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Nokia Lumia 1020 review: One camera to rule them all

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Nokia knows that in order to make Windows Phone stick, it needs to do something truly special. The Lumia 1020 is just that.

Actually, scratch that - the Lumia 1020's 41-megapixel camera is what makes Windows Phone worth using.

Hardware and design

When Nokia announced that it would bring the sensor technology from the PureView 808 over to its Windows Phone devices, we imagined an even chubbier Lumia 920.

Somehow, Nokia has done the opposite. The Lumia 1020 is actually 0.3 mm thinner than the 920 and weighs 27 grams less. It's not as slim and lightweight as some flagship Android phones, but the size is forgivable due to the camera unit on the back.

Nokia Lumia 1020

© Digital Spy



Crucially, Nokia has yet again nailed the build quality and design. The 1020 uses the classic Lumia soft-touch matte plastic and the same rounded edges of the 920. It's comfortable to hold, and feels very well put together.

Nokia is only really second to Apple now in terms of build and design. Our yellow 1020 actually struck us as slightly more exciting to look at than, say, the iPhone 5C.

The phone's three backlit touch sensitive buttons on the front work fine, as do its volume and lock keys.

Thankfully the dedicated two-stage shutter button is also very good, although we would've like to see more feel between a full and half press of the key, as we often would accidentally take photos.

The phone's internal hardware isn't as impressive as some Android phones, but then it doesn't need to be, as Windows Phone 8 isn't so processor intensive. You get a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm processor, which is more than enough to keep the phone running fast. 2GB of RAM helps as well.

The screen is a 4.5-inch 768 x 1280 resolution display that uses Nokia's clever PureMotion HD tech. In real-world use, it's very sharp and has some of the best brightness levels we have ever seen from a phone in direct sunlight. This is crucial, as the Lumia 1020's screen needs to work outdoors when you take photos.


That screen can also be used while wearing gloves, so you can escape cold fingers when taking photos in the Winter. For the most part, this works. Issues arise however when its raining, as the phone's display seems to get confused by water droplets.

The last big thing on the Lumia 1020's hardware checklist is its battery, as well as the camera, which will get its own section.

Powering the Lumia 1020 is a 2,000 mAh battery unit, which we found would struggle to make it through a day's worth of decent use without a recharge. There is an optional camera grip accessory that will boost this further, but it does add quite a bit of size to the phone.

The camera

The Lumia 1020 is the best smartphone camera you can buy right now. It outperforms many compacts, and has sharpness and clarity that would rival some entry-level DSLRs.

What's most impressive to us is how Nokia managed to fit all this quality into such a small space. It feels like the 1020 should be much bulkier.

It isn't without its faults, however. The main issue we have with the Lumia 1020's camera is when you leave it in auto mode. The handset is desperate to bump exposure up as much as possible, and in turn can blow out highlights or cause detail to be lost. In order to get the best results, you will want to switch to manual in the Pro Cam app.

Nokia Lumia 1020

© Digital Spy

It also takes a while for pictures to process after they have been captured in the Nokia Pro Cam app. The camera application itself is slow to load compared to most flagship Android phones and the iPhone 5S and 5C. No burst mode also makes the time between taking photographs uncomfortably long.

Most of this is forgivable when you consider the size of the images that the phone is trying to piece together, however, and not once did it become enough of an irritation for us to want to use something else to take a picture.

The photographs the 1020 takes can be fairly hit and miss. When conditions are right, pictures are stunning with amazing dynamic range and incredible levels of detail. Throw the 1020's sensor off, however, and then pictures can be flat and dull.

Nokia Lumia 1020 sample photo

© Nokia / National Geographic

Lumia 1020 sample taken by National Geographic

Focus is quick, but could do with being able to lock onto slightly closer objects. The 1020 puts out a lovely smooth depth of field when capturing close-up portraits, and we would've loved to have seen this replicated on other closer objects.

Interestingly though, for us the 1020's real trick is in the video it captures. Its optical image stabilisation, combined with excellent saturation and dynamic range, makes full HD video content stand head and shoulders above every other mobile phone.

