On first impression, there’s very little to distinguish the Lumia Icon from other recent Lumia devices. The best software updates from Nokia are already widespread, and the Icon’s design more or less follows previous Lumias. That is to say this is largely familiar territory for Lumia and Windows Phone fans. Nothing here to immediately surprise and dazzle. Nokia has stuck closely to what has made its Windows Phone lineup so recognizable in a world dominated by Android and iOS. And the formula is repeated here to the nth degree—the Icon doesn’t really do much to demand significant attention, despite the hardware and (Nokia) software being so excellent. But the more you use the Icon, the better the experience gets.

Nokia consistently offers one of the most reliable and unique mobile experiences, easily recognizable among the competition. Designs are always top class, and the focus on camera technology has earned it a hugely favorable reputation among fans. Think of the Icon as an amalgam of the best Nokia and Windows Phone features, gloriously stuffed into a single device, like a shrunken Lumia 1520. But is that saying much in the Windows Phone market? Lumia devices, while often critically well received, seem to merely be distractions that most consumers really just aren’t interested in. Consumers that have purchased a Lumia love them. But how is Nokia going to reach fans outside of its immediate fanbase?

Microsoft can run all the product placement ads it wants on TV, but the harsh reality is that a device like the Icon probably isn’t going to suddenly push Windows Phone into new territory. It will satisfy long-time WP fans, sure. But will an Android user benefit from switching over? That’s a tough argument to make. Neither Microsoft or Nokia has figured out how to convince a significant number of people just yet. And with handsets like the Galaxy S5 and HTC One (2014) coming, it’s going to get harder.

Over the last several months, Nokia’s Lumia line has evolved slowly with Windows Phone, laboring in some respects, though the latest updates have put the experience somewhat close to what’s available for iOS and Android. A future Windows Phone 8.1 update will help further along Microsoft’s mobile cause, but for now the Icon is largely the same experience you’d get in a 1020, 1520, or even the 920. They’re almost indistinguishable from each other: same hefty polycarbonate bodies, similar specs, and emphasis on camera technology.

So what makes the Icon standout?

Nokia Lumia Icon Video Review

Design

The Icon doesn’t stray all that far from previous Lumia designs: strong corners, durable body, hefty build. Equipped with a 5-inch 1080p OLED screen, the Icon is a little thicker than most handsets, at 9.9mm, and sports a sturdy polycarbonate shell that Lumia users will be familiar with. It’s not overly unwieldy, especially for those used to older Nokia devices—or even the Lumia 1520—but it certainly doesn’t feel quite as svelte as some of the skinnier competition. It’s voluptuous, let’s just put it that way. (That’s certainly no bad thing.)

Instead of a single piece of polycarbonate, the Icon also sports a smooth aluminum ring that surrounds the device’s edges, adding emphasis to its premium finish. Certainly more premium than something like the Lumia 920, despite using familiar materials. But better than the HTC One or iPhone 5s? No. Nokia has endlessly recycled the Lumia design—it has even transitioned over to Android efforts, too—so there’s nothing about the Icon that really stands out, nothing that will grab your attention. Sure, it’s a perfectly decent form factor that gives the Lumia lineup an identity, but we’d definitely like to see Nokia be a bit more ambitious.

The screen on the Icon looks pretty terrific (1920×1080), and handles bright light and harsh angles pretty well. You’ll be able to browse websites, send messages and look at pictures with the sun beaming down no problem, though it’s not like you can expect to comfortably watch your favorite episode of The Following at the beach. Save that stuff for inside, and have reasonable expectations. Text is crisp, colors are deep and beautiful, and the live tiles look lovely. Like an interactive post-modern Tetris.

Down the Icon’s right side, Nokia has kept a familiar button layout: volume rocker, quick-launch camera button, and sleep/wake/power. At the bottom, there’s a microUSB connection, and on the top the headphone jack is still placed in the center, which you either love or hate. It makes no difference to me. The buttons on Lumia devices have always felt odd, like they’re not actually pressing, or half-finished. There’s no satisfying click or spring. Just a limp press, like a bad handshake. The Icon falls victim to this.

On the inside, the Icon has specs indicative of today’s market: Snapdragon 800 chip, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of internal memory, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0. The usual high-end affair you see throughout most of the market. There’s also a 2420mAh battery (with wireless charging capabilities), Windows Phone 8 GDR3, Nokia Lumia Black update and a 20-megapixel PureView camera with OiS. For most Lumia fans, this is like the Holy Grail of WP devices. Only recently did Microsoft’s Windows Phone allow such big-time specs, so this is relatively new territory. Wireless charging is lovely.

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Experience

All those specs combine to make a snappy experience, one that is typical of the Windows Phone ecosystem. Microsoft’s OS never really needed the latest specs to offer a smooth experience, but the Icon certainly benefits from the boost. The animations and tiles flow smoothly, apps open very quickly, and they resume just as fast—typical of most Lumia devices. With Windows Phone’s multitasking functionality  you’re able to switch apps without much slowdown at all, making the whole thing feel more fluid and complete. Better than most WP handsets out there.

