Microsoft is in a difficult place with regards to the smartphone market. After delivering a very innovative interface and overall promising platform with Windows Phone 7 in late 2010, the platform stagnated, with mediocre hardware, slow updates, and not much progress in terms of sales. Bringing Nokia on board in 2011 gave Windows Phone a bit of a boost, particularly after the Windows Phone 8 launch with the success of the Lumia 920, but it’s still hard on a lot of levels to recommend a high-end Windows Phone versus the price-competitive iPhone and Android equivalents. But where I’ve long felt that Windows Phone devices make sense is with lower-end hardware.

And in that context, the Nokia Lumia 521 is very interesting. It’s the T-Mobile US version of the Lumia 520, and ships with AWS HSPA+ for just $129 sans contract or subsidy. It’s nearly identical to the 520 save for very minor dimensional differences and T-Mobile branding. AT&T gets the 520 in its original form as part of their GoPhone prepaid lineup for $99.99, no contract. The specsheet reads pretty respectably given the budget—Qualcomm’s MSM8227 SoC with dual-core Krait at 1GHz clocks, Adreno 305 graphics, 512MB RAM, 8GB of onboard NAND plus a micro SD slot, a 4” WVGA IPS panel, and a 5MP camera with an f/2.4 lens. And of course, this being Nokia, you’re assured of a pretty decent design and build. Nokia has always excelled at building durable, inexpensive handsets that didn’t feel cheap, which is one of the things that has propelled them to success in developing markets.

Microsoft’s insistence on keeping user experience consistent between devices as much as possible has led to some budget WP handsets that have been nearly as good as their more expensive brethren, so the potential has always been there, but this is the first time we’ve seen a Windows handset release at the floor-sweeper price point. So naturally, the Lumia 521 is interesting. The promise of a real smartphone at legitimately accessible price points, without the need to tie yourself into a contract or binding agreement of any kind, is fantastic. Tied in with T-Mobile’s BYOD-friendly no contract plans, this is actually a pretty credible handset for the tight of budget. AT&T’s $99 520 is even more ridiculous considering it doesn’t even break the century bill mark.

The only real difference between the 520 and 521 externally is the latter being 4.1mm taller in order to fit the T-Mobile logo at the bottom of the front face (124.0mm for the 521 versus 119.9mm for the international and AT&T versions of the 520). Beyond that, they share the same width, thickness, overall design and construction, and specs.

Physical Comparison
  Nokia Lumia 521 Nokia Lumia 520 Nokia Lumia 920 HTC 8X (International)
Height 124.0 mm (4.88") 119.9 mm (4.72") 130.3 mm (5.13") 132.35 mm (5.21")
Width 64.0 mm (2.52") 64.0 mm (2.52") 70.8 mm (2.79") 66.2 mm (2.61")
Depth 9.9 mm (0.39") 9.9 mm (0.39") 10.7 mm (0.42") 10.12 mm (0.4")
Weight 124 g (4.37 oz) 124 g (4.37 oz) 185 g (6.53 oz) 130 g (4.59 oz)
CPU 1 GHz MSM8227 (Dual Core Krait) 1 GHz MSM8227 (Dual Core Krait) 1.5 GHz Qualcomm MSM8960 (Dual Core Krait) 1.5 GHz Qualcomm MSM8260A (Dual Core Krait)
GPU Adreno 305 Adreno 305 Adreno 225 Adreno 225
NAND 8 GB NAND with microSD slot 8 GB NAND with with microSD slot 32 GB NAND 16 GB NAND
Camera 5.0 MP, f/2.4 lens 5.0 MP, f/2.4 lens 8.7 MP, dual LED Flash + 1.3 MP front facing 8 MP, LED Flash + 2.1 MP front facing
Screen 4" 800x480 LED backlit IPS LCD 4" 800x480 LED backlit IPS LCD 4.5" 1280 x 768 IPS 4.3" 1280 x 720 SLCD2
Battery Removable 5.29 Whr Removable 5.29 Whr Internal 7.4 Whr Internal 6.8 Whr

The 521 speclist hits a few major points that I’d consider pretty important in delivering a satisfactory mobile experience—IPS display, fast lens, a reasonably powerful SoC, expandable storage (in lieu of a sizeable amount of onboard NAND). Notable omissions include DC-HSPA+, a front-facing camera, a flash module, NFC, and wireless charging, but on paper it would seem that Nokia didn’t cut too many corners in their pursuit of a bargain smartphone.

