Although smartphone cameras have been growing steadily better and more powerful, they have always been an add-on: the phone and web features come first. But with the release of the Lumia 1020 this week, Nokia switches the order. Whether one is navigating the software or investigating the device's matte finish exterior, it's clear that Nokia's creative energies center on the 41-megapixel camera.
Before we continue, note that the Lumia 1020 is an AT&T exclusive that will run you $300 even with a contract. But if your interest in high-tech gadgetry rivals an equally deep-seated love of photography, this is the camera phone you've always wanted.
Lumia 1020's PureView 41 megapixel sensor with a high-resolution 3X optical zoom crushes any smartphone camera competition, including the iPhone 5's measly (by comparison) 8 megapixels. This smartphone super-camera also comes with optical image stabilization to eliminate the blurry consequences of shaky hands.
Apart from the hardware, Nokia also packages a suite of professional-caliber editing software in an attempt to lure photo professionals. Nokia Pro Cam features dual capture, storing the original image at full resolution and also a 5-megapixel version, which Nokia describes as the “sweet spot" for an image size that can be easily shared and printed. Pro Cam brings professional image control to the smartphone by allowing users to adjust exposure value, shutter speed, ISO, focus, and white balance. Aside from Nokia Pro Cam, the device also has five other camera apps including Bing Vision, Cinemagraph, Panorama, Nokia Smart Cam, and of course, just plain-old Camera.
The most impressive photo-driven feature of the Lumia 1020 is its video camera—but it comes with its own hiccup. In well-lit environments, the Lumia far surpassed the iPhone 5 in color and image quality, but it struggled under low-light conditions.
Overall, the phone's appearance is markedly improved from previous Lumia models. Nokia exchanged the glossy shine for a matte finish, which comes in white, black, or yellow. The only other difference is the camera's protruding lens. Constantly feeling the lens while holding the phone was a minor annoyance, but one easily overlooked considering the benefits. Still, the added hardware made the device feel a little top-heavy and prevented the phone from lying flat when propped face-up.
Other than its stellar camera and 1 GB RAM increase, the device isn't much different from its Lumia predecessors, AT&T's 920 and Verizon's 928. The phone runs on the Windows 8 OS, has a 4.5-inch AMOLED display with Corning Gorilla Glass 3, and is saddled with a 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 processor. Windows 8 continues to lag behind the competition when it comes to user-friendliness, but at least Lumia 1020 knows what it does best and takes full advantage of its large screen for stunning visual layouts.
Although it's easily the most capable and impressive Windows smartphone yet, the 1020 still suffers from stymied app availability, especially native photo-sharing services like Instagram or Snapchat, though Vine recently announced that it will be venturing into the Windows 8 platform.
Nokia Lumia 1020 is a great camera and an average smartphone—in that order. But for a $300 with-contract price, $100 more than a base model iPhone 5, it needs to be better. At times, even the seemingly endless photo control becomes too much. Nokia boasts about bringing SLR image control to smartphones, but in a mobile culture that's more concerned with sharable snapshots than professionally crafted works of art, one wonders who's really in the market for this device. In the right photo-capable hands, the Lumia 1020 could be an indispensable piece of technology. For the average smartphone user, it's too one-dimensional.