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.
The Lumia 521 sports a clean design that's attractive and fairly compact. A smooth, white plastic cover graces the back of the phone, and you can easily pop the cover off the phone. A black bezel surrounds the 4-inch display up front. Capacitive Back, Home and Search buttons sit beneath the screen, and a small Nokia logo is above the LCD.
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.
Measuring 4.4 x 2.5 x 0.4 inches and weighing 4.4 ounces, the Lumia 521 isn't the thinnest handset around, but it feels pretty light. We barely noticed the device when we placed it in a front breast pocket. Overall, the 521 has a solid and simple chassis, which befits the target audience.
For a phone this cheap, some corners had to be cut, and that includes those on the display. The Lumia 521's 4-inch LCD is a fairly low 800 x 480 pixels. Photos on our lock screen appeared fuzzy, and we couldn't read text on desktop websites such as Laptopmag.com without zooming in. Mobile-formatted sites like NYTimes.com looked crisper.
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.
Don't be fooled by the small speaker on the back of the Lumia 521. The phone produced surprisingly loud and clear audio when we streamed My Chemical Romance's "Black Parade" via the Nokia Music app. Nine Inch Nails' "Head Like a Hole" sounded harsh at max volume, but even at the 20/30 level, the handset filled our small office with sound.
If you're not a fan of staring at a sea of icons on your device, Windows Phone 8's approachable interface will ease you into the smartphone world. When you unlock the Lumia 521, you'll see Live Tiles, a group of colorful app shortcuts you can move around or resize with a tap. For example, if you want the Outlook tile to stretch across the display to show your latest message (in addition to the number of emails you have waiting), just press and hold the tile, and then tap the arrow.
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.
Swiping to the right of the Start screen displays your app list. If you want to switch apps, long press the Back button, and then swipe through the list of thumbnails to select the app. However, you can't just swipe an app off the screen to close it; instead, you must open the app again and then press the Back button. We also wish Windows Phone displayed the phone's battery life and signal strength without our having to touch the top of the display.
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.
Although it lacks a Swype-like tracing option, which many Android keyboards have, we found typing on the Lumia 521's keyboard to be fast and accurate. The new Word Flow keyboard in Windows Phone 8 presents suggestions above the layout to speed up typing. You'll also find new emoticon options. The layout doesn't offer haptic feedback, but if you'd like, you can enable a gentle tone to play with each tap.
The apps story for Windows Phone 8 has certainly improved over the past year, but the platform still has a ways to go. On the plus side, apps like Pandora have finally been added, as well as apps for YouTube and WhatsApp. You'll also find favorites like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Skype and The Weather Channel.
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 does offer several of its own apps, which provide a fairly well-rounded user experience. Nokia Drive, for instance, provides accurate, free turn-by-turn GPS navigation, while Here Maps is better for when you're on foot, helping you get from point A to B and find places to go in cities.
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).
T-Mobile keeps its own software fairly light, including My Account, Caller Tunes and T-Mobile TV. My Account, which gives you access to your account info, is the most useful of these apps. However, we wouldn't use the support section; tips were formatted for desktop browsers and not the small screen.
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
The Lumia 521 is definitely not a wireless speed demon. The phone taps into T-Mobile's slower HSPA+ 21 network instead of its newer and faster HSPA+ 42 technology. Nor does the 521 support LTE, which the carrier is rolling out across the country.
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
The Lumia 521 doesn't boast a PureView-grade camera like the one on the higher-end Lumia 920 or 928 series, but it's capable of snapping quality photos. The 5-MP camera took a crisp and colorful shot of a blue Vulcan motorcycle. Even with overcast skies, the blue paint popped, and we could easily make out a piece of tape covering a rip in the leather seat. Indoors, a shot of some colleagues looked fairly bright but on the grainy side.
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.
Nokia takes photography fun to the next level with its collection of Lens apps. For instance, the Smart Shoot app let us pick the best faces in a portrait shot, as well as remove unwanted objects. Other Lens apps include Cinemagraph, which lets you animate part of a photo; Panorama; and Bing Vision, which lets you scan bar codes, QR codes, books, DVDs and more).
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.
In everyday use, most apps opened quickly, and skimming through Live Tiles and apps was lag-free. We also enjoyed smooth gameplay when tearing around the track in the "Asphalt 7" racing game, although we wish the tilt controls were tighter. The accelerometer took its sweet time changing the screen orientation from portrait to landscape mode in the browser, but otherwise, the 521 offers solid performance for the price.
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.
One thing we like about T-Mobile is that the carrier makes it easy to determine how much you're paying for the device compared to the service. For instance, the Lumia 521 costs $149 if you decide to pay in full or $29.99 down, plus $5 per month for 24 months. Assuming you paid $149 for the device and signed up for a $60 2.5GB plan, you would wind up paying $1,590 over two years.
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.
The Lumia 521 is an entry-level Windows Phone that offers a lot for much less than other devices. For just $129 (without a contract), shoppers get an attractive and compact design, a capable camera and a user-friendly interface that will please smartphone newbies. Nokia did sacrifice some features -- such as LTE support, a high-res screen and a front-facing camera -- to achieve such an aggressive price. The battery life could also be better. Overall, though, the Lumia 521 can save you hundreds versus other carriers while providing a well-rounded experience.