Nokia Lumia 1020 – Does it Live Up to the Hype?

In a word:  No.

EDIT:  I’ve received comments that are critical of this review.  I’ve been told that it was written as a ‘gotcha’ piece to try and attack Nokia.  I’ve been asked why I even wrote the review when I knew the RAW update was coming out. 

This was not a ‘gotcha’ piece intended to attack Nokia.  I’m very intrigued with what Nokia is doing with respect to mobile imaging and I think it’s important that the results be looked at with a critical eye.  I’m not the only one to compare the Nokia to another phone (or other phones).  I could have included a Samsung as well but the one I have is an older phone (Galaxy S II) so didn’t think it would be overly relevant to the current state of play.  All the technical wizardry in the world won’t make up for flaws in execution.  And, in my view, Nokia has several flaws in its execution.  The PureView sensor is a marked departure from what others are doing in mobile imaging.  The sensor in the 1020 is the most recent iteration of that technology and it was announced with much hype and fanfare.

In terms of where Nokia/Windows are relative to Android and Apple for overall mobile photography; which takes into account the app landscape and utility of the devices for other purposes, it is simply a fact that the Nokia/Windows offerings lag behind and may never catch up due to limitations in the hardware and OS. 

To the concern of  write the review when I knew the RAW update was coming out?  Simple.  JPEG capture was the state of play at the time and I have written a second article about the RAW functionality of the camera.  But not everyone is going to use that capability so limiting commentary to that feature only isn’t going to be relevant to a large number of users.

While my findings do disagree with what some others have found, I will note that Amadou Diallo, who writes for DPReview and DPReview Connect, found many of the same issues I did with respect to images being overly sharp and contrasty and too saturated.  He also found the same cyan colour cast issue I did.  I’m going to be doing an article soon which will look at a couple other Windows Phone camera apps to see if the JPEG issues are related to the camera overall or with how Nokia is processing the JPEGs.  Stay tuned.

And it disappoints me to say that.  I’ve seen the other reviews and write-ups.  I’ve seen the ‘infinite zoom’ timelapse which is very cool.  Yet, as a user, I remain underwhelmed.

Those who have a 1020 and quite like it may disagree.  If you’ve read reviews in other places, you’ll know that I’m not in agreement with most of them.  Let’s take a closer look.

As a long time Android user and a strong proponent of using mobile phones as tools in an advanced photography workflow; so much a proponent that I’m working on a book about it and have put together a little preview video, I was intrigued by Nokia’s approach to smartphone photography when it announced the Lumia line a few years ago with the 808.  That was the first 41 MP ‘big sensor’ smartphone camera that was reputed to do some pretty interesting things.  The 808 was followed by the 920 in late 2012 and by the 1020 in late 2013.  When Nokia announced in October 2013 that it was adding true RAW capture to a few of its devices, including the 1020, I decided to check it out.  To be clear, I still have my previous Android phone and I will keep and use it by swapping the SIM card from one to the other.  The fact that I haven’t given up my Android phone should be an indication that, at least at present, there are some pretty big gaps in the Windows/Nokia offerings.  Nokia is clearly trying to make its mark in the highly competitive smartphone world by designing devices that will appeal to advanced and professional photographers.  The gaps, which will be discussed below, effectively prevent it from being what Nokia and Microsoft want these devices to be.  At least for now.


Two things, both of which I posted on my Facebook Page, that struck me about the phone right away, and hint at the dichotomy that is Windows/Nokia.  This is the most solid cell phone I’ve ever handled.  It is very well constructed.  That’s the positive.  The negative is that the screen takes on a very unpleasant cyan colour cast when viewed at an angle.

I can also attest to how solidly built the phone is from practical experience.  As I was out capturing the video further down in the article, the phone slipped from my had and dropped onto a gravel pathway.  Not a mark on it.

Initial Thoughts

When I got the phone, I spent the better part of a day setting it up, transferring data and generally figuring out the workings.  Some things are similar to Android, but many are quite different.

