Nokia’s at it again and it’s placing big bets on the Lumia 920 as an exclusive on AT&T for just $99 with a new two-year contract. Is the company’s latest Windows Phone device a large improvement over its other efforts? Can it woo more customers to Microsoft’s budding platform? We’ll know more when consumers are able to pick one up in just a few days, but here’s what you need to know: if the Lumia 920 can’t help jump start Windows Phone, nothing can.

Hardware

The Lumia 920 no doubt packs a bit of heft at 185g (6.52oz) and a thickness of 10.7mm, but it’s a far cry from the complaints several pundits have issued recently. In fact, I find that its bulk actually makes it feel rock solid, like the Nokia phones we all remember from back in the day that could take a real beating. I am absolutely, positively in love with the high-gloss cherry red polycarbonate body, too. As someone who wears red hi-top Vans quite frequently, it fits right in with my style. And that’s what I love about what Nokia and HTC are doing with Windows Phone 8: bringing color back to the smartphone game.The phone has a large 4.5-inch screen with a 1280 x 768-pixel resolution and, thanks to its PureMotion HD+ technology, I found it to offer more accurate colors and deeper, inkier blacks than the Windows Phone 8X from HTC (Read our full review here). I preferred looking at the Lumia 920 screen in every situation, whether it was while watching movies, outside or indoors. Viewing angles were great and the screen was easily viewable outdoors under direct sunlight.

The Lumia 920 also features wireless charging for its 2,000mAh battery, which I’ll discuss later, a quick dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, support for AT&T’s 4G LTE network, 1GB of RAM, 32GB of storage (twice what the Windows Phone 8X offers), Bluetooth 3.0 and NFC. You won’t get Beats Audio, which I enjoyed on the Windows Phone 8X, but I prefer the industrial design, the display and Nokia’s software bundles over the Windows Phone 8X so far. Speaking of software, let’s dive in to that now.

Software

Lumia 920 ReviewI discussed Windows Phone 8 in great detail in my Windows Phone 8X review, since it was the first smartphone I had reviewed running the new operating system. So I’ll spare you the basics about NFC support, resizable start screen tiles and other features. Instead, I’ll talk about what Nokia has included that makes the Lumia 920 stand out against other devices.

First, the Finnish phone maker included its own Drive, Maps, Music and City View finder on the Lumia 920. All add value and all are free. Drive works really well for turn-by-turn voice-guided navigation, for example, and you can even save maps for offline use when a cell signal isn’t available. Nokia Music is solid for shopping for songs or even for finding out about local concerts in your area. City View is a cool augmented reality application in concept, but it’s really not that useful yet. It works – don’t get me wrong – it correctly showed me all of the nearby coffee shops – but you don’t want to just go stumbling down the street using it as a viewfinder. I’m not sure how it can be improved, it’s just not that useful seeing a bunch of floating icons on the screen when I can use maps and find a point of interest much quicker.

The application selection for Windows Phone 8 is still a major weak point against iOS and Android. Microsoft can take the stage and show off live tiles all it wants, but if you can’t do anything with Windows Phone it becomes a boring experience. The great apps aren’t there yet, folks, but Microsoft has promised 45+ of the top 50 apps from other app stores. Unfortunately it’s still playing a major game of catch-up, especially considering Pandora, which has been available on other mobile platforms forever,  is a highlight on that list. Look, you’ll buy Windows Phone 8 devices for the great hardware, which the Lumia 920 offers, and the excellent user experience. But you’ll want to look elsewhere for now if you’re an app junkie. This is not a shot at the Lumia 920 – I just want you to know that Windows Phone 8 itself is lacking in a very key area.

The application selection for Windows Phone 8 is still a major weak point against iOS and Android.

Camera

Lumia 920 ReviewThe Lumia 920 has an 8.7-megapixel camera with a Carl Zeiss Tesssar lens and the company’s PureView technology that was first introduced in the Nokia PureView 808. Images are crisp, colorful and accurate in most scenarios. The low light performance is like magic, but it didn’t always produce great results. I held the phone several times in super dim conditions, where most phones wouldn’t take a great shot and snapped a photo. Suddenly, the screen lit up – after being completely dark – with a bright image, as if I hadn’t just shot in a dark environment.

 iPhone 5 Camera
Nokia Lumia 920 Camera

It’s really, really fun to play with. When I compared the lowlight images to those shot with my iPhone 5 – arguably the best smartphone camera on the market – though, I found that the iPhone’s shots were a bit sharper and less blurry than those shot with the Lumia 920, which I wasn’t expecting. That was especially true if there were any lights in the image, such as those of my keyboard. The iPhone 5 snapped a photo that looks just fine, but the lights send off a massive glow in the Lumia 920 shots.

