It’s always seemed to me that since its launch Windows Phone has been a platform in search of a flagship phone to carry it to mainstream success. None of the launch devices seemed overly compelling to me, and while Nokia’s earlier Lumia devices have definitely set a higher standard, none of them possessed a killer feature that made them must-haves for everyday shoppers. However, ever since I saw the reviews of Nokia’s 808 PureView phone last year, I knew this device was coming. It was just a matter of time.
Nokia’s first real smartphone with a true PureView camera has arrived. The Lumia 1020 may not be perfect, and it may not be a massive commercial success due to its high price and AT&T exclusivity, but it is every bit the flagship device that fans of Windows Phone have been waiting for. It aptly combines the beautiful hardware design and build quality that Nokia has always been known for, and a unique attention grabbing feature that no other phone can boast. Let’s take a closer look at what the 1020 brings to the table.
Even if the internals of previous Lumia models have been mundane compared to other smartphone platforms, the same cannot be said for their design and build quality. Nokia has a long-standing reputation for phone design, and definitely stands toe-to-toe with Apple and HTC as a smartphone manufacturer that really cares about such things. It’s refreshing to see that Nokia isn’t taking the cheap and easy road with their flagship devices.
With the original Lumia design, Nokia staked a claim as being a design innovator in modern smartphones. It was a high quality device that had a fresh and unique look, which they have continued to refine over the years. The Lumia 1020 isn’t blazing any new trails in terms of design for the series, but there’s nothing wrong with building off of a solid template. The polycarbonate body is eye-catching and feels great in the hand. I find it much easier to grip than the slippery plastic surfaces of cheaper phones, or the glass backs of the iPhone 4S and Nexus 4.
Another feature of the polycarbonate exterior is durability, which has been proven over the life of previous Lumia models. I really like the balance struck between looks and practicality. In contrast, while the aluminum surface of the iPhone 5 looks lovely, and also provides plenty of protection for the phone’s internals, it is quite vulnerable to scratches and dents. As such, a large number of users feel like they have to hide those good looks inside of a case to keep them protected. The Lumia 1020 looks great, and thanks to its durability, doesn’t have to be stuffed in a case to remain that way.
If there is an aspect of Nokia’s Lumia phones that has grabbed the attention of smartphone buyers and the tech press alike, it’s the array of colors that they are offered in.
I was originally disappointed after the announcement of the 1020 because I was really looking forward to picking one up in Nokia’s trademark Cyan. This model is limited to Black, White, and Yellow. I went back and forth about which one to get, but even though I usually prefer understated colors, I decided on the striking Yellow version. It definitely gets attention, but it isn’t as gaudy in person as it may seem in pictures. The matte finish of the polycarbonate exterior makes it work. The fact that I’m an LSU alum didn’t hurt, either.
One aspect of the Lumia 1020′s design that has been polarizing is the protruding camera lens and flash on the back of the phone.
It was evident during the launch, so much so that Stephan Elop referred to the front of the phone as “the new back,” at one point. That was a bit overdone for me, because even though the phone doesn’t sit flat on a hard surface, what does that really matter? It hasn’t been an issue for me at all after several days of use. I can understand that some may see this as an annoyance, but Nokia did manage to slim down the bump drastically from the original 808 PureView. The 1020 is also much more pocketable than the incoming Galaxy Zoom, its biggest competitor in the high-end camera phone market.
The bottom line is if you’re into photography, then you’ll understand what you’re getting for this design tradeoff. If cameras aren’t your thing, and the bump is a bridge too far, then the Lumia 920/925/928 may be more your cup of tea. All things considered though, I think that Nokia did a good job of incorporating the PureView into the overall Lumia design.