The phone comes with a stock gallery app and several Nokia camera apps – Windows calls these ‘lenses’.  Right off the top; however, when going into the Settings menu to adjust the brightness of the screen I was met with disappointment.  The screen can only be adjusted to three settings: Low; Medium; and High.  The lack of a slider to truly customise the display brightness is a startling omission.  On the other side; and consistent with the dichotomy idea, Nokia includes a setting to adjust the colour temperature and saturation of the display.  The variation from least to most on both these adjustments is not great but it is noticeable.


The app landscape for Windows mobile devices is pretty barren at the time of writing, November 6, 2013.  There are no third-party gallery apps that I could find.  There are no apps for transferring data via wifi that I could find, you have to plug the phone into the computer to transfer data.  For ‘security reasons’ the user is not permitted access to the full file structure of the device, but rather only a few of the key data folders (e.g., Pictures, Video, Documents).  Those key data folders are all that are necessary; however.  After a discussion with a Windows Phone app developer, I think I should make it clear that I’m not talking about simple file sharing via wifi.  I’m referring to the transfer of significant amounts of data between a desktop computer and a phone or tablet.  iPhone users are forced to port data through iTunes.  On Android; however, it is a simple matter to sideload data onto the device from a desktop computer and to transfer data from the device to the desktop computer via wifi.  It may be possible to use resources such as Dropbox or SkyDrive but these are still not as convenient as a direct data transfer.  There is only one full-featured, stand-alone, third party camera app called Pro Shot.  It costs $1.99.  It could be argued that the stock Nokia apps are so good that third-party versions aren’t necessary.  That is not an argument I would make.

The Pro Camera from Nokia is fairly full-featured.  It can operate in full-auto mode but it also offers a good deal of manual control.  The user can adjust ISO, shutter speed, white balance and exposure compensation.  The camera also has true optical image stabilisation which works pretty well. at least in still images, as we will see in a bit.  With all this manual operation available, what might the camera be lacking you may ask.  There are no options for adjusting image parameters.  No ability to adjust contrast, saturation or sharpness.  If Nokia is truly appealing to the advanced photographer, these adjustments need to be there.  There is no interval timer option available (Pro Shot offers this).  There is no burst mode, although a quasi-burst mode is available in the Smart Cam ‘lens’ and Pro Shot also offers a burst mode; however, at this time isn’t able to take advantage of the full resolution of the camera and is limited to 5MP.  The developer tells me that updates are coming which will offer more resolution choice.  There is a limit of 4 seconds on the shutter speed so night timelapses, such as startrails, may be more difficult.  This shutter speed limitation is a hardware/OS limit and not related to any apps.  The Pro Shot developer tells me he believes this limit may have to do with heat build-up.  I can say that in prolonged use, I have felt heat build-up in the Nokia.  This has never been an issue with any of my Android phones.  At a minimum, for star trails/astrophotography timelapses, many more images are going to have to be captured to compile and with the limited storage – there is no accessory card slot – capturing enough images could be a problem.  Although at 5MP the problem is reduced.   In addition, there are no options for different metering modes in the Nokia ‘lenses’.  I’ve seen reviewers on other, apparently reputable, sites bemoan the lack of an Aperture Priority setting.  When I read things like this I have to wonder who writes for these review sites.  No phone I’m aware of has an aperture priority setting.  Cell phone cameras don’t have adjustable apertures!

As noted above, there are no third-party gallery apps available.  The stock gallery is OK but not great.  There are no options for customising the presentation, nor is there any way to choose only what shows in the gallery.  Images you upload from your computer will be there but so will images you take with your camera.  The gallery app also syncs with your Facebook profile (if you have set that up on the phone) and shows images you have on Facebook.  In different folders, admittedly, but still, all the images are in the gallery.  If I want to use the phone as a ‘portable portfolio’, I only want the images in my portfolio(s) available in the gallery.  I don’t want potential clients being able to back out to the main gallery page and see what I have on Facebook or casual snaps I may have taken with the camera.  On Android there are several gallery apps that allow this level of customisation.  Again, with its gallery feature, Windows/Nokia is not appealing to the advanced level or professional photographer.  In addition, if you load images into the phone from your computer, the order in which they are numbered is not honoured on the phone.  For example, in my Commercial portfolio, I have images numbered as commercial01, commercial02, commercial03… With this numbering scheme, the images should display in that order on another device.  On all my Android devices they do.  On the 1020, they do not.  They load in some random order that I have yet to figure out.  This is both odd and unacceptable.

