Review: Nokia Lumia 520

Two months ago I looked at Nokia's cheapest Windows Phone, the Lumia 620, and while the build quality and battery life weren't exactly ideal, the value proposition simply couldn't be ignored. Now, Nokia has released a cheaper phone to the market, the Nokia Lumia 520, with fewer features than the 620 but potentially an even better cause to buy it.

So for the past few weeks, thanks to the folks at MobiCity who continue to provide us with a solid stream of review phones, I've been going hands-on with Nokia's cheapest, lowest end Windows Phone. Even though this phone is one of the cheapest I've reviewed for quite some time, you might be surprised by the quality that Nokia has been able to pack into the small body. Read on to see if this $150 smartphone is worth your cash.

Note: The T-Mobile Nokia Lumia 521 is largely the same as the Lumia 520, so the majority of this review should also apply to the US variant.

Specifications

Don't expect high-end parts in the Lumia 520; in fact, don't even expect some basic features you've come to love in smartphones of late. But to cut costs Nokia has removed some of the more non-critical features found in their higher-end phones, including the camera flash, front-facing camera, NFC, 4G LTE radios and more. Check out the full specifications of the Lumia 520 below.

  Nokia Lumia 520
Product Codes RM-914
RM-915
RM-917 (T-Mobile Lumia 521)
3G/4G HSPA+: 42 Mbps ↓ 11 Mbps ↑
LTE: N/A
Display 4.0-inch IPS TFT LCD at 800 x 480
233 ppi pixel density
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8227
1.0 GHz dual-core Krait CPU
Graphics Adreno 305
RAM 512 MB
Storage 8 GB internal storage
microSD card slot
Connectivity Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n
Bluetooth 3.0
A-GPS and GLONASS
Camera 5.0 MP rear camera with f/2.4 28mm lens
720p video recording
Ports MicroUSB
3.5mm audio jack
Battery Li-ion 1,430 mAh removable
Launch OS Windows Phone 8, with Portico
Launch Date April 2013
Size & Weight 119.9 x 64 x 9.9 mm
124 g
Price Unlocked & Outright: AU$250 (Buy now!) | US$150

Design

One aspect of the Lumia 620 that I was particularly disappointed with was the build quality, which felt cheap and plasticky, although for the price of the low-end device it might have been excused. From what I experienced with the 620 I wasn't expecting anything better in the Lumia 520, but right from the moment I took it out of the box I was pleasantly surprised with what Nokia has crafted.

Rather than going with the same glossy, two-toned plastic backing as the 620, Nokia has gone matte for the Lumia 520, choosing a comfortably textured plastic for the removable rear case. The design is also less rounded than the 620, making it look more appealing and modern, which fits in well with the design language of Windows Phone 8.

As well as a more rectangular design, Nokia have once again gone back to basics by using minimal points of attention around the device. The front only contains the display, speaker, hardware button and Nokia branding on a smooth glass panel, while the back just features a centered camera, a second piece of Nokia branding and a small speaker hole. It seems that the Lumia 520 has received the best of Nokia's engineering despite the price, which is simply wonderful to see.

Interestingly, Nokia claims that the Lumia 520 is 9.9mm thick, although I beg to differ. Using a micrometer, I measured the thickness to be 11.2mm, which definitely seems like a more accurate reflection of how visually thick the device appears. That said, the way Nokia has tapered the sides of the phone makes it still quite ergonomic and comfortable in the hand, so it often doesn't feel as thick as you might think.

The standard Nokia Lumia button combination is once again utilized along the right-hand side of the phone, which features the volume rocker above the power button, followed by the two-stage camera button lower down. Unfortunately the small size of the phone and the position of the power button around half way down the side puts it in a somewhat awkward position; I would have liked to see the power button higher up, or potentially along the top panel.

In keeping with the Lumia ethos, the Lumia 520 is available in a range of vibrant colors, including red like the model I have with me for review. As you would expect, the colors are very vibrant and look absolutely fantastic – when you pull out a colored Lumia 520, chances are people around you will turn and look. The contrast between the black front and the red back is another thing I loved about the design of the Lumia 520, so kudos to Nokia.

I'm actually very impressed with the design and build quality of the Lumia 520 at the price point that the phone is available at. It's a huge improvement over the Lumia 620; the phone feels great in the hand and there are a range of vibrant colors available. Especially when you're only forking out $150, there is little to complain about the design you'll end up with.

