The Lumia 800 was a great phone without an ecosystem. The Lumia 900 made that phone bigger, without significantly improving on the software or specifications. The Lumia 920 came with a massively improved camera, and the updated Windows Phone 8, but it was too bulky for many consumers.
With the 925, Nokia thinks it's perfected the Lumia formula: It’s essentially the same phone as the 920 in a vastly thinner and lighter aluminum shell. Nokia's also made some improvements to the Lumia 920's camera, both in hardware and software. Is this finally the Lumia that can go head-to-head with the HTC Ones, iPhone 5s, and Galaxy S4s of the world? Read on to find out.
More stealth bomber than tank
If the Nokia Lumia 920 was a tank, the 925 could be likened to a stealth bomber. Gone is the bulky polycarbonate shell of the 920. The Lumia 925 swaps this thick plastic for an aluminum frame with a thin polycarbonate back. The result is a sleek package that's just 8.5mm thick instead of the 10.7mm wedge of the 920. In pure numbers that sounds like very little, but in reality it makes the Lumia 925 a lot more usable in one hand and for day-to-day use. I've always disliked large screens on my smartphones, but a thin frame, like Samsung's Galaxy S4, makes them a lot more usable to me.
Nokia has coupled the aluminum design with a 4.5-inch AMOLED display, PureView camera, and the usual assortment of buttons and jacks. The aluminum frame feels soft and smooth to touch, and it complements the glass and polycarbonate well. With the exception of the display, the entire device is curved in every way possible. The screen feels like it's bleeding into the edges of the curved aluminum and the buttons at the side of the device don't wobble or interfere with that. Nokia has also improved the lighting of its capacitive Windows Phone buttons, meaning they’re a lot more white when illuminated — they had a slightly yellow tint on the Lumia 920.
At the rear of the Lumia 925, Nokia has opted to make the camera the centerpiece with a hump that raises it above the rest of the matte polycarbonate backing. There's a typical LED flash and the loudspeaker has been placed close to the bottom of the rear, just beneath three connector ports for the optional wireless charging shells. Unfortunately, the speaker placement isn’t ideal for playing music. I found the Lumia 920 was noticeably louder and directed the sound to my ears rather than my hands, thanks to the fact that its speaker is placed at the bottom of the device. Nokia has chosen to keep the Lumia 925's bottom completely free of any ports or buttons, with the repositioning of the USB port to the top of the device along with the SIM slot and headphone jack.
The Lumia 925 has a beautiful, but not flawless, design
I have two minor gripes with this design, and one originates from the polycarbonate rear. It feels very thin and it also doesn't look or feel like it's fully in place. On my review unit the top of the polycarbonate flexes a little, and if you look closely at the edges you can see a gap between it and the aluminum chassis. Nokia tells me this is normal, that it provides access for technicians as there are no visible screws on the device. It spoils the clean lines and overall design of the device, but it's something that you won't notice initially. It's like finding that first scratch on your brand new car — it's irritating, but you'll get over it.
The second minor issue is the lack of color here. The move to metal is a first for Nokia on its Lumia range, which typically uses colorful unibody polycarbonate shells for its flagship Windows Phones. You can add color with optional wireless charging shells, and the metallic look is welcome, but I do miss the color choices available on other Lumias. The Lumia 925 comes entirely in black, or with a silver frame and a gray or white back. I wouldn't call this design striking, but it's subtle enough to demonstrate the industrial design that Nokia is known for. With the Lumia 925, it finally feels like Nokia has improved the Lumia design in a package that will appeal to a wider range of consumers. Although it doesn’t necessarily feel like a pure aluminum phone, thanks to the polycarbonate rear, the design and solid build make this every inch a flagship device on the outside.
As good as it gets (for now)
Unlike the Lumia 920's IPS LCD display, Nokia has opted for an AMOLED panel on the 925, and the switch has clearly helped slim the device down a little. Nokia labels its 4.5-inch display as "PureMotion HD+," a fancy term for reducing latency on animations. Like with the Lumia 920 before it, swiping around the Windows Phone UI is fast and responsive, and blacks on the AMOLED fade perfectly into the bezel, which makes the colorful Windows Phone interface really pop.
