Review Nokia Lumia 1020 + Smartphones Commentary 2013

Just a decade ago we were ogling over the latest Communicator Smartphone from Nokia with the ability to fax (yup fax), send email, go on the internet with Netscape and look cool with a brick on our face no thanks to the keyboard that was with the phone.  For once we are able to do work while we are out and about without lugging the laptop around. [P.S. – if you want to read the review of the 1020 you can scroll down]

The Nokia Communicator – top of the line phone that can do anything then…including fax.

Fast forward to 2008 and the world starts to turn with the introduction of the iOS and Android OS. Phone manufacturers such as Samsung who uses their own OS and HTC, famous under the brand name O2 and then Dopod in Singapore, starts to get a new lease of life as the warriors of Android as the market faces competition from the Apple with its closed system.

Geeks who do like to tweak their devices welcome Android like fish to water and slowly but surely, Android handsets got more popular, overtaking the iPhone’s cool factor and Android has 76% of market share according to mobile statistics.

The Nokia N95. A ‘smartphone’ with the Symbian OS is anything but easy to use. This is the danger of being the top player for far too long.

All of a sudden Nokia handsets was seen as cumbersome and slow even when their hardware is still one of the best out there. Microsoft was handsomely caught off guard when people are turning to mobile computing using iOS and Android in droves.

The old paradigm when offices dictate the devices (and the OS to be used) has all of a sudden became obsolete as well when offices allows Bring Your Own (BYO) devices to be connected to the Office Network. With Nokia unable to turn the tide with its Meego OS, Microsoft saw an opportunity to have a strategic partner in Nokia to combat the onslaught of Apple, Samsung, LG, HTC handsets and try to gain a toe-hold in the Mobile Phone market with its Windows Phone OS.  Nokia willingly took the money from Redmond and concentrate on rebuilding its empire using Windows Phone OS.

I definitely do not have the insider information on why Nokia took Microsoft money and I can only harbour a guess. My view is that Android OS was seen to be a platform that allows more competition and thus it would be hard to differentiate oneself from the other offerings. And to be able to differentiate oneself, then huge resources is needed to provide feature sets that would stand out from the crowd.  Judging from how we geeks like to compare specifications,

Nokia’s fear was definitely palpable and Microsoft still have the resources from its corporate business in MS Office and PC OS to do something about the Mobile Computing market and it is easy to see that the decision was a no brainer. What happened since did not bode well for Nokia. The Windows Phone 7 OS did not rock the world so to say and garnered at most 3% of the market. This author did agree with the world that Windows Phone 7 OS was not as polished at all with the Metro UI.

As Mark Twain prayed “Lord save us all from a hope tree that has lost the faculty of putting blossoms” and I think Nokia was really hoping against hope that the Microsoft hope tree will blossom with the introduction of Windows 8 in October 2012. Using Windows 8 will indirectly ‘train’ people to work with Windows Phone 8 Metro User Interface.  1 year on and the situation did not improve much as people have not yet ditched Windows XP, let alone Windows 7 and upgrading to Windows 8. The culprit I’d say is the Metro UI again but that’s another story (or is the story for Windows Phone too?).

It is also not hard to see why Android has grown rapidly. The very reason why people would love to have Android OS is to have the ability to choose their new phones  without having to do a whole lot of migration since most of the stuff we do online now revolves around Google apps (Gmail, Calendar, Maps, Picasa).

When I first bought my Android OS phone, it was the HTC Hero and when it is clear that HTC is not upping its game with a good mobile phone at the time of re-contract so I got myself the Samsung SII. I can quickly transfer all my important stuff to the Samsung Galaxy SII without doing anything drastic and all are via the Internet.

The same thing happened 2 years on when I shifted my stuff to the ASUS Padfone 2 and then ASUS Padfone Infinity shortly after when I cracked my screen of the former. It was all hunky dory with no major drama.

Contrast this with Apple iPhones – if a screw up happens like the map fiasco in iOS 6 or yawn inducing iPhone upgrades with the already cracked fingerprint scanner…twice, you have two choices – either you have to stick with Apple with their phones to maintain your life as it is or leave the whole system and start your mobile life quite close from scratch.

