Nokia Lumia 928 review: Third time’s the charm?

Review
Nokia Lumia 928 Review

After a handful of dismal quarters during which Nokia lost billions, the vendor has recently shown signs of life. But not in the United States. Nokia’s first big attempt at a comeback in the U.S. was the Lumia 900, and the company returned later in 2012 with the Lumia 920. Neither phone was received with much enthusiasm from consumers. In the Lumia 900′s debut quarter, Nokia shipped 600,000 total Lumia phones in the U.S. When the Lumia 920 launched in the holiday quarter last year, Nokia’s U.S. Lumia phone shipments totaled 700,000 units and then slid to just 400,000 units in the following quarter. Nokia now returns with its third flagship phone for the U.S. market — the Lumia 928 — and it’s changing things up this time around.

The Lumia 900 cost just $99 on contract when it debuted alongside a sizable marketing and advertising blitz. It was a sleek phone with a great camera that looked exactly like the Nokia N9 and offered precious few advantages over leading smartphones at the time. It didn’t sell very well.

Nokia Lumia 920 also launched at $99 with the exact same design as the 900, and it was accompanied by an even bigger marketing and advertising blitz. It too was a sleek phone, this time with an even better camera, and it too looked exactly like the Nokia N9 while offering little in the way of compelling differentiation. It didn’t sell very well either.

So now, Nokia is making some changes with the Lumia 928. For one thing, it didn’t recycle the same exterior design for a fourth time, instead opting for a design that many have said looks more bland. For another, it’s a $99 Verizon Wireless exclusive instead of a $99 AT&T exclusive. Finally, it appears to be launching alongside a much smaller marketing and advertising campaign unworthy of the descriptor “blitz.”

I’m not sure we’re moving in the right direction here.

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I won’t go through the software experience for the umpteenth time in this review. It’s the same old story: Windows Phone is incredibly responsive and smooth on Nokia handsets, live tiles are awesome, multitasking support is solid, Nokia’s additions like HERE Maps and Nokia Drive+ are great when they work (HERE’s Manhattan maps, for example, are not so great), the app selection is quite bad, the “Metro” user interface often makes third-party apps more difficult to use than their Android and iOS counterparts, and Microsoft’s email app and Office suite are best-in-class.

Instead, I’ll go through the few things that set this phone apart from Nokia’s earlier flagship Lumia phones, beginning with the hardware.

The case on the white Lumia 928 review unit I was provided is made of the same glossy plastic used on white versions of Nokia’s earlier flagship phones. The difference this time around is the shape. Whereas the Lumias 900 and 920 sported a unique shape that was flat on the top and bottom but rounded on the sides, the Lumia 928 is basically just a box. The phone is flat on each of its four sides as well as its face, and the back slopes slightly at its outer edges but flattens toward the middle. The corners of the phone are quite sharp compared to other handsets.

If Volvo made phones instead of cars in the 1980s, they might have looked like the Lumia 928. Personally, I kind of like the look. It’s retro.

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Like Samsung’s Galaxy S4, the back of the Lumia 928 is a dirt, dust and fingerprint magnet. In fact, my review unit was delivered with oil and even a hair stuck to the back, prompting me to seriously consider re-boxing it, never to be looked at again. Thankfully, I was able to fight through the dry heaving and push forward.

Like earlier flagship Lumia phones, the 928 is fairly thick and quite heavy. On paper, the handset measures 133 x 68.9 x 10.1 millimeters and weighs 162 grams, an improvement compared to the Lumia 920 at 130.3 x 70.8 x 10.7 millimeters and 185 grams. By comparison, Apple’s iPhone 5 measures 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 millimeters and weighs 112 grams, while Samsung’s new Galaxy S4 comes in at 136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9 millimeters and 130 grams.

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Some Lumia 928 highlights:

Like most Nokia smartphones before it, call quality on the Lumia 928 is fantastic. Nokia is the only major smartphone vendor that can be considered a “phone company” first and foremost, and it shows. Reception is great, audio clarity is as good as it gets and I have yet to drop a call.

The 8.7-megapixel camera on the Lumia 928 is a mixed bag. In good lighting, I find that photos taken with the 928 aren’t as clear as similar photos captured with the iPhone 5, for example. I also find that colors don’t pop quite as much. In low light, the Lumia 928′s PureView camera really shines (pun intended, sadly) and visibility is better than any other phone I have tested, including the HTC One, which takes great low-light photos.

Nokia’s new Lumia phone also sports a xenon flash, which definitely helps as well in low-light situations. I find that the flash creates an odd hue on most objects though, so the accuracy of color reproduction definitely takes a hit when the Lumia 928′s flash is enabled.

I should also note that 1080p HD videos captured on the Lumia 928 are stunning.

The 4.5-inch AMOLED display on this phone is fantastic. The 768 x 1,280 resolution results in a pixel density of 332 ppi, and the clarity is stunning as a result. Colors appear quite oversaturated, just like they do on Samsung smartphones with Super AMOLED displays, but I got used to it pretty quickly. The superior brightness and outstanding contrast more than make up for it.

Finally, the battery life on the 928 is quite impressive and I was easily able to squeeze a full day out of each charge with average or even somewhat heavy use.

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So, who exactly is the Lumia 928 for?

If you are a Verizon Wireless subscriber who found yourself lusting after the Lumia 920 but didn’t want to switch carriers to get it, the Lumia 928 is for you. In most ways, it’s the same phone in a different package.

If you yearned for Windows Phone but didn’t want to settle for a low-end or mid-range Verizon handset, the Lumia 928 is a terrific option.

If you’re just sick of Android and the iPhone, and you don’t mind living without many of your favorite apps, this Nokia smartphone is as good as it gets. The app situation is still a big deterrent, however, and I’m not sure the situation will improve anytime soon.

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The scarcity of popular apps is one problem, but the usability of apps that are available on Windows Phone might be the bigger issue for me. Put plainly, the Windows Phone UI is not good for all types of apps. Its text-heavy design is peculiar in many scenarios and it just doesn’t always work as well for me, or for many people I have discussed the issue with, as other mobile interfaces.

Yes, there are Twitter apps available for Windows Phone, but none of them come close to approaching the user experiences provided by apps like Tweetbot and Falcon Pro. Sure, you’ll find plenty of RSS readers, but good luck finding anything half as good as Reeder. The list goes on and on.

The gaming experience on Windows Phone is terrific, but it’s somewhat telling that gameplay doesn’t involve the “Metro” interface. And if mobile gaming is an area of interest, by the way, I have a feeling you’ll want to watch Windows Phone closely once the next-generation Xbox launches.

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In the end, the Lumia 928 is yet another solid Windows Phone that most consumers will probably never bother looking at. It offers precious little that might tear U.S. smartphone users away from their iPhones and Android phones.

For productivity, the Lumia 928 might be the best phone Verizon offers. The Windows Phone keyboard is fantastic, Office for Windows Phone is hands-down the best smartphone productivity suite available, Microsoft’s mobile email client is my favorite of all time, and there are plenty of appealing enterprise features. Rival platforms come close enough though, to the point where the 928′s productivity benefits are overshadowed by Windows Phone’s shortcomings

It’s a tough sell, even at $99, and I don’t see the Lumia 928 taking Nokia very far in the U.S. market.

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