Nokia Lumia 1520 review: Half An Inch From Greatness...

Reviews Paul Briden 12:37, 18 Mar 2014

Nokia's big bet on the phablet space is the Lumia 1520. Does this massive phone have what it takes?

Rating: 
4
Typical Price: 
£589.99
Pros: 
Fast processor, Fast web experience, Excellent display, Great build quality with thin chassis, Capable camera, Good battery life
Cons: 
Too big, App store pricey with older content compared to rivals, No notifications centre, No quick settings
Verdict: 
Another flawed gem of a phablet. Like competitors, the Lumia 1520 sports an excellent set of hardware. The screen, battery, camera, processor and build are all fantastic and score it top marks, but the phone is simply oversized and isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea

The Nokia Lumia 1520 is just about the biggest and most significant Windows Phone release to date. It’s gorgeous to behold, packs in all the latest hardware and spec, features an impressive 20MP PureView camera and features, perhaps, the best display ever plonked on a Nokia phone. 

The Lumia 1020, for us, was also a landmark device; the end of a two-year plan to get proper PureView technology inside a regular smartphone. It’s our go-to handset for launches, video reviews and images. So why is the Lumia 1520 special? Simple: it’s the first WP device to support multi-core processors and large, full HD display panels. 

There’s plenty more to get excited about too, though. Things like that 20MP camera, for one. Another is the performance bump you get from Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 CPU. And – of course – how good this beastly-sized piece of kit looks in the flesh. 

Is it too big though? How much difference does the Snapdragon 800 make? And does that 20MP PureView sensor cut the mustard? Read on to find out. 

Build and design

I’ll get this out of the way first, I am a fan of Nokia’s design department. I appreciate what it does the majority of the time. Granted there are a few bloopers, and awkwardly sometimes those bloopers come in the form of key devices rather than incidental budget models where mistakes are more affordable.

But, breaking it down to the core, Nokia’s Lumia line has consistently come with attractive exteriors more often than not. High-grade polycarbonates give everything a premium feel and frequently with a rewarding matte finish to boot. For higher-end models extremely angular unibody chassis designs are used to good effect, with narrow display bezels and neat, elegant lines.

All of this is true of the Lumia 1520, not to mention Nokia’s preference for bright, eye-catching colour options. Pleasingly, the Lumia 1520 is also a thin handset, which is an area where the company has faltered with other recent models (Lumia 920 and Lumia 1020, I am looking at you) and although it’s not exactly feather-light, the 209g handset seems to be better balanced than previous brick-like models and rival phablets such as the Sony Xperia Z Ultra and HTC One Max.

In short, it looks good and feels both premium and well-made. However, there is a blunder at play here.

The most immediate and visceral reaction to the Lumia 1520 from myself, the rest of team KYM and indeed anyone inside or outside the office I showed it to was that it is “massive” and “too big”. Now, as per previous discussions on phablet sizes here and around the internet, there will always be dedicated (and vocal) fans of the big phone design, it is indeed subjective, but I think it is fair to say that a lot of users, perhaps even the majority, don’t want a phone this big.

I should temper this by saying I am of course writing from a Western perspective, there is some cultural consideration to be made as it can be of no coincidence that the majority of focus from phablet makers is on the Asian market, where they see the most success, and this also seems to be where the most vehement support for bigger form factors comes from.

I get the impression a lot of the immediate negative reaction to the Lumia 1520’s size is purely from a stylistic point of view – people don’t like the look of having a phone that big, but I think the bigger factor at play here is that when you actually try to use it, the practical considerations override all of this.s.

I have large hands and I found the Lumia 1520 unwieldy. Two-handed operation is a must and if you simply wanted to (as I often do) take the phone out of your pocket with one hand to check the time, while holding onto the overhead handles on a bus, train or tube, you may find it simply isn’t an option, or worse, the attempt causes you to drop the phone.

Because yes, you can argue you could use this device with a Bluetooth headset to avoid holding it to your face, but at the end of the day it’s a smartphone, which means operating the touchscreen and this is where the biggest practical hurdle lies. I found using the Lumia 1520 made me recognise just how much I use even relatively large phones with one hand and how much I missed not being able to do that once it became an impossibility. It’s more important than I realised.

Another stumbling block is fitting the phone comfortably in the pocket of your jeans. Cue much hip jabbing if you try this, and it’s got pretty pointy corners too.

