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Nokia Lumia 520 review - a cheap smartphone with a lot to offer

The Lumia 520 is yet another budget Windows Phone 8 smartphone from Nokia, introduced at Mobile World Congress alongside the Lumia 720, and following on from the also-cheap Lumia 620. It's the least expensive handset in the Lumia line-up, at just £140 SIM-free or from £11 per month, but in many ways it's a more attractive option than the Lumia 620.

We first saw the Nokia Lumia 520 at February's Barcelona-hosted Mobile World Congress, and were pleasantly surprised by what was on offer at such a low price. This Lumia 520 has all the features most people will need and, although performance isn't the best we've seen, it's certainly adequate. So you don't get 4G LTE support, wireless charging, near-field communication, City Lens augmented reality or the latest Bluetooth connectivity standard (the Lumia 520 ships with Bluetooth 3.0) but, until these technologies really take off, do you care? At £140 SIM-free, we do not. 

What's more important, then, is that the Nokia Lumia 520 is a pleasant phone in use. It's a comfortable fit for our hands, just 64x9.9x119.99mm and with a usable, not-too-large 4in screen. Its rounded corners and sides help you to easily operate it in a single hand. The Lumia 520 is no heavyweight, at around 124g, yet it feels solid. Even with a removable rear panel it doesn't creak or flex under pressure, although the build is a touch plasticky and you'll be constantly wiping away greasy fingerprints.

In common with its Lumia siblings you can quickly and easily snap off the 520's colourful rear cover and swap in another: yellow, cyan, red, white and black fascias are available. All fit neatly over the handset's various hardware buttons and ports: there's a 3.5mm audio jack on top, a volume rocker, power switch and dedicated camera button on the right side, and a Micro-USB port on the bottom. On the rear is a 5Mp camera and a small slot for the speaker. Our sample came in red, giving it a fresh, playful look that's miles apart from the multiple boring black Androids dominating the market. 

Concealed behind this rear panel is a removable 5.3Wh (1,430mAh) battery, which Nokia claims is good for 360 hours standby, 9.6 hours talk time, or 61 hours music playback, plus Micro-SIM and microSDXC slots, the latter allowing you to add up to 64GB to the handset's 8GB internal capacity. You also get 7GB free online storage via SkyDrive, which may come in handy for backups. None of these features is a given with recent smartphones: a massive plus point.

Nokia Lumia 520: Screen & graphics

The Lumia 520's display is pretty decent for a cheap smartphone. It has a 4in panel with a 800x480-pixel resolution, which equates to 235ppi. That's not even close to some of the best handset's you can buy, which offer twice the number of pixels per inch, but you can hardly expect a 5in full-HD screen at this price, and the resolution matches that of the Lumia 620, 720 and 820. 

The 520's IPS panel has Windows Phone 8 written all over it. To support the operating system's bold tiles and punchy colours, it delivers rich, vibrant images and cleanly defined text. 

We installed the Netflix app and found streaming movies over Wi-Fi a genuinely enjoyable experience, with no stutter or lag, suggesting the handset's Adreno 305 graphics are more than up to the job. The Lumia 520's strong viewing angles allow someone to watch over your shoulder, too, although the small display means they probably won't. Note that there's no HDMI port for hooking up the handset to a large-screen TV.

Nokia claims the Lumia 520's touchscreen display is 'super-sensitive', able to respond even when the user is wearing gloves or has long fingernails. It was certainly very quick to respond in our tests, although the processor sometimes struggled to keep up.

Nokia Lumia 520: Core specifications & performance 

Nokia has fitted its Lumia 520 with a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor. This dual-core chip is paired with 512MB of RAM, which might sound stingy when compared to the competition, but it's all you need for browsing the relatively lightweight Windows Phone 8 OS. Indeed, there's no sign of the Lumia 520's lack of pace when navigating Windows Phone's various menus and built-in features; it's only when you try to launch the camera or a third-party app that you'll endure a few-second wait. 

As with browsing the phone itself, surfing the web feels fluid, and the Lumia 520's built-in Internet Explorer browser gave us no headaches in use. We ran the SunSpider Javascript test and recorded an average 1,420ms. It's not up there with the best - the much more expensive iPhone 5, Lumia 820 and Lumia 920 all scored below 1,000ms, but it's remarkable for a budget smartphone. The Lumia 520 beat both Huawei's budget Ascend G330, which managed 2,041ms, and even the super-fast Google Nexus 4, which could muster only 1,906ms. This score also puts it on a par with its bigger brother, the Lumia 620 (1,440ms), and the HTC Windows Phone 8S (1,408ms).

