Lumia 1520 review: Phablet Fantastic
It’s early 2015, and in the US, Windows Phone customers are faced with an absolute dearth of devices. It’s a pretty miserable situation, unless you are a really eager Lumia 635 owner because that’s about all you can get these days. OK, so maybe that’s not wholly accurate. You can get the new (ish) Lumia 830 on AT&T, which is, as one reviewer put it recently, all mid-range no flagship. After using the 830 for a while, I wholeheartedly agree; the 830 is a solid, very solid mid-range device. But flagship it ain’t. Right now, the AT&T-exclusive 830 is where the money is, but that’s not a great deal of choice.
With Lumia Denim rolling out (albeit at a snail pace) around the globe, US consumers might be hankering after some of this new Denim action. If they’re looking to buy a new Lumia running this sexy new firmware, the choices are extremely limited. Well, they’re limited anyway when it comes to Lumia Denim, because there are really only two devices that can take advantage of its gravy goodness, and they are the Lumia 930 and 1520. The 930 isn’t sold by carriers here in the States, but you can, (if you’re lucky) find a Verizon store still selling any remaining stock of the Lumia Icon, which is basically the exact same device as the 930, sans brightly-coloured backs. It is only available in boring black and bland white. Must be a reflection on American consumers. Haha. So not much luck really if you’re after a phone that is phone-sized and colourful. (A quick look on Verizon’s website and they actaully offer ZERO Nokia Lumias right now. NONE. So there’s that. Good luck if you’re looking for one in a store. A lot of luck).
The 930 is available… if you don’t mind buying off-contract and full price from the likes of Amazon and Swappa for around $400. But on AT&T or T-Mobile, the 930 will be restricted to non-LTE data speeds. The 930 I used topped-out on “H+” and most of the time that meant around 3MB/s on AT&T’s 4G. So there’s that. Definitely doable, but not great.
Is there no hope at all for US consumers who want some Denim goodness, with “Hey Cortana” and Lumia Camera 5 amazingness? There’s some hope. But you’d better be prepared to carry around the huge monster that is the Nokia Lumia 1520. AT&T are still selling this phone-tablet (if only there was a word I could use that was a mixture of phone and tablet…) on their installment plan, for $20/month, on full contract (for $199) and outright without a contract for $585. None of those prices include tax though, and yes, it still bothers this Brit that tax is stapled on at the end of the transaction instead of being included in the price in America. Why, oh why??? So add around 10% for the actual price you’ll end up paying. Luckily, there are some excellent deals to be had on eBay and Swappa on 1520s, so you could actually score a nicely-used one without contract for as little as $275 – totally the way to go if you ask me. Contracts stink.
So the Lumia 1520 it is, but before you write of Lumia Denim in the States, I would say that the 1520 is where you should be heading toward anyway, because it is a beautiful, fast, gorgeous phone. And with another difference between the two Denim phones being that the 930/Icon doesn’t have the Glance sleeping screen option at all, the 1520 remains the only Lumia that, at the time of writing, takes advantage of all of Lumia Denim’s features. The 1520 is therefore, the best Lumia, right?
Well, it’s certainly the biggest. With a screen size of six whopping inches, the 1520 is one big mother. And I have no problem with that. The best thing about using a phone this big is really all about the screen, which is an immersive 1080×1920 IPS LCD curved glass affair, with simply sumptuous colours and deep blacks. Watching Netflix or Hulu+ on this thing is a real treat, but also makes me remember that I have that Nexus 7 tablet over there… but do I need it now? The 1520’s screen is so large and so immersive that watching videos, or reading Kindle books, is such a lovely experience. No squinting at a small 4-inch screen here, no sir. The 1520’s screen is sizable and allows plenty of real estate to view Twitter and Facebook easily, read and write emails with ease – basically everything you normally do on a smartphone is boosted in enjoyment. Using the 1520 after using the 1020 is akin to switching on your first 60-inch TV after having a decent (but slow to start?) 42-inch one. You’re blown away, and you wonder why you ever settled for anything smaller. The 1020 isn’t that much smaller than the 1520, but on a phone there is quite a difference in user experience between a 4.5-inch screen and a 6-inch screen.
I don’t think there’s much point in going through Windows Phone 8.1 in detail here, because the user experience is relatively similar on other Windows Phones devices, from the humble 520 to this beast, the 1520. One tiny difference in the bigger screened phone is that you get five buttons to toggle in the drop-down Action Center, whereas on smaller phones, four is the default. It’s always nice to have more options – in the upcoming Windows 10 for phones, all of your settings toggles can be accessed this way, which will be very useful.
