Quality camera for price; Compact and solid design; Intuitive and customizable interface; Loud audio
Low-resolution display; No 4G LTE support; Below-average battery life; Lacks front camera
The Lumia 521 gives shoppers an affordable, easy-to-use and attractive Windows Phone without a contract on T-Mobile's network -- if you're willing to skip certain amenities.
Targeting the roughly half of Americans who have not yet stepped up to a smartphone, the Nokia Lumia 521 for T-Mobile costs a very affordable $149 sans contract -- or $29 down. Powered by Windows Phone 8, the 521 doesn't boast cutting-edge specs, but it does offer a 5-MP camera (complete with a wide array of nifty Lens apps), a friendly Live Tile interface and a growing selection of apps. Find out if this value-priced handset is the real deal.
A trio of glossy, black buttons lines the right side of the Lumia 521: the volume rocker, power button and camera button. All of these buttons were easy to press. The headphone jack is up top, and the bottom houses the microUSB port.
Popping off the cover reveals the removable battery and both the SIM-card slot and micro SD Card slot to augment the 8GB of built-in storage.
On the plus side, a YouTube clip of Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Munenori Kawasaki's viral post-game interview looked colorful. (His blue uniform popped.) Horizontal viewing angles were fairly wide, but tilting the device forward or back slightly resulted in washed-out images.
The Lumia 521 registered 219 lux on our light meter -- which is below the smartphone category average of 299 lux and well behind the higher-end Lumia 928 (343 lux). The LG Lucid 2, a budget Android phone for Verizon, hit 281 lux.
As on other Lumia devices, the screen on the 521 responds to touch even while you're wearing gloves.
Live Tiles aren't just app shortcuts. You can also create tiles for things like playlists, favorite people, websites, notes, directions and photo albums.
The lock screen on Windows Phone 8 automatically displays photos from your Facebook feed or Camera Roll, personalizing your experience without requiring you to lift a finger. This screen also shows you your next appointment and how many messages you have waiting.
The Kid's Corner feature makes it easy to hand your child your phone without having to worry about her accessing inappropriate content -- or running up your bill. You choose the apps that appear, and in-app purchases are disabled in this mode. Families will also appreciate Rooms, where you can group chat and share your calendar, photos and notes with other members.
On the other hand, Instagram still hasn't found a home on Microsoft's platform. You also won't find high-profile news apps like Flipboard or Pulse, the social app Path or the Candy Crush game.
Nokia Music is a fairly robust music service that includes both streaming tunes and a built-in store for purchasing tracks. The service also lets you see which gigs are happening in your neck of the woods. Those who upgrade to Nokia Music+ for $3.99 per month will enjoy unlimited song skips on radio and unlimited offline radio-station access (up to one hour each).
If Microsoft's own market isn't enough for you, Nokia offers its own App Highlights app that includes multiple recommendations and quick links to Nokia exclusives, such as the ESPN Hub and Nokia Pulse Beta for messaging.
4G and Web browsing
Despite this technological disadvantage, we saw fairly good download times in New Jersey with three to four bars of 4G service. The mobile versions of CNN.com, ESPN.com and NYTimes.com loaded in 5.5 seconds, 6.9 seconds and 4.5 seconds, respectively. However, individual articles on NYTimes.com loaded in 5 to 6 seconds. The desktop version of Laptopmag.com loaded in 15.6 seconds.
Sharing pages via social networks could be easier in Internet Explorer mobile. You first have to press the three dots at the bottom of the screen, and then press Share Page and Social Networks. At least it allows you to post to Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter all at once.
Camera and lenses
In general, touching the screen to capture images resulted in more focused shots, while pressing the Shutter button captured images more quickly but produced fuzzier photos.
The Lumia 521's 720p camcorder produced fair results. Footage of New York City traffic was stutter-free and exhibited plenty of detail -- we could easily make out an ad on a passing taxi. However, the camera had some trouble adjusting when we panned skyward and then back down; the clip brightened and then darkened.
Those interested in video chatting via Skype or other apps should look elsewhere, as the Lumia 521 lacks a front-facing camera.
Whereas Android phones tend to lag with slower CPUs, the Lumia 521 more than makes due with its 1-GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor and 512MB of RAM. On WP Bench, which measures overall performance, the 521 notched 178.08, compared with the Lumia 928's score of 227. However, the latter device has a 1.5-GHz dual-core processor with 1GB of RAM.
Battery life and call quality
The Lumia 521's 1430mAh battery got us through most of a workday with moderate use, but it didn't fare very well on the Peacekeeper battery test, which continuously runs a series of scripts in the browser. With the phone's brightness set to 50 percent, the Lumia 521 lasted 3 hours and 9 minutes, compared with 3:54 for the Lumia 822's 1800 mAh battery on Verizon Wireless. The HTC Windows Phone 8X lasted 4:04 on AT&T and 5:04 on Verizon's network.
We were impressed with the Lumia 521's call quality. When we dialed a colleague's landline and held a 5-minute conversation, he told us that we sounded as if we were calling from a landline ourselves. Audio on our end was loud, with only slight fuzziness.
Those looking to get better call quality at home will appreciate T-Mobile's Wi-Fi calling feature, especially in locations that don't have strong cellular coverage.
In comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S4 or iPhone 5 on T-Mobile's network with the same plan would cost $629.99 for the hardware alone, which means it would cost you $480 more than the Lumia 521 over 24 months -- that's significant savings.
If you were to purchase a Nokia Lumia 822 from Verizon Wireless for free and opted for a 2GB plan, you'd pay $100 per month over two years (for the line access fee and shared data plan). That comes out to $2,400, or $810.01 more than T-Mobile with a contract. That delta would be enough to buy a couple more smartphones for the family.
- Smartphone Buyers' Guide: 7 Things to Know
- The iPhone Alternatives You Must Consider
- Face-off: Nokia Lumia 920 vs. HTC Windows Phone 8X
|Phone Display Size||4|
|Form Factor||Candybar Touchscreen|
|OS Family||Windows Phone|
|Operating System||Windows Phone 8|
|Networks||UMTS: Band IV (AWS);UMTS: Band IV (1700/2100);UMTS: Band V (850);Band II (1900);Quad Band GSM|
|CPU||1-GHz dual-core Snapdragon|
|Memory Expansion Type||microSD Card|
|Display (main)||4 inches/800 x 480|
|Front Camera Resolution||none|
|Camera Resolution||5 MP|
|Talk / Standby Time|
|Size||4.4 x 2.5 x 0.4 inches|
|SAR Rating (Head)|
|SAR Rating (Body)|