Let’s Go: a week with a Nokia Lumia 920 and Windows Phone 8

, posted: 13-Dec-2012 10:13

Right, full disclosure first: I work for Telecom New Zealand. Don't panic though, I actually earn my keep in the digital experience team, and a big part of what I do is keeping up with how people interact with technology and how those interactions can be made more intuitive and human-focussed. So I was very keen to see how Microsoft's new Windows Phone 8 stacked up against Android and iOS and also to see Nokia's new premium Lumia line in action. The guys here were very explicit about making this piece unbiased, so all these opinions and the weird grammar are completely mine.

Now, this won't be an exhaustive feature review and there'll be a bare minimum of spec-talk - mainly because I figure there's plenty of other sites (including Nokia and Telecom) that'll handle all that better than I can.

Instead I'm going to focus on how this new phone and operating system combo behaves in New Zealand, on a New Zealand mobile network, in the hands of a Kiwi and what were the things about the whole experience that I reckon you'd like to know if you're in the market for a new superphone.

 

Industrial Design

Let's kick off with the outside. A polycarbonate monobody means there's no case joins to detract from the uber-onesie-ness, and the rounded sides means there's no sharp edges to dig into your palm. The edges of the screen are curved as well; they fade softly into the main body. This curve isn't just for design aesthetics, either: a common interaction in Windows Phone is a sideways swipe to navigate between tabs, and Nokia researched that it just feels better when your finger meets a curved surface instead of a hard edge or plane - how's that for attention to detail?

OK, so the phone looks great and is suitably touchy-feely, but how does it stand up to real-world use? Well, Nokia's put some next-level materials in the game here. The physical buttons and the camera strip on the reverse are made from ceramic zirconium, which resists scratches like your dinner plate shrugs off your knife and fork. The Gorilla Glass used on the screen is already well-known for taking an "is that the best you can do?!" stance against even those punishing keys and coins in your pocket or handbag, and the rest of the phone is polycarbonate with colour fused all the way through it - not just surface-coating here. All these materials not only feel great (they're warm, not cold), but the visible effects of any dings or scratches are hugely reduced, so it should look great for longer.

Weight

Talking about someone's weight behind their back is generally considered a bit rude, but in the Lumia 920's case it's a hot topic that a lot's been written about already, so I've left mine in the other room while we chat about this. (We'll just whisper, OK?)

I did some quick informal surveys and the feedback from people who held the Lumia 920 for the first time ranged from "it's a lot heavier than my phone" and "I wouldn't want to get caught up-side the head with it" to "hey, it feels like a real phone" and "premium".

Personally, my first impression was "heavy" but, after using it for a week, I now describe it as "reassuringly solid" and I don't notice the weight any more. The best way I can describe my perception change is like this: remember when you agonised over the size of your first big-screen TV? When you rationalised picture size against cost, and 'significant other' acceptance factor against credibility with your mates? And you at last made your choice and grinned like a happy idiot when it was finally installed? But then 2 weeks later you were sitting there and you realised, "Yeah, I could've gone bigger..."? Well, the Lumia 920's weight is like that: after a few days you just wonder what all the fuss was about.

I know, that's just one more opinion, when what you're really thinking is "But will *I* think it's too heavy?".

Well, we're all about practical advice around here, so I present to you the Authorised Lumia Offline Heft Approximisator (ALOHA, patent pending): grab some spare change, some sticky-tape and your current mobile then find out your current mobile's weight (GSM Arena is useful). The Lumia 920 weighs 185g so if that's heavier than your mobile then work out the weight difference. Then stick a close-enough combo of coins (the Reserve Bank says a 20c piece weighs 4g, 50c is 5g, $1 is 8g, $2 is 10g) to the back of your mobile and bam!, your mobile is now the same weight as a Lumia 920. No, it's not the classiest of looks, I'll grant you, but give it a couple of days and see if you can deal with the weight or if you start walking in circles because you're now leaning to one side.

By the way, think twice before assuming you'll need to add a case protector to the Lumia 920; it seems to have one of the toughest exteriors around. Much like a great Bond film it's been hit with a mallet and slashed with a knife, plus run over by a car and tossed 3 stories high to land on asphalt and after all that it just strolled away with not much more than a minor flesh wound. (Your mileage could vary, and I'm not game enough to repeat this one!)

