The Nokia Lumia 520 is a super-affordable smartphone from Nokia. Running on Windows Phone 8, it offers the smartphone experience to folks who are either unable or unwilling to spend large amounts of money on a new device, but who are still after a reliable smartphone experience.
The Lumia 520 accomplishes this better than any budget smartphone we’ve ever reviewed.
The Lumia 520 sports that vibrant, playful design that until recently epitomised the entire Nokia Lumia line. Smartphones within this price range seldom offer anything eye-catching. Nokia has gone against the grain with the 520 and provided a fun, if still simplistic design.
It is this simplicity that gives the Lumia 520 much of its appeal. Gentle curves dominate most of the device, finishing at a sharp edge around the front of the frame. It’s not overly pretty or particularly impressive, but you can tell that Nokia has put some thought in to the look of this budget smartphone, which is more than we can say for most devices in the same price range.
Comfort-wise it fits snugly in the hand and doesn’t have any uncomfortable ridges that would make holding it to the face less enjoyable.
It feels sturdy too, like it could take a bump or two. The rear plate is removable, leaving open the possibility for switching up colour schemes if you can get your hands on a replacement battery cover.
The buttons are all really well made – that’s not something reviewers often comment on but here it is noteworthy. Everything about the Lumia 520’s build is solid and attractive without being showy or going too much further than it needs to.
Being a fairly closed ecosystem, Windows Phone 8 lends itself well to low-specced hardware. A closed ecosystem means that the user interface (UI) and much of the overall ecosystem must adhere to the strict guidelines that Microsoft has set in place. This allows the OS and UI to be targeted at a smaller number of potential hardware combinations, leading to a higher level of operating efficiency.
Better operating efficiency means a better user experience for you.
This sometimes hurts WP8 with the higher end devices – the Lumia 920 and 925 both received bad press for their ‘mere dual-core’ CPUs from critics who were unfamiliar with the differences between closed/open systems and their varying hardware requirements.
Conversely, it’s great for the low-enders that don’t need to impress with specs; just price and end-user experience.
The Lumia 520 is fast, smooth and generally handles things on the UI side about as well as we’d expect from the middle of the pack, rather than the dirt-cheap squad where it resides.
There’s little jerkiness between menus and we never once had an app crash. There is some lag that varies from small to considerable when opening an app or performing an operation, but this lag tends to be fairly consistent and after a while predictable. Strange though it sounds, predictable lag is much less frustrating than random pauses and jerkiness.
The look of the WP8 UI is always basically the same, no matter what phone it’s on. The only real difference is display. The Lumia 520’s 4-inch display is serviceable, but uninspiring. It has a 480x800 pixel resolution, which is low by today’s standards. Its colours aren’t too vibrant, nor are its blacks as inky as you’ll see on its more expensive siblings, like the Lumia 920.
Once again it’s easy to leave the 520 here and think of the display as being sub-par, but that would be unfair. 480x800 is actually a great resolution for a phone in this price range and as far as colours and blacks go it’s satisfactory. The aforementioned lack of jerkiness is almost unheard of and 4 inches is quite a bit more than one often gets.
Overall the Lumia 520 gets good marks in display and UI, so long as you remember to compare it to its similarly-priced contemporaries. It’s no head-turner, but it was never meant to be. At the very of least this is a level of quality to which low-end users will not be accustomed.
The 5MP camera on the Lumia 520 is, surprisingly, quite usable. It’s no PureView, nor can it hold up to the likes of a GS3 or iPhone 5, but it’s definitely more than we were expecting from a budget handset.
That being said, this is definitely not a device for snap-happy customers. Photos come out fairly well on well-lit days while the sun is high, but the instant clouds set in or one ventures indoors, things take a turn for the fuzzier.
Low-light shots require the target to be pretty still in order to achieve focus, which must be acquired manually by pressing the camera button down half way. Even still, these shots turn out very grainy.
The lack of definition in these shots is almost perfectly comparable to that of the native 8MP camera on the Samsung Galaxy SII, or any other high-end from that era. Like we said this is surprising, but not necessarily impressive.
Video is of predictably poor quality and we don’t really see anyone using the 520 for capturing film of any kind. It’s probably still the best, or at least one of the best options in this price range. But anyone looking for a solid video/photo experience will need to look at a slightly pricier device to get what they need.
Battery and Browsing
Battery life on the Lumia 520 was pretty good. This is actually an area where budget devices usually do pretty well, as there aren’t any fancy quad-core CPUs, huge screens with impressive res or 4G LTE connectivity to drain power.
We got about a day and a half easily with medium-to-heavy use. Granted, this generally meant that it needed charging every night, as half a day isn’t too useful. But we did push it to two full days a couple of times, albeit with limited use.
Browsing was nothing special. The 520 is limited to 3G speeds and it did fine with what it was working with. Web pages loaded without a frustrating amount of lag, although generally any lag is frustrating once one has become accustomed to 4G.
Pinch to zoom was a bit jittery, but not as much as we’d thought it’d be. Overall browsing got a passing mark.
The WhistleOut Verdict
The Nokia Lumia 520 is the best smartphone we’ve ever used in its price-range. It handled general smartphone functionalities quite well across the board and even surprised us a couple of times.
Anyone looking for an affordable smartphone experience should definitely consider the Lumia 520. We’re still not entirely convinced we weren’t slipped a more expensive device in sheep’s clothing here. But, assuming we weren’t, we doubt the 520 has many contemporaries that could really compete.