xenon flash on the former in favor of a dual-LED flash. While this may sound like a step down to camera aficionados, it’s actually a marked improvement. In theory, Xenon flash should provide the more powerful artificial lighting option to aid in your photography, but I found the Xenon flash to have washed out colors, yellowed skin tones, and a resulting image quality that wasn’t up to par with older Nokia phones running Symbian, like the Nokia N8 and the Nokia 808. The dual-LED flash has more proper white balance and was strong enough to light up a group shot in the dark. It’s a nice improvement over the Xenon flash.
Speaking of camera, the 20-megapixel camera is excellent, retaining fine details and providing for what Nokia calls lossless digital zoom by cropping into an image to zoom. With a six-lens ZEISS optical system, the Lumia Icon produces images with a lot of character.
Performance is better than less megapixel-rich devices, like the iPhone 5s and Galaxy S4, both of which produce more grainy images when you begin to crop by using digital zoom.
By default, the Lumia Icon shoots a 5-megapixel image, which is compact enough to email, send over text messages, or share on social media networks. Additionally, serious shutterbugs could also have the Lumia Icon save an additional photo in RAW DNG format, which allows for rich editing later when transferred to a PC over USB to software like Adobe’s Photoshop or Lightroom. And those who prefer the detail retention could also choose to have the Icon save a 5-megapixel and a 16-megapixel 16:9 aspect ratio JPEG image.
An array of manual controls will also appease any photographer moving from a more advanced camera, like a DSLR. Like the Nokia Lumia 1020, Nokia’s flagship photo-centric camera phone, the Lumia Icon benefits from controls for shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO, white balance adjustment, focus, and more through the Nokia Pro Camera app–you’ll likely want to avoid the native Windows Phone camera app to start with.
Sample Images: All images were captured with natural, available light; no flash was used.
If you really want to get creative, you can have a lot of fun with this pocket-sized DSLR alternative. For more serious edits, Nokia Creative Studio will give you more options and the Nokia Refocus app will allow you to have a Lytro-like experience where you can choose to focus and blur your images after the image has been captured! Along with the ability to reframe and zoom, this allows users to creatively tell, re-tell, and change their stories by editing their photographs after the memory has been captured.
Nokia’s class-leading optical image stabilization (OIS) mechanism on the PureView camera doesn’t disappoint either, leading to clean, clear images without any blurs, and videos benefit with stable frames even when a tripod isn’t being used.
It’s when you begin to use the camera that you start to appreciate Nokia’s and Verizon’s more conservative angular side edges. That boxy footprint that I complained about earlier does serve a purpose, allowing you to stand your Lumia Icon on any of its three sides–less the side that has the trio of hardware controls–allowing you to set your Icon down on a table or shelf and set the timer to do a group shot with you in it. It’s a convenient way of avoiding a smartphone mount and bulky tripod, and comes in handy when you’re on vacation with family or a large group of friends and want to capture one photo with everyone in the scene.
In addition to OIS, for video recording, Nokia’s Rich Recording technology actually captures audio for video footage in stereo surround sound. We’ve seen this before on the larger 6-inch Nokia Lumia 1520 for rival AT&T, and Nokia is also bringing the new technology to the Lumia Icon.
With 4 microphones to differentiate where the sound is coming from and to isolate out background noise, the Lumia Icon is able to record rich stereo audio for a more theatrical experience. Great for concerts, music recitals, and action-packed videography, it’s unclear how many users will really seek out this feature. Regardless of whether you need Nokia Rich Recording stereo audio recording, your videos will definitely benefit from OIS–whereas I found videos captured from other cameras to induce seasickness, the Lumia 1520’s excellent OIS minimized camera shake even as I walk down the street handholding the camera and taking videos, chasing a young toddler around.
And while Nokia would like to have you believe that the Snapdraong 800 processor will be leaps and bounds above anything you’ve seen before, in reality the jump in performance is a little more muted. Sure, games load faster and apps open just a hair quicker, but the performance gain isn’t as drastic as moving from last year’s flagship Android phone to this year’s Android model. In reality, Microsoft did a great job optimizing Windows Phone for even conservative hardware so actual, noticeable performance gains won’t be as dramatic as one would expect. Still, this is only the second Windows Phone model, following Nokia’s AT&T Lumia 1520, to sport the Snapdragon 800.
Where the Lumia Icon really shines is the crisp and vibrant OLED display. With a full 1080p panel, the Lumia Icon’s screen is a marvel to behold. Readable even under direct sunlight thanks to Nokia’s ClearBlack Display technology, colors are vibrant, text is sharp, and images appear superb. This display really does showcase the amazing photos and videos captured with the Lumia Icon’s PureView camera with ZEISS optics. For the general Windows Phone experience, you’ll also get an extra column of icons on the Icon thanks to the more roomy 5-inch display and a higher resolution screen. This allows for less vertical scrolling when you’re on the Icon’s main Metro UI Start Screen as you’re able to see more thanks to the Live Tiles. It’s essentially like having more widgets on an Android smartphone so you don’t have to swipe (in the case of Android the swiping is horizontally) to get more information at a glance.
