Nokia Lumia Icon review: The best Windows phone yet

The Nokia Lumia Icon is the best Windows(s msft) phone yet. It’s also the first Windows phone to nail just the right balance of design, features and performance. It’s not perfect: I have some quibbles with the software, and the look of the phone itself could be a little more exciting. But if you’re in the market for a Windows phone, this is the one to get.

Size: This one is just right

Before the Icon, the last Windows phone I tested was the 6-inch Lumia 1520 “phablet.” It’s a great device, but I think phones that big alienate the vast majority of their potential user base, myself included. Even though I really liked the Lumia 1520, there’s no way I would ever use it to make a call in public. I also couldn’t figure out a way to hold it comfortably in one hand. Just check out the difference in the picture below (the Lumia Icon is on the left):
Lumia Icon vs Lumia 1520
On the other hand, devices like the 4.5-inch Lumia 1020 can feel a little too small, with practically just as much bezel as there is viewable screen.
Compared to those phones, the 5-inch Lumia Icon is just right. It fits comfortably in the hand and offers the right balance between bezel and display. It’s a little heavy, at 5.89 ounces, but that’s just something I’ve come to expect from Lumia devices. And that weight gives the phone somewhat of a solid, premium feel.

Design and display

Though I would’ve liked to see some of Nokia’s brighter, more ostentatious color choices available for the Icon, it’s still attractive in its own crisp, minimalist way. I reviewed the black model of the phone, though it also comes in white, which I think looks even sharper. The back panel is a smooth polycarbonate, and there’s an aluminum band around the middle. The front is entirely glass, which has an attractive curve at the edges.
Lumia Icon apps
The screen itself is gorgeous. It’s a 5-inch 1080p OLED, which has 441 pixels per inch. Colors look super saturated, almost inky, and the phone can get impressively bright. Nokia’s ClearBlack polarization means you still see the screen pretty well outside, and it’s responsive enough that you can use it while wearing gloves.
All physical controls are located on the right side of the phone, including Volume, Power and Camera buttons. There’s also a SIM card slot on the top that looks as if it should be a microSD card slot — I got excited before I pried it out and lost my network connection. Without a microSD card slot, you’re limited to the onboard storage. The phone comes with 32GB of storage, 23.33GB of which is available out of the box.
Lumia Icon top
Aside from that, there’s a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on top of the phone, a microUSB charging port on the bottom, and a non-removable 2,420mAh battery sealed inside. Nokia claims the battery is good for up to nine hours of local video playback or nearly seven hours of Web browsing over cellular.
The Lumia Icon runs on Verizon’s(s vz) 4G LTE network. It also supports 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. Data speeds were on par with other devices on the network, but call quality is middling at best. Voices sound surprisingly muffled in the earpiece, and a good amount of background hiss makes its way in. On the other end, calls made with the phone don’t sound much better.

Software: It’s a Windows Phone

Unlike Google’s(S goog) open source Android operating system, which lets developers do whatever they want with it, Microsoft doesn’t provide much leeway with its Windows Phone OS. This means that, from a software perspective, most Windows phones are more or less the same.
Lumia Icon back
That said, the Windows Phone operating system is steadily improving, thanks most recently to Microsoft’s WP8 Update 3, as well as Nokia’s Lumia Black update. As we saw on the Lumia 1520, you can now toggle screen rotation and close apps right from the multitasking window. And Windows Phone now features an extra column of Tiles (for a total of three medium-sized Tiles per row), though they still max out at two columns wide. There’s little bloatware preinstalled on the Icon aside from NFL Mobile and VZ Navigator, both of which you can delete.
I do have one problem with the phone’s software, though. For some reason, Nokia didn’t include a couple of features here that you get on other Lumia phones, like the ability to double-tap your phone in order to wake it. More noticeably, the Icon lacks Nokia’s “Glance” screen, which lets you view the time and notification on your phone’s display when it’s in standby.
Nokia claims Glance isn’t available “due to certain hardware restrictions.” But that doesn’t make much sense to me, since this is the second Windows phone to use Qualcomm’s(s qcom) formidable Snapdragon 800 processor. The phone is powered by a quad-core 2.2GHz chip, which is the same one you’ll find in the Lumia 1520. I think Glance is one of Nokia’s more useful software features, so it’s disappointing not to see it here.

Lumia Icon group comparison

Left to right: iPhone 5s, Moto X, Lumia Icon, Lumia 1520

Software weirdness aside, at least the Icon runs impeccably. I’ve always found the Windows Phone OS to be fast, no matter the hardware, but even hardware-intensive games like Asphalt 8 run silky smooth on the Icon.
It’s also worth noting that the Windows Phone app selection is steadily improving, though it still lacks a number of popular choices. You still won’t find Google apps like YouTube or Google Maps, for instance. That’s always something to consider with Windows Phone: There are going to be popular apps on iOS(s aapl) and Android that you’re just not going to see on Windows Phone (like Flappy Bird, which never made its way to WP before its creator pulled it out of the App Store and Google Play). Before committing to the platform, I’d make sure to take a good, long look at the Windows Phone app store online to make sure the apps you want to use are available.

Camera and conclusions

Lumia phones have become virtually synonymous with a good camera experience, and the 20-megapixel Lumia Icon is no exception. The phone features a backside-illuminated sensor with f/2.4 aperture and 26mm focal length and uses dual-LEDs for flash, just like the Lumia 1520. That makes for very similar camera performance, which is mostly a good thing.
Lumia Icon camera
The Icon takes solid pictures, no matter the lighting, and I was impressed by both the accurate color and sharp detail. Nokia’s Pro Camera app is fun to use as well, with the ability to apply filters, create GIFs, or refocus photos after you’ve taken them, à la Lytro. Thanks to the 20-megapixel sensor, you can also crop photos and zoom in pretty close without losing any detail. And you can even capture RAW images for more intensive editing on a computer.
My only real complaint is that the camera has a fairly pronounced pause while attempting to autofocus, which means you could miss a shot. There’s also just over a one-second delay between shots.

Lumia Icon test photo

The Lumia Icon is slow to shoot, but photos usually come out great

But while it isn’t perfect, the Lumia Icon is the best Windows phone I’ve seen yet. As far as Windows phones go, it’s the only one to combine the latest hardware and software with a generally ideal form factor. But unlike the $99.99 Lumia 1520, the Lumia Icon costs $199.99 on Verizon (S VZ) with a two-year contract. That price makes it directly comparable to other high-end smartphones like the iPhone 5s (and soon, I imagine, the Samsung Galaxy S5).
The iPhone is certainly home to a lot more apps, and I’d argue that its 8-megapixel camera is just as good as the Icon’s, at least for the casual sort of shots you’d share on a social network. The same goes for the Galaxy S4, or other current high-end Android phones. So the real question you should ask yourself is whether you want a Windows phone. If the answer is yes, and you’re buying on Verizon, there’s simply no better choice than the Lumia Icon.