Updated: October 12, 2013
I am not a big fan of smartphones, fact. I am not a big fan of Windows 8, fact. So why would I buy a device that falls at the crossroads between these two facts? The answer is simple. Technological exploration, cheap price, and Nokia.
I have always loved the way Nokia did their hardware and software. They knew how to please the user, by providing elegant devices coupled with an intuitive presentation layer. You never needed a manual when using a Nokia phone, and this has remained true even as the company started its almost tumble down the market slope. So I figured me testing out one of their latest devices is about as revolutionary as it gets. Do read.
The phone, the spec and such
Officially, Nokia Lumia 520 is an entry-level Windows Phone 8 device. What this means is that it lacks certain features that you would find in more expensive smartphones, like the front-facing camera, for self mugshots, camera flash, compass, and such. On the happy side, you do get good pixel density, 800x480px of screen equity, plus the touch surface that is both delicate enough to be usable when wearing gloves, if you happen to be sterile, a serial killer or both, or with nails, if you happen to grow some. Then, you get quite a bit of chemistry in your battery. 512MB RAM sounds like not a lot, and 8GB internal storage is about standard for most smartphones out there, but we will see if these specifications meet the bill.
Speaking of quiche, this is a cheap device. Mine cost USD179.99 before shipping, and we're talking about the international, unlocked version. I have seen even cheaper examples, going as low as USD159.99, but with pricier and slower deliveries.
The phone is light, and it comes coated in some high-friction plastic, so it does not slip out of your hands. It's not very comfy to hold, but then, no smartphone really has the right ergonomics. If you want that, you ought to go with a dumb device. Anyhow, I chose the plain black design, because it's nicer than the flashy yellow or blue or pink ones.
Taking the rear cover off is a bit difficult. You will have to prise the top end of the lid first, and for that you need gentle fingers and maybe a bit of fingernail growth to get it right, otherwise, you might struggle for a while. Underneath, you will find a slot for a SIM card, micro-sized, a 64GB SD card slot, empty, of course, and a removable battery.
Going about the perimeter, Nokia Lumia 520 comes with three physical buttons total, all located on the right side, including the volume meter, the power/lock button, and the quick access camera switch, for those opportunistic voyeur shots. You will certainly not get any too high-quality images, with just 5MP density, but that's okay, I guess. At the bottom, a single jack for the mini-USB power supply. More to follow.
Oh, just for fun, so we spice up the attitude a little bit before we move on, here's a funny slash frightening little image for you fellows. Oh, you must agree I really nailed it with the composition there. Pennywise, courtesy of memegenerator.net. There, you like it, don't you. Sleep tight. Back to our little review.
Windows Phone 8
Now, here's the tricky question? Will it ever suck, YO, I don't know, turn off the lights and I'll glow. Sorry, I got a bit distracted there with some Vanilla Ice lyrics. Anyhow, as you all know, both Windows 8 and its stupid successor are colossal failures. On the desktop, they make for such a stupid blend of features and capabilities, you're better off stapling your testies to a chair and then jumping around.
Even on a laptop with a TOUCH screen, which was my last and probably final review of the moronity called Metro slash Modern slash whatever, there was nothing, absolutely nothing redeeming about Windows 8. All its tile features were inferior to the desktop use, and all the apps in the Store were equally inferior to the classic equivalents. So, what, gives, here?
Nothing could have prepared me for the simple, unobtrusive, friendly elegance that came to life when I switched the phone on. All the plain, sharp angles that do not work on a desktop are a cool, minimalistic, IKEA-style blessing on a hand-sized block of plastic and glass. Honestly, and this is from a guy who loathes Windows 8.
The initial user setup is easy, fast and - again - friendly. You are actually asked to opt into most of the stuff that Microsoft wants to collect, rather than asked to opt out, if at all. Compare that to my experience with the Android phone some time back. But we are only getting started.
At no point are you required to sign into any service, either Microsoft or Nokia. You can get device updates without being logged in. You can also use most of the phone services while keeping your anonymity. This is very good. Excellent, in fact. You can, if you want to, sign in to Nokia and create a live.com account for yourself, which will allow you to download new programs from the Store, get maps for the navigation software, and create periodic backups of your settings, plus some other things here and there.
Windows Phone 8 is amazingly intuitive. I was able to find everything in a few seconds, and never once did I get frustrated. I figured out the little details quickly enough, and the settings menu is a breeze. After fiddling with Android in a variety of phones and using my Samsung tablet for a while now, I was actually surprised by the scarcity of options. But then, Android is designed for nerds, and Windows Phone is not.
The system is also very responsive. The apps open quickly, and you do not feel like the basic processor and just 512MB of RAM pose any problem. Sure, I am not a typical user, so my profile of music and video consumption or gaming hardly bears on the common chump, but for my needs and expectations, this was well beyond.
Navigation & maps, splendid!
Here's one of the best things about this phone - all Nokia phones - the navigation software, which is why it gets own category in the review. Even on my E71, long time ago, I enjoyed the free, fully offline navigation anywhere in the world. Same thing with E6, which I still own, use and love. Same thing here.
Nokia Lumia 520 comes with two apps - HERE Maps and HERE Drive. You can use either to get your navigation underway. First, download some free maps for a complete offline use anywhere on the globe. Then, either zoom in on a map of a country and then use your finger to set a destination, or search for an address, and then get the software to direct you there. Much like the Symbian edition, the program is fast, simple, accurate, but the older one had a much more posh UK (RP) Female voice. The new one feels flat.
Default apps, multimedia
The phone is very lean, believe it or not. You do get Feisty Turds installed by default, but it's easy to get rid of that. Some games, a few handy programs here and there, but not that many, really. I think this is nice, but the average user might lament the minimalism.
