RANDOM REVIEW: Nokia Lumia 520 / Windows Phone 8

My God, its full of squares!
My God, its full of squares!

THERE AND BACK AGAIN

It was only a matter of time before I cracked and ended my ‘dumbphone’ experiment.  But what to get next?  I had already owned two Android phones in the past, both of which became progressively crappier as they got older, so Android was a no-go.  I have no desire to own an iPhone, despite owning an iPad mini that I am happy with.  Thus, I thought I would give the ‘other’ mobile OS a try: Windows Phone.  I went to Ye Olde Electronics Store, picked up a Nokia Lumia 520 AT&T GoPhone, signed up for a $60 a month unlimited talk/text plan with 2GB of data, and hoped for the best.

This is actually my second exposure to a Microsoft mobile operating system.  My first smartphone was a T-Mobile Dash (aka HTC Excalibur) back in the dark days of Windows Mobile 6.  While it was not a bad device, Windows Mobile 6 was an odd duck and I switched from it to Android once I had the chance.  So, I’m back to where I started, as far as smartphones go.

This review is based on my having owned the phone for three weeks, with my last phone being an Acatel 871A.

HARDWARE

In terms of hardware, the Lumia 520 is basic: a 4-inch touchscreen with a resolution of 800×480, a 5MP camera on the back with no flash, and WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS.  On the top left is a standard 3.5″ headphone jack, on the bottom center is a micro-USB charge/transfer port, and volume/power/camera buttons adorn the right side of the unit.  Back, Start and Search buttons sit below the screen.  (Side note: I really wish Search buttons on phones would go away, bring back the Menu button!)  The phone uses a micro-SIM, and comes with 8GB of built-in memory that can be expanded using a microSD card.  I like having the power button on the right center, though it took just a little bit of getting used to.  The back has a rubbery finish, which I actually prefer, and I believe the screen is glass.  The phone is solid without feeling too cheap.  The only thing missing in terms of hardware is a front-facing camera and a status LED of some sort: my last phone (Motorola Photon) had a status LED which enabled me to quickly look at it and identify what the last notification was or charge status by its color.

Call quality has been good and I was able to successfully sync the phone with my vehicle via Bluetooth for hands-free operation.  The phone’s speaker is quite loud; I don’t believe I have missed any calls yet for not being able to hear the ringtone, a problem I have had with other phones in the past.

I do have a few gripes with the hardware, the screen seems to love finger oils and gets dirty very quickly, so much so that I’m considering investing in a screen protector.  While Nokia and Microsoft like to tout the Lumias’ super-sensitive screen, it is a bit too sensitive for me, but it can be adjusted.  This is my first exposure to AT&T’s LTE service, and while its speeds have not been as awesome as I have become accustomed to on my Verizon iPad mini it is fast enough to do what I need and even video has worked well.

WINDOWS PHONE

I’m sure many of you reflexively said ‘WINDOWS, EWW,” upon reading the title of this post, but I like Windows, and thank you for continuing to read.  I have used Windows for years, it lets me do whatever I want to with it, and I know how to burrow into it and get my hands dirty if need be.  Sure, Windows 8 does leave a bit to be desired, but I’ll take even that over OS X or Linux any day.  While Windows is a great big negative for many people, (especially in the mobile world) it is a plus for me.

So, Windows Phone, then.  The biggest difference between Windows Phone and its competition is the Start Screen and its use of ‘live tiles,’ instead of icons.  Live Tiles display information in real-time, such as the number of emails you have waiting or random pictures of folks in the People tile.  The system is pretty flexible in terms of letting you arrange them.  One of the first things I did was remove of most of them, particularly the AT&T apps, most of which require monthly fees.  I guess $60 a month isn’t enough.

Unlike Android and iOS, which arrange their home screens horizontally, Windows Phone does things vertically: instead of swiping right and left, you swipe up and down to navigate the Start Screen.  Swiping from right to left pulls over a full list of apps ordered alphabetically, and tapping a letter in a list brings up a screen with the alphabet so you can quickly find things.  I like the Modern/Metro user interface; one thing that I greatly appreciate is that text is actually readable.  One beef I’ve had with previous smartphones is how darn tiny text is often displayed, so having big letters I can easily read is great.

ppl
Raccoons are people too!

