Nokia Lumia Icon Review: Looks Only Get You So Far

The Nokia Lumia Icon is almost the platonic ideal of how a phone should look. It's a lovely black brick in the very best sense. But pretty doesn't equal great.

What Is It?

Nokia Lumia Icon Review: Looks Only Get You So Far

Hold the phone, it's another Lumia. Yeah, by this point there are a lot of those. This is the Icon, a 5-inch, $200 on-contract phone with a design that manages to stand out from its brethren, and the same top-notch camera that has become the Lumia line's hallmark.

Why Does It Matter?

Nokia Lumia Icon Review: Looks Only Get You So Far

It's the best-looking Lumia, which means it's the best-looking Windows Phone. It also borrows a lot of the good of the Lumia 1520, without being comically oversized.

Design

Nokia Lumia Icon Review: Looks Only Get You So Far

The Lumia Icon looks graceful from afar, but it's got the countenance of a linebacker. The 5-inch Icon is a hefty, 9.9mm thick, nearly 6-ounce rectangle, with slightly rounded edges and a sturdy polycarbonate back. For some perspective, it weighs about the same as phablets like the Galaxy Note 3 despite a significantly smaller display.

The bulk at least has some purpose; Nokia had to squeeze in its speedy, quad-core, battery-sipping Snapdragon 800 chip and a hearty 2,420 mAh battery somewhere.

That glowing first impression continues to fade with use. Mashing down the volume rockers feels ham-handed, and I have a hard time getting on board with a headphone jack located on the center of the top of the phone. That's not exclusive to this particular Nokia, but its Lumia ubiquity doesn't make it any less annoying here.

Using It

Nokia Lumia Icon Review: Looks Only Get You So Far

The Icon's good looks do translate into some inner beauty. The screen is a good starting point. It has the same lovely 1920x1080 AMOLED display as its gawky phablet cohort, the 1520. Its fares pretty well in full sunlight, too. I could comfortably text and browse Twitter without many problems with glare.

If only the things it was displaying were a little more responsive. The lag sets in from the moment you try to swipe from the start screen's glowing sea of live tiles to your app catalog. Speaking of apps, many of them seem to load slowly and take a long time to think. Instagram, for example, takes forever to actually pick a photo. Or if you send a tweet with a picture attached, there's always a split second where you're left wondering if the phone is going to turn on you.

The battery is big, yes, but it's not exemplary in a world where we now have the options of phones like the Droid Maxx or the LG G Flex that'll go two days on one plug-in. The Icon will last you all day on one charge, though, provided you aren't streaming a lot of video in HD. I spent an hour streaming music videos over 4G and it cut my battery life by about 40 percent. That said, HD video looks crisp and beautiful and plays smoothly here.

Sound quality, though, leaves something to be desired. Lots of calls sounded muffled or like they were frequently cutting out. That's inexcusable; sure, it could be a byproduct of a bad signal, but it happened too many times to be just a coincidence. Audio otherwise is just okay; music has a tendency to sound tinny and compressed, especially at louder volumes.

Also, a note on Nokia's radio app: it defaults to edited versions of songs, which is incredibly maddening. This is less of an issue of the actual phone and more of the preloaded software; the Icon's got its share of those. It comes with Beamer, which is a screen sharing app, and Here Maps, which gives you real-time traffic information. There's also Nokia Storyteller, an app that churns out albums based on where and when you took the photos. It's decent at best—I had issues with it crashing a few times. Here Maps is pretty good, and it reliably gives you travel time information and tips you off to points of interest, but that is if you actually care to use it. These apps exist to make up for the dearth of developer support that has so plagued Windows Phone since the beginning of its existence. Now that Windows Phone is actually getting some good apps in its cadre, you'd probably rather use Waze or Vine or Instagram. But there are some pre-loaded apps you'll actually want to use, and those are the Lumia camera apps.

Obviously the camera is a big, big selling point of the Lumia, and rightly so. The Icon takes beautiful, sharp, crisp photos that you can boast about. Plus, you can also get more professional features from within the pre-loaded Camera Pro app, like the ability to reframe or refocus whenever you please, or you can stick to the basics in the stock Windows Phone camera. There is a tiny bit of shutter lag, especially compared to the speed with which my iPhone 5 snaps a picture, but the high standard of photos makes that frustration a little bit more passable.

Nokia Lumia Icon Review: Looks Only Get You So Far

Nokia Lumia Icon Review: Looks Only Get You So Far

Nokia Lumia Icon Review: Looks Only Get You So Far

That said, it doesn't quite match the camera chops of the Lumia 1020 or the Lumia 925/928. But that isn't to say it's bad. In fact, the camera is pretty fantastic, especially when compared with the cameras of other top smartphones, like the Nexus 5, which is passable, but not great. The Icon has an ability to capture details and color in a way that's really impressive. But within the Lumia family, it's not at the top of the heap. Just like the 1520, the Icon has a smaller 1/2.5 inch, 20-megapixel sensor—small when compared to that of the 1020. It also has dual-LED flash in common with the 1520, which isn't quite as good as the xenon flash of its other Lumia brethren. In low light the Icon is also not as great as the 1020. The flash sometimes looks a little bit harsh and unnatural.

Like

Nokia Lumia Icon Review: Looks Only Get You So Far

It's a really pretty phone. Right out of the box, I was impressed by its looks. More than that, its size is pretty perfect in that it bucks the phablet trend of phones that seem to endlessly creep up in size. It also goes without saying that the camera is fantastic, especially combined with the powers of the Camera Pro app.

No Like

The heft of the phone was disappointing. Also I really don't see the point of the software and apps the phone comes pre-loaded with. For example, there's one for the NFL and another for the Weather Channel, each with their own massive, glowing live tile. I, for one, really don't give a hoot about the NFL, especially now that it's almost March. So why does the NFL app have to be on my homescreen? Or why do I want to use Here Maps when I'm just going to download Waze anyway? In spite of the fact that I don't drive, and Here Maps is really meant for drivers, I used Here Maps to navigate from my office to a coffee shop, and it worked fine. You can geotag where you parked, get turn-by-turn directions, and so on, and it is perfectly reliable. I just prefer the look of the Waze interface, and the fact that you can get info sourced from other users about things like accidents or construction in a certain neighborhood.

In general, Icon reflects a lot of the problems that still burden Windows Phone itself: It's pretty to look at but once you actually use it, you see its flaws.

Should You Buy It?

If you are looking for a Windows Phone, you could do worse. It stands out among the others in genus lumia for its more manageable size and respectable specs. But if you're looking for a new phone, in general, this is maybe not your best bet. What could you get for an equal or lesser price? For starters, a bunch of different Android phones, like the Nexus 5 (around $150 with a two-year contract, depending on carrier) or the Moto X for $200.

Even though Windows Phone continues to improve—you can get Instagram and Vine now, hey!—it's not quite hitting home runs yet. And in a way, that's indicative in the Lumia Icon as well. It's almost there. Just not quite.

Nokia Lumia Icon Specs

Network: Verizon
• OS: Windows Phone 8.1
• CPU: 2.22 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800
• Screen: 5-inch, 1920 x 1080 AMOLED display, 441 ppi
• RAM: 2GB
• Storage: 32GB, 7GB free cloud storage
• Camera: 20 MP rear /1.2 MP front
• Battery: 2420 mAh
• Dimensions: 5.39 x 2.8 x 0.39 inches
• Weight: 5.86 ounces

• Price: $200 on contract on Verizon