The Ultimate Guide to Flagship Windows Phones

The Ultimate Guide to Flagship Windows Phones

I just finished writing the definitive review of the Microsoft Lumia 950 and the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL. Normally when I get a phone to review, I’m able to write a full review within two weeks. While I’ve recorded video reviews for both the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL, here I am writing a review two months after their launch.

There’s really just so much to talk about in the flagship Windows Phone space and I really just wanted to put it all in one place. I hear from people all the time that say that the Lumia 1520 is the best Windows Phone ever, that the Lumia 930 is the best Windows Phone ever, that the Lumia 1020 is the best Windows Phone ever. What about the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL? Where do they fit in? What about the HTC One M8, Samsung ATIV SE, or Acer Jade Primo?

Here’s the bottom line. Two new flagship Lumias were released at the end of 2015 with just about every Windows Phone feature that we want and Acer has announced one as well. Still, people are commenting on my videos saying that they’d rather stick with their Lumia 1520, 930, or even their Lumia 1020.

The sad reality is that these people aren’t entirely wrong. Sure, the Lumia 1020 fans are sticking to an older time when the 41 MP sensor was all the rage and still want certain elements of that, but the fact is that there’s not a big difference between those Windows Phone 8.1 flagships and the new Windows 10 Mobile flagships.

Nokia Lumia 1020

Nokia Lumia 1020

Believe it or not, the Nokia Lumia 1020 is worth listing on the guide to flagship Windows Phones. It was a flagship for a short period of four months. Despite that, people still swear by this two-and-a-half-year-old phone to this day. In fact, it’s the oldest phone that I still use for comparisons and it has been for some time.

The Nokia Lumia 1020 is renowned for its 41 MP camera, 1/1.5″ sensor, optical image stabilization (OIS), xenon flash, and of course, the camera bulge. Let’s start out by defining Pureview.

When Pureview originated with the Nokia Pureview 808, the camera had to have two qualities: OIS and oversampling. OIS is simple enough. It means that when your hand is shaking, the camera is not.

Oversampling is a bit more complicated. The 41 MP sensor would take a 41 MP image and oversample it down to 5 MP. While it keeps the original image (which is, for some reason, 38 MP), all the user sees is the 5 MP image. If he shares it to Facebook, he shares the 5 MP image. If he emails it to a friend, you guessed it. He emails the 5 MP image. The 38 MP image is only used when the user wishes to resize the image, allowing for lossless zoom.

Of course these days, Pureview really only means OIS, but the Nokia Lumia 1020 was the last pure Pureview device.

Unfortunately, the Nokia Lumia 1020 was also the last pure Windows Phone 8 flagship. Windows Phone 8 only supported one processor: the dual core Snapdragon S4 Plus. The low end models had a 1 GHz model and the higher end had 1.5 GHz models. This is why all Windows Phone 8 devices used the dual core Snapdragon S4 Plus, whether it was a Nokia, a Samsung, an HTC, or anything else.

The dual core Snapdragon S4 Plus was an old chipset even when the Lumia 1020 came out. Since Windows Phone 8.1 was optimized for quad core Snapdragon 200, 400, and 800, the Nokia Lumia 1020 quickly got left in the dust when Windows Phone 8.1 came along and will further be left in the dust with Windows 10 Mobile.

As I mentioned earlier, Pureview pretty much only means OIS now, as every 20 MP Pureview sensor is being stripped of its oversampling capabilities with Windows 10 Mobile. Well, not stripped, but they will no longer save both images for the purposes of lossless zoom. When Windows 10 Mobile comes along, the Nokia Lumia 1020 will be the only phone that will be allowed to keep Lumia Camera and therefore the only phone that will still do true oversampling.

A couple notes about the Nokia Lumia 1020:

  • Only Windows Phone with 41 MP camera
  • Only Windows Phone with xenon flash
  • Only “true” Windows Phone 8 device with 2 GB RAM

Nokia Lumia 1520

Lumia 1520

The Nokia Lumia 1520 was the phone that declared that the Nokia Lumia 1020 was no longer the flagship just four months after its release. While the Nokia Lumia 1520 shipped with Windows Phone 8 Update 3, it shipped with Windows Phone 8.1 hardware, meaning a quad core Snapdragon 800, rather than a dual core Snapdragon S4 Plus.

Going from 1.5 GHz dual core Krait to 2.2 GHz quad core Krait 400 is a big jump in performance. This is why the Lumia 1520 is still a great phone to use today and the Lumia 1020 isn’t quite so much.

