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Nokia Lumia 520 review

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Friend-of-MoDaCo Tom Hopkins had some time with a Nokia Lumia 520. There's been a lot of talk about Nokia Android this week. But can Nokia just make decent budget Windows Phones? Here's his review.

Nokia Lumia 520 review

Bucking the trend of ‘bigger is better’, the 520 gives users a small phone at a tiny price and leaves little to be desired.

There seems little diversity in today’s mobile phone market on the matter of size. When in doubt, increase everything: especially the screen. When did we forget that small is beautiful, or that we have to carry these things around virtually 24/7? If it’s a simple as a game of size then presumably everyone else – including Apple - should go home and leave the field to Samsung and Nokia who’ve recently been delivering absolutely whopping devices.

When I saw what Nokia had done with the 625, I felt despair. Even the lower-end phones are now racing towards a screen so wide, you need at least three hands to use them. These devices are so large, I’m surprised you don’t need a licence to carry them in public.

Who are they aimed at? How big must your fingers be or how poor your eyesight that you need a 4.7” keyboard? These devices can only be for those who want their Angry Birds to be life sized.

And yet the maker of the world’s most popular smartphone, ‘the original’ to boot doesn’t seem to agree. What is it about Apple’s market share and devotion that Nokia doesn’t want to replicate? Is the lack of an inch or two causing the iPhone any issue? Not yet.

What started out so sensibly with the N8, the Lumia 800 and even the 710 and 610 started going awry with the 900, got even worse with the 920 – a virtual truncheon of a phone. And then the 820, the 800’s successor, offered not a single more pixel of detail while virtually doubling in size.

Well at least we have the 620. And now the 520.

Of course the thing about the 520 which has drawn the most attention is not its little size but rather its almost imperceptible price. At the moment, you can get this thing for around £100 off contract.

To deliver that price, Nokia has had to scrimp and save a little, certainly compared to other recent releases like the stunningly-built 925, or the insanely megapixeled 1020.

At less than a fifth of the price of those mega-devices, the humble 520 is certainly lower-speced. But is it better value?

In your hand

So back, already, to the matter of size. The 520 is almost identical in footprint to the Lumia 800 or an iPhone5. Despite a marginally larger screen size than the 620, it feels – if anything – slightly smaller because of the shape of the device. The front, as you would expect, is all glass (not, alas, Corning Gorilla Glass). The back is a moulded and textured plastic shell, giving a soft sensation and a grip. It’s easy to hold and operate in one hand, and slides easily into a jeans pocket. The physical buttons (as always with Nokia now, all on the right) are blended in nicely, although occasionally feeling a little unresponsive. There’s nothing else on the outside except a headphone socket, micro-USB port for charging and syncing, and a small hole on the back to let sound out.

Posted Image

Taking the cover off is easy (perhaps a little too easy) and that reveals the battery (1430 mAh), micro SIM and a micro SD slot which can take up to a 64Gb card. If you’re into that sort of thing, you can buy a selection of shells in different colours to match your outfit, or your mood. The review model, thankfully, was in black.

Vital statistics

The 520’s 4” display delivers a resolution of 235 pixels per inch (compared to 245 ppi on the smaller screen of the 620 or 334 ppi of the bigger, but much higher resolution, 925). The screen is clear although lacking the brightness of the AMOLED displays found on higher end models (such as the 820) and the original models (such as the 800). The screen does boast sunlight readability which works well, and super-sensitive touch for all of those occasions where you want to operate the device with your gloves on (i.e. never).

Whether because of the screen coating or some other secret factor, the 520 quickly attracts finger prints and grime – apparently more so than other phones I’ve used. The framing of the screen, leaves a small black gap on the sides and the display unit is set back a little, breaking the illusion achieved with iPhones and others that the graphics jump out of the display or that the entire front is a single unit. Combined, these factors make the phone feel decidedly less ‘premium’.

Processor and memory wise, the 520 is as well-equipped as the 620 and the 720 with a dual core 1Ghz chip and 512Mb RAM. The phone is noticeably a little more sluggish than the 820 or 925, but not by much and not so much that it makes it feel slow in general use. As we’ve heard many times, the Windows Phone team has done a great job optimising the software, interface and even transitions so that super-powered handsets are simply not required to keep the interface moving along swiftly.

So what’s missing? Well for starters, the camera is what is considered rudimentary by today’s standards (a mere 5 megapixels) and has no flash. In fact, this is a couple of megapixels better than the iPhone 3 but nothing compared to today’s cameras – especially those from Nokia. That said, it took the following photo and performs well in reasonable light.

520pic.jpg

Also missing is compass and, more notably, NFC – tap to pair, tap to send, that sort of thing. This hardly feels a big loss in a low-end handset. Even in the higher-end devices, NFC can feel pretty sketchy in implementation even where it is supported, which is rarely.

Finally, the phone lacks wireless charging, a surprisingly seductive feature, even if one which does not seem to justify the resulting increase in bulk.

Operating system

Most on this site will know all of the ins and outs of Windows Phone 7 and 8. Suffice to say, it is one of the best features of the 520. Great email, text messaging, phonebook and so on combine with really easy-to-use social integration form the heart of the OS covering the bases nicely. On top of this Nokia has bundled their excellent Here Maps and Here Drive apps. The latest version of Drive, in particular, is excellent, offering offline maps, multiple voices and a much improved interface.

