Nokia Lumia 1520 review: Nokia’s first phablet is full of surprises

Review
Nokia Lumia 1520 Review

Nokia, as we know it, is going away. The company itself will remain, of course. It might even be consistently profitable some day. But the face of Nokia that most consumers are familiar with will be a thing of the past. Nokia will soon sell off its devices and services business to Microsoft for about $5 billion as part of a $7.2 billion deal. But in the meantime, the company has a product pipeline to clear and the new Lumia 1520 is certainly one of the more interesting devices Nokia will be launching before the big changing of the guard. The 1520 marks Nokia’s first foray into the increasingly popular phablet category and if not for Apple, Nokia would be the last major smartphone vendor to enter the space. But is the company’s new 1520 just a bigger Lumia phone, or is it also a better Lumia phone that continues moving in the right direction and picks up where the Lumia 1020 left off?

I personally don’t like phablets but there is clearly a large market for these monstrous handsets. Nokia is very late in entering this market, though that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to those who follow the company. If not for BlackBerry, Nokia might be the sorriest story in smartphones right now, having recently been forced to offload its historic devices and services business to Microsoft at a fraction of what it was worth just a few short years ago.

The timing is particularly curious. After a years of turbulence that saw Nokia lose billions of dollars quarter after quarter, its smartphone sales are finally starting to pick up and its dirt-cheap Asha lineup is faring pretty well in emerging markets. Conspiracy theorists had a field day, and their theories might not be so crazy after all.

Onward and upward.

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When I reviewed the Nokia Lumia 1020, I called it the first Windows Phone that was more than just a Windows Phone. While most handsets running Microsoft’s latest mobile operating system are strikingly similar not just in form but in function, the Lumia 1020 differentiates with its camera. It’s not just a good camera and not just a great camera — the Lumia 1020 is the best camera phone that has ever been made.

Other Windows Phones all tend to be very similar. They come at different price points and in different sizes and shapes, but the experience is always quite similar since the software is nearly identical on every handset. So the biggest question on my mind when I picked up my Lumia 1520 review unit recently was simple: Does the 1520 just offer the same old Windows Phone experience in a bigger package or is this the screen size only part of the story?

Then I spent the past few days trying to answer that question.

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First and foremost, Nokia was not messing around when it decided to launch its first phablet. This is not just a slightly larger version of its previous Lumia phones, this is a massive, monstrous beast of a device that is larger than any other phablet I have ever tested. I don’t even like calling it a phablet. In fact, I have no idea what to call it. Megaphablet? Tablone? Tabphablet?

Remember how gigantic the Galaxy Note 3 was? Well the Lumia 1520 is bigger. Much bigger. At 162.8 millimeters tall, the 1520 is 8% taller than the Note 3. At 85.4 millimeters wide, Nokia’s handset is also 8% wider than Samsung’s latest Note. The Lumia 1520 is ever so slightly thicker than the Galaxy Note 3 as well, measuring 8.7 millimeters deep compared to 8.2 millimeters.

Seriously, it’s gigantic.

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The device pokes out from the top of the pocket on my loose-fitting jeans. When held in one hand, a human thumb of average length cannot reach from one side to the other. When held to the ear during a phone call, the bottom of the handset reaches far beyond the user’s mouth and looks absolutely ridiculous.

Even those who constantly bemoan our bewilderment at how enormous modern smartphones have gotten will likely find that the size of the Lumia 1520 borders on being absurd. It’s a cell phone that is less than an inch and a half shorter than Apple’s iPad mini tablet, and less than 3 millimeters shorter than both Amazon’s Kindle eReader and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Simple Touch.

But if bigger is better, Nokia’s Lumia 1520 is among the best in the business.

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The Lumia 1520 is the first Windows Phone to fall into the supersized smartphone category, and while it is late to the game, it actually does a better job than most Android phablets at scaling the interface up to a larger display size. By that I mean that many Android phablets simply take the same amount of content that would be displayed on a normal sized smartphone and enlarge it to fit a massive display.

Nokia’s 1520, on the other hand, keeps interface elements roughly the same size as they would be on a smaller Windows Phone, so it packs more into each frame. This is a far better approach to making a phablet in my opinion. The device makes use of its larger display at all times by fitting more content onto every screen. This benefit doesn’t exist with many third-party apps, of course, since they would have to be tweaked by the developers in order to make use of the extra canvas.

The display on the 1520 measures 6 inches diagonally and it is an IPS LCD panel rather than an AMOLED panel, which is what most high-end Lumia phones use. Nokia still brands it as “ClearBlack” and I find it to be just as impressive as Nokia’s other recent screens. Blacks are incredibly deep, colors are vibrant, contrast is outstanding and high brightness mode helps with outdoor visibility as it does on other Nokia phones. The 16:9 screen features full HD 1,920 x 1,080 resolution and pixel density comes out to 368 ppi.

It’s a beautiful display.

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Beneath the display lie three capacitive navigation buttons — a Windows button at the center flanked by a back/multitasking button on the left and a search button on the right. Above the screen is a Nokia logo, an ear speaker that sounds a bit tinny during calls, a light sensor, a front-facing 1.2-megapixel camera and an AT&T logo.

