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Windows Phone Phablet Euphoria: Nokia Lumia 1520 REVIEW

by Todd Haselton | November 27, 2013November 27, 2013 2:49 pm PST

Nokia is doing everything under the sun to make Windows Phone enticing to consumers. The company is creating its own Windows Phone apps, it’s selling colorful smartphones, it’s selling phones with cameras unlike any other on the market and now, it’s entering the flagship phablet space with the large, bold and beautiful Nokia Lumia 1520.

If you’ve followed Nokia for the past decade or so (probably longer), you know the company has a natural ability to create some of the best device hardware on the market. The Nokia Lumia 1520 is no exception though, unlike any other Windows Phone today, it finally has the specs to compete with what we see under the hoods of Android smartphones.

Nokia has arguably been hobbled by Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system in the past, largely due to a lack of apps but for user interface reasons, too. Does anything change with the Nokia Lumia 1520? Let’s dig into the full experience now.

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Nokia Lumia 1520 Video Review

Hardware

AT&T Nokia Lumia 1520-Home Screen

Nokia makes great hardware, I’ve said that a thousand times. In fact, TechnoBuffalo has already labeled the company’s few last smartphones the “best Windows Phone yet.” Spoiler alert: the Lumia 1520 takes the crown again. This time, though, it’s for different reasons.

The 6-inch screen is incredible. Viewing angles are great, it’s easy to see under direct sunlight, and Nokia managed to squeeze great hardware and that big display into a thin body. At the request of more than a few people on my team, I finally watched the first episode of Firefly (it’s awesome), and it looked stellar on the big screen. Also, look, I wear pretty tight jeans, and while I can always feel the phone, it’s not too bulky to carry around.

You might also hear concerns from people saying the Nokia Lumia 1520 is too hard to operate with one hand. That’s true if you’re trying to type a text message, but it’s really not too bad. Also, you know when you buy the phone you’re buying this massive device… so you can’t act surprised that it’s suddenly too big. When you order a six-inch cheeseburger, you expect to eat it with two hands. The same goes for phablets.

AT&T Nokia Lumia 1520-Back

Now back to that delicious hardware. The Lumia 1520 is the fastest and more powerful Windows Phone to hit the market. Though, there’s just not a lot you can do with that hardware yet, and I address that in the software section of this review. You’ll find a quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, 2GB of RAM, a microSD card slot for adding up to 64GB cards (and you’ll need to, because it only has 16GB of storage on AT&T, oddly enough), and a 20-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization. Most flagships aren’t going to touch the camera on this phone. Right now, I dig the iPhone 5s camera, and the Lumia 1020 has a stellar 40-megapixel shooter, so you’re basically falling right in-between. I’ve seen tests and photographers claiming the iPhone 5s is better than the Lumia 1020, and since I’m not an expert on camera optics, I’ll leave it to them to make those claims. However, you’ll find much more control for the camera on the 1020 and the 1520. I’ll address that more in the camera section.

For those keeping track at home, here’s how the layout of the Lumia 1520 stacks up: There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack dead center up top, volume controls generally in easy reach on the right-hand side, a power button below them, and a dedicated camera button. There’s a microUSB charging port on the bottom, two relatively hidden trays for the microSD card and the nanoSIM (yep, nanoSIM) on the left. The microSD card was a little tricky to figure out at first, and I admit I had to look on Nokia’s site to figure out how to align it properly.

The device itself is crafted out of polycarbonate plastic and has the same sturdy build as many Lumia smartphone flagships that came before it. I have the cherry red model. It’s glossy and definitely attracts fingerprints, but it also stands out unlike most smartphones. I’m head over heels for the design.

Ok, so the hardware is awesome, you get it. Let’s take a look at the software.

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Software

lumia-1520-22

I think what makes me so excited about the Lumia 1520 is that, to me, it seems like it’s future proof. The specs are way too good for what Microsoft requires for Windows Phone so, and I’m pretty confident in this, I think this smartphone phone was built for Microsoft’s next version of Windows Phone.

I imagine whatever it is, Windows Phone 8.1 or Windows Phone Blue, it will at least take advantage of the power under the hood. Otherwise, why else would we have a Snapdragon 800 processor and 2GB of RAM Windows Phone runs fine on much less powerful hardware.

And that power is definitely noticeable right off of the bat. Applications load super fast, nothing ever slugs down, and I generally felt like I had a Porsche engine in a Toyota; there’s just nothing that takes advantage of the quad-core processor, save for maybe playing 1080p video and gaming on the massive 6-inch screen, but even then I think other processors are more than capable.

lumia-1520-17

I’ve read a few other reviews that seem to suggest the large display doesn’t mix well with Windows Phone. I think it’s fine; sure, the keyboard still takes up a ton of space, but it’s actually amazingly simple to type. I almost considered writing this review entirely on the phone, but my words-per-minute on a real mechanical keyboard is just a more efficient use of my time.