While the camera is definitely the standout feature of the Lumia 1020, the rest of the hardware is no slouch, either. Some of the specs pale in comparison with the latest and greatest devices running Android, but anyone who owns a Windows Phone can attest that this OS is smooth as silk without 8 cores and 3 GB of RAM. No butter required. All the same, here are the basic specs for your reviewing pleasure:
- 4.5″ 180 x 768 display; 15:9 Aspect ratio
- Dual core 1.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Processor
- 2 GB RAM
- 32 GB on-board storage
- 2000 mAh battery
- LTE GSM 850 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 1900 MHz
- 802.11 a/b/g/n
- Bluetooth 3.0
- USB 2.0
- Sensors: Ambient light, Accelerometer, Barometer, Gyroscope, Proximity, Magnetometer
These specs may look vaguely familiar because they are quite similar to Nokia’s recent Lumia models. The 925 has an aluminum frame and only 16 GB of storage, and both the 925 and the 928 have 1 GB of RAM. However, other than those details, the 1020 is pretty much identical to its siblings. Well, except for the bad ass camera on the back. But we’ll get to that later.
While nothing really stands out about the non-camera hardware internals of the 1020, like the other high-end Lumia models, it handles Windows Phone without missing a beat. A notable feature here for me is the 2 GB of RAM, which is definitely necessary for the 1020 to work its photo magic. There is already some noticeable lag during photo processing thanks to the large file sizes, so I doubt that the 1 GB of the previous models would have been enough.
A related fact that bears mentioning is that the 1020 tends to run hot during extended photo sessions. This is, again, due to all of the processing that goes into producing its high resolution images. This is the one area where the 1020′s specs let it down a bit. However, it is only a minor annoyance, especially if you use Nokia’s Camera Grip accessory for extended periods of shooting. I found that it really helps and adds to the experience.
The big standout on the hardware end for me is the 4.5″ 720p display. While there is currently an arms race going on over in the Android camp, I personally prefer a device that will fit and be usable in one hand. The 1020 is the ideal size for this at 4.5″, and the screen is well suited to this form factor. I’m sure we’ll see future Lumia models break the 5″ 1080p barrier once Windows Phone is updated to allow for this, but the 1020′s screen is perfectly adequate for the minimalist aesthetic of this OS.
The colors of the live tiles pop, the animations look great, and photos and videos are rich and detailed. Also, while Nokia’s ClearBlack may just sound like a marketing pitch, they are certainly doing something right. The default black backgrounds are super deep on this phone, which again, helps the Live Tiles stand out. There may be better screens out there, but I have absolutely no complaints with the 1020′s current display.
We’ve danced all around it, but now it’s time to take the Lumia 1020′s PureView camera head-on. Here are the key features:
- ZEISS Tessar lens with 6 elements
- 41 Megapixel backside illuminated image sensor
- F/2.2 aperture
- 26 mm Focal Length
- Mechanical optical image stabilization
- Xenon Flash with focus lamp
It’s pretty clear looking at this list that Nokia came to play with the Lumia 1020. This is an impressive feature list, including a couple of firsts for modern smartphones (because Symbian is NOT modern) with the 41 megapixel sensor and the 6 lens elements. However, while those two features will get a lot of press, it’s the way that Nokia brings the whole package together that really makes the 1020 such a great camera. With that said, a few of these specs do deserve some individual attention.
First off, while it’s a shame that the aperture is fixed, Nokia chose a setup that brings in adequate light and provides a good depth of field. Since it can’t be adjusted, this had to get right, but Nokia did it. Similarly, what good would all those megapixels be if they were pulling in light through sub-par glass? Nokia has been partnered with ZEISS (formerly know as Carl Zeiss) for their optics for a while now, and for very good reason. They make top shelf lenses, and the ones on the 1020 are no exception. The picture clarity is spot on, and there is a nice balance between a good wide-angle view for landscapes and the phone’s zooming capabilities, which we will discuss in a moment. That balance is critical for any general purpose picture taking device.
Sample Photo Slideshow
Another feature that would be easy to look past is the flash setup. Xenon flashes on smartphones aren’t anything new, but not every flagship manufacturer invests in them, so it is notable that Nokia didn’t cheap out here. It would have been a shame to saddle a great camera with a crappy LED flash. Apple, I’m looking at you.
