It's true. When most people talk about smartphones these days, the discussion is oftentimes limited to a battle between Apple's iOS and Google's Android, despite there being some other options on the market like BlackBerry 10. While it continues to play a far third fiddle, Windows Phone is making some headway into the market. One of the biggest and most recent pushes for this has been the Nokia Lumia 520 and the Nokia Lumia 521. These are effectively the same smartphone, but with different radios for different carriers; the Lumia 520 plays friendly with guys like AT&T, whereas the Lumia 521 is sold by T-Mobile. But why is this little plastic smartphone so compelling? Let me explain.

Basic Specs for a Basic Smartphone


When I did my review of the Roam Mobility travel SIM service, I did it with my (ancient but) unlocked Samsung Galaxy S. It did the job fine for voice and text, but without access to the 1700MHz AWS band used by T-Mobile (where Roam effectively operates as a MVNO), I wasn't exactly getting the full experience. To this end, I started looking for an inexpensive option that would get me on that network and that's what led me to the Lumia 521. The key selling point for me was the rock-bottom price of $149.99. The street price, through retailers like Amazon, can get as low as $119.99 and I even heard of a Shopping Channel special that brought it down to $99.99.

That's not the contract price; that's the outright purchase price. While it is locked to T-Mobile, I was told by the folks at Roam Mobility that I would not need to unlock the phone to have it work with their service. I just had to change the APN settings, but it was otherwise a plug-and-play affair.

Now, let's be clear. This is not a flagship-quality device like what you'd get with the Lumia 1020, but you're also not paying a flagship price. Part of the appeal of Windows Phone 8 is that it can still run smoothly on what would otherwise be sub-par hardware. The Nokia Lumia 521 gets a dual-core 1GHz Qualcomm MSM8227 chip, 512MB RAM, 8GB storage, microSD expansion up to 64GB, 5MP camera, 720p video, and a 4.0-inch 480x800 pixel (233 ppi) IPS LCD capacitive touchscreen. It won't wow anyone, but I found that it generally got the job done and definitely faster than a similarly-equipped Android smartphone would.

It's Definitely Plastic, But...


With a budget price, you expect budget specs and budget build quality. Again, just as the specs are nowhere near what we'd consider flagship or even mid-range, the overall build quality doesn't make the Lumia 521 feel like a top-end device either. But again, that's not what it's supposed to be. Considering the cheap price, I was actually quite impressed with how this phone felt. The removable back didn't feel like a cheap, glossy plastic. There's just a slight texture to it and there's another stiffness there to give you a sense of confidence.

I did find that removing the back was more challenging than it should be -- it curves almost all the way to the front, so you really are peeling at it -- but you won't need to do this all that often, aside from accessing the battery, microSD slot and SIM slot. Because of this kind of design, though, it makes the Lumia 521 look like it is already contained within a protective case.

The Windows Phone 8 Experience


For most people, Windows Phone 8 is going to look pretty much the same as Windows Phone 7, but that's not a bad thing. Microsoft has actually developed a mobile operating system that is not only lightweight (hence its ability to run smoothly on lesser hardware), but also one that looks really good. The flat 2D design with resizable "live tiles" for the home screen is very attractive and very functional. It makes it easy to get your info at a glance, including the number of unread text messages, the local weather update and so forth.

That being said, this kind of design philosophy is definitely not without its limitations. Whereas I've grown accustomed to having multiple homescreens with multiple shortcuts and widgets on Android, I only have the one scrollable homescreen in Windows Phone. Having an extra long list of apps, rather than having them in "flippable" pages, can also make it a pain to scroll to the app that you'd like to open. It almost forces your hand to "pin" your favorites to somewhere on your precious single homescreen.

There are some other quirks, like how the OS handles notifications or why I can't just "swipe away" old apps to clear them from the multitasking drawer, but these are all a matter of personal preference. I do like the customization capabilities for both the lock screen and home screen, though, giving you a surprising amount of flexibility. And yes, the Windows Phone Apps+Games Store is nowhere near as vast as the iPhone App Store or Google Play Store. There are notable omissions and the (current) lack of true Google sync support is a little painful, but you are offered suitable alternatives for just about everything. It can still get the job done and the Lumia 521, despite being a lower end device, easily holds its own as a daily driver.

How's the Camera?

Sample Photos from Nokia Lumia 521

I hate to keep going back to the same theme, but it really is the overall impression I have of the Nokia Lumia 521. The specs are sub-par, but adequate. The build quality is decent, but not amazing. The apps get the job done, but they're still lacking. And the 5MP camera on the back? You can probably guess where this is going. In the grand scheme of things, you really don't need a hyper-high resolution camera on your smartphone, so it's not really the megapixel count here that concerns me. It's just about everything else. For starters, there is no flash of any kind on here, so taking pictures in dim conditions could prove frustrating.

Sample Photos from Nokia Lumia 521

Even where good lighting was available, the pictures came out lacking in punch and the details felt soft. You can click on either of the two images above to see higher resolution versions. It can be noisy, it can be grainy and the colors can either feel muted or way overdone. For the purposes of Instagram Facebook and Twitter, though, the pictures this produces will do. I do appreciate the physical two-stage camera button, something that you rarely see on contemporary smartphones.

MEGATechie Window of Opportunity or Illuminated Mess?


For the time being, Nokia and Microsoft are really going to have a tough time competing at the higher end of the market. They'll even struggle significantly in the middle, but with budget-oriented devices like the Lumia 521, they could make some serious headway into growing a Windows Phone fanbase. Then, they can try to sell those people on more powerful devices.

When you consider the caliber of Android smartphone you can get for $150 outright, the Nokia Lumia 520/521 is an absolute steal. It does just about anything that you'd want a modern smartphone to do, except give you a proper synchronization with Google services (or Dropbox). That's why Microsoft would much prefer you use Outlook, Skydrive and other Microsoft products.

The Lumia 521 likely won't satisfy high-end enthusiasts, but for people who are moving to a smartphone for the first time or those who want to save a significant amount of money via the prepaid route, you will be hard-pressed to find a better value than this Lumia.

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