AT&T’s Lumia 820 is as close as American buyers can get to the stock midrange Windows Phone 8 experience Nokia envisioned when it announced its new smartphone line. Its hardware is indistinguishable from the international version of the device, bearing no trace of the heavy-handed physical customizations that mark the other Lumia 8xx carrier variants we’ve seen. We recently reviewed each of those spiritual contemporaries, the Lumia 810 for T-Mobile and the Lumia 822 for Verizon Wireless, and now it’s time we turned our focus to the baseline model. We’ve already compared it with Verizon’s offering on video (see below); will the Lumia 820 stand on its own merits, or pale in comparison to its juiced-up counterpart on Big Red? More importantly, is the 820 even worth considering, sitting as it does in the shadow of the higher-end AT&T Lumia 920? Read on to find out.
Note: Since it shares extensive commonalities with its Verizon and T-Mobile siblings, we’ve borrowed observations from our Lumia 810 and Lumia 822 reviews in the Software and Camera sections below (all sample photos shown, however, were taken by the 820). Where the user experience and specs differ in these sections, it’s so noted.
Videos · Specs/Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance
Specs & Hardware
The Lumia 820 packs some specs that will sound familiar to owners of higher-end smartphones like the Lumia 920, but its midrange breeding definitely isn’t far beneath the surface. At its heart sits a dual-core Qualcomm S4 CPU buzzing along at 1.5GHz, backed up by a gig of RAM. There’s only 8GB of onboard storage here -with an impressive 7+ GB available to the user on first-boot- but that’s expandable via microSD to an additional 64GB.
4G LTE connectivity is here in addition to the typical HSPA and GSM/EDGE radios, and the usual short-range wireless options for WiFi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0, and NFC are included as well. Wireless charging is also supported via the Qi standard, though it requires the purchase of a separate battery cover to protect the removable 1650-mAh power pack and the 8MP camera optics. Maybe it’s just a side-effect of a month’s worth of midrange Lumia reviews, but we’re already tired of being told that we need to buy a separate accessory for wireless charging. Reserving that out-of-box functionality to its higher-end models makes sense, we suppose– but it also seems like a missed opportunity on Nokia’s part to differentiate its offerings across the board.
On the bright side: Nokia has a solid win here in the industrial-design department. The 820 sports hardware that borders on bewitching, because we didn’t necessarily expect to like it. After the clumsy blockiness of the Lumia 810 and the bizarre bar-of-soap feel of the 822, AT&T’s stock build of the 820 is wonderfully refreshing. Straight lines mingle with curved edges to minimize the device’s apparent thickness, making the unit feel much more svelte than its 9.9mm would suggest. Its matte-black battery cover is smooth enough to make us grip it a little tighter to keep it from slipping out of our hands, and the feel under our fingertips is that of a high-quality device, a 160g block of technology with no creaking or hollow echoes within. No branding -Nokia or AT&T- breaks the back cover’s long expanse of soft plastic beneath the camera bezel. The 820 might look a little ho-hum sitting on a table with its stock black battery cover, but holding it in the hand quickly reveals the premium soul residing below the surface.
Depending on your eyeballs and your visual taste, you’ll either love or hate the display, which is the same 4.3-inch AMOLED panel featured on the rest of the 2012 Lumia 8xx line. Like all AMOLED displays, it features excellent deep blacks and highly saturated colors, in addition to impressive viewing angles that put the higher-end Lumia 920 to shame. If those are your priorities, then it will serve you well. If, however, you value sharpness over saturation, you’ll be disappointed: the screen’s resolution is quite low at 800×480, with a pixel density just a touch over 216ppi. While it makes Windows Phone 8’s Modern UI “pop,” its fuzzy edges might annoy ardent Kindle readers or other text-heavy users. The screen does a good job of keeping the phone’s cost down, we imagine, and the colors really are something to behold, but we’re not sure we’d want to be stuck with it for a full two-year contract.
In all, the Lumia 820’s hardware reflects the device’s nature exactly: it’s a midrange device with higher-end aspirations, and it doesn’t take longer than a few seconds of holding it to appreciate that. It doesn’t sport the enhanced internal storage or larger internal battery of the Lumia 822, and its VGA-resolution front-facing camera is worse even than the Lumia 810’s, but of the three 8xx-series Windows Phone 8 devices we’ve tested, the Lumia 820 definitely feels the most premium. That counts for a lot.
“A Windows Phone is a Windows Phone.” Longtime users of Microsoft’s platform will be familiar with the sentiment, if not the verbatim quote. The Windows Phone 7 OS of yesteryear featured outstanding performance seemingly irrespective of hardware — and despite a massive overhaul of what’s running “under the hood,” that’s carried through to version 8 as well.