An understated feature of the Nokia 1020′s camera is the independent focus lamp. These are not as common in smartphones as Xenon flashes and dedicated camera buttons, but they should be for ones that want to be considered great cameras, rather than great camera phones. A focus lamp is critical for getting accurate autofocus while taking low light pictures, which has been a focus for Nokia with their Lumia cameras.
Rounding out this package, Nokia included mechanical optical image stabilization in the 1020, which is immensely helpful at slow shutter speeds and while shooting video without a tripod. I have been able to capture handheld shots at shutter speeds as slow as 1/8 of a second in low light, with no noticeable blur. That’s long zoom, prosumer and system camera territory, and absolutely unheard of in a smartphone.
And now we come to the piece de resistance – the 1020′s massive 41 megapixel image sensor. Common photography knowledge would tell us that higher megapixel counts for the small imaging sensors typically found in smartphones can lead to trouble. They may do a great job of stuffing a spec sheet, but they can also lead to excess noise in your pictures. So, the first time I heard about the 808 PureView I just rolled my eyes. This was just another gimmick, right? Not so much, which is apparent once you know what Nokia is doing with all of those megapixels.
First of all, while a high megapixel count is an issue for smaller sensors, the 1020 doesn’t have that problem because it doesn’t have a small sensor. Nokia uses a 2/3 size sensor, which is actually a bit smaller than the older 808 PureView’s 1/1.2, but much larger than the 1/3.2 found in most smartphones. What does this mean? The 1020 has a larger surface to collect light for all of those megapixels to collect, which is a big deal. This is the same thing that separates your typical point and shoot from a micro four-thirds mirrorless or a DSLR camera.
Another consideration is that, while the camera’s imaging sensor is 41 megapixels, the full sized photographs taken with Nokia’s Pro Cam app actually come in two flavors: 38 megapixels when shooting at a 4:3 ratio and 34 megapixels in 16:9. In both cases, the 1020 also produces a more palatable 5 megapixel image for sharing. It accomplishes this by oversampling five pixels down to one to make that smaller, but still very detailed image. Nokia’s oversampling technology is also what makes their near lossless 6X digital zoom possible. All together, the hardware elements of the camera make for an unparalleled experience for a smartphone, and can also rival a large number of point and shoot cameras.
As unique as the 1020′s camera hardware is, Nokia’s Camera Grip is something completely new and different. Priced at $79, this accessory is surprisingly useful. I wasn’t sure what I would think of it at first, but it is worth the price if you intend on shooting photos and videos for extended periods.
First of all, the Camera Grip lives up to its name providing plenty of extra surface on the right side, making the 1020 much easier to hold in one hand while shooting.
This is very helpful, as it frees up your left hand to manipulate settings in the Pro Cam app. The Grip also has a large 2-stage shutter button, as well as a tripod mount which helps make the 1020 feel more like a large point and shoot camera than a phone during extended shooting. And I mean that in a good way.
Speaking of extended shooting, the feature that really pushes the Camera Grip over the top, and makes it worth the $79 for me, is the rechargeable extended battery. It provides an extra 1020 mAh of battery life, which is just over 50% of the 1020′s rated battery life. This was a smart move by Nokia, because the 1020′s battery takes a hit during extended shooting.
The bottom line is, if you are going to use the Lumia 1020 for any extended photo or video shooting, you should get the Camera Grip. It is worth the asking price.
Even the best hardware can be undone by bad or buggy software, so it was very important for Nokia to offer up the right experience to showcase their best-in-class camera hardware. Nokia’s Pro Cam app is the interface provided with the 1020 to take advantage of its unique camera features, most notably its high resolution 34 or 38 megapixel pictures and advanced digital zoom. Let’s take a closer look under the hood.
Right off the bat you can see one of the most powerful features of Pro Cam. Users have easy access to a plethora of manual adjustments. There are custom settings for flash and focus lamp operation, white balance, focus, ISO, shutter speed, and exposure compensation. Wow. That would be an impressive list for most point and shoot cameras, which are becoming increasingly more automated. It’s unheard of on a smartphone.
