NEW YORK — Of all the hurdles facing new CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft's lack of standing in mobile is perhaps the most imposing. Windows Phone remains a distant third in a smartphone operating system battle that's been a two-team race among Android and iOS.
There's a glimmer of hope. According to fourth-quarter figures reported by IDC, Windows Phone market share rose nearly 47% year over year, the best result of any leading contender, though that share remains mired in the low single digits. Most of the increase can be attributed to Nokia, which Microsoft is in the final stages of acquiring.
What happens to the Nokia brand under Microsoft's new leadership needs to play out. But the Finnish phone giant keeps delivering fine phones that deserve recognition.
Next in line is the Nokia Lumia Icon that I've been testing, also known as the Lumia 929. This latest flagship — a Windows Phone exclusive to Verizon Wireless — isn't the thinnest or lightest (at 5.86 ounces) phone around, but it belongs in the high-rent district. The aluminum ring rimming this polycarbonate rectangular slab helps give the phone a premium feel. It comes in black (like my test unit) or white. It arrives Thursday for $199 with a two-year agreement.
You can't help but be impressed with the sharp 5-inch, Gorilla Glass-protected Full HD OLED display, which can be made out in direct sunlight. You can turn on a setting that bolsters the screen's touch sensitivity, meaning you can interact with it wearing gloves, an act of mercy, given the deluge of snow here in the Northeast.
Icon measures up, specs-wise. Inside is a snappy Qualcomm quad-core processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM and 32 GB of sealed storage — with an additional 7 GB of online storage provided gratis via Microsoft's SkyDrive (soon to be called OneDrive).
THE CAMERA CROWN
Most notably, Icon borrows camera features from its Nokia sibling the Lumia 1020, which set the bar high for smartphone photography.
The new phone doesn't match the 41-megapixel sizzle of the 1020 — Icon is at 20 megapixels — but it does have Carl Zeiss optics and takes outstanding pictures and videos. After you snap a picture, Nokia condenses the image to a size that's easier to share, while also retaining a higher-resolution image. Incidentally, the 5-inch Icon display is larger than the 4.5-inch display on the 1020.
In the recent past, Nokia justifiably bragged about the photographic muscle built into its phones. This go-round, there seems to be a heavier emphasis on video. The device is meant to appeal to the kind of consumer who captures quick videos and posts them to a popular social-media outlet such as Vine.
A very nice feature lets you shoot videos and digital stills holding the phone with one hand, while zooming in or out by swiping up or down with a single finger. (The swipe-to-zoom feature works on selfies, too.) Optical image stabilization helps compensate for the inevitable jitters with video.
You get a full complement of manual controls (white balance, exposure settings, etc.) inside the Nokia Camera app. Confusingly, there's a separate Windows camera app, as well. I was quite pleased with the quality of most of the pictures and videos that I took. Not everything I shot emerged fully in focus — you might blame the shooter for that — but the vibrant colors were true to life. After taking a picture, you have the opportunity to reframe the image with a different display size (4:3, 3:2, 16:9; 1:1).
Nokia's camera software is extremely versatile but a tad overwhelming at first. I was bothered by a slight lag as the camera focuses before snapping an image, a beef I had with the 1020. There's also a bit of a delay between the time you press a dedicated camera button and the time the camera app springs to life. Consider these mere quibbles.
GOOD SOUND; APPS GROWING
Nokia paid considerable attention to audio. The phone has four microphones that help deliver distortion-free high-quality directional stereo sound, heard best with headphones. In one exercise, I shot video of another phone blaring music, then watched (and listened to) the video on the Icon. The music sounded good. Nokia couldn't do much to block out wind noise during a video I shot walking my dog.
I'm comfortable with the live tile-based Windows Phone interface, but recognize not everyone will be. With Windows Phone 8, you can now display three columns of tiles at once. Windows is progressing on the app front — the platform now has north of 200,000 apps, including some key titles that had been missing, such as Instagram. That still leaves Windows Phone way behind rivals, however.
You do get the Microsoft Office app on Icon, and the good news is that Nokia supplies its own strong collection of apps, including Here Maps, Here Drive (turn-by-turn directions), Creative Studio (photo editing), Cinemagraph (blends photo and animation) and Nokia MixRadio (free streaming music).
Another cool app, called Nokia Beamer, lets you share what's on your phone screen on a bigger computer screen. To make it work, you go to beam.nokia.com using the browser on the computer whose display you want to use. With the Icon's camera, you scan the QR code that appears on the beam.nokia.com site. From there, you're good to go.
With proper accessories, you can take advantage of wireless charging. I didn't run a formal battery test, but the phone held its own in normal use, thanks to the hefty battery on board.
Icon is a solid device that I can easily recommend to Windows Phones fans, especially those into photography. But I don't think Icon is enough of an iconic device to get the Android or iPhone devotee to convert to Windows.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Nokia Lumia Icon
$199 with two-year agreement from Verizon Wireless
Pro. Solid all around device boasts excellent camera, and strong Nokia apps. Lovely display.
Con. Window app ecosystem still lags rivals. Camera is a tad slow.