Here Maps even offers maps inside buildings, which is pretty stunning when you think about it, although the 28 min suggested route (via the car park) that it gave me for getting from one store to another in Bluewater suggests room for improvement:

520directions.jpg

Because of the lack of compass, Here Maps does not support the rather saucy ‘LiveSight’ feature nor the AR goodness of City Lens. Again, a minor shame, but hardly the end of the world.

Downsides? Again most on this site will know these.

Firstly: progress. What started out supersonic with Windows Phone being miles ahead of Windows Mobile in virtually every way, and certainly in terms of usability and design, accelerated through the Mango release bringing 1,000s of features, almost entirely well executed and then it… stopped. Windows Phone 8 achieved little for the user, whilst clearly investing a huge amount of effort in behind the scenes engineering – specifically the porting to the common kernel with Windows 8. Meanwhile Android, and now iOS have moved forward signigicantly. Windows seems to have lost the edge it briefly created.

If anything, WP8 was a step back for the platform from a consumer point of view. A few new features - such as profile back up - should be balanced against an overall increase in bugs and sloppiness. Several times on the 520 (as I’ve seen on the 820 and other WP8 devices), the spell of the overall design will be broken by silly bugs. Music will hang when starting to play on random, take out the headphones and music will pause only after playing briefly over the speakers, and on and on. Individually, they may be insignificant, but they all take the polish off the OS, especially when they had been eradicated once already in WP7.5.

The future of the OS seems under less clear stewardship now too. The next release, we hear, will bring VPN and a notification centre. This, despite the fact that the home screen virtually is a notification centre. It can feel at times that the product team has lost track of the clear vision they once had and we’re now starting to see ‘most requested’ features being automatically included in the operating system. Perhaps Microsoft will surprise us, and we’ll see some genuinely exciting innovation when 8.1 comes in January. But as it stands, the alignment of main Windows, Windows 8 with Metro and Windows Phone, seems to have been a cost, not a benefit for users.

One area where WP8 proves a massive downgrade from WP7 is the on-PC software used to synchronise the device. Now hopefully you won’t have to do this very often but for the times you do want to put music, photos or videos on your device from another machine, you face the choice of using the Windows 8 app (“Windows Phone”) or a Win 8 desktop and Win 7 equivalent (“Windows phone for desktop”). Both suck. The WP8 app infinitely more so. There’s no reliable support for choosing music by playlist, if it’s started a sync and gets interrupted for any reason, it won’t start again properly. It’s buggy, it crashes, it produces totally incoherent errors. It’s just bad. The ‘desktop’ version sucks a little less but it’s close. Bizarrely the best approach seems to be using the desktop version to synchronise playlists set up in iTunes. Either that, or you can resort to using Windows Media Player to do the job. When Windows Music Player looks like an easy option – you know that things have got bad.

Microsoft chose this route, despite having a fully functional app which was, itself, better and more stable than iTunes, Zune.

Once again, I’m sure their reasoning was technical but the result for the user has been baffling and virtually unusable. The Mac version (this time you have no choice but to link through to iTunes!) is about as bad and slightly less stable. Another own goal for a device that could otherwise give the Apple music ecosystem a run for its money.

The other challenge of course, is apps. Both the volume and quality of apps on WP8 (and WP7 for that matter) is substantially less. Even though most major apps now have a WP equivalent, they are typically months later than their iOS counterparts. So if you like having the latest apps, look elsewhere. Equally, these apps often don’t have the same attention to detail as their big brothers. Kindle is the perfect example. It is first party (i.e. Amazon made it), it works absolutely fine for its core purpose (reading books) but it doesn’t do the things you can do on other platforms (such as periodicals). Windows thus remains a second class citizen of the app economy. Should this impact the average user, who just wants the big apps and a couple of games? Hardly. But it definitely matters for the hipster crowd who are often the most vocal.

When it all comes down to it

At the moment, WP8 is only better than WP7 because of some the newer apps and especially those from Nokia. I’m sure that will change. With every analyst screaming at Microsoft that mobile should be their number one priority, and the pressure from both Apple and Google, surely we will see the pace pick up soon.

If it weren’t for that fact, I’d suggest you go and buy the two-year old Lumia 800 instead. It’s got a camera flash, a better screen, another 8Mb, and Zune for syncing. Plus, it feels far more premium due to the unibody case.

As it is though, the 520 is more or less the perfect entry point to the Windows Phone ecosystem, especially for those non spec-junkies who are just looking for a decent phone at a reasonable price. Put next to its real competition, ‘landfill android’ as The Register has taken to calling them, the 520 is a remarkable bit of kit. The Windows OS brings slickness, ease of use and unbeatable social integration, Nokia adds a great turn-by-turn and mapping solution while providing a great looking device with nice screen and reasonable battery life.

Two years ago, you couldn’t get a decent Tom Tom for £100. Now you get that, plus great phone, plus a decent snappy cam and mp3 player which can be cheaply expanded to 70+ Gb. Nokia has succeeded in making the world of Windows Phone accessible to virtually anybody and we can expect to see the 520 be a best seller with many millions of happy customers.

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