Nokia Lumia 520 (AT&T) review

The pay-as-you-go Nokia Lumia 520 is a solid introductory smartphone on AT&T's Go Phone prepaid service, provided photography isn't a priority.

The most positive trend in the smartphone industry is not the advent of ever-larger devices, but the arrival of budget-priced phones that still get the basics right. Nokia’s Lumia 520, $99.99 at AT&T’s GoPhone prepaid service, represents one of the better examples of this entry-level genre.

It’s not a good fit for app enthusiasts, videophiles or shutterbugs—or anybody in a hurry on the mobile Web—but if you just need an affordable phone that brings you simple Web access and helps you stay on top of your schedule and your social circles, this Windows Phone 8 model deserves a look.

Size, Screen, and Storage
The compact, relatively thick dimensions of the phone—4.72 by 2.51 by 0.38 inches—vaguely remind me of the first iPhone. Like that pioneering model, the 4.37-ounce 520 feels right-sized for single-handed use in a way that today’s enormophones never could.

The grippy plastic back peels off to reveal an easily replaced battery, plus micro-SIM and microSD slots. You need to pop out the battery to get at either of the card slots, and the sideways orientation requires wiggling the card back and forth before you can extract it.

The 4-inch display, at 800 by 480 pixels, falls short of Retina standards and seems unnecessarily small given the wide bezel around it. But you have to hold the phone pretty close to your face before you can discern individual pixels, and it’s fine overall. All of the buttons line up on the right-hand side: Volume, Power and Camera. A headphone jack is up top, and there’s a micro-USB port is at the bottom, but you have no video-out jacks.

An advertised 8 GB of storage space translates to a theoretical upper limit of 7.23 GB, with 4.52 GB available in a fresh configuration.

Call Quality, Battery Life, and Bandwidth
The 520 works well at reproducing the human voice. Voice Mail messages left in standard and speakerphone modes sounded equally clear, although the latter failed to capture a whispered segment. The phone’s integrated noise cancellation effectively hushed an arriving subway train, and the correctly recognized most voice-dialing instructions made through a Plantronics Bluetooth hands-free kit. 

An observed eleven hours of talk-time battery life beat Nokia and AT&T’s estimates by more than an hour and exceeded what we saw on the 520′s T-Mobile-specific sibling, the Lumia 521, by almost two and a half hours.

The 520, however, fared worse than the 521 at delivering mobile broadband. Ookla’s Speedtest.net application clocked a peak download speed of 5.3 Mbps on AT&T’s signal in the Washington, D.C. area. Wi-Fi can be much faster, but the 520 didn’t detect a nearby 5GHz network.

Camera, Connectivity, and Apps
The 520′s photo and video capabilities also evoke the original iPhone: You have one camera on the back (sans flash) and no front-facing camera. That 5-megapixel sensor can take decent photos with good lighting and a bit of luck, but too many showed an off white balance or a distracting, gauzy glow around illuminated areas. Indoors, you’d better have an extremely steady hand as you gently press the shutter button.

The camera does better at moving pictures than still images, keeping close to 30 frames per second in wildly varying lighting, although the footage quickly got grainy as the scene got dimmer.

Nokia throws in some useful photo apps. Cinemagraph lets you quickly crank out a looped, animated image, while Smart Shoot combines  a series of photos to craft an improved group portrait, and PhotoBeamer allows you to drive a slideshow on the screen of an adjacent device. The clumsy Panorama app, however, requires you to aim at a series of circles on the screen instead of simply panning in one direction.

(You can also access most of these apps through the lens plug-in button in the main camera app, which should reduce the odds of users ignoring them in a long line of apps.)

AT&T throws in a few of its own apps. Make the redundant, $9.99-per-month AT&T Navigator the first you uninstall. Unfortunately, the carrier has yet to support Microsoft’s Data Sense app, which helps you track your bandwidth usage—a key concern given the limited allocations of most GoPhone plans.

Windows Phone 8 handles all of the major audio and video formats except for QuickTime. The 520 also supports one audio format unmentioned in AT&T’s spec sheet: FM radio, which is available as long as you have a headphone cable connected to serve as its antenna.

The Windows Phone app inventory continues to trail that of Android and iOS, forcing users to look for more obscure alternatives to some name-brand apps. The platform’s increasing popularity—it’s now broken past 10 percent in some European markets—suggests this gap will narrow, but you have to be prepared to live with it today.

Conclusions
Were the Lumia 520 on AT&T’s subscription service, this phone would be an awful deal. Its low price would soon vanish in higher monthly rates set to subsidize the purchase of pricier hardware. Instead, you can easily get by with a $60/month bill. The camera and battery life could be better, and the mobile-broadband speeds should be faster, but you could do far worse in a starter smartphone.

Specifications
Phone Capability / Network GSM, CDMA, UMTS
Screen Resolution 800 x 480 pixels
NFC No
Dimensions 4.72 x 2.51 x 0.38 inches
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 b/g/n
Video Camera Resolution 720p
Available Integrated Storage 4.52 GB
Processor Speed 1 GHz
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon S4
GPS Yes
Service Provider AT&T
Total Integrated Storage 7.23 GB
High-Speed Data GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, HSDPA+
Weight 4.37 oz
Screen Type IPS LCD
Operating System as Tested Windows Phone 8
Physical Keyboard No
Camera Resolution 5 MP Rear-Facing
Screen Pixels Per Inch 233 ppi
Bands 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100
microSD Slot Yes
Form Factor Candy Bar
Screen Size 4 inches
Bluetooth Version 3

Verdict
The pay-as-you-go Nokia Lumia 520 is a solid introductory smartphone on AT&T's Go Phone prepaid service, provided photography isn't a priority.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc