Nokia Lumia 1520 review

80/100

WhistleOut
06 January 2014

The Lumia 1520 is not only Nokia’s first phablet, but the first flagship device to rock Windows Phone 8.1 out of the box. It also boasts the toned-down 20-megapixel successor to the Lumia 1020's crazy-amazing 41-megapixel PureView camera. At first look there's a lot to love and, despite its flaws, those same virtues hold up under the closer scrutiny of a full review.

Design

By their nature phablets need to be massive to accommodate their larger screens. As such, any extra space must be saved at every possible turn to keep the overall size down. There’s an important difference between a phablet that can fit comfortably in a pocket and one that can’t. That difference can be made by a few millimeters here and there that wouldn't matter on a smaller device.

The Lumia 1520 almost gets there. Unlike Nokia’s previous flagships, the 1520 has thin bezels, keeps its weight down and sports and attractively thin profile. We’re glad to see Nokia fixing its physical design issues finally, but there was one thing that did grab our attention.

Unfortunately, Nokia added sharp corners that needlessly punish your already-stretched pocket. This sounds like a small point to gripe on, but it isn’t. For us, it was the difference between wearing it comfortably in a front-pocket and relegating it to the back or jacket pockets.

If you’re more of a baggy-pants kind of person then you won’t have the same troubles. Thanks to the 1520’s thin profile it’s more portable than we were expecting, but those damn corners take what should have been an impressive design and make it cumbersome.

Pocket-comfort issues aside, the sharp-cornered design does look fantastic. Nokia has employed its now-standard unibody polycarbonate approach and it's as stylish as ever. Our review model was boring old black, but we’ve played around with the more-vibrant yellow model and were huge fans of it. The matte-black ends up looking a little monolithic for our tastes, but we can still see the appeal.

In terms of actually holding it the Lumia 1520 runs in to the same problems as the HTC One Max. The problem is that Nokia and HTC have both found winning designs with their smaller flagships (the HTC One and Lumia 920/1020) and simply up-scaled. This of course makes for an attractive and recognizable device, but in both cases the material is too smooth for a phablet.

The Lumia 1520’s polycarbonate coating lacks just enough grip to be an issue when combined with its size and weight. We never really got over the feeling that we may drop it at any moment. This would be quickly fixed by adding a cover, but that would increase its already-imposing girth.

Display and user experience

Windows Phone is an OS designed around beautiful aesthetics, so it’s high-time that it supported beautiful 1080p displays like the one on the 1520. Images are very crisp and the higher pixel count, coupled with the larger display, allows for an additional column of Live Tiles without added blurriness.

Nokia’s reputation for providing vibrant colours and impressively inky black tones holds up in the 1520. Whites also come out fairly purely, although not quite as well as on the HTC device.

Viewing angles are very good and viewing in direct sunlight is more manageable than on other Windows Phone models, but could still use some work.

The ‘new’ Windows Phone 8.1 interface is essentially the same as the old one, but with an extra Live Tile column down the side. Hopefully this is something that will be included as an option for smaller-screened devices. The extra column was obviously to make better use of the Lumia 1520’s larger display, but we think it would still be useful down to the 4.5 inch mark.

There’s more than Microsoft could do with the interface, like make screen-wide tiles that are only as deep as the smallest tile option, or folders to house multiple tiles. For the moment we're just happy to see some positive changes to the platform.

WP 8.1 brought with it a task manager that is accessed by holding down the back button. For some this will be the best addition to the platform. A lot of WP users, especially those with Lumia 920s, often find themselves mysteriously without battery. This is because some apps continue to run in the background and there's no way of easily stopping them. Being able to cancel background processes should finally fix this issue.

The overall interface hasn’t changed much more in terms of day-to-day use. Everything still looks pretty much the same as it did on Windows Phone 8. To be honest we were hoping for a little bit more here, but most of the improvements are behind-the-scenes.

Hardware and battery life

The Lumia 1520 is the first Windows Phone device to boast premium specs. It rocks a top-of-the-line Snapdragon 800 processor and 2GB of RAM, which puts it between the Note 3 and One Max in terms of raw processing capability.

The difference in experience between the Lumia 920, 925, 1020 and the 1520 isn’t earth-shaking, but it is noticeable. Apps open faster, the boot-up time is very short and the general UI is smoother than on any other Windows Phone device to date. It doesn’t do too many new things; it just does everything better.

Battery life is particularly impressive. The massive 3400mAh battery easily lasts a full day. In fact, if you keep the brightness between low and medium and aren’t a power-user you can get two days out of it without a stretch.

Unfortunately none of the WhistleOut team fit in that category, so we were still charging every night. That being said, we never had to spare a thought about where the battery bar was. Even on the days of heaviest usage it was still between 30% and 40% when we turned in for the night.

Camera

As we mentioned earlier, the PureView camera on the 1520 includes a 20-megapixel image sensor. It’s dropped half of its megapixels from the Lumia 1020, but the trade-off helps deliver the slimmer form-factor that we definitely appreciate.

Obviously it’s not going to compare to the camera-centric 1020 in picture quality, but it stacks up very well against the other market leaders. It might actually be the second-best smartphone camera we’ve used behind the 1020.

Images during the day come out very clear and with good color accuracy. Low-light photos are also impressive, but there is some light-bleeding here and there. This has been an issue with all PureView cameras, but it’s one that is slowly being resolved with each new generation.

One particular trick we liked was from the Nokia Refocus app. Depending on your location you may have to manually download this one. It’s a cool feature that lets you refocus the lighting on a picture after you’ve taken it. It works really well and is surprisingly useful.

What we can’t figure out is why it isn’t simply an option in the regular picture-view mode of the Nokia Pro Camera app.

In fact, the full camera experience from the Lumia 1520 is so fractured as to be confusing. There’s the default Windows Phone camera app, the Nokia Pro Cam app, Nokia Refocus, Nokia Cinemagraph and Nokia Storyteller.

Storyteller in particular fills a sorely-needed function within Windows Phone. It’s an easy-to-use album generator based around the home screen’s Live Tile layout. We have hopes that this or something like it will soon replace the generic WP gallery now that Microsoft has bought Nokia’s mobile division.

As a point-and-click camera the Lumia 1520 takes great photos in almost any situation. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better option. It’s just a shame that to get the whole experience you need to work across such a fractured system.

Verdict

The Nokia Lumia 1520 is the best Windows Phone we’ve ever used. It rocks top-end hardware, has one of the best screens we've ever seen and its camera is fantastic, so long as you use it as a point-and-shoot. The extra camera stuff was fun too, if a little jumbled.

As for the overall size, this is a big device. Where the Galaxy Note 3 fits in a pocket with relative ease, the Lumia 1520 is just big enough that it’ll be a problem for some people. It’s bigger than the HTC One Max and those damn sharp corners don’t help matters.

If you’re after a two-handed device, or the best Windows Phone out there then the Lumia 1520 is well worth considering. We’d still like to see more changes out of Windows Phone within the next four-to-six months, but the 8.1 update has sated us for the short-term.


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