Ever since Nokia, HTC and Samsung unveiled their Windows Phone 8 devices, much of our collective attention has been very much focused on the high-end flagships, namely the Nokia Lumia 920, the HTC Windows Phone 8X and the Samsung ATIV S. Somewhat famously, Nokia’s cheaper Lumia 820 was relegated to a footnote during their New York City presentation on September 5th of last year, and even at the launch event here in Singapore, much of the focus was still on the Lumia 920 and its PureView camera. When the Lumia 820 and HTC Windows Phone 8S (hereafter referred to as the HTC 8S) arrived at my doorstep within a day of each other, I decided that the best thing I could do with both of these devices in the house is to review them together and discuss which of the two gives you more bang for your buck; if you’re considering a Windows Phone device but don’t feel like laying down a large chunk of cash on a smartphone, I’ll tell you which of the two I consider to be a wiser purchase… at the end of this review.
This review focuses primarily on the hardware aspects of the Nokia Lumia 820 and the HTC 8S, with brief discussion about Windows Phone 8 and device-specific software features. I will be documenting my experiences with Windows Phone 8 in a separate editorial, so do look out for that sometime next week!
[quote_left]Mid-range devices are no longer rubbish[/quote_left]The Nokia Lumia 820 and the HTC 8S are very similar, yet very different devices. The Lumia 820 has a recommended retail price of S$699 (~Rs. 31k), while the 8S is priced at S$418 (Rs. 18.6k); the Lumia 820 has a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 CPU coupled with 1GB of RAM while the 8S makes do with a dual-core 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 CPU coupled with 512MB of RAM. The Lumia 820 has 8GB of internal storage with around 4GB of available storage out of the box while the 8S has 4GB of internal storage and slightly more than 1GB of available storage out of the box; the Lumia 820 is LTE-capable while the 8S is a 3G smartphone. At the same time, both devices share the same display resolution, both support expandable storage, both are positioned a step below their respective flagship devices, both provide a very similar user experience, and both devices represent the growing trend of mid-range smartphones being very decent and capable devices in their own right; gone are the days when mid-range smartphones were compromised in terms of internal specifications, had a noticeably degraded user experience compared to flagship devices and built from bargain-basement materials. This is Part 1 of a 2-part series, and we’ll be taking a close look at the Nokia Lumia 820, with the HTC 8S to be covered in a few days with the next segment.
[quote_right]How am I supposed to get this back cover off?[/quote_right]The moment I picked up the Lumia 820, I spent 15 minutes trying to figure out how to pop the back cover open so that I could insert my SIM card and microSD card, before reading the manual, gingerly sticking my fingernail into the seam between the back cover and the matte black rim surrounding the Lumia 820’s glass front at the top right hand corner and prying the back cover off. Once I managed to get the back cover off, the 1650mah battery literally fell out of the phone because there is nothing holding the battery in place once the back cover is removed. It honestly wasn’t a great start, but I found the Lumia 820 to be very solid and well-built; the way the back cover wraps around the entire chassis of the phone provides an illusion of a unibody construction with the added advantage of being able to access the battery.
[quote_left]Matte > Glossy[/quote_left]While the physical design of the Lumia 820 is clearly intended to appeal to the masses and is fairly non-controversial, the device looks and feels strangely generic compared to other Nokia devices, with hardly any design flourishes or distinguishing elements that identify it as a Nokia design. It is a rectangular slab with rounded sides and corners, and a flat back. In fact, Nokia’s branding on the Lumia 820 is limited to a tiny, non-reflective badge at the top right corner of the front face, and a printed badge on the back cover. My particular Lumia 820 came with a glossy white back cover that I didn’t quite fall in love with; the glossy and slippery finish felt cheap and quickly got soiled with fingerprints and moisture from my palms, which made the device even more slippery. Nokia also sent a matte white wireless charging back for the 820, and I can say with absolute certainty that I much prefer matte finishes over glossy surfaces, and I would recommend you opt for a matte back cover if you do pick up an 820.
[quote_right]The weight of the 820 bears mentioning[/quote_right]Design aside, the 820 feels heavy and chunky for a smartphone with a 4.3-inch display. Before you scroll all the way down to the comments section to criticize me and everything I believe in, I want to make it clear that the 820’s size and weight will probably not affect you in everyday usage. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that the 820 is larger and heavier than it should be, especially when you place it beside the likes of the HTC 8X or the Sony Xperia S, both of which have 4.3-inch 720p displays. While I appreciate that the substantial weight of the 820 (especially with the wireless charging shell fitted) lends it a sense of durability and solidity, the 8X feels lighter and more compact while not compromising on build quality in any way. Holding the HTC 8S in one hand and the Lumia 820 in the other really makes the 820 feel like a bit of a brick; that is the impression that I got and there is no way I can deny it.