It would have been so very easy for Nokia, or any other manufacturer for that matter, to screw this up. It is a difficult task to provide fast access to all of these features without ending up with either a muddled mess on the screen, or features buried away in menus. The interface that Nokia came up with strikes a really nice balance of giving users easy access to change these settings, while not getting in the way of what’s important: the subject of your photograph.
Here’s how it works. Tapping on the white balance, focus, ISO, shutter speed, or exposure buttons at the top center of the screen will bring up a semicircular slider for editing that setting. Simply slide your finger along the arc to make your change.
If you would like to change more than one setting at once, pulling the camera icon in toward the center will bring up all of the sliders at once, so you can quickly change several settings.
I found this particular feature very useful. It’s also a great way for new users, especially those who aren’t used to adjusting these settings, to get familiar with what the 1020 can do.
The real fun with the Lumia 1020 comes after you get the shot you’ve been looking for, as that is where the Pro Cam app really shines. If you have automatic review turned on, then the photo that you take will appear after it processes, with a single, but powerful editing feature.
The center icon on the right takes you into an editor where you can zoom into your high resolution image. Nokia calls this process Reframing rather than zooming, and when you really think about what they are doing in software, it is a more fitting term. What you are really doing here is emphasizing the area of the photo that you are most interested in. Once you are finished, tapping the save icon will save a new 5 megapixel image out of your reframing edit. Thanks to the huge amount of detail that the 1020′s sensor captures, zooming up to 6 times will produce photos that would never be possible with digital zoom.
Now for the best part. Let’s say that you’ve reframed a high resolution photo that you really like. However, the area that you focused on in your edit isn’t the only area of interest. Just go back to the photo, either in the Pro Cam app or by clicking the “captured by Nokia Pro Cam” link below high resolution photos in the Camera Roll.
Tap the Reframe icon again, and you can re-edit the photo over and over again. Saving a picture doesn’t do anything to your original image, so you don’t ever have to worry about keeping multiple copies of these large files for different edits.
Another thing to bear in mind is that even if you reframe before hitting the shutter button for the first time, the camera is still capturing the entire field of view. So, you can not only zoom into a wide-angle photo after shooting, but you can also zoom out as well. That feature surprised me, because it goes against everything I’m used to with traditional cameras. With that in mind you may ask “what’s the point of reframing before shooting a picture?” One instance would be to set the focus and exposure on the area of the frame that you intend on using in your final product.
Here is a perfect example. I shot this original photo at wide angle from the rafters of an arena that I have been working in recently.
You can see that, due to the contrast of low background light and the bright stage, the stage area’s exposure is blown out. In this second image, I reframed closer to the stage, and tapped on the screen to set the auto focus and exposure.
As you can see, the stage is now visible and the photo is now usable. A pocket camera should be all about flexibility, and thanks to Pro Cam, the 1020 has it in spades. There are also a few extra goodies buried over in the Options menu, which is accessed with the familiar 3 dots in the top right corner.
The addition of a shutter delay (even though it isn’t adjustable) is nice. However, the exposure bracketing is what really caught my eye. You can set three different ranges and get either 3 or 5 pictures to cover these ranges. This feature is very helpful when you find yourself shooting in a situation where the lighting is a challenge. Rather than fiddling with settings and taking a lot of time, you have a range of choices in a single click.
The Settings option takes you to a separate screen where you have several options to customize Pro Cam’s experience.
I particularly like the fact that you have several different options for an on-screen grid. Grids are available for both photos and videos, and are separately adjustable.
Speaking of video, with all of the focus on its picture taking prowess, it is easy to overlook the fact that the 1020 is a terrific video camera. The big imaging sensor and all those megapixels are very effective in capturing detail that leaves other smartphones in the dust. Also, while several other current smartphones offer the ability to zoom while taking video, Nokia’s superior camera hardware really sets the 1020′s results apart. The only issue that I ran into with the zoom is that it can be jittery if you don’t pinch-to-zoom really smoothly. That can be difficult to do with one hand while holding the 1020 with the other, so it would be nice to see Nokia add the option to use an on-screen zoom wheel or slider. You can see an example of this in the video below.