Display

Much to my surprise, Nokia has opted to use an IPS TFT LCD panel in the Lumia 520, which is (on-paper) better quality than what they chose for the Lumia 620, despite the price difference. When it comes to using the display, it may not be the best IPS panel that I've used, but it's certainly better than some of the cheap screens I've seen in low-end Android devices. Chances are you'll be very happy with what the 520 delivers in this realm.

At 4 inches, Nokia is offering up a very decent screen size for the class of phone, and at 800 x 480 there is little room to complain. Sure, it's no 'Retina' display, and it's not going to be the crispest device you've ever seen, but it works perfectly fine to display the majority of Windows Phone apps. You can actually thank Microsoft for restricting devices to a minimum of WVGA resolution, as it keeps Windows Phone displays to a decent standard.

As far as vibrancy and color reproduction goes, the Lumia 520 falls in the mid-range of what you can expect from phone displays. Nothing is too vibrant or oversaturated, but at the same time you're not getting the quality of higher-end IPS panels. Black levels are acceptable but the contrast isn't too amazing, and as we're talking about an LCD panel there is little-to-no tinting to deal with.

Comparing an image on the Lumia 520 to the same image on the high-end Lumia 920, which uses Nokia's flagship IPS LCD display, you'll notice that the quality difference isn't as huge as you might expect from the price difference. The Lumia 920 definitely is the winner in terms of clarity, vibrance and contrast, but the Lumia 520 still comes out of the battle quite respectably.

One of the main issues I found with the Lumia 520's display relates to the touchscreen, which seems to accumulate a huge amount of fingerprints relatively easily. I seemed to be constantly cleaning the display even after just some light usage of the screen, so I doubt Nokia has bothered with an oleophobic coating for the display.

The brightness of the Lumia 520's LCD display I found to be quite good most of the time, it can go quite bright when it needs to and even in direct sunlight I managed to see items on the display with relatively few issues. In the device's settings you'll find an option to turn on "sunlight readability," which appears to boost the highlights of most colors at the expense of contrast. It actually works quite well, although it's not as good as the same feature on the Lumia 920.

Also, Nokia have integrated their super-sensitive touch technology into the display panel of the Lumia 520, meaning you can use the display with gloves on in the winter. When testing this feature I managed to still activate the touchscreen after I'd put a large wad of cloth between my fingers and the screen, so it should definitely work with gloves of various thicknesses.

Software

Once again, the operating system you'll find on the Lumia 520 is Windows Phone 8, so I won't be elaborating on everything you can find in the software. Instead, check out my detailed Windows Phone 8 review, which covers a lot of the features of the Lumia 520's OS in detail.

Windows Phone 8 review

Don't forget that as this Windows Phone is made by Nokia, you'll get access to a huge range of exclusive-to-Nokia Windows Phone applications in the Store. One of the best things about this is Nokia's mapping software, HERE Maps and HERE Drive, which is a good deal better than Bing Maps, plus a range of camera apps such as Cinemagraph, Panorama and Smart Shoot.

Out of the box, a couple of these apps are installed, but you always have the option to uninstall them if you don't find them particularly useful. Also, the latest updates to Windows Phone are installed out of the box (Portico), so you won't feel like you're missing out on anything.

Performance

Like with other low-end Windows Phone devices, the Lumia 520 packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8227 chipset, which includes a 1.0 GHz dual-core Krait CPU as well as an Adreno 305 GPU, and you also get 512 MB of RAM. Even though this is one of Qualcomm's slower chipsets from their previous generation, it's very capable of running Windows Phone fluidly, which makes the performance of this device quite good for the price.

Microsoft continues to make sure that Windows Phone runs smoothly on all variations of hardware, so when using the operating system you won't find yourself frustrated by slowness. Animations are still rendered at a solid frame-rate, and basic functions such as using the keyboard, browsing your contacts and panning/zooming photos are as fluid as the experience on the high-end Lumia 920.

Internet Explorer 10 is also very usable on the 1.0 GHz dual-core processor, so when it comes to browsing the web you'll likely be very happy with what the Lumia 520 delivers. If anything, the screen size of the device is more restrictive than the performance - occasionally I ended up wishing I had more real-estate for viewing web pages – as, generally speaking, the Lumia 520 loaded web pages like any other Windows Phone.

