Windows Phone 8/Nokia Lumia 1020

I’ve now had the Nokia Lumia 1020 with Windows 8 for six days, during which time it has been my only phone. To put this review in context I think there are two things you need to know:

  1. I didn’t buy it, I won it as a prize in a programming competition.
  2. My day job is to develop mobile apps for a variety of people, generally for iOS, and I own half of a speculative app-development company.

History

Feel free to skip this section; I just thought you might be interested in what I have used previously. For the past year I have had an iPhone 4S, running iOS 7 since beta 2 or 3. Prior to that I had an iPhone 4, before that an iPhone 3G and before that a Nokia 8210 (and at the same time a Nokia 1100 which I used when the 8210 was out of action because e.g. the battery needed replacing). I also had some kind of flip-open Motorola feature phone during the 8210 era.

What’s Better

I’ll try and split this into things which are features of Windows Phone 8 (which you can expect on any manufacturer’s handset) and which are features of the Nokia Lumia 1020. I apologise if I have placed things on the wrong side of the line.

Windows Phone 8

Lots of things, actually. You can have apps installed without them appearing on your home screen, which is useful for things you don’t often use. Most apps allow you to bookmark things deep inside them on your home-screen, and there is no limit I have found to the number of such bookmarks you can make per app. With most apps these links become “live tiles” which update even if you do not open the app.

To give you an idea of how incredibly useful these live tiles can be, here is an example: I have pinned the Bing Weather app pages for Milton Keynes, where I live, and Islington, where I work. I can see at a glance what the weather is going to do to me today. On my iPhone I would have to find the Weather app, open it, then flick across a couple of pages before I’ve seen everything relevant.

It is a real PITA to rearrange an iPhone home-screen layout, so you end up having essentially one compromise layout for all time and only make large changes when a lot of frustration has built-up. I’ve found the Windows phone much smoother to re-organise and consequently I’ve been reorganising it a lot more often; I removed my link to Islington’s weather last night and replaced it with Stoke-on-Trent because I was going there today: no fuss, no hassle.

Social media integration on Windows Phone is way ahead of iOS. You can install separate apps for Twitter, Facebook & LinkedIn from the store if you like (I did for the sake of experimentation: they are essentially the same as the iOS apps); however the network-specific apps are essentially made redundant by the two excellent built-in apps named Me and People. The Me app is where you can post your thoughts and see everything which pertains to you: comments-on and responses-to your posts, others’ pictures of you, and so forth. The People app is about everyone else: it includes your address-book, a quick reference for people you have recently interacted with, and a combined news feed across all your networks. There is also the concept of a Room to which you can invite people, which gives you a shared calendar, shared notebook, chat room, and shared photos amongst the room’s members. If you pin the room its live tile includes the activity of other members on social networks, which is very nice.

Managing limited cellular data plans is much better as well: you use an app named “Data Sense” which you inform of your contract limits and the monthly reset date. It limits the amount of cellular data available to apps when you are getting low.

You can download maps to your phone from the built-in maps app; on iOS you have to use a third-party app for the same effect. The maps are clear; information appears and disappears at appropriate moments as you zoom in and out. I’d like to see cycling directions added and done well, but it isn’t as though anyone else has that either.

Textual messaging is nicely implemented. You can switch between all of the messaging systems you and a contact have in common (Live Messenger, Facebook, SMS, and possibly others) and everything is merged together in the right order. As long as your contact is also using a Windows Phone it will work perfectly for both of you.

The whole system feels smoother and more modern. The animations are nice and the platforms idioms are consistently applied.

Finally, updates are handled a little differently. On iOS the standard apps and other core things are only alterable by updating the entire operating system; on Windows Phone 8 they seem to be handled the same as any other app. I understand that there are things analogous to iOS updates on Windows Phone but I haven’t experienced any of those in the preceding week.

Nokia Lumia 1020

The standard alarm sound wakes you gradually but firmly; none of the iOS alarms manage to achieve this.

The camera is a huge improvement over any other phone camera I have ever seen. They have chosen to make multiple apps rather than to fill one camera app with hundreds of confusing options: Nokia Cinemagraph makes partially-animated pictures; Nokia Panorama makes stitched-together panoramas; Nokia Pro Cam lets you manipulate the things you would use on an SLR such as white-balance, focus, ISO setting, and shutter speed; and Nokia Smart Cam has some cool toys based on taking multiple-exposures and combining them in various ways, eliminating moving objects, highlighting movements, getting everyone smiling in a group shot, and so forth. Given this proliferation of apps it’s a bit strange that the video recording is an option within Nokia Pro Cam and not its own app.

There is a dedicated camera shutter button on the side of the phone, and it’s a proper shutter button not just a switch: you can half-press it to cause Nokia Pro Cam to do what a dedicated camera would do with a half-pressed shutter. If you press it when a camera app is not open it launches whichever of the apps you have said is your favourite.

When the phone is in standby you have access to Nokia glance which can be configured in a variety of ways. Most useful are always-on or “peek” mode. I use peek, which means that the screen is only shown immediately after my hand has hovered over my phone. At night time the clock text changes from white to red which is dimmer and easier to sleep through.

Compared to my iPhone 4S and my wife’s iPhone 5 the built-in speaker is hugely better. It sounds loud and clear in free air, whereas an iPhone sounds pretty crap (you can make an iPhone sound a lot better by dropping it speaker-side-down into an empty pint glass, emphasis on empty). I tested the sound over the bundled headphones; there was no discernible difference (I prefer the new-style iPhone headphones for ear-feel but that’s very personal). Finally I tried both with some good quality studio monitoring headphones: I could hear more details from the Nokia Lumia 1020; the difference was very small.

What’s similar

Calendars, email, web browsing, playing music, adjusting the volume, playing videos, looking at photos, browsing the store for apps, and the passcode lock system: all of these are basically the same.

What’s missing

There are a couple of things I miss from iOS: the Find my Friends app and the iCloud backup.

My wife and I use Find my Friends quite a lot; the closest functionality we can find on Windows Phone is the facility to send a point-in-time record of your location in a textual message. This is likely more useful than Find my Friends in the general case because you could safely send it to anyone at all, whereas with Find my Friends you have to give them a license to track you on at least a temporary basis.

On iOS I am confident that if I lose my phone I can essentially recreate it on a new handset very quickly from the iCloud backup; I am not so sure that I can do that on Windows Phone: perhaps I can, but I have no idea how to do it.

What’s worse

There are a few annoying bugs, for example the video playback library presumes that all pixels are square: this meant I couldn’t enjoy a video I wanted to watch on the train because it was encoded with anamorphic widescreen pixels.

The global back/search buttons on the bottom of the bezel have caused me a few problems: occasionally I will touch them inadvertently while trying to hold the phone.

There are quite a few third-party apps which don’t seem to be available (yet): Strava Cycling is the main one I miss. Some of those which are available are mere copies of the iPhone equivalents and don’t respect the idioms of the platform.

Conclusion

Look, you can work this out from the relative sizes of the sections above: the Lumia 1020 is staying in my pocket and the iPhone is going into a drawer.

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