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Review: Nokia Lumia 521 for T-Mobile

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May 31, 2013, 1:45 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Nokia churns out another capable Windows Phone with the Lumia 521 for T-Mobile. See if this budget smartphone is the right pick for you in Phone Scoop's in-depth review.

Form 

Is It Your Type?

If you're looking for an entry-level smartphone and would like to explore an alternative to Android and the iPhone, the Nokia Lumia 521 is a great deal at $150. It offers the full Windows Phone experience in a compact and inexpensive piece of hardware.

Body

Nokia's modern design language is unmistakable. The bulk of the company's Lumia-branded smartphones use brightly colored polycarbonate to stand out from the me-too, black-on-black slabs that make up the bulk of the smartphone market. The Lumia 521 continues this trend.

Despite Nokia's take on materials and color, the Lumia 521 is clearly the bottom rung in Nokia's smartphone ladder. Its look is blunt compared to the refined look of higher-end devices, such as the Lumia 925. It looks like the entry-level smartphone that it is, but with slightly more panache than what we might see on a similar Android phone thanks to the white, wrap-around shell that forms the bulk of the 521's shape. In fact, the shell forms the entire back and side surfaces; the 521's guts sit within the shell. The contrasting flat black glass front gives the 521 a well-defined shape and appearance.

 

Body

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The polycarbonate shell feels strong. The smooth contour that gently curves from one end to the other is comfortable against your skin. Unlike some of Nokia's other white Lumia smartphones, the 521's white shell has a matte finish. I much prefer the look and feel of the this finish. The compact nature of the size and the curved sides let the 521 fit snugly in your palm. The build quality of the device is good overall, and it will slip easily into pockets.

As with other Lumia designs, the 521's screen is swimming in a huge bezel. The thick black borders make the screen look smaller than it really is. There are three capacitive buttons below the display that access the Windows Phone back, Start, and Bing functions. The buttons worked well and provided plenty of haptic feedback.

The rest of the buttons conform to Nokia norms and are all located on the right edge of the 521. The volume toggle, screen lock button, and dedicated camera button are all black and offer excellent profiles. Not only are they easy to find, but they have fantastic travel and feedback. I did, however, find myself accidentally turning the screen on/off when gripping the device thanks to the lock button’s positioning in the middle of the side edge. The standard stereo headphone jack is positioned on the top and the microUSB port is tucked into the bottom.

The battery is removable, but to get at it you have to first remove the outer shell. It's a little bit of a pain, if you ask me. You have to use both hands and really dig your nails into the top seam to separate the two halves of the phone. The battery has to be removed in order to access the SIM card and microSD card slots.

The Lumia 521 may not have quite the good looks of some of Nokia's other efforts, but it’s no threat to Nokia's solid design DNA. Add in the solid functionality and you have a hardware design that feels a step above its price range.

Performance 

Screen

The 521's screen is an in-plane switching LCD, measuring 4.0 inches across the diagonal, with 800 x 480 pixels. This stops well short of the higher-resolution display on the Lumia 925 (to be sold by T-Mobile later this summer), but it still manages to look decent considering this class of device. It’s bright and colorful, and all of the on-screen elements are easy to see and read. You can see individual pixels only if you hold it close to your eyes. The 521's best feature is that it is readable outdoors under a bright, sunny sky.

Signal

The 521 did fairly well on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network. It doesn't support T-Mobile's LTE 4G network. I carried it around New Jersey for the better part of a week and it never had any trouble connecting to T-Mobile's voice and data networks. Calls always went through on the first attempt, and the device only dropped one call during my tests. Data speeds were slightly inconsistent, but fell in line with what I've seen from other T-Mobile HSPA+ devices tested in the same areas.

Sound

The quality of phone calls made with the 521 were good, just as I expected them to be. Not only were they free of background noise and interference, but the earpiece produces clear and loud sound. Those with whom I spoke through the Lumia 521 said I sounded somewhat distant, but otherwise okay. When used around the house, you can probably get away with setting the volume at the 50% mark. If you're out walking a busy city street, set it all the way up and you'll have no trouble hearing callers. The speakerphone offers equivalent call quality, but the volume isn't quite as impressive. Setting it on a desk or table helps. You'll need to stick to quieter rooms to use it. Ringers and alert tones were loud enough to get my attention, though I thought the vibrate alert could have been stronger.

Battery

The 521 got through a full waking day over the course of a week with what I call normal use. That means I unplugged it at 7 AM and it was still going at 11 PM or later. It didn't have much juice left by the time I went to bed each night, though. I kept Wi-Fi and GPS on, but Bluetooth off. I used the 521 to check and read email, Twitter and Facebook regularly, as well as browse the web, download apps, listen to music, take photos, plot directions, and so on.

