Mobile // Mobile Devices
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12/6/2012
01:09 PM
Kurt Marko
Kurt Marko
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Nokia Lumia 920: Close, But No Cigar

I spent a few not particularly pleasant weeks with Microsoft's latest effort to achieve mobile relevance.

Windows Phone 8: Star Features
Windows Phone 8: Star Features
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Microsoft's approach to mobile devices reveals an apparent case of bipolar disorder. It alternates between cold dismissiveness -- treating the little gadgets as just another peripheral that's regularly tethered to the almighty PC -- and an enthusiastic embrace, in which the Lilliputian computers are legitimate inheritors of the mighty Windows franchise. The company is currently in one of the passionate phases, seemingly putting as much marketing muscle behind tablets and phones as it does laptops and all-in-ones.

In other words, the reality that Apple, Google and its Android partners, notably Samsung, are eating Microsoft's lunch has finally hit like a two-by-four between the eyes. Although Apple fomented the mobile device revolution, Google now owns the largest share of U.S. smartphone sales while Microsoft barely registers, and the situation is nearing the point of no recovery. Thus, Microsoft is making one last-ditch push for mobile device relevance with its two-pronged Windows 8 tablet/smartphone strategy. And success is riding on a new generation of Windows 8 phones, headlined by Nokia's Lumia 920.

This fall has seen a flurry of smartphone releases, and having recently reviewed the iPhone 5, I was eager to see how the latest crop of high-end products like the Samsung Galaxy Note II and Lumia 920 stacked up. AT&T kindly obliged and I've been putting both devices to the test for the past few weeks for an upcoming report.

[ Learn How Samsung Galaxy Note II Won Me Over. ]

We'll get to the hardware later, but the elephant in the room when evaluating Windows 8 -- whether on phones or PCs -- is the new Modern UI. Unlike the Android-powered Note, which comports with iOS-inspired smartphone tradition, Windows Phone 8 apes its PC namesake by utterly dispensing with the familiar multi-screen grid of fixed icons. Instead, there's a row of what Microsoft calls, in a classic bit of marketing overstatement, Live Tiles. If the ability to display information updates from an underlying app means live, I guess the term fits, but I'm having hard time seeing the functional improvement over iOS icon badges, Android's home screen widgets and both platforms' notification bars.

Live Tiles are arguably a clever innovation. However, as UI guru Jacob Nielsen noted in discussing the PC incarnation, the actual implementation leaves a lot to be desired. "Unfortunately, application designers immediately went overboard and went from live tiles to hyper-energized ones ... The theory, no doubt, is to attract users by constantly previewing new photos and other interesting content within the tiles. But the result makes the Surface start screen into an incessantly blinking, unruly environment that feels like dozens of carnival barkers yelling at you simultaneously."

In contrast, dispensing with multiple home screens in favor of a single scrolling list of app tiles is a clear step backward. There's a reason educated civilizations replaced scrolls with the bindable codex for manuscripts: browsing for information by flipping through pages is a lot more efficient. All the more so since Windows Phone 8, unlike Android and iOS, has no way to search for locally installed apps. That means get used to a lot of scrolling.

Yet in many ways, Phone 8 is a decided improvement over previous versions. Perhaps the most useful enhancement is a browser made for the era of HTML 5 Web apps. Although the phone edition of IE 10 is a notable improvement, it's still a work in progress. We ran across several websites that Safari or Chrome rendered with aplomb that IE clipped or garbled. This is manifested in IE's inferior scores on the HTML 5 fidelity test: 320 out of 500, versus 386 and 390 for Safari and Chrome, respectively. Other Phone 8 improvements include mobile Office apps and system-wide integration to Microsoft's cloud storage, Skydrive, similar to OS's iCloud and Android's Google Drive.

Workmanlike, if not Extraordinary, Hardware

When it comes to actually building a platform to display Microsoft's wares, Nokia has done a commendable, if not particularly elegant, job. This isn't surprising for a company that long ruled the cellphone market but never seemed to appreciate the public's fondness for Apple's sleek and sexy designs, substituting Nordic practicality for California design flair. Although the Lumia 920 is attractive and obviously well-constructed, svelte it isn't: no one will ever confuse it for an iPhone. It's almost as thick as a 10-year old iPod and weighs 65% more than the iPhone 5.

Its hardware specs, which comprise a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus (ARM A9 variant), 32 GB of integrated flash storage, and both LTE and dual-band Wi-Fi radios, place it solidly in superphone territory. However, in our benchmarking, which admittedly includes only browser tests since the standard system and graphics benchmarking apps haven't been ported to Windows, it lags both the iPhone 5 and Galaxy Note II by about 30% on average. Two areas where the Lumia does excel are its display, which is stunning, and its rear camera, both of which boast higher resolution than the iPhone (although I found low light shots from the iPhone more vivid).

But high-end hardware is of limited use if there's nothing to run on it. Like Apple and Google, Microsoft has finally created its very own app store, an addition that certainly makes it easier to find, buy and install apps -- that is, if there's anything worth installing. Here the Windows Store is still relatively barren by comparison, although in fairness, I've seen noticeable improvement over the past few weeks. Still, most of the apps are games and freebie utilities. There are a few big names like Evernote, Twitter and Facebook (which was actually developed by Microsoft), but no Flipboard, Gmail, or Instapaper.

