Mobile World Congress was surprisingly devoid of new phones when compared to last year’s menagerie of devices, but one of the few big names still prepped and ready to bring some tasty new handsets to the table in Barcelona this year was Nokia, who introduced not one, but two new Lumia handsets into the fray, bringing their Windows Phone 8 family to five distinct devices.
The new baby of the family: the Nokia Lumia 520, takes its seat underneath the previous lowest specced WP8 Lumia, the 620. As you’d expect, it reigns in the hardware even further but also lowers the price tag, meaning that an even wider audience can afford to taste that premium Nokia smartphone experience.
Nokia Lumia 520 review: Design
So far, the Windows Phone 8 Lumias have chosen to adopt one of two underlying construction methods: the unibody form seen on the Lumia 920, or in the case of Lumias 820, 620 and now 520, designs all featuring removable backs.
To look at the 520’s body, you’re presented with a smooth, curved rear panel which doesn’t infact look removable at all, making for a seamless elegant and premium aesthetic despite the panel being all plastic. The panel which forms both the back and sides of the 520 features a centrally mounted 5-megapixel rear facing camera, the Nokia logo and a slit for the loudspeaker.
In true Lumia style, Nokia have adorned the right side of the phone with a pronounced volume rocker, which sits above the power/lock key and a welcome addition in the form of a dual-detent hardware shutter key; although due to the 520’s status, all these controls are plastic rather than ceramic, as seen on the flagship Lumia 920. The top and bottom of the 520 play host to an offset headphone jack and microUSB port respectively with the left side completely devoid of any features whatsoever.
The smooth, soft lines of the 520’s back panel are a great contrast to the phone’s sheer glass 4-inch display which is bordered by a thick bezel and lightly rounded corners. As is customary for any Windows Phone device, the foot of the screen accommodates the back, home and Bing keys, with the Nokia logo at the top sitting underneath a small earpiece slot and the notable absence of any front-facing camera.
Underneath that removable back there’s just enough room for a 1340mAh battery, that when removed allows access to both the 520’s microSIM tray and microSD slot, which can allow for cards up to an impressive 64GB.
Nokia Lumia 520 review: Screen
For some reason, across all the latest generation Lumias utilising WVGA displays, Nokia have been able to ensure they look as good as possible and typically better than equivalent rival displays. Naturally that 480 x 800 resolution will start to crack on bigger screen sizes but with the 520's 4-inch IPS LCD, things look exceptionally clear and crisp for a device of its class.
The backlight may not be as powerful as on other handsets, nor the viewing angles as wide, fingerprints are a notable hassle and the lack of the ClearBlack name is apparent, but we've seen a lot worse elsewhere and colour reproduction is promising nonetheless.
The party piece of many of Nokia's new Lumias is the inclusion of a super sensitive touch screen and despite the 520's low/mid-range position, it also receives this ability; with a quick test confirming that even through around 4/5mm of paper, it was still able to read finger position and direction, meaning those looking for an affordable touchscreen device for use with gloves may want to consider the 520.
Nokia Lumia 520 review: Operating system
Being both the newest member of Nokia's Lumia family and a 2013 Windows Phone handset guarantees that the 520 comes running Windows Phone 8 - the latest iteration of Microsoft's mobile OS. On its own, the novelty of the tile based user interface has started to wear a little thin, but Nokia have been the most proactive when it comes to trying to diversify the stock Windows Phone experience, and indeed the 520 shares many of the benefits that other Lumia handsets receive over competitive Windows Phone devices.
This takes the form of a wealth of Nokia-made or published apps available on the Windows Phone Store from the Nokia Collection section. What's more Nokia include an additional App Highlights application which also helps filter the more useful and interesting Windows Phone apps on the scene.
The underlying Windows Phone 8 interface doesn't vary from device to device, but that doesn't mean that it's bad. Indeed its simplicity is its greatest strength, combining apps and widgets into live tiles which serve the purposes of both. Even the smallest tile sizes are easy to hit on that 4-inch display and jumping between applications is simple enough too.
The Windows Phone experience still lacks as robust a notifications system as the likes of Android, but it does tote an easier to understand layout and overall aesthetic which users new to smartphones or Windows Phone will appreciate.
Nokia Lumia 520 review: Camera and multimedia
Off the bat, it’s fair to say that the camera is one of the main weakness of the Lumia 520, predominantly as a means to save costs, but it still delivers in many ways that rival devices don’t. Our conventional stills tests consistently highlight the camera’s issues with high contrast and low light scenarios, where it would typically under-expose to preserve brighter details.