User Interface

From an interaction design perspective, I think the Modern UI is a great-looking visual style system. It's won't be for everyone but if you're over the visual clutter of icons and wallpapers and buttons and menus that some other mobile operating systems use then this'll be like an oasis in the desert. It's not so much that everything unnecessary has been stripped away, more that a blank page was the starting point and then every element that was added had to fight for its life to stay there. Once you know the basic interactions, you get a sense that if something isn't easy to find then it probably isn't there; the UI doesn't make you feel foolish for not knowing lots of secret handshakes. I liked:
  • The People Hub.Scratch the 'like', I love this. The People Hub pulls all communications together and can show them by person so you can see "what's Maverick been up to" at a glance instead of having to open up individual apps to learn "what did Maverick post on Facebook, what did Maverick text me, has Maverick emailed me, what's Maverick tweeted". Hubs instead of apps is a radical shift, but it's one that (for me) feels far more friendly and intuitive.
  • Animations.I won't describe all these, because if you end up getting a Windows Phone then these design touches are wonderful to stumble across. Icons rotate smoothly as you change the orientation of the phone, the 'More' ellipsis is a great and consistent way to help people learn icons while not cluttering the display for experts, menu list items twist slightly as you touch them, and lots more. It's details like these that give the UI a polished, premium feel. Plus animations on the Lumia 920 are so smooth thanks to the Lumia 920's 60Hz screen refresh rate; the tight integration between UI, OS and hardware is literally visible.
  • Adaptive application menu. Initially the application menu is just a straight list but once the number of apps in the list goes above 40, Windows Phone automatically adds letter headings and separates all apps into sections based on the initial letter. Any letter heading can be touched to bring up a shortcut alphabet index list. It's a really nice touch but it also reveals some design philosophy: that Windows Phone adapts to you and your behaviour.
  

Interactions

There's a shedload of interactions in a large operating system like Windows Phone, so I'll just touch on a couple that are different to their counterparts on other mobile OSs. I liked:
  • Dictation and voice control.I found the vocal command parsing to be as good as Google (though perhaps a little slower), and I had far better success than with Siri on iOS, who I always had to put some kind of weird accent on for. (Maybe that's just me, though...)
  • Camera trigger.One of the smartest things about Windows Phone is all phones have to have a dedicated camera button so the camera can be quickly activated even if the phone is locked or asleep. Your risk of missing that photo op is greatly reduced.
  • Copy and paste. It just works. And it looks darn good doing it. The cursor even locks itself to a spot about 1cm above your finger-tip so as you move your finger around you can see exactly where the cursor is without having to peer around your finger - genius. My one niggle is I don't seem to be able to copy part of a text message, I have to copy the whole thing and then delete the bits I don't want. Hopefully that's an easy future enhancement.

  • Onscreen keyboard. It's fast and uncluttered. I turned off suggestions to get more screen real estate and I find I do miss Android's Swype (so handy when walk-messaging). One puzzler is there's no '.co.nz' button on the email/URL keyboard, instead there's a '.co.uk' button and '.co.nz' isn't even in the fly-out options. I'm hoping a future patch might alter the button to reflect the country/language chosen in the 'Browser and Search language' setting but given our population it might take all of us to get some attention for this one!
 

Technology

Let's chat about some of the Lumia 920's techno-innards and specifically how they work in New Zealand. There'll be no CPU or RAM benchmarks here, instead I thought I'd go into a couple of lesser-sung heroes that I was a fan of:
  • Battery Saver is in the Settings menu. It seems to function a lot like Juice Defender on Android but with a trigger threshold: when the battery level hits 20% the system turns off notifications and email auto-updates to really stretch out that last 20%. The effect is that instead of the battery depleting by 10% overnight, when Battery Saver was activated it only reduced by 4-5%, so it's a great feature if you're away from a charger.

  • The camera is definitely a superb feature of the Lumia 920. Songs will be written in its honour, I'm sure. Nokia has also released some great camera apps exclusive to the Lumia range (check out PhotoBeamer) that you won't get on other Windows Phone devices, too.
  • GPS uses satellites to determine your location and Nokia Maps uses that to map where you are. So far, so same-old. But then the wow-factor arrived: I was walking and it was tracking me. I'm not just talking about a marker being updated every few seconds; I moved a step, it moved a sub-pixel (the map was zoomed-in). No joke, it actually felt like I had my own satellite watching me - it was both very impressive and slightly unnerving at the same time. It's a great example of hardware working superbly with both the operating system and application layers.

