Nokia unveiled probably the most stunning camera phone ever in February 2012 when it introduced the 808 PureView. It was amazing – a huge camera sensor was attached to the back, and it was leagues better than any other offering. Ever since that date I have desperately wished that Nokia would add the technology to a Windows Phone. I always imagined a modern day smartphone experience with a camera that could blow every other phone out of the water.

My dreams came to fruition earlier this month when Nokia officially announced the Lumia 1020, a Windows Phone 8 device with a 41-megapixel camera with granular manual controls and a beautiful industrial design. Unfortunately, that all comes with a sky-high $299 price tag on contract, which isn’t exactly a drop in the bucket, and a mobile operating system that started showing its age months ago.

Jonathan Rettinger and I have been testing the Lumia 1020 for several days now. I’ve been carrying it as my daily driver and I have no short term plans to replace it. Let’s dig into what the Lumia 1020 offers, what’s good and what’s bad, and whether or not this is the right choice for you.

Lumia 1020 Video Review

Hardware

Nokia Lumia 1020-Home Screen

I received a matte yellow review unit from Nokia and Jon was shipped the black model. It’s also available in white. I’m head over heels for this design; the pure polycarbonate shell color runs all the way through, which means any nicks or scratches won’t remove the finish. Nokia wants to make one thing clear, though: if you gently shake the phone and you hear a rattle, that’s not something falling apart or a sign of a weak design. Instead, it’s actually the ball bearings that are used within the camera for its optical image stabilization.

Nokia Lumia 1020-USB-Bottom

The phone reminds me a lot of the Lumia 920, save for camera hump on the back of the device. I’ve read a few complains about this, but honestly I like it – it shows the world that I have a very capable camera phone and reminds me of the awesome looking lens that used to sit on the N95 and other N-series devices. My only gripe is that it’s a bit top-heavy because of the camera components, but I haven’t dropped it yet so it’s not really a problem.

Nokia Lumia 1020-Back-2

Like Nokia’s other Windows Phone handsets, the Lumia 1020 offers volume controls and a camera quick-launch key on the right side, in addition to a power button. The microUSB charging port is on the bottom, there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack up top and nothing on the left side.

The camera sensor is flanked by a single LED flash for video recording and a Xenon flash, the type found on point-and-shoot cameras, for excellent flash photography in the dark. I’ll address it in the camera section, but Xenon flash is way, way better than an LED flash.

Nokia Lumia 1020-Front

The Lumia 1020 runs on AT&T’s 4G LTE network in the United States and is equipped with a 4.5-inch 1280 x 768-pixel AMOLED PureMotion HD+ screen that’s more colorful than the PureMotion HD+ screen on the Lumia 920 but offers the same sharpness. It’s also equipped with a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor, 2GB of RAM as opposed to the 1GB on the Lumia 920, 32GB of storage and a 2,000mAh battery.

Nokia Lumia 1020-Top-Headphone

I have two major gripes with the Lumia 1020, however. First, you can’t transfer your full-sized photos to anywhere but your computer and only using a USB cable. With the insane amount of cloud storage options these days that’s a real bummer. Second, the screen resolution is too low for my tastes. Perhaps I’m spoiled by 1080p screens on Android smartphones, but it’s definitely noticeable. I’m not blaming Nokia at all for this, however, because it’s a limitation of Windows Phone 8. Speaking of Windows Phone 8, let’s just dive into the software now.

Software

Nokia Lumia 1020-Apps

I don’t want to go into Windows Phone 8 too much right now. The operating system was announced 13 months ago and I think most of you know what to expect: live tiles, a super easy user interface and, unfortunately, a lacking app ecosystem. To be fair, there are now third-party options for Instagram, Vine and several other apps, and Nokia is working to bring Path, Hipstamatic and other solid apps into the market, but you’re still not going to find everything. No doubt Windows Phone 8 is feeling stale, especially considering Android 4.3 is out and iOS 7 will launch this fall – both of which offer much, much more robust experiences.