This issue of overly large scale isn’t a unique fault of Nokia by any means, HTC did it with the One Max and Sony did it with the Xperia Z Ultra – in all three cases these companies have recognised a genuine demand for phablet devices, but unlike the originator of the trend (Samsung) have immediately become focused with their debut models on continually expanding the size rather than selectively distilling things into a finely honed and balanced device – that’s the Galaxy Note 3, in case you were wondering.

Given Nokia’s slick design, it feels like it's a bit of a shame to be so critical of this point, but Sony and HTC got the same bashing for their identical size gaffs and Samsung got kudos for recognising where to draw the line. Nokia, Sony and HTC should all really consider pulling the same trick as Samsung and aim for about the 5.5-inch size with a 5.7-inch display crammed in.

Everything else about the Lumia 1520’s exterior build is gravy (as are many of its other features), so a re-jig of the device at a more manageable scale could really work well, and after all, it took Samung three attempts to really hit the bull’s eye.

Display

So yes, the phone may be too big, but credit where it’s due, that 6-inch display is truly phenomenal (but it’d work just as well slightly smaller, mind you). Nokia has opted for an IPS LCD panel using its ClearBlack technology to enhance contrast and the depth of blacks and darker tones.

It sports a full HD 1920x1080 pixel resolution at 367 pixels-per-inch (ppi) for some pretty stunning visual quality, complimented by strong colours, excellent brightness and wide viewing angles. Text is also nice and clear and the phone stands up well to outdoor use when the sun’s out.

There’s really little room to complain here and I think most users will find the display tremendously satisfying, whether browsing the web, gaming or watching a film – in fact watching films is particularly amazing.

Storage, connectivity and web

There’s only one storage variant available for the Lumia 1520 with 32GB onboard and microSD support for cards up to 64GB. That’s really not a bad setup at all with stacks of space on the device and room for expansive multimedia collections on cards, so Nokia really has got all the necessary bases covered here.

Like other premium-grade manufacturers in the industry, Nokia’s got pretty good at bundling in a very capable set of connectivity options, particularly in higher-tier devices such as this one. The Lumia 1520 has full 4G LTE and 3G HSPA+ mobile data capabilities as well as dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac with Hotspot and in all cases it’s very good at maintaining a fast connection.

Typically of Windows Phone handsets using IE 10, web speeds are stupidly fast. Presumably thanks to the quad-core chip, however, the Lumia 1520 really takes the biscuit with super-slick real world use and a Sunspider score of 540.8 milliseconds (ms), putting it close behind Apple’s A7-powered iPhone as one of the fastest mobile browsing scores on the current market.

Other connectivity options include NFC, microUSB, GPS, and Bluetooth 4.0.

I should also point out the phone uses a Nano-SIM, so you may need to get in touch with your network if you're considering an upgrade.

Processor and performance

There’s little doubt this is the most powerful Windows Phone handset to date, sporting as it does Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line and much-venerated Snapdragon 800 quad-core chip, which so far has certainly served Android devices well enough in the performance stakes.

Specifically, it’s clocked at 2.2GHz, features 2GB of RAM and carries an Adreno 330 graphics processing unit (GPU). All good stuff.

But while things seem pretty smooth, and app load speeds are noticeably quicker, there isn’t a great deal you’ll notice in terms of true high-performance from previous Windows Phone models on dual-core hardware.

Why’s that? Well the Lumia 1520 has the slightly dubious honour of being the first quad-core Windows Phone, which means there isn’t much (read: any) content on the Windows Phone store which has been designed to take advantage of its impressive spec.

In other words, there’s nothing around intensive enough to cause its Herculean power to break a sweat - yet.

Bit of a shame that, and a bit awkward from a testing point of view. Gaming is undoubtedly one of the more intensive tasks you can put a smartphone through but many of the titles on the Windows Phone store are not exactly cutting-edge when it comes to graphics – titles which are only in their second iteration but are now in their third or fourth on Android, where quad-core chips are familiar territory.

Six Guns was one of the more graphically intensive games I could find and that’s saying something, because it is starting to look a little dated. Still, it ran very smoothly indeed, as smooth as I’ve seen anywhere else, though it’s worth mentioning I did notice the back panel of the phone heated up quite a bit. This didn’t cause any performance blips, however.

