Over the past year or so, it’s been tough to get too excited about new phones.
There have been some handsome new shells, steadily improving battery life and gee-whiz interface tricks, but no thrilling leaps into the future.
That changed last week when Nokia and AT&T began selling the Lumia 1020, a Windows-powered smartphone with a jaw-dropping 41-megapixel camera. That’s more megapixels than pretty much every camera on the market — not just phone cameras but point and shoot and DSLR cameras, as well.
Nokia is hoping the Lumia attracts photo enthusiasts and anyone else who wants the best possible camera in their pocket.
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It also puts Nokia ahead of the pack of phone makers, which are dramatically improving their cameras to entice people to upgrade, especially those who own a decent 4G phone.
This megapixel race comes amid a broader move toward higher-resolution devices that I think of as High Def 2.0.
Phones, tablets, PCs, video games, movies and TVs with noticeably crisper, brighter and more vivid displays will propel a wave of gadget spending over the next few years. Especially once people start accumulating 41-megapixel snapshots.
There’s more to camera performance than the number of pixels captured by its sensor. Nokia, for instance, put six lenses on the 1020 and worked with Microsoft to improve the operating system’s photo handling.
But like the horsepower rating of a car or the clock speed of a PC, the megapixel count is a key reference point for shoppers, and it offers bragging rights for those who care about such things.
For comparison, Apple’s iPhone 5 has an 8-megapixel camera, and some speculate a new version this fall will have 12 or 13 megapixels. Samsung’s Galaxy S4 has a 13-megapixel camera, as do Google’s latest Droids.
Specs aside, the Lumia 1020 camera is remarkable. Pictures are crisp enough that you can zoom in, crop out a small section, blow that up and still have a decent image.
When you take pictures via the “Pro Cam” app on the phone, you can manually adjust shutter speed, ISO and other camera settings.
Or you can just point and shoot, using the dedicated shutter button on the side of the phone. It’s as easy as a regular camera, though I still prefer the physical knobs and zoom controls on a camera over swipes, taps and other touch-screen controls.
The Lumia actually takes two pictures at once in Pro Cam mode — an ultrahigh resolution image with 34 or 38 megapixels, in 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratio, plus a 5-megapixel image that’s easier to share wirelessly.
The 5-megapixel images also look great. Nokia explains that they are “oversampled” — each pixel in the image is made from data drawn from several pixels captured by the sensor.
One reason to generate the smaller images is that sharing sites such as Facebook have limits on the size of files that can be uploaded. AT&T was also concerned about the size of files transmitted wirelessly, said Ifi Majid, Nokia’s head of North American product marketing.
But the duplication does make things a bit more complicated for users. If you want to move the full-size photo files off the phone you need to use a USB cable. Or you can upload them to AT&T’s cloud-storage service. I’m surprised you can’t load them onto Microsoft’s SkyDrive or transfer them via Wi-Fi.
There are other ways the ecosystem needs to catch up to 30-plus megapixel images. My Windows 7 PC at work wouldn’t display thumbnails of 1020 pictures in Windows Explorer, making it tedious to sort through the files.
Perhaps Nokia should offer desktop versions of the photo-handling apps on the 1020. Majid said it’s something the company is “looking into.”
The Lumia 1020 is also a very nice phone. It has a 4.5-inch touch screen, 1.5 gigahertz dual-core Qualcomm processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM and 32 gigabytes of internal storage.
For now it’s an exclusive to AT&T, which is selling the 1020 for $299 with a two-year contract or $659 without.
Nokia sold a different model in Europe last year with the 41-megapixel camera, but it ran the defunct Symbian operating system.
The 1020 runs Windows Phone 8 software, which I think is the best looking and easiest to navigate phone-operating system. Yes, the platform has a relatively skimpy selection of apps, but the Lumia comes with nice photo-handling apps and Nokia’s excellent navigation software.
I hadn’t used AT&T for a while and was surprised by how often I found good LTE coverage in the Greater Seattle area. I also could have done without the AT&T apps preloaded on the phone, especially the pay TV and radio apps.
The Lumia has the same curved, colorful plastic case used on the Lumia 920 series. They’re big phones that will make you think twice if you jog with it, but they’re easy to hold and have a sturdy feel. I’ve dropped several of them, dinging the cases, but none broke.
The big difference externally is the 1020’s bulging camera assembly, a 1.75-inch disc that rises about an eighth of an inch above the back of the case. Inside this ring is the camera sensor and six lenses. The assembly also rests on ball bearings, to minimize shaking.
The bulge didn’t make the phone unwieldy and was barely noticeable in my pocket. Still, I tried to keep the ring facing inward, so it didn’t look like I was carrying a different circular object in my pants.
Mostly the 1020’s circle made me think of the bulge on the hood of a car with a supercharged engine. If you’re into it, it’s exciting to know how much power is on tap and that, for the time being, you’ve got the hottest machine on the block.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org