Experiencing the Nokia Lumia 920

Nokia Lumia 920 on desk

Plastic is not a material traditionally associated with craft. It lacks the obvious elegance of wood or metal. Nokia’s use of plastic in the Lumia 920, however, approaches craft. Its edges are smoothed and rounded the way a carpenter might work a piece of wood with chisel, plane and sandpaper. Then there are those corners: chunky plastic tamed by manufacturing process into something which manages to be both solid and ergonomic. I will confess to sometimes standing my 920 on its end to simply look at those corners for no purpose other than open admiration of its aesthetic.

I’m a prolific user of mobile devices: iPhones, Galaxies, Xperias, Nexus – but I haven’t fallen for a handset for some time. However, I am falling for this Lumia 920. Against all the odds, and my own initial judgement, the big, bright yellow Lumia has become something more than just a tool. I look forward to using it and I find myself handling it absent-mindedly in idle moments just for the enjoyment of its touch.

It does not possess a striking beauty, but rather creates a feeling of affection which grows through gradual appreciation of its details. Along the base I admire the precisely drilled holes of the speaker grill and the two lone, countersunk, black metal screws. The left side is entirely clean: just smoothed, yellow plastic, and reassuringly thick. The three buttons on the right side – shutter key, volume and power – are finished in the same smoke grey ceramic zirconium used for the camera lens and flash module on the back. It is scratch resistant and still looks fresh after several months of bouncing around in pockets on runs and bike rides.

The detailing extends even to the ports, often an afterthought on other mobile devices, which Nokia has lined with a thick black plastic to reinforce the micro USB charging connection and headphone jack. The only weak point is the pop-out SIM card slot, which on my 920 is just slightly out of alignment. On most devices I would expect this, but such is the quality of finish on the Lumia that it stands out from an otherwise unblemished design.

The colour, of course, cannot go unmentioned. Mine is yellow. The kind that shouts at you. I love it. I’ve been an advocate for giving consumers greater colour choice in mobile devices for many years, often challenging handset industry participants at our twice yearly MEX events to consider new materials to enliven their monochrome palettes with finishes which better reflect users’ personal aesthetics.

Nokia Lumia 920 with yellow headphones

It was a cry which fell on deaf ears for some time, until Nokia seized the initiative and invested in creating a polycarbonate where the colour could be embedded in the plastic mix itself, ensuring it does not scratch off or look shabby with time, but rather runs through the core of the handset casing.

Lumia 920 owners can choose from gloss finishes in white, red, yellow and – rumour has it – a forthcoming green variant. Or opt for the matte finish of the black, grey and cyan.

Better still, the Lumia 920 is the only handset I have come across in recent years which eschews the noisy graffiti of printed carrier logos, regulator certifications, IMEI numbers and model names in favour of complete visual purity: from whatever angle you look at it, that glorious yellow plastic stretches unblemished by pointless tech clutter. Even my iPhone is stamped with printed FCC nonsense, detracting from its otherwise clean lines. The Lumia allows no such compromise of its aesthetics.

Colour has become a consistent theme across Nokia’s range, from the low-end Ashas to high-end Lumias, although the most recent Lumia 928 and 925 have seen a return to monochrome black, white and grey options. I hope these are just an aberration and Nokia maintains its commitment to colour. Such a seemingly simple feature can make all the difference to a user’s overall product experience.

Most reviews of the 920 will point out its size and weight. Compare its measurements, particularly its thickness, with a Galaxy or an iPhone and there is a clear difference: the iPhone 5 is 7.6mm, the Galaxy S4 7.9mm and the Lumia 920 10.7mm.

It is wrong to judge a product on dimensions alone. More important is its overall feel and the trade-offs which are made between weight, size, ergonomics and robustness.

On the basis of the reviews I’d read, I awaited the arrival of the Lumia 920 anticipating a tank of a product, but instead found it to be just right – for me. This is clearly a very personal thing. I have relatively large hands and appreciate its feeling of solidity more than I miss the lightness or slimness of something like the iPhone 5.

I am also enough of a geek to appreciate the double chassis construction of the Lumia 920. In addition to the main chassis frame, the internal circuit board is mounted on a separate frame. As a result, the Lumia 920 is likely to be more robust in absorbing drops, bumps and shocks, but it does weigh in at 186g. Also adding to the size and weight are the inclusion of integrated wireless charging circuitry and the advanced camera module, with its mechanically stabilised optics.