We were unable to run our usual Geekbench and GLBenchmark tests due to a lack of support with Windows Phone 8. 

Nokia Lumia 520: Camera 

Perhaps more shocking than this phone's price is the fact it's a beautiful, sunny day outside. In England. That's a good job, since the Nokia Lumia 520's camera omits a LED flash. What you do get is a 5Mp rear camera with a 4x digital zoom, which can also shoot 720p video footage at 30fps. It lacks the PureView branding and Carl Zeiss lens of some models in the Lumia line-up. 

In our tests the Lumia 520 fared reasonably well for a 5Mp cameraphone, with good focus and slightly washed-out but relatively true colours. We shot this photo outside our London office to give you some idea of the quality.

No front-facing camera is supplied for video chat, which is one area in which Nokia has cut costs. 

However, you can take advantage of several Nokia-specific camera add-ons, including Smart Shoot (a best-shot selector) and Bing Vision (a QR/barcode scanner). You can also add a selection of so-called 'Digital lenses', including Nokia's own Panorama and Cinemagraph, plus the likes of Camera360, LazyLens, Photosynth, Fhotoroom, Meme Lens, ProShot and more.

Nokia Lumia 520: Windows Phone 8

We are big fans of Windows Phone 8. It's a gorgeous operating system that's great to look at and mostly simple to navigate. Big, bright Live tiles on the home screen update with the information that's important to you in real time. Our main concern is with its apps menu, which can become rather long and unwieldy the more utilities you install. Not that you're likely to install that many…

The Windows Store remains in a different league to Apple's App Store and Android's Google Play. Many of the big-name apps are present, including the likes of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Viber, YouTube, Tumblr, TVCatchup, Netflix, eBay, BBC Radio and Wikipedia (even Skype, but you'll miss that front-facing camera), but there's little else of note. 

That said, Nokia develops its own apps, and some of them are very decent. For example, Nokia Music and Mix Radio offer free music that you can stream or download to play offline. HERE Maps and Drive offer turn-by-turn driving directions, as well as walking distances and the best routes for public transport, including departure times. 

Windows Phone 8 also offers Family Room, within which you can connect with other members of the household and share information such as where you are, photos, and even reminders to, say, pick up some milk on the way home from work. Kid's Corner is another neat utility, allowing you to make available to your children only the features and apps you deem suitable. And then there's the Xbox Live Hub, which lets you connect and play with friends wherever you are. 

Being a Windows Phone, Microsoft Office is also built-in. The Nokia Lumia 520 offers access to Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, plus there's that 7GB of SkyDrive storage we mentioned earlier. 

Nokia Lumia 520 vs Nokia Lumia 620
Nokia's naming scheme for its Windows Phones is relatively easy to understand: this budget-friendly 520 sits at the bottom of the range, and the high-end, significantly more expensive Lumia 920 sits at the top; the remaining handsets fall somewhere in between. Yet we're more taken by this 520 than we were the Lumia 620
SIM-free, the Nokia Lumia 620 is a little more expensive than this Lumia 520, at £189 versus £140. However, you can buy it from £149 on a pay-as-you-go basis, and both handsets are available free on contracts starting at a tiny £11 per month.  

Justifying that extra £49 expenditure, the Lumia 620 offers an LED flash, a NFC chip, City Lens augmented reality, and the ability for the phone to wear two colourful cases at once. Since our smartphone is not a Barbie doll, we're more interested in the screen and battery capacity. The Lumia 620 has a smaller 3.8in (146ppi) ClearBlack LCD, whereas the 520 has a 4in 'super-sensitive' IPS touchscreen. It also has a lower-capacity 1,300mAh battery (the Nokia 520, 1,430mAh). 

And while the Nokia Lumia 620 is smaller than the 520, at 61.1mm wide and 115.4mm tall, it's also chunkier, at 11mm versus the 520's 9.9mm. When it comes to budget smartphones, thickness can often betray a low price tag.

Nokia Lumia 520: Verdict

If you're looking for a cheap smartphone, you may have just found it. The Nokia Lumia 520 doesn't tick all the boxes on our features wishlist, but it capably handles those that are most important. Windows Phone 8 is a beautiful operating system, but it still lacks apps. If you can get past this and don't mind sacrificing some performance and connectivity, the Lumia 520 is a strong budget buy.

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