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Nokia’s Lumia Icon is the best Windows Phone yet — but it’s strategically baffling (review)

Image Credit: Devindra Hardawar/VentureBeat

Once again, Nokia has crafted the finest Windows Phone experience on the market. And once again, its release strategy doesn’t make a lick of sense.

The Lumia Icon is powered by one of the fastest processors available, it has a gorgeous screen, and it even packs in Nokia’s amazing PureView camera technology. And yet it’s only available on Verizon ($200 with a two-year contract), which severely limits the phone’s potential audience — something both Nokia and Microsoft desperately need to grow.

But this isn’t anything new for Nokia: The previously-released, huge, 6-inch Lumia 1520, which packs in pretty much the same hardware as the Icon, is only available on AT&T. Same for the Lumia 1020, the only Windows Phone to include Nokia’s impressive 41-megapixel PureView camera. Time and again, Nokia has delivered solid phones and then allows them to be restricted by the confusing world of carrier exclusivity.

It’s no wonder Microsoft and Nokia have had such a hard time landing a hit smartphone. Availability across all four major carriers was Samsung’s key strategic move that made the Galaxy S3 (and its followups) a success, and it’s something others, like HTC and LG, have attempted to follow. While Apple was able to make the iPhone a hit while it was only on AT&T, that was in 2007 — and it’s not a model Microsoft and Nokia can replicate today.

The good: The best Windows Phone available today

The Lumia Icon bests most other Windows Phone devices on every level. Mostly, though, that’s due to the sad lack of strong Windows Phone options on the market. Outside of Nokia, which bet its entire company on Windows Phone (and whose phone business will soon be a part of Microsoft), nobody is really working hard to develop killer devices for the platform.

The Icon is identical spec-wise to the 6-inch Lumia 1520. But while the Icon seems like a step down from that phablet, its smaller 5-inch screen actually makes it a better option in my eye. It’s easier to hold in one hand, and it can still fit in my pocket without feeling (and looking) awkward. The phone also sports a metal and matte plastic case that feels far more elegant than the 1520’s glossier plastic shell.

Though it’s slightly heavier and thicker than most smartphones today, the Icon has a reassuring heft and build quality. It feels sturdy enough to drop onto concrete without taking any major damage. (No, I didn’t have a chance to test this.)

The Icon also offers one of the fastest Windows Phone experiences I’ve seen yet. Again, that’s mostly because it’s one of the few phones running Windows Phone with a modern processor. Mostly, I was surprised by how quickly complex 3D games like Final Fantasy 3 and Asphalt 7 loaded on the phone. It felt about as fast as the iPhone 5S and newer Android phones when loading comparable games.

Nokia’s PureView camera technology is once again a highlight, though for some reason the Icon’s camera sensor is only 20 megapixels, half the resolution of the Lumia 1020’s 41 MP shooter. The Icon’s camera still produced sharp and vibrant photos, though I couldn’t crop into them as much as I could on the 1020’s camera.

Nokia was likely able to drive down costs on the phone by packing in a lower megapixel camera, but it’s strange to see the company’s current flagship device step backwards for such a core function.

Below, check out a few samples photos from the Icon:

The bad: A continually baffling release strategy

The biggest problem with the Lumia Icon is that it’s a solid phone that two-thirds of America doesn’t have access to. Sure, Verizon Wireless is the second-largest wireless carrier in the country with nearly 103 million customers (AT&T now has around 110 million mobile customers). But after trying and failing to find a hit with carrier-exclusive devices for so long, you’d think that Nokia would try to diversify its strategy a bit.

And it’s not just Nokia’s problem: The exclusive phone deals have held the entire Windows Phone ecosystem back in the U.S.

“We’re very much having to make decisions where we place our bets and where we concentrate our resources,” Nokia CEO Stephen Elop said in an interview last year, explaining why the Lumia 1020 was stuck on AT&T. “It’s more effective to go with a specific partner.”

When I asked for clarification on that strategy this week, a Nokia representative wouldn’t make anyone available for comment.

During the heyday of Nokia’s mobile dominance in the pre-iPhone era, the company had trouble bringing some of its more advanced devices to U.S. carriers. (See Nokia’s N95 as an example, a feature-rich phone that had no carrier backing when it launched in 2007.) So the fact that it has some interest now from carriers is actually a step forward.

It just isn’t enough when Samsung, Apple, and others have their best phones immediately available across multiple carriers. Given the high costs to switch carriers, you’d need to offer something amazing to make people give up their current service.

Nokia is also rumored to be working on a new Windows Phone handset, codenamed the Lumia Martini, which could end up being a reworked version of the Lumia Icon for other carriers and countries. But even if those rumors are true, it will likely be a few months until that phone is available. That leaves the Icon as Nokia’s sole flagship for a while.

Windows Phone holds things back, once again

Even though the Icon is the best Windows Phone has to offer today, the platform itself feels even more dated following the release of iOS 7 on the iPhone and Android’s KitKat update. As its competitors continue to make progress when it comes to design and features, Windows Phone 8 still feels a lot like the platform Microsoft launched back in 2010.

The long-awaited Windows Phone 8.1 update, which is expected some time this spring, will add features like a virtual assistant, a notification center, and support for lower-end chipsets. I’m sure Windows Phone fans will appreciate those features, but it’s hard for new users to get excited about the platform when Apple and Google have had virtual assistants (Siri and Google Now) and solid notification centers for years.

Windows Phone’s biggest problem? More than three years after it launched, it still doesn’t offer anything that will convince iPhone and Android users to switch.

On the bright side, Microsoft has made significant strides towards fixing the problem I highlighted in my Lumia 1020 review: the lack of many popular apps. We’re finally seeing official Windows Phone apps for popular services like Instagram and Vine.

One final note: Despite its overall speed, the Icon is surprisingly slow when it comes to taking pictures, something that’s been one of the longstanding weaknesses of Nokia’s new camera technology. Given the quality of the Icon’s photos, I can live with having slightly slower shooting speeds, but it remains a surprising flaw given the speedy cameras on other smartphones today.

The verdict: A solid Windows Phone — but only if you’re on Verizon

If you’re a Verizon Wireless customer who’s interested in Windows Phone, the Lumia Icon is your best choice. Everyone else will either have to wait for Nokia to bring new Windows Phone devices to their carrier or just make do with another smartphone.

Though Nokia probably has plenty of good reasons for forming exclusive deals with carriers, it will likely need to rethink its options moving forward. Perhaps once it’s finally under Microsoft, Nokia will have the clout to do what Samsung did years ago: bring its best phones to as many carriers as possible.

Until then, I suppose Nokia can make do with the bit of success it’s seeing in Europe.

More information:

Nokia’s mission is simple: Connecting People. Our goal is to build great mobile products that enable billions of people worldwide to enjoy more of what life has to offer. Our challenge is to achieve this in an increasingly dynamic an... read more »

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