The Lumia 1020: The best camera-phone

Using the Lumia 920 that we chose in 2012, we discovered that it took amazing pictures (for a 2012 device). It had features like optical image stabilization (OIS) that wouldn’t show up in the iPhone for years. We discovered a robust operating system with plenty of apps—although we would have liked to have seen a lot more.

Turns out the Lumia 920 was Engadget’s smart phone of the year, and Microsoft and Nokia were doing some very creative and fun marketing based on this promising line of phones:

They had a similar great line for Windows Phone 7: Really? This emphasized Live Tiles and how you didn’t have to mess with the phone and go deep into applications to figure out what you needed. Is that message indicator spam or an urgent message from your boss? Only Windows Phone provided Live Tiles so you could just glance and go on. (This was before iPhones had notification centers or gadgets that helped with this.)

We also discovered rich Microsoft back-end services such as SkyDrive, soon to be renamed OneDrive. There were good parental and security controls, although the iPhone controls were better in some ways. For some reason, Microsoft hid controls from consumers that were available to businesses. Encrypting the phone was only available to business, and blocking the browser was not available to parents, although Apple allowed parents to block Safari.

Here comes the beast

I ordered a (white) Nokia Lumia 1020 in August 2013, what was to be my first personal smartphone. The decision was driven by a positive experience with the 920 and the idea that the 1020 would take what was great about the 920—especially photography—and bring it to a new level. The diagram below indicates some of the device’s great features, and it was a photographer’s dream phone with an incredible 41 megapixels, RAW image support, true optical zoom, xenon flash, and more, in a package that was smaller than the 920, except for the huge round black camera bulge.

Sample photos

Here are some sample photos that I took, with brief explanations. To see more photos (and much better ones) taken with this camera, visit this link to see the camera profile on Flickr. And of course, judge this by the standard of cameraphones in 2013, not 2017.

The first was taken at a church fair. The kids were coming down a potato-sack slide, and I was at the far end of the slide. Zoom in to see each of them clearly, with huge smiles on their faces, coming down the slides together. Perfect.

If I had any other smartphone (from the time) with me, it would have been a blur or just too low of a resolution. Instead, it’s hanging in our family room on a wall-gallery full of photos from the 1020 (and other cameras).

The picture above is a turn-and-click moment, at a renaissance faire. I was too far to take the picture with most cameraphones; with the 1020 I was able to capture a spontaneous moment. Cropped to remove the asphalt and trash can, it’s also now framed on our family gallery wall.

The example above is from a fast-moving “claw” ride at Cedar Point. Another great moment, captured. My daughter is sitting in seat #51, smiling at the camera. Zoom in and you can easily read the seat numbers and even identify the brands of the shoes riders are wearing.

One thing you might notice is a bit of distortion in the arm of the ride. This happened occasionally when there was motion in a picture, as if all the pixels weren’t being captured at the same moment. With its huge 41-megapixel sensor, the phone was limited primary by its ability to process these giant pictures.

Here’s an example from El Toro, at Six Flags Great America. (Roller coasters are a big daddy/daughter thing in our family.) If you zoom in, you can recognize the people in the cars, on the train headed down this ferocious roller coaster.

The 1020 could also function well in low light mainly due to the image stabilization. Here is a photo taken in the Paris catacombs where there is almost no light at all. Perhaps not revolutionary by current standards, but for the time, unsurpassed.

Limitations and warning signs

The Lumia 920 had everything in one package. This contributed to it being heavy and a bit bulky. (This was before phablets were a thing.) Reportedly concerned about bulk, at&t influenced Nokia to separate the wireless “Qi” charging from the phone, and sold a Qi adapter that snapped on to the back of the phone. If you had the camera-grip/battery accessory, this meant you had to constantly take the Qi adapter off and on. The adulterated design resulted in widespread hardware problems (not to mention no real way to use a protective case with the phone). My 1020 went through three separate charging plates, all broken. They soon became impossible to find on eBay or anywhere. (This is an mistake they would also make with the Lumia 925.)

Another issue that dogged the Windows Phone 8 platform was Microsoft’s inability to update the firmware and software without going through carriers and manufacturers. Android faced the same problem; Verizon was reported particularly bad in this area. The ability to keep phones up to date was a real advantage of the iPhone at the time.  Often exciting new features were announced only to languish with the carriers and manufacturers for several months—or longer. Fortunately Microsoft opened up its developer preview program, into what is now the Windows Insider program. With changes in Windows 10, Microsoft now directly updates phones, much like Apple does with iPhones. (And now Google sells ‘reference’ phones like the Nexus and particularly the Pixel that get updates directly.)

While I saw front-of-the-store marketing from at&t for the 1020, stories were surfacing on Reddit and elsewhere that store staff were not pushing Windows phones, some citing lack of familiarity, lower commissions, or higher return rates. This is an ongoing debate, but what may be true is that Microsoft didn’t go as far as it could in educating store staff about the phones. This may have been less true in Europe and other places where users were more likely buy their phones rather than have their costs hidden, folded into a contract from the carriers (and where Windows phones often had double-digit market shares, sometimes outselling iPhones). But back then many users saw their phones as freebies (or low cost), provided they sign multi-year contracts.

While the 1020’s camera took spectacular pictures, it also often missed photo opportunities because the camera took so long to process the giant pictures. And once other manufacturers started adding photo features such as HDR, Microsoft did not step in quickly enough to add built-in HDR or slow-motion capabilities.

Coming soon: Disenchanted with Google, first impressions of the iPhone, and an Android surprise!

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