What I do want to discuss, however, is the camera software. That’s what makes this device so important after all. Nokia Pro Camera lets you control the white balance, focus, ISO, shutter speed and exposure of the camera. You can change just one of those options, a few of them or all of them. If you’re new to photography, you can also leave it on auto.

Better yet, though, Nokia installed an amazing tutorial for its Pro Camera software. It walks you through each of the aforementioned settings and you can tweak them on a pre-loaded photo that shows you how each might change the shot. I’m not good with photography, so I found this incredibly useful for figuring out what settings I might want to tweak, and when.

Nokia Lumia 1020-Lock Screen

Nokia also includes a Creative Studio for adding filters or effects to your photos, and a “Smart Cam” application lets you capture sequences, action, motion, the best shot or erase something in your photo. It does this by capturing several images at the same time, though the quality is decidedly lower quality than what you’ll find in from the Pro Camera app.

Other software options include Nokia HERE Maps, which can be stored offline for when you don’t have a data connection, Nokia Music – a free radio app, Photobeamer for sharing photos to another device and more. AT&T also installed about a half dozen of its own applications, though they can be uninstalled if you find them intrusive.

Nokia Lumia 1020-Keyboard

To wrap this up: Nokia adds a ton of value to Windows Phone 8. So much, in fact, that I probably wouldn’t really gravitate to a competing handset at this point. The ecosystem is hurting terribly, but Nokia is clearly doing all it can to make it more valuable. If you’re on the fence about Windows Phone and are an app fiend, check the app store and see what’s available before you make a $300 purchase for the Lumia 1020.

Camera

Nokia Lumia 1020-Camera-2

OK, time to turn up the heat. Let’s talk about the camera, because that’s why you’re here right? It’s awesome. Amazing. I’m not a huge photography head, but I was really stunned by what the 41-megapixel camera was capable of.

Here’s a bit on how the camera works on a simple level: it takes two photos, a 5-megapixel shot for sharing on social networks and either a 34-megapixel full shot in a 16:9 aspect ratio or a 38-megapixel shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Those photos, as I said earlier, can only be transferred to a computer using a USB cable.

Nokia Lumia 1020 - Sample - Sunflower

Low-light photos are also excellent, though I still noticed some noise in really dark situations. The Xenon flash was excellent for snapping pictures in the dark with some light and is much better than an LED flash.

Nokia Lumia 1020-Camera-App

I snapped a picture from my roof of a neighboring building and then was able to zoom in on the processed image. I could literally see a lamp inside someone’s apartment across the way. Yeah, it’s spy-cam worthy in my book.

The really cool part about those huge shots, however, is that spy cam-style shooting. You can take that huge full size image and then, while editing the shot, you can crop out a piece of it. That new crop is often very high quality, too, and is what Nokia means when it advertises: “Zoom re-invented.” You can zoom up to 3x through the camera app itself, but I like this method much better.

How does the Lumia 1020 stack up against the iPhone 5, Galaxy S4, HTC One or Lumia 920 camera? Glad you asked, because we recently published comparisons for each of those, which you should look at. In general, I really like the options available to me and the huge photos for editing that the Lumia 1020 offers. The real benefit here is the high-res big picture, though. The 5-megapixel shots are great and look super crisp because Nokia basically takes that huge image and packs it down into a smaller, sharper photo.

Nokia Lumia 1020 - Sample - Fair - Cinnamon Roll

The One, S4 and iPhone 5 are better if you want to grab a ton of photos once and share them almost immediately. There are more sharing options available and the cameras are quicker. If you want to take your time, frame a shot and do some higher-quality photography all from your camera, well, that’s what the Lumia 1020 is for.

Nokia Lumia 1020-Camera-App-ISO-WB-Aperture

One complaint with the camera is that it’s slow, both to launch and to capture photos. It takes about 6 seconds from the time you hit the camera button to the time you can fire off a shot. Then it takes about a second to process that shot before you can take another one. But that’s OK in my book – these are super high resolution photos and I expect the phone to do a little work.

