Review of the Nokia Lumia 520


The Lumia 520 is a super-inexpensive smartphone from Nokia that is well suited for people who donít really have a burning need to own a smartphone, but can clearly benefit from some of the features a device such as that can provide. It is by no means the sort of phone that most people would consider.

Last Updated: 01-Jul-2013

The trouble with reviewing phones in this class is that I tend to overlook glaring flaws just because itís cheap. When I look at many of the phoneís attributes Iíd pan them if this was a Galaxy S4, an HTC One, or an iPhone 5, but just because it costs so much less I tend to look the other way and say ďhey, this isnít so bad, GIVEN THE PRICEĒ.

I was torn between writing a hardnosed review that compared the phone feature-by-feature against the current state-of-the-art, and writing one that pandered to the low end of the market by calling crappy features GOOD because you didnít have pay so much for them. In the end I felt that to be fair I needed to do BOTH. So, in each case Iíve compared the feature against what is now possible on high-end phones, but at the same time Iíve looked at the quality of the feature in terms of what you get for your money.

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

RF Performance

Click on this link for a full description of RF Performance, and how to interpret it.

This is one area where the Lumia 520 doesnít have to be apologetic. In fact, most phones across all price points provide pretty much the same performance these days, because most of them work with the same RF chipsets anyway. While antenna design can play a role in the real world performance of the device, itís far less important than the chipset. The 520 is not different in this respect and provides RF performance that is on par with the most expensive phones on the market.

Audio

Click on this link for a full description of Audio Performance, an how to interpret it.

This is another area where the 520 doesnít compromise just because itís cheap. It provides in-call audio quality that is at least as good as the current crop of Samsung phones, including the S4. I suspect that many people in the market for this level of phone will probably used it AS A PHONE quite frequently.

The sound levels through the built-in earpiece are excellent and there is no clipping or sympathetic vibrations that on lesser phones force you turn down the volume.

When using the device hands free the speakerphone feature provides reasonable volume with reasonable clarity. Itís hardly the best speakerphone in the business, but most smartphones (especially high-end ones it seems) have fairly mediocre speakerphone functionality anyway.

Multimedia Audio

The tiny speaker on the back of the Lumia 520 is rather tinny-sounding, even if it does produce a fair amount of volume. Music sounds excessively shallow and peaky, so youíll probably want to connect a headset to this phone. However, donít expect much low-end bass, as this phone doesnít seem to produce all that much. Even when connected to an amplifier and high-end speakers the overall sound quality of music is detectably sub-par when compared to other smartphones on the market. Iíd like to say itís acceptable for the price, but given that providing decent audio isnít an expensive proposition Iím going to say this is a disappointment, regardless of price point.

Display

You get what you pay for here. The display on the Lumia 520 is about as low-end as it comes in the market these days. It starts with what is now a rather low resolution of just 800 x 480 on a 4-inch display. A year and a half ago that was admittedly the top-of-the-line, but these days we expect resolutions of at least 1280 x 720 or (in the case of top-end models) 1920 x 1080. So to be fair, the resolution isnít really an issue, as weíve only had the higher-resolution models for such a short time and chances are the target audience for the 520 is going to find that itís more than enough.

The screen is an LCD design that has relatively limited viewing angles. Surprisingly, when the phone is tilted up or down it quickly dims, but then gets brighter as the phone approaches 90 degrees. There doesnít appear to be any color shifts, and so overall it isnít a horrible screen. Just the same, youíre going to have to view it straight on for best results. Still, to be fair once again, Iíve tested phones with much worse displays than this, and so for the money itís actually better than expected.

At this price point you do not get quality shatter-resistant glass (it might even be plastic) and the screen has absolutely no resistance to skin oil. Iíve never had to clean a screen as often as I was forced to clean the Lumia 520ís. I would HIGHLY RECOMMEND that the first thing you do is buy a screen protector. Get one thatís made out of PET, as this has a certain degree of skin oil resistance that is lights years better than the material this screen is made out of.

Processor and Chipset

The Lumia 520 uses a dual-core 1 GHz Qualcomm S4 processor coupled to an Adreno 305 GPU. So in the performance department the 520 is actually not half bad. Itís not top-end by any stretch of the imagination, but itís definitely better than earlier Windows Phone 7 devices and more powerful than a comparably-priced Android phone. In terms of performance-for-the-buck it does really well here.