I would not change the size or weight of the 920. The weight adds a feeling of quality and the dimensions, combined with the beautifully sculpted ergonomics, combine to make it feel just right in my hand.

Everything I’ve described so far may be ascertained without even powering up the Lumia 920, but it is when the screen begins to glow that the real magic happens. I have had my doubts, and written about them, that Nokia would ever be able to create true harmony between its hardware and a software platform it didn’t own. Indeed, its first generation of Windows Phone products – most notably the Lumia 800 and Lumia 710 – did feel disjointed, as if software designed for another purpose was pasted on to unsuitable hardware.

The Lumia 920, however, has finally achieved that integration. The best touchscreen experiences are found on devices where the user feels not that they are sliding along the surface of a glass display, but rather reaching through the glass and interacting directly with the content. This is more art than science and the Lumia 920 achieves it through a combination of design touches: firstly, the glass curves at its edges, so that it seems a natural continuation of the device’s overall shape. Nokia’s Clear Black Display polarising technique also plays a role, ensuring background blacks displayed on screen are sufficiently dark as to appear part of the glass itself. As a result, content objects seem almost laminated to the surface of the glass. It is a beautiful effect.

The design language of Microsoft’s Windows Phone changed relatively little from the version 7.x software which ran on the first generation of Nokia Lumias, but the few changes have made a surprisingly significant difference. The home screen Live Tiles now fill the full width of the display and seem better suited to the higher pixel density of the 920’s 1280 x 768 screen. Even the seemingly trivial addition of more theme colours creates a better overall experience, allowing users to match their preference of software accents with their choice of handset colour. I oscillate between pairing magenta and teal with the screaming yellow of the exterior.

Nokia Lumia 920 standing upright

When I last spent a significant amount of time running Windows Phone 7.5 on a Lumia 710 as my personal device I struggled to be productive. There were too few applications available to connect to the various cloud services I rely on, or those that existed lacked the features I needed. I rarely managed more than a week before falling back to an iPhone. Today, with the Lumia 920 on Windows Phone 8, that productivity gap no longer exists. There are still compromises – notably with limited access to Google Drive and the more advanced features of Google Mail – but there are also areas where the 920 exceeds the competition, particularly in imaging and mapping.

Spotify on Windows Phone Nokia Lumia 920

Your experience will, of course, vary depending on your own requirements for cloud apps and services. To help you compare, I use Google mainly for Mail, Reader, Drive and Calendar, WordPress for blogging, Flickr for photos, Spotify for music, LinkedIn, Twitter, occasional Facebook, and Skype for conference calling. I also rely on Sports Tracker for exercise tracking, consume video content on Vimeo, Youtube and Netflix, read Kindle books, follow several podcast channels and use eBay. Almost all of these services have native Windows Phone apps and some, like Twitter, Youtube and Google Reader, have a several third party choices, which often exceed the functionality provided by the official app.

Only with Flickr, Spotify and the more advanced features of Google Mail (e.g. support for labels) do I feel there is substantial need for improvement.

Multi-tasking on Windows Phone Nokia Lumia 920

Crucially, Microsoft has also improved its overall approach to managing apps. It is now possible to switch between up to 8 apps, which remain paused in the background, by long-pressing on the back button. Developers can code apps to continue performing some functions when they’re held in their paused state. This is significant. It enables things like background downloads and being able to return to media paused in the right place.

In its earlier iterations, Windows Phone took an almost paranoid approach to resource management, killing off apps in the background so as to ensure the processor and memory never became overtaxed. Microsoft seems to be gradually relaxing these restrictions with each new version, as faster processors and more memory become the norm, allowing more services to run in the background.

However, be warned, Windows Phone does take some getting used to in this regard and it can be immensely frustrating until you do. A bizarre duality exists, whereby if you go back to the home screen and tap on a Live Tile to return to an app that’s already running, it will usually restart, losing your original place. However, if you long press on the back button to access the app via the multi-tasking menu, it drops you back in where you left off. It took me a couple of days for this to become second nature, but it remains a weak point of the software and one where Microsoft and Nokia could make an easy improvement to the overall UX by implementing proper multi-tasking.