If manual adjustments aren’t your thing, the Pro Cam app does a pretty good job in full automatic, although there are a few shortcomings that we will get to in a moment. It is still going to be worthwhile to shoot most of your pictures in Pro Cam, so you can take advantage of its high resolution photo and zoom capabilities. If you tire of using it and want a more automated experience, Windows Phone has you covered with one of its really underrated features- camera lenses.
Instead of having a folder full of disjointed camera apps that do this or that, Microsoft allows developers to make apps that show up as different “lenses” for that phone’s particular camera. Tapping the double arrow button in the bottom right of the screen brings you to a special interface that allows you to quickly swap between all of your various camera apps.
I’m a big fan of this functionality, because it keeps all of your camera apps together, and lets you switch without relying on the OS’s multitasking or app organization. Nokia has made good use of this system, as you not only get the Pro Cam pre-loaded on the 1020, but also their Smart Cam app.
This lens takes 10 shot bursts, and allows you to do some creative things with them, such as make single action shots, pick the best of the group, or pick everyone’s best face in a group photo. Sure, it’s a little cheesy, but it’s a nice addition all the same. If you’ve ever tried to get threee or more kids to sit still and smile at the same time for a photo, you know what I mean.
And for those users who want a simpler photo taking experience, there is always the default Windows Phone camera lens. One advantage that it offers for casual shooters is a selection of preset scene modes such as Night, Night Portrait, and Sports. One thing to note, however, is that any images taken outside of the Pro Cam app will be 5 megapixels ONLY. The high resolution and reframing features are only available within that app. Pictures taken in other apps still look good, but there is a noticeable difference in quality. Also, while you can zoom in the stock camera lens, I wouldn’t advise it. It is just cropping a 5 megapixel image, and the results get ugly pretty quickly.
The photo below shows an example of the level of detail that the Lumia 1020 captures. In the first, you can see the original (click on the photo to see the full-resolution version) high res image.
This is the 5 megapixel image produced after I reframed to zoom in on the bird. Wow. Look at the fine detail of both the bird’s feathers and the seed.
Granted, this photo was taken in fairly ideal conditions, but it is still a shot you wouldn’t be able to get from any other smartphone.
This photo, on the other hand, was not shot in ideal conditions, but I was able to get it with all settings set to auto. The low light performance of this camera varies, but it is still better than most.
Here you can see a low light shot taken in auto that didn’t end up as well. Thankfully, with a little practice using the manual adjustments, the 1020 is capable of taking very good low light photos.
For example, this photo is of the same scene, but with manual settings applied to decrease the shutter speed and raise the ISO. Thanks to the mechanical image stabilization, I was able to take this picture at 1/8 shutter speed without a tripod. Very impressive.
The video below has the same level of detail as the 1020′s photos. This camera isn’t a one trick pony. It handles just about everything you throw at it.
Not Quite Perfect
Despite all of the praise I have heaped on the 1020′s camera so far, there are some issues to be aware of. First of all, I’ve mentioned the fact that it sometimes struggles in handling high levels of contrast between light and shadow.
The camera tends to badly overexpose the bright area, which pretty much kills the photo. Of course, many earlier smartphones and lesser quality point and shoot cameras would suffer with this same issue. However, most of the newer smartphones on the market, as well as newer handheld cameras come with HDR modes to handle this problem. They don’t always work perfectly, but Nokia would be wise to add one to help with its exposure problems.
Second, it would be a good idea for Nokia to add some presets to the Pro Cam app for novice photographers. Sure, there are some available in the stock camera, but the quality just doesn’t compare. As it is right now, the Pro Cam app is perfectly suited to someone like me, who enjoys playing around with camera settings, but that’s not where the mass market is. There’s a reason that the iPhone’s sparse camera interface has proven to be so popular with the Instagram set. Nokia needs to be going after those same people.
Another common feature of smartphone cameras that Nokia has ommited from the 1020 is the ability to shoot photos while taking video. I realize that these photos are often less than stellar, but it certainly beats the heck out of pulling captures out of the video after the fact. Photos for personal memories and quick sharing don’t all have to be works of art.
