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A fantastic phablet: Nokia’s Lumia 1520 reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 1:07 pm 05/02/2014

If there’s one company that hasn’t made much of a deal about the whole tablet-sized phone area called “phablets,” it’s Nokia, which has been pretty resistant, at least until now. Enter the Lumia 1520, a 6 inch Windows-based phone that brings a whole lot of promise in a phone made for big hands.

Features

The first phablet from the maker of the most Windows-based smartphones, the Lumia 1520 represents more than just one first for the company, as it also includes new processor choices and a higher resolution screen for the Nokia smartphones.

You won’t find the same specifications from the Lumia 920, 925, or 1020 used here, with the dual-core Snapdragon chip from those three phones replaced with the Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor clocked at 2.2GHz, the same chip used in so many other flagship Android smartphones released at the end of 2013.

That chip also changes the graphics chip, moving it from the Adreno 225 to the 330, though the RAM and storage doesn’t change much with it, with 2GB RAM and 32GB storage. In a first for a Nokia flagship, though, there is a microSD slot to expand the storage considerably.

The inclusion of a microSD slot will likely come in extra handy in the Lumia 1520 because the camera features a whopping 20 megapixel sensor, and can even take RAW photos in Adobe’s Digital Negative (DNG) format, or just full-size JPEGs if that’s what you’re after. The front camera is less impressive but very standard for Nokia, with a 1.2 megapixel shooter capable of 720p video capture.

Mobile connections are all pretty high on the Lumia 1520, with 4G LTE supported on both Category 3 and 4 networks, the latter of which requires a Cat4-compliant network and can then theoretically achieve as high as 150Mbps downloads.

Outside of mobile 4G performance, you’ll find 802.11 a/b/g/n and even the 802.11ac connections supported, as well as Bluetooth 4.0, Near-Field Communication (NFC), GPS, and of course a wired microUSB connection which sits at the bottom of the handset.

All of this sits under a 6 inch screen showing Full HD 1920×1080 resolution, which is also a first for Nokia handsets. With this resolution, a pixel clarity of 367 pixels per inch is being shown, which is higher than the iPhone 5’s Retina-grade resolution (330ppi).

The screen is protected by Corning’s second generation of Gorilla Glass (Gorilla Glass 2), and the soft buttons are all the standard Windows Phone soft buttons sitting under the screen, including back, home, and search.

Just like the other phones, however, the Lumia 1520 follows the physical button template, with the inclusion of three buttons on the right edge, including volume rocker, power, and the camera shutter and activation button.

Ports on the Lumia 1520 are few and far between, with a microUSB port at the very bottom, and the 3.5mm headset jack up top. Two slots can also be found on the left side, covered by plastic and only accessible when a pin ejector tool has been inserted in, but these cover up the nanoSIM and microSD slots.

A 3400mAh battery powers the Nokia Lumia 1520 and is not removable, though can be charged through a wireless charging station.

Performance

The Lumia 1520 may well be Nokia’s first big big smartphone, but it keeps up with the design language we’ve seen from the company for the past couple of years, refining it ever so slightly, and keeping the emphasis on solid plastic phones that feel soft to the touch, and are comfortable in the hand.

In this handset, there’s more of the polycarbonate that Nokia has used on the Lumia 1020, lacking the gloss of the older phones and now less slippery than ever, which on a big handset, makes for a big deal.

The inclusion of buttons on the right edge also makes the phone feel comfortable in the hand, though your fingers may find the slight extrusion of the camera lens a little distracting.

In our hands, the phone feels excellent, revealing a solid build that also looks excellent, too. It can be seen as a touch big, mind you, thanks to the 6 inch screen, but we liked it, and it grew on us quickly.

Thanks to the combination of new parts, though, the Lumia 1520 is one of the better performing smartphones out there.

It’s the first Windows Phone we’ve seen in the past year to stray from the older Snapdragon chips, shifting from the dual-core processor used in other Lumia flagships and switching to the much newer Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor clocked at 2.26GHz, the same chip used in the LG G2, Samsung Galaxy Note 3, Sony Xperia Z1, and Google’s Nexus 5.

This newer chip is exactly what the Lumia formula needed, and makes the menus run without any noticeable lag, allows apps to perform at the speeds they’re supposed to, with only the occasional hiccup depending on the software you might be running at the time.

Really, it’s the update we’d hoped Nokia would implement sooner, as it brings a Lumia into line with the other handsets coming out at the same time.

It probably helps that Windows Phone 8 has been kept up to date on this handset, with the latest version called “Black” available out of the box.

While most people won’t notice much about this update, it brings with it an enhanced glance screen when the phone is locked, easier wireless sharing through Nokia Beamer, RAW image shooting support in Adobe’s Digital Negative format (DNG), a better driving mode, Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) support, and folders in the Windows Phone 8 menus.

The 6 inch screen is also excellent, showcasing the first Nokia Windows Phone handset with a Full HD screen. Like in the other Lumias, there are solid blacks with excellent contrast, partly due to the operating system’s use of colours, while the other factor appears to be how Nokia makes and implements its screens.

In this one, the viewing angles are solid from pretty much any position, and the 367 pixel per inch level of clarity isn’t just greater than Apple’s Retina displays on the iPhones, but also very nice to read and easy on the eyes.