Nextgen Reader on Windows Phone Nokia Lumia 920

That aside, my daily interactions with the 920 are generally a joy. It is hard to describe until you experience it for yourself, but there are often moments where Windows Phone’s combination of typographically-led design and the Lumia 920’s display meld to create app experiences of real pleasure. For instance, I spend some time each day catching up on my Google Reader feeds. I use the third party application Nextgen Reader and the way it lays out articles with white text on a black background is just so visually compelling that I’ve actually found myself reading more than I do on any other device. I find myself looking forward to my morning reading because of the intangible quality of the design aesthetic.

Videos also look beautiful on the 920. Again, the polarising techniques, curved glass and display size seem to create a sweet spot where my enjoyment of video content is enhanced, such that I now often chose to watch my daily selection of product reviews on the 920, preferring it to the larger screen of my laptop or even the big LCD hooked up to the Apple TV.

Metrotube on Windows Phone Nokia Lumia 920

Nokia calls it ‘Puremotion HD’ and claims its display redraws pixels faster than competing products, so that moving images, or scrolling through screens, appear smoother. It is another of the carefully selected components which, while not necessarily boasting the most advanced specifications available, work together in a way which delivers an experience greater than the sum of its parts.

HERE Drive on Windows Phone Nokia Lumia 920

This also comes into play when using the Lumia 920 for turn-by-turn navigation. In-car or walking, the display is clearer and easier to follow than anything I have used.

Much has been made of the Lumia 920’s camera, which shares Pureview branding with Nokia’s Symbian-powered imaging powerhouse, the 808. According to Nokia, Pureview refers not to a single technology, but rather to its overall commitment to flagship camera features. The 808, for instance, uses a 41 megapixel sensor, a large aperture and over-sampling to create remarkably clear, artefact-free photos. The 920, however, takes a different approach, using mechanical stabilisation and an 8 megapixel sensor to deliver blur free photos in low light conditions.

I rely on my phone to be my main camera and update a personal photo gallery a few times a day. Camera quality is one of the features most important to me in a phone. However, it is not something I judge on photo quality alone, but rather a combination of ease of use, battery life, speed and reliability. There is an old adage that the best camera is the one you have with you, but equally important is that intangible mix of convenience and quality of output which compels you to actually want to take more photos.

Camera UI on Windows Phone Nokia Lumia 920

I’ve found the Lumia 920 sits comfortably at the junction between convenience and quality. It is a good camera, producing fine, detailed shots – particularly close-ups – and, while in most situations the older 808 will capture a higher quality picture – the overall speed and reliability of the Lumia 920 means I use it more.

However, there is a huge consideration to bear in mind. Windows Phone displays deliberately down-sampled photos by default. As a result, you could easily misjudge the quality of the Lumia 920’s camera, as these photos appear blurred and artificially softened if viewed on the phone’s built-in gallery app.

I spent my first weeks with the 920 frustrated by the apparent deficiency of the camera. It was only when I read about this problem and downloaded an alternative gallery app (HD Photo Viewer) that the true quality of the photos became apparent.

This bizarre downsampling situation arose from Microsoft’s focus on interface speed in early generations of Windows Phone devices, which lacked processor speed and RAM. However, it defies logic that Microsoft should not have updated the gallery to show full quality photos on the newer generation, which have ample resources. It is especially frustrating Nokia did not insist on this update for a handset where imaging performance is such a key feature.

My advice: install HD Photo Viewer, ignore the standard gallery and enjoy the otherwise impressive imaging capabilities of the 920. Also, if you’re comfortable with manually adjusting things like shutter speed, ISO and white balance to get the best results, try the ProShot lens app.

Here are a few of the photos I’ve shot in my time with the 920, some taken using the built-in camera app, others using the ProShot lens app. Click to see the full size version of each:

My initial premise for testing the 920 was to explore whether the unique characteristics of the camera, notably its optical image stabilisation, low light sensitivity and system of ‘lens’ apps would enable new forms of creativity on a mobile device. It is something we’ve looked at in a previous MEX Pathway, #8, which considered how the inclusion of new sensors, from high quality cameras and microphones to gyroscopes and compasses, furthered creative expression with digital tools.

I’ve noticed several effects after a few months with the 920. I’m taking and sharing more photos than ever ever before. I am also using video more often, primarily because the optical image stabilisation system smooths out the picture shake which usually makes camera phone videos unusable.

Here’s a video of a sunset I filmed from a very bumpy rural train, showing how the optical image stabilisation and low light sensitivity help create smooth footage. Put it full screen and use the settings icon to make it 1080p.

I have also started to experiment with new image types. Panoramas, for instance, and cinemagraphs, where the Nokia records a few seconds of video and allows you to select which parts remain animated and which are frozen into the background. These image types are not unique to Nokia, but this is the first time I’ve found myself compelled to use them regularly.

Waggy tail Nokia cinemagraph

The are several reasons, which illuminate why creativity on a mobile device is about far more than image quality.

Speed is a big part of it. Windows Phone is very slick. I can pull out the Lumia, long press the camera button and be straight into the camera app fast enough to capture a moment before it disappears.

Then there is the system of ‘lenses’, essentially camera specific apps which can be selected in the viewfinder of the main camera app to deliver specialised camera features: panoramas, Cinemagraphs and visual search. Again, it is not a new idea to offer filters or creative imaging apps, but here the implementation makes the difference. On other devices, where these kind of apps are installed as separate icons on a home screen, I would rarely bother to open then. On the Lumia, where they are accessible within the flow of the main camera UI, I have found myself using them much more frequently.

Lenses system on Windows Phone Nokia Lumia 920

Ease of sharing is the third characteristic driving the Lumia’s success as a creative tool. Everything image I create is synchronised seamlessly in the background to a Microsoft Skydrive, but which makes archiving simple. Also, Nokia has implemented its own easy way of sharing new creative types like the Cinemagraphs. They get uploaded and converted into animated GIFs, which can just be emailed, tweeted or linked with zero hassle or sign-up.

These elements of speed, a UI flow optimised for creativity and hassle free sharing combine to lower the psychological barriers to creativity and have increased my creative output.

Scanning text on Windows Phone Nokia Lumia 920

Creativity, of course, isn’t just about taking photos. I’ve also found myself using the text recognition feature built in to Windows Phone to capture and share text from printed articles and books. I’ll often find myself reading something I want to share. With the Lumia, I just hit the search button and the little eye icon. I then snap a photo of the text and Windows Phone makes every word selectable, allowing me to either send every bit of text in one hit, or select just a portion of it.

The range of apps to encourage new forms of digital creativity, however, is limited. That is something of a disappointment: the combination of Windows Phone and the Lumia hardware could be better exploited – the potential is there.

Rando on Windows Phone Nokia Lumia 920

One example I found was Rando by ustwo. It is a refreshing take on the imaging social networks which seem so in vogue. Rando’s uniqueness comes from how it treats the concept of sharing. It is built on the idea of images as gifts. You snap a photo, which Rando crops into a circular format, then upload it. You don’t know where it is going to end up – Rando just randomly selects someone – and in return, you receive a Rando back. If you want another one, you have to upload another of your own.

I liked the spontaneity. There is none of the usual nonsense of having to upload your address book and invite friends to join. You just take a photo and send it. In return, you’re treated a random visual snapshot from somewhere in the world. The nature of Randos, that you are sending to an unknown destination, encourages the user to seek out the unusual and to dedicate more time to creative composition than they might otherwise.

The Lumia 920 has been in my pocket now for several months and I rarely feel tempted to swap my SIM into anything else. It is crazily excellent in several areas: the build quality, that extraordinary yellow (which even extends to the bright yellow headphones, but included in the box), the jewel-like characteristics of the display and its superb camera optics. In most others it is passably good or above average, such that I can overlook deficiencies in some areas where it compares less favourably with other platforms.

This affection for the 920 is not the result of a scientific decision. It is a product which encourages you to think with your heart rather than your head and that’s often the sign of a good user experience. Perhaps science will sway me back to the app selection of the iPhone or the flexibility of Android in the future, but until then, I’ll have a smile on my face every time I drop this chunky, ludicrously yellow Lumia on to its wireless charging plate on my desk and hear that happy little jingle it makes as the power starts to flow.

Nokia Lumia 920 on wireless charging plate

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