From a responsiveness standpoint, everything on the Lumia 820 matches every other Windows Phone 8 device we’ve used, almost identically. Were it not for subtle differences in display quality, size, and frame-rate, we’d have a tough time telling the Lumia 820 from a Lumia 920 in a blind interface comparison.
Of course, it’s the Nokia-specific software suite that makes this device a Lumia, not just another Windows Phone. It’s one of the principal value-adds of Nokia smartphones today, and we’ve covered it in-depth in our Lumia 920 and Lumia 810 reviews. For more on the Nokia collection, we direct you to those pieces for reference (links will open in a new window):
And if you’re looking for a more hardware-agnostic overview, be sure to take in our exhaustive review of the platform as a whole:
In sum, the Lumia 820 runs Windows Phone 8 very well. AT&T has of course saddled the device with the usual helping of bloatware, and we were disappointed to see that that doesn’t include Data Sense, the data-tracking utility we recently profiled, but we expect that feature to come to AT&T eventually. Those upgrading from another Windows Phone, or folks jumping platforms in search of a smooth, responsive smartphone UI, will find a lot to like in this device.
Our experience with the Lumia 822 showed us that you don’t need a premium model number to deliver a very good camera experience, and that holds true on the Lumia 820.
Once again, still shots come out quite nicely here, and the more we use the viewfinder’s “Scenes” functionality, the better they are. Especially useful in the absence of artificial HDR is the “Backlight” setting for adverse lighting conditions, and the “Night” mode delivers almost unbelievable enhancement, making images appear where the viewfinder only displayed a black screen. We’d still like to see HDR and other common features make their way to Windows Phone, but the Scenes mode goes a long way toward making the Lumia 820’s camera a solid replacement for a point-and-shoot.
A word of warning for excessive self-portrait takers: consider looking elsewhere if you’re planning to use the 820 for “selfies.” Unlike its T-Mobile and Verizon contemporaries, the Lumia 820 on AT&T only sports a VGA-resolution front-facing camera. It delivers bad pictures in favorable light, and totally unusable ones in dim light. It might have been better had Nokia just left the front-facing shooter off. The full-res FFC of the future this is not.
The Lumia 820 scored 216.02 on the Windows Phone benchmarking utility WPBench, and endured for just over two hours and eleven minutes on that same app’s battery stress test, which runs the CPU at full cycles until battery depletion. (For comparison, our AT&T Lumia 920 lasted two hours and 30 minutes on the same test, and the Nokia Lumia 822 lasted an hour and 58 minutes.)
In a reversal of that extreme, an extended period off the charger with very light use after the initial setup and app sync, the Lumia 820 endured for about 24 hours before flashing a low-battery warning. In typical usage, the device easily lasted us through the day. All testing was performed in the Greater Boston area with LTE enabled and good-to-excellent signal strength.
In other conventional metrics, the Lumia 820 performed just fine: voice calls were clear over both cellular and Skype connections, and the speakerphone seemed less tinny than the 822’s model. Internet Explorer 10 surfed the web with its usual alacrity, and AT&T’s 4G LTE network delivered excellent throughput, averaging 12Mbps down and a very healthy 14Mbps up. Headphone audio output was plenty loud, the onboard equalizer controls and Dolby Headphone toggles handy for tweaking our tunes, but as before, we wish they weren’t buried so deeply in the Settings menu. Finally, our favorite Windows Phone diversion, the air-combat simulator Rise of Glory, ran without a hitch.
+ Responsive, Stable OS
+ Better-than-average camera for a midrange phone
+ Nokia-exclusive apps enhance functionality
+ High speeds over AT&T LTE
+ Solid build quality in a sleek package
– Front-facing camera is VGA-only
– Low-resolution display
– Audio quality could be better
Pricing and Availability
The Lumia 820 is available from AT&T’s website and retail outlets for a contract price of $49.99 with a contract. That’s a substantial discount compared to the full retail price of $399.99, typical for a two-year commitment. Third-party retailers like Amazon are offering more substantial discounts, down to one cent with contract in some cases, but as always, we encourage prospective purchasers to review such deals thoroughly for pitfalls like additional termination fees.
The Lumia 820 may not have the high-end features, buzz, or looks of its higher-end cousin, the Lumia 920 – but for half the price, it doesn’t need to. For fifty bucks or less on-contract, customers get a Windows Phone 8 device with beautiful industrial design, solid features, the full suite of Nokia-exclusive apps, and a great camera.
Keep your expectations realistic, though; it’s still a midrange phone. Its display packs last year’s resolution with no Gorilla Glass, the front-facing camera is no good, and the compromises on storage and battery capacity will irk some. But if those aren’t deal-breakers for you, and you’re looking for a very good Windows Phone 8 experience on hefty, comfortable, easy-to-palm hardware without all the gloss and glitz of the higher-end devices, the Nokia Lumia 820 is a solid smartphone for the price.