For the most part, Windows Phone 8 on the Icon is just like using it on the 1020, or 1520, with the same stunted ecosystem and familiar limitations. There are some big app stalwarts now available for WP, however, but there are also still some notable absences as well, and that matters to the majority of consumers. Sure, Windows Phone now has Instagram, but none of Google’s official apps are available, and you still won’t find the latest app craze hiding in the WP Marketplace. Apple’s iOS is still the mobile kingdom to beat. Windows Phone might get there—eventually. But the canyon between Windows Phone compared to iOS and Android is still very large. Not even Evel Knievel would risk jumping it.

However, some of that slack is made up by Nokia’s terrific ecosystem of camera apps, including Nokia Camera, Nokia Cinemagraph and Nokia Refocus, which are designed to give you more control over the shooting experience. While the Icon doesn’t quite have the spectacular 41-megapixel sensor stuffed into the Lumia 1020, it still sports a respectable 20-megapixel rear camera, with a 1/2.5-inch sensor and f/2.4 lens. The results produced by the Icon are nice, in low-light and in everyday situations, and the inclusion of optical image stabilization definitely makes a difference. The Icon’s pictures, like all Lumia handsets, still have a tendency to be slightly muted, and perhaps not as sharp or eye-popping as something like the iPhone 5s, but they by no means look bad.

Nokia Camera, mentioned above, is probably the company’s most brilliant addition to the Windows Phone ecosystem (HERE Maps is also worth mentioning). In short, the app gives you deep manual control over the camera, much like you’d get with a professional DSLR. Most smartphone owners are likely just concerned with point-and-shoot performance, but Nokia Camera offers plenty of controls—manual control of flash, white balance, ISO, shutter speed and exposure—that adds plenty of value to how you capture your surroundings. The Icon comes with a 20-megapixel camera, which allows you to do plenty in post-processing; pictures are ultimately exported at 5-megapixels.

Compared to Nokia’s Lumia 1020, however, which sports a 41-megapixel sensor, the shots you take aren’t quite as flexible. Not a huge deal if all you’re concerned about is snapping pictures for Instagram, but it just highlights how the Icon is merely content to fit in, instead of stand out. Consider, too, that the Icon’s heavier camera software can sometimes be a bit sluggish, particularly autofocus, and you definitely have a problem. Still, the camera takes acceptable shots, but nothing that will really blow your mind.

On the video side, the Icon captures at 1080p, and allows users to choose between 24, 25 and 30 fps—that can also be cranked down to 720p, if you prefer. Smartphone video is never really all that spectacular, and that seems to largely be the case here. It’s good enough, though it did struggle to focus in low-light, and even in brighter lit conditions the autofocus as overly active, like a fidgety kid in class. The audio, though, is superb. Definitely one of the Icon’s biggest strengths.

One big thing Nokia stressed when the Icon was announced, and in other Lumias, was its “unmatched audio” when recording video. The device, according to Nokia, comes equipped with four digital high-dynamic-range microphones, which allows the Icon to capture six times the sound pressure level of a “conventional smartphone microphone” without any discernible distortion. Thanks to special Nokia algorithms, the combination from the four digital microphones allows for the most high-quality stereo recording, which can pinpoint a specific sound even in really loud situations.

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From my experience,the Icon’s audio performance seems to be a step above the competition. Audio captured when recording video sounded great, better than you’d expect from a smartphone—at a party, for example, the Icon was able to drown out music and other chatter, but still capture the audio right in front of me. Directional audio is definitely put to good effect, and is one of those features you wouldn’t appreciate until it’s actually put to use. (Nokia actually lets you adjust audio capture settings, too, which can account for low-frequency noise situations, like strong winds.) It makes a difference when calling people, too, ensuring the person on the other end hears just your voice, and not the activity around you.

Wrap-Up

Rating

8.5
The Lumia Icon is the culmination of Nokia's hardware and software, combined with the best version of Windows Phone.

Nokia Lumia Icon

Performance-wise, the Icon is top notch, and powers through Windows Phone 8 without issue. And that’s really no surprise, either, given the device sports a Snapdragon 800 chip. Even with a more powerful processor and higher resolution display, the Icon’s battery actually holds up quite well, too, and will easily get you through a full day of typical use (email, messaging, snapping pictures, etc.). Combine this with the Icon’s camera chops and audio expertise, and this is arguably the best Lumia device out there. But that’s like saying Roy Choi is the best JV basketball player. He’s still not Varsity—yet. There is still plenty room for improvement, but the potential is slowly being fulfilled.

If you’re on Verizon, and you prefer Windows Phone, then you should absolutely get the Icon. Well, maybe. With a huge Windows Phone update coming in April, there are likely some bigger (and better) WP handsets on the horizon, and not just from Nokia. As it stands, however, the Icon provides a lovely display, sturdy build and excellent suite of Lumia-specific software to create a wonderful experience, even if the design is becoming a little dull. The growth of Windows Phone has been slow and steady over the past few years, and Nokia has been there every step of the away. Those efforts have culminated in a device that warrants its flagship status, and there’s huge promise things will get even better in the future.

Disclaimer: Brandon used the Lumia Icon for five days before drafting his review.