The images above and below were also shot in very low-light conditions. You can’t customize some camera settings like you can on the Windows Phone 8X, which means you’re always shooting in full resolution, but you can tweak the ISO, exposure value, white balance, aspect ratio and turn the focus assist light on and off.

The front-facing camera is ok – it has a resolution of 1280 x 960 – but it doesn’t blow my pants off. I actually really like the wide-angle lens on the Windows Phone 8X because it’s something I haven’t seen before and it’s awesome being able to include more landscape (or more of your friends) into a single shot.

The image above was taken with the rear camera in bright daylight. You can see that it’s quite good, and I was generally pleased with most photos I took with the Lumia 920. Overall, it’s comparable to the iPhone 5 camera, but I prefer the iPhone 5 because it generally offered sharper photos. There are additional sample images included in the gallery at the end of this review.

Wireless Charging

Lumia 920 Review

AT&T will include a free wireless charging plate with the Lumia 920 while supplies last. It’s a great feature that I really enjoyed using. I was able to come home, take the Lumia 920 out of my pocket and just drop it on the wireless charger on my coffee table. I didn’t have to fiddle with wires or anything and, while that seems trivial, it was really enjoyable.

The phone makes a sound when you drop it on the pad to let you know it’s charging, and there’s an LED indicator that lets you know when it has finished charging. From what I could distinguish, it doesn’t take longer to charge the Lumia 920 on the pad instead of plugging it in directly; it seemed to take just a few hours to get it up to a full charge. The charging plates will be available in all of the Lumia colors, including black, cyan, red, white and yellow. There’s also a “Nokia Wireless Charging Pillow” by Fatboy, but we didn’t have a chance to test it.

Battery Life, Data and Call Quality

Lumia 920 ReviewThe Lumia 920 packs a 2,000mAh battery that’s rated for up to 9 hours of talk time over 3G networks. I was easily able to get through a full day without having to drop it on its wireless charging pad, and that has become my benchmark for smartphones these days. Several times I woke up with it next to me with a charge still, but I mostly kept it on its charging pad since it was just as easy to cruise by, toss it in my pocket and walk out the door.Data speeds were solid. AT&T’s 4G LTE network performs really well in New York City and I was able to download full albums from the Xbox Music store in just a few minutes while walking to the subway. I used the Lumia 920 as my primary number for a few days and didn’t experience any dropped calls. Everything sounded perfectly clear and the speaker was adequate during a TechnoBuffalo conference call.

Conclusion

Lumia 920 ReviewI have to send the Lumia 920 out to our own Jonathan Rettinger for our video review now. I’m going to miss it, perhaps more than I’ve missed any other phone in recent memory. To me, Nokia has really hit the nail on the head with the style of its hardware. The cherry red color really made it stand out in my memory against any other phone I’ve tested recently, and it’s leaps and bounds ahead of the Lumia 900. It’s so excellent that the complaints about the heft have me baffled, but I suppose there’s always something to call out in a smartphone.Windows Phone 8 needs work. It still doesn’t have as many applications as Android or iOS, but that’s ok. It’s a fledgling platform and it needs time to grow. And, frankly, I’m judging the Lumia 920 for what it is: a Windows Phone 8 device built on great hardware. The camera is great, even if the close up shots above make it look a bit blurry, but I still prefer my iPhone 5 for most situations.The OS is a completely different experience and everyone I’ve showed it to really enjoys it. That’s where Nokia and HTC come in for Microsoft: their colorful devices will stand out on store shelves. Customers will pick them up. And with devices like the Lumia 920, I expect they’ll walk out with them too.

So that brings me down to the hard question I need to answer: is the Lumia 920 better than the Windows Phone 8X? I think so. The Lumia 920 is $100 cheaper, offers comparable hardware, a better camera and comes pre-loaded with Nokia’s excellent applications. Plus you get wireless charging for free. To me, that’s a no brainer. But if you prefer a skinnier phone with a completely different design, then the Windows Phone 8X is an amazing alternative.

Rating

9.5
That’s where Nokia and HTC come in for Microsoft: their colorful devices will stand out on store shelves. Customers will pick them up. And with devices like the Lumia 920, I expect they’ll walk out with them too.

Nokia Lumia 920 Gallery