In the absence of a Lumia 1030, is the 830 the Windows Phone to go for?

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Is it the shiny, shiny phenomenon of something new? Or the feel of cold metal and the satisfaction of larger screen and as much storage as I wanted? Either way, I find myself compromising one of my deeply-held 'must haves' (in the 1020) and using the Nokia Lumia 830 as my main smartphone, following on from my review and other tests. It's an Autumn miracle, perhaps?

Before reading my musings below, it's well worth going back to read my camera head to head between the Lumia 830 and the Lumia 1020 (as the reference point), plus my big, formal review of the 830, concluding that it very nearly lives up to its marketing tag line and will only get better as its range of software gets filled out.

Lumia 1020 and 830

Pitching the Lumia 830 to 1020 owners(!)

And, as teased above, despite being a huge fan of the Lumia 1020, the lack of optimisation of Windows Phone 8.1 for the Snapdragon S4 processor, the sealed battery and sealed storage, were all getting a little annoying, so I've been experimenting with the 830 as my main smartphone - and with good results so far.

In the absence of any official Nokia/Microsoft flagship or 1020 successor - and no, the 930 doesn't count, with uninspiring lack of Glance screen, underwhelming display and camera and sealed storage - the differences between the Lumia 1020 and the new 830 are well worth spelling out in detail, you'll be surprised at the imbalance, one notable spec point aside.

Differences(!)  Lumia 1020 Lumia 830
Launch price, SIM-free in the UK £570 (ish!), though now £325ish if you shop around? £300
Ships with Lumia Black, Cyan upgradeable, Denim to follow by end of 2014? Lumia Denim, plus will get Lumia Camera and significant imaging innovations
Materials Polycarbonate unibody Aluminium frame around polycarbonate chassis
Screen 4.5" AMOLED, 768p (pentile) with Glance screen 5" IPS LCD, 720p (RGB)  with Glance screen
Processor  Snapdragon S4, Dual core 1.5GHz, 2GB RAM  Snapdragon 400, Quad core 1.2GHz, 1GB RAM 
Storage  32GB (sealed)  16GB plus up to 128GB on microSD 
Imaging  1/1.5" 41MP oversampling, 5MP output with lossless zoom, Xenon flash 1/3.4" 10MP, ultra fast focussing, LED flash
Battery  2000mAh, sealed  2200mAh, removeable/replaceable
Charging microUSB microUSB or Qi wireless built-in
Size, weight  130 x 71 x 10mm,  158g 139 x 71 8mm, 150g 

Imaging, then is the big showstopper that keeps many Nokia Lumia 1020 owners with the device, obviously. Despite with DxOMark might say (erroneously), the 1020 is still top dog in terms of quality and functionality (if not speed), plus the Xenon flash is just about unique. 

However, let's leave aside the much-discussed Xenon flash use case for a moment, and let's consider that in most other light conditions, for general subjects, the Lumia 830 can (surprisingly) get relatively close in terms of imaging results and detail. If we can downplay the imaging differences slightly, it's clear from the table above that the 830 is superior in every sense as a 2014 smartphone. Which is all the more surprising, given the massive difference in launch prices and pretensions - the 1020 was a true flagship in its day, while the 830 just pretends to be one (rather effectively, as it turns out).

You may be wondering about some of my green 'wins' above. A few notes, to clarify:

  • Plastic versus metal? OK, that's a subjective call, but most people would go for metal given the chance, surely?
  • The screen win is for two reasons. And not for the IPS LCD versus AMOLED debate, that too is highly subjective. Instead there's the physical size, with the 4.5" screen on the 1020 always feeling a little squat and a tiny bit too short, and with the 768p pentile screen only actually involving 384 red and blue pixels 'across', making the true RGB 720p matrix on the Lumia 830 screen seem altogether crisper.
  • The processor call is worth of comment too. Normally, on most technology, I'd go for the one with the most RAM, this often being a bottleneck in terms of performance. However, 1GB seems absolutely fine for Windows Phone 8.1 and the 'lower spec' (in terms of clock speed, though not in cores) Snapdragon 400 actually works better with the OS than the older S4 range, as I've documented before.
  • The flexibility to simply insert my master microSD with my 40GB of music and 15GB or so of favourite videos - and have everything appear more or less immediately, without having to manually sync up a selection of favourite bits to fit inside part of a sealed memory system on the 1020 - is refreshing, to say the least. Boy, how I've missed having a card slot.
  • The removeable/sealed battery debate has raged through the years, of course, but I'd still always rather have the option if possible. It's way too early to be seeing 'after market' Lumia 830 drop ins (for the BV-L4A cell), but I'll certainly revisit this scene in a few months time.
  • Having Qi charging built-in is very pleasant too - the 1020 lived permanently in a somewhat ugly charging shell that clipped around all four corners, but the 830 has the coils built into the standard backplate. It's the future, you know.... 