One area where you notice the performance difference between the Lumia 520 and some of the higher-end devices on the market is in app loading and multi-tasking. Comparing the 520 directly to the HTC 8X or the Lumia 920, the MSM8227 loads apps around one second slower on average, while multi-tasking is definitely hindered by only 512 MB of RAM. Often I'd find myself switching between apps only to have to wait several seconds as the app resumes, which can get a bit tedious with time.

As I discovered while reviewing the Windows Phone 8S, the Adreno 305 GPU is actually equal in performance, on a WVGA display, to the Adreno 225 GPU on a 720p display – so all your favorite games that can be enjoyed on higher-end devices can also, generally speaking, be enjoyed on the Lumia 520. You may run into issues in the future with the RAM limitations, but for now it seems like most games work fine on this device.

If you want to compare the performance of the Lumia 520 to other Windows Phones on the market currently, check out the benchmarks I performed below. WPBench is the standard all-purpose Windows Phone benchmark that tests a range of aspects of the device's performance, while Peacekeeper is run in the browser and can be used to compare the phone to Android and iOS devices.

Aside from the chipset in the Lumia 520, there are also a number of connectivity features to mention. While there's no NFC or dual-band Wi-Fi, I didn't experience any issues connecting to my local 802.11n network, or using Bluetooth; it also seemed like GPS locks were quite fast while outdoors, so navigation using HERE Drive shouldn't be an issue.

No variant of the Lumia 520, including the T-Mobile Lumia 521, packs 4G LTE radios, so you're capped to a maximum of HSPA+ speeds which will depend on the infrastructure your carrier has laid out. Here in Australia on the Optus network I easily managed a respectable 7 Mbps down, but if you wanted to achieve 30-40 Mbps you'll have to look towards a higher end device with LTE on-board.

Also worthy of a mention is the fact that Nokia still chose to include 8 GB of on-board storage in the Lumia 520, as opposed to the absolute minimum for Windows Phones (4 GB). 8 GB leaves plenty of room for all your apps and a few photos taken by the camera, and don't forget there's also a microSD card slot that you can use to add up to another 32 GB of space. I chucked in my 32 GB card loaded with all my music and the Lumia 520 had no issues accessing the existing files, which was great to see.

For the price you're spending on this device there is absolutely no room to complain about the performance: you're not going to be disappointed by the Lumia 520 and its power, which could just be the smoothest device to use in its price range. There are some trade-offs to achieve such a low price, but at the end of the day, it's quite impressive what Nokia has achieved for $150.

Camera

Nokia's choice of cameras for the Lumia 520 appears to be exactly the same as the Lumia 620 – a 5-megapixel shooter with f/2.4 lens - although to keep costs down Nokia has omitted the LED flash. Also, again to keep the price as low as possible, Nokia has decided not to include a front-facing camera, which should only really be an issue if you wanted to make video calls.

The Lumia 520's camera is nothing particularly special, and it definitely won't be replacing a dedicated camera. The quality is acceptable when you need to quickly take a shot of something you see out in the wild, but it's not the camera you'll be wanting to use on your vacation to the Caribbean. Most photos I took using the Lumia 520 were in some way bad, whether that be the sharpness, lighting, colors or contrast.

In good, sunny lighting conditions, it's possible for the 520 to take a half-decent photograph, although often I found the colors to be washed out. Not once did a photo from the Lumia 520 accurately reflect the scene it was capturing in terms of the color palette or contrast, but this is to be fairly expected for one of the lowest-end smartphone cameras available.

Indoors, the washing out problem is even more apparent, and the poor dynamic range also becomes an issue. The lack of flash means that the camera has to rely entirely on digital stabilization and high ISOs, which often produces mediocre results, and there are barely any in-software settings for adjusting the quality of the photos.

Under low-light conditions, the Lumia 520 definitely doesn't perform as well as its higher-end brothers, although generally you can make out what the photo is of (unless it's really dark), which is good news for a phone without a flash. You'll likely have to hold the phone quite steady as well, as when it gets dark the shutter speed becomes a lot slower.

If you end up purchasing the Lumia 520 and you plan on using the camera, here's some advice: Use it sparingly, and keep a better camera handy for those critical moments.

Media

The Lumia 520's media features are not to be overlooked, as the low-end Windows Phone actually packs in some decent capabilities. Sure, its rear speaker isn't particularly amazing, but I was pleased with the in-call quality of the front speaker: I was able to hear the person on the other end quite clearly, and according to the recipient my voice was also quite clear.