This bigger screen size also impacts the homescreen, and while all other Windows Phone 8 handsets have supported two main columns of icons (if you’re using big square icons, not the little ones), the 6 inch Lumia 1520 is the first WP8 smartphone to support the third column.

It might not seem like a big deal at first, but with three columns supported, you can fit more shortcuts and live tiles on the one screen, and this means that you’ll probably fit most — if not all — of your necessary icons on one page, which is excellent for speeding up phone operation and making things simple.

Beyond the screen and system performance, the mobile download performance is pretty top notch, producing speeds of around 40 to 86Mbps down, and while that was on a Category 3 LTE network, the support for Category 4 4G makes this capable of so much more.

The battery is equally impressive, producing typical life of around two days, even eating into the third day a little. That’s all from the 3400mAh battery underneath, and with us making phone calls, surfing the web, social networking, playing the odd game, and taking photos.

Heavy users may see less, and will probably want to charge it daily, but if you don’t use the phone every second of every day, two days is easily possible in this handset, which impresses us greatly.

We’re also big fans of the wireless charging, which is built directly into the Lumia 1520, even though other Nokia handsets such as the Lumia 1020 (the 40 megapixel phone) require an extra case to slip on the back to make this happen. While you will need the Nokia wireless charger to get the cordless battery charge going, at least you don’t need an extra case on the phone.

There’s also the camera, which of course has to be acknowledged.

While it’s not the 40 megapixel beast that Nokia equipped the Lumia 1020 with, the 20 megapixel camera used here not only takes the same PureView concept of zooming in on a big sensor, but it also sports some decent performance, to boot.

In case you haven’t heard how PureView works, essentially, Nokia has found a workaround to the issue of zooming in on a smartphone camera.

Traditional zoom requires a mechanical lens, usually one that’s motorised with several glass elements in place. When used, this allows the photographer to get closer, but also increases the thickness of the device the camera has been installed on, because there’s a working lens that will likely extrude from the device.

Nokia’s solution to this is to make the sensor bigger and have the frame crop in on the area you want to shoot, taking the Lumia 1520’s 20 megapixel sensor and bringing it down to 5 megapixels for every shot.

You can either shoot an image from far away at 5 megapixels, or have the camera “zoom” by cropping the sensor in that position.

Daylight shot at 5 megapixels.

It’s a neat idea, and in the Lumia 1020, it made a lot of sense, cropping the 40 megapixel sensor in that camera down and providing some reasonable “zooming,” even if the up-close images weren’t razor sharp when used in this mode.

In the Lumia 1520, the sensor size is smaller, pushed down to 20 megapixels, but the zoom mode still works in much the same way, providing some zoom that at least isn’t the digital zoom we expect out of another smartphone camera.

This method of zooming can get you closer, but really, it’s the performance of the camera in day and night that impresses us greatly.

When the sun is out, the Lumia 1520’s camera performs very well, with strong colours and excellent recreation, though sometimes you may find you need to select a better focus point to improve the light balance more accurately.

At night and in low-light, the camera still manages to handle itself, producing a respectable lack of noise in the darker spots, which can result in some excellent imagery, provided you hold still.

Night shot at 5 megapixels.

If there’s one thing that bugs us about the Lumia 1520, though, it’s the weight, and at 209 grams, this isn’t a light handset by a long shot.

Throw it in your pocket and you will notice the weight, because it drags your pants down. Inside a bag, you won’t be concerned, but the moment it hits your clothing, there’s no use in denying its presence, because it is severely obvious.

Interestingly, the weight doesn’t pose a problem in the hands, and the heft from this thing actually goes a long way to make it feel solid and strong, but only in your hands.

One other minor thing is the nanoSIM support, and this is the first Nokia we’ve seen that requires the SIM card style used in the iPhone 5, 5S, and 5C.

The only issue that this brings is that previous owners of a Windows Phone or pretty much any Android phone will need to make their way to a new SIM card, which either means a trip to the local arm of your telco, or risking cutting the microSIM down, which we don’t recommend.

Conclusion

We’ll happily give credit where credit is due, and it is certainly due here, as the Nokia Lumia 1520 isn’t just an excellent first phablet for Nokia, it’s an outstanding handset for the Finnish brand in general.

Some may criticise Windows Phone for its app ecosystem, and while it’s true that it’s still building itself, it is getting stronger, and it’s not technically the job of the phone manufacturer to improve this. In fact, the supply of apps is beginning to increase, and even includes Instagram, which took so long to appear on the platform.

Outside of the ecosystem, there is just so much to like about the Lumia 1520, from the speedy performance to the superb battery life, and even that gorgeous 6 inch Full HD screen and included wireless charging support. In fact, the only things you might hate the phone for is the weight, which you will notice in your pocket.

That said, if you’re after a top quality tablet-sized phone and aren’t against the Windows Phone ecosystem, you owe it to yourself to check out the Lumia 1520. Highly recommended.

Price (RRP)

$899

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Fast system performance; Excellent 4G; Solid battery life, with as much as two days going into a third day; Fantastic camera; Expandable memory; Bigger screen size allows for an extra column of icons, which means you can generally fit all the icons you need on one page; Wireless charging built in, though you will need the Nokia wireless charger;

Product Cons

A little on the heavy side; Takes nanoSIM, so previous Windows Phone users will need to get a new SIM card;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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