There’s lots to like with such a massive phone, and the video watching is just one advantage. Just about every interaction with it becomes more enjoyable thanks to the large screen, and it feels almost decadent, like you’re spoiling yourself unnecessarily. Y’know, you don’t need that Hummer, but once you drive it around town, you just don’t want to go back to your Honda Accord.
Of course I do love going back to my 1020 because it also has its advantages over the 1520, the most obvious being that it is actually slightly smaller. Hang on, what am I saying here? Well, while I think the 1520 is the most capable phone I’ve ever used and the size and the glossy red exterior just ticks all my boxes, the 1020 does have a more capable camera with Xenon flash, but there are times, (especially for us New York City commuters), when holding onto a pole means there is a need to have a phone you can utilise with just one hand. I have found, after using the 1520 for a little over a month, that trying to use it with just one hand is quite difficult, and perhaps even scary. There’s definitely an increased possibility of you dropping the 1520 while precariously trying to stretch your thumb across the screen to tap that all important Live Tile. Luckily I haven’t dropped mine, and to be honest, I am very careful with my phones. There’s no case on it because, a) I don’t really like covering up the gorgeous Nokia design with cheap ugly plastic and rubber, and b) the 1520 is big enough. Putting that thing in a case and increasing its overall bulk would be verging on ridiculous. I’m not about to go into mega-phablet territory. A 7-inch screened ASUS Fonepad is not on my radar.
Overall, the 1520 is a lovely phone, as long as you can deal with it being as large as it is, and you are quite comfortable with using your phone with two hands, either with the phone being half-held by each hand for two-thumb typing, or nestled in one hand while the other does all the swiping and pecking on the screen. I tend to opt for the latter, mainly because the WordFlow keyboard is such a speedy joy to use, and also when other tasks require a swipe across the screen in one direction or another, a freed-up index finger is better suited to the job, for want of ease plus a securer grip on the thing as well. Incidentally, I’m looking forward to the Windows 10 option of reducing the size of the keyboard and being able to move it for one-handed use. All good stuff.
I do have one enormous gripe though, and it really has to do with Windows Phone 8.1 Cyan more than the 1520 itself. I know this to be true because I also experienced this weird glitch with the Lumia 930, and the glitch is so specific, I just can’t see how it is related to the unique hardware of either phone. I have never encountered this bug with my Lumia 1020 and 920 which are both running Windows Phone 8.1 Cyan as well, so perhaps it’s a Snapdragon 800 chipset issue. Basically what happens is this: I’m walking to work, listening to music via MixRadio or Xbox Music, or I’m listening to a podcast, and I suddenly see something that needs to be photographed. I pull the 1520 out of my pocket and snap the subject while the music is playing in the background – something I’ve been doing since my Nokia E75 days. All of a sudden, the music playback becomes horribly distorted: it sounds like a battery-powered cassette player that has almost-dead batteries playing music whilst also being underwater. It’s an awful, slowed-down garbled audio mess. I’ve tried pausing the music before taking a photo, I’ve tried pausing the music during the distorted playback, I’ve tried unplugging my earphones… nothing can fix this problem. Once it’s started, the only way I can get back to listening to the Stones or the 361 Podcast is to actually reboot the phone. Ridiculous. No amount of Xbox music updates have addressed this issue, but I hear on the online grapevine that a fix is imminent with Denim to all AT&T-branded phones that have this glitch. I really hope that turns out to be the case.
Apart from that weirdness, the 1520 is such a pleasure to use. I have friends who love the size of their Galaxy Notes and their iPhone 6 Pluses, and for a long time (with the Notes anyway) I would often wonder how on earth these people managed to deal with such a huge slab of a phone on a daily basis; now I understand why these “phablets” are becoming more and more popular. It has little to do with the overall size really, because you get used to it. But I just can’t get over how engrossing that screen is, it almost swallows you up. I just love using it for that one reason: whatever I’m looking at on the screen, it is a squint-free, beautiful and pixel-drenching experience. Going back to a smaller screen (I’m currently experimenting with a BlackBerry Z10 that has a 4.2″ screen) just isn’t fun at all, like there’s something amiss. Why can’t my eyes be spoiled with so much to look at all of a sudden? Oh yes, because the screen’s not a 6 incher. Guess I’m finally able to say that I prefer bigger phones now, and I have to wonder to myself why I waited this long. The 1520 is a beauty, in many, many ways.
