Digital Life

Hands on: Nokia Lumia 930 running Windows Phone 8.1

Extra screen real estate and a great camera will please the Nokia faithful, but the curvaceous Lumia body has undergone a utilitarian makeover.

Against the likes of iOS and Android, Windows Phone is always going to struggle to shake the "also-ran" tag in the smartphone race. To be honest nothing Microsoft produces is likely to tempt Android or Apple fans to defect, or vice versa. But when you put aside the tribal rivalry and approach it with an open mind, the Nokia Lumia 930 has a lot going for it and stands as a worthy competitor.

I've looked at the Lumia 920 and Lumia 1020 in the past, so I won't cover too much old ground. Similar to Windows 8 on desktops, notebooks and tablets, Windows Phone 8 is based on live tiles – a cross between an icon and a widget. They're designed around "hubs" like People and Pictures. Alternatively you can flick right to see a full list of apps and "pin" your commonly used apps to the home screen. Microsoft has just announced that you'll soon be able to organise your apps into folders.

The $729 Lumia 930 comes with Windows Phone 8.1 and the latest "Nokia Cyan" update, which brings a range of changes. The most obvious is the pull-down notification bar dubbed "Action Centre" – similar to the pull-down notification bars found on Android and iOS. If you are migrating from these platforms then you'll feel right at home with Action Centre, which offers notifications from apps like Outlook, Messaging and Facebook. It would be nice to see calendar appointments in there to offer a more holistic view of your digital life, but hopefully these will come with time.

Across the top of Action Centre is fast access to commonly used features. The four slots are set to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Flight Mode and Rotation Lock by default, but you can dip into the settings and choose from seven others.

It's not just the Windows Phone interface which has undergone a revamp. Nokia has also changed the design of the handset, moving away from the luscious curved polycarbonate Lumia body to embrace a more utilitarian aluminium design which is reminiscent of the iPhone 4 or HTC's metallic slabs.

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The Lumia 930 sports a generous 5-inch display which, combined with the dead-straight aluminium sides, gives it a clunky monolithic look which is unlikely to appeal to fashionistas. It looks big and heavy, even though it's only 9.8mm thick and tips the scales at 167 grams. The dimensions are almost identical to Samsung's Galaxy S5, but the Android superphone looks far more petite.

When it comes to smartphones I prefer substance over style, but I must admit I was quite taken with the original Lumia design and I'm sorry to see it go. There's still a slightly curved colourful polycarbonate backplate on the Lumia 930, but it does little to take the edge off the harsh new design and I don't think it sits as comfortably in the hand. It would be interesting to know whether the design changes have been influenced by Microsoft's growing control over Nokia.

Thankfully the new Lumia is still blessed with a spectacular AMOLED display, offering one of the best smartphone screens on the market with rich colours, deep blacks and excellent viewing angles. The jump to 5 inches brings a 1920x1080 resolution, delivering an impressive 441 pixels per inch with a 16:9 aspect ratio. It's protected by tough Gorilla Glass 3 which does a good job of coping with outdoor glare.

Run your eye down the spec sheet and you'll find most of the mod-cons you'd expect in a flagship smartphone. There's a 2.2 GHz quad-core Qualcomm powerplant with Adreno 330 graphics, accompanied by 2GB of RAM and 32GB of onboard storage. As for connectivity there's LTE (nano-SIM) along with 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi (2.4 and 5GHz), Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and micro-USB.

There's still no support for a micro-SD card but Microsoft throws in 15GB of online storage, which goes up to 1TB for Office 365 subscribers. There's no micro-HDMI output but there is support for Miracast wireless video mirroring.

The battery should get you through the longest days, assisted by intelligent power and app management without the brutal power-saving options inflicted by some Android devices. Nokia has also reinstated support for wireless charging, which was lost on some earlier Lumias, but the charge pad is an optional extra.

As you'd expect with a Lumia, it's the camera which deserves special attention. The 20-megapixel rear camera is more modest than the 38-megapixel offering from last year's phenomenal Lumia 1020, but it still places the 930 head and shoulders above most rivals. Similar to the 1020, the 930 captures a 5-megapixel JPG and 16-megapixel lossless RAW image whenever you take a photo – creating the illusion of optical zoom when reviewing or cropping images because it can call on the extra detail from the 16-megapixel version.

At first glance the results from the 16-megapixel Samsung Galaxy S5 are on par with the Lumia 930, but once you look closer you'll see the Lumia does a better job of capturing fine detail and performs slightly better in low-light conditions. It helps that the Lumia's sensor is a fraction bigger. You'll need an eye for detail to really appreciate the difference, but such people are exactly the target market for the Lumia range.

The Lumia 930 puts Zeiss optics, optical image stabilisation and a dual-LED flash at your disposal. The optics also help with slightly sharper 1080p video capture than the Galaxy S5, offering significantly smoother panning shots. Here the Lumia's four omni-directional microphones kick in (two on the front and two on the back). You tend not to expect too much from a smartphone mic, but the difference is really clear when compared to the Galaxy S5. The Lumia 930 actually captures in Dolby Surround Sound, with people in the distance sounding clear and indoor echo reduced.

Once you've captured your perfect shot, Nokia also adds little touches like Living Images, which add movement by playing the half-second of video captured before you took the shot. Sure it's a novelty, but it's a really nice touch when you're flicking through family happy snaps. You've also got apps like Nokia Cinemagraph, Nokia Creative Studio and Nokia Storyteller to help turn your photos and videos into something special.

Nokia is rather generous when it comes to pre-installed apps, such as the HERE Drive+, HERE Maps and HERE Transit apps which draw on Nokia's strong mapping and navigation heritage. Meanwhile Microsoft contributes the likes of Office, OneDrive, OneNote, Outlook and Skype, along with Xbox-focused apps such as SmartGlass (although we're still waiting for some Xbox One features in Australia). If you live a Microsoft-centric lifestyle then a Lumia running Windows Phone 8.1 might make a good fit.

Just this week Microsoft announced that the Siri-style Cortana personal assistant is coming to Australian Windows Phone 8.1 devices in the next few months. Microsoft is running an “alpha” program in Australia, Canada and India which will give adopters the chance to opt-in and test it out.

If you don't live a Microsoft-centric lifestyle then you'll need to face the fact that the Windows Phone 8.1 app store still lags behind Apple and Android, and if you commit to the Windows Phone platform you're generally going to be last in line when new official apps and services come along. For example FitBit and Uber, apps which other smartphone users take for granted, have only just arrived on Windows Phone.

Windows Phone fanboys get upset when you throw this in their face, insisting that the ecosystem can meet your every need, but that's a decision which everyone needs to make for themselves – especially if they're contemplating a shift from iOS or Android. Look before you leap. You will find alternatives to many of the missing apps, and sites like xyo.net can help you match Windows Phone Apps to your stable of iOS or Android apps. The gap is reducing.

So what's the verdict? If you're a keen photographer who has snubbed smartphones to date then the Lumia 930 is certainly worth a look. It obviously won't replace your digital SLR but the quality of the shots might surprise you. Anyone who is shopping for their first smartphone should certainly weigh up the Lumias against their rivals, keeping in mind the excellent camera and rich collection of pre-installed apps. Is there enough here to lure you away from  iOS or Android? Unlikely, unless you're particularly unhappy where you are and you're looking for change.

Read more posts from Adam Turner's Gadgets on the Go blog.

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