The Lumia 920 represents the pinnacle of Windows Phone design, but it's unlikely to convert many existing iPhone or Android users. In fact, its primary selling point is price. At $99 on contract it's less than half what you'll spend on an iPhone or Galaxy. As others have noted, this means Microsoft might be resigned to the fact that its target market will never be the smartphone cognoscenti in the U.S., Europe and Japan, but rather feature phone converts in the developing world. I know I certainly won't be suffering any separation anxiety when this tester goes back.

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RSL
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RSL,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/10/2012 | 4:20:24 PM
re: Nokia Lumia 920: Close, But No Cigar
"Yes the author made a few errors in the facts, but hey we all make mistakes, right?"

An author who posts tech articles is held to a different and higher degree then what might be a water-cooler conversation. Their accuracy and items they choose to mention can make or break many people's opinions. Example: the author did bash IE10, but CHOSE to not mention that IE10 on Windows 8 is by far the safest way to browse the web. My guess is that this is an important fact...

I am constantly seeing Information Week being inaccurate, selective, and very anti Microsoft. This to the point that myself and many others I know are considering removing it from our regular reading.
solaide
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solaide,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/10/2012 | 1:55:29 PM
re: Nokia Lumia 920: Close, But No Cigar
Here is a piece of info most reviews will not tell you.
If you unpin all the tiles from the start screen you actually will see that the start screen disappears.

You should now look at your applications list and decide what you want on your start screen. I usually start with the phone application (afterall that is the primary purpose), then the messaging application, and the people application (fancy contact address book that does so much more), calendar, etc.

Once you add what is important to you to the start screen you have essentially made the phone yours. This is the point Microsoft is trying to make with the #meetyours campaign.

The store really has most of the applications that you would need or at least there will be alternatives. Don't get caught up with the "but it doesnt have pandora crew". Truth is there are other apps such as Aupeo radio, Nokia Music, Amazing music, etc that will blow your mind.

If you are willing to pay for a subscription to xbox music ($10/month), you essentially have the music world at your finger tips. Hear a song, hit the search button on the phone, hit the music icon in bing search, it listens for the music, identifies the music, and hit the download button. You can listen to it anywhere offline.

You can even get the smart dj to pick songs for you from the cloud based on the one artist or song you have selected.

Best of all if you have an Xbox, it works with your xbox.
solaide
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solaide,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/10/2012 | 1:47:55 PM
re: Nokia Lumia 920: Close, But No Cigar
So are you saying the legit reviews browser tests are invalid because they used four different available test suites? BTW these suites are what most reviewers use to provide a bias free comparison of various browsers.

As per the camera performance, engadget posted the pictures from which they drew their conclusions. You can view the pictures your self and read the general conclusion from engadget readers about what people think about the pictures.

Please post the low light pictures from which you draw your own conclusion that the iPhone 5 takes better low light pictures.
wtkace
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wtkace,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/10/2012 | 10:14:44 AM
re: Nokia Lumia 920: Close, But No Cigar
Below is my own review based on top three smartphone on how they survive in drop test.

http://www.empowernetwork.com/...
dtaflin
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dtaflin,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/10/2012 | 3:00:57 AM
re: Nokia Lumia 920: Close, But No Cigar
The home screen isn't crowded, seriously or otherwise. It's w/in your control to make it what you wish it to be. And I'm not at all sure how you were left with the impression is was little more than a Facebook enabled fashion accessory. It feels less like a fashion accessory and more like a business tool than iOS and Android enabled smart phones...iOS feeling more like a fashion accessory, Android feeling more like a Wal-Mart version of a fashion accessory.
Andrew Hornback
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Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/9/2012 | 9:53:33 PM
re: Nokia Lumia 920: Close, But No Cigar
Hmm... I was actually looking at demoing a WP8 device myself, just to see what Microsoft's been cooking up, but the lack of Flash support is a deal-breaker. Having had a phone in the past that /promised/ Flash support but never delivered it (Palm Pre, anyone?), there's no way that I'm going to take that risk again.

Having a seriously crowded home screen just doesn't work for me either. Maybe it's just my age showing, but I recall my old Blackberry 8830 and it's Agenda view as being the best home screen on a device, period. Just really seems to me like a marketing fumble at Microsoft - the idea of putting Office on a handheld is stellar, but then making that handheld little more than a fashion accessory that you can kinda get to Facebook on... fumble.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
toothie007
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toothie007,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/9/2012 | 5:04:22 PM
re: Nokia Lumia 920: Close, But No Cigar
I guess when you wrote that, you never thought about how dumb it will make you sound. Now run along. When you have something worth saying (as in valid), revisit us.
dbtinc
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dbtinc,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/9/2012 | 2:28:32 PM
re: Nokia Lumia 920: Close, But No Cigar
of who is this "nokia" of which you speak? didn't they make phones in the late 20th century?
toothie007
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toothie007,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/9/2012 | 5:41:12 AM
re: Nokia Lumia 920: Close, But No Cigar
The piece was meant to be a hit job. Chances are, paid for too.
solaide
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solaide,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/9/2012 | 5:13:22 AM
re: Nokia Lumia 920: Close, But No Cigar
9. If you spent a few weeks with this phone and this is all you could say about it, I would say Information Week really needs a new tech reviewer or at least have such reviews reviewed!
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