[quote_left]Specs aren’t everything[/quote_left]With all that out of the way, I found the 480×800 AMOLED Clear Black display on the Lumia 820 to exceed my expectations despite its mediocre resolution. While a WVGA display may sound awfully dated on a specification sheet, I do not think the pixel density of the Lumia 820’s display is an issue in the real world unless you’re staring at the display or trying to find faults with it. The Windows Phone 8 user interface, with its stark black backgrounds, white text and brightly-coloured tiles, looks absolutely brilliant on an AMOLED display; sunlight visibility and viewing angles are excellent. As much as I’d have loved to see a 720p display on the Lumia 820, the component that Nokia picked for this device, objectively speaking, is not bad at all.
The physical controls on the Lumia 820 are exactly what you would expect from a Nokia Windows Phone device, and the side buttons offer very good press feedback despite the fact that they are actually part of the back cover and work by pressing down on the side-mounted micro-switches on the internal chassis of the phone. The single loudspeaker on the bottom of the device pumps out clear sound and a very decent volume, more than suitable for listening to podcasts in my opinion. The only hardware feature that I wish was included on the 820 is a notification LED – while I am not sure whether Windows Phone 8 supports notification LEDs in software, I do miss being able to see whether there is an outstanding notification waiting for me at a glance, as I can on my Android devices and the Nokia N9. I also wish it was easier to access the microSD card slot; as it stands, you need to remove the back cover and battery to get to it.
[quote_right]Wireless charging is cool[/quote_right]Battery life on the Lumia 820 has proven to be fairly decent in my usage; the device easily gets through an 8-hour day at school with charge to spare heading into the evening. Additional accessories can enable wireless (inductive) charging on the Lumia 820; you need a back cover that has the necessary circuitry to support the Qi technology as well as a charging pad. Nokia sent the DT-910 wireless charging stand and the CC-3041 wireless charging shell for the Lumia 820; the shell does add a bit of weight and thickness to the 820, just enough to be noticeable. In the video below, I show how it all works, and I also demonstrate how you can enable a standby clock and weather display that resembles the Sleeping Screen feature on the Nokia N9 and certain Symbian devices.
Is wireless charging worth the extra expense? That’s a matter of opinion – personally I think it is a very cool feature that Nokia has pushed into a mainstream, consumer-facing product; while it charges the device at a slower rate than wired charging, it is useful for keeping your device charged if you spend a lot of time at a desk at home or in the office. You no longer have to remember to plug in a cable in the dark before you sleep, and having a wireless charging pad at home means that your bundled wall adapter and USB cable is freed up to be used elsewhere, such as when you need a quick charge on the go. In my testing, a full charge of the Lumia 820’s battery from 0% to 100% took 3 hours over wireless charging, which in my opinion is not bad at all. However, I don’t really expect that most potential Lumia 820 buyers will put down the extra cash to get wireless charging on their device.
[quote_left]A passable 8-megapixel shooter[/quote_left]The Lumia 820 has an 8-megapixel autofocus camera on the back, and I would rate the quality of the images that it manages to produce as merely average; most will probably find the 820 satisfactory as a camera, but more discerning users would likely be left disappointed. While the sensor manages to churn out reasonably detailed images, I found that photos tend to turn out slightly underexposed. As with other Nokia devices, images captured with the Lumia 820 tend to have a natural colour cast as opposed to other devices which produce vibrant images with rich colours. However, I think the most serious flaw with the Lumia 820 is the amount of time the camera app takes to save a photo after the shutter button is depressed fully. On the Lumia 820, this can take 1 to 2 seconds, which is almost inexcusable on a device with relatively powerful internals. The 8S also exhibits a similar issue so I’m guessing it is an issue with Windows Phone 8 rather than a device-specific issue.
[title type="h4"]See more photos shot with the Lumia 820[/title]
[quote_right]Nokia’s apps add real value to this device[/quote_right]Unlike the HTC 8S, the Lumia 820 comes with Nokia’s exclusive Windows Phone apps out of the box, such as Nokia Maps, Nokia Drive, Nokia Music and Nokia City Lens, along with placeholder apps for the new imaging-related titles such as Cinemagraph, Smart Shoot, Panorama and Creative Studio that simply direct you to the Windows Phone Store to download the actual app. I found Nokia Maps and Nokia Music to be valuable additions, the former for its detailed maps and rich points-of-interest database and the latter for the Mix Radio feature. While I still wish Nokia Maps would provide public transit directions and timetables in Singapore, I’d argue that it is still far ahead of the stock Windows Phone 8 Maps app that cannot give you search results for places located within map tiles that you have not already cached. I don’t know whether apps like City Lens, Cinemagraph and Smart Shoot actually have any real-world utility, but they are certainly fun to show off and it is good that these apps are available in any case.
[quote_left]Buttery smooth[/quote_left]Everyday performance is extremely speedy and fluid on the Lumia 820, with virtually no lag or stuttering to be found anywhere (except when trying to capture a photo, as detailed above). The internals are more than up to the task of handling Windows Phone 8, and I genuinely enjoyed the smooth scrolling and the flawless transitions and animations while using the Lumia 820. I am also very pleased to note that apps take far less time to resume from the background compared to the old Windows Phone 7 devices, which makes for a much less frustrating experience all around. For more on Windows Phone 8, do check out our full review here.
[title type="h4"]Continue to Part 2[/title]