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What I like about the Lumia 1020 running Windows Phone 8.1

For the better part of a decade now, the smartphone industry has been a two horse race between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. They hit harder and faster than anyone else could, and they don’t give up market share easily. Their deep pockets and lengthy head start have forced most new entrants in the smartphone wars to be content surviving as an experiment (although some don’t even make it that far *coughUbuntucough*).

My Lumia 1020

But every now and then, a company shows up with a lot of spine and a lot more money. I am of course, talking about none other than Microsoft. They’ve been dumping millions of dollars trying to get their Windows Phone platform rolling and in terms of units sold, Microsoft has already dragged itself ahead of Blackberry. But unless Windows Phone starts gaining traction without such a heavy-handed push from its Redmond parent, this marketing effort won’t be sustainable.

It’s one of these marketing pushes that recently landed me a brand new Windows Phone. Through their “Opportunity Rings” sweepstake, where random visitors to Microsoft stores could win one of three smartphones, I found myself in possession of a Nokia Lumia 1020. For those of you who can’t make heads or tails of Nokia’s numerical nomenclature, that’s the “normal-sized” phone with a ridiculous 41 megapixel camera.

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As a huge, but stingy tech enthusiast, I’ve really been interested in exploring other phone platforms. I’ve used an iPhone as my daily carry for 2 contract cycles now because when I’m locked into 2-year contracts I tend to play it safe. I don’t want to get a phone, and then realize I hate its camera (HTC One), or hate its construction (Samsung [Anything]), or hate its OEM software tweaks (LG G2). The new Nexus is just a hair above my impulse buy price range, and I’m seriously considering the new Moto G w/ LTE, coming out in June. But it never occurred to me that I might want to give Windows Phone a try. I was never really sold on WP7’s monochromatic tiles, or using a list to navigate unpinned apps. Plus, I was doubly-turned off by the concept of tiles because Windows 8 left a bad taste in my mouth. I absolutely *hate* metro with a fiery passion. So how did I take to using Windows Phone for a week? Read on to find out…

Setup Experience

From talking to the Microsoft Store employees while waiting for my phone, I got the immediate impression that Windows Phone 8.1 was a must have. As one of the guys at the counter said: “It might as well be called Windows Phone 9.1.” and there’s a lot of merit to that statement. If you buy a Windows Phone today, and start using it on stock WP8, you’re going to wonder how Microsoft thought they had a competent phone OS on their hands. You can’t even use the camera without unlocking the phone. Since WP 8.1 is expected to come out sometime in June, I’m just going to write this blog post as though 8.1 is the norm.

Upon receiving my phone and unboxing it, I plugged it in and tried to turn it on. Nothing happened. I waited 10 minutes, and still nothing happened. At this point I was starting to worry that I had a phone that was DOA. I tried a hard reset and finally I saw a faint icon indicating that the phone was charging. I suspect that my 1020 was sitting on the shelf so long that the residual charge on the battery had dipped into fractions of a percent, but since I couldn’t find the manufacture date of my phone, I’ll withhold judgment on Microsoft’s inventory…

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In terms of actually using the phone once it powered on, I was impressed by just how much WP8.1 supports. In addition to the now requisite Facebook and Twitter integration, my Lumia even pulled in contacts from iCloud (note: you should disable iMessage on all your Apple devices at least 3 days prior to switching phones). You can also easily link contacts together if there are any redundancies between Google, Facebook, etc.

Most of your major apps are in the WP Store: Facebook, Pandora, Skype, Netflix, WhatsApp, Amazon, Waze, etc. I would say that I managed to replicate 80% of my regular functions on WP8, I’ll talk about specific deficiencies later.

Microsoft provides an app on OS X to do music and photo syncing, and for the most part it works well. It wasn’t until I’d updated to WP8.1 that I was able to successfully sync playlists. Photos sync with iPhoto, and videos can be uploaded to OneDrive.

The customizability of the home screen is pretty good, with 3 tile size options and the ability to put a background behind transparent tiles. You can actually download an app to enable transparency in certain icons like Facebook’s. The minimalistic look of the home screen actually started to grow on me over time.

The Little Things Done Right

I’m just going to regurgitate all the small features I really appreciate coming from an iPhone.

1) Phone wakes up when you pull it from your pocket. Smart use of light sensor.
2) Capacitive array can be kept powered on to wake phone by tapping screen.
3) AMOLED means phone can display time with minimal power drain.
3.5) Can display time on screen when charging at all times.
4) Physical camera button.
5) “Swype”-esque keyboard installed by default.
6) Good data monitoring app built in.
7) Volume dropdown lets you adjust ringer and app volume individually in one location.
8) Pre-installed apps allow much better control over photo corrections than in iOS.
9) Consistent UI design is something to commend Microsoft about. Even though I’m not sold on the capacitive back button, its implementation and that of the “options” button is not bad.

DAT CAMERA DOE

Let’s not kid ourselves, this is the single most impressive spec on the Lumia 1020. 41 megapixels of seamlessly oversampled photo/video capture. I was able to try out the 4X lossless digital zoom while recording at 1080p, and it works really well. The image processing in this phone is a beast. I find this far more impressive than HTC’s “UltraPixels” in terms of engineering. Plus, you get a camera app with FULL manual controls baked in.

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In addition to the camera, audio capture is done via Nokia’s HAAC system that HTC accidentally used in early models of the M7. At an airshow, I was able to record sky-shattering flyby’s of F-16’s with zero distortion. It gives you 30 DB more range to play with, which means you can hear things 8 times louder than most phones. If you ever bring a phone to a concert, it should be a Nokia.

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The fact that you can save photos up to 34 mpxl in a RAW format sets a high water mark for mobile devices. Low light performance is generally good, though you’ll still miss your DSLR.

So am I switching to a Windows Phone as my every day carry phone?

My “What I dislike about ‘…'” post is coming up next, so stay tuned.

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