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Windows Phone partners Nokia and Microsoft have one thing in common: They’re both former mobile heavyweights in serious need of a comeback. A year after introducing the Lumia 800 overseas, this dynamic duo is back, hoping the third time’s the charm for giving Apple and Google a run for their money with the Nokia Lumia 920.
Back in May, I gave four stars to the Nokia Lumia 900, which Mac|Life hailed as “an attractive, Mac-friendly alternative we’d easily recommend over any Android handset.” The same can be said of the Lumia 920, a superior sequel released only eight months after its predecessor, which also makes an ideal choice for those suffering from iFatigue.
The Nokia Lumia 920 is truly better than the Lumia 900 in every way, and that’s high praise indeed, considering the earlier model was a slick, hard-to-put-down piece of hardware. Powered by a Snapdragon S4 quad-core processor with 1GB of RAM, the flagship Lumia is now available in a rainbow of colors, adding red and yellow to the previous black, white, or cyan options.
New colors aside, the Lumia 920 largely keeps the same stylistic vibe of the previous model, ditching the 4.3-inch AMOLED screen for a vibrant, 4.5-inch PureMotion HD+ display packing 1280x768 pixels (332ppi) under its Corning Gorilla Glass front exterior. The buttons remain in the same location (including the dedicated camera button), but a sleeker black has replaced silver, and the micro-USB port has been moved from top to bottom.
Compared to the iPhone 5, the Lumia 920 is thicker (10.7mm vs. 7.6mm), slightly taller (130.3mm vs. 123.8mm) and definitely wider (70.8mm vs. 58.6mm). It’s also significantly heavier at 185 grams compared to the iPhone 5’s svelte 112 grams, which seems shockingly light when first held. Like the Lumia 900, the 920 features an industrial design that rivals anything Apple has done, and we had no problem with the additional size or heft — it feels significant in the hand.
Our biggest complaint about the Lumia 900 was its weak camera, which Nokia has addressed with an 8.7 megapixel Carl Zeiss lens on the back, juiced up by the company’s PureView technology (there’s also a less powerful, front-facing 720p HD camera). Thanks to serious optical image stabilization, the Lumia 920 is capable of taking blur-free photos and videos in light too low for even the human eye to see clearly.
Sadly, the camera is still not quite perfect; a software bug is causing daylight shots to be less impressive than those shot in low light — an issue Nokia plans to fix with a future update. Video recording has also gotten a boost ,with full 1080p HD at 30fps, and it’s here where the hardware image stabilization really shines, easily besting the software-based solution found on the iPhone 5, which is otherwise still our favorite smartphone shooter.
Powering this impressive hardware is Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 8 operating system. While it may not seem like a significant upgrade to the casual user, under the hood it’s a complete rewrite for present and future smartphones, finally freeing handsets to offer displays with true HD resolution — including this one.
WP8 also gives manufacturers the option to use removable storage for the first time, but Nokia instead chose to offer the Lumia 920 in a single 32GB capacity, which is neither removable nor upgradable. Additionally, Microsoft gives SkyDrive users 7GB of free cloud storage, which can be used to automatically upload photos, videos, and other app data and sync them right back to iOS, OS X, and other platforms.
You’ll still need a free Microsoft account (which can include Hotmail or Windows Live) to use Windows Phone 8, which features a largely unchanged, tiled UI with one unique twist: Tiles can now be resized to further customize your Start screen, and apps can now be written to feature even more live information.
The former Windows Phone Marketplace celebrated its second anniversary this year by rebranding as Windows Phone Store, which is now home to 120,000 apps and counting — that’s 50,000 more than the Lumia 900 debut. But the platform is still missing key apps, including some that existed before, such as Spotify. (The music-streaming service says a WP8-compatible version is on the way.)
Microsoft has been working overtime to close the gap with iOS and Android, adding the likes of PayPal, Crackle, and Chase Mobile in recent weeks, as well as a preview version of its own Skype, which finally works in the background and can auto-resume when opened again. Nokia is also doing its part with a suite of apps including “camera lenses,” a type of image plug-in for WP8 that adds capabilities to the built-in camera software.
Wireless charging and NFC are two new features offered by the Lumia 920, although there’s not much to do with the latter as of this writing; Nokia does include a sample NFC tag in the box to play with, but it’s just a shortcut to one of their web portals. Microsoft includes a preinstalled Wallet app, but at the moment it’s just a place for storing payment methods and can’t be used to actually purchase anything at retail. Windows Phone 8 is also capable of over-the-air updates, but the mobile OS is not compatible with older devices such as the Lumia 900.
Microsoft also rebranded its Mac sync software: The awkwardly named Windows Phone 7 Connector for Mac is now simply Windows Phone for Mac, still available free on the Mac App Store. While it’s still a bit slow to connect even with the Lumia 920, version 3.0 now allows Mac users to drag and drop content between the Finder and Windows Phone 8 handsets, offers enhanced ringtone support, and is even Retina Display-ready for new MacBook Pro owners.
Windows Phone 3.0 for Mac plays nice with the latest versions of iPhoto and Aperture, too, syncing projects, albums or Faces of your choosing, as well as importing photos and videos from the Lumia 920 back to same. iTunes music, podcast, movie, and TV show sync is also possible, but once again, only for DRM-free content — no iTunes Store purchases other than the first two.
While Windows Phone is fairly snappy when syncing music content, we saw the Mac app get bogged down while syncing a lot of photos, even with the option to resize photos to fit the device screen unchecked. The app also refuses to sync images whose names include special characters Windows doesn’t like, such as question marks or colons, but that iTunes itself has no problem with.
Those small quibbles aside, the Nokia Lumia 920 — which is exclusive to AT&T (and its growing 4G LTE network) in the U.S. — is easily our second-favorite smartphone next to the iPhone 5. Nokia shocked critics by slapping a $99.99 price tag on this flagship handset when purchased with a two-year commitment, essentially making it half the price of Apple’s current model while offering twice the storage capacity.
The bottom line. Windows Phone continues to be the mobile OS underdog, but we still prefer it to Google’s Android, especially with the newly enhanced features delivered by Windows Phone 8. The Nokia Lumia 920 is our favorite handset on this platform, offering a remarkable amount of style, fit, and finish for a price that even Apple will have a hard time matching by the time the next iPhone rolls around.
Nokia Lumia 920
Free Microsoft account (includes Hotmail and Windows Live), Windows Phone 3.0 app for Mac iTunes sync (requires Mac OS X 10.7 or later)
Significant hardware and software improvements over Lumia 900. Optical image stabilization can take photos in near-total darkness. Works well with AT&T MVNOs such as StraightTalk (no 4G LTE or mobile hotspot, however).
Image quality can’t match iPhone 5 for daytime shots. Syncing large quantity of photos can be slow on Mac. Many developers slow to update apps for Windows Phone 8. Mac sync app requires OS X Lion or higher.