Nokia Lumia 520 review

The Nokia Lumia 520 is the baby of Nokia's Windows Phone family, replacing the Lumia 510 and squeezing in beneath the excellent Lumia 620.

With the Lumia 620 available for around the same monthly cost, it might be difficult to see exactly what the appeal of the Lumia 520 is. There's a slight difference on the spec sheet, but available on pay-as-you-go for less than £99, the Lumia 520 is one of the cheapest smartphones around.

Design

One of the high points of the Nokia Lumia 520 is the design. That's a hallmark of Nokia's Windows Phones: the entire range is interesting to look at, nice to hold and isn't afraid to use colour. Hence we're holding the yellow 520 and we have to say it's a refreshing change from the sea of black, white or silver phones you find elsewhere.

Naturally the Lumia 520 isn't quite as sophisticated in design as the other models higher up the range. There's no beautifully curved edge to the display or unibody design, but even at this budget end of the Lumia line, it feels nice to hold and of good build quality.

The contrast of the buttons to the body really appeals to us; not only does the black on yellow make them really stand out, but they have a lovely action to them too.

The soft curves of the back of the handset means it snuggles down securely into your hand. It measures 119.9 x 64 x 9.9mm and weighs 124g. Although not the slimmest phone around, there's something cute about its dinky dimensions and when we're produced the Lumia 520 in public, heads have turned.

Hardware and display

There's a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, clocked at 1GHz, along with 512MB of RAM powering this handset. It isn't the most powerful Windows Phone 8 device out there, but equally, for a budget device, it performs well enough.

Often handsets at the affordable end of the scale will save costs by giving you less internal storage, but here the Lumia 520 impresses with 8GB, as well as the option to expand by microSD, with cards up to 64GB supported. This is in addition to the 7GB of cloud storage you get from SkyDrive.

Where some cost-saving measures have been made, however, is on the cameras. There's no front-facing camera for starters, meaning that you won't be making video calls to friends and family. On the rear, there's no LED flash either.

The other thing you don't get is NFC. Although NFC hasn't made huge inroads yet, it's starting to see adoption in a number of accessories, especially to trigger pairing with audio devices, like some of those offered by Nokia itself.

The display measures 4-inches on the diagonal and gives you a resolution of 800 x 480 pixels, which is acceptable for a device positioned at the entry level. It's generous, even, considering that it's an IPS display, offering nice, bright, and vibrant colours, as well as respectable viewing angles. It isn't the greatest performer outdoors, where brightness can be something of a let-down, but on the whole we've little to complain about.

The external speaker is reasonable too. There's some distortion at higher volumes, but it's good enough for ad-hoc needs. Through headphones you'll find things are much more refined whether playing your tunes from Xbox Music or Nokia Music, although for the best results you'll want to invest in a decent set of third-party 'phones. There's plenty of volume on offer.

Smartphone experience

Where the Nokia Lumia 520 wins through, however, is that it delivers a smartphone experience at low cost, with relatively few hardware compromises. Seeing as you can pick this handset up for under £100 on pay-as-you-go, or £159 SIM free, it looks like something of a bargain.

Of course the handset is running Windows Phone 8, bringing with it all the advantages of Microsoft's mobile OS, enhanced by Nokia's additions. That means you'll get those exclusive Nokia apps and services, and the promise of more in the future, like Nokia Smart Camera, due to arrive with the Amber update later in 2013 and the activation of the FM radio.

At this size, there isn't a huge amount of space to be productive on the display. Sure, you can get to work with Office integration, but the keyboard is a little small and the display doesn't give you that much space to play. But when it comes to media, the experience of the 520 isn't far removed from other WP8 handsets in the Lumia range, which is a really positive point. You miss out on some of the Nokia nicities - Nokia City Lens isn't supported for example - but you get the essentails.

If there's a criticism when set in the context of the competition, then we'd say that the Android world has the edge with apps, with many developers targeting Apple and Android as first priority. But Windows Phone is expanding with most bases covered, even if in some cases, like the eBay app, the features offered fall well short of what you'll find elsewhere.

Cameras

Nokia is pushing photography hard on the Lumia line. At the top end there are some really strong performers, like the Lumia 920. At the bottom end, the 520, as we mentioned, has no front-facing camera and a rear-facing 5-megapixel camera.

The rear camera is a reasonable performer and despite not having all the bells and whistles of those Lumia handsets higher up the range. It suffers more obviously with noise in low light conditions, which isn't uncommon in camera phones, and it isn't the fastest camera around.

The result is that, although the Lumia 520 will technically grab you the shot you're after, you have to allow for the slightly slow focusing and shutter lag: you press the button and there's a slightly unexpected delay before it's actually taken your shot. For still subjects that's not a problem, you just have to remember not to move the phone until you've actually seen the result, but for anything moving it's more of a problem.

You also get the option for extra lenses, so you can quickly stylise your photos or get something a little different. The arrival of Nokia Smart Camera will enhance these options even further, with a range of funky effects incoming, although it's not clear at this stage exactly what features you'll get on the Lumia 520.

READ: Nokia Smart Camera lets you get creative with your Lumia

Video is also offered, topping out at 720p. The results again are pretty good, and being limited to HD rather than full HD isn't uncommon for budget devices.

Battery and calling

The call quality of the Nokia Lumia 520 is good. We had no problem making calls, with sufficient volume to hear incoming callers too.

The battery life was something of a surprise however. Given that the Lumia 520 doesn't have a huge display, nor a hugely powerful processor, we were expecting a little more from the 1430mAh battery. Nokia says it's good for over 9 hours of talk time, but in mixed use, we found it struggled to get through the day, asking to be topped up early evening. There are of course battery saving measures you can take, but we'd have liked a little more longevity out of this handset.

Verdict

The Nokia Lumia 520 is a great little smartphone. It delivers what Nokia is known for, with good design and build quality, despite the affordable price point. A few hardware shortcuts have been made, knocking out the flash, front camera and NFC, for example, which the slightly more expensive Lumia 620 offers.

But at this price there's little to criticise. It's a competent smartphone, delivering the Windows Phone 8 experience aptly, so if you're in the market for a smartphone that won't cost the earth, it's well worthy of consideration. If you have a few pounds more, however, then it's worth looking at the Lumia 620 too. 

READ: Nokia Lumia 620 review