The right edge holds a volume rocker, a power/sleep button and a dedicated two-stage camera button, while the left edge is home only to a nano-SIM slot and a microSD card slot. The Lumia 1520 supports microSDXC so swappable cards up to 64GB will work.

A standard microUSB port lies centered on the bottom edge of the device and an 1/8-inch audio jack sits opposite the charging port on top of the 1520. The back of the phone, from top to bottom, houses microphones for noise cancellation and video recording, a dual-LED flash, a massive Carl Zeiss camera lens, contacts for a wireless charging case attachment and a small cluster of micro-drilled holes above the device’s loudspeaker.

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The Lumia 1520’s 20-megapixel PureView camera captures high-quality images, as we have come to expect from all of Nokia’s smartphones. It doesn’t quite match the Lumia 1020, but nothing on the market does right now. Images are crisp and clean, and low-light photos are impressive when compared to other high-end camera phones. Nokia’s 1520 also features new camera software.

In a meeting with Nokia executives last week, I was told that Nokia’s Pro Cam and Smart Cam apps were gone on the 1520, replaced by a single “Nokia Camera” application. In the Windows Phone app menu on the handset, the camera app is indeed called “Nokia Camera.” When pinned to the home screen, the app is called “Nokia Pro Cam.” When you open “Nokia Pro Cam” and view the about screen from within settings, the app is called “Nokia Camera” again.

The phone itself might not know what Nokia’s new camera app is called, but the important part is that it is quite impressive. The automatic mode provides a simple interface within minimal distractions for capturing high-quality shots very quickly. Then a pro mode can be accessed by dragging the virtual shutter button in toward the center of the screen. This reveals a series of sliders that let the user manually fine-tune things like white balance, shutter speed and ISO.

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There is also a “Smart” mode that snaps a series of 10 images in less than 3 seconds. Once captured, the user can create an action shot (a still background with objects in multiple positions in the foreground), swap faces to ensure everyone’s eyes are open in a group photo, or simply select the best shot of the 10 to save.

As it has in the past, Nokia’s camera software lets the user download “lenses” to add new functionality. These are just different camera apps, of course, but my favorite among them is a new Nokia app called “Nokia Refocus.” This program uses Nokia’s own in-house technology to create photos that mimic a Lytro camera, where focus can be adjusted from one object to another after an image is captured just by tapping on different spots in the photo.

Finally, a new addition called “Nokia Storyteller” reads GPS location data from the photos and videos you take and plots them on Nokia’s HERE maps in a great interactive interface. It also pulls photos from SkyDrive and social networks and combines them all to create a nifty visual timeline, and each location you visit becomes an album.

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Using these and other apps on the Lumia 1520 is very smooth, as is navigating the interface, scrolling through content and switching apps with the multitasking UI.

Windows Phones are all quite fluid when powered by dual-core processors, so needless to say the quad-core 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 chipset packs more than enough punch for the Lumia 1520. I really didn’t notice much of a difference in performance between the 1520 and dual-core devices like the Lumia 1020 since they’re already so smooth.

Some apps did tend to get a bit choppy, but I found that these were typically Nokia beta apps such as Storyteller, and the hiccups can likely be attributed to the software rather than device performance.

Battery life seems to be quite impressive on the 1520, though Nokia only supplied reviewers with devices this past Friday so I have not had time to test it thoroughly. During my testing however, the 3,400 mAh has lasted beyond 24 hours per charge and I expect it will pack more than enough juice to carry most people through a full day.

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So back to the big question I posed earlier: Does the 1520 just offer the same old Windows Phone experience in a bigger package or is this the screen size only part of the story?

The answer is complicated, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Where the software is concerned, yes, the Lumia 1520 is for the most part the same as countless other Windows Phones. But the big, beautiful 6-inch 1080p display makes the experience feel new.

Nokia sought to make the camera its big differentiator on the Lumia 1020 and it succeeded. The phone offered everything a user might want from a Windows Phone, but it also included an amazing 41-megapixel camera that does a better job than any other phone on the planet at replacing a dedicated point-and-shoot camera.

The same is the case with the Lumia 1520, but this time it’s the size that serves as the differentiator. Windows Phone fans now have a phablet to call their own. One that offers a gorgeous display, smooth performance and impressive battery life. It’s also very well-balanced for such a hefty device — the Lumia 1520 weighs almost twice as much as an iPhone 5s — and it features Nokia’s standard sleek smartphone design and smooth polycarbonate case.

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Nokia’s Lumia 1520 goes on sale this Friday, November 22nd, and it will be available from AT&T and from Microsoft. The phone is $199.99 on contract, though AT&T is offering the 16GB model online for just $99.99 as part of a limited-time promotion. That’s $100 for a phablet that competes with devices that typically launch at $300. The handset also comes with a free $20 Windows Phone Store voucher.

If you pre-order the Lumia 1520 from Microsoft for $199, you get a $50 Windows Phone Store credit instead of $20 and you also get a free $40 flip cover, which is a very poorly made copy of Apple’s iPad Smart Cover. Forgetting for a moment how flimsy and tacky the cover is, that’s a combined value of $90 so AT&T’s $99.99 offer is still a better deal.

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