Surprisingly, the colors are very accurate on this display. It's not the sort of color replication that you'll see on the IPS LCD panel that the Lumia 920 has, but Nokia has included a color profile app where you can tweak the display accordingly. I managed to find the perfect saturation and temperature balance for my own needs, and Nokia provides a variety of images to help you judge what's best for your own preference. Windows Phone hasn’t really had this level of customization before, so it’s great to see Nokia enabling it.
Until Windows Phone supports 1080p, this is one of the best displays you can get
Like the Lumia 920, the 4.5-inch display runs at a resolution of 1280 x 768 and the result is a really pixel-dense display. It's no match for the 1920 x 1080 resolution on the Galaxy S4's 5-inch display, but until Windows Phone supports 1080p displays it's one of the best you're going to get for now.
I found readability in sunlight to be very good, and Nokia has included its usual high-sensitivity options to enable glove use for the less sunny days. A new Glance option is also enabled for the first time with Lumia 925 display. Like Symbian before it, Glance enables a clock on the standby screen. While this might seem like a cause for battery concern, the AMOLED display only lights up and uses the pixels for the white parts of the clock, which are very minimal. It will time out after 15 minutes, but it provides quickly glanceable information including battery charge state and silent mode. There’s also a night mode that you can set to trigger at a certain time that turns the text red so it doesn’t light up your bedroom.
A purer view?
Nokia reinvented the use of its PureView branding for the Lumia 920, but it never rubber stamped that name on the back of the handset. While there was a slight controversy about the PureView name being used with the 920, Nokia uses the moniker at the rear of the Lumia 925 proudly. It sits alongside the usual Carl Zeiss branding, and rightfully so. Although the 920 hasn't always been my day-to-day device, I usually reach for it when I'm on a night out and can't take a DSLR with me. There's a good reason for that.
The Lumia 925’s PureView camera is very similar to the 920. It has the same 8.7-megapixel sensor, but Nokia has added an additional lens element. The sixth lens, which is made from glass, sits atop the plastic lenses taken straight from the 920. I took a number of daytime and nighttime photos and I struggled to find any real improvements over the Lumia 920. Some of my daytime photos were a little less soft on the Lumia 925, but overall you're going to get similar results here. The only downside to this camera is that it attracts some dust around the housing, but luckily it doesn't stick there after you wipe it clean.
Like the 920, the Lumia 925 really does well in low-light conditions. Nokia has its "floating lens technology" where the entire optical assembly is suspended on springs that absorb and dampen any movements you make while you're shooting. This reduces the camera shake effect on video and lets the 925 keep its shutter open for longer to capture more light and deliver brighter pictures. It doesn't always kill the blur, and in low-light situations it can be hit-and-miss at times, but it does make it one of the best smartphone cameras for capturing nighttime shots. You can record 1080p video, and the audio capture is particularly impressive at loud venues. Just be careful, there's only 16GB of storage and no micro SD expansion so the 925 could quickly fill up with 1080p videos.
One of the issues I found with the old Lumia 920 was its inability to keep snapping photos at a rapid pace. Nokia had a Smart Shoot app that would take five photos in quick succession, but that isn't always enough when you're trying to capture motion without video. With the Lumia 925, Nokia has opted to include a new Smart Cam app. It now shoots up to 10 pictures at a time and offers a lot more options for editing and manipulation. Although this will be made available to other Lumias in July’s "amber" update, it ships first with the Lumia 925.
A Motion Focus view lets you alter the background of a photo to introduce motion blur, and there are options for removing faces, creating a motion shot, and removing objects. While it takes 10 photos really quickly, the editing features downsample the 8.7-megapixel images to 5-megapixels to apply the Smart Camera effects. You can set Nokia's Smart Cam app to be the default camera application when you trigger the camera button, but given the restrictions, and the inability to quickly switch to video, I wouldn't recommend it. It's a nice addition, but the editing options feel just as gimmicky as the Cinemagraph app, and they’re a little confusing and slow to switch between all the menus and options.
A reliable workhorse
Nokia's Lumia 925 includes a non-removable 2,000 mAh battery. It's a reasonable capacity and you should expect the usual smartphone battery life. During my moderate usage in a set day I needed to charge at the end of it. I was concerned about the Glance clock feature's impact on battery life, but the timeout means it doesn't seem to make any significant difference. It's difficult to accurately measure battery life on Windows Phone devices, but using WP Bench — a popular benchmarking tool — the Lumia 925 achieved 2 hours and 59 minutes during a battery test that's designed to drain it as quickly as possible using CPU cycles. I ran an identical test on a Lumia 920 and it achieved a time of 2 hours and 22 mins, so there's some clear battery improvements with the 925, but not game-changing ones.