The Screen

In terms of the quality of the presentation on screen, the 1020 uses an AMOLED panel.  These have a tendency toward increased saturation and contrast and the 1020 is no different.  Images on screen are more saturated and contrasty than they were prepped to be on my desktop computer.  This can be adjusted a little with the saturation slider mentioned earlier, but contrast can’t be changed.  And the cyan cast noted earlier restricts use of the screen to some extent in use as a portable portfolio.  The display has a 1280 HD resolution.  The effect of this is that the images do not appear oversharp as they may on a 1920 FHD screen which means that there really are no changes needed to the sharpening workflow when preparing images for display on the phone.  There will likely be changes required to the contrast and saturation of images that are being prepped for use on the phone; however.

Camera Image Quality

What about the quality of the images made with the camera? Image quality is good, but not stellar and not markedly different from my HTC One X Android phone.  With no ability to adjust sharpness, saturation or contrast, I find images taken with the 1020 in daylight are too sharp, too saturated and too contrasty for my liking.  The 1020 offers a few options with respect to image resolution.  You can capture small, 5MP images or a combination of the small image and a large, full resolution 38MP (34MP in 16:9) images.  It would be nice to have something a bit larger than the 5MP version as well.  An 8MP option would be good.  Why not the full 41MP?  For the same reason that other cameras don’t offer the full sensor resolution in images.  There is some question as to what Nokia is doing in creating the 5MP images.  Some say they are binning or combining pixels, some say they are averaging pixels.  Binning is a process whereby a set of adjacent pixels is, essentially, added together to create a larger pixel.  If the 1020 were binning pixels, we would expect to see much improved dynamic range in the smaller images.  That is not the case; however, so it is more likely that the software is averaging pixel values together.  This will not improve dynamic range but it can help reduce noise and image noise is quite well controlled with this camera.  The sensor in the 1020 is much larger than in other phones.  A larger sensor normally means larger pixel sites.  Larger pixel sites mean more light gathered which means better dynamic range and less noise.  In the 1020; however, because Nokia has crammed in so many pixels, the actual pixels are about the same size as on other phones so the potential dynamic range improvements are gone.  Noise is better but not because of larger pixels as we will see below.

In all cases, the 1020 image is first, followed by the HTC One X image.  All still images on the HTC were made using an Android app called Camera FV-5.  This app offers a wide level of manual control as well as including different metering modes.  It also allows for adjustment of the image parameters noted above.  The stock Android camera also does this in some devices (it does on the One X) but may not on others.  It will be device and Android version dependent.  The images are straight from the camera with no adjustments except for resizing.  The videos are straight from the devices.


This first image was taken on an overcast day and what I wanted to do was look at dynamic range and chromatic aberration/colour fringing.  There is not a lot of difference between the two images.  However, if you look at the sky area around the top of the cedar hedge, you will see that more detail is actually retained in this high contrast area by the HTC image.  All images are clickable to a larger version.

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100% crop of the high contrast zone.  The difference in the two images is due to the differing focal lengths of the lenses.  I made the crop by selecting the same size/dimension area of each image.  One thing that can be seen in this crop is the difference in noise.  The Nokia image was shot at ISO 100.  The HTC was at ISO 149 (that’s what the EXIF says).  There is clearly a difference in the noise in the two images despite the similarity in the ISO levels.  This is due to the averaging/downsampling of the Nokia images.  In fact, the greater noise level of the HTC image robs resolution that the Nokia retains.  Part of that difference may be due to how each camera sharpens images as well as the Nokia downsampling, but there is no question that the resolution of the Nokia image is better; which is what we would expect from such a higher pixel count.  What we don’t see in either of these, which is very positive, is any colour fringing.

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Next I wanted to look at how each metered on a white object.  I used one of my dogs.  She’s reasonably cooperative and works cheap.  Both images have slight overexposure on her back, but otherwise are about the same in terms of exposure.  What this shot clearly illustrates is the very high saturation levels and colour bias of the Nokia camera.  The greens are almost electric and not at all representative of the colour of grass in late fall.