And though the 5-inch display may sound large, it’s on par with other 5-inch devices like the Sony Xperia Z, an Android smartphone with the same processor and display size and a compelling non-OIS 20-megapixel camera, and Samsung’s Galaxy S4, which has a slightly more modest Snapdragon 600 processor and a similar screen size. In reality, the Lumia Icon feels roomy, without feeling too big. It’s certainly a bit bigger than the more compact Lumia 1020 with its 20-megapixel sensor and a 720p HD+ display, but feels much more manageable in both the hands and the pockets than AT&T’s competing and unwieldy 6-inch Lumia 1520, which shares many of the Icon’s specs.
However, where Nokia giveth, Nokia taketh. The Lumia Icon packs in 32 GB of on-board storage along with 7 GB of free Microsoft SkyDrive–soon to be called OneDrive–cloud storage rather than the 16 GB that’s found on the AT&T Lumia 1520 sold through retail stores. However, given the doubling of storage capacity, Nokia didn’t have enough room to also pack in a micro SDXC card slot, so you won’t be able to augment storage capacity unlike the Lumia 1520, which is a shame given the excellent camera sensor.
Additionally, users who love the Nokia Glance Screen will be disappointed to know that for whatever reason, Verizon opted to not include this wonderful feature. The Glance Screen is a setting that’s found on a number of Nokia Windows Phone that essentially activates a screen saver on your screen, similar to Motorola’s Active Display, where even if the display is off, you’ll always have the time, shown in a digital clock, as well as pertinent notifications. This way, you will always know the time and any awaiting alerts without even requiring you to turn on the display or even unlock your phone.
Despite the removal of this feature, the slightly curved 5-inch display–which not only helps to create a sleek design element but also helps for swiping through Windows Phone’s menus–is operable even with gloves on, which should come in handy for the cold climates at this time throughout much of the country.
However, unlike the AT&T Lumia 1520, the Icon comes with built-in Qi wireless charging so you can set the Icon on a Nokia charging plate–or one that’s compatible with Google’s Nexus devices–and charge the phone that way without having to fumble with USB cables.
In spite of Nokia’s excellent craftsmanship, the Icon won’t be a “mature” smartphone that will be capable of competing against the Galaxy S4 and Android until Microsoft releases its rumored Windows Phone 8.1 software update later this year, which could happen by summer. At this time, there are no easy widgets to toggle basic features–like WiFi, Bluetooth, and airplane mode–and there isn’t a simple, unified notifications center like on iOS and Android. Those lingering issues should be remedied, if leaks are to be believed, with the 8.1 software.
At this time, though, Windows Phone 8.1 does have a healthy array of official and third-party apps where the official versions are not available. However, that’s not to say the experience is perfect. The catalog still is a distant third in terms of content offering, trailing iOS’s App Store and Google’s Play Store. Given Microsoft’s tight control over the platform similar to Apple, there is no sideloading of apps either, unlike with Android, making the situation harder. You’ll fine notable titles, though, but you won’t find the diversity or breadth like on the larger platforms.
You can refer to the Nokia Lumia 1520 review for a closer look at the Windows Phone 8 software for more detailed coverage.
Microsoft also released Xbox Music and Xbox Video, adding to the digital content for the phone allowing users to buy, download, and rent TV shows, movies, and of course music. It’s rumored that Microsoft may be working on a separate store for reading materials–comics, magazines, and books–but that’s unconfirmed. For that selection, you’ll have to rely on third-party apps, like Amazon Kindle, Zinio, and others.
The Icon delivers great performance with its flagship specs. All-day battery life, excellent voice call quality, great signal reception, and fast 4G LTE speeds are part of the Icon’s compact package despite having a large 5-inch screen.
The Lumia Icon shows that Windows Phone is at least growing up and going through a healthy adolescence. Still, we can’t help but view the Lumia Icon as a middle child struggling to get attention. Blazing ahead of struggling BlackBerry but not quite as confident as iOS nor Android, the Icon feels like it is struggling to keep up to its bigger brothers rather than lead the competition. As Windows Phone is now matching Android’s specs, Android may soon be pulling ahead with even better processors and higher resolution displays, and Microsoft will have to do more to keep Windows Phone ahead of the game.
Yet, despite lacking a future-proof status in an early 2014 release, the Icon is a solid phone with an excellent build quality, a solid camera who’s only rival is the Nokia Lumia 1020, and fast performance. The Icon is debuting at an interesting time in the middle of crazed rumors of Samsung’s, LG’s, and HTC’s next generation flagships, some of which are rumored to be sporting octa-core 64-bit CPUs and either 2K or 4K resolution screens. So despite the middle child screaming for attention, it will soon be left behind by its older siblings.
As the best Windows Phone on Verizon’s network–and arguably the best all-around Windows Phone smartphone–the Icon deservedly is an iconic phone for Nokia as it continues to evolve the platform. The Icon is a serious camera phone and with Nokia Rich Recording technology, Nokia will be attracting the attention of videographers as well. A simple to use UI, excellent camera, and sophisticated but understated styling are all part of the iconic design here, and it’s well worth the entry price if you can afford to be limited by Windows Phone’s shortcomings (until at least 8.1 at least) and the more limited selection of digital content and apps available for this platform.