The lack of a flash is detrimental to dark photography as we’ve seen the addition of the pulse LED flash on the Lumia 620 works wonders. Colour too is lacklustre with warmer tones looking drained of their vibrancy.
It’s not all bad however as the 520’s macro capabilities took us by surprise as did its ability to preserve detail in both macro and conventional outdoor conditions. Artificial lighting isn’t particularly kind to the 520's 5-megapixel sensor as said detail wasn’t as apparent, but we really combed the stills with a fine tooth comb to pick that up.
With regards to video, the 520 showed strength in its 720p HD video recording capabilities, dealing well with camera shake and moving objects. Audio was also clear if lacking in the lower frequencies.
Although being middle-of-the road when it comes to capturing content, the playback experience is far more premium. Out of the box there are the options of Xbox Music and Nokia Music with its free offline playlists meaning that it’s easy to quickly get your favourite songs on the move. Video too is enjoyable to watch but we recommend using headphones over the 520’s solo loudspeaker.
Nokia Lumia 520 review: Storage and connections
For a lower tier device, the Nokia Lumia 520 totes a respectable 8GB of internal storage, but should you want to really push content onto the handset, the removable back not only conceals a microSIM tray, but a microSD card slot too. What's more, it can accomodate cards up to a mammoth 64GB in capacity, allowing for multiple films, TV series, albums and whatever else. It is worth noting that despite the new removable storage features found in Windows Phone 8, unlike Android, the SD card can't be used to store apps, only more conventional media such as movies and music however we still welcome the option.
Aside from NFC and 4G (LTE) the 520 shares the same wealth of connectivity options as its bigger brothers. The phone can reach HSPA+ speeds over 3G and the option of internet sharing is present for wireless hotspot functionality. In practice with the addition of some capable hardware we had no trouble loading webpages or accessing social networks quickly.
As you'd expect, the Lumia 520 also offers up WiFi and Bluetooth which work seamlessly, but as we already mentioned, it doesn't feature NFC such as on the other four WP8 Lumias. The only external ports on the handset are an offset headphone jack on the top and centrally positioned microUSB port on the bottom for data transfer and charging.
Nokia Lumia 520 review: Performance and battery
After the under-specced shortcomings of the first generation Lumias, the 520 and its cohorts all offer a far more compelling experience. The Snapdragon S4 1GHz dual-core chip keeps navigation throughout the Windows Phone UI smooth and slick, albeit with the occasional extended loading period when opening select apps, a factor we put down to the 512MB of RAM.
Even though to the use the 520 you wouldn’t know that it’s using lesser hardware than say the beefier Nokia Lumia 720, certain more demanding games such as the high speed 3D racing action of Asphalt 7 had minimum requirements greater than that of the 520. As such, keep in mind that although the price tag is lower, you might miss out on some of the more premium experiences available from other Windows Phones.
It’s an unwritten rule that a smartphone’s battery needs to be able to survive at least a day’s use before needing a recharge and such a target has been the downfall of many an otherwise great handset in the past (we’re looking at you HTC One X). With that in mind, even though the Lumia 520 totes a fairly conservative 1340mAh cell, it passed with flying colours. Even with our heavy use of Bluetooth, WiFi, internet sharing, video/music playback and writing (into Evernote) we were still left with a snip under a day and halfs worth of battery life before taking another trip to the charger.
Nokia Lumia 520 review: Conclusion
With the Nokia Lumia 520’s arrival post-MWC we now have a complete set of Windows Phone 8 powered Lumias, which across the range, offer something for everyone. The modest nature of the Lumia 520 makes it the perfect device for those new to the ecosystem or looking to re-enter into the Nokia family after years spent with the likes of low cost androids.
Windows Phone is as easy to use as ever and thanks to Nokia’s efforts when it comes to diversifying the experience, the Lumia 520 has a richer feature set than many of its Windows Phone-based competition. There are some sacrifices when you opt for this affordable handset, like its weaker camera and the lack of access to high-end games as we mentioned earlier, but really we’re not sure we can argue with the value for money proposition the Nokia Lumia 520 offers.
The balance of design, functionality and price mean that the only real decision you need to make is whether to save your cash and pick this up or move up to the next tier, occupied by the likes of the Lumia 620 which for an extra £50/£60 offers up a similar experience with a better camera, NFC and an even more distinctive design.