The 521 is a good looking phone, with a wraparound battery cover that fits around the main body of the phone. Conceptually, it’s pretty similar to how the HTC 8X is put together, except that the entire thing is meant to come apart, giving users access to the battery as well as the micro SIM and micro SD card slots. Nokia has used this construction before with the 820 and 620, so it was no surprise to see it on the 520 and 521. The design language is very Nokia, with an organically contoured back and an elegant simplicity to the overall aesthetic. It manages to be understated without feeling plain, which Nokia has gotten very good at. It’s really not much of a question, but Nokia’s team of designers and engineers is truly world class—Nokia is the only company with the hardware level design chops to match Apple (though recently, HTC and Microsoft have shown promise as well).

In hand feel is actually really great—the 521 isn’t the thinnest handset in the world, but the 4” display gives it a very compact frame that’s a nice change from the 4.5-5” flagships of late. The ergonomics of the curved back are good, the phone just fits into your hand very well. The phone is light, but not unnaturally so—at 125g, it’s pretty reasonable for the size. It’s a bit odd to look at the 521 next to the brick-like Lumia 920, which has a 4.5” display and weighs a kind of ridiculous 185g; there’s very little family resemblance between the two. (It’s actually even more shocking to look at the 920 versus the svelteness of the same design language on the Lumia 800 and MeeGo-based N9, but that’s a different matter.)

The battery cover is a matte polycarbonate shell, in this case white. The 520 battery cover is offered with five different color shells—the classic Nokia cyan, yellow, red, black, and white—though due to the height difference, those shells won’t fit the 521 (I was heartbroken when I discovered this). There has been no word on any colored shells being offered for the 521 thus far, so I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The shell has the glossy black buttons attached to it, laid out in the traditional Lumia style of volume, power, and camera all on the left side of the handset. I’ve actually never really liked the setup in the past, because the flush chrome buttons on the side of the Lumia 800 and 900 were easy to mix up on accident. This got fixed to some degree with the 920, which added more space between the buttons, but the 521 goes a step further with generously-sized buttons that stick out from the sides by about a millimeter. It’s very easy to grab the right one by feel, and the buttons actuate with a positive click. There’s more travel to the buttons, which is nice and refreshingly old-school. The camera button, particularly, is awesome—it’s rare to find good two-stage camera buttons these days; this is probably the best I’ve seen in a couple of years. It sticks out a bit further than the other buttons and offers good feedback for both clicks.

The battery cover peels off the back of the phone pretty easily, exposing the sparse guts of the phone. There’s a hole in the shell for the camera lens, with some rubber padding in various places (around the camera module, speaker, and battery) to quell vibrations and offer a bit of protection. The interior of the phone is shockingly plain, with nary an extra screw, sticker, or plastic feature in sight. Penny pinching also probably led to the odd SIM-card insertion method—it isn’t spring loaded (neither is the microSD card slot), so you need to push the SIM card out from the plastic cutout. It’s not a problem, but it’s just evident that places like this are where every last cent had to be saved to hit the $129 price point.

Overall, the design is very pleasant. It’s clearly not high-end hardware, but it doesn’t try to be. It’s very solidly a budget handset, but a few cuts above what you get from Huawei and the like at this price point. This is Nokia at its best—focusing their hardware prowess on quality devices that don’t break the bank. The smartphone is a niche that has yet to be fully tapped in the emerging world, and offering a compelling handset like the 520 is key to Nokia’s future.

Battery Life
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  • cheshirster - Sunday, August 11, 2013 - link

    Not a problem. See "Lumia storage check beta" in store, It has the option to store maps on SD and it works fine.
  • cheshirster - Sunday, August 11, 2013 - link
  • billybobjr - Thursday, August 8, 2013 - link

    I am the happy owner of 2 lumia 521 phones. The hardware you get is an outstanding value. When you look at phones in this price range 8GB of flash memory is rare. 4GB of flash leaves almost no space for any apps with the OS using most of the space. Most apps can not be installed on a flash memory card. The OS fairly quick for a cheap phone and I have yet to run into a problem with 512 MB of memory. WiFi calling is another awesome feature. If you are in building with poor signal you can use your wi-fi to make calls. The OS is pretty stable, I have needed to reboot the phone a few times, but not a common occurrence.