Basics 

Menus

The 521 runs Windows Phone 8 from Microsoft. Handset makers and carriers aren't allowed to mess with the user interface, so the user experience on the 521 looks and feels just like it does on other WP8 devices.

The lock screen has customizable alerts that pop-up when the screen is locked. You can choose which alerts reach the lock screen and which don't, as well as pick which type of alerts are more prominently displayed on the lock screen.

The Start screen is somewhat customizable. The Live Tiles can be resized in small, medium, and large variations, and of course the Tiles can be arranged however you wish. Plenty of (but not all) Windows Phone 8 apps support the Live Tiles feature, which makes the Start screen ever-changing and updating with new content. Some of the best Live Tiles include those for the People Hub, Photo Hub, and the Facebook app.

The rest of the menus behave more or less the same as with earlier versions of Windows Phone. All of the apps stored on the device are accessible in an alphabetical list in the main app menu.

The Lumia 521 has a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor. Windows Phone has always been a snappy smartphone operating system and the S4 engine under the hood provides more than enough motivation to keep the 521 feeling speedy. You'd never know the 521 has only 512MB of RAM.

 

Menus

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Calls and Contacts

The phone app is simple to use and offers a standard set of features, such as hold, mute, speakerphone, merge calls, and send to Bluetooth. It’s easy to text or call a number stored in the call log, as well as add it to a contact.

 

Calls

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The People Hub ties in users' Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter profile data, as well as their basic contact data. It's the most feature-rich contacts app out there, and provides consistent updates and notifications about those with whom you converse the most. It is also easy to keep your contacts organized into groups and synced with Microsoft's online services.

 

People Hub

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Messaging

The stock messaging tools are unchanged on the Lumia 521 when compared to other WP8 devices. The email app is excellent, though it stops short of being as awesome as Gmail on Android (or on the iPhone, for that matter.) Social networking - which is built into the People Hub - is quite useful.

The two features that really set Windows Phone 8 apart are Groups and Rooms. These are both subsections of the People Hub. They essentially let you manage, communicate with, share photos with, and coordinate calendars between small groups of people. Groups are meant to be larger social and/or work circles, while Rooms are meant to be smaller collections of your closest family/friends.

The text messaging app also encompasses Facebook messaging and Skype IM. It used to include WIndows Live, but Microsoft has moved all Windows Live users to Skype. If you want to include Skype messaging, you have to first download the separate Skype app and sign in. Only then will your Skype contacts be loaded into the messaging app. Once they are, you can see who's online and who isn't. I have always liked that WP8 puts all your messaging services into a single app with a unified interface.

Despite having certain social networking functions built into the People Hub, you need to download the full Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn apps if you really want to interact with your social networks in depth.

 

Messaging

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Extras 

Media

The Lumia 521 has the same XBox Hub and storefront that all Windows Phones do. The XBox Hub covers all the possible entertainment features, including gaming, music, and video. It's a good tool for managing and consuming content, though you'll need to use desktop software to sync your music to the device or sideload it via the microSD card.

 

XBox

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The Lumia 521 also includes Nokia Music, which is only being offered to Nokia's Windows Phones. Nokia Music is separate from Microsoft's XBox. It has its own store through which tracks and albums can be purchased, and offers streamed radio stations, personalized recommendations, and the ability to browse through local concerts.

 

Nokia Music

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Music sounded good through my favorite pair of headphones.

The only other options on board include T-Mobile TV, which is a for-pay service that's streamed over the network, and Slacker Radio. The T-Mobile TV app depends on a strong wireless connection, and it often adjusted resolution (downgrading or upgrading) on the fly depending on the signal strength. I found it to be jarring. If you're a YouTube fan, you'll have to download one of several YouTube apps from the Windows Phone Store yourself.

The limited resolution of the 521's screen means no HD content, and the smaller 4-inch screen wasn't as satisfying to watch as larger screens.

Camera

The camera application launches quickly with a long press of the dedicated button and is a snap to use for taking pictures. The menus and controls are all self-explanatory and don't take more than 60 seconds to sort out.

As with all WP8 handsets, the 521 supports “Lenses”. Lenses for the camera are third-party plug-in apps that perform specific actions with the camera. Nokia offers several exclusive lenses, which are not available to other WP8 devices. The 521 has the Panorama, Smart Shoot, and Cinemagraph lenses preinstalled, with more are available in the Windows Phone Store. You can open the lenses directly if you know you want to take a panorama, for example, or you can open them from within the camera app itself.

Cinemagraph is the most interesting of the lenses, if you ask me. It lets you create animated GIFs on your phone. It records about 3 seconds' worth of footage and then lets you select sections of the footage to animate and share via link.

