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Nokia Lumia 520 - Does Nokia Really Need Another Budget Windows Phone? (Part 1)

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It says much about the strength of Nokia's Lumia smartphones that it is often their worst enemy. The Lumia 520 offers full smartphone experience, smooth and friendly, but it lies in the shadow of the 620, like the 920 makes life harder for the 720 and 820.

Oh, for an easy life. Sometimes it will be good to just read a phone's spec sheet, compare prices and make a decision. In a number of ways, the Nokia Lumia 520 looks like just the type of handset where this ought to be possible: it has reliable internals and happy design language that have already proven their worth in the Lumia 620, but it makes a couple of sacrifices for the sake of its $172.5 pay-as-you-go price tag in the UK - which is $45-75 cheaper than the higher-end model depending on where you buy. It's even cheaper in the U.S., where a $150 Lumia 521 version (not the one reviewed here) is scheduled for general availability on T-Mobile starting tomorrow.

These sacrifices seem pretty easy to understand, and they include things that many smartphone users might not notice, such as the absence of a front-facing camera, camera flash module and NFC. The problem is that specifications are never the whole story. Like any phone, Lumia 520 comes with a few surprises. Please read on and we'll try to know them better.

Lumia 520 is available in cyan, red, black, yellow and white

Lumia 520 is available in cyan, red, black, yellow and white

Hardware

The 520 continues Nokia's bright, bold approach to phones, and that's a good thing. It is available in cyan, red, black, yellow and white, so there are some choices about how loud you want to make it.

The right edge of the handset houses all of the phones physical buttons

The right edge of the handset houses all of the phones physical buttons

In contrast, regardless of what color you choose, this phone isn't quite as bright or bold as the Lumia 620 - that astonishingly good device will certainly set the benchmark throughout this review. The matte, plastic back cover lacks the glossy, rubberized personality of the higher model and also feels a tad creakier. Unlike the 620's case, it doesn't incorporate any headphone jack circuitry - it's just a thin piece of plastic.

The left edge is devoid of any features, ports or buttons at all

The left edge is devoid of any features, ports or buttons at all

There are no problems with seams or with the way the cover fits on, maintaining Nokia's usual quality. Speaker, earpiece, aerial and all cellular components all seem to do well. Even some people may prefer a calmer appearance of 520, along with its slightly larger LCD display, which results in the phone being a few millimeters longer and wider than the 620, and there are other differences that we will mention.

The top is home only to a 3.5mm headphone port on the left hand side.

The top is home only to a 3.5mm headphone port on the left hand side.

Overall, the design of the Nokia is good but it is not perfect. In the first few days of use, the 520's camera button keeps jamming, which require the back cover to be removed in order to unstick it. This problem seems to have disappeared, but it may also be that we're being gentler with the shutter release - which we don’t really need to do. In addition, the simple exterior is highlighted by a 3.5mm headphone port in the upper left corner, micro-USB charge and sync port on the bottom, volume rocker and power/standby button on the right, speaker and camera lens on the back. Finally, we have the earpiece and capacitive Windows Phone navigation buttons on the front face - none of which gave us any problems.

The earpiece and capacitive Windows Phone navigation buttons on the front face - none of which gave us any problems.

The earpiece and capacitive Windows Phone navigation buttons on the front face - none of which gave us any problems.

Display

The Lumia 620 has taught us that a high-quality screen should not be too expensive. The Lumia 520 teaches us that a top-shelf display must cost something, because Nokia can’t carry it over into this bottom-end handset.

This LCD is washed-out, unevenly lit and have pretty bad viewing angle

This LCD is washed-out, unevenly lit and have pretty bad viewing angle

This LCD is washed-out, unevenly lit (especially in the lower corner), and have pretty bad viewing angle (though not horrible). It's not as good as the senior model's screen, and that's what the Lumia's specs did not warn us, except for the absence of the word "ClearBlack", signifying that the manufacturer acknowledges this is a lesser panel.

Technically the 520 is worse in terms of pixel density, due to the fact it has a 4-inch screen instead of 3.8-inche one, while keeping the standard 800x480 resolution. However, in practice, that sort of difference is not noticeable at this screen size.

Despite the technical aspects of the display, we reckon that the inherently bold and contrasty aesthetic of the Windows Phone environment makes it less of an issue. In midst of daily use, you're just not going to notice that bright patch in the lower-left corner, or those blacks that aren't really black - at least until someone with a 620 comes and sits down next to you.

Camera

Judging by the quality of its images, the Lumia 520 camera module is basically similar to the 620. That means that it takes passable stills for sharing and looking at on small displays. However, there are some things holding the 520's photography skills back. First, there's no focus assist light, for a start, which results in unpredictable focus in low-light shots. Combined with a slow shutter speed (due to the absence of a flash) and the slight shake resulting from the sometimes-sticky camera button, sometimes it leads to overly blurred images, as the sample below will confirm.

Daylight photos are good, though they’re not hugely detailed

Daylight photos are good, though they’re not hugely detailed

Overall, daylight photos are good, but this writer's stills just aren't as crisp as those Mat Smith took with the 620 in low light conditions - and there must be some reason for that other than my general clumsiness.

Even with sports mode activated the camera struggles to keep fast moving objects in focus

Even with sports mode activated the camera struggles to keep fast moving objects in focus

In other words, it's not like camera isn't interesting. Nokia is putting real effort into its software, and even though there are not many settings as we'd like, there are many "lenses" to play with. These include Cinemagraph, Panorama and Best Shot mode - all of which work, but each suffer from general sluggishness, in terms of loading up a lens and saving its results. This pretty much kills spontaneity and means that you have to make the determination about their use.

Lastly, the Lumia 520 deserves to be commended for its basically efficient 720p video output. Like the 620, there's no image stabilization to speak of and the 10 Mbps (1.3 MB/s) data rate (a whole 1 MB/s less than some high-end phone cameras) makes color and dynamic range compression a tad severe , as well as introducing some choppiness when there's a lot going on in the scene. However, the focusing, auto-exposure and microphone work well, leading to useful footage that will definitely get what you want, as long as you don't over-do it with movement or high level of detail.

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