In short, Apple is still in the fight right now because of its die-hard supporters and non-geeks fear of the unknown when changing system. However to this author’s observation, even non-geeks are starting to look elsewhere after the announcement of iPhone 5s(ame) and 5c(heap).

Unfortunately Windows Phone is no where better as there are only two manufacturers to choose from – HTC and Nokia and has no solid supporters in number to help it grow further. So when one is at the brink of choosing a phone, it is wiser to have a phone that has the wider accepted OS so that when a manufacturer has a kick-ass phone like the Samsung Note 3, one would not feel out of place changing to it from the competitors’ old phone.  Pure competition using the same platform has given the consumer the very much needed choice from budget to features galore handsets.

It also helps break the monopolistic tendencies of a closed system – the temptation to rest on one’s laurels. To be fair, Nokia Lumia phones do make a splash for the last couple of years because of its prowess in the imaging hardware department.

Still it didn’t win the hearts and souls of mobile phones users out there and as predicted by this author, Microsoft bought over Nokia in September 2013 with USD7 Billion and taking over all the Nokia patents and intellectual property. This is the market reality that Nokia Lumia 1020 has to face when it was launched this month.

The Nokia Lumia 1020

The Nokia 1020 with the camera grip and 1020mAh power bank good for an additiona 8-10 hours of usage.

Nokia announces the 808 PureView in 2012 with a huge buzz on the Internet thanks to its whopping 41Mega Pixel (MP) camera with Carl Zeiss lens. The key technology with the sensor was the use of over sampling to derive a more accurate representation of the scene being taken. The next buzz came in the form of the 920 in with image stabilisation but comes without the 41MP sensor.

So it is only logical for Nokia to combine these two killer features into one phone – the Nokia Lumia 1020 PureView. The 1020 did not have the 41MP sensor from the 808 nor the image stabilisation of the 920. It has instead the improved version of the image stabilisation technology with ball bearings and a slightly smaller 1/1.5″ sensor (the 808 was 1/1.2″).

The other feature/specification includes the use of Snapdragon 400 1.5GHz Dual Core processor, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of memory (about 29GB for use) and 4.5″ Gorilla Glass 3 Screen.

For those who are fed with Quad Core goodness the Nokia Lumia may seemed a bit underwhelmed but the actual practical speed of the phone is agreeable, not blazing fast but it won’t be so slow you will pull your hair waiting for the app to respond during normal usage. The undemanding requirements of the Windows Phone OS may be the reason behind it.

That said, the snap to snap response time of the camera is rather slow no thanks to the huge file size from the 41MP sensor and also may due to the small memory buffer that the camera app can use. The focusing speed is ok as I was trained by the Fujifilm X100 to look for good contrast in the frame to help in focusing but to others it may be painfully slow.

Once you get over the nitty gritty stuff, the Nokia Lumia 1020 do sing and how lovely is that sound!

The dreaded ISO noise you would expect from a sensor that is only a quarter of a Micro Four Third sensor is mostly controlled thanks to the use of the image stabilisation and a less tendency to use a very high ISO setting in AUTO ISO mode.

The colour from the images being produced are well put together with good contrast, good saturation and best of all, a very good dynamic range where details in the shadows are properly exposed without looking fake. For such statements I would think that I am talking about a top of the line Compact System Camera or even a DSLR for that matter. But no. It came from a camera stuck to the back of a smartphone.

Indoor Store shot. The bane of compact camera Auto White Balance. 

Colour saturation, colour graduation, sharpness, contrast. Top notch.

Superb colour and clarity.

Hiding in the shade and yet the details are crisp and the surroundings are not blown out

 
Shooting against the Sun. Not blown out too!

The Xenon flash cames into play. A tad on the Vivid side with a tinge of yellow.


Inside Hotel Intercontinental. Handheld. No visible ISO noise. Pleasing AWB.

Indoor shoot with halogen down lights. No flash. David Teo doing a Street Shooting presentation before the Scott Kelby Worldwide Walk.

Oh the Bokeh! F2.2 6 elements Carl Zeiss Lens goodness! Note the perfect bokeh circles on the top right corner


Macro goodness!

One of the refrains I will be hearing would be this – Wilson it is sharp because there is enough MP to ensure that. My retort is usually this – once you downgrade your picture to 1920 by 1080 (about 2.1MP native), photos from 41MP sensor or 16MP sensor or heck even the old 2MP compact camera sensor will be on equal footing. What makes the huge difference would be the lens used with the sensor.

