Nokia Lumia 1520 review

Nokia has just taken a small step in the world of smartphones, but one giant leap for Windows Phone popularity. The Nokia Lumia 1520 is the first time a quad-core processor has sat inside a Nokia phone, here in the form of the Snapgragon 800 alongside 2GB of RAM.

But elsewhere "giant leap" is a phrase that can be taken literally too: the 1520 pushes the Windows Phone 8 mould into phablet territory thanks to its 6-inch display. With a bigger and better screen than other Lumia devices of late, more power than before, the enhanced Nokia Camera Pro functionality coupled with a 20-megapixel camera with optical stabilisation, is it the best Windows Phone ever made?

Build quality

The Lumia 1520 isn't small, but it's a phablet so you already knew that. As Nokia’s popularity and ambition has grown with Windows Phone, so too has its Lumia devices and, now its physical scale. But even compared to the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 the 1520 is large.

READ: Samsung Galaxy Note 3 review

But, as you’d expect from Nokia, the build quality is fantastic. From the grippy matte finish, to the pop-action on the SIM and microSD trays, every detail feels designed to perfection. Even the 1520's buttons have been upgraded to sit almost flush with the handset - one of those improvements that you only realise you needed only once it was added. We often pulled the Lumia 1020 out of a pocket to find it lit up because of its more protruding buttons, for example, and that hasn’t happened once with the 1520.

The weight and thickness of the Lumia 1520 are perfect. We don’t say this often but it feels exactly right with ideally weighted balance in the hand and enough heft to feel sturdy while still being light enough to read when comfortably above your face in bed. And reading is this phone’s strong suit as it’s found a perfect size balance between tablet and phone if, that is, the phablet scale suits you - it won't be for everyone.

For sound the 1520 has a speaker that sits at the bottom of the back of the handset. You know when you want to improve a phone’s speaker and you cup your hand around it? Placing the speaker where Nokia has means you do that naturally just by holding the phone. Not that you’ll need to much - this thing kicks out some serious speaker volume as it is.

You'll spend most of your time using the device with two hands, given its size, but if you need to make a call then that's no problem. There's no denying the 1520's physical size - it measures 162.8 x 85.4 x 8.7mm - so it's a big slab against the ear, but we found no issues with call quality. Everything sounded as clean as a whistle.

The screen

With the Lumia 1520 you're immediately hit by how much clearer this larger 6-inch screen is than any Lumia that’s come before. It's not just the size, either, this 1920 x 1080 pixel panel IPS display is the first Full HD display to make it into a Lumia phone.

The Windows tiles - of which there are now three regular sized ones on each row rather than two - are well defined, perfectly lit and brightly coloured. The Lumia ClearBlack screen - a technology designed to reduce reflections on the screen - really works too, paired with this scale the 1520 shows off great definition in photos and on videos even when outside. Although, being the dull autumn that's so typical of the UK in November, we've not had Caribbean-strength rays to contend with.

It also makes reading text easier than other screens as there’s absolutely no bleed from the light. The High Brightness Mode is helpful for reading web pages or books when out in daylight - although it does chew up battery a bit faster, as is to be expected.

To test the screen we watched a 1080p movie trailer. Thor: The Dark World. While the end result was clear, well balanced in colour terms, getting there was tough. We tried to load a MOV file via SkyDrive to no avail, so then tried a third-party Dropbox app and obtained the file but the 1520 wouldn't play it. Off to the Apple trailers website and still no luck. YouTube and Netflix didn’t stream at Full HD despite being set to HQ and on a great Wi-Fi connection - it was okay, but not taking advantage of how good this Lumia's screen can be by a long shot. Finally we found a phone-specific trailer website and finally got to see Thor smashing things with his hammer. Smashing. But not an ideal process.

Power

The Nokia Lumia 1520 is a powerhouse. The Finnish company has added a 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor with 2GB of RAM, as we touched upon in our intro. It's so fast we have very little to say on the subject. Whether gaming, multitasking, loading videos or opening large apps it handles everything near instantaneously. The only time we found ourselves waiting was for that pesky Spotify app which still feels a bit glitchy - but that's an inherent app issue, not the fault of the handset.