  • DC-HSDPA is a new technology that Telecom is currently rolling out to its Smartphone Network, to enable faster data download speeds. The key bits in that unwieldy acronym are 'DC' for 'Dual Carrier' and the other 'D' is for 'Downlink' and means a compatible mobile device can ask the network for double the normal data connections to boost its download speed. So does the Lumia 920 support DC-HSDPA, I hear you ask? Why, yes. Yes, it does. DC-HSDPA is still being rolled out around the country so coverage is increasing as I type, but I did some tests at Telecom Place and a couple of spots around the Auckland CBD to see what's possible with the Lumia 920 and this network upgrade. There's no Speedtest.net app for Windows Phone yet, so I ran the Speedtest.net app on an iPad 3 connected to the Lumia 920 using its Wi-Fi internet sharing feature. Even with the overhead of that translation and extra step in the mix, the results were impressive:


Room for improvement

But it's not all rainbows and fluffy bunnies, there are still some teething issues to work through:
  • The Windows Phone Store needs some more apps. If you're an app-fiend, this is probably the thing that'll give you the most disappointment initially. The good news is almost all the heavy-hitters are available and this is a fast-growing area, plus there's an online tool to help you find Windows Phone equivalents for your favourite apps. One note is there seems to be a 'store' for each country, which means you only see reviews/ratings from people in your country. That's useful if the app has local content, but in a small country like ours a small sample size also means it can be hard to see which apps are popular or good.
  • The time stamps on incoming text messages appear as if they're arriving from 13 hours in the future. This can cause a couple of "what the...?" moments initially, especially for texts received in the afternoon since they show with tomorrow's date, but it's not a huge problem once you know about it. It's a known bug and a software fix is coming soon.
  • Text messages arrive with the sending mobile's number in the format +64271234567 but phone calls arrive with a number format of 0271234567. This means for callerID to work properly you currently need to store phone numbers in both formats, or you won't consistently see which of your contacts is calling/texting you. The good news is this bug is known to both Microsoft and Nokia and a fix is coming in mid-late December through Nokia Care Direct if you need it urgently, and Over-The-Air in early 2013.
  • There's a few other minor things I'd personally change, but they're far from earth-shattering and I'd feel pretty mean to pick on them; it's easy to forget this is basically v1 of a new operating system, while Android and iOS have each had over half a dozen major releases to fix little niggles. A good resource to see what suggestions have already been requested is the Windows Phone User Voice feedback site.
My Verdict

Overall, I've thoroughly enjoyed my initial experience with both Windows Phone 8 and Nokia's Lumia 920 - I can definitely see why they're so popular and I'm looking forward to putting the wireless chargers through their paces when they arrive.

The Lumia 920 hardware is solid (in every sense of the word) and has oomph to burn - I don't think it really needed to get out of first gear when I was testing it. Its size and weight mean it won't be for everyone but if it fits you then you'll be rewarded with a powerhouse of premium kit.

As for Windows Phone, the apps store is still very young compared to Android and iOS, but it's growing the fastest and I think the ecosystem has exciting potential thanks to tight integration with Microsoft's other properties like Xbox, Office, SkyDrive, Skype, Surface and Windows 8.

If you're looking for your first smartphone then I'd encourage you to play with a Windows Phone to see whether the minimalistic "people-focused" interface works for you as well as it did for me. Equally, if you're a power smartphone-user who's open-minded about trying something different to your current mobile operating system, then this one may take some adjusting to, but once you do I think you'll find it hard to go back.

About the author

Hi, I'm Crispin. By day I'm a UX specialist for Telecom's Digital team, so I look after big web projects and help make them awesome for our visitors. By night, I set morality aside and fight crim... errr, I mean I help small businesses with technology support on everything from Bluetooth headsets to NASs to backup strategies. HTPCs are a hobby and the proportion of electronic devices in my home vs 'dumb' ones makes it increasingly likely I'll be an early target for our new robot overlords. I lived in Wellington for 5 years and I'm now based in Auckland with two very determined yukka plants, a large electricity bill and a countdown to the next international film festival.

Other related posts:
Nakedmolerat’s Nokia Lumia 920 wrap up
Two months on with the Nokia Lumia 920
Wade’s Nokia Lumia 920: the hardware






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Telecom Tech is a different type of blog. We're sponsored by Telecom New Zealand, but most of the posts here are from every day users like you.

We choose tech savvy Geekzone users to "test drive" the new handsets from Telecom New Zealand.

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