    I am not a huge fan of the Windows Phone OS. It lacks a ton of apps and not just the fart apps. No support for google apps except gmail. Youtube, and Google maps must run through the web browser and they run poorly. No google drive, google plus, or google music. Amazon music does not work at all. Lots of social media apps are missing from the app store. Facebook support is lacking. I lost track of how many accounts I needed to create to use the included software for this phone.(Windows phone login, skydrive account, nokia account, xbox live account) There is no equivalent to Siri or Google Now.

    Bottom line
    Android does not run well on cheap hardware. The Nexus 4 is the cheapest phone to run android well. $300 vs $130. If you can live with the limitations it is tough to beat.
  • notposting - Friday, August 9, 2013 - link

    I use jiTalk, MyTube or Metrotube, MetroTalk, and gMaps. One MS account covers email, Skydrive, Xbox, Skype, etc. It has the Nokia Here maps, why not use that? No need for a Nokia account. IIRC, you can play Amazon music tracks through the browser. Which social media apps are missing? Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin apps are all available, and baked into the OS as well. It has Skydrive and XBox Music (or Nokia Music on their phones), would you expect MS to be making apps for their competitors? It does have voice commands (long press the Start button) and text dictation.

    There are legitimate complaints about the OS, but if someone is that entrenched in the Google ecosystem and won't consider using the MS alternatives...what do they expect?
  • Impulses - Friday, August 9, 2013 - link

    Those all seem like valid alternatives, except for using Amazon MP3 in the browser (very kludgy, not even remotely optimized for mobile the last time I tried to access it on an Android phone where the app wasn't installed)
  • skiboysteve - Friday, August 9, 2013 - link

    Totally agree with you. Billybobjr sounds like all the WP detractors... They make no sense at all
  • toraji - Friday, August 9, 2013 - link

    exactly nonposting ;-) like your name....
  • Myrandex - Friday, August 9, 2013 - link

    Check out GMaps Pro if you want to see a nice Google Maps implementation. I have the paid version and it is quite nice. I bought it back when I was on an LG on WP7, but have pretty much switched to using Nokia's HERE implementation except for every now and then I pull up GMaps again.

    There is also a GMail client app that I use. It isn't the prettiest but it is a GMail app. I also have GMail working with the built in email client which works wonderful as well.

    And there is a Microsoft TellMe engine for voice controls. You just hold down the Windows Flag. Plus there are third party software applications out there that can be downloaded for free that function like Siri as well. I had one before but I uninstalled it because I never used it (and I never used it on my iPhone before and I never use it on my Android now).
  • skiboysteve - Friday, August 9, 2013 - link

    Why do you need a Gmail app? Just use the native email client with Gmail.

    why do you need a google maps app? Just use Bing or Nokia maps. They have a lot of advantages.

    a first party YouTube app would be nice, but metrotube and work really well. There is a legal back story on YouTube app for WP. Google worked hard to prevent one (sent cease and desist, blocked APIs) but when MS decided to go to court google settled and agreed to develop one. Hopefully soon.

    why do you need google drive? SkyDrive is built in and works much better. Especially if you use office 2013 for work.

    google plus would be nice. I don't use it but maybe try their website.

    why do you need google music? Xbox music (formally Zune) is much much better. This is the best part of the phone! Try it out.

    amazon app would be nice but its weird that you're so entrenched into google and refuse to use the Microsoft services that accompany your device... Yet you use amazon??

    which social media apps are missing from the app store?

    how is Facebook support lacking? If anything it is more built in than any other OS out there! It pulls your contact info from FB, integrates friends status and photo posts directly into multiple parts of the OS.

    there is ONE account for all MS services, not separate accounts for everything as you mention.

    there is voice support just hold the home button just like on android and iOS. I use it every day.

    Do you really have this phone??? Clearly you don't and you're just here to fan the flames of misinformation
  • toraji - Friday, August 9, 2013 - link

    don't blame Wp8 for not having google features included, that is just not fair, there are third party options, If you create one windows account you can sigh in to all windows features automatticly

    Maluuba is comparable to siri but a little different, it will not tell you how AWESOME you are, that is true

    happy to see you can live with the "limitations"

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