The camera is something that can’t be ignored either. This is a Nokia PureView device after all, and while it sits below the esteemed Lumia 1020 (and Symbian-powered 808 PureView) the photos I’ve managed to capture with it have been impressive enough for me not to hanker after the 1020’s 41MP goodness too much. The camera on the 1520 is the same as on the 930, so both do the same excellent job. It’s a very capable PureView camera, a 20MP 1/2.5″ sensor that captures plenty of detail and reproduces colours very well. There’s no Xenon flash on this phone (the Lumias 1020 and 928 are still the only Lumias to have a Xenon flash) but I haven’t had need (yet) to capture moving pets or children or unopened bottles of beer being lifted up in low light, so it’s all been pretty good so far. As always with Windows Phone, it’s so easy to upload your snaps to a whole range of services straight from the gallery, including Twitter, Flickr Booth, Facebook and Instagram (I use Rudy Huyn’s ‘6Tag’ for Instagram). You can also shoot pics off in an email if you’re feeling old school, or simply as an MMS, Whatsapp attachment or even to your OneNote account. This is one area that Microsoft needs some quick applause: Sharing is done really well in Windows Phone – no complaints here. I also have my photos set to auto-upload to my OneDrive account once I’m on a wifi connection. This is great because I never feel like I’m going to lose any photos when I’m taking them. Naturally this is not an exclusive Windows service, as iOS has iCloud and Android as Google Drive. But it’s worth checking in your Settings to see if you have this turned on, because you can feel free to delete photos out of the Gallery to free up some room and not have to worry about those said photos being lost forever.
It’s worth mentioning that at the time of writing, I am still waiting for Lumia Denim to be released for my 1520, so I do not have any of the new fancy goodies like Lumia Camera 5 or “Hey Cortana” yet. When I do, I’ll write a separate post on how my 1520 has been improved with that update.
Here are some of my shots from the Lumia 1520:
The last thing I wanted to mention is something I had to sort out myself. The international version of the Lumia 1520 comes with Qi-charging built-in. It also comes with 32GB of internal storage. The AT&T version has the internal storage stripped down to just 16GB – not really an issue as I’ve got a 64GB microSD card in there – but they also removed the wireless charging Qi coils, so that it wouldn’t work on any of the Nokia wireless charging pads that I’ve been amassing for the past couple of years since the 920 arrived. But I stumbled across an eBay ad that stated Qi wireless charging could be re-enabled if I was willing to pay $50 and send my 1520 off with plenty of fingers crossed that it was going to be returned to me. I’m very thankful for the chap who offers this service, and I recommend anyone with an AT&T-branded 1520 that has no Qi-charging built-in to squeeze the $50 out of your wallet and do it. Having wireless charging back in my everyday phone is just such a marvellous thing; I can plonk my 1520 down next to me on the couch, next to my bed, next to my desk at work without having to reach down and fiddle with a charging cord that has somehow managed to tangle itself up in other wires… you get the picture. But here’s the caveat: it takes a long time to charge. Charging my 920 doesn’t take that long. In a few hours my 920 goes from almost flat to full. The same cannot be said for the 1520 as it takes almost twice as long to charge. Now I don’t know whether this is because the home DIY job on the Qi coils isn’t that great for charging efficiency, or because the battery (a whopping 3400 mAh one) just takes longer to fill up. I’m assuming it’s the latter (the 920’s battery is just 2000 mAh) but it does surprise me every time I pick the 1520 up off the charging plate to discover it’s only gone from 50% to 54% in what seems like ages. But I have to say in its defense that the battery is great, and battery charging has really become a topping-up affair for me. After putting it on the charging plate at bedtime, I keep it on the charging plate at work as much as possible. I have yet to drain the battery down to anywhere near worrying levels of lowness, but if I do I’ll switch to the good ol’ fashioned microUSB plug to give it juice as quickly as possible. But in my month or so of general usage, I’ve not once been concerned about the battery level, or felt the need to pack an external charger along with me for the day. The battery is a beast so I’m not that surprised it does a great job of keeping the phone alive all day and all night. If push came to shove I could easily go two days with light usage on this thing, no doubt.
2015 should transpire to be a very exciting and interesting year for Windows Phone, with plenty of change coming in the form of Windows 10, and with the promise of a proper flagship smartphone coming later on in the year as well, it gives us all something to look forward to. But thanks to the 1520, I have everything I need in a Windows Phone right now, so while it is a shame that the so-called “McLaren” device was cancelled last year, I’m not desperate for anything else right now. The 1520 is the only device in the entire Lumia range that will get everything that Denim has to offer (remember the 930 doesn’t have Glance) and it, along with the 930, is the fastest phone in the range. It’s a glorious slab of bright red sexiness, and I love using it. While 2015 ticks away, I’m sure I’ll be looking ahead to see what is coming next, and I’ll no doubt pounce on the new flagship running Windows 10 when it is launched later in the autumn. But until then, I’m a very happy phablet owner. 🙂