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Nokia Lumia Icon Doesn't Quite Live Up to Its Name

Nokia's latest Windows Phone device is good, but not iconic.

When Nokia introduced its Lumia 1520 phablet last November, I joked that you could use it as a butter dish for Thanksgiving dinner because it was so large. Obviously, I was only poking fun, but its gargantuan size really did limit the appeal of an otherwise good phone. Nokia realized this, too, and now there’s an alternative.

The new Nokia Lumia Icon takes many of the same features of the Lumia 1520, including the 20-megapixel camera and quad-core processor, and packs it into a smaller frame. It’s now available exclusively from Verizon Wireless for $200 with a two-year contract.

I’ve been using it for the past week, and found a lot of things to like about the Windows Phone device. The five-inch full-HD display is stunning. The camera took great photos, and the four built-in microphones helped elevate audio quality. Performance was also fluid, and battery life was solid. Among Verizon’s current portfolio of Windows Phone devices, this is the one you want to get.

But I also couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed in the Lumia Icon. The boxy design leaves much to be desired, and the camera can be sluggish at times. Also, while the Windows Store has come a long way in filling out its app catalog, it still lags far behind Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS operating systems. As such, it doesn’t really offer anything to give it the edge over other top-tier smartphones like the iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxy S4.

At 5.39 inches tall by 2.79 inches wide by .39-inch thick, and weighing 5.86 ounces, the Lumia Icon is much more manageable than the Lumia 1520. I had an easier time using the phone one-handed, and could fit it in the back pocket of my jeans, though it made for a bit of a tight fit.

Despite being shorter and narrower than the Lumia 1520, the Lumia Icon is on the thicker and heavier side, compared to competitors like the Galaxy S4 and HTC One. This is partly due to the fact that Nokia wanted to fit in a good-size battery and keep the camera lens flush with the back of the device, rather than having it protrude as it does on its Lumia 1520 and 1020.

The phone is built using polycarbonate (plastic) materials, and features an aluminum band that wraps around the device, similar to the band on the iPhone. It gives the Lumia Icon a premium feel — much more so than the Galaxy S4 –– but that touch is somewhat overshadowed by the phone’s otherwise ho-hum design.

The Lumia Icon follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, the Lumia 928, with a more blocky design. Unlike the Lumia 1520 and 1020, which have rounded edges, the Lumia Icon features flat sides and sharp edges. The result is a very utilitarian look that’s made less distinctive by the fact that Nokia is only offering the phone in black or white.

Luckily, the five-inch, full-HD display makes for a nice distraction. The screen is crisp and vibrant, and includes technology that makes it easier to read even when outdoors. It’s one of the phone’s best features.

Like the company’s other Lumia smartphones, Nokia is also touting the capabilities of the Lumia Icon’s 20-megapixel camera as a selling point. In particular, the company is highlighting the video capabilities, and the fact that the phone has four built-in microphones to capture the best sound.

I always tend to be skeptical of such claims, but after I took several videos with the Lumia Icon, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised with the audio and video quality.

For example, I took some video from a cliffside overlooking a beach in San Francisco. It was a particularly blustery day, but the Lumia Icon was able to minimize the wind noise, and I could clearly hear the crashing of the waves (one of my favorite sounds in the world). The camera was also able to capture some great details, such as a small rainbow that formed as a result of the mist coming off the wave.

The quality of still images was just as impressive. (You can see some of my photos in the image gallery at the end of this page.) Photos taken outdoors looked the best, but even those taken in low-light conditions came out better than a lot of camera phones I’ve tested in the past. That said, there’s a bit of shutter lag between shots, and the autofocus feature wasn’t always quick either. This presents a problem if you’re trying to capture something quickly or with action sequences.

The built-in Nokia Camera app offers a wide range of tools for getting the best shot. If you’re a photography newbie, you can stick to Auto mode, where the camera will pick the best settings for you. If you know your way around your camera, you can switch to Pro mode and manually adjust various settings, including shutter speed, ISO and white balance.

There are also a number of Nokia apps for editing your images. For example, Nokia Creative Studio lets you apply different filters to your photos, while Nokia Cinemagraph allows you to animate certain parts of your picture. They’re all fun to try, but I wish the company would consolidate a lot of these features into a single app.

One other thing to keep in mind is that the Lumia Icon only offers 32 gigabytes of internal memory, compared to a maximum of 64GB on the iPhone. There is no microSD expansion slot, as on many Android phones, so you have to watch your available storage while you’re snapping photos.

The Lumia Icon runs the latest version of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 mobile operating system, which adds support for three columns of tiles on the Home screen and faster processors, among other things. The Windows Phone store now stands at more then 200,000 apps, and 96 percent of what Microsoft considers to be the major apps are available on the platform. But there is still a big gap in the number of apps between Windows Phone and Android and iOS, which are in the millions.

As I mentioned earlier, the Lumia Icon features a quad-core processor, and the smartphone handled all tasks without a problem. Call quality was clear, though the audio can be piercing if you have the volume set on high, as I painfully found out. I didn’t run a formal battery test on the phone, but with moderate usage I was able to go a full day before needing to recharge. Like many of Nokia’s high-end smartphones, the Lumia Icon supports wireless charging.

The Lumia Icon is undoubtedly the best Windows Phone device in Verizon’s lineup. But Nokia and Microsoft will need to come up with something more interesting and iconic to convince consumers to switch to the platform.

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