Even if a sensor has 41MP like a 20/20 normal eyesight, it will still be hampered if it is hindered by a very dark pair of sunglasses.  So whenever I tell people about upgrading a camera, the camera sensor is not the top of my list but it is the upgrade of a better set of lens to match with the camera body. A good lens do breathe new life to a old camera.

What concern me more with small sensor size is the presence of the ISO noise – small specks of colour or discolouration in the darker parts of the picture.  And I am happy to report that the Lumia 1020 did fantastically well in the post-editing department, controlling the noise to a level that is worthy of a DSLR.

Street shoot. Artifacts in the sky. Controlled.

Night shoot handheld.

As I have mentioned, the use of the 41MP sensor do allow a user certain advantages. The closest in terms of megapixel count would be the Nikon’s D800/E. The advantage of using a sensor with 41MP is the ability to have a very huge print and also the option to do a super crop – that is to frame a shot within the picture to arrive at an even closer zoom image of the subject. This would be great for the macro bug shooter who likes to focus on the eyes.

In other words, it can also be said to be like the digital zoom that all digital camera reviewer like to loathe. The main difference between the digital zoom circa 2003-2005 and the 41MP camera is that the former would require the camera to guess how an image would look like as it does not have enough pixels to present a zoomed representation of the image. The later would have sufficient pixels to present a more accurate zoomed image.

The original shot


The super digital zoom/crop. Note the drop in sharpness, contrast and graduation of colours on the face.

The Lumia 1020 do not have optical zoom. What it has is the 41MP sensor working for you to present to you a cropped/zoomed part of the image that you want. Nokia fortunately implemented a much more pragmatic solution to the digital zoom solution (at around 69mm focal length equivalent). If you have zoomed in prior to take a shot, the camera will still take the image at its native 25mm wide angle lens and then present you with the shot zoomed.

So what this means is that if you would want to re-crop the picture again, you would have the full image to do the editing. This is the same way like what Lightroom is doing.  I would still very much prefer an optical zoom solution but that would mean a much thicker phone like the Samsung S4 Zoom.

The other photography goodness was the new app Nokia has developed to maximise the use of the camera hardware. Called the Nokia Camera Pro, the camera app allows the user to control the settings of the camera via concentric circle levers.

The Nokia Camera Pro app. Pro way of changing settings. Something that other camera manufacturers should emulate. From Left to Right: Auto White Balance, Focusing, ISO, Shutter Speed, EV.

It is a good design because one can just use the right thumb to do control settings such as White Balance,  Focusing distance, ISO, Shutter Speed and Exposure Value Compensation (EV). One just need to push the camera icon button to the left to access the circle levers.  The two key settings worth mentioning would be the manual focusing and shutter speed. These are something new that camera phones of other brands should copy if a camera smartphone is what they are aiming for.

wpid-P_20130926_123142.jpg
The camera grip with shutter button on top and the extended power bank inside the grip. The phone connects to the grip via MicroUSB plug.

To me the most important accessory to get buy along with the 1020 is the Camera Grip accessory (SGD 98 / USD 78).  The grip is attached to the camera like the external power bank cases for the iPhones as it also comes with a 1020mAH battery for extended use.

What’s different is that it is shaped like a camera grip and comes with a shutter button and a tripod screw so that one can take selfies with a tripod. The camera phone is a much nicer gadget to hold with this accessory and that decreases the chance of a shaky picture further. The controls actually allowed users to take very close shots like the Playmobil photographer above and also food shots for example.

The Shutter speed allows light trails to be captured but with a caveat – the scene has to be quite dark to capture the light trail and also expose the scene properly. The reason for overexposure is quite simple – the aperture of the lens cannot be made smaller hence the camera is effectively at f2.2 all the time. Even if one has a low ISO , the shutter speed is still too slow to restrict the amount of light hitting the sensor hence the over exposure.

The solution? Put a pair of sunglasses in front of the lens element or use a much faster shutter speed to compensate. That however would mean a very short light trail as a result.

Attempt to capture 4s light trail. Over exposure.

Correction with 1/10s shot but with short light trail.