The point here, really, is that Windows Phone is now on par with the competition in power terms. You don't need to worry about power any more, as no matter how fast you go it will keep up with you.

The difference is down to the available apps. Windows Phone might not host apps such as Real Racing 3 or Dead Trigger 2 - yet, at least - but there's nothing to say that such titles won't appear one day - but there are some more power-hungry ones such as Asphalt 8. A Microsoft platform with Xbox branding, but not quite the champion in the gaming department in our view.

Apps

Apps has always been "one of those things" for Windows Phone. But for all our needs this seems to be reaching a point where there’s either an official app or something made by a third party that does the job. These are the apps we almost immediately downloaded to cover the basics: Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, Spotify, Skype, IMDB, BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Shazam, TuneIn Radio, London Travel, and Kindle. With over 170,000 apps in the Windows Phone Store at the time of writing Microsoft is certainly picking up pace.

It's not without some glitches though. The build of the Lumia 1520 we have comes with Nokia Black OS and with that the BBC iPlayer app doesn’t work for us. We’re enquiring about this with Nokia to find out when the working version is due - we'd hope it will be rectified for on-the-shelf launch.

Elsewhere there's Zinio, the resource for digital magazine and book editions, which comes pre-installed on the phone and is easy to use. Simply select the subject areas you like, Science and Tech for example, and then swipe through your news feed for interesting reads all led by big, clear images.

Nokia Lumia Black OS

For this review we're running Windows Phone on version 8.0.10517.150, better known as Nokia Lumia Black OS. It's unlikely to be the final build that goes out to the public in 2014, but it brings with it a host of additional features and functionality which we'll break down over various individual apps in more detail later. While Black is Lumia-specific, it will also contain some WP8 features that will be found in non-Nokia devices too.

As a general overview, Black changes multi-tasking - rather than swiping to get rid of a window you instead just tap the cross in the corner. It’s a tiny change that saves a fraction of a second between a swipe and a tap. But when you’re clearing a bunch of apps you do appreciate that Microsoft has given the new OS this much thought. That's the Microsoft effect.

Screen Beamer is an included app that we think is really underrated. It allows you to share whatever your mobile’s screen shows with another device. We simply logged on to the website where a QR code appeared, which we scanned with the 1520's camera and then every time we shook the phone it sent the updated image to the other screen instantly. Then if you select auto update you can use your phone and whatever is on the screen will come through to the other screen near instantly.

We were surprised to find ourselves using Nokia Music. Despite usually using Spotify it was nice to listen to the free radio mixes and even download them for later, without paying anything for the pleasure. We were even considering letting the Spotify subscription lapse. But then the inability to listen to entire albums without paying was too much for us to give up. A great alternative to the radio but no Spotify as it stands.

Despite Android and now even Apple offering pull up or pull down menus for quick access to functions, Microsoft still hasn’t introduced it. So every time you want to turn Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or GPS on or off you have to go into settings, then the specific one to access it. This gets old fast.

Glance screen

But while that gets old, the improvements to the new Glance screen are good to see. Glance currently displays the time as it bounces around the Lumia's screen, but with the Black update now adds in notifications for and colour options.

In peek mode, the screen illuminates only when you leave the phone out face up and swipe a hand in close proximity to display notifications. This wasn't available on the old OS, to the detriment of battery. It’s genuinely useful, as upon feeling a vibration you can take a peek and see if it’s an email and not that text you've been waiting for so you don’t have to waste battery unlocking the device. It also makes for an easy way to glance at the time without even pressing a button. Turn the device over, face-down, and the system knows to deactivate to save power.

Nokia has listened to its users and has added a night mode that automatically changes the Glance screen to a choice of either red, green or blue. It’s only a small thing but makes for a nice evening ambience and is ideal as a night light.

When you tap the side button for the lock screen you are also able to see Facebook, Twitter, Bing and Shazam updated images. You can also add pictures to this screen. This could be great for leaving a ticket or reservation number on the lock screen for instant access, for example.

Here Maps

A large part of what Windows Phone 8, and Nokia in particular, does is to bring in on-board apps. The kind of usability stuff that enhances those common tasks, such as Nokia's own Here Maps system rather than Google Maps. That needn't fill you with fear, either, as Here is an accomplished system.

