Hands On: Nokia's Lumia Icon cuts the phablet down to size

Sanity has been restored to Nokia’s Lumia smartphone lineup with the release of the Nokia Icon. This Verizon exclusive pulls the best features from Nokia’s massive 6-inch phablets—the Lumia 1520 in particular—and tucks them behind a manageable, 5-inch OLED display.

I purposefully seek out large phones. I spend an hour on public transportation each morning and evening, and prefer large displays for reading ebooks and watching video. But Nokia’s massive 1520 scared me off, as one-handed operation is simply impossible with it.

But now the new $200 Icon gives Verizon customers a generous display that doesn’t require two hands to use. While the Icon shares the 1920x1080 resolution of the Lumia 1520, it improves on the 1520’s IPS, Gorilla Glass 2 display with an OLED display protected by Gorilla Glass 3. The new phone also shares the 1520’s camera hardware: a 20-megapixel PureView sensor with Zeiss optics, optical image stabilization, and the ability to shoot either 16-megapixel (16:9), 19-megapixel (4:3), or 5-megapixel oversampled images that can be shared with friends or stored within the phone’s 32GB of internal storage. Nokia also added four directional mics for improved audio quality. 

The Icon’s 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon CPU is identical to what you’ll find in the Lumia 1520. In the newer phone, it launches and runs apps in a snap.

Nokia Lumia Arc

One solid phone

When you first hold the Icon, you’ll swear that the phone, though smaller than the 1520, weighs a bit more. But at 166 grams versus 206 grams, the Icon is actually 19 percent lighter. The heavier feel is clearly a sensory illusion. The Icon looks and feels more solid than the 1520, and perhaps this sturdy build quality—especially when tucked into smaller overall dimensions—tricks our brains into perceiving extra mass.

While the Lumia line has typically featured candy-colored plastic shells, Nokia’s designers housed the Icon in jet-black metal, albeit with a plastic back. At 9.9mm, the Icon is also thicker than most Lumia phones, and its no-nonsense lines suggest something purposeful—like what a Surface phone might look like—rather than the more playful Lumias. It all imparts the impression of superior build quality, though slightly marred by a wiggly camera button.

nokia icon and old phone

The Nokia Lumia Icon compared against the Lumia 1520.

The smaller dimensions also have a practical purpose. At 5.79 inches by 2.79 inches, the Icon is small enough for most people to traverse one-handed, from display edge to edge, with just a thumb.

Camera, audio, screen improved

Nokia has long labored under the burden of the Windows Phone ecosystem—the perception (if not the reality) that Windows Phone just can’t compete with iOS and Android in terms of third-party software support. This challenge has diminished a bit over time, at least as far as the top apps are concerned, but still remains an issue.

Nonetheless, to stake out relevance on its own terms, Nokia has made its cameras and displays chief selling points, and these features continue to improve. I took the Icon outside, and the 441 pixels-per-inch display handled bright sunlight like a champ; only when I was looking into a direct reflection did the display wash out. Like earlier Nokia phones, the Icon’s display includes Sunlight Readability Enhancement and High Brightness Mode, two features specifically designed for outdoor use.

nokia icon camera app

Nokia’s Lumia Icon Camera app.

And while the Icon’s camera remains unchanged from the 1520, the phone will support installation of the Nokia Camera application (an upgrade, believe it or not, from the “Nokia Camera Pro” app that ships with the phone). The improved app adds “smart sequence,” which shoots a series of photos, such as a basketball player dunking a ball, and superimposes the action over a stationary background. You can also zoom in on a scene simply by swiping up and down, without the awkward pinch gesture.

Nokia also built in four directional microphones that the company says significantly improve both calling and video performance. In my brief tests, I can say that the Icon virtually eliminated wind and background noise while I was using the phone on a balcony overlooking downtown San Francisco.

nokia lumia icon sample pic Mark Hachman

A manual focus mode allows Lumia Icon owners to craft shots using bokeh, or selective focusing on certain objects.

I also called my father, an engineer, and asked him to assess the call quality of two phones, a Galaxy Note 3 on T-Mobile and the Verizon-powered Nokia Icon. When using his own Verizon cell phone, he said preferred the sounds of the Icon, saying that the Note 3 sounded a bit like it was coming from the bottom of a well. But when using his land line, he said that the Note 3 sounded markedly better than the Lumia Icon. 

Nokia also says that the microphones imbue video recording with “surround sound,” or at best, an improved stereo effect. In practice, I’d say that this is accurate.

During a loud company event Tuesday—complete with a DJ and free beer—I captured video of my co-workers partying down. In video shot with Samsung’s Note 3, I could only barely tell where sounds originated from, and the whole video had a vaguely mono feel. But during that exact same party, video recorded with Nokia’s Icon sounded much more directional. Will anyone find this to be a huge selling point? Probably not. But it does say something positive about Nokia’s microphone claims.

Over the next few days, we’ll put the Icon through our standard battery of tests, including a battery rundown. So far, we’re mildly impressed. 

Updated Feb. 20 with a video review.

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