Verizon Wireless has finally entered high-end Nokia club. But is the 928 a step up, or a side-step? Read our Nokia Lumia 928 review to find out.
- Overall Score: 8.3
- Hardware: 8.5
- Software: 8.4
- User Experience: 8
In the mobile world, carrier exclusivity is a mixed bag. Sometimes, it results in a huge boon to both carrier and manufacturer: witness the astonishing heights to which the iPhone propelled AT&T after its exclusive debut on then-Cingular’s network in 2007. On other occasions, though, the mating of a device to a lone provider doesn’t work out as well – as the Sprint/Palm partnership proved with the Pre in 2009.
The exclusive mating of Nokia’s Lumia 900 with AT&T resulted neither in runaway success nor dismal failure – but it’s easy to see how the device’s absence on the larger Verizon Wireless might have hurt Windows Phone’s adoption rate in the United States. And not much changed with the introduction of the Lumia 900’s successor, last year’s Lumia 920. That device too was confined to the nation’s bluest network for the initial months of Windows Phone 8 availability, leaving Verizon to muddle through with a combination of lesser Lumias and HTC’s 8X.
With the Lumia 928, Nokia and Verizon look to make up for lost time. The high-end device is built on the quite-capable foundation of its predecessor, but it doesn’t rest entirely on its laurels. It grafts revised styling, camera and microphone improvements, and an altered display to the 920’s chassis, and backs it up with the performance of a network that -on paper, anyway- offers significantly more coverage than its rivals. The question is: are these moderate improvements enough to make the 928 stand out on a carrier not historically friendly to Windows Phone? The carrier so deeply associated with Android that it coined its own “Droid” sub-brand for the platform?
We spent six days trying to find the answer to that question. If you’re curious about our conclusions, there’s only one thing to do: join us after the jump for our Nokia Lumia 928 Review.
Videos · Specs/Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance
Specs & Hardware
As you might expect from the minimal numeric bump over its AT&T analog, the Lumia 928’s specs don’t differ much from its Lumia 920 forerunner. The device is powered by the same Snapdragon S4 at 1.5GHz, backed up by the same 1GB of RAM, and it offers the same 32GB of onboard storage. Battery capacity remains 2,000 mAh, and wireless charging stays put as well – a fact that came as a welcome relief after we learned about the Lumia 925’s alternate arrangement. The similarities extend to the negative, as well – the battery’s still not removable, and the storage is still not expandable. That’s a sad-face for you power users, but at this point, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Fortunately, though, Nokia has managed to address one of the biggest complaints about the Lumia 920 in this version: the weight. It’s shaved just over 20g of mass from the unit, the 928 coming in at a respectable 162g. That’s still heavier than its super-light flagship competitors: the iPhone 5 comes in at 112g, while the Galaxy S 4 sits at 130g and the HTC One hovers at 147g. On the 928, though, the weight combines with Nokia’s famously sturdy polycarbonate and the Gorilla Glass 2 display facing to lend the phone a decidedly high-end feel in the hand. We’re not huge fans of the glossy finish on our white review unit, but at least it harmonizes nicely with Verizon’s other Nokia smartphone, the Lumia 822.
Speaking of design, let’s talk about aesthetics for a second. In our view, there’s two ways of looking at the 928’s casing. Standing alone, absent any context, it’s a fairly typical modern slab. It’s a little “faster” than most hardware designs out there, its aggressive sharp corners contrasting with its pillowy backside, which balloons outward to 10.1mm at the center to accommodate the camera. The casing is adorned with some interesting flairs, like the ever-so-slightly curved glass and the love-it-or-hate-it “forehead bezel” above the display – acreage Verizon has exploited for an oversized logo in its typically brazen way. By itself, the 928 is a fairly plain device with a few subtle accents.
Put up next to its AT&T counterpart, though, it’s almost hard to believe these devices are from the same household. They seem much more like distant cousins than siblings; the 928’s sheer sides better recall devices like T-Mobile’s Lumia 810, and its many backside casing perforations for speakers, microphones, and the oversized xenon flash give it a less-artisanal, less-complete look. The swapping of plastic for metal on the mushy side buttons probably wasn’t the best idea, and even details as small as the SIM card tray and capacitive key backlighting seem cheaper and weaker. Indeed, from some angles the 928 seems almost like a prototype version of what eventually became the more minimal, more beautiful, and more finished-feeling 920.