There is 512 MB of RAM, which by todayís Android standards is excessively low. However, you need to understand that Windows Phone 8 has very limited multitasking capabilities, and as such doesnít really have a pressing need for a large amount of RAM. There are WP8 models with 1 GB of RAM on the market, but only some high-end apps need it.

Internal storage is 8 GB, which isnít a lot, but surprising for a low-end phone you can augment that storage with a MicroSD card. Windows Phone devices donít use expansion memory the same way as Android. You must buy top-end cards (which admittedly arenít that expensive) and once you insert them you pretty much have to keep them there, as they become part of the system storage.

The WiFi on the phone seems up to the standards of others, but surprisingly I couldnít get half decent ping times from my home connection. On both my Android phones and on my computers I routinely see 12 to 15 millisecond latency, but when I test the ping times on the Lumia 520 I typically see 45 to 60 milliseconds. This may be the fault of the WP8 operating system and not something Nokia can do anything about. It doesnít help that Windows Phone has a notorious slow browser, which is only worsened by poor ping times.

GPS

I didnít get much of an opportunity to thoroughly test the GPS and there doesnít appear to be any way on a Windows Phone 8 device to actually find out how many satellites are locked or how strong they are. Spec sheets Iíve seen say that the GPS supports the Russian GLONASS satellites, which should greatly increase the accuracy in the presence of obstructions such as buildings or leafy trees. If the spec sheets are correct, then the GPS is at least as good as the current crop of mid-level smartphones.

Camera

Letís begin by saying what virtually every other review has said of the Lumia 520: the camera software is AWEFUL. Itís stock Windows Phone 8 and has virtually no features whatsoever and you get only 2 choices of picture resolution. You can pick from a 3.4 megapixel 16:9 picture, or a 2 megapixel 4:3 picture. The spec sheets say that it has a 5 megapixel sensor, but there doesnít seem to be any way to setup the camera to take photographs of that size.

Nokia supplements the poor Microsoft camera app with a few add-ons that provide some advanced functionality, but these are not particularly well-conceived. Take the Smart Shoot app for example. It gives you a reasonable substitute for the feature known as Best Shot on many other devices, in that it takes a series of photographs one after that other and lets you pick which one you think is the best. However, the app doesnít do any post-processing to identify the one thatís the sharpest (as does the camera app on the Galaxy S4), nor is there any way to zoom in on the pictures before you pick one, thus you canít closely examine them to see which one has the least amount of motion blur.

The camera hardware is also quite slow. If youíve used a high-end phone like the S4, or even a recent point-and-shoot camera, youíve come to expect that when a series of shots are taken (such as with a Best Shot feature) those pictures are snap just fractions of a second apart. With the Lumia 520 the shots are taken once every half to three quarters of a second, which seems excruciatingly long.

The resulting picture quality is not bad however, especially in well-lit conditions, though the maximum resolution of 3.5 megapixels means there just isnít a lot of detail. Low light shots are generally quite poor. We canít really fault the 3.4 megapixel resolution however, because the HTC One touts only 4 megapixels. However, the quality of the photographs from the HTC One is lights year better than the Lumia 520. Still, the shots are generally much better than we were seeing on smartphones just 3 or 4 years ago.

The 520 does not have a front-facing camera. This means that you wonít be able to use the device for video calling, or for taking self portraits. It also does not have a flash, and so you canít light up dark subjects that are too dim to expose otherwise.

On the video side of things the 520 is capable of taking pretty decent 720p videos (no 1080p is available). The videos are quite smooth and free of skips

Conclusions

Thereís no question that the BEST FEATURE of the Lumia 520 is its price. At between $130 and $150 outright (no contract) itís the lowest-priced smartphone to come along in ages. That means people on budgets can finally afford to get away from the dumb phone world and into the smartphone world. Itís excellent for pre-paid plans where the idea is to spend as little possible. The main competition here is clearly low-end Android devices, as Apple doesnít actually play in the low-end market. Huawei is the company most threatened by this phone, so if youíre in the market for a smartphone, youíll probably be looking at Android products from Huawei as well.

The phone has plenty of features one would expect in a smartphone, even if those features arenít as well implemented or as complete as one might expect from a higher-end device. If you are willing to spend a little more money however, I would recommend you look elsewhere, even at other phones in the Lumia line. The 520 is really just a phone for those whose aim is to spend as little as possible on a new smartphone. If you are truly that kind of buyer, then the 520 is certainly a lot more phone than you probably thought you were going to get for that little money (buying a used phone notwithstanding).

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