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Nokia Lumia 1520 (AT&T)

  • Category: Cell Phones
  • Review Date: 11/21/2013
  • Bottom line: The Nokia Lumia 1520 is a gigantic smartphone with an excellent camera, but it's just plain too much phone for most people.
  • Pros: Beautifully built. Spectacular camera. Clear screen. Excellent music quality. Elegant interface.
  • Cons: Camera's rather slow. Comically huge. In the end, just a big phone.
Editor Rating: 4.00

By Sascha Segan

The Nokia Lumia 1520 ($99.99 with contract) is a beautiful phablet with an excellent camera and a gorgeous build, and Windows Phone is finally coming into its own as an OS supporting the applications and services people expect. The 1520 is a fine device and an incredible value at its current price, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. I've always thought of phablet-sized devices as awkward tweeners, and the latest generation—this one, Sony's Sony Xperia Z Ultra, and Samsung's Galaxy Mega are even more awkward than ever.

This is probably going to devolve into one of those unresolvable debates, because it's about biology and design rather than whether something works. Six-inch phones like the Lumia 1520 don't fit in my pants pockets. They barely fit into my jacket pocket. Wrapping a hand around any of them stretches my fingers, and the slick surface of the 1520 always feels like it's about to crash to the ground.

But I get it: Some people consider these things usable. I'll suspend my disbelief, because as the only Windows Phone phablet so far, the 1520 adds an unusual elegance and a terrific camera to the king-sized mix.

Physical Design, Call Quality, and Networking
The Lumia 1520 measures 6.4 by 3.4 by .34 inches (HWD) and weighs 7.3 ounces. It's noticeably taller and wider than our Editors' Choice Samsung Galaxy Note 3 thanks to its larger 6-inch screen; the Sony Xperia Z Ultra is larger yet, of course. The 1520 is clad in glossy polycarbonate, with squared corners, and the glass screen floats on top. Whether it's red, white, black, or yellow, it's slick and beautiful, although a little slippery. My suggestion: Get the red.

The 1080p "ClearBlack" IPS LCD screen has more intensely saturated colors than other LCD displays, and I found it readable outdoors. At 367ppi, it's higher-density than the iPhone; the pixels are invisible.

The phone has SIM and memory card slots on the left-hand side, although you need to use a SIM removal tool to open the memory card slot. It's clearly made to enhance the phone's 14.56GB of available storage with a single shot of 64GB, and not to have you swapping cards all the time. The volume rocker, power button and separate camera key are on the right. Mine felt a little loose. The 20-megapixel camera is on the back of the phone. We'll get to that later.

Reception is solid on the AT&T network, as you'd expect from something with a gigantic internal antenna. The Lumia 1520 has all of AT&T's LTE bands and will also work on foreign 2100MHz networks at up to HSPA+ 21 speeds—it isn't banded to work on any other U.S. carrier. Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, NFC, and GPS are also all here. The 1520 has the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, and Wi-Fi speeds were similar—a little better on the Lumia, possibly due to the bigger antenna, but not enough to really matter.

Even though the phone's mic is disturbingly far from your mouth, the 1520's noise cancellation made quick work of street noise, although I got a little bit of wind noise in the mouthpiece. The earpiece is loud, with little distortion. The speakerphone is surprisingly not thunderingly loud, but it'll do indoors or in a car. You're much more likely to use a headset with this beast than hold it up to your ear, and the Lumia 1520 had no problem pairing and connecting to a Jawbone Era headset, including triggering and using the phone's voice commands. That's absolutely the way to go.

The 3400mAh battery is rated for 24 hours of talk time and 10.8 hours of video playback time. There's an optional wireless charging accessory. We're still testing the battery life and we'll update this review when we're done, but we ran one talk time test for 10 hours and killed only about 40 percent of the battery.

Performance and OS
Microsoft really knows how to arrange furniture. Windows Phone screens always look tight and elegant, never spacy, drifting, or scattered like a poorly-maintained Android phone can look. On the 1520's six-inch screen, you now get three columns of tiles instead of two, by five rows deep. If you go with the little quarter-sized tiles, that lets you pack 30 little icons onto your first home screen, more than on any competing phablet.

You shouldn't do that, of course. Instead, you should take advantage of Windows Phone's large live tiles, which reveal what they're doing more intelligently than simple icons do. The Nokia Music tile shows your most recently played songs; the Bing Weather tile shows, well, the weather. For more, take a look at our full review of Windows Phone 8 and its most recent update.

The 2.26GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor drives the 1080p screen with aplomb. Raw processor benchmark results were in line with other devices with similar specs, and heavy games like Asphalt 8: Airborne played smoothly. If I'm to fault anything here, it's that Microsoft and Nokia weren't thinking quite big enough with their quad-core phablet experience. The IE 10 browser represents pages well, and it's safe to call 1080p on a six-inch screen a full desktop browsing experience. But it performed disappointingly on the Browsermark benchmark, clocking in slower than competing phones running Android and iOS. That's all software, not hardware—the browser needs an upgrade.

I'd also love to see Microsoft take the next step with its office apps. This is still the only mobile platform with an official, native version of Office, but the formatting tools in Word are quite limited. Since Microsoft has shown it can run a more powerful Office on Qualcomm chips with Windows RT, it's time to bring that over to phablets.

Let me add that the more you live in the Microsoft ecosystem, the happier you'll be with this phone. Windows Phones have an uncomfortable relationship with Gmail—it doesn't arrive more frequently than every 15 minutes—and unlike on iOS, Google apps like Maps and Drive have to be hacked together by third parties. If you play Xbox and prefer Bing, Skydrive, Nokia Maps, and Outlook mail, you'll be in heaven.