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This little cobblestone area has a good mix of colours which would test the colour reproduction of the sensor.  Despite the fairly low contrast scene, the Nokia sensor has a bit of overexposure in the couple of yellow leaves.  And, again, we see the extreme colour saturation that is, to me, gaudy.  The actual colour of the stones is much better represented in the HTC image.

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Next I wanted to look at a very high contrast scene with sunlight and a blue sky.  At first glance, it appears as though the Nokia image is far superior.  However, by switching the metering mode from Spot to Matrix on the HTC, the comparison changes quite dramatically.  Initially, the Nokia image appears to have preserved more detail in the lower right part of the image, through the trees above the roofline, as well as having a richer looking sky.

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But when we change the metering mode on the HTC, the comparison changes.  Now the two are nearly indistinguishable in terms of overall exposure.  And the colour accuracy is better in the HTC image.


All of these images were made with auto ISO and auto white balance.  With the Nokia, I took both small 5MP and large 38MP images.  In reviewing the large image of the above scene, I found something quite disturbing in the sky.  There is a great deal of blockiness and blotchiness in the sky area.  The 100% crop of the 38MP images shows this.


Night Shooting

One area where the 1020 is supposed to stand out is in low light and at night.  The control of image noise and the image stabilisation do make for better night shots than other phone cameras.  Noise, in particular, has a much more pleasant characteristic than in the HTC.  Interestingly, at night, the colours become more muted and contrast is much lower than in daylight.  The pictures from the Nokia do show better dynamic range – less highlight overexposure, similar shadow exposure – than the HTC.  This is definitely a positive.  But that could be attributed to the reduced contrast.  You can see in the streetlamps and street lights that areas of overexposure ‘bleed’ further in the Nokia.  This, and the sharpness issues in some of the daytime captures above, could, in part, be due to the way Nokia is dealing with noise in the image.  Overly strong noise smoothing could account from some of this ‘bleed’ effect.  The image stabilisation does work well on still shots.  The shutter speeds on these and the shots in the white balance test below got pretty slow but still came out sharp.

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The crop below shows the difference in the noise characteristics of the two devices.  The Nokia is much more consistent and soft.  Noise in the HTC image has a much more blocky form which is less appealing.

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The pixel-averaging and downsampling of the Nokia will have some beneficial impact on image noise; however, even looking at the full size, 38MP images, the noise characteristics are similar.  Below is an unresampled crop from the full size image.  As with other images, this one is clickable to a larger version.


Below are a couple other night shots as examples.  I should also note that these were all made on Auto ISO and in all cases, the Nokia chose a higher ISO than the HTC.  That is likely due to the difference in apertures between the two devices.  The Nokia lens is f2.2, the HTC is f2.0  The images were also, as the others, made with Auto white balance and, as the others, the colour accuracy of the Nokia images is not as good as the HTC.  The HTC has handled the mixed lighting better.

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Lossless Zoom

With 41 megapixels on offer, Nokia is touting something it calls ‘lossless zoom’.  This is effectively a digital zoom but with a slight difference.  Normally, using digital zoom, the camera crops into the image, takes a smaller resolution picture then resamples that picture back to the original resolution.  For example, if you were to digitally zoom in on an 8MP image to a 3MP section, that 3MP section would be rezzed back up to 8MP by the camera software.  Digital zoom normally is expected to result in a loss of quality.

Nokia’s lossless zoom is supposed to get around that.  While you are still cropping into the image, you are not resampling the image back up.  In fact the camera is still doing its pixel-averaging/downsampling to a 5MP image.  You can crop in to the image all the way down to 5MP.  At 5MP you are still creating an actual 5MP image without any resampling at all.  How well does it work?

I tried two scenes, one a broader landscape and one a more narrow landscape.  The picture below is the first, wide scene.  It is followed by the zoomed in versions from each camera.  The zoomed images are full size, not downsized before posting.




The second shot is of the closer image.




It’s difficult to get the exact same zoom on both devices but from these images it is fairly clear that the ‘lossless zoom’ on the Nokia does, largely, live up to its billing.  The detail retained in the zoomed images is much better than with the HTC.