Nokia Lumia 1020

© Digital Spy



It was so good in fact that we found ourselves shooting more video with the 1020 than we did stills. Low-light video also looks good and the depth of field even better when captured in video mode.

Nokia has been keen to push the 1020's low-light capabilities. While it's certainly very good, holding the phone steady enough to get sharp pictures isn't easy, as auto mode will keep bumping up shutter speed in order to get enough light to the sensor. Thankfully, you have an excellent Xenon flash to help out in situations where it's too dark.

Nokia Lumia 1020 sample taken by DS

© Digital Spy

Nokia Lumia 1020 sample taken by Digital Spy



Finally, just a bit on the camera ecosystem itself. Nokia has obviously had to do something clever with Windows Phone in order to get it to play nice with the Lumia 1020's camera resolution.

Getting at the full 41-megapixel images requires you to load them via Nokia's Pro Cam app. They can't be viewed in Windows Phone's stock photos application. The full features of the 1020 camera also can't be accessed without Pro Cam. Bottom line, only use Pro Cam.

User interface and applications

Every time we pick up a new Nokia the same thing happens. The Lumia 925, the last Windows Phone we reviewed, we fell in love with. A few weeks of use, though, and the operating system started to become an irritation.

Our main qualms with Windows Phone are twofold - firstly, in the way it handles multi-tasking and notifications. This is an operating system that requires multiple steps in order to get anything done. It's a niggle that becomes a problem if you are used to things like Android and iOS.

It looks fantastic and handles basic smartphone tasks like email and text messages brilliantly. It's when you try to go beyond this that Windows Phone becomes a problem.

Nokia Lumia 1020 sample taken by DS

© Digital Spy

Nokia Lumia 1020 sample taken by Digital Spy



Applications, as much as we hate to say it, are still not up to scratch either. 6Tag for example, is almost as good as Instagram, but isn't free.

    "Nokia deserves real credit for the magic it has worked with its Windows Phone apps."

This can be said for most of the Marketplace's third-party alternatives. Gaps have been plugged by developers, but they nearly always charge. First-party apps that are there, like Twitter for example, feel lacking compared to Android and iOS versions.

Nokia deserves real credit for the magic it has worked with its Windows Phone apps. Everything from Here Maps to the City Lens augmented reality cam is perfectly put together. As such, most of Windows Phone's shortcomings are covered, but we can't help but feel that Nokia could've done even better with Android.

In the end, if you are about smartphone photography and are less of a power user, the Lumia 1020's user interface isn't going to be an issue. If you're a beginner, it's also perfect for learning the smartphone ropes.

Movies and music

First up, the Lumia 1020's screen lends itself perfectly to movie watching. It's vivid and bright, which makes it excellent for watching a film on the bus or anywhere else outdoors.

Sound output is also very good, as is recording while shooting video with the phone's camera. Music comes in the form of the included Nokia Music app, as well as of course things like Spotify, which does have a slightly buggy Windows Phone 8 application.

Nokia Lumia 1020

© Digital Spy

Microsoft has every major base covered in terms of streaming and rentals. Music and Movies apps included with the Lumia 1020 rival iTunes for the amount on offer. So don't expect to feel like the phone lacks content to watch.

The competition

At the moment, the three big names in smartphone photography are the Sony Xperia Z1, Nokia Lumia 1020 and the iPhone 5S.

Nokia's device is vastly superior to all of them. So much so, that if you enjoy taking photos with your camera, this is the only phone to go for.

However, Android and iOS lend themselves better to app-related photo flexibility, so the share-addicts will prefer what Sony and Apple have to offer.

Verdict

Nokia's Lumia 1020 is a beautiful phone, expertly put together and with a stellar camera included. It's one of our favourite handsets of 2013.

The problem is, it's held back by one simple thing: Windows Phone. As an operating system, it just isn't evolved and developed enough and the Lumia 1020's strengths aren't such that WP 8's shortcomings can be overlooked.

If you are about smartphone photography, look nowhere else. Besides Apple, Nokia is leading the way with design right now. The Lumia 1020 also claims the prize for imaging.

Microsoft needs to start recognising the work that Nokia is doing and respond by rolling out an operating system worthy of the manufacturer's hardware.

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