Again, the Lumia 1020 isn’t leaving my pocket any time soon. I really, really like playing with the various camera options and it’s super fun to use.

Data and Call Quality

Nokia Lumia 1020-Front-2

I can’t remember the last time that I had a bad experience with call quality on a Nokia phone. The Lumia 1020 ranks up there with the best of them and I didn’t have any issues with any phone calls placed during my week of testing. Sure, there are dead spots on AT&T in parts of New York City, but they generally affect every single phone I test on the network.

My only problem with the Lumia 1020 is that my co-workers said I had an echo problem when I used it on speakerphone during a conference call. I had to use headphones and a microphone to stop it, which was kind of annoying. It also didn’t get very loud, so I needed the headphones or a Bluetooth speaker anyway.

Data was fine in New York City. I regularly had LTE access and a full signal in my apartment, and speeds were good when I downloaded an album from XBox Music. I didn’t notice any hiccups while streaming albums, either, and Netflix played without an issue. I did run into one roadblock: during a press event I tried using the Lumia 1020 as a hotspot. I tethered fine but the connection kept dropping. When I switched to another AT&T phone, the second device held a connection without an issue. It could have been a one-and-off thing but that’s all it takes to make a good tethering experience bad.

Battery Life

Nokia Lumia 1020-Buttons-Side

The Lumia 1020 generally lasted me from about 8 a.m. until about 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.  when it was getting low enough that I felt I needed to charge it. I used it as a daily driver, so it was pulling in two email accounts while I was checking social networks, snapping photos, streaming music for about an hour or so, and quick gameplay (I tried Halo Waypoint). I wasn’t expecting a full day of use, really. The Xenon flash can kill the battery fast and I was using the phone very frequently to check out all of the features. I’m sure the 2,000mAh battery can hold up for a full day with casual usage … but I like to push my gadgetry to the limit.

Final Thoughts

Rating

8.0
The Lumia 1020 is the best camera phone on the market right now. It also happens to be the best Windows Phone device on the planet. Flat out.

Nokia Lumia 1020

Samsung is attempting its own similar product with the Galaxy S4 Zoom, but that phone is super bulky. The Lumia 1020 actually fits in a pocket, looks awesome and works great. Call quality rocks, though the speakerphone isn’t amazing, and the battery life is acceptable.
My biggest problems with the Lumia 1020 aren’t Nokia’s fault. That’s the weirdest thing to type out, but it’s true. Windows Phone 8 is a great platform, but there’s no hiding that it doesn’t offer hundreds of popular apps available to iOS and Android users. It also doesn’t support high-res displays yet, or super fast processors, which means Nokia actually needs to keep its hardware meeting Microsoft’s standards. That’s a bummer, because if Windows Phone 8 improved a bit on those issues, then this phone would have a lot more potential. In other words, Microsoft should just let Nokia take the reigns and design its own hardware, then make Windows Phone 8 work on it.

And I absolutely have to address the $299 price tag. That’s not cheap, and there are plenty of Android flagships available for $100 less. That’s ultimately, again, going to hurt both Microsoft and Nokia. Heck, you could buy a point and shoot and a $99 phone for $300, but you’ll need to carry two devices.

All said and done, the Lumia 1020 is a fantastic device that’s burdened by Windows Phone 8 and a super high price tag. If you can skirt around those two factors, then the Lumia 1020 belongs in your pocket.

Disclaimer: Nokia provided TechnoBuffalo with two Lumia 1020 devices, one for video and testing in Irvine and one for our New York office. Jon has been testing the device for 6 days while I’ve had mine here for three and using it as my primary smartphone. The devices are on loan and will be returned after future testing and comparisons have been made. TechnoBuffalo chooses to disclose this information as part of a new effort to be more transparent in our testing procedures.