Opinionated World


Nokia Lumia 520: A Phone Half Full

Over the past half decade I have taken pride in buying top-tier smartphones. I figured there was no point in hampering my experience of a platform by using sub-par internals. With iOS, Apple’s operating system, this was never really an issue, more or less the older devices perform adequately, and I merely wished to have the latest iPhone. On the Android side of things, I have maintained that the best hardware will lead to the best experience. With Windows Phone however, I found myself considering that a lower-end device would still provide a good way to test and experience how the OS (Operating System) has developed.

My first, and what I thought would be my last experience with Windows Phone, was way back in the tail end of 2010. I had the Samsung Omnia 7, a very staid and business like device. Made from metal, it was lovely to behold. It had a Snapdragon 1GHz processor, 512MB of RAM and a 4″ 480×800 pixel display. Back in the present, the Nokia Lumia has a dual-core 1GHz processor, 512MB of RAM and a 4″ 480×800 pixel display.

Hands on with the Lumia 520.

Hands on with the Lumia 520.

Funny how in just two short years the specs of a low-end device have exceeded that of a high-end one.

This itself is partly due to the strict nature of the specifications allowed on the platform.

As for the rest of the device, it features a removable rough plastic back, available in various colours, this is the only part of the device that illustrates its ‘cheapness’. If it were a shiny finish, similar to the Lumia 720 or 820, I honestly believe that the device would be far above the price-point it falls within. I’m quite astonished with the industrial design to be honest; it’s clean, simple and utterly desirable.

'Rough' plastic on the back.

‘Rough’ plastic on the back.

It is often said but in this instance this is true, there is nothing here that doesn’t need to be.

Below that 4″ display sit three capacitive buttons, the usual arrangement for Windows Phone; there are three physical buttons on the right side of the device, a volume up/down rocker, the power button and a two-stop camera button. I often found myself pressing volume down instead of the power button. I am certain that this is due to my familiarity with my Nexus 4. So personally I would like the volume and power to be opposite each other. A 3.5mm headphone jack sits atop the phone, with a standard micro-USB port on the bottom.

Size comparison with a Nexus 4.

Size comparison with a Nexus 4.

Around the back is a 5-megapixel camera, which while low in megapixel count takes reasonable images. Obviously I’m not going to expect brilliance here, but I was surprised at just how competent it is when compared with my current daily driver, the Nexus 4.

That is all for the device. Like I said earlier it’s quite amazing how well the phone has been designed, I have found, through browsing, that most other phones at this price point have nowhere near the same level of attention that is seen in those more expensive.

I’ve only really got one gripe; the device itself feels oddly heavy for it’s size.

Now we get the main reason that I even considered getting this device, Windows Phone 8.

Back in the tail end of 2010, Microsoft released Windows Phone 7. A brand new platform, one that it was staking its entire mobile division on. It introduced a wholly new user interface design language known as Metro. Utilising squares, referred to as tiles, Microsoft completely changed the look and feel of Windows Mobile. Rightly enough they called it Windows Phone to go with the change. Sadly the platform has languished. It was released at a time when iOS managed to compete with Android on the features. Yes, it looked different and intriguing, but ultimately the consumer was perturbed. Partly due to a radical course of adjustment the devices would need to be used and partly, mostly, due to the sheer might of the iPhone 4 and its advertising campaign. On the whole they were seen as competent devices with a lacking OS to use. Windows Phone has been resigned to 3rd or even 4th place in the sector (behind BlackBerry in a great many countries).

In 2012 we saw the re-imagination of Windows Phone. An update that brought with it a large number of improvements to counter those lacking in version 7. It is known as Windows Phone 8, tying in with Windows 8 on the desktop and tablet side.

Tiles were allowed to get smaller, 720p displays and dual-core processors were accepted into the still rigid tolerances of hardware configurations. It also received a multi-tasking menu, of sorts.

Comparison iOS, WP8 and Android keyboards.

Comparison iOS, WP8 and Android keyboards.

So with all this said, how does a thoroughly low-end device running what many consider to be sub-par software stack up against the competition?

On first boot, it seemed adequate. The 520 didn’t fly through menus in a similar fashion to a Nexus 4 or iPhone 5, but then I never expected it to. It’s less than half as powerful as either. With that said, I must tell you that it is a really great experience using the main OS. It is smooth, minor stutters here and there but I also saw that with the iPhone 4/4S. The ‘home’ screen of WP8 shows you a vertical scrolling list of your chosen ‘pinned’ apps. Some have animations, such as the people app, it’s a grid of icons that rotate and slide between your contact pictures. The ‘Me’ tile shows your avatar for whichever services you tied into it. Xbox tile has your avatar, full bodied, dancing and moving around. These all come together to make the phone feel more interactive and alive than iOS and even Android, whose widgets feel very static at times. While it is nice to see this, I do wonder how many processes and how much of the battery is used, I assume it’s moderate, but being that you don’t necessarily spend copious amounts of time just staring at your home screen it is inconsequential.

The 520 is a beautiful device.

The 520 is a beautiful device.

A flick of your finger to the left brings up a list of apps, alphabetised. There is no option to rearrange this list and I guess when you have a hundred or so it may become tiresome to scroll all the way to find one that you wish to use.

The icons for these apps are invariably coloured the same as each other, with the odd exception, Windows Phone offers the ability to chose a theme colour and there are around 20 different colours to choose from, all of which can be combined with either a main background of black or white. I’ve found black to feel the nicest, it frames the tiles well and doesn’t blind you with an over bearing backlight. Being that humans are very good as noticing colours and shapes, and those being different the easiest to discern, this long list of virtually identical tiles makes it hard to find the one you want. I can understand the visual beauty of it, but sadly from a UI point of view it extrapolates into a hard usage case. Most certainly not something that the average user will understand, but definitely something that could lead to frustration and annoyance.

Speaking of apps, the Marketplace is still behind in volume of apps and also quality of them too. Quite a few of the apps that I interact with on a regular basis are either missing completely, lacking a counterpart, or poorly implemented. Without knowledge of it I am unsure if this is because developers see no value in the eco-system or if the tools for development are lacking. I surmise that if you are a completely new user of smartphones, the platform and apps will suffice, although there was an abundance of what I term ‘crapps’ (crap apps). These were plentiful in the early days of the App Store on iOS, but once people realised that there was serious money to be made from the sales of apps they stepped up their game. This whole cycle was very quick. I would say that it has been two years since Windows Phone first graced us, but Windows Phone 8 re-wrote the underlying OS and subsequently there was almost a complete start over in terms of apps being written. Hopefully the top developers of other platforms migrate their best apps over to Windows Phone. If they don’t I can’t really see there being any real reason for someone to move from iOS or Android. The only compelling element of WP8 right now is the look, and that will become dated very quickly.

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