Despite the fact that two brand new flagship Lumias were just released, many people still swear that the Nokia Lumia 1520 was the best Lumia ever made, partially due to its outstanding battery life. It just had too big of a battery to kill.

The Nokia Lumia 1520 was also the first Lumia to feature a 20 MP Pureview camera. It essentially worked the same way as the Lumia 1020’s camera, except with half the resolution. Less resolution requires less power and the processor was much more powerful, so the camera was much faster than the horrifically slow Nokia Lumia 1020.

The Nokia Lumia 1520 was the second Lumia to feature 2 GB of RAM. By the way, Windows Phones (with the exception of Windows 10 phones) with more than 1 GB RAM can be summed up with Lumia 1020, Lumia 1520, Lumia Icon, Lumia 930, HTC One M8, and Samsung ATIV SE. That’s it. Nevertheless, the Lumia 1520 shipped with Windows Phone 8 and 2 GB RAM. I consider it to be Windows Phone 8.1 hardware, so I consider the Nokia Lumia 1020 to be the only Windows Phone 8 device with 2 GB RAM.

There’s something important to consider when looking at these phones. When you’re looking at the Windows Phone 8.1 flagships, you’re looking at phones with quad core Snapdragon 800 and 1080p displays, which have roughly the same performance as the Snapdragon 808 Lumia 950 with a 1440p display.

The Nokia Lumia 1520 was the first of the modern Lumias. It’s the oldest phone on the market where users can still make a valid claim that it’s better than current phones.

Notes about Lumia 1520

  • 6″ 1080p IPS LCD
  • Glance
  • Wireless charging
  • Polycarbonate unibody
  • 2.2 GHz Quad Core Snapdragon 800, 2 GB RAM
  • 20 MP Pureview camera, 1.2 MP front camera
  • Recorded 1080p 30 fps video at release, 4K UHD 30 fps after Lumia Denim

Nokia Lumia Icon/930

Nokia Lumia 930

The Nokia Lumia Icon was released in February 2014 as an exclusive to Verizon. It launched with Windows Phone 8 Update 3, or Lumia Black, just like the Nokia Lumia 1520. The Nokia Lumia 930, while not launching until June 2014, was the international variant of the Nokia Lumia Icon. The Lumia 930 shipped with Windows Phone 8.1, or Lumia Cyan.

While the Nokia Lumia Icon and the Nokia Lumia 930 are the same phone, the difference lies in the LTE bands. The Lumia Icon supports Verizon and T-Mobile’s band, which is nice as Verizon phones are unlocked by law. The Nokia Lumia 930 has the LTE bands for the international market, so there is no carrier in the US that will get you LTE on a Lumia 930.

As far as internals go, the Nokia Lumia 930, as the phone is known to most of the world, is almost completely the same as the Nokia Lumia 1520. The Lumia 930 has the 2.2 GHz quad core Snapdragon 800, 2 GB RAM, 20 MP Pureview rear camera, and 1.2 MP front camera.

The big difference between the Lumia 930 and the Lumia 1520 is the display and the battery. Obviously, the Lumia 1520 has a much larger battery. Both devices have 1080p displays, although the Lumia 930 is a 5″ AMOLED while the Lumia 1520 is a 6″ IPS LCD. AMOLED is more traditional to Lumias, although a notorious flaw in the Lumia 930 is the lack of Glance functionality.

Of course, I wouldn’t be fair to the Lumia 930 or the Lumia Icon if I didn’t mention the sheer beauty of the devices. While the Nokia Lumia Icon only had black and white models with black and silver frames, respectively, the Nokia Lumia 930 had a much richer range of colors.

The Nokia Lumia 930 had the black and white models of the Icon, but it also came in green and orange, taking the old school colorful Nokia designs and combining them with the beauty and class of a metal frame. Later, Nokia would make limited edition black and white models with gold frames. Personally, I have the white gold Lumia 930, which I’ve named Goldie.

Notes about the Lumia Icon/930

  • Same chipset, RAM, and cameras as the Lumia 1520
  • 5″ 1080p AMOLED, but no Glance
  • Beautiful devices, metal frames
  • Technically, the Lumia Icon is a Windows Phone 8 device and the Lumia 930 is a Windows Phone 8.1 device. Because of this, the Lumia 930 will get Windows 10 Mobile first

HTC One M8 for Windows

HTC One M8 for Windows

The HTC One M8 for Windows is one of my favorite phones of all time. It’s not because it’s a particularly great phone. It’s because it’s the first time that a phone was made and the consumer had a choice in operating system. For the first time, you could walk into a store, buy a phone, and have a choice in the OS that it was powered by.