While there is a minor learning curve with Windows Phone, the biggest adjustment I had to make is that Windows Phone does not have a ‘phonebook’ or ‘contacts’ app.  Instead, your contacts are stored in an app named ‘People’ that can be synced to include your contacts from Facebook, Google, Hotmail or even Twitter.  The integration with other services and social media websites is very impressive:  When you pull up a person’s information in the People app you can see their latest status update and in addition to the usual ‘call’ and ‘send text’ options you can send emails, post to their Facebook walls, or even mention them on Twitter.  Windows Phone does its best to sync your contacts with social media profiles, if it doesn’t catch one, you can actually specify which profile to match up to a contact. Very nice!

Another thing that has impressed me about Windows Phone is how quickly push notifications come: I will be chatting with a friend on Facebook on another device and my phone will beep within seconds of receiving a chat reply.  It becomes mildly annoying but is a small price to pay for expediency.

One of the problems I had with Android phones is the lack of system updates: unless you buy a Google-branded phone or a super-pricey one you could expect one or maybe two updates at best, then either the manufacturer calls it a day or the carrier decides to be a jerk and not push any new updates through in the hope you’ll get a new phone.  One thing I quickly noticed about Windows Phone is that I could not specify a custom ringtone for app notifications or e-mails.  I did a little research and learned that Microsoft had pushed out an update that fixed the problem.  I checked for updates, but none were to be found.  Crap.  Time will tell if that will change, but for now custom notification sounds are a no-go (you can assign specific ringtones to people, though).  This is an annoyance, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to survive without my phone telling me “You’ve Got F-ing Mail.” 😉

APPS

And now we get to the elephant in the room: Apps.  You may have heard that the Windows Store does not have as many apps as the other guys and yes, that is very true.  I myself use very few apps (which made it easier to stop using a smartphone in the first place) but even then, there are some notable ones missing, such as Dropbox.  Dropbox is a pretty significant omission, but Microsoft is more than happy to provide built-in SkyDrive support as well as a Microsoft Office app.

I like that there is an official genuine Office app included, even if it is a bit stripped down.  Microsoft Office alternatives, in my experience, have ranged from ‘pretty good’ to ‘ick.’  So while it is a bit inconvenient to have to migrate my stuff over to SkyDrive from Dropbox, I think it will be worth it in the long run.  If you are considering making the jump to Windows Phone and you are an app junkie, it would definitely behoove you to double-check and make sure your favorites are available on Windows Phone.  The included apps do their jobs well, but the included HERE Drive + navigation app did get a little squirrelly during a recent trip.

The 520 is responsive, though I will occasionally see a “Resuming…” screen for a few seconds when switching from app to app (Quick tip: holding the ‘Back’ key brings up your currently open apps) but otherwise the phone performs well.  I should note that I do not play games on my phone so I can’t vouch for its performance there.

CONCLUSION

I have been happy with my Nokia Lumia 520 and Windows Phone thus far.  There was a bit of a learning curve involved with Windows Phone but now that I know my way around, it is a pleasure to use.  While there are a few minor annoyances, my overall experience with the 520 has been positive.  The Nokia Lumia 520 is a basic, but quality device that is priced right at $100.  That it is a no-contract phone is icing on the cake; unless you are constantly streaming music and/or video, 2GB is enough data for most people.

That said, Windows Phone is not for everybody.  If you like customizing your phone, get an Android.  If you are highly invested in Apple’s ecosystem or have an iOS device that you already love, get an iPhone.  If you are new to smartphones, actually like Microsoft and their services (Hotmail, SkyDrive, etc) I say that Windows Phone is definitely worth a try.

Nokia Lumia 520 gets 4 out of 5 Live Tiles.

The author received no compensation for this review.

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