Monday, October 6, 2014

Nokia Lumia 1020 and Windows Phone

I picked up the Nokia Lumia 1020 to use when I need something better than a standard camera phone but don’t want to carry my SLR. It has been so long since I’d held a premium Nokia device and I forgot how much I missed their uniquely solid yet svelte build characteristics. The 1020 feels fantastic in your hand with its beveled edges and premium polycarbonate that is smooth to the touch yet not slippery at all.
You can’t talk about a Lumia device without also discussing its polarizing operating system, Windows Phone. Even before its acquisition by Microsoft, Nokia was their partner in the Windows Phone arena. Certainly Microsoft had hoped Nokia’s kout as a premium mobile device maker could bring people to the platform. It has been a slow start but at this point I’m solidly impressed by Microsoft’s efforts. With the latest Windows Phone 8.1 update the 1020 isn’t left wanting from a feature set perspective. While it has always been stable and responsive even on low-end devices, the addition of Cortana and the ability to tweak more system and appearance related settings brings Windows Phone squarely into competition with the iPhone and Android.
The biggest and longest running problem with Windows Phone is its desolate and sometimes sketchy app store. Microsoft was simply too late to the game with a competent operating system to attract customers and subsequently app developers. Fortunately Microsoft has been throwing money at the problem, sometimes developing their own in-house versions of apps (e.g. YouTube) or paying developers outright to bring their app to their platform. At the end of 2014 they are way better off than they had been a year ago, most of the big name apps and social networks are there but Microsoft is still a long way off from having enough apps to bring users of established platforms over. Microsoft also has a huge problem with fake and scammy apps that share the names of the services they emulate but have none of the functionality. Most just tell you about the “features” of a service or app, hoping to get a few ad clicks from anyone unfortunate enough to download their app. The biggest problem however is Google’s complete lack of support for the platform. The only 1st party Google experience you get on Windows Phone is a basic search app which is of little use. There is no way to get push email, Hangouts (and subsequently Google Voice), Maps or Google Plus. Windows Phone fans will point to 3rd party apps and maybe just settle for using the mobile sites for these services but that’s wholly inexcusable for folks coming from Android or iOS. Of course the lack of Google support makes sense, Microsoft competes with them in almost every way whereas Apple has enough users and competes less directly with Google for it to be worthwhile for Google to deliver an outstanding experience on their operating system.
The camera is really the reason anyone buys this phone in the first place. I can imagine Nokia engineers and marketing in a meeting, trying to come up with a feature they have control over that can entice users to the fledgling platform. Their answer was to put their hard work and research in Symbian camera phones into their flagship Windows Phone. Aside from a few flaws it is without a doubt the best camera phone on the market. It completely negates the need for me (and I would guess most people who care about capturing quality on-the-go photos) to carry a point and shoot camera with them. It’s hard to complain about the camera because it really is astounding for being an accessory to a mobile phone but I look at it as a point-and-shoot replacement, since that’s what it aims to be. Shutter delay and subsequently long processing and write times between shots is the kill-joy with this camera. Capturing moving subjects (e.g. kids) is very difficult. Even if you pre-focus the shot, pushing the dedicated shutter button still results in a half second delay before it makes the capture. After it takes the shot it spends at least another few seconds write the full size and 5 megapixel image file to memory. Unfortunately, low light performance is also just not that great. High ISO settings are available but are mostly unusable for anything other than sharing the result via MMS or social networks. All of this being said I was still very successful in using the 1020 in lieu of a dedicated camera for family outings this past weekend. Granted we were outside most of the time but after some trial and error I was able to get shots that I liked. Nokia makes manual settings such as ISO and shutter speed readily available. After getting these controls down and finding the sweet spots between the two settings it really comes down to timing the shutter delay. The motion compensation works well though it’s a little disconcerting to hear your phone clicking and whirring away while you’re getting a shot. I only tested 1080p video briefly and was satisfied by the results. The video quality seemed on par with what I could get out of a modern iPhone.
I like the Lumia 1020 a lot. Windows Phone really grew on me over the 2 days I used it as a full time phone and camera. They say the best camera is the one you have on you. If my life didn’t revolve around Google services (Hangouts in particular) I could replace my Android phone with little reservation and feel confident I have the best pocketable camera at my disposal. Unfortunately we will probably never see first party support for Google on Windows Phone.  This means I’ll likely never be able to use the 1020 or its successors full time, and that bums me out.