Microsoft is charging forward into a colourful new future, and it's dragging Nokia by the ears with it as a serious hardware partner for Windows Phone. The first Windows Phone 8 device on the market will be the Nokia Lumia 920. This is Nokia's coming out party, Microsoft's mobile mitzvah and Lumia's naming ceremony. With so much riding on it, does it match the hype?
The Lumia 920 was announced before the local tech press this morning in Sydney, but before the seats had even been put out at the venue, we went hands-on with a production unit in the caverns of Nokia's Australian HQ. Documents were signed saying we wouldn't tell anyone anything about what we saw until Nokia and Microsoft said so. We couldn't even leave with our own photos. This was about as top secret as it could get.
I sat down at the boardtable and saw a bag that turned out to be filled with colourful gadgets that were slowly brought onto the table, one device at a time. First some beautiful speakers, then some gorgeous headphones, a sleek looking charging plate and finally, the main attraction: in all its glory. The bright yellow Nokia Lumia 920.
The 4.5-inch, Windows Phone 8-powered slab of sunshine was finally here, and it was as gorgeous as you can imagine. If there's one thing Nokia is getting right when it comes to its new generation of smartphones, it's the design. The curved edges from the old Lumia 900 are back again, as is the vivid colour palette interrupted only by the silver camera window. On the front of the unit is Nokia's 4.5-inch screen with amazingly rich blacks.
The quality of the screen really compliments the design here. It's a 1280x760 pixel screen that packs 332 pixels per inch. Colours are deep and vivid and it looks like every phone should when it's at full brightness.
The only off-putting thing about the design of the handset is the sheer weight you're left to deal with. The Lumia 920 is now packing a bigger screen, a larger polycarbonate body, a 2000mAh battery, a 4G antenna, an 8-megapixel camera with Optical Image Stabilisation and ceramic-coated accents for added scratch protection. All of that adds a lot of bulk when you get it in your hand, and if you're someone who likes to throw a case at your phone to protect it, you're in for a lot more bulk. Not to say it doesn't feel comfortable in your hand. It does thanks to the curved edges, but it's 2 grams heavier than the world-eclipsing Galaxy Note II without the benefit of a huge screen.
Windows Phone 8 is almost as important as the Windows 8 desktop push is to Microsoft. This isn't just a half-cocked mobile play now. Microsoft is trying to build an ecosystem and it really wants you in it.
The weird thing about Windows Phone 8, is that it doesn't feel any different to Windows Phone 7. You might think that's a bad thing, but it's actually really good. Microsoft went to a hell of a lot of effort to rebuild the Windows Phone operating system so that it ran on Redmond's Windows NT platform. In layman's terms, that means it is built on the same core as Windows 8 for desktops, and will bring with it — among other things — support for better specced handsets.
Microsoft did this so that it could get developers interested in two operating systems simultaneously, rather than them having to go to the trouble of building two separate apps. On the flipside, though, this means that existing Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 (Mango) users are going to be left behind with no chance of an upgrade to 8. Instead you'll be getting Windows Phone 7.8 which gives you just the pretty bits of the OS rather than a whole back-end revamp.
So picking up a phone that maintains the same look and feel as Windows Phone 7 despite the extensive surgery under the hood is impressive. You get more Live Tiles on the home screen which is great for getting important info fast and Nokia is bringing some gaming exclusives to the table, including Angry Birds: Roost which is a compilation of all the games from everyone's favourite avian vs cartoon pig conflict series.
The dual-core 1.5GHz and 1GB of RAM processor together deliver solid performance with no noticable lag during our hands-on test. We'll be able to bring you benchmark numbers in our full review.
As far as accessories are concerned, the Lumia 920 might just be the first handset to make near-field communication (NFC) worth using. Previously handset manufacturers, telcos and banks have all scratched their heads figuring out how to get it working with payment systems and Samsung and Google have tried to make it work for file transfers, but far and away the best use case I have seen for it so far is instant accessory pairing.
Nokia has teamed up with JBL and Monster to make some beautiful Bluetooth speakers and headphones for the launch of the 920. By far the worst thing about Bluetooth is manually pairing the obnoxious little buggers together and hoping they stay paired. With the Lumia 920, though, all you need do is tap the top of the speaker or the top of the headphones against the phone and it's paired and ready to stream your sweet tunes.
Also on the contactless front is inductive charging, which is a brilliant idea. If you're buying a Lumia 920, invest a few bucks extra and buy the contactless charging plate. All you do is put your phone down on it at the end of the day and it's charging. No fishing for a cable, searching for a plug or scrounging for the port. Perfect.
One of the headlines for the Lumia 920 is the 8.7-megapixel, cameras with Carl Zeiss optics and Optical Image Stabilisation. Nokia promises that this is the future of camera optics and serves to make your videos less shaky and your photos less blurry. It's a bold promise that has so far been handled with the same respect as a shovel full of mud in respect to the way Nokia "demonstrated" the feature at launch.
As far as video stabilisation is concerned, the Lumia 920 does an awesome job. I have a fairly pronounced shake in my hands, which always makes taking video on mobile devices a two-handed job, but with the Lumia 920's OIS enabled, the shake was barely noticeable.
The Lumia 920 takes beautiful photos, and it promises stellar low-light performance. We weren't able to test low light, but in our full review we'll post full photos and video testing out low-light and OIS photo and video performance.
Like with our Surface RT review last week, it's great to see beautiful hardware come out of Microsoft and its partners again. Bright colours, beautiful curves and bold designs show the way forward for Microsoft, and it's a future I like the look of.
It has been said on the desktop-side but it bears repeating for the Windows Phone-side: I find the lack of apps disturbing. Microsoft still has a "curated" app experience, which to you and I means "lacking". Microsoft and Nokia are well aware of this and they both continue to assure me that they're in dialogue with app developers to get it sorted. Based on the assurances I have been given, you'd think Instagram for Windows Phone 8 is just around the corner. I'll believe it when I see it.
The Lumia 920 then is the future of Windows Phone that has strangely managed to make itself look and feel exactly like the past. It drives the same as Windows Phone 7.5 but with a power on the back-end that can only increase with time. We'll get more hands on time with it as we review it over the next few weeks to bring you a solid yay or nay on this new direction.