The phone's audio quality out of the 3.5mm jack is quite good, but nothing to ride home about. When listening to music I found that mid-range tones tended to be a little under-emphasized, but bass was still decently punchy and there is a wide scope of volume for amplification. I actually really like how Windows Phones have 30 different volume steps available, as it allows for a lot of fine tuning to the exact loudness you like.

Strangely, there are no audio enhancement features built in to the Lumia 520, so the Audio section of the settings is completely blank. The Lumia 620 has an equalizer and other enhancements built in to this section of the settings; it's not a huge deal at the end of the day, but you're losing out on theses feature if you choose to buy the Lumia 520.

The Qualcomm MSM8227 is capable of, at best, 1080p encoding and decoding, so unless your collection features a ton of 4K videos (and that's unlikely) you'll mostly be alright. Testing the usual range of video formats (AVI, MP4, MKV, etc.) yields the usual results where everything gets recognized except MKV files, and six-channel audio is decoded without any issues. 1080p playback was smooth, like with the Lumia 620 and unlike the HTC 8S, which is great if you don't want to re-encode.

Also, the expandable storage means that you'll have plenty of room for all your music and movies - you won't be restricted to just 8 GB or 16 GB of files, as chucking in a 32 GB microSD card is as simple as forking out around $30 for one. Plus, of course, you can utilize streaming services such as Xbox Music if you prefer keeping local files to a minimum.

Battery Life

Improving on the Lumia 620, the Lumia 520 packs a 1,430 mAh removable battery which delivers 5.3 Wh; however it still isn't particularly stellar for a low-end device. During moderate-to-heavy usage, there were several times where I managed to completely drain the Lumia 520's battery, which is never a good sign for a phone's battery.

On average the phone lasted for around 12 hours of solid usage, but anything more, or lengthy usage of battery intensive services, and you might find yourself searching for a charger or a second battery. At one point I was using internet sharing and music playing at the same time, and I managed to easily kill 20% of the 520's battery in under one hour, quick drainage which can come back to haunt you later in the day.

That said, if you're within Wi-Fi coverage such as a workplace or house, and you're not needing to constantly check Twitter every five minutes, the Lumia 520 will likely last you to the end of the day, although don't expect much extra juice left. Typically a good low-end phone can last you two days of average usage, but you're simply not going to get that with the Lumia 520.

Below you can find a table that shows how the Lumia 520's battery compares to other phones on the market today. In my battery rundown test, each phone is put in airplane mode and set to moderate (about 70%) brightness while a 720p video is looped until death; the results are below.

Device Movie Playback Life
Samsung Galaxy Note II 12:47
Motorola RAZR HD 11:49
HTC One XL 9:03
Samsung Galaxy S III 8:41
Motorola RAZR V 8:32
HTC Windows Phone 8S 7:28
HTC Windows Phone 8X 7:15
Nokia Lumia 920 6:57
Sony Xperia Z 6:30
Nokia Lumia 620 6:13
Nokia Lumia 520 5:32
LG Optimus 4X HD 5:16

Conclusion

For $150 U.S., there is little to fault about the Lumia 520, which ends up being a carefully crafted balance of cost and features. You're not going to get the premium parts that Nokia reserves for flagships like the Lumia 920, but at the same time enough quality is delivered that actually makes this a better choice than the slightly more high-end Lumia 620.

The design is extremely solid at this price, incorporating vivid colors into a comfortable plastic shell, and the performance from the Snapdragon S4 dual-core processor is fantastic. Whether it's browsing the web or using the operating system, you won't feel like you're using a cheap phone, rather one that Nokia has put time and effort in to optimizing the experience.

There are a couple of aspects which you won't like about the Lumia 520, including its relatively short battery life for a low-end device, and its mediocre camera, but these downsides can easily be overlooked when you're getting all the features of Windows Phone in an extremely cheap package. Unless you specifically want the features of the Lumia 620, such as the camera flash or front-facing camera, save your money and purchase the Lumia 520.

Kudos and praise should be given to the team at Nokia, who have crafted a stellar experience at an incredibly low price point, which makes the Lumia 520 an easy low-end smartphone recommendation.

Buy the Lumia 520 from MobiCity!
Nokia's Lumia 520 website
Windows Phone 8 review
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