 

Camera

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Photos

The 521 doesn't have a PureView camera, but it does capture 5-megapixel photos that are, for the most part, pretty good. I noticed the 521 had trouble with white balance when taking pictures inside. It’s a bummer that the 521 doesn't have a flash. White balance wasn't a problem when shooting outdoors. All the images I took - whether inside or out - were perfectly in focus and showed accurate exposure.

 

Photos

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Video

The 720p HD video that I captured with the 521 was average. It was sharp, motion was smooth, and exposure was mostly accurate. I noticed some jankiness with the white balance (again), but otherwise the video is more than worthy of your YouTube audience.



Picture Hub

The Microsoft-made Pictures Hub is a fine service for managing your photos. Not only can you manage your own, but you can browse through the photos of your Facebook friends, too. It makes sharing images a snap, and includes support for Microsoft's SkyDrive in addition to other third-party apps.

As far as editing goes, the native People Hub tools are limited to crop, rotate, and enhance by applying some exposure and other fixes. The 521 also includes Nokia's Creative Studio. Creative Studio was recently updated and it includes some excellent new features, such as the ability to blur the background, or use a tilt-shift adjustment tool to give photos a unique look. It has a pretty good feature set for those who like to explore their creative side, but also lets you manage basics such as white balance, color, and so on.

 

Photo Hub

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Apps

The Windows Phone Store has more than enough apps to keep you connected and entertained. Out of the box, there are too many T-Mobile apps on board. Some, such as the T-Mobile Account Manager, are actually useful. I don't need Angry Birds, CallerTunes, nor T-Mobile TV, though. Either way, all the T-Mobile apps can be deleted if you want to get rid of them.

Bluetooth

The 521 didn't give me any trouble when I paired it with my car's hands-free system or stereo Bluetooth speakers. Sound quality of calls through my car was good, and music wasn't bad through the stereo speakers, either. The 521 can also be paired to other phones, computers, and so on.

Browser

The 521's browser, Internet Explorer 10, is quick to render web sites. IE10 is full of features, such as support for tabs, but the one you'll appreciate most is better support for web standards, such as HTML5. The browsing experience would be a wee bit better if the 521 had a higher-res display, but the browser itself and connection to the network worked fine. For Windows Phones, IE10 is a good browser, though it still falls a bit short of the features offered by the Android and iOS browsers. There are alternatives available in the Windows Phone Store if you're looking for more.

 

Browser

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Clock

As with most smartphones, the 521 has a nice digital clock on the lock screen. It also displays the day of the week and the date. I wish the clock were bigger and customizable, but it is not. It’s easy to see outdoors, though.

GPS

Nokia HERE Maps has proven to be a powerful navigation tool on Windows Phone handsets. It offers a wealth of features that go head-to-head with the best that Google Maps offers on Android handsets. It helps users manage locations, share points of interest, and route directions. It's all free.

The Lumia 521 also has Nokia's full suite of location-enabled apps on board, including Nokia Drive, Nokia Transit, and others. These are individual apps that perform specific functions. Nokia Drive plots point-to-point driving directions, while Nokia Transit helps manage mass transit route planning. They are each powerful and work as advertised.

The GPS radio of the 521 itself worked perfectly. It pinpointed me quickly and accurately no matter where I was.

Microsoft Apps

Microsoft offers a handful of its own tools on the Lumia 521. SkyDrive, for example, is Microsoft's cloud storage service. All WP8 devices have access to 7GB of online storage for free. It is accessed online via your Outlook/Hotmail account. You can set SkyDrive up to automatically upload your photos for safekeeping, as well as store documents and so on. Office needs no introduction. On the 521, you can open/edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, as well as sync them to your personal (or corporate) computers. OneNote is Microsoft's extensive note-managing app. It functions similarly to EverNote.

 

Microsoft Apps

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Nokia City Lens

Nokia City Lens is an augmented reality application for finding stuff that's nearby. When you open it, City Lens turns on the camera. You pan the camera around and the app shows you what's nearby. You can simply tap one of the shops or restaurants it pulls up to see more information about it.

Wrap-Up 

The Nokia Lumia 521 is one of the best values available from T-Mobile USA at the moment. The 521 has a pleasing design and solid build quality. The hardware functions very well and surpasses most other Android smartphones I've seen in the same device class.

Calls sounded good, network speeds were decent, and battery life was average. The 5-megapixel camera takes usable photos, and the video camera produces results of which you won't be ashamed to share. Toss in the solid selection of Nokia services, such as HERE, and Microsoft's apps, such as SkyDrive, and you're getting a lot for your money.

The Lumia 521 costs $149.99 up front, but that's the price to own it outright. (You can get it for less up front with a payment plan.) It's worth every penny.

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