Probably the most visible change the 928 brings to the table, though, is its substitution of a 4.5″ AMOLED display for the 920’s IPS LCD panel. Here, the change is welcome. While its dimensions, 15:9 aspect ratio, and 1280×768 resolution remain unchanged, the 928’s 334 pixels-per-inch kick out much more heavily saturated colors than the LCD on the earlier device, with nearly-perfect black reproduction. The combination of these attributes serves Windows Phone 8’s Modern UI very well, the tiles seeming to float across an expanse of dark glass in the default color configuration. Even those who dislike the larger-than-life color tones of AMOLED will likely appreciate the added side visibility of the 928’s panel. Also, while there’s no real increase in daylight readability with AMOLED, at least the annoying color fringing/bleeding visible on the Lumia 920 in direct sunlight is nowhere to be found on the 928, which we appreciate.
In terms of hardware, the story of the Lumia 928 is that of a leaner, meaner Lumia 920. The device’s sharper angles might irritate some sensitive palms -and not all its changes are improvements on the original- but overall, the 928 is still a distinctly Nokian creation. By and large, that’s a good thing.
The Lumia 928’s sharper corners play quite nicely with the Modern UI’s right-angle-happy interface, which glides along under a fingertip as smoothly here as on other Windows Phones. We were occasionally stymied by a hiccup or a stutter here and there, something we’re not used to seeing from Microsoft’s smooth, consistent OS – particularly not on final software such as this. The 928 could probably use a software update to iron out some of those minor wrinkles. By and large, though, the experience is slick and stable, as we’ve come to expect from Windows Phone.
In terms of custom software, Verizon and Nokia have added their fair share – but it seems unfair to call it “bloatware,” as the titles are big-name apps that some users will find useful. ESPN and CNN are both pre-loaded, as is The Weather Channel. These appear on the out-of-box homescreen alongside most of Nokia’s navigation suite: Maps, City Lens, and Nokia Drive+ Beta. A handful of camera lenses and other value-adds like Local Scout are also called out by big tiles on the default Start screen, as is the My Verizon Mobile account-management app.
The 928 also drops the App Highlights hub prominently on the phone’s front page, providing a Nokia-curated app shopping experience that, depending on your taste, will seem either fresh and new or too-limiting. We’re of the former opinion. The Windows Phone app store now boasts over 145,000 titles; any help separating the wheat from the chaff is welcome, and App Highlights does a good job of that while still managing to look good.
A Quick Review isn’t the place to comment extensively on the larger Windows Phone ecosystem, but it’s important to note here that the app situation is much improved compared to previous months. A customer investing in a Verizon Wireless Windows Phone today enjoys a much larger selection of quality apps than he or she would have even half a year ago, with Pandora, Spotify, and even Instagram represented (the latter via a hack, sure – but it’s a good one). Additionally, though the relationship between Microsoft and Google is anything but genial, recent signs like the giants’ negotiated extension of Exchange ActiveSync support and their agreement to collaborate on a YouTube app have shown a trend toward reason and away from extremism. The 928 arrived on Big Red at the perfect moment to take advantage of this improved situation; if you ask us, it’s never been a better time to own a Verizon Windows Phone.
Verizon is already touting the 928’s low-light abilities in television ads for the device, which is no surprise. Not only does the phone pack the same hardware-stabilized optics that give the Lumia 920 its stunning low-light performance; it improves on the older phone by augmenting its LED spotlight with a xenon flash. It bears the same stated range of the 920’s short-pulse LED (3.0m) but its brighter, briefer burst allows the 928 to capture much clearer images in pitch-black situations than the 920, which produced a much softer image in our darkened-booth test.
Fortunately, the camera’s aforementioned low-light performance means you won’t need to use the flash very often; like the 920’s identical 8.7MP PureView shooter, the camera lets in so much light as to produce night photos that seem almost unreal.
Photos in general are excellent, in keeping with the proud PureView lineage. There are some shortcomings, mostly in terms of pictures with extremely divergent lighting conditions: we’re getting tired of citing the lack of a native HDR option as a serious shortcoming of Windows Phone. Between that and the lack of a shooting mode icon in the viewfinder -an omission that’s resulted in us accidentally shooting for days in Night mode, Backlight mode, etc.- we’re very excited for the rumored Amber update. Those complaints aside, though, the Lumia line has always delivered some of the best smartphone camera photos around – and that holds true for the 928.
In terms of video, the 928 records beautiful 1080p footage, with accurate color reproduction and reasonably speedy autofocus adjustments. We experienced a bit of audio clipping at the start of our test video, but it was likely a result of the windy conditions – we couldn’t replicate that failing in other videos.
For this category, we’ll begin with the least interesting and most predictable: synthetic benchmarks. The Lumia 928 scores a 234.73 on the Windows Phone benchmarking utility WPBench, its average scores falling right in line with other midrange Windows Phones like the 8xx series and the Samsung ATIV S. This comes as no surprise, given the almost identical hardware across most of the mid-to-high-end Windows Phone lineup. The 928 handles everything from menu scrolling to browser zooming to graphically-intense gaming with the aplomb we’ve come to expect from Microsoft’s platform.
Where Verizon’s Lumia differs is in voice calling. Not in terms of sound quality -callers said we sounded just okay- but in noise cancellation. “Callers couldn’t even hear a train racing by” sounds like hyperbole, but that very situation happened to us during our review period. As we were talking on the 928 at the New London train station, an Amtrak Northeast Regional train roared by less than ten feet away, and we apologized for the noise – noise our caller said he couldn’t hear at all. This, despite the fact that the 928 also provides some very comforting and warm side-tone, just like talking on an old-fashioned landline telephone. If you’re planning to call in sick to catch some games this baseball season, the Lumia 928 will have no trouble masking the roar of the crowd; that two-microphone uplink noise cancellation is no joke.
Regrettably, the speakerphone’s relocation to the back of the device has done it no favors, as you might expect. Despite the larger, much more visible grille, the loudspeaker output on our 928 is tinnier and more prone to crackling than the Lumia 920’s sitting right next to it. Fortunately, this deficiency is counterbalanced by some excellent EQ settings in the phone’s software, including Dolby Headphone enhancement. That won’t do much for the speakerphone, of course, but at least listening to music via earbuds on the 928 is a customizable experience.
As mentioned earlier, the 928’s battery capacity is still a fairly ho-hum 2000mAh, but endurance in an LTE coverage area is somewhat above-average. The device lasted 02:47:27 on the WPBench battery test, which runs the processor at full cycles to exhaustion and tracks time elapsed from 100% to 0%. That compares favorably with the Lumia 822’s score of 01:58:05, and even beats out the Lumia 920’s time of two hours and thirty minutes.
If you keep power-intensive tasks like tethering and GPS navigation to a minimum, you should be able to last a day on the Lumia 928 with average use. We were even able to last ten hours on a moderate-to-heavy use day that included several long spans in no-coverage areas, and several extended periods of tethering over WiFi.
And as for that “largest network” claim? The only thing we can say about the 928 versus the 920, from a coverage perspective, is that no new lessons were learned. In our nearly week-long test period, we traveled from urban Boston to rural New York State, using the Lumia 928 as our daily driver (and internet hotspot) the whole time. Our main takeaways from this experience were two: first, Apple MacBooks still can’t manage to stay tethered to Lumia devices for more than a few minutes at a time; and second, your coverage experience is a hugely subjective aspect of wireless telephony. For us, Verizon tended to offer coverage in more places than AT&T, but AT&T’s LTE speeds were faster. For what it’s worth, we averaged about 17Mbps down and 5Mbps up over 4G LTE during our time with the Lumia 928 on Verizon.
+ Best-in-class camera
+ Beautiful display
+ Nokia-exclusive apps enhance functionality
+ Outstanding noise cancellation
+ Respectable battery life
– Lower-quality fit and finish than earlier 920
– Battery could be bigger, removable, or both
– Slightly more software stutter than other Windows Phones
Pricing and Availability
The Lumia 928 launched on Verizon Wireless on May 16th. It’s currently available for $99.99 with a two-year contract -or a penny shy of $500 at full retail- in either white or black. As usual, you can find some third-party retailers offering it at lower price points: Wirefly is currently selling the Lumia 928 for $49.99 on-contract, for example. Because some third-party resellers also include extra terms and conditions, though, we encourage you to read carefully before signing on the dotted line, in order to avoid extra termination fees should you tire of your purchase before your contract term expires.
The Lumia 928 is not the smartphone that’s going to catapult Windows Phone to a massive gain in US marketshare. It’s too mild, too iterative for that. But what it will do -what it’s already doing- is bringing what remains of the buzz surrounding the Lumia 920 to the nation’s largest wireless carrier. Is it a little late? Yes. But is it a good thing? Also yes.
From an industry-watching perspective, the Lumia 928 may be more exciting as a portent of things to come – it’s tempting to speculate that it’s the canary in the coal mine of the Nokia/AT&T exclusivity relationship. But more importantly: it’s still exciting in its own right as a very capable WP8 device -and a very capable smartphone in general- on a very large network. If you are already, or are thinking of becoming, a Verizon Wireless customer, this is the high-end Windows Phone you’ve been waiting for.