What might actually fit better with the 1020′s camera and its capabilities would be the ability to pause any part of a video upon playback, and have a button to produce a 5 megapixel shot from it. Users of the 1020′s camera would already be familiar with this from reframing pictures, so it wouldn’t feel out of place. Plus, making it easier to get a decent capture from a video AFTER the fact would probably yield better results than trying to shoot while taking it.
At the end of the day, while there are a few issues and missing features, I have to hand it to Nokia. They have done an impressive job nailing the integration of the 1020′s camera hardware and software right out of the box. This does not feel like their first high resolution PureView camera on a Windows Phone, so kudos to them for making sure they got things right the first time. Thankfully, since all of the issues I mentioned are in software, they wouldn’t even require a new model to fix them. Hopefully Nokia will keep plugging away at making the 1020′s great camera even better.
After the Shot
Unfortunately, this is probably the area of poorest performance for the Lumia 1020. While there are editing options for working with photos after the shooting thanks to Nokia’s Creative Studio, photo transfer and sharing is the biggest problem. First of all, while Nokia makes the 5 megapixel images generated by the Pro Cam app available for automatic backup to Skydrive and sharing to other services, the high resolution images can only be accessed by plugging the 1020 into a computer. This really messes up the experience. Come on Nokia, 2013 is calling.
I’ve read and heard justifications for this issue, such as file size and the impact on data plans, and I understand them. However, Skydrive already has photo backup settings that limits full quality transfers to WiFi only. Why not extend the same courtesy to those 1020 users who would rather not be bound to a computer to get at half of their photos? Since this is, like the others I have mentioned, a software issue, I hope that Nokia will take complaints about this to heart and update the Pro Cam software to fix this.
The other major issue is with sharing photos, but you can’t really lay the blame for this on Nokia. They are doing all they can to carry the torch of Windows Phone forward. I don’t guess you can say it’s Microsoft’s fault, either. They have a chicken and egg problem with trying to get developers to buy into Windows Phone, which is currently running a distant third among smartphone platforms. Microsoft is certainly doing all they can to bolster their ecosystem, but it’s hard to overlook the absence of a native Instagram client, a woefully out of date Flickr app, and the outright sneering scorn of Google as they cut off Gmail and port their apps to iOS while leaving Windows Phone twisting in the wind.
The ecosystem gap is slowly narrowing, but it is still undeniably there. And unfortunately, it does negatively affect the 1020. There are common photo services that are either missing or difficult to access, and that is going to make many potential buyers think twice. However, one can hope that the capabilities of this device will help draw developers and services to the Windows Phone platform. Like I said at the outset, this is a true flagship phone, and a successful run could help Nokia to solve its own problem.
I don’t think there is any doubt that Nokia’s Lumia 1020 is the best smartphone camera on the market, and I don’t think that will be changing for a while. I haven’t seen anything about the Samsung Galaxy Zoom that leads me to believe that it will beat what I have seen over the course of the last week. There are a few issues for Nokia to address with the 1020′s camera performance and feature set, but none of them are serious enough to really detract from all of the positives on this side of the equation.
It’s the phone and OS side where things get a little more murky. Windows Phone finally feels like its gaining traction, and the 1020 may just be the flagship it needs to get into the eye of the mainstream. Unfortunately, this flagship is still having to bail water as it sets sail. Nokia is trying hard to fill in the gaps in Windows Phone’s app catalog, but unfortunately, they are still there and still noticeable. Worse yet, the gaps in photo sharing services hit at the 1020′s biggest strength.
Despite this, Nokia’s hardware and design chops and the camera are enough to make the 1020 a very compelling and competitive smartphone. It is, without a doubt, both the best Windows Phone on the market and the best smartphone for photography currently available. If Windows Phone is your platform of choice and you are either on AT&T, or are willing and able to switch, this is definitely the phone to get. Similarly, if photography is a top priority for you in your mobile phones, then you shouldn’t overlook the 1020.
Joe Fedewa contributed to this review.