A top-notch display isn’t much without the horsepower to handle it, but thankfully Nokia has fitted the Lumia Icon with flagship-level specs. Specifically, the Icon runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 SoC, which includes a quad-core 2.2GHz Krait 400 CPU and Adreno 330 GPU. A reliable 2 GB of RAM comes along with that.
Windows Phone doesn’t exactly require the highest-end hardware to run smoothly, so the modern guts here are actually a bit of overkill. No matter, apps on the Icon open quickly and run without any notable hitches, and higher-quality games like Skulls of the Shogun and Asphalt 8: Airborne zip along reliably. Microsoft and Nokia’s own programs generally load and run faster than their third-party equivalents, but that’s to be expected, and the performance difference isn’t dramatic at all. By any standard, this phone can fly, and it’s highly unlikely that it won’t be able to handle any software coming down the pipe over the next couple of years.
The only hangup here is that you might not be able to fit a few years’ worth of apps onboard. The Lumia Icon comes with 32 GB of internal storage, but only 26 GB of that is actually usable, and there’s no microSD card support to increase that amount. Now, 26 GB isn’t paltry, but it can fill up quickly if your phone is your main movie and music machine. Why Nokia and Verizon decided to include a nano-SIM tray over a microSD slot is beyond me.
If its branding didn’t already make it clear, the Icon is a Verizon exclusive, so it’s treated to Big Red’s expansive and speedy LTE network, including access to the carrier’s more exclusive AWS spectrum. Here in Boston, the Icon’s max 4G speeds weren’t quite as quick as those I’ve gotten with Verizon’s iPhone 5s or Galaxy S5, but they’re close enough. Verizon’s network can get crowded, but at no point did I ever feel like web pages or YouTube videos were taking too much time to load. It’s fine.
What’s a little more iffy is the Icon’s call quality. It isn’t bad, and calls can get loud enough, but voice quality is too often muffled and peppered with flashes of fuzziness. Speakerphone quality is also disappointing, a surprise given that Nokia paid attention to improving audio quality in most other facets of the device. (The speakers here provide higher-fidelity noise than the most phones, for instance.) My test partners told me that my voice was fairly clear on the other end, at least.
Windows Phone 8.1 has been available as a developer’s preview for a couple of months now, which means that any Lumia Icon user is technically capable of getting Cortana and the rest of Microsoft’s updates today if they so choose. We’re holding off on a comprehensive review of the release until it becomes fully commercially available, however, and instead saving our observations for Windows Phone 8 Update 3, which is what the Icon carries out of the box.
We put a full review of Windows Phone 8 together back when the software first launched, so we’ll mostly revert back to that, but the OS has undergone a few, largely positive changes over the past several months. The big thing with the Icon is that it allows for a tri-column view for Windows Phone’s “live tiles” setup, letting you fit more app icons on screen at once. Particularly useful tiles can be enlarged and display live info, so you can, say, see the beginning of a just-received text message without needing to open up the messenger app. Stuff like this makes the Icon’s high-res screen as practical as it is pretty.
Update 3 itself brings a handful of sorely-needed enhancements to Windows Phone, including the ability to lock screen orientation, a native app switcher, and improved storage maintenance capabilities. Other welcome features like a hands-free driving mode are also in there.
As this is a Lumia phone, Nokia’s seen it fit to preload a number of its own apps onto the Icon, such as Here Maps, the Here Drive+ navigation app, a host of imaging apps like Cinemagraph and Storyteller, a neat screen sharing app called Nokia Screen Beamer, and a music store and streamer dubbed Nokia Music. Apps like these would be hand waved as bloatware on an Android device, but here the majority of them are genuinely worthwhile options next to what you’d find in the Windows app store.
The same can be said for most of the first-party apps Microsoft brings to its OS. Office Mobile is still the preeminent mobile office suite; Bing apps like News and Weather run smooth and are easy to navigate; the Xbox and SmartGlass apps are still charming little add-ons for casual Xbox gamers; and SkyDrive is stylish and usefully integrated with Office.
These have all been designed from the ground up for phones like the Icon, and it shows in both their look and feel. The one outlier is Internet Explorer, which stutters too often, and feels less like a mobile browser than it does a shrunken version of its Windows PC counterpart. IE11 is coming with the 8.1 update, however, and that should assuage at least some of its issues.
Of course, if you don’t like any of these preloaded programs — including the surprisingly few pieces of bloat that Verizon has dumped on the device — Windows Phone always lets you uninstall any app you’d like, whether they came with the phone or not. That’s wonderful.
So Windows Phone 8 has plenty of good going for it. It’s a dream for anyone who’s fully invested in the Microsoft ecosystem. It brings a modern aesthetic that’s truly different from Android and iOS. It’s fresh. And the best part is that the notification center, personal assistant, and home screen customization options coming in the 8.1 update are only going to make it better. If you really want to hitch a ride on the Windows Phone train, now would be a good time to do it.
But unless you’re that deep into Microsoft, I don’t see why this ride would be your first choice. There are the littler, more passable things — going through the mountainous settings menu is still cumbersome, multitasking is a little slower than it is on Android, the default keyboard isn’t all that great, etc. — but everything always comes back to that app store. It’s getting better, without a doubt, but like the OS as a whole, it’s still in catch-up mode.
It’s the same set of complaints that have been thrown around for years. Apps like HBO Go, Pocket, WatchESPN, and others that people actually use are still absent, and ones like Instagram and Pinterest have only arrived within the past few months. The best mobile games either never come to the platform or come months after launch. The host of hugely popular Google apps aren’t arriving anytime soon. And even when some of these gaps are inevitably filled, developers have shown time and again that they consider Windows Phone the red-headed stepchild of the mobile family by providing late updates.
Is this fair? No, it’s not. It’s not fair for Windows Phone users to be left out in the dark, and it’s not fair for critics to bash Microsoft so much for things it can’t fully control. But the reality of the situation is that Windows Phone still doesn’t have the level of access Android and iOS do. It’s getting there, but only by implementing features that its rivals have had for years. It’s still an OS best suited for a specific group of people who can get by with Microsoft apps dominating their daily lives, or for those who are completely disillusioned with the Android/iOS style. This is a shame, because the Lumia Icon would fare so much better if it was on a level playing field.