I also love the third row of full live tiles. The phone feels so alive, and while Google Now has easily become my favorite feature of Android, I can also get at-a-glance info just by looking at my screen. I have live tiles for the businesses I follow on the stock market, my social networks, the music I’m playing, the weather, the next local train that’s arriving and more. It’s all there, and if I want, I can see all of that information. In some ways, I think Windows Phone was built for larger screens, and I’d love to see this device running Windows RT, or some form of Windows where I can run apps side-by-side. There’s more than enough screen real estate on this smartphone for that to be a real possibility.

lumia-1520-5
That brings me to another point: notifications. Ugh. They’re awful on Windows Phone, and are usually delayed if they show up at all. Microsoft is apparently working on this, but it really needs to come soon. The company hasn’t done much with its operating system in a year, so I’m really hoping a big update hits soon.
AT&T Nokia Lumia 1520-Task Switcher

Yes, Windows Phone is absolutely still lagging far behind Android and iOS when it comes to apps. The game selection is getting better, but you won’t find truly amazing third party calendar and email apps, and you won’t find new releases that typically hit other platforms first. I’m glad Vine, Instagram and Waze just arrived, but I still feel the store is lacking. Thankfully, again, Nokia has done a lot to make the app offering as robust as possible, and I think we’ll see this trend continue even as it’s folded into Microsoft. After all, Microsoft wants Windows Phone to succeed, and Nokia’s already got the hardware nailed.

Camera

AT&T Nokia Lumia 1520-Camera-App-2

I actually like the 20-megapixel camera on the Lumia 1520 better than the 40-megapixel camera on the Lumia 1020, mainly because it doesn’t add all of that bulk to the phone. You can still zoom in a considerable amount for cropping pictures, and there’s also Nokia’s amazing software, now just called Nokia Camera, that gives you more granular controls than any other smartphone I can think of.

To me, the Lumia 1520 camera is the best of both worlds: you get a great PureView image sensor that takes stellar photos, but you also don’t have the fat protrusion on the back (though there’s a small one). I kind of wish it had a Xenon flash, too, but the dual-LED was bright enough in the dark.

My biggest gripe is that the camera is still pretty slow at snapping photos, so you don’t get the rapid fire shooting that you’ll find on Android phones or the iPhone 5s. I never really ran into any issues with it, though, and I don’t actually ever use rapid fire in practice. If you really want to capture a sequence, Nokia’s camera software is capable of burst photography, though you have to deliberately launch that instead of just picking up your phone and taking pictures.

The Lumia 1520 is also capable of recording 1080p video, which looked fine when played back on the screen. I wish there was an option for outputting to my HDTV, especially since I know the Snapdragon 800 processor is more than capable of it, but I couldn’t do that.

Take a look at some of my sample photos for a better taste of what the Lumia 1520’s camera is capable of. Generally, I think we’ve entered into an era where most smartphone cameras are more than capable of taking great shots.

Call Quality and Data

AT&T Nokia Lumia 1520-Front-Camera

This is a section of reviews that seems silly to include these days, since most of the time smartphones are just fine with 4G LTE data speeds and call quality. But I’m glad we still include it, because there’s something up with the Lumia 1520’s call quality. On almost every occasion I used the phone, I was told I sounded garbled and that there was a terrible echo. Each time, I called the person back on my iPhone 5s, from the exact same location, and the problem was resolved. I can’t figure it out; Nokia’s phones are usually amazing for call quality. I’m going to dig deeper and figure out what’s going on here, and hopefully it’s just an issue with my unit.

Data was fine in practice. Data speeds were good in most areas where we test, and I was able to download several albums from the Xbox Music Store without a problem. Apps, too, installed quickly, though Windows Phone always requires a Wi-Fi connection for the big games.

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Battery Life

AT&T Nokia Lumia 1520-Side
The Lumia 1520 has a beefy 3,400mAh battery in it. Big screens are known killers of battery life, but the Lumia 1520 always got me through a full day of use. I usually plugged it into my charger at the end of the day with about ⅓ of the battery left. The device typically idles very well, too, but I did notice that one night where I didn’t plug it in the phone had died by morning, which seemed odd to me.
AT&T Nokia Lumia 1520-Buttons

Buy

I think it’s Nokia’s way of future-proofing the device for a Windows Phone update.

When I reviewed the iPhone 5s, I said that I think the device’s full potential has yet to be realized, especially since it has a 64-bit processor and a new M7 co-processor. I very much feel the same way about the Lumia 1520.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor is more than enough power for Windows Phone right now, so I think it’s Nokia’s way of future-proofing the device for a Windows Phone update. Don’t mark my words, though, because we’ve been let down in the past. Windows Phone 8 didn’t hit older devices, and I have a feeling there’s still the possibility that Nokia and Microsoft still leave some devices out in the cold. If I had to guess, though, I think the Lumia 1520 will get the new version. After all, Nokia’s 2520 runs on a Snapdragon 800 processor, too, and that device runs Windows RT 8.1.

The hardware is excellent. It’s my favorite Windows Phone to date, hands down. When I envision Microsoft’s future for Windows, which hopefully involves an entire ecosystem of tablets, PCs and phones that run a more similar version of Windows, the Lumia 1520 seems like the best start yet.

My biggest problem with the phone now, though, is that Windows Phone still doesn’t hold a candle to Android and iOS (not to mention its oddly poor call quality). I think it will really soon, though, and that’s why we shouldn’t write this phone off because of its operating system just yet.

I won’t be replacing the Lumia 1520 in my arsenal for a while. It’s easily one of my favorite phones on the market, and if you’re buying a Windows Phone, the Lumia 1520, right now, is the only one you should consider.

Nokia and AT&T provided TechnoBuffalo with two review units. Todd Haselton used his for six days before drafting his review and Jon used his for three days before recording his video. It was tested on AT&T’s network in both Irvine, California and in New York, NY and Jersey City, New Jersey. We plan to return the devices following the completion of all future comparison tests.


Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...

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