Video is captured in FHD 1920×1080 at 30 fps.  This can be changed in the settings to 24/25 fps and all three frame rates are available in 720p as well.  There are no 60 fps options.  Given that the latest iPhone 5s offers a 720/120 option, the lack of at least a 60 fps option in the 1020 is a concern.  The computing power of the device should not be an impediment as the specs of the 1020 are better than the iPhone.  There are two Android devices that are offering 4k video capture.  The Nokia certainly has the sensor to offer this but may not have the computing power to process it.  At a time when top devices (excepting the iPhone) are coming out with fast, quad-core processors, the fact that the 1020 is still using a relatively slow dual-core processor; actually the same processor as in the 920 which is over a year old, is difficult to understand.  The phone does have 2GB of RAM which will help with any processing bottlenecks but it is not a substitute for a better processor.

Video quality is, as with still image quality, OK but not great.  Video is definitely not a strong suit with the One X so the Nokia looks quite good by comparison, but video quality with the Nokia isn’t stellar either.  As with still image quality, I find the video footage to be oversharpened and oversaturated.  In terms of colour accuracy, the Nokia is, again, not very good.  The heavy green/yellow bias remains and the red of the dogwood branches that the HTC retained is completely gone in the Nokia footage.  While the Nokia footage is a bit further along the path, the dogwood lines the path all the way down the right side.  Colour is much more accurate with the HTC.  Sound quality of the 1020 is quite good; however.  Much richer and fuller than the One X.  The image stabilisation isn’t anything to write home about in video capture.  I was simply walking in a normal fashion along the path while recording.  The HTC captures natively at 24fps so I changed from the default setting on the Nokia to match.  Both were shot in 1080/24.  Dynamic range is a bit better with the Nokia, but not dramatically so.  And the oversharp, overly contrasty look robs a bit of that dynamic range advantage.  As with the still images, the Nokia video is first, followed by the HTC.


Other Features

A nice feature is the ability to launch the camera by using the shutter button.  When the phone is not sleeping, a half-press on the shutter button will launch the camera.  The shutter button is a two-stage operation; half-press to focus and press fully to capture.  This will be familiar to users of ‘real’ cameras.  The half-press to focus only uses the centre of the frame and cannot be shifted to other areas which may necessitate a ‘focus and recompose’ operation.  Tapping on the screen to focus allows any point to be used.  The phone has a dedicated shutter button on the side of the phone which makes using the camera actually easier than tapping the screen to focus and tapping a virtual shutter button to capture.  It makes holding the phone steady easier and should make for fewer pictures ruined by camera shake.  The accessory grip is also a plus.  It provides additional battery life and a dedicated shutter button.  It also has a 1/4-20 socket on the bottom for use on a tripod.  Holding the phone in the grip is not at all dissimilar to holding a traditional compact camera.  The moulded finger grip is beefy and provides good support.  It’s an $80 accessory that some may not be able to justify.  Others have reported that the camera app is slow to launch.  I’d tend to agree but I have to qualify that by saying that this is a phone.  I don’t expect lightning speed for things like launching a camera app.  Autofocus between the Nokia and the HTC is not really much different in terms of speed.  The HTC may be marginally quicker.  I’m not a test bench jockey or measurebator so I’m not going to run diagnostic timing tests to the thousandth of a second to figure it out.

Unlike many phones where the camera is placed very much toward the edge and keeping fingers out of the shot is a chore, the camera on the 1020 is placed a bit more inboard so fingers are less likely to creep in but given the 24mm equivalent angle of view, you do still have to be careful.

One thing that I note with this camera relative to other smartphones is that it actually has some reasonable depth of field.  This is most welcome and allows for a bit more creative control than most phone cameras.  The improved depth of field characteristics are possible due to the much larger sensor than most phone cameras have.  The sensor in the Nokia is about 5 times larger than what is found in most phones.  The manual focus option allows you to move the zone of focus from front to back.  You can do the same thing with autofocus depending on where you tap on screen, but the manual focus option is a nice feature.  Nokia has introduced, but not yet made available, a Refocus app that will afford the user a ‘Lytro-like’ experience of adjusting the point of focus after the fact.  It is unclear exactly how this works but it may use the quasi-burst mode, take several images and do some form of focus-stacking then allow you to choose which image you want depending on where you tap on screen or keep the focus-stacked version.