The 1520 comes with a massive amount of Nokia and AT&T bloatware. Fortunately, it's all deletable; you'll probably say goodbye to AT&T Address Book, AT&T Locker, AT&T Radio, AT&T Navigator, and the Yellow Pages app, all of which have superior Microsoft or Nokia-provided alternatives.

Nokia's preloads include the indispensable Nokia Pro Camera, which is the default camera app on the phone; Nokia's streaming music app, a basic photo editor, and Storyteller, a 1520 exclusive which groups your photos and videos by location and puts them in the context of mapping data. Storyteller is in beta, and when I tried it, it really didn't work.

Obviously, the camera is a big deal here. So let's get to that.

Multimedia and Camera
The Nokia Lumia 1520's camera isn't quite as ambitious as the high-megapixel PureView module in the 1020, but it's a step above the norm for a phablet. Its 20-megapixel, 1/2.5-inch image sensor is almost the size of the sensors found in compact cameras like the Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS. It sets itself apart from phones and digital compacts alike thanks to support for Raw image capture, here in Adobe's DNG file format.

Anecdotally, this camera is a significant leap ahead of most other smartphone cameras, the iPhone 5/5S and Nokia Lumia 1020 excepted. The camera's dynamic range let us capture gorgeous shots of clouds in the sky, and the Pro Camera app let us tune exposure compensation and other options much more easily than on many other devices.

We used Imatest to check the f/2.4 lens's sharpness, both in 5-megapixel and 19-megapixel mode. At the lower resolution it notched about 1,756 lines per picture height, which is just a hair shy of the 1,800 lines we require to call an image sharp. There is some softness as you get away from the center of the frame, but to its credit only the extreme corners of the frame appear noticeably muddy. Shooting at full resolution nets a bit more sharpness, an impressive 2,154 lines, with the same issues in the extreme corners. All in all, the sharpness is quite impressive for a phone camera.

Most phones have small image sensors that struggle with image noise at the high ISO settings that the camera will default to in low light situations. The 1520 downsamples images in order to reduce noise in when outputting files at 5MP. Those shots keep noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 800, but it can only manage the same feat through ISO 400 with its full-resolution output.

Noise reduction kicks in as soon as the ISO jumps above its lowest setting of 100, which detracts from fine detail. Sketched lines on a foreign banknote in our test scene start to lose their distinct edges at ISO 400, but are still distinctly separate at ISO 800 in both the full-resolution and reduced output images. But at ISO 1600 they are smudged to the point where they run together, and it's also at that setting that you start to lose some color fidelity, in part due to a greenish color cast that overtakes images. Still, ISO 800 is very good for a phone camera, and it'll be adequate in many shooting situations thanks to the f/2.4 aperture of the 1520's lens.

Where the Lumia 1520 fails as a camera, and it's the same area where we faulted the 1020, is in speed. It requires about 3.6 seconds to launch the camera app from the home screen and fire an in-focus shot. The slow focus time, about 1.1-second on average, takes some of the blame here. Continuous shooting is possible by holding the shutter down, but be prepared to wait about 1.8 seconds between shots. This is slower than either the competing Samsung Galaxy Note 3 or the iPhone 5s, which may have fewer pixels, but they're quicker on the draw. The iPhone shoots from a standing start in 2.2 seconds, and only requires 0.2-second to focus, while the Galaxy Note 3 also took about 2.2 seconds to launch, but 0.4-second to focus.

The 1-megapixel front camera is faster, because it doesn't bother with autofocus; it's very much tuned for selfies and video calling. It takes low-res 1,280-by-720 images, but its low-light performance is fearsome: It kicks up to an admittedly soft and noisy ISO 3200, nonetheless capturing images that many other smartphones would dissolve into a dark mess.

In terms of video, the main camera records 1080p videos at 30 frames per second; the front camera does 720p video at the same frame rate.

The Nokia Music app pairs up a range of custom streaming radio stations with access to your own music. While you're playing your own songs, you can check lyrics (albeit for $3.99/month extra), and swipe over to a panel which creates a custom station based on that artist and even shows the band's most recent Tweets.

I was stunned by the sound quality coming out of the 1520 into a good pair of headphones; it's rich and deep, with enough bass to challenge Beats. If you're not into the Beats sound, fortunately there's a whole bunch of equalizer settings available.

Windows Phone has Netflix and Hulu for video streaming, but it still lacks Amazon Prime streaming video and any downloadable video services at all. There's also no obvious way to output video to a TV. Does 1080p video look great on here? Of course it does. But without a way to get legal, downloadable videos directly onto the phone, it's really missing something.

The phone supports MP3, WMA, and AAC music, along with MPEG4 and H.264 video encoded in MP4, AVI, MOV, and WMV files. There are several third-party apps which say they can support additional formats, like DivX, Xvid, and MKV.

Conclusions
To properly assess the Lumia 1520, we have to set aside its absurd size. Either you're going to like that or you aren't. There's no use trying to convince you, or me.

That aside, this is a sleek, high-quality phablet with a cleaner, much more orderly interface than competing Android devices. With Apple out of the phablet market for now, the Lumia 1520 is the best choice for people looking for a large device with design, camera prowess, and stability that are all ahead of the Android crowd. I strongly prefer it to AT&T's Samsung Galaxy Mega.

Yet our Editors' Choice stays with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Why? Because Samsung gets that a phablet can be more than just a big phone. Nokia, like HTC and Sony, hasn't quite figured that out yet. But with dual-window multitasking and the S Pen stylus, the Note 3 has applications that make sense on a big panel but not on a smaller phone. It makes better use of its real estate.

The Nokia Lumia 1020 remains our favorite Windows Phone device. Yes, it has a slower processor and a lower-res screen, but the camera's even better, and hey, you can hold it in one hand.