At the very least it means you currently don’t have to worry about being able to run anything on the Windows Phone store - app, game or otherwise, it should all work flawlessly.

For benchmarks, AnTuTu rated the handset at 25,000. To put that in some kind of perspective it’s a wee bit behind Android rivals such as the Galaxy Note 3, which scored 32,837 and the Sony Xperia Z1 at 34,902 on the same chip, though in the Galaxy Note 3’s case it does have 1GB more RAM to play with.

That means the Nokia 1520 is rocking up a score at about a halfway point between Android devices running the same SoC and those running the lower-rated Qualcomm 600 chip, such as the HTC One’s 19,900 score. Though it is worth pointing out AnTuTu does operate slightly differently between operating systems.

Based on actual use, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt – it performs just as well as its Android counterparts. Now we just need some decent games to get stuck into. Come on, Microsoft! 

Software: Windows Phone 8 Black

The Lumia 1520 runs the latest version of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 platform, dubbed “Black”.

Many of the most significant tweaks are back end changes adding support for new hardware features like the full HD 1080p display resolution, the quad-core processor and Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (LE).

At the other end of the spectrum there are small new features which, while nice to have, are not exactly earth-shattering – a low-power night mode showing the clock on-screen when the phone is idle, for example, now has new colour options.

Aside from this it’s more or less business as usual for Windows Phone. The colourful Live Tile interface looks nice and striking, is relatively easy to use and is plenty customisable. You now also have an additional column of Live Tile space on the larger screen real-estate, for what it’s worth.

As I mentioned in the performance section, screen transitions and general operation is smooth, as things are well-optimised and there’s a ton of power behind the phone. Windows Phone’s app ecosystem is more robust than it once was. Its got more apps than ever but it is still nowhere near iOS or Android, something to bear in mind before switching to Windows Phone.

But the other issue I also alluded to earlier is that Windows Phone is lagging behind in other ways on this subject. For example, on Android you can grab Real Racing 3, with fancy new graphics, for free, while over on Windows Phone you can only get Real Racing 2 and it’ll cost you £3.99.

Everything seems to cost more on Windows Phone; there are still key apps missing; the latest iterations of apps in brands that are present are still missing...it goes on. It still feels lacklustre despite the obvious improvement and it's almost as though unless Microsoft really liberates developers the gap might never be closed.

The People Hub, while a very nice idea, is poorly executed – it is still clunky and disjointed rather than being a cohesive centre point from which you can smoothly interact on a number of social networking and communications channels simultaneously. BlackBerry 10 does this far better.

Windows Phone still lacks a notifications centre and a quick settings menu. You can tell me the Live Tiles negate the need for a notifications centre but we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one - simply put, not enough information is presented at a glance and you lack any control input at this level.

In short, Microsoft needs to do another massive Windows Phone overhaul to introduce the kind of functionality which makes modern mobile operating systems enjoyable to use. It works very well at what it does, but it is a bit more basic and clunky than the alternatives. Rumours say such a re-working is on the way, but in the meantime there are a few holes.

Lumia 1520 firmware update

Nokia's now rolled out a firmward update for the Lumia 1520. The 1028.3562.1402.00xx update (yeah, just rolls off the tongue) is pegged a general bugfix and stability tweak more than anything else.

Known issues with the Lumia 1520 include wonky touch input where the phone either misses inputs or registers scrolling motions as basic tapping interaction. Screen dimming and flickering problems have also been reported and are believed to be software based rather than hardware. There are also reports of problems with picture and video capture, including camera crashes.

Camera

I really like the Lumia 1520’s camera setup, as I think it strikes a nice balance in a number of ways.

On the one hand, it’s an area where Nokia is making good progress in terms of what I mentioned earlier about honing down somewhat over-inflated features to avoid compromising in other areas. Specifically, it’s an excellent PureView camera which doesn’t add to the bulk of the device.

I personally felt the Lumia 1020’s bulky frame was not a nice compromise to make for the sake of 41-megapixels. Thus, a 20-megapixel PureView setup with some of the same features, but one which allows an 8.7mm thin chassis and no bulky camera port, is most welcome indeed.

The Lumia 1520 features Carl Zeiss optics, a back illuminated sensor (BSI), optical image stabilisation (OIS), an f/2.4 aperture, a dual-LED flash and video light, a dedicated shutter button and 1080p video recording with stereo sound.