 

Plenty has been added to the already impressive offline mapping service. LiveSight allows you to scan your surrounding area using the camera to see what’s nearby - like an augmented reality system, where you're looking through the phone to see mapped-out details of what's in front of you with more detail. The update adds a pause button so you can find what you want, stop everything and still have the specific information you wanted. It genuinely makes it easier to explore. We also like that you can now pin this to the start screen so a single touch immediately takes you to LiveSight - pretty helpful when trying to direct a big group to the next pub fast.

Route Planner now includes options for driving, walking, and public transport. This goes further as you can now tap a transit station when on a map and it will show the lines that pass through that stop.

Nokia Storyteller

There are other new inherent apps too, Storyteller being one such example. This puts your photos into the context of the world around you by using Here maps. The best feature of it is the ability to pinch and zoom out of a photo to see it on a map. It will remind you where it was taken and contextualise the situation.

We used this on the first night of testing with the phone after not remembering where the night ended. A quick pinch outward and from Here Maps you can easily see the nearby locations - bars in our case - to work it out. Even though this is still in beta it works well. The only limitation is the number of building labels on the maps. But with Here Maps cars currently mapping the world in minute detail that shouldn’t be a problem for long. And as more people begin to use it, along with more personalised opinions, photos and videos, it should start to fill the virtual world.

READ: Nokia Here Maps street view cars read road signs: We hitch a ride in the Google-beating motor

The app also intelligently groups and organises your photos and videos. For example it might do so by location if you’ve taken a bunch on a trip to New York. You can also add captions allowing you to manually place photos into certain folders. It's the automated process to bunch things together in easy to digest format without you needing to work through sorting it all yourself.

Camera

One of the primary reasons to buy a Nokia Lumia is the camera that's included, and the 1520 is no slouch in that department. Pro Camera - the same app that was featured on the Lumia 1020 - appears in its latest form, complete with raw file capture and, in the 1520's case, a 20-megapixel sensor, alongside optical image stabilisation, enhanced sensor tech and digital zoom.

Now from within the Pro Camera app one icon will take you to the Nokia Cinemagraph mode, for burst and action shots, and the ability to erase sections or animating shots. Going from the Lumia 1020 to this we really noticed how much quicker and easier it was to access which meant we actually used it a lot more. Another inspired inclusion from that button is access to direct Twitter uploads, Bing Vision, and the regular Camera which takes one full res shot rather than the zoomable smart photo taken in Pro Camera mode.

READ: Nokia Lumia 1020 review

Pro Camera shoots at two different resolutions -  5 megapixels and 16 megapixels in this case - allowing you to intelligently zoom in or out after you’ve taken the shot. This works well but isn’t as high a resolution or as clear as the Lumia 1020. We did a little test to see how the Lumia 1520 fared against both the best-in-class Lumia 1020 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

The Lumia 1520 does show signs of heavy-handed processing in the same way that the Nokia 808 PureView - the pre-Lumia, Symbian handset that kicked off Nokia's PureView prowess in the smartphone camera sector - was capable but didn't handle processing as well as it could have.  And, in the example above, the colour balance is off. But we've taken plenty of shots and are still convinced it's a decent camera, it's just not got a win over its Lumia 1020 cousin. The above example has re-scaled each shot roughly to fit, so it's not a scientific experiment by any measure.

A huge part of that dual-frame shooting feature that is coming - but isn't here yet, not in this build of the OS - is raw file capture. We were excited to hear that the 1520 would be the first smartphone capable of capturing both JPEG and raw (DNG) files back at the phone's announcement in mid October, and although the option is showing up in the menus we're unable to retrieve DNG files at the moment. Looks like we'll have to wait for another update before we can taste the fruits of that labour.

Refocus: Like-a-Lytro

Another camera app you can download from Nokia is Refocus. Snap a subject up close and make the most of the lens's f/2.2 aperture for a blurred background. But with refocus you can select the focus depth after the shot is taken. A bit like a digital version of Lytro camera's smarts, although not as precise in its ability. But it does really work and is great fun to play around with images once they've been shot. If you've missed focus, you can adjust it after. What’s also great is you can even upload it to Facebook where others can refocus around the image as they please.