Nokia Lumia 830

A new approach to imaging?

Imaging is the kicker, of course. For most shots, the Lumia 830 will do just fine, as you saw in my comparison feature. Indoors, for people subjects (usually my daughter and small nephews and nieces), my technique involved pre-focussing and then using Xenon flash on the 1020 to freeze the moment in an 'action shot' - this is a little hit and miss, of course. Sometimes the results were stunning, sometimes the 1020's very slight shutter lag meant that I just missed the moment by a fraction of a second.

The 'modern way' to approach such subjects, it seems, pioneered by HTC, Apple and the like, is to use burst mode techniques, i.e. taking multiple shots very quickly. You then grab the frame/shot you want from the sequence later. Results are rarely as crisp as from Xenon-lighting, but there's admittedly far more flexibility in capturing a specific moment.

As already covered in my Lumia 830 review, Nokia Camera is more geared to the 'old' way of doing things (despite the somewhat gimmicky Smart Sequence mode) - what I'm waiting for is the new Lumia Camera re-write, geared to fast launching and fast capture of (in the 830's case) 2K video bursts, with easy selection of the 2MP photo you want after the fact.

Will burst mode selective photography produce better results, all things being considered, than the much slower but higher quality Xenon indoor shots on the 1020? The jury's out. What's clear is that I'll have to change the way I approach situations.

So a 3 year old's doing something cute and wandering towards me. In the past, with the 1020, I'd prefocus on a suitable spot, wait for what i hoped was the perfect expression/posture and then fire the flash, knowing it was my only chance, since there'd be a four second reset period before I could shoot again. Result? Some classic Xenon action shots, quite a lot of frozen expressions that I didn't actually want to capture. As I say, hit and miss.

Not that things are necessarily more reliable in the burst-mode approach to photography. From a typical 2K or 4K burst of video, containing (say) 250 frames, software in Lumia Camera will be able to pluck out (with a lot of manual input) the best snap or two, saving them in 2 megapixel resolution. At best, these can be plucked out to pick the perfect moment, but there may still have been movement of the subject in the 1/30s needed to grab that 'frame', so there may be some blurring and the output is probably going to be a long way short, in terms of detail and quality, of the 5MP oversampled output from the 1020.

But it's a valid way to go, pros and cons for each method, of course. I'm approaching living with the 830's imaging with an open mind, certainly for long enough that I can get a few weeks under my belt after Lumia Camera has appeared. At that stage, I'll have enough information to deliver a proper verdict.

1020 and 830 Glance screens

In the meantime, there's metal in my pocket again

As you'll have worked out from the positivity in the table and bullet lists above, I'm really quite impressed by what the Lumia 830 offers. In fact, I'm going to take a flying leap here and say that for me personally it's just about the best phone in the world right now, all things being considered. It's the right size, the right materials, the right degree of flexibility, the wonder that is Glance screen, the outdoor visibility that is full Nokia CBD, the Qi charging, plus Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1 with Denim on a Snapdragon x00 series, which seems to run very smoothly now.

The change in display tech, resolution and Start screen layout has been interesting - I do miss the saturated colours and deep blacks of AMOLED, plus Glance screen on IPS LCD at night does give off a noticeable residual backlight glow, but I'm only nit picking here. The resolution difference has been addressed by Microsoft by shrinking fonts and content down a little, meaning that more fits on screen between typical title bars and controls, which is good. And I've even got to appreciate the enforced three-wide tile layout, it's surprising how quickly it becomes the norm and my typical tile set now fits on a single screen, with no swiping needed - at all.

The 1020 is a still a classic device, of course, and I'd never rule out returning to it at some point, lured by the need for Xenon and lossless zoom. The 1520 is high spec but much too large. The 930 is too underwhelming and limiting. But the 830 has got so much going for it now (and will only get better) that - again, for me personally - it's a definite overall 'upgrade', despite the launch price difference.

Comments welcome, especially if you decide to pick up a 830 too - it's a natural upgrade for the Windows Phone-owning geek that has very few downsides and an awful lot of upsides.

PS. "Teen awards"? Yes, it's my daughter's event, not mine. Though would love to be thought of as 'with it'!

PPS. Anyone spot the Nokia 808 PureView reflected in the Glance screens above?(!)