One thing you will definitely notice is that category titles are ever so slightly cropped by the screen borders. This is on purpose, and on the phone, it looks fine. But the way they implemented the exact same feature in Office 365, it's stupid. So imagine that.
Anyhow, the music playback is rather cushty. You even get music controls on the lock screen, and the quality of audio is surprisingly good. This was a pleasant experience. But not so when it comes to video. I wanted to see if Lumia can handle a 1080p video, but it refused to play it. In fact, it asked me to convert it first while copying, which sort of raised suspicions right then. So it wouldn't. I mean, seriously? AVI file? You only want WMV? What! Me no likey.
The camera is fairly bad, I would say, although it has a very decent low-light sensor, which would explain why you don't need the Flash that much, but more field of depth would make for nicer, less distorted images. The onboard sensor produces cheap results, even with a steady hand. Overall, you won't daze the world with your mediocre shots, and the voyeur in you might be disappointed. Then, you have Panorama and photo editing software, which are rather okay, overall.
Just for reference, compare this with my 8MP Nokia E6 shot - both phones cost about the same money, but this steel-clad beast is a dinosaur from another world, even though it kicks massive ass.
Backups, data migration, access
One thing I hate about Android phones is that it is very hard to save data offline without the use of specialized third-party tools, which often come loaded with shitty ad banners. With Nokia + Microsoft, you can most of the stuff offline.
The Windows Phone app for the desktops lets you sync your music, videos and other documents locally. No need to cloud yourself. True, it is not as simple and good as the excellent OVI store from the older days, but it is still quite convenient.
Unfortunately, if you want to migrate your contacts from other devices, you might have to resort to using a cloud method, although for supported phones, Bluetooth could work, which I still need to explore. For Nokias, it surely should work out fine.
I imported my phone contacts from E6 to Lumia 520 using the PC suite. It first asked me to sign in to my SkyDrive, which you get once you open a live.com account. Then, on the phone, signing in with the same Microsoft account gave me the desired sync, and the users were ported over to the new device. You can then delete the archived phone book from the cloud drive, if you want.
But overall, this is still much more convenient than what I have experienced with Android devices. Sure, if you go online, then Google is your uncle, and everything is peachy, but if you don't want that, you're out of luck. Microsoft might not be the nicest company in the world, but it's a cuddly teddy bear compared to the rest, in this regard.
Finally, with the Microsoft account active on your phone, you can backup all your stuff, settings and apps to the cloud, so if there's ever a need, you will be able to retrieve that. Up to your discretion and judgment whether you should store anything personal on external servers accessible to pretty much anyone with the right credentials.
Even with the WiFi (pronounced wifey) turned on, plus navigation, plus some healthy use of other features, Lumia 520 manages about two and a half days of battery life. This is a very respectable figure. If you turn the Wireless off, you might get four days with some luck and without too much chatter. Still not quite the week+ for E6, but okay.
There are some rather peculiar details about the Windows phone that some users might find odd. Like different usage profiles, general, silent, outdoor, etc. You don't get these here. Silencing the phone requires you to click on the volume bar, then tick the Mute option in the top right corner.
There are no security options. Whatsoever. This is good, but then, if you're a nerd, you will feel locked out, left out, orphaned, and whatnot. You will want to be able to fiddle, to change settings. In reality, there's nothing you should be doing. Still, some people can't help themselves, and they need the unnecessary tinkering to exercise control, or at least to feel like they're in control.
Now, there's a catch ...
Sounds great, but. Why isn't Nokia conquering the world markets? Yes, Lumia 520 is a pretty dandy device, and it's selling well, all considered. But the world scene is absolutely dominated by Android and iPhone. The reason is apps. Yes, we're going back there, and we have talked about this in the past, in my Netrunner Magazine article. Nokia did not manage to win the battle because it neglected apps, and that's what people want.
For someone like me, Nokia Lumia 520 is absolutely excellent. Cheap, simple, very lean on details and fluff, very clean, aesthetic, fast, elegant, with superb offline features. But most morons out there wanna candy cash the shit out of this world.
Microsoft is very strict about what goes into their Store, which means its own bazaar is lagging behind the offerings of its rivals. You don't get the color and excitement that the enemy offers. So Microsoft is going to sweat hard to try to sell their devices to the common lad and lass, who just want some silly excitement in their pointless lives. And that's something that my review cannot resolve.
For my needs, for my taste, Nokia Lumia 520 is a perfect phone. It has all the ingredients I want and need, and none of the extra bullshit that I don't. As always, Nokia has done a splendid job of creating an ergonomic pleasure, with a decent battery life, a solid arsenal of programs and a tremendous navigation system, and at such a cheap price, it's a bargain.
But the real surprise is Microsoft Windows Phone 8. Really. Windows 8 is such a cretinous invention on the desktop, but on the phone, this not only makes sense, it beats the competition. Minimalistic, sleek, elegant, practical, intuitive. You might desire better media support, so yes, I will grant you that. But you get a slew of other functions that offset the cons. So I am praising this new phone operating system. Imagine that. I am stunned by my own conclusion.
For the common user, I am not so sure. People want their apps. They don't care how nice or stylish it is, they don't care about system requirements, about the vendor lock in, about the hassle of cloud, short battery life, and the rest. They just care to be entertained, and Nokia Lumia 520 is not the best entertainment device. It's definitely one of the better, more sensible phones on the market.
I never intended to use this phone past the first week of experimentation. But now I am seriously considering giving it a longer try. I might actually put my Nokia E6 aside for a while and play with this thing. Maybe. Anyhow, all things considered, this is an awesome device, and a refreshing change from the mindless Borg wave of what's out there. Highly recommended for those who need no instant emotional thrills but seek practicality instead.