As much as I like to call myself a tech nerd and gadget freak, smart phones have always been unexciting to me. If it wasn’t for the fact that my current phone (iPhone 4) was a gift, I’d still be rocking an old Nokia 5800. The only thing I would use my phone for was making calls, texts and a the occasional tune. A month with the iPhone changed all that of course  The smartphone market has come up with some really impressive devices over the last year and when the opportunity to review Nokia’s Lumia 920 came up, I was all over it.

Before I get into the review proper, I should point out exactly what it is that I use my phone for. These are the things I expect any decent smart phone to do well:

  • Make and receive calls
  • Text messaging
  • Note taking
  • Music/Podcasts
  • Occasional videos
  • Gym log
  • Pedometer/Running computer
  • Maps
  • Occasional pictures
  • Calculator
  • Flashlight 

Notice that email, gaming and internet browsing are not on this list. I shall get to why that is in a bit.

So lets get the elephant out of the room shall we? Size. No two ways about it. This is a BIG phone. I realize that size is eventually a matter of personal taste but for what its worth, I quite like the dimensions of the 920. It rests easily in my palm and unless I’m typing in landscape mode, does not necessitate the use of both my hands. It also fits snugly in a jeans pocket though looks ridiculous in the front of a formal trouser. And unlike the Galaxy tab, you wont look silly while holding this to you ear. Unless you have small hands, the phone’s dimensions should not be a problem. What might be of some concern though, is its weight. Even with the generous use of plastic, there is considerable heft to the device and keeping the phone pressed to ones ear for long periods of time is going to get tiring real quick. Luckily, the 920 comes with a decent set of earphones (more on this later).

The overall build quality is nice and the plastic does not feel “cheap” in any way. I particularly appreciate the corning gorilla glass used for the screen. In addition to being smooth and pleasing to the touch, it does a decent job of being scratch and grime resistant. Ill go far enough to say that as long as you use a folio type case, there is no need for a dedicated screen guard. Something that no portable Apple device I’ve owned can claim. There is one minor drawback though, the use of plastic does compromise cooling. As a result, the 920 frequently got quite warm during use. Also, I’m not sure how all that plastic would hold up in the event of a drop. My guess is, given the weight of the phone, not very well. All the more reason to invest in a decent case.

In terms of performance, I must say, the 920 blew me away. This is a blazingly fast phone. In real world performance it even blows my current gen iPad waaaaay out of the water. I don’t know what kind of coding wizardry has gone into Windows phone 8 but by Gandalf’s beard this a fast phone! Apps launch near instantaneously and switching between different ones is quick. The scrolling is buttery smooth and phone just generally feels like greased lightning. Opening links in emails or twitter fires up the browser (IE by default) in the blink of an eye and even on spotty 3G browsing is a real joy. I’ve always hated surfing the web on any phone I’ve used be it iOS, Android or even Win Phone 7. The Nokia Lumia 920 has changed the expectations of how browsing on a phone should feel. The keypad is big enough for my fat thumbs and I have taken to using the 920 to check and reply to emails. In one instance I even made some minor edits to a word file I had saved to the cloud (Win 8 comes with a mobile version of Office). I would never think of doing this on my iPhone.

The most powerful android phones are currently rocking quad core chips but the dual core 1.5 ghz Snapdragon S4 chip is a real beast. The kind of performance I got out of two cores on this thing was very, very impressive. I’m not talking about pure benchmarks here (which you can see in the pictures below) but rather how fast everything just felt. Maybe its the way the OS has been optimized, either way, its fast. As far as hardware is concerned, Nokia has pulled off a winner.

When it comes to software, things get a little tricky. As an OS, Win Phone 8 is slick and generally pleasant to use. Even navigating the menus on the phone is a delight. Personalization options are decent, though nowhere near as robust as those offered by Android. Unlike Android however, Win Phone 8 seems to be stable as a rock. I have been using the phone for a week now and I’ve yet to experience a single crash.

Its not all sunshine and roses though. Installing certain apps can also be a tricky. Ideally, you should be able to install from a PC, ala android apps via a google account. Here, it is hit or miss. Some apps fail to install, prompting you to check an email which will have a link to the windows marketplace. You will need to do it directly from the phone itself.

My mood was further soured when I tried to bring over some of the media I wanted over from the apple environment. The app doesn’t recognize the tagging from iTunes. This makes organizing tracks and media information an absolute nightmare. To make matters worse, in many cases, it would not allow certain video files to play at all, even if transferred successfully to the 920. Long story short, if you are switching platforms and intend to bring all of your media with you, brace for frustration. Even when I did manage to get the files I wanted over, the stock media player left me unimpressed. Its not bad, just not as intuitive as I would prefer it to be.

As far as music goes, I mentioned earlier that the phone comes with a decent pair of earphones (with a built in mic and remote) . Once again, I was impressed with the hardware here. The earphones are fantastic. One caveat though, the sound quality of the phone itself is not as good as the iPhone’s. To clarify I used the earphones on both the 920 and the iPhone for comparison  The iPhone certainly had more bass and a generally “fuller” sound. The 920 had decent mid range performance but lost out on the lower frequencies  Again, not a deal breaker but music aficionados might be happier with something from Apple or Sony Ericsson’s stables.

I’m not much of a mobile gamer but there’s no question that Apple still has the upper hand here at least when it comes to the sheer number of games on offer. Besides, given the size of the 920’s display, playing anything on it was murder on the battery. I wont fault the phone for this as the same applies to all most any phone with a decent sized display. The 920’s performance is fine but I did notice that the color palette was a little dull on the few games I did try. This did surprise me as the screen is absolutely gorgeous when it comes to videos and photos. With the Xbox store being merged with the windows 8 environment, its only a matter of time before better titles come out. One thing worth mentioning is how many games on the Xbox store allow one to “try” a game before buying, which is great and something Apple seriously needs to do.

Speaking of which, apart from the battery benchmark you can see below, the real world test of the battery was encouraging. I used the phone for the following over the course of a day: 30 minutes of reading on Kindle, 45 minutes of video, 40 minutes as a running computer, 70 minutes of music, 30 minutes of calls, 30 minutes worth of twitter/Facebook combined. WiFi was on throughout and default phone settings were kept. The battery lasted just under 20.5 hours. That is not bad at all.

My biggest complaint though is the apps themselves. Or lack thereof. The selection of apps is threadbare at best. This is a real tragedy because at the end of the day, recommending the 920 is going to be a case of putting a lot of faith in how the Windows App market develops. Certain omissions such as Zinio, Comixology, Runkeeper and Wunderlist are inexcusable. The former two in particular leave me baffled. If anything, Microsoft should have gone out of their way to get them on board. The HD screen on the 920 pretty much demands it. The pixel density may not be as high as Apple’s much touted “Retina” flavor, but its decent enough to make me use the 920 for reading books on the Kindle app. The whole point of doing the “walled garden” approach is to make the environment reliable for users and viable for developers. The lack of apps in the windows market place puts a big question mark on the latter.

So then, is the Lumia 920 worth buying? From a hardware perspective, absolutely. Yes its big and a tad heavy but the capabilities of the device are practically within “tablet” territory without being as big as an actual tablet. From a usability standpoint, the lack of apps makes it a hard sell. Ultimately, it comes down to how much faith you would want to put in Microsoft’s app market.

You will notice this review makes no mention of the camera. That is because Naina has done an excellent job of covering that particular feature over on her blog. You will also get to see some great shots of the phone itself.