Nokia’s Lumia 521 isn’t a new smartphone, but it’s based on one of the best-selling Windows Phone devices around, the Lumia 520. It won’t beat our Editors’ Choice on MetroPCS, the $519 Samsung Galaxy S4, but it isn’t trying to. At $99, this MetroPCS phone is a great deal if you’re on a budget and don’t mind the limited-but-growing selection of apps, and want something that makes better calls than the competition.
Most of Nokia’s Lumia phones share a common design language, including the 521. The handset measures 4.88 by 2.52 inches, and it’s 0.39 inches thick, making it thinner than both the MetroPCS Alcatel One Touch Evolve and LG Optimus F3.
The phone is flat-backed, and the matte white polycarbonate case slopes smoothly to form comfortable edges the whole way around. There are cutouts for the camera in the center and speaker in the bottom right corner. On the right side is a volume rocker, Power button, and dedicated camera button. On the bottom is a micro USB port, and up top is the headphone jack. You can pop off the entire back (buttons included) to reveal the removable 1,430mAh battery, micro SIM card slot, and microSD card slot.
The face of the phone is elegant. Gone is the carrier branding on the bottom of T-Mobile’s Lumia 521, and Windows Phone’s ever-present trio of dedicated capacitive buttons are below the display.
The 4-inch IPS LCD has 800-by-480 resolution, at 233 pixels per inch. Text is still readable and images are sharper than on the similarly equipped Huawei Vitria, even without Nokia’s signature ClearBlack technology for deeper blacks and less ambient light.
The screen has decent viewing angles when looking from the top or bottom, but very poor ones when viewed sideways at more extreme angles. The only exciting thing about it is the “Super Sensitive Touch” technology that lets you use the touch screen while wearing gloves, a useful feature for cold weather climates. It works pretty well.
For the Lumia 521 to cost $100 on a prepaid plan it has to give up a few features, and high-speed data is one of them. It’s lacking in LTE and HSPA+ 42 support, instead maxing out at HSPA+21 speeds. Data speed tests in New York City yielded a peak download speed of 7.21 Mbps, though around 5 Mbps was the average. Web pages will appear to load much more slowly than on LTE phones, though, because the HSPA network’s time to first byte is much longer than LTE’s. It’s also using the older Bluetooth 3.0 and 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi with Wi-Fi calling support. GPS was accurate down to the street corner.
The Lumia 521 is a great phone if you’re looking to keep costs low, especially on MetroPCS. It’s running on T-Mobile’s network, and as such doesn’t support any of MetroPCS’ CDMA bands. For $40 per month you get unlimited voice, texting, and 500MB of HSPA+ 21 speeds. For $50 you’ll get 2.5GB of high-speed data, and $60 gets you unlimited high-speed data.
If you’re looking for a phone primarily for calls, the 521 may be the best option for the money. The call quality was much better than expected, and voices were loud and clear on the earpiece. Noise cancellation functioned pretty well when not using the speakerphone. My voice was a little muffled but easily understood. The speakerphone was louder than the one on the Vitria, but lacked the same level of noise cancellation. When paired with a Bluetooth headset (the Jabra Style), a lot of ambient noise from passers-by talking to others was heard by the person on the other end, and my voice sounded more distant. Battery life was just average, at 7 hours and 26 minutes.
There’s a 1GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8227 processor as well as 512MB RAM inside the 521, making it slower than the 1.5GHz processors found in the Lumia 925, Lumia 822, and most other Windows Phone 8 devices. In Antutu benchmarks, the 521 scored 7393, while the Lumia 822 scored 10955. GPU testing in WPBench had the 822 and 521 score the same 51 frames per second.
The Lumia 521 is running Windows Phone 8, so visual customizations are all but nonexistent. You can, however, rearrange the always-updating Live Tiles and change their sizes, but other than that, it’s all the same. The slower processor makes the 521 less suited for high-end gaming, but casual games never made it lag or choke in my tests.
Windows Phone’s app ecosystem has improved by leaps and bounds over the past year. There are more than 100,000 apps available, with Vine appearing quite recently and apps like Instagram, Flipboard, and Imangi Studios’ Temple Run 2 coming soon. Preloaded apps include HERE Drive, which provides turn-by-turn directions, and HERE Transit, which provides useful public transit information in a beautiful way.
Microsoft Office is also included, letting you create documents on the go. There are less useful preloaded apps like Angry Birds Roost, an app store for Angry Birds-related content. Almost all preloaded apps can be uninstalled.
The 521 comes equipped with 8GB of internal storage, with 4.79 GB free for the user, more than double the usual storage found in similarly priced Android devices. The Lumia is able to read microSD cards up to 64GB if you need extra space, but it can’t store apps on the SD card, only media files. Media support includes a slew of formats, lacking only niche file formats like OGG and FLAC. The back-ported speaker was loud and clear enough in my tests.
The Lumia 521 has a 5-megapixel camera that takes good photos in good lighting. Unfortunately,there’s no flash, making low-light photography tough. Tapping anywhere on the screen makes the camera focus and take the shot, but that focus takes more than a second. If your subject isn’t fast-moving, the photos are noticeably better than other $100 no-contract smartphones.
You get Cinemagraph, a GIF-making app, and Nokia Panorama. Nokia’s Pro Cam app for its higher-end phones is unavailable here. The 521 does have Nokia’s Smart Shoot, a photo app that takes a burst shot and lets you erase objects or swap faces. It doesn’t do either of them well. There is no front-facing camera.
720p video is noisy indoors but better than the choppy Vitria and Optimus F3, and it records at a consistent 30 frames per second.
A few months ago, the Lumia 521 would’ve been the go-to budget phone on MetroPCS. And if you’re looking for a solidly built phone that makes great calls, this is it. For a few dollars more, the $129 Huawei Vitria packs in a lot more in a similar package, including LTE, but it can’t match the 521 in terms of call clarity or camera quality. If you’re looking for a less-expensive option, the $60 Alcatel One Touch Evolve is also available.
|Phone Capability / Network||GSM|
|Screen Resolution||800 x 480 pixels|
|Dimensions||4.88 x 2.52 x 0.39 inches|
|Video Camera Resolution||720p|
|Available Integrated Storage||4.79 GB|
|Processor Speed||1 GHz|
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8270 Dual-Core|
|Total Integrated Storage||8 GB|
|High-Speed Data||EDGE, HSPA+ 21|
|Screen Type||IPS LCD|
|Operating System as Tested||Windows Phone 8|
|Camera Resolution||5-Megapixel Rear|
|Screen Pixels Per Inch||235 ppi|
|Bands||850, 900, 1800, 1900, 1700|
|Form Factor||Candy Bar|
|Screen Size||4 inches|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc