Right now, the Windows Phone blogosphere is obsessing over Nokia’s new flagships: The 928 is making its Verizon debut, and Catwalk just jumped out on the London stage, juggling flaming bowling pins and wowing audience members. While Nokia obviously has no trouble making phones that compete with the greatest that other manufacturers can produce, they’ve also been busy producing devices on the exact opposite end of the mobile tech spectrum.
Here in WinSource’s native United States the Lumia 521 is the bottom of the bargain bin. It is a T-Mobile-exclusive version of the 520, and you can buy it right now for just $130 at WalMart. To top that, you also have the option of securing a store-exclusive plan; for just $30 per month, you get unlimited text and 4G data, plus 100 minutes of talk time.
The short of it: The Lumia 521 and Walmart’s exclusive service plan make up the cheapest Windows Phone experience that can be obtained by a regular American customer. This leads us to wonder what kind of experience do you get for $130? Can you abandon the two-year contract, or the international “Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t” purchase, and still end up with a true Windows Phone?
Lumia 521 Design
I couldn’t imagine that I’d be blown away when I first handled the 521; at least, not in the same way I was when I first unboxed my obviously-red, 185-gram Lumia 920. The 521 is 125g (hah, palindrome), about 15g lighter than an iPhone 4S or 5g less than the HTC 8X. Spatially, imagine an HTC 8x with about 1cm shaved off the top; the phone is otherwise nearly identical in dimension, though the overall design is much more brick-like around the edges.
It’s easy for me personally to declare the 521 as cheap-feeling in terms of a weight-to-size comparison, being the long-time owner of a Lumia 920, but giving the phone a solid knock of a fist from either side results in a reassuring “thud,” as opposed to a hollow “clonk.” My sister, this 521 being her first smartphone and an upgrade from an LG Neon 2 slider, didn’t even have the word “cheap” on her mind.
You will know when you’re pressing the hardware buttons; all of them, including the individual two stages of the camera button, give a distinct click in their feel. Unfortunately, this is at the cost of the more “luxurious,” butter-smooth depressions of the buttons on the 920. Personally, I prefer knowing when my phone is actually going to take the picture over having it feel “tender.” Furthermore, the buttons seem to be angled into the phone about 15-20 degrees; this seems to add marginal difficulty to the button presses.
“Pleasant” isn’t the first word I would use when describing most of the exterior surfaces. The buttons get the nod, as they are a contrasting black and are hard to focus on, but the glass is neither Gorilla Glass nor, more noticeably, oleophobic; I’m planning on ordering a screen protector as soon as possible, not for protection from scratches, but from the forensics laboratory that crops up after as little as a moment’s tactile use. The matte finish of the back shell doesn’t pick up a single print.
However, the white shell suffers from a Spartan texture, one of cheaply-made automotive interiors (The kind that makes you think, “Did they have to use the most uncomfortable material for this bit?!”). It is hard to grip unless one firmly pinches the phone between the inside of the palm, and the ring and middle fingers. However, because of the phone’s small form factor, one-handed operation, of this or any manner, is very manageable. On top of that, every line is incredibly crisp, from the camera hole to the USB port, and there are no issues with unwanted separation of shell and hull. Furthermore, small size was critical for my sister, who has many small pockets; she reports no problems with her new Lumia.
And one more thing: Don’t expect to be able to hit up the Web tonight and order a replacement shell. Since the 521 is 4mm taller than the 520, you have to find 521-specific accessories to fit it. And there aren’t many, or, if there are, they aren’t in the places I’ve been searching for them in (eBay, Amazon, Nokia.com). Perhaps a T-Mobile retail store will offer something for the phone they have exclusivity rights over…
Lumia 521 Hardware
The screen is a four-inch, 480×800 IPS LCD display. While it includes the contrast-boosting feature for harsh-light readability, it doesn’t share the ClearBlack polarization filters of higher-end Lumias; it turns out that colors, and not only blacks, become washed-out and unappealing with ease. Power users who enjoy detailed AMOLEDs or very good LCDs like the 920′s will definitely be unsatisfied. It’s a budget phone; the LCD screen is reminiscent of a Gameboy Advance SP screen, as the viewing angles fluctuate at random as you rotate the device, and streaks of the backlight show up at high angles. The 521 does receive the super-sensitivity treatment that many Lumia models come with, allowing use with gloved hands, utensils, or a host of other non-capacitive items.
For those who wonder and have never compared them side-by-side, the non-HD resolution of the 521 definitely stands out as inferior when watching video or playing games. At the same time, though, when navigating through the minimal design of Windows Phone 8 and the apps designed with it in mind, the only obvious difference is the extra aliasing (jagged edges) that shows on the 521 when tiles flip or screens change. Otherwise, you have to focus more than you would for using the device normally to tell the two apart in terms of pixel density.
The battery has a capacity of 1430mAh, about 300 less than the mid-range HTC 8s and, oddly, 130 more than the level-up Lumia 620. The first full charge lasted a surprising full 24 hours; that included 4 hours of Pandora (3 Wi-Fi, 1 2G data), 35 minutes of checking the news, weather, and Baconit (data), 30 minutes of Netflix streaming (Wi-Fi), 40 texts, 5 e-mails sent and 5 received (mostly data), about 10 minutes of undocumented use, and standby hours the rest of the time. There wasn’t any particular attempt to save battery life in this scenario.
With Battery Saver switched completely on and with nearly the same use, on two separate days, the level dropped either 30% from 7AM to5PM (So, on track for about another 20 hours of use), or 55% from 7AM to 4PM (which would end up at 7 or so hours remaining). The battery takes about 100 minutes to charge from dead to full with the included charger, partially thanks to the below-par battery capacity. Needless to say, the 521 will last a day of moderate-to-heavy usage, and then some with a little battery-budgeting and Battery Saver switched to full-on.
Well, what we have here is, ahem, another Windows Phone 8 device. What else can we add? You get Windows Phone 8 as usual, with all the videos and lenses and apps you can fit onto what little storage is available; and you get Nokia’s suite of lenses, utilities, and exclusive apps (some of which you will have to grab from the Nokia Collection in the Store, such as Ringtone Maker). For those unaware, that includes HERE Drive (no free international turn-by-turn), Maps, and Transit; Cinemagraph, Panorama, and Smart Shoot; Nokia Music; Storage Check for analyzing and removing temporary files; and others.
T-Mobile also includes some pre-installed programs, ranging from typical spamware to actual, useful tools; while Data Sense is still a Verizon exclusive, T-Mobile gives you a My Account app that displays your data and minutes usage with a live tile, along with other features.
Unsurprisingly, there are some honest limitations. The first to interrupt my bliss was the lack of a compass; Nokia City Lens would not install on the 521 because of this. Likewise, any other applications that utilize a built-in compass will have compatibility issues with the 521. There is also the de-clocked Snapdragon S4 processor (1GHz, versus 1.5 in most high-end Windows Phone 8 devices) and 512MB RAM (versus 1GB), both of which can limit performance in a number of intensive tasks. Zinio, the latest addition to the Nokia app collection, requires 1GB of RAM, so the 521 won’t allow it to install.
For all the programs I have actually installed and ran, however, from Angry Birds to Baconit, you would’ve needed a timer running to figure out the winner between the 920 and the 521. Spotify took about 0.6 seconds longer to open on the 521 than the device with 50% higher clock speed and 100% more RAM. Sometimes, the 521 would even beat out the 920 to resuming an app like Pandora Radio. The 521 is also perfectly capable of playing high-end 3D games like Asphalt 7 thanks to the Adreno 305 GPU, which is a step below the Lumia 920′s 225 GPU. Baconit is one of the apps that brings out weakness in the 521, demonstrated by twice the loading times for subreddits versus the 920.
Lumia 521 Camera
On paper and in practice, if only in one category, this is where the high-enders of Windows Phone should absolutely decimate the 521. The phone features a 5MP camera that can record 720p video, and it goes without saying that Zeiss optics and PureView technology are absent. With an application like ProShot and some post-processing on my PC, the 920 is versatile enough to take near-DSLR-quality shots.
Of course, most people aren’t willing to do all that post-processing. While it’s nice to get extreme-quality shots with some work, what matters to most phone buyers is that the press of a button produces a clear, colorful picture. How does the 521 stack up?
The camera is not entirely junk, nor is it as mastered as any of Nokia’s top-end sensors and lenses. It’s aperture is an f/2.4, compared to the larger f/2.0 of the HTC 8X or Lumia 920, which gives the 521′s camera a larger depth of field, but causes less light to be absorbed in a shot. You still get all the functionality Windows Phone gives to the camera app, like adjustments to white balance and aspect ratio, but remember that you don’t have an LED to brighten up a scene or assist the autofocus.
You can see that difference in-depth of field in this miniature gnome shot; the 920 focuses on a small area of distance between it and the subject, while the 521 manages to capture more of the subject in focus. For a camera with no LED focus assist, that’s beneficial if the camera has trouble getting a precise focus lock on a subject. Note that the 920 takes the cake at the specific points (the bird, the right hand) where it focuses, but then actually has some difficulty with the exposure overall; the 521 both captures a greater area of the subject in focus and has a more even exposure.
The winner in this tricky lighting situation is much more obvious. The 920 has the advantage of a wider field of view, helping it capture more of the subject. However, I believe the most important factor in this shot was how both cameras interpreted the lighting; The Lumia 920 took the cake by compensating well for the bright, clouded sunlight outside, both in color levels and exposure, and shows a velvety-red Pontiac with a clear reflection. The 521 suffers by focusing on the nearer, dimmer, fluorescent lighting, which resulted in dull colors on the front of the car and a wash-out at the back simultaneously. At least the 521 gets points from acceptable clarity.
- If you find a phone that beats this price-to-performance ratio, I’ll eat my shoes. Both of them.
- Fits a medium form factor that some wish for in the Lumia range.
- Battery lasts very well.
- Camera is good for a basic, 5MP design, not to mention Nokia’s lenses are included.
- If you can find any replacement shells and cases for the 521, I’ll also eat my hat.
- That screen and that camera aren’t winning awards anytime soon.
- Fellow “spoiled” smartphone users won’t be impressed by the materials used.
- Lacks bits (namely: NFC, LED flash, compass, Gorilla Glass) that some may require or think are too standard to give up.
Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5
You can hold me out to that bet, because that 5-out-of-5 is also how confident I am that this is the best off-contract phone out there right now. If this were some carrier-locked device sold for normal contract pricing, I might not expect to reward this device more than a 3 rating. On a good day. Instead, this is a Windows Phone, by Nokia no less, for a price less than some people’s grocery bills. No, you’re not going to impress fanboys with their high-end models, but you can stay smug with your fat wad o’ cash in your pants pocket.
So maybe you’re not convinced that you want this, and that makes sense. LED flash and a compass really are basic enough to wonder how much was really saved by keeping them out of the 521, and you probably still want a PureView camera or a flawless screen. What about your kids? Don’t they just need a phone? And there are people who really can’t afford a modern-day American carrier contract; this phone is their savior from the hordes of the Gingerbread LG Optimus L3 and the like… Eeerruughh.
I wouldn’t mind ditching my 920 and living only with the 521 to drive home the point, but, well, my sister is using it. And she won’t let me have it anymore. The Lumia 521 is a device with a lot more potential than its $130 price exudes.
Joe Fedewa contributed to this review.