Everyone’s attention might be on the Lumia 925 and the Lumia 928 right now, but it would be a shame to overlook the Lumia 521. This cute, capable smartphone costs just $29.99 down (or $149.99 in total), and gets you a good mix of performance and features with one of T-Mobile’s inexpensive new Simple Choice plans. It’s not a phone for power users, and Windows Phone still lacks many of the apps you’ll find on iOS and Android. But it’s a good place to start for smartphone newbies, or anyone else looking for a decent low-cost smartphone.
Design and Call Quality
The Lumia 521 may not be expensive, but it certainly doesn’t feel cheap. Most of the phone is encased in a sturdy, white matte plastic shell. The front of the phone is a glass panel with a 4-inch display, and a little too much bezel, especially on the bottom. It measures 4.88 by 2.52 by 0.39 inches (HWD) and weighs 4.48 ounces, which makes it extremely comfortable to hold and use with just one hand.
The phone’s 4-inch IPS LCD is serviceable. It features 800-by-480-pixel resolution, which works out to 235 pixels per inch. It looks bright and vibrant, but that resolution is fast becoming low-end compared with all of the 1080p HD displays we’ve been seeing. It gets the job done; there’s just no wow factor. Typing felt fine on the on-screen keyboard.
There’s a headphone jack on top of the phone, a power port on the bottom, and Camera, Power, and Volume buttons on the right. To access the battery, you need to peel off the shell. I found it easiest to place a finger over the camera, then tug at a corner of the phone until it gave way. Underneath you’ll find an empty microSD card slot and a removable 1,430mAh battery. It was good for 8 hours and 37 minutes of talk time.
The Lumia 521 can hit up to HSPA+ 21 speeds on T-Mobile’s network. It’s a little disappointing that it doesn’t support the carrier’s faster HSPA+ 42 or LTE networks, but it still managed to pull in some good data speeds, with an average of 5.4Mbps down and 1.5Mbps up. It also supports 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi calling.
Voice quality is very good, especially through the phone’s earpiece. Voices sound loud, rich, and clear. Calls made with the phone sound a little muffled and digitized, but not distractingly so. A little wind noise made it through but noise cancellation is otherwise pretty strong. The speakerphone is not loud enough to hear outdoors, but calls sounded fine over a Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset; I had no trouble using the headset to control Microsoft’s voice command software.
T-Mobile’s new contract-free plans start at $50 per month, and that gets you all the talk and texts you want, along with 500MB of high-speed data per month, after which your speeds are slowed to 2G. $60 gets you 2GB of high-speed data, and $70 gets you unlimited high-speed data. These are excellent rates compared with competitors like AT&T and Verizon, and further enhance the Lumia 521′s appeal as a solid budget phone.
Processor, Winodws Phone 8, and Apps
The Lumia 521 is powered by a 1GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, which is less powerful than the 1.5GHz chip you’ll find in nearly every other WP8 handset. The benchmark scores confirm this—the 521 turned in scores about 30% less powerful than competing devices. Luckily, Windows Phone 8 is a light, fast operating system, and using the phone never felt slow. It takes a little longer for apps to open, but I didn’t encounter any sluggishness or performance hiccups.
Windows Phone 8 itself is Microsoft’s mobile operating system, which is built around a series of live tiles on your home screen. These tiles continuously pull information from social networks, the Internet, messages, and local content stored on your phone, which is both useful and fun. The Contacts menu in particular aggregates information from your email, Facebook, and Twitter feeds, into one great big People Hub. Live tiles now come in different sizes, which shows that Windows Phone is more configurable than Apple’s iOS, but still nowhere near as customizable as Google’s Android.
Since Microsoft doesn’t allow any modification of its operating system, one of the biggest differentiators between Windows phones is the included apps. Nokia includes a number of its own home-grown apps, like Nokia Drive+ Beta, which offers voice-enabled turn-by-turn GPS navigation. Here Maps is a very attractive set of interactive maps, and Here City Lens is an augmented reality app that places nearby points of interest over your camera’s view. Nokia Music allows you to buy music or listen to premade playlists for free. These apps are no longer exclusive to Nokia phones, though. Nokia has made them available in the Windows Phone store to all WP8 devices in order to acquire more user-generated data for a better overall experience.
You also get some other apps, like Angry Birds, Slacker Radio, Scout, and T-Mobile TV, which can all be uninstalled if you don’t need or want them.
Windows Phone’s biggest stumbling block is app availability. The Windows Phone store is home to more than 100,000 apps, but it’s not guaranteed to have all of the apps you want. The selection is constantly improving, but you still won’t find many of the top new apps for iOS and Android available on Windows Phone.
Multimedia, Camera, and Conclusions
You get 4.61GB of free internal storage. Luckily, there’s also the aforementioned microSD card slot under the back cover that worked with both my 32 and 64GB SanDisk cards. Windows Phone has fairly robust multimedia file support, and the Lumia 521 had no trouble handling any of our test files. Music sounded good over both wired and Bluetooth headphones and video looked sharp during playback.
The 5-megapixel camera has autofocus, but lacks a flash. As long as you have good lighting, performance isn’t bad. The camera can capture photos instantaneously, without waiting for the autofocus, but they tend to come out blurry. If you let the autofocus kick in the camera can snap a photo within 0.8 second. In good lighting the camera does a nice job with colors and captures a fair amount of detail compared with other 5MP shooters. It also supports Nokia’s Smart Shoot, which I love. It lets you fire off a burst of shots, then erase objects in the background or even swap faces out with another photo when someone isn’t smiling.
The camera also records 720p video at a smooth 30 frames per second. Video looks a little grainy, especially indoors, but it’s still usable. There’s no front-facing camera, so you can’t use the 521 to video chat.
For the price, the Nokia Lumia 521 is the best low-cost smartphone you can get on T-Mobile right now. That said, Windows Phone and its lack of apps isn’t for everyone. If you want an inexpensive, capable smartphone, and you don’t need unfettered access to all the hottest new apps, the Lumia 521 is a solid choice. But if it’s apps you’re after, you’re better off with the iPhone 5, which has the best app selection there is, though it’s significantly more pricey. The same goes for the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S 4. Both phones have a much greater app selection, along with better cameras, bigger displays, and faster processors. But both phones are a lot more expensive than the 521.
|Phone Capability / Network||GSM|
|Screen Resolution||800 x 480 pixels|
|Dimensions||4.88 x 2.52 x 0.39 inches|
|Video Camera Resolution||720p|
|Battery Life (As Tested)||8 hours 37 minutes|
|Available Integrated Storage||4.61 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 MP|
|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