I just bought a one-year-old phone and it’s still better than anything else out there

Well, okay, maybe it’s not better at everything, and maybe it’s not better for everybody but this one-year-old phone is still better at a few key things that I’ve been spoiled by. Yes, I’ve tried the new Galaxy Note 4 flagship Samsung device, and I’ve tried the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the HTC One M8, the HTC One M8 for Windows, etc., etc. After I saw those, I decided to buy a Nokia Lumia 1020; a phone that was originally released back in July of 2013 well over a year ago. I’ve never bought a new phone that was originally released such a long time ago, but considering that there is no decent successor on the horizon as far as we can tell, I thought I should get one while I still can.

What’s so good about it?

How about the camera? With the Lumia 1020, Nokia did the unthinkable and combined a 41 megapixel imaging sensor with optical image stabilization along with a powerful Xenon flash and LED focus assist lamp. No other smartphone on the market comes close to that kind of picture quality at such a compact form factor (other than its predecessor the Nokia 808 PureView). It also has the option to shoot its giant images in RAW DNG (Digital Negative) format. On my professional DSLR cameras, I always shoot in RAW for the most extensive post processing capabilities. With the Lumia 1020’s RAW format, I can plug the phone into my Surface Pro 2, load the photos into Adobe Camera Raw and use some very powerful tools to adjust specific areas of the image to bring out more detail, fix blemishes, reduce noise, and fine tune the color balance. Sure, you can kind of do some of that with standard JPGs, too, but the full RAW data is so much more flexible. It’s a huge advantage to me. I can also bracket exposures on the Lumia 1020 and create my own “real” high dynamic range images using desktop processing tools that are much more powerful than anything you’ll find in a cell phone.

Oh, and this particular Lumia 1020 is one of a kind since I had a wireless charging shell for it painted with Chromaflair which changes colors depending on the light. It doesn’t get much cooler than that. (My custom HTC Touch Diamond was pretty cool too.) If you want to make your own custom wireless charging case, it’s pretty easy. Order some good spray paint from Home Depot. I recommend Alsa Killer Cans, since they have a few color-changing Chromaflair options. Then if you don’t want to do it yourself, just take the paint and the plastic to any auto body shop and they’ll be able to bake the paint on with a nice shiny clear coat.

WP_20140927_09_22_39_Raw__highresThe accessories available are great, too. I bought the camera grip with extended battery which adds a nice big camera button to the phone along with a more-comfortable handle for taking pictures, and the excellent tripod mount area for bolting the phone to a clamp or setting it up for some big tripod shots. To do that with other phones, I’d need some awkward clamp thing to hold the edges of the phone and mount to a tripod. I’ve also got a JBL Power UP speaker with NFC, Bluetooth, and a wireless charging station on top. That means when I get home and want to continue listening to the music I had playing in the car, all I do is tap the phone to the front of the speaker system, press play, and set the phone on top to get it recharging. Plus, since this has the Cyan firmware, I can use Nokia’s Treasure Tags to keep track of my camera bag.

MixRadio_PlayMe_wp_ss_20131125_0001The Lumia 1020 also benefits from free music. I’m not talking about having a U2 album automatically downloaded even if I don’t like U2. I’m talking about Nokia MixRadio. It is, in my opinion, the best music service out there. You can create automatic radio-style playlists based on up to 3 artists at a time and then make up to 4 entire playlists available offline so that you don’t need a consistent internet connection to listen to your tunes.

Offline maps and GPS navigation are also free on the Lumia 1020. You can download whole countries and navigate without the need of an internet connection. Similar services are available on other platforms, but they’ll cost extra. Glance mode is another thing I love. No need to press the power button to see my next appointment, time, and notifications. It almost negates the need for a smartwatch (what need?)

Then there are all of the unique Windows Phone features that I love. Cortana’s new speech interface features are pretty nice. Especially the ability to control third party apps, which isn’t available elsewhere. Quiet hours is another great feature that can auto reply to my contacts when I’m busy and it knows when I’m busy based on my calendar appointments.

It’s not easy being king

Lumia1020_Green_AdamLein_WP_20140930_09_37_46_Raw__highresOne of the reasons I didn’t get a Lumia 1020 for T-Mobile right away, was because it was still missing some things that really would have made its flagship status far superior. The Lumia 1020 doesn’t have a user-replaceable battery, so when the battery dies I have to plug in some external bulky kludgey power source and wait for goodness-knows how long instead of spending 5 seconds to slip a spare battery out of my wallet and pop it in. The advantages of a removable battery still outweigh the advantages (what advantages?) of a non-removable battery.

It’s also missing a MicroSD card slot. Sure the 32Gb of internal storage is okay, but that’s not enough to keep a good collection of movies, music, photos, games, etc. and still have enough room for all of those 40 megabyte RAW DNG files. I kind of wish it had the new sensor core stuff for built-in footstep tracking, but that’s a pretty minor thing to miss.  Worst of all, saving 40 megapixel RAW files alongside 5 megapixel JPG files is pretty slow. That makes the time between being able to take the next picture kind of painful. The pro-grade camera apps tend to be pretty slow to launch too.  Personally, I think it’s worth it for the unsurpassed image quality, and I kind of like the challenge of timing my shots for the right moment.

Newer Lumia Windows Phone’s still don’t scream flagship status to me either. The Lumia 1520 is too big to be usable with one-hand or even fit into my bicycling jersey pockets. The Lumia Icon and Lumia 930 are okay, but they don’t have Glance mode and their cameras are still only 20 megapixels. And of course, the newest Lumia 735 and 830 are basic mid-range devices compared to what Nokia is capable of.

Why now?

_AZL5910 I was pretty disappointed in Microsoft’s new Lumia phones that were announced at IFA 2014. I don’t want a affordable flagship, I want a real flagship. The “McLaren” that we heard about which was supposed to be Microsoft’s flagship smartphone for the year has reportedly been canceled and there’s no real flagship on the horizon. The Lumia 1020 is still the Windows Phone with the best camera around and that doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon.

Also, my personal cell phone account is on T-Mobile USA whose last almost-high-end Windows Phone was the Nokia Lumia 925. They still haven’t released the Cyan firmware update for that phone, and I’ve put the Developer Preview on it which doesn’t handle the old firmware too well. The phone over heats, has issues with Bluetooth, skips when playing music, and occasionally freezes while on the wireless charger. It also doesn’t work with Treasure Tags and WiFi calling has become terribly unreliable. The unlocked Lumia 1020 RM-877 does have the Cyan firmware available and I know that Windows Phone 8.1 runs beautifully on it.

Recently T-Mobile has been upgrading their network in my area too. Instead of only getting HSDPA network connections, I’ve been getting LTE much more often. The unlocked Nokia Lumia 1020 RM-877 happens to support the network bands T-Mobile USA is using on their upgraded LTE network (but not all of the older HSDPA bands). That means it finally makes sense for me to have an unlocked Lumia 1020 in my area.

Are you on T-Mobile USA and wish there was a better Windows Phone available?  Maybe it’s time to look at some of the unlocked options. Be aware that getting Internet Sharing to work can be tricky though. Also, have you ever bought a new phone even after it was already one-year-old?

If you’d like another refresher on the Lumia 1020, be sure to check out our original review, an “After the Buzz” review, and some tips on taking incredible photos with the Lumia 1020.

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About The Author
Adam Z. Lein
Adam has had interests in combining technology with art since his first use of a Koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently has a day job as a graphic designer, photographer, systems administrator and web developer at a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology extends to software development companies who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for Pocketnow.com since they first appeared on the market in 2002. Read more about Adam Lein!