White Balance

White balance accuracy is important.  Most cameras tend to do fine in the middle part of the light spectrum when using auto white balance, but will fall down at the extreme ends; either cool or warm.  This includes high end DSLRs.  I use my garage for this because it has both tungsten and fluorescent light sources that I can turn on and off independently.

We’ll take a look at tungsten light first.  The two shots below are using auto white balance under tungsten light.  The Nokia retains a little more warmth in the shot than the HTC.  Of the two, the HTC is the more accurate.

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Next I switched the white balance to the Tungsten setting on both phones.  There really is little difference between the two shots with the Nokia.  The Tungsten setting hasn’t neutralised the warm light much at all.  On the HTC, there is quite a difference and the warmth has been largely neutralised, perhaps even turning a little cool.  Of the two, the HTC is, again, more accurate.

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Moving to fluorescent, what do we see?  Neither has done a good job of neutralising the extremely cool light with the auto setting.  The Nokia has left a strong cyan cast and the HTC has a rather blueish hue.

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Switching to the fluorescent setting on both makes some difference.  Is it a good difference though?  The Nokia seems have a mix of warm and cyan.  The wall on the right is warmed up but the back wall and the door on the right still have some cyan cast.  The HTC is much better.  The light colour has been, for the most part, neutralised and the colours are quite accurate.  The slightly different framing of the images would not account for the difference in white balance outcomes.

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So back to the opening statement.  Does the Nokia Lumia 1020 live up to the hype?  The answer, as you can see, at least in my opinion, is no.  There are some nice things about the camera but there are still a lot of gaps.  The Windows app landscape may get filled in over time, but I’m not expecting that it will ever offer the choice that exists in the Android world.  Image and video quality are not dramatically different from other phone cameras I have used and the colour accuracy/white balance issues are concerning.  I am looking forward to trying out the Refocus app when it’s available.  There are a couple samples online from Nokia but I want to try it for myself to see how well it works.  I’m also definitely looking forward to the firmware update that gives RAW capture to the 1020.  Again, there are samples available online from Nokia but I want to experience it for myself to see how good it is (or isn’t).  The RAW option will put a strain on storage capacity; however.  Compressed, full-rez JPEGs from the 1020 are in the 12 to 15MB range.  RAW images at 38MP are going to be in the 75 to 80MB range.  If Nokia had planned to offer RAW capability before the 1020 came out and didn’t think to include an accessory card slot, that would be an example of poor planning.

Two other concerns also exist for me with the Nokia.  One is video file format support.  I have two timelapse clips that I keep on my devices as examples.  Both are in the MP4 format and both play without any problems on all of my Android devices.  Neither will play on the Nokia, despite that it is supposed to support the MP4 format.

The second concern is tech support.  It doesn’t exist, at least in Canada.  There is no option for telephone support and there is no live chat.  All that is available is a discussion forum and access via Facebook and Twitter.  I have contacted the company via Twitter and they did respond quickly; however, my questions were simple.  Not all questions are simple and may require some back and forth with tech specialists to resolve.  Without a telephone or live chat option, this is not possible.  I posted a question on the customer forum, which is supposed to be monitored by Nokia support staff, and while I did get an answer, it was not the correct answer and it did not come from a Nokia rep.  Usefulness of the discussion forum may be dubious at best.  I would not count on getting support from Nokia if you have a problem.

With respect to the ‘mobile photographer’ concept that’s outlined in the video linked at the start of the article, suffice it to say that the 1020 does not fit the needs of the mobile photographer.  There is no option for USB host control as it’s not supported in the Windows Phone OS.  Using the phone as a portable portfolio is not ideal for the reasons noted above dealing with the screen and the ordering of images.  In addition, the app landscape is not full enough to provide the user with sufficient options to meet the needs of the ‘mobile photographer’.

Do you have a 1020?  What do you think of it?  Feedback most welcome.  Find me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter.





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