Nokia Lumia 1520 review: big buttery badness
Before you get out the pitchforks, we should clear up one little detail about the title of this review: the Lumia 1520 is by no means a bad smartphone. At least, not in the traditional sense.
Nokia’s latest high-end Lumia is packed with top-shelf specs, as well as a processor and screen combination never before seen on a Windows Phone. In that sense, the Lumia 1520 is “bad” – meaning 1980s-slang bad. Shaft bad. Bad Meaning Good. Dig?
But in exchange for this unprecedented bad-ness, the 1520 demands a lot of pocket space. With a six-inch display and 206 grams of heft, this phone is big. Really big, even compared to its so-called “phablet” contemporaries – and it packs an operating system never before seen on such a scale.
Those standout features mean the 1520’s been getting more than its fair share of press since its announcement at Nokia World a few months back. But is this first-ever Windows Phone phablet bad enough to justify its big? Read on to find out.
Hardware & Specs
If you’ve been following Nokia’s recent trends in design language, the 1520’s aesthetics will come as little surprise. It’s basically an upscaling of the company’s Lumia 925, which earned our praise in the looks department when we re-reviewed it several weeks ago.
Nokia has made some cuts here, though: the aluminum trim is gone, replaced with edge-to-edge polycarbonate. And the matte coating on our black unit feels great, but its smooth featurelessness adds to the barren look of the device’s massive back cover. So from a distance, the 1520 doesn’t particularly stand out. There are all the usual hallmarks of excellent but understated Nokia design, from the gently curved Gorilla Glass 2 up front to the ceramic buttons (plastic on the non-black versions) along the side. It’s only when you pick it up and put it alongside more conventionally sized smartphones that the device’s scale truly hits you, and in that way the 1520 is much more like the HTC One max or Samsung’s Galaxy Mega 6.3: its huge size is a big part of its overall story.
But the 1520 outpaces both of those phones on the spec sheet, landing closer to Sony’s Xperia Z Ultra in terms of horsepower. A 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 sits at its core -a first for Windows Phone- and it powers another first: the 6-inch, 1080p IPS display up front. This processor and display pairing isn’t insignificant; it’s fast becoming the standard on flagship smartphones, and the 1520 is, for now, the only Windows Phone to live up to that standard.
Despite ditching AMOLED for IPS technology this time around, Nokia has managed to deliver a very nice display for its largest-ever smartphone. The panel can’t render blacks as deeply as the screen on the Lumia 925, but it boasts higher pixel density (368ppi vs 334ppi) despite being a full 1.5″ larger. Add to that its excellent color reproduction and adjustable saturation and temperature levels, and you’ve got an outstanding smartphone display. The only complaint we have is that its off-axis visibility could be a little better, but we’re kind of grasping at straws there. It’s a beautiful screen.
Rounding out the superstar spec sheet is the 1520’s storage capacity. In addition to the 16 or 32GB of onboard storage, the 1520 also offers a MicroSD card slot for storage expansion up to an additional 64GB – making it the only flagship-class Nokia device to do so. Add in 2GB of RAM; 802.11ac, BT 4.0, and NFC support; and LTE capability alongside HSPA+, and you’re looking at the highest-end Windows Phone ever to hit the market. There’s even built-in wireless charging (though which kind you get depends on which carrier you buy from). If bleeding-edge Microsoft-powered kit is what teeters your totter, and you don’t mind a phone that takes up the entirety of your pants pocket (and then some), stop here: the Lumia 1520 is the phone you’ve been waiting for.
But with this device, it’s more important than ever to make certain that Windows Phone is the platform you’re in the market for. While Microsoft’s OS has recently enjoyed significant (and long-overdue) expansion in terms of its app ecosystem, its growth in other areas has stagnated somewhat. For example, the People and Me hubs that once made up a large portion of Microsoft’s value proposition really haven’t changed much since 2010, while the social networks they depend on have changed dramatically. That means Windows Phone just doesn’t work as well as it used to for social-media hounds, and its other deficiencies have grown more visible as competing platforms have undergone extreme aesthetic and functional overhauls. We elaborated on this a bit more in our recent After The Buzz re-review of the Lumia 925:
Also, when it comes to the OS, size continues to matter. As regular readers will know, we dogged other plus-size smartphones for not doing enough to intelligently utilize their large screens, and the 1520 deserves the same rebuke. The start screen is really the only place Windows Phone takes advantage of this phone’s hulking dimensions: while the card-based task switcher is as nice as ever, there’s no split-pane simul-tasking, nor even a “windowed” multitasking approach to work with more than one app at a time. We’re hopeful the forthcoming Threshold updates, or perhaps something closer to the horizon, will address this. Until then, you’d better be happy doing one thing at a time on that huge canvas.
It’s not all bad. Windows Phone’s tile-based UI is still as sharp and as “metro” as ever – and the 1520’s larger, higher-resolution display allows it to spread out to a much greater degree here. With a screen like this, Microsoft can finally deliver on the “glanceability” promise of the Modern UI. Instead of scrolling around to find the tile you’re looking for, the 1520 has enough room to display everything, all at once. As we predicted in an editorial a few weeks back, it’s very convenient to have so much canvas to work with right on the front page. And even though you’re confined to running them one at a time, applications like Skype, Netflix, Amazon Kindle, and the Microsoft Office suite benefit greatly from all that real estate.
Wrapping up the software offering, Nokia’s traditional enhancements are all here, from the huge suite of custom apps to everyday usability enhancements like the double-tap-to-unlock gesture and the Glance screen. And thanks to that Snapdragon 800 and Windows Phone’s inherent stability and fluidity, all of it runs like (wait for it) butter. The 1520 may be a bit single-minded, but it’s also a big ball of buttery badness.
