Nokia Lumia 920 Review: A Fisher-Price Phone For A Giant

A very pretty, shiny phone with a very pretty, shiny operating system that's got just a few flaws--but they're not small flaws.
I tested the red model. I really like it! Nokia

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The Lumia is a phone I want to like much more than I do. Each Nokia phone has all this weight on its shoulders: Nokia, the legendary company, is basically dead. Will the phone save Nokia? Windows Phone, the wild card third platform that could compete with Android and iOS, is totally underused. Will the phone save Windows Phone?

The Lumia 800 didn’t, the Lumia 900 didn’t, and the Lumia 920 won’t. It’s not a bad phone–in fact, it does lots of things very, very right–but it’s just not capable of bearing that burden. On the other hand, it’s big and heavy enough to bear most physical burdens, which is, you know, something.

What’s New

The third generation of Lumia phone, the 920 has a big 4.5-inch screen, 4G LTE speeds, a very fancy 8.7-megapixel camera with floating lens technology, and fancy new ideas like wireless charging and near-field communication. It’s running Windows 8, the brand-new third generation of the very promising Windows Phone software.

What’s Good

The screen is amazing! Windows Phone is maybe the flat-out prettiest mobile operating system out there–bright, bold colors, flippity animations, deep blacks, blinding whites–and the screen is just spectacular. With a 1280 x 760 resolution, it’s painfully sharp–no visible pixels here–and some kind of fancy screen tech with a confusing acronymic name that reduces blur. It’s one of the best screens I’ve ever seen.

And I love the design. The Lumia 920 comes in lots of super-bright colors, which match up with the super-bright operating system. Mine’s a cheerful candy-apple red, smooth and playful, like a Fisher Price toy for grown-ups. It’s hard to make a phone look like anything besides a black or white rectangle, and the Lumia 920 definitely got looks on the subway.

Though it’s only running a dual-core processor, one of the great things about Windows Phone is that it’s optimized to run smoothly on slower (and more battery-efficient) chips. The Lumia 920 is easily the smoothest-running Windows Phone I’ve ever used. Scrolling is fast, flipping back and forth between apps is fast, everything (besides, sometimes, opening apps) is fast. The camera I found to be sort of underwhelming only in that it didn’t completely blow my mind, but in low-light especially, it takes some damned impressive shots–tons of detail, very little noise.

Windows Phone as a whole is pretty good software. I like the way it thinks about a lot of things–how your homescreen has lots of information, like Android’s widgets, but presented in a clear, stylish, and organized way, like icons on an iPhone; how you navigate to different parts of an app by swiping sideways; how it pulls in all of your contacts from Facebook and Twitter and presents them in a logical way. It interacts well with other Microsoft devices, especially the Xbox 360–you can control your Xbox with the SmartGlass app, getting extra info from games and movies and TV shows. Cool! And many of the apps in the Windows Phone store are awesome–the Netflix and IMDb apps, in particular, are the best of their kind.

There’s also some custom Nokia stuff going on here. I especially like the turn-by-turn Nokia Drive+ app, and the built-in Cinemagraph app is really great. (Cinemagraphs are kind of like partial GIFs–imagine a still image in which a part of the image loops as a video.)

What’s Bad

This phone is huge. It has a giant 4.5-inch screen, sure, but that’s not so much of a problem; many of Samsung’s Galaxy S phones are even bigger, and they don’t feel so monstrous. The Lumia 920 is unnecessarily big: it’s heavy, there’s unused space (given the screen size, the phone could be an entire centimeter shorter), it’s thick, it’s huge. It’s almost a dealbreaker for anyone who wears semi-tight pants and likes keeping a phone in a pocket; you’re never not aware of this slick metal hoagie roll banging against your hip.

Battery life wasn’t great, doubtless the fault of the huge screen and battery-hungry 4G LTE antenna. It was enough to make it through the day, barely, if you used it lightly. Not good.

Windows Phone has huge problems. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but we’re two years into this operating system, and it still has basic issues that impact daily use. Multitasking is horrendous; you hold the back button and it gives you big thumbnails showing screenshots of all your apps, which you can swipe through to select. Sounds good! But for some reason there’s hardly any friction on that swipe, so it’s hard to get it to stop on the app you want. The app list itself populates according to some algorithm I never figured out–sometimes one app would have three spots, sometimes the app I was using five minutes ago wouldn’t be there. There’s no way to close apps that I can see.

The app selection is a bigger problem. Flat out, Windows Phone does not have the depth or quality of the apps available on other platforms. The apps that it does have are sometimes woefully outdated or buggy; why would Twitter or Rdio spend time and money fixing an app that only a few hundred or a few thousand people use? And Instagram, swiftly becoming one of the most important social networks out there, has no Windows Phone app. Sucks, too, because the Lumia 920’s camera is really great (though occasionally its color reproduction was a little dull).

Microsoft just isn’t upgrading Windows Phone in the right way. For this newest version, they added a kid’s mode, skinnable camera, and the ability to resize the homescreen icons (or “Live Tiles,” as they call them). And, like, that’s fine, but multitasking is still broken and they still haven’t fixed it so you can see the goddamn clock. Yeah, you read that right: the clock is often hidden. If you’re reading Twitter, you can’t see what time it is. It’s absurd.

The Price

$100 on contract at AT&T, where it comes with a non-upgradeable 32GB of storage. That’s a really good deal; a 32GB iPhone 5 costs three times that much.

The Verdict

I spent a long time with the Lumia 920, longer than I usually spend with review units of phones. This is a phone I was really excited about! But I just can’t recommend it. It’s way too bulky, the battery life is lackluster, and Windows Phone 8 has some big problems on top of that. It’s not a bad phone; when you’re swiping away through a gorgeous weather or news app, you completely forget its shortcomings, and it’s nicely priced. But there are better phones out there.