The HTC One M8 was the only all metal Windows Phone and the only Windows Phone to be powered by a Snapdragon 801 chipset. It has 2 GB RAM and a 5″ 1080p IPS LCD. It was the first phone to ship with Windows Phone 8.1.1 (even before Lumia Denim was announced) and eventually became the only flagship to receive Windows Phone 8.1.2.

The HTC One M8 was also the only flagship that got sold by multiple carriers in the United States. It was originally an exclusive to Verizon Wireless, but eventually made its way to AT&T and T-Mobile.

The big complaint about the HTC One M8 was the 4 MP rear camera. Windows Phone has a reputation of having a great camera, so when the One M8 was lacking, it meant a lot. For a while, HTC went the ultrapixel route. The idea was to have larger pixels that would look better in low light settings. Unfortunately, the image rapidly degrades as the user crops the photo.

Notes about the HTC One M8

  • Only Windows Phone with all metal body
  • All about the design
  • Terrible camera
  • The only flagship to be upgraded to Windows Phone 8.1.2
  • Front facing BoomSound speakers

Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL

The Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL, while sharing many qualities, belong in different classes. If you were using one of the old dual core Windows Phones and you’re looking to upgrade, the Lumia 950 is a good choice. If you’re using one of the Snapdragon 800 Windows Phones and you’re looking to upgrade, the Lumia 950 XL is a better choice for you.

Windows Phone fans waited for these devices for a year and a half. If the user was in the United States, he waited 20 months. If the user wasn’t on Verizon, he waited a full two years.

Starting with what these devices have in common, they both are the first devices to ship with Windows 10 Mobile, they have 1440p AMOLED displays, 3 GB RAM, 32 GB internal storage expandable to 200 GB, 20 MP Pureview cameras with f/1.9 aperture, and 5 MP front cameras. They both have Glace, making them the first Lumias since the Nokia Lumia 1020 to have both Glance and an AMOLED display.

Here’s what they don’t have in common. The Lumia 950 has a hexa core Snapdragon 808 chipset and the Lumia 950 XL has a Snapdragon 810 octa core. Both chipsets use big.LITTLE technology with four ARM Cortex-A53 cores and either two or four ARM Cortex-A57 cores. The ARM Cortex-A53 cores are pretty much the same, coming in at 1.44 GHz on the Snapdragon 808 and 1.5 GHz on the Snapdragon 810.

The ARM Cortex-A57 cores have a more significant impact on performance. The Snapdragon 808 has two of them clocked at 1.82 GHz and the Snapdragon 810 has four of them clocked at 2 GHz, so the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL can certainly handle more powerful tasks.

There’s another big difference between the Snapdragon 808 and the Snapdragon 810, which is the GPU. Snapdragon 808 uses the Adreno 418 GPU while Snapdragon 810 uses Adreno 430; meanwhile, both of these phones have the same resolution display. Make no mistake, this will have an impact on gaming. This is why Google uses a Snapdragon 808 and a 1080p display in the Nexus 5X.

Windows 10 Mobile requires more resources than Windows Phone 8.1 did. With that being given and the fact that these phones are 1440p, I find that the Microsoft Lumia 950 has the same level of performance as the Nokia Lumia 930. Of course, the Lumia 950 XL is on another level.

Notes about the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL

  • Continuum allows the user to use the phone as a PC
  • Best Lumia cameras ever
  • The Lumia 950 really isn’t worth an upgrade from a Snapdragon 800 Lumia, in terms of performance
  • They are both awesome phones
  • Many people hate the polycarbonate design

Verizon

Most Windows Phone fans are on either T-Mobile or AT&T at this point. Well, mainly AT&T. The reason for this is that everyone knows that Verizon hates Windows Phone. Well, do they?

Let’s look at it from an outside perspective. When Microsoft released Windows Phone 8.1, it took Verizon eight months to get it out to any of their phones and 10 months to push it out to their flagship, the Nokia Lumia Icon. In fact, they skipped Windows Phone 8.1 entirely and went straight to Windows Phone 8.1.1. The Nokia Lumia Icon was the last Windows Phone 8 device to get updated to Windows Phone 8.1.

The new Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL don’t work on their network because they won’t activate it, even if you’re a paying customer and you have an unlocked phone. There’s no reason why the phone wouldn’t work, as the devices have two of Verizon’s three LTE bands. They just don’t have band 13, the one band that would force Verizon to activate the devices. Is that Verizon’s fault or Microsoft’s fault? It’s a matter of perspective.