Call quality was fairly clear, and data connections appeared to be solid despite the new antenna arrangement and aluminum frame. I didn't experience any dropped calls and participants never complained about not being able to hear me clearly. Nokia has tried to hide the mic at the bottom of the display and its placement works well. Left-handed and right-handed use makes no difference to how audible you are. Speakerphone was the only real issue here, it's just not very clear with the speaker placement at the rear.
Step by step
Windows Phone 8 is solid on the Lumia 925. The Qualcomm dual-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 helps push the UI and apps along at speed when combined with the 1GB of RAM. I never experienced any performance complaints and games ran smoothly. The 925 also runs on the latest version of Windows Phone 8, with improvements that aren’t available to other handsets just yet. Unfortunately, those updates are very minor. Data Sense, a feature previously reserved for certain carriers like Verizon, is now fully enabled and lets you track your monthly data allowance. FM Radio support has also returned to Windows Phone, but apart from that there's not a lot of new changes.
Whereas Nokia's Here Maps and Here Drive software have traditionally been exclusive to its handsets, the Finnish smartphone maker opened this up to other device makers recently. If you're buying a Nokia Windows Phone these days, it's really about the device quality and camera rather than the software benefits. The Glance feature is unique, along with a double-tap-to-wake option, but that's as far as the uniqueness goes here. It's a pretty standard Windows Phone affair, with some software tweaks to the camera and screen.
Windows Phone is a joy to use, but I always feel like I'm not getting the full experience from apps that I'd see on iOS or Android. Third-party apps attempt to bridge the gap, but they often lack the full features available on rival platforms. Even when official apps are available, there are occasions when they're not always inline with rival platforms. As a Windows Phone user it's frustrating, and there's only so far that app developers can go to make up for the lack of interest from big names like Google, Instagram, Vine, and Dropbox. The problem isn't necessarily that the apps aren't available, it's that they come so late that they're irrelevant by the time they arrive. This is especially true in the case of games, where people move on from one to another as the months go by.
Things are getting better
Things are getting better though. A number of apps and games have launched or been improved in recent weeks. Even apps like Rando — an experimental photo sharing platform, which is starting to get popular on other platforms — are launching early on Windows Phone. The blank palette of Windows Phone is powerful out of the box without additional third-party apps, but it certainly feels like developers are starting to accept Windows Phone as the number three ecosystem. If this is the case then there's hope for Windows Phone to push into the double-digit market share. If it can achieve this then maybe that promised momentum that Nokia and Microsoft keep discussing will suddenly appear.
THE BEST WINDOWS PHONE YET, BUT IT'S NOT ENOUGH FOR EVERYONE
Nokia has mostly nailed the design with the Lumia 925, but Windows Phone is holding it back. Microsoft's mobile platform hasn't progressed a lot since its introduction in November, with basic features like a rotation lock and reliable notifications still missing. Nokia is trying to fill the gaps with software and services, but ultimately it's a very similar Windows Phone experience to any other device from Samsung or HTC. My main complaint about Windows Phone is this slow rate of progress. The Lumia 925 is the best Windows Phone you can buy right now, but compared to an iPhone 5 or Galaxy S4 it's still lagging behind on the software front. I came to a similar conclusion with my Lumia 720 review just two months ago, Microsoft's mobile platform is still the big drawback to Nokia's Lumia devices.
Until the software catches up, the Lumia 925 is a great piece of hardware that's perfectly suited to a consumer who doesn't demand the latest and greatest hardware or applications. If you want to take great nighttime shots then it won't disappoint, and it's especially effective at capturing distortion-free audio at concerts. Nokia is leading the pack in Windows Phones, and understandably so. The company has bet its future on Microsoft's mobile platform. If you've also bought into the Microsoft ecosystem then the Lumia 925 is a perfect match. There's great cloud integration with SkyDrive, Skype, and Xbox-related services, and even a mobile version of Office. Nokia has provided the best shell and design for Windows Phone to shine on, and if you're happy with the tradeoffs then you won't be disappointed by this particular handset.