Lumia 1520 review: A really, really big Windows Phone

Image: Michael Homnick

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At a Glance
  • Nokia Lumia 1520

Nokia has apparently decided that its next big strategy to increase market share is to make its phones bigger. The Lumia 1520 is the biggest Windows Phone yet, so big that the only people who will find it easy to hold are professional basketball players.

Star athletes usually go for what’s in vogue, and unfortunately for Nokia, that’s not Windows Phone. The specs of the Lumia 1520 are impressive—it has a 1080p screen, a quad-core processor, and a fully capable 20-megapixel camera—but all of that is marred by the wide, cartoony polycarbonate body and the fact that the handset is tied to a platform that’s still struggling to gain traction.

It’s too damn big

Image: Michael Homnick
The Lumia 1020 on top of its sibling, the Lumia 1520.

Nearly everyone I showed the Lumia 1520 to was taken aback by the phone’s gargantuan size. This isn’t a device that you can comfortably make a phone call with—and forget about stowing it in your pocket. You’ll need both hands to hold it, and unless you have especially large hands, you’ll find the Lumia 1520 difficult to grip all the way around. I had to store the 1520 in the tablet portion of my unusually roomy messenger bag because it wouldn’t fit in any of the designated phone pockets. And when I was snapping photos outside, I felt self-conscious with all the passersby gawking at the big red device I was carrying.

Image: Michael Homnick
The Lumia 1520 compared with the Lumia 1020 (left) and the Galaxy Note 3 (right).

I am, however, impressed with the overall thinness of the 1520. This should have been the design for all Lumia phones, instead of the bulky, bricklike casing we’ve been stuck with. Nokia even managed to fit in a MicroSD and MicroSIM slot on the side.

Image: Michael Homnick
Why couldn’t every other Lumia be this thin?

A display to die for

The Lumia 1520 is essentially a mini television set. I admit that I spent the better part of my time with it watching Hulu Plus on its 6-inch 1080p IPS LCD screen. At 368 pixels per inch, the 1520’s display is almost on a par with that of industry rivals such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which has a pixel density of 388 ppi. But unlike the Note 3, the Lumia 1520 offers well-saturated colors, and the polarized ClearBlack display makes it easy to see outside in broad daylight. The Note 3 has a slightly better viewing angle, but the color accuracy on the Lumia 1520 makes for a better viewing experience.

Image: Michael Homnick
The 1080p display offers pristine viewing angles.

Perhaps the phone’s only shortcoming is that the Windows Marketplace is limited on apps that allow you to download or rent movies and television shows on the go. Also, the screen gets really bright—too bright to stare at without experiencing a bit of eyestrain.

Quad-core because you have to

The Lumia 1520 comes with a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor and 2GB of RAM. This is Nokia’s first quad-core phone, but unlike Android, Windows Phone has always been optimized to run on very specific hardware, which is why Nokia has been able to get away with dual-core processors all this time. That extra processing power ensures smoother transitions between screens, faster-loading apps and games, and quicker camera shots compared with its predecessors. It also future-proofs the phone for the large influx of games that are apparently making their way to the Windows Phone platform.

All of those pixels and all of that processing power could have used a better battery pack. On standby, the Lumia 1520’s 3400mAh battery lasts a long time, but if you watch video and play games at full brightness, you’ll see the battery meter drop fast.

A rival for your point-and-shoot

Image: Michael Homnick
Would you take a picture with this huge device out in public?

Nokia’s best bet is to continue marketing its handsets as the premier camera phones. It made a big push to drive that idea home with the launch of the 41-megapixel Lumia 1020, and with its assistance in urging popular apps such as Instagram and Vine to come to the Windows Phone platform. It also bundles its phones with its own specialized camera apps, including Refocus, which lets you tweak the focus point of an image even after you’ve shot it, and Storyteller, which creates “stories,” or photo albums, from your photo gallery based on where you took the images.

The 1520 features a 20-megapixel camera with a smaller sensor than that of its photography-centric sibling, the 1020. It employs a dual-LED flash, which produces better lighting in images that require it. In our tests the 1020 fared better with almost everything else, including low-light photography, close-ups, macro focus, and video stabilization, but it was much slower at snapping photos. Here are a few comparison shots.

In this zoom shot, the 1020 (left) had a better time with digital zoom while the 1520 (right) produced warmer color.
The 1020’s photo (left) was more detailed, while the 1520’s photo (right) appeared more color-accurate.
It took a while to get the 1520 (right) to focus properly on the sushi, but the white balance is superior.
The 1520’s dual-flash made for a whiter photo (right).
A few more test shots in various situations with the Lumia 1520.

A bigger Start screen

Now you have three rows instead of two.

The Lumia 1520 sports an expanded Start screen with an extra column of live tiles to make proper use of all that display space. It also comes with handy features such as the ability to double-tap to wake up the device, and Glance notifications, which subtly pulse the date and time and any messages you may have received while the screen is off. The 1520 is also preloaded with the Nokia Black update, so it includes support for Bluetooth 4.0 LE. The update will eventually make its way to other Nokia phones soon.

We need to talk about Windows Phone

Although this isn’t a review of the Windows Phone platform, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Microsoft’s mobile OS is still missing a few key features. For starters, it has no easy-access settings panel where you can adjust the brightness of the display or toggle the Wi-Fi on and off, nor does it offer any sort of central notifications center beyond the lock screen. Microsoft expects you to drop in a live tile to create a shortcut for these sorts of things, but that just results in an overly crowded Start screen with tiles that are difficult to distinguish because most of them are the same color.

But the Windows Phone Marketplace is getting better, at least: Microsoft says that it’s now up to 190,000 apps. The biggest issue at this point is that when popular apps do reach the store, they’re crippled versions that in some cases don’t see an update for years. Here’s hoping that the recent small uptick in market share will encourage developers to consider making three versions of their app instead of two—with continued updates.

Should you buy it?

Nokia has an obvious penchant for design, and I hope that the company sticks with the general aesthetic of the Lumia 1520 from here on out—only smaller. I also hope that the inclusion of a quad-core processor and a 1080p display means that these features will be standard across the entire Lumia device family in the near future, which should give consumers a little more faith in the manufacturer’s ability to play on the same level as the rest of the industry.

Despite the Lumia 1520’s thinner profile and top-notch specifications, I wouldn’t recommend it as your first Windows Phone device. It’s too big for any phone, and Nokia’s participation in the large-phone craze is just another indication that it’s playing catch-up, not leading. This isn’t something I’d expect from the company that helped to make cell phones the household items they are today. I remember lusting after the 3310 way back when, and I know that the designers at Nokia still have it in ’em to inspire that kind of desire in consumers. They just need to be smarter and more aware of what’s a trend (cameras!) and what’s a gimmick (giant phones!).

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At a Glance
  • Nokia Lumia 1520

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