Now let’s look at the other side of things. If you stop looking at Windows Phone as Lumia and start looking at Windows Phone as a platform, Verizon might actually look better than AT&T. Verizon sold the Nokia Lumia Icon, the HTC One M8, and the Samsung ATIV SE. If you count the Lumia 930 and the Lumia Icon as the same phone, that means that Verizon sold three of the four Windows Phone 8.1 flagships.

Verizon may not be a fan of carrying their phones. Who knows what the story is? The one thing that is certain is that Verizon carries a hell of a lot of Windows Phones.

In short, if you’re waiting for a Lumia flagship on Verizon, you’re probably not going to see it; however, if you’re waiting for a Windows Phone flagship on Verizon, that could certainly happen.

Sprint

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahha

T-Mobile

T-Mobile often gets the short end of the stick. They don’t have the same kind of clout that Verizon and AT&T have. For example, if you are an OEM and you want to be taken seriously, you need to be on AT&T and Verizon. T-Mobile, not so much.

When T-Mobile CEO John Legere was asked why T-Mobile isn’t carrying the new Lumia flagship devices, he said that Microsoft simply handed the devices to AT&T. In fact, that’s what John Legere always says when there’s a carrier exclusive. “We would be happy to sell them.”

You’d think that it would be a good idea for Microsoft and T-Mobile to have a partnership. Microsoft is taking on the evil Google and T-Mobile is taking on the evil AT&T and Verizon. Both are underdogs in mobile. Still, Microsoft makes bad choices. I don’t mind. It’s job security.

While you’re not going to see a Windows Phone flagship on T-Mobile any time soon, T-Mobile is an open GSM carrier, which means that you can take any unlocked phone and pop their SIM card in it and have service.

AT&T

AT&T, like T-Mobile, is an open GSM network where any GSM phone will work on their network. You don’t even have to call to activate it. Just pop the SIM in.

Fortunately, you don’t have to. AT&T is the one carrier that has been kind to the Windows Phone platform, so AT&T gets the royal treatment from Microsoft. If you’re a Windows Phone fan, AT&T is the carrier to be with.

The Skinny

Here’s the skinny. Don’t get a Nokia Lumia 1020. Modern Windows Phones are much better. In fact, the next generation’s low end phones outperform that generation’s flagships. The camera is great but it’s slow. What good is a camera if you’re going to miss your kid’s first steps?

The real question is between the Windows Phone 8.1 flagships and the new Windows 10 Mobile flagships.

  • FACT: Windows Phone 8.1, a 1080p display, and a Snapdragon 800/801 has similar performance to Windows 10 Mobile, a 1440p display, and Snapdragon 808

The question is about what matters to you. Frankly, it’s amazing that someone can have a two-year-old Nokia Lumia 1520 and it’s still in great shape. It’s even more amazing that people are choosing a two-year-old phone to purchase now.

  • FACT: The Nokia Lumia 1520, Icon, 930, 950, 950 XL, and HTC One M8 are all wonderful phones

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I think that the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL have the best Lumia cameras ever, possibly the best smart phone cameras ever. Is that enough to spend the money on them when you can grab a Lumia 930 for a couple hundred bucks? Probably not.

Of course, the new Lumias have things like Windows Hello and Continuum. Continuum might be useful if you feel like shelling out a couple hundred dollars to have multiple Display Docks anywhere that you might choose to use it. Windows Hello is impractical.

Honestly, the truth is that if you want the best and you want to be future-proofed, get the Lumia 950 XL. If you’re willing to make sacrifices like a worse camera or Glance or an AMOLED display (depending what you get) and you don’t need to be as future-proofed, grab a Lumia 930 or Lumia 1520.

About the author
Rich Woods

Being a computer programmer wasn't enough to fulfill his love of technology. In 2013, Rich founded For the Love of Tech and has been writing about his love of tech ever since.

  • Steve Griffin

    I’m waiting on t-Mobile to release Alcatel Fierce Windows Phone. It was scheduled to come out the 26th but it got pushed forward to February. I’m disappointed but patient.
    Does anyone one have any knowledge on the performance of this phone. Let me know. Thanks Steve.

  • Vyrmis

    “Believe it or not, the Nokia Lumia 1020 is worth listing on the guide to flagship Windows Phones. It was a flagship for a short period of four months. Despite that, people still swear by this two-and-a-half-year-old phone to this day.”

    Heh! I still have mine – heck, I’m still discovering things I can do with it, beyond make calls, take photos and play bubble shooter – and I have some sentimental attachment (my first smartphone); but lately I’ve been thinking of changing up, and this article’s finally convinced me.