When Nokia first started knocking out the Lumia smartphones, it was easy to mock. Those big, colourful and plasticky phones seemed almost cartoony next to your aluminium iPhones and the HTC One. Windows Phone 8 lacked app support, and seemed to ape only an unloved desktop operating system, rather than the cooler Xbox interface it more closely resembles. And the value just wasn't there: for the price of a Lumia 920 you could get a Galaxy S4 – why wouldn't you?
But take a second look at the Lumia 520 and the picture is considerably more nuanced. This handset retails SIM from for £100 or less. Today I could buy it for £85, in fact. Windows Phone 8 is mature now. A simple and bright interface offering access to all the things most people want in a smartphone: email, Facebook, messaging, Twitter, camera, web browsing… and making calls.
That plastic look and construction may lack the pizzazz of some high-end devices, but it is also tough. You won't need a case with your Lumia 520.
For the foreseeable future all the growth in the smartphone market is likely to be at the bottom. Pretty much everyone who wants and can afford a high-end smartphone has one. But there are plenty of non-smartphone-owning people who would like to be able to email and Facebook on the move, to check the football scores and send an IM. And many of those people can't or won't spend the several hundreds of pounds required to buy an iPhone, Samsung Galaxy or Sony Xperia.
Lumia 520 review: Display, interface and Windows Phone 8
If you are new to smartphones, we'd wager that the Lumia 520's display will impress. At this price it is hard to find fault with a 4in panel that has a resolution rated at 800x480-pixel. This equates to a pixel density of 235ppi. That's not even close to the size or sharpness of top-of-the-range handsets such as the iPhone 5s or Samsung Galaxy S5, but it's really not the point.
Those handsets cost four or five times the price of the Lumia 520. And here's what the makers and marketers of those phones won't tell you: there's absolutely nothing wrong with 235ppi. You can definitely tell the difference when viewing photos on the Lumia 520 as opposed to the iPhone or handsets such as the HTC One or Xperia Z2, but that doesn't make the experience bad on the Lumia. In fact we found images rich and vibrant, and text cleanly defined.
You won't find any problems with the touchscreen, either. 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 – we'll talk about performance later. Not sure about the glove thing, though. We found it worked well with only specialist touchscreen gloves.
Indeed, our only complaint with the display and interface is that the onscreen keyboard is tricky to use. The combination of a smaller 4in screen and the full-sized Windows Phone 8 keyboard makes it easy to hit the wrong key. We got better with practise, but found it irritating to get to grips with.
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.
The Lumia 520's IPS panel looks great when using Windows Phone 8's unique interface. Those colourful cascading tiles are made for a bright and breezy panel such as this.
What to make of Windows Phone 8? It's a good-looking operating system mostly simple to navigate. Indeed, we'd argue that it is ideal for a first-time smartphone user. The only real criticisms of WP8 are that it doesn't offer much in the way of customisation, and in terms of sheer numbers the app store is a little threadbare. The counter argument is that all the apps you are likely to need are in there, and most people don't want customisation.
At its best Windows Phone is like the iOS platform used by Apple's iPhone. It is a locked down and curated world. Oddly for Microsoft, it is very secure. And while it may take a short while to get to grips with what each tile does, the interface is very simple and intuitive.
At the bottom of every screen you can use the free hardware touch buttons: back, Windows and Search. The only minor issues we had were occasionally the Windows > swipe up gesture to open up the Lumia 520 was a little sticky, and for some reason our initial Gmail synch didn't work (but the latter was a Google- rather than a Windows Phone problem).
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.
And at its worst? Power Android users will chafe at the lack of customisation, and iPhone users will no doubt find apps that they wish to install and can't.
We'd always suggest trying Windows Phone before you buy. But if you are new to smartphones it is a good place to start. Also, if you are a business and you wish to run a fleet of phones that you can maintain from the server room, Windows Phone is the only real alternative to BlackBerry.
And remember that 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. They are very popular. 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. (See also Group test: What's the best smartphone?)
Lumia 520 review: calling people
One of the nice things about the Lumia 520 being smaller than many current touchscreen smartphones is that it makes it feel more comfortable in use as a phone. You don't have that awful feeling of holding up a huge slab of screen to the side of your face.
Call quality is so dependent on the network operator and the phone used at either side of the call, but for what it is worth our experience of making calls with the Lumia 520 was good. Calls over Three made in central London were clear and loud. The mic picked up all of our conversation, and both caller and callee could hear well.
