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Icon a top-notch phone, but appeal is limited

What will it take to make Microsoft Corp. a serious competitor in the smartphone market? Beats me, but I can’t find the answer in the latest Windows Phone, the Lumia Icon.

Made by Nokia Corp., the Finnish firm Microsoft is acquiring for $7 billion, the Lumia Icon is an excellent device that barely stands out from its excellent competition.

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Nokia engineers keep fattening up their Windows Phones with extras meant to distinguish them from high-achieving rivals. But so far, the only gimmick that’s paid off for Nokia is offering decently equipped models at rock-bottom prices.

The Nokia 520, available for as little as $60 prepaid at Walmart, has sold well and driven Microsoft’s share of the US smartphone market to almost 5 percent. Indeed, Windows Phone has passed the fading BlackBerry and holds a distant third place, after Apple Inc.’s iPhone and devices running Google Inc.’s Android software.

But a host of high-end Nokias, such as the Lumia 1020 with its marvelous 41-megapixel camera, haven’t gained any ground on the iPhone 5S or the Samsung Galaxy series. I’m skeptical about the Icon’s prospects too.

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Like most high-end phones, the Lumia Icon is priced at $199 with a two-year contract, available only through Verizon Wireless starting Feb. 20.

Weighing in at just under six ounces, the Icon sports a body made of smooth gray-black plastic and a richly colorful 5-inch screen that uses organic light-emitting diodes instead of the usual liquid crystal.

Forget about a slot for extra memory, but with 32 gigabytes on board users will make out all right. You also cannot pry off the back and swap the battery; it’s permanently built in. Still, the battery should get you through an average day. After streaming movies for four hours via Wi-Fi, the Icon still had 44 percent battery life — hardly record-breaking, but not bad.

I’m as fond as ever of the basic Windows Phone interface, with its big square tiles that announce freshly arrived e-mails, Facebook postings, and weather updates. By comparison, the iPhone and most Androids seem static and dull. Windows Phone software performs well even on phones with slow processors; the Icon features one of the latest four-core chips from Qualcomm Corp., so everything runs at a gallop.

The Icon’s camera dials back the power of the mighty Lumia 1020. But with 20 megapixels, it delivers results that are still above average. Even when zoomed or blown up, I saw little of the fuzziness you’ll get with most phone cameras.

Despite these tasty features, the Icon still comes across as just another superphone. So Nokia’s tricked it out with extras that just might tip the scales for some consumers. For instance, there’s free music streaming: Nokia’s MixRadio service offers unlimited commercial-free listening to preset playlists, featuring all manner of music. You can also download up to 12 hours’ worth for listening when you’re not online.

Nokia’s mapping and navigation app lets you download entire maps of the United States and most other countries. This means the phone works as a GPS navigator even when you’re out of cellular range, making it a strong choice for hunters, hikers, or long-distance motorists.

The mapping service also features an ”augmented reality” feature called Livesight, which adds directional icons to the world around you. Launch Livesight, then hold the camera as if you’re taking a photo. You’ll see live video speckled with little images showing the nearest restaurants or supermarkets. It works reasonably well, but you’d get more benefit from running a Yelp search.

A more practical gimmick called Beamer lets you display your phone’s screen on just about any Internet-connected device, such as PCs, tablets, or other smartphones. Say you want to share vacation photos. You can send an e-mail or text message to a friend, directing him to a Nokia website. There he’ll see whatever’s appearing on your phone’s screen at that moment — a photo slideshow, for instance, or a PowerPoint presentation.

Still this fancy software won’t send people scurrying to the Verizon Wireless store next week. IPhone and Android phones are superb, and they dominate the market, making the purchase of a Windows Phone feel like a risky move.

It doesn’t matter that Nokia’s latest phone is first-class. It’s hard to play catch-up when consumers don’t want to be caught.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Hiawatha.Bray@globe.com.
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