The camera implementation also have a very severe flaw – Nokia has four main camera application to choose from. Apart from Nokia Pro Camera, it also has Nokia Panorama for panoramic shots, Nokia Smart Cam and the basic Camera App that has scene modes (yes Nokia Pro Cam has no scene modes). And to make use of any of the app would require the user to move from one app to another.

There is no one holistic, all encompassing camera app that can provide all the necessary functions in one place. If the hardware is awesome but is used by a fragmented app support, it doesn’t help with user experience at all. And yes, it did frustrate me – A LOT – during the test shoot.

Only when I keep using the Nokia Pro Camera app did I get to enjoy to use the camera. I wonder how much better it would be if this was solved before the Phone is launched.

The other practical aspect that I feel was not given due consideration was the on-board memory for storage purposes. A quick check of the storage space resulted in 29GB worth of space for data and files discounted the space used by the OS. As I have set the phone to save in both Hi-Resolution and small sized JPEG files, the space needed per image is anything from 7MB to over 20MB. That would mean the 32GB storage will be paltry for extended photography use. There is of course the 7GB Skydrive cloud storage facility one could use but that would mean a uploading times and usage of the data plan while out and about.

Of course one could download the photos every now and then to the PC but wouldn’t a MicroSD card slot be a good idea as well? I could just put another 32GB or even 64GB of storage space just for photos alone and solve my problems immediately without resorting to downloading.

The Verdict

So what’s the verdict? For a camera guy like me the Lumia 1020 did surprised me for a smartphone camera. The post editing processing by the camera is also very impressive, controlling the ISO noise very well and derive a superbly clean image good enough to be used for printing large posters.

That said, I would like the camera not to post edit the picture too much and prefer a bigger sensor with better light capturing capability with a much larger photo diode site.

If push came to shove, the 1020 do perform well.  The unfortunate part of it is that it is still not a full fledged camera as  its aperture is fixed at f2.2 and that do affect some creative shots and would require special shooting environment to achieve the desired result.

With the fragmented Camera App solution, the positive perception of the 1020’s camera function has been discounted.

The very last thing I would like to remind those reading this review is that the Nokia Lumia 1020 PureView it still essentially a smartphone. I have complained about the fact that people are getting smartphones not for its phone capabilities but for other functions and waste precious battery power doing so. I even joked that people would find themselves with a phone with no power in an emergency just because they surf the net for far too long.

Since then, the phone has evolved into a mini computer when one is able to play games, surf the internet, make phone calls, send messages and of course, take photos.  I myself would gladly use the phone’s camera if it is for a snap shot and delighted if the shot has super image quality.

But I would still say one thing – I am buying a phone and not a camera; and would save the battery power for communication rather than for image capturing. In the end it all hinges back on one thing – would you be able to use the Windows Phone 8 OS comfortably for your daily communication needs? There’s no point getting the 1020, even with such a superb camera, if you are not going to use the smartphone competently.

I would just get a good camera such as the Sony RX100 or Fujifilm X20 that allows me to have a good camera while I change my phone every 2 years.  A camera will definitely last longer than the 2 year contract.

What if Nokia uses the Android OS and has this fantastic Camera? I would guess there would be more people supporting Nokia now, including me, instead of being sold to Microsoft. This goes to show choosing a good partner is important, even in real life.

The Nokia Lumia 1020 is now available in Singapore for SGD999 and will be cheaper under post-paid contract with the local telcos.  For a limited time, the 1020 will be sold with the camera grip as a bundle.

Pros

  • Great camera. No doubt about it with good Image Quality
  • Camera grip with power bank and tripod screw mount means easier photo taking with extended battery power.
  • The screen is great
  • Nokia Pro Camera App – extended manual exposure control

Cons

  • Depending on users, the Windows Phone OS and its Apps may need some getting used to. The Apps is still not as refined as those on iOS and Android. Not Nokia’s fault.
  • Fragmented App solution for the camera. 4 Apps to do different things. Why not under one roof/app?
  • Paltry 29GB storage in view of huge image files from the 41MP sensor. A MicroSD card slot is definitely necessary.
  • Time to be ready for the next shot – slow. The huge files and the small buffer storage may be the culprit.

More sample shots can be seen at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wilzworkz/sets/72157636214898135/

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