The Lumia 1520’s capture can be as simple or complicated as you like – if you use the regular camera app you’ve got a very capable set of toggle-able automatic settings which means it works quite well as a “point-n-shoot” affair.

But, if you are a photography buff, fire up the Nokia Pro Camera app and you can fine tune a wide range of settings to your heart’s content via a series of intuitive dial controls, and just like the Lumia 1020 on which this feature debuted, you can pull of some pretty fancy tricks by playing with exposure, white balance, focus, ISO and others.

Of course the results of such jiggery pokery are subject to the skill of the user.

The quality of the point-n-shoot images and video, though, is very good indeed with great colour saturation, tons of detail, nice focal depth and good dynamic range.

It’s capable enough in low-light although the flash, left to its own devices, does have a tendency to play merry hell with colour reproduction, so such conditions are perhaps where you might crack out the Nokia Pro Camera app and have a play – in the right hands this is where it will trump plenty of the competition.

Battery

The onboard battery is non-removbable, owing to the fact the phone uses a sealed unibody chassis design. It's a 3,400mAh unit and this delivers similar performance to what we've seen from rival devices using equally large 3,000mAh+ setups. Like the Galaxy Note 3, HTC One Max and Xperia Z1, the Lumia 1520 is able to last a couple of full days on a single charge with light-to-moderate use. Expect this to be reduced by intensive browsing, gaming, video or messaging. 

I put the Lumia 1520 through our video test with brightness on full and connected to Wi-Fi from 100% charge. After watching the full 2.49 hour run-time of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the handset still had 64% battery remaining. Again this is fairly consistent with competing handsets and is pretty good overall.

Conclusion

I recognise that here, as well as elsewhere, I’ve been quite critical of Nokia’s Lumia handsets, but to clarify as I did at the beginning of this review, that’s actually in no small part because I genuinely do appreciate the company’s excellent design credentials.

I think, when it all comes together, Nokia makes some of the best looking and feeling phones in the business and as a result I would like to see such devices take off – it would set an excellent design standard for others to live up to and generally be beneficial for the industry.

But the reason I nitpick is because there are always one or two key design decisions which crucially upset the apple cart and undermine a device’s appeal. With the Lumia 920 and Lumia 1020 it was the sheer thickness, bulk and weight. With the Lumia 1520 I am pleased to see Nokia has shed these excesses, but disappointed to see it has simply switched to another dimension to go too far in.

The Lumia 1520 is simply too big, in my view, to be a practical smartphone, just as other phablets from rivals have also proven unwieldy at the same scale.

Phablets, when done right, are a marvel, and the Lumia 1520’s bodywork, build quality, display, performance and camera certainly all live up to such a label, but it’s all tainted by the fact that if this phone was just half and inch smaller on the diagonal it would make a world of difference to how it handles and how practical it is.

Windows Phone 8 is improving, slowly but surely, but the operative word there is slowly. It is still lagging at the rear with missing or incomplete-feeling features, plus the ecosystem still has gaps.

This isn’t Nokia’s fault, of course, its eggs are simply in the Microsoft basket and that company is in a state of flux (following the acquisition of Nokia and the departure of Steve Ballmer) which I think, ultimately, might be good for the platform in the long run.

At the moment though, the status quo has not been disturbed.

Having said all this, I’m sure the Lumia 1520 will find itself in the hands of a few happy customers. On both these subjects: phablet size and the viability of Windows Phone, there are always people who have no issue whatsoever.

I just think that for the majority of consumers the Lumia 1520 re-designed as a 5.5-inch handset would be much more appealing, and while Windows Phone 8 is better than ever, it still needs a kick in the arse.

Video Review

There’s nothing better than seeing a handset in action. With that in mind, we created this small video review of the Nokia Lumia 1520 which you can have a look at just below. It’ll give you a full run down of the important specs alongside some footage of how the handset looks. It will also give you some perspective on how big the handset really is in the hand.

If you like the video, be sure to hit like, comment and subscribe.

Specifications

Length 162.8mm
Width 85.4mm
Thickness 8.7mm
Weight 209g
Screen Colours 16 million
Screen Size 6-inches
Phone Style Phablet
Designer Lens Carl Zeiss
Camera Resolution 20-megapixels
Video Resolution 1080p
Flash Dual-LED

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