It should come as no surprise that this large smartphone packs a commensurately large camera. While Nokia didn’t go balls-to-the-wall (no, it’s not a dirty expression; go look it up) as it did with the 1020, the Lumia 1520 still packs a sizable shooter around back.
The 20MP PureView module is optically-stabilized, with six-element Carl Zeiss optics and a 1/2.5 inch sensor with an aperture rating of f/2.4, mated to a dual-LED flash off to the side. Yes, you can shoot in full resolution if you want (even in RAW .dng format for you pros out there), but just as with the Lumia 1020, Nokia’s automatic oversampling produces far more manageable 5MP shots. Lossless digital zoom is here as well, offering up to 2x magnification for photos.
It’s all controlled by the new Nokia Camera app, a new title combining all the best features of Nokia Smart Camera and Nokia Pro Camera. In addition to the familiar sliders allowing manual control of everything from shutter speed to focus, a handful of automatic modes are now available alongside the various motion and color filters we expounded upon this past summer. Adam Lein’s tips on how to take amazing photos with the Lumia 1020 continue to work well on the 1520, and Nokia has added a new Storyteller application to better organize your stills, assuming you geotag your photos.
In all, the camera is solid – not quite as consistent as the 1020’s, but still more than a match for most competing shooters. Results are especially nice outdoors, with crisp lines and authentic colors (if sometimes a touch on the saturated side, in keeping with Nokia’s standard practice). Sometimes indoor results are just as good, but other times more noise creeps into the image than we’d like, and the automatic white balance isn’t always consistent.
That holds true in 1080p camcorder output as well, as can be seen in the video review at the beginning of this article. While there’s quite a bit of fuzz in the challenging lighting situation on an Amtrak train, the camera produces beautiful crisp colors and nice sound in the outdoor video shot from a ferryboat – even with a face full of sun and wind. You’ll need to put some effort into keeping a steady hand, though; despite the OIS, the 1520’s huge size makes it a pretty ungainly camera.
We’ve already said how well the 1520 performs in day-to-day use, and it stays pretty cool even when it’s pushed hard. Though the Windows Store continues to lag behind the competition in terms of available games, those which are here play very well. Low-impact apps like Sparkle 2 and Rise of Glory, as well as high-demand titles like Asphalt 8 play with nary a hiccup, with the device only warming up slightly near the camera after extended play. Sound through the 3.5mm headphone jack is rich and warm, while the rear-mounted speaker is clear and very loud during gameplay, streaming media playback, and voice calls.
Speaking of voice calls, you’ll probably be using that speaker more often than you might on other phones. Held up to the head, the 1520 is just as much a monster as any other phablet, with not even a hint of a curve to offset the awkwardness of holding a shingle-shaped shoe up to your face. Nokia’s excellent voice quality goes a long way toward making up for that, and AT&T deserves a large portion of the credit as well: its voice network is as reliable as its LTE network is speedy, at least on our Boston and San Francisco testing grounds. Still, talking on the 1520 feels more than a little absurd.
This phone wasn’t built with the minute-hog in mind, though, and those using it for its intended purpose -as a small tablet that also makes phone calls- will be very pleased with how long they’re able to do just that. The huge 3400 mAh battery makes good use of the massive chassis it inhabits: over the past 36 hours of moderate to heavy use (4+ social-media accounts polling, 2 email accounts synced, solid LTE coverage, semi-consistent gaming/tweeting/texting/talking), we’ve only managed to push the 1520 down to 28% power. If our Battery app is to be believed -and we have no reason to distrust it- our phone still has another 12 hours to go before it powers down. Again, badness.
For those interested in specifics: we tested the Lumia 1520 on AT&T HSPA/LTE over the course of 19 days between suburban Greater Boston, rural New York, and urban San Francisco. For those interested in benchmarks: our 1520 scores an average of 499.032 in the WPBench Benchmarking utility. For those curious about free space: our AT&T-branded 16GB device (RM-940) registered a total of 11.14 gigs free out-of-the-box. And for those interested in whether they’ll have to swap SIM types to use this device, the answer is probably: despite its ponderous dimensions, the 1520 uses a NanoSIM. For some reason.
+ Best hardware you can find on Windows Phone
+ Outstanding battery life
+ Excellent display
+ Solid audio performance
– Cumbersome hardware
– Software doesn’t take full advantage of large screen size
– Windows Phone is coming due for a refresh
Pricing and Availability
In the US, the Lumia 1520 is available from AT&T in red (glossy) or black, white, or yellow (matte). While its full retail price is $584.99, the carrier is offering the device for $199.99 on a two-year contract. The 1520 can also be found with similar pricing at Microsoft Stores or at the Windows Phone site, or in other regional variants directly from Nokia.
At the end of the day, the Lumia 1520 is a monster – but it’s a friendly, lovable one. It doesn’t do all it can to leverage its massive screen, and many folks are bound to find it just too big for their pockets. For all the bluster their size and specifications inspire, devices of this type are perhaps forever destined to fill only a small niche demand.
But the out-of-control inflation of smartphone size is not Nokia’s fault, nor is the company’s understandable desire to get some skin in the phablet game. In a world where gargantuan mobiles seem here to stay (for the moment) the 1520 gets a lot right. It offers the best specs of any Windows Phone to date and a camera that can lay waste to most any other smartphone shooter – and it keeps the compromise to a minimum when it comes to the fundamentals. Cumbersome chassis aside, the Lumia 1520 is one bad mother … and we can dig it.