The Contacts app in Windows Phone 8 is called People. Sign in with your webmail account and your contacts will be imported. It's also simple to import contacts from your SIM. Once they are there finding a contact and placing a call is simple.
Lumia 520 review: messaging and email
The Mail app places all of your emails from multiple accounts including Gmail, Yahoo!, Outlook.com into one single app. If you have an email account, you'll be able to set it up. If it is a webmail account such as the ones mentioned above, it will simply be a case of putting in your email address and password.
We synched up our Gmail account, and then popped in the details for my work 'PCAdvisor' email. The latter is more complex, requiring knowledge of the IMAP server. But that is standard, and the complexity is on the side of my employer rather than Windows Phone 8.
By default your mail appears in separate folders for each account. But a simple setting called 'link inboxes' allows you to see all your mail in one display.
Messages are handily grouped in conversations, as in Gmail. If you've never experienced this it may sound odd, but once you have seen email grouped in this way you'll never want to go back. It's not a problem if you do, just change the settings!
HTML email comes through as intended, attachments are viewable in the email body and can be saved to the phone proper. The Windows Phone 8 Mail app is as solid as that of any competitor, and the Lumia 520 is a decent emailer – small onscreen keyboard notwithstanding.
The Messaging app defaults to showing SMS and MMS messages via your cellular character. If you use IM (or want to use IM) you can set up an account that displays messages in here. This will of course save you money by sending text messages over your Wi-Fi connection rather than using up paid-for texts.
Sending a message is simple – just hit the plus symbol at the bottom of the page. The microphone symbol allows you to add a voice message, the paperclip to add a file or take a photo. It's pretty simple to use.
If you use another messaging client you will have mixed fortunes with the Lumia 520. There is now a good Skype app, as well as WhatsApp and Viber. There's no BlackBerry-sanctioned BBM app… yet. Nokia announced this week that it is coming soon. (If you are in the market for a cheap smartphone, check out: Motorola Moto G review: The best budget smartphone ever.)
Lumia 520 review: web browser
The browser included with the Lumia 520 is Internet Explorer 10. You get all the major features, including tabs and built-in sharing. HTML5 is supported, so the experience is much the same as using a desktop browser. You'll have to get used to the browser bar being at the bottom rather than the top, however.
In user we found IE10 perfectly responsive. We've certainly had zippier browsing experiences, but we can't really fault the Lumia 520 in this regard. Not at this price.
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 has fitted its Lumia 520 with a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor running at 1GHz. 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.
Windows Phone is much lighter on hardware than either Android or iOS. 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. You certainly won't think this is a slow of laggy handset.
The Nokia Lumia 520 has a 1430 mAh battery. Nokia rates the Lumia 520 for up to 360 hours of standby time over 3G, 14.8 hours of talk time over 3G, 9.6 hours of talk time over 2G or 61 hours of music playback, which sounds fair. In our view it offers middling battery performance. Critically, the Lumia 520 generally seemed fine getting through a day of relatively heavy - though we still had to charge it overnight.
Connectivity includes dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, HSDPA at 21.1 Mbps and HSUPA at 5.76 Mbps. It has also got Bluetooth 3.0 and GPS. There's no NFC or compass. Don't get lost in the desert.
The Lumia 520 charges and connects to your PC via a standard micro USB to USB cable. And - glory be - there's a micro SD card slot.
Lumia 520 review: design and build
The Nokia Lumia 520 fits comfortably in the hands, measuring just 64x9.9x119.99mm and 124g with that 4in screen. Rounded corners and sides help you to easily operate it in a single hand. 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. It is solid, and you won't need a case to prevent scratches, however.
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.
Lumia 520 review: verdict
An ideal first smartphone for those who are willing to part with only £100 or less, the Lumia 520 is a well built inexpensive handset with all the features you need. Indeed, at this price you could consider it a second phone: a robust backup for those times when you don't want to risk your precious iPhone or Galaxy with the bumps and bruises of modern life.
Lumia 520: we liked
Good build and a simple, robust design. Decent although not outstanding performance and battery life. A simple and responsive interface and display. And that low, low price.
Buying Advice An ideal first smartphone for those who are willing to part with only £100 or less, the Lumia 520 is a well built inexpensive handset with all the features you need. Indeed, at this price you could consider it a second phone: a robust backup for those times when you don't want to risk your hugely expensive main phone, but you need to be able to contact and interact with the world.