Nokia Camera Studio’s great feature is focus + blur which allows you to create SLR-like depth from your pictures. Get the foreground crystal clear while blurring the background for the illusion of depth. Or there’s colour pop which lets you turn a photo black and white then bring out certain colour like read headphones in a monotone picture. Collage does what you’d expect and lets you organise a selection of photos in varying shapes and sizes on one page.

Super stabilisation

The Lumia 1520's built-in optical image stabilisation is visible when you record video. Move the camera quickly to the left and you can see the image lag slightly, in a good way, as the on-screen version seems to float without any wobble. The four microphones are also pretty astounding for sound capture - you end up with well-balanced location-accurate audio.

The optical image stabilisation is decent but the device does show some unnatural warping in preview - but it's still much better than the jerky lack of OIS in something like the Note 3. We had a play around with both devices to see how they fared - take a look at our 1520 vs Note 3 stabilisation tests below to get an idea of it in action. We did also shoot a Lumia 1020 version but it was so similar that YouTube auto deleted it for being "a duplicate".

Battery

The advantage of a larger handset is its ability to pack in even more battery power. In the case of the Lumia 1520 there's a 3400mAh battery. Of course the sacrifice is that more power gets used to run the larger, brighter, higher-resolution screen compared to earlier Lumia devices. It appears, in this case, the upgrade in size has resulted in better battery though, assisted, we believe, by the presence of the quad-core Snapdragon 800 playing its part in power efficiency savings.

We were running two Lumia devices side by side when out and about over the weekend to see what happened. The Lumia 1020 got a solid day and a bit extra while turning Wi-Fi on and off, playing music via Bluetooth headphones, reading Kindle books, and checking emails regularly. The Lumia 1520 doing the same tasks breezed past the two-day mark with no problems. From 9am to 5pm, with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned on all day we were left with 70 per cent battery. We left it on overnight with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on, and by 5pm the next day it was still at 52 per cent. That was without a SIM card in the device as we were focusing on camera-led features.

 

After that we popped a SIM in for the final half of the battery life, and even after leaving it unplugged overnight were still greeted with 22 per cent remaining charge the next day. The Lumia 1520 definitely delivers in the battery department, and even if you're going to be maxing out that Snapdragon 800 some of the time you'll have no problems surviving a full and varied day. 

Room for improvement

Now that Nokia has jumped up in screen size the keyboard feels huge. Yet, and despite this extra space, you still have to hit an icon to jump into numerical mode. Surely an extra line with numbers, or a long press on certain characters could be added by now? Just take a look at SwiftKey to see how it’s done correctly Nokia.

Then there's apps as we've touched upon. It's getting better, but it's still not quite as vibrant as Android or iOS stores. But at least it's growing and many of the majors are now on board.

Verdict

The Nokia Lumia 1520 has to be the best Windows Phone 8 handset on the market. It's certainly the best Lumia we've used to date. That's not just thanks to the reassuringly high quality build, but also thanks to the new Black OS.

The OS version we've seen is missing one or two components, but it's still a definite step forward. Accompany that with an ever growing selection of apps, and the first Nokia phablet is a genuinely capable mobile OS. The battery life is also plentiful - but on a device we'd expect nothing less.

READ: Best phablets 2013: The best big-screened phones to buy right now

The camera and its accompanying apps also make up one of the best smartphone solutions on the market. You could spend a lot of time playing with these features and thanks to Instagram - which hasn't arrived in the Store just yet - sharing will be easy once the 1520 hits the shelves. Here Maps is also a fantastic native service that adds huge value to the OS and the 1520 - downloading maps and data-free navigating, even when driving, is hugely valuable. And organising photos on a map is a great idea.

There are a few niggles though. First this is a phablet, so it's huge. It's an inherent thing with the format, but it will be far too big for some people to desire or handle. The keypad, too, feels giant on this new scale. We'd also like to see quick access settings, like on Android and now iOS, and yet more apps - indeed, in our test, things like BBC iPlayer were not responsive

If a large handset is for you, and you are keen on Windows Phone - if you're new then be prepared to get used to a slightly new way of doing things, if you're an existing user then be excited at an improved way of doing things - then the Lumia 1520 is a fantastic smartphone that sits proudly in among its phablet peers.



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