Lumia 1520 vs. One Max vs. Note 3: Which phablet to buy

High-end supersize smartphones are popping up like daisies. Here's how these three big boys compare.

Phablets unite! The Samsung Galaxy Note 3, Nokia Lumia 1520, and HTC One Max. Josh Miller/CNET

The tide has turned, dragging in new supersize smartphones with screens larger than 5 inches. Nokia's Lumia 1520 , HTC's One Max , and Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 are the three top extra-large handsets sold through US carriers.

Each has its share of strengths and weaknesses that will either line up with your preferences, or disqualify it from your list.

I compare the specs and what it's like to use each phone out in the wild.

Nokia Lumia 1520 HTC One Max Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Dimensions 6.4 x 3.4 x 0.34 in.;
7.4 oz.
6.5 x 3.3 x 0.41 in.;
7.7 oz.
6.0 x 3.1 x 0.33 in.;
5.9 oz.
Colors and material White, black, yellow, red;
Plastic
White/silver, black;
Aluminum
White, black;
Plastic
Display 6.0 1080p HD;
367ppi
5.9 1080p HD;
373ppi
5.7 1080p HD;
386ppi
Operating system Windows Phone 8, Update 3 Android 4.3 Android 4.3
Processor 2.2GHz quad-core;
Qualcomm Snapdragon 800
1.7GHz quad-core;
Qualcomm Snapdragon 600
2.3GHz quad-core;
Qualcomm Snapdragon 800
Rear camera and recording 20-megapixel;
1080p HD video
4-UltraPixel;
1080p HD video
13-megapixel;
1080p HD video
Front-facing camera 1.2-megapixel; 720p HD video 2.1-megapixel; 1080p HD video 2-megapixel; 720p HD video
Capacity 32GB; 64GB microSD 32GB; 64GB microSD 32GB; 64GB microSD
RAM 2GB 2GB 3GB
Battery life 3,400mAh embedded:
24 hours over 3G
3,300mAh embedded:
25 hours over 3G
3,200mAh removable:
21 hours over 3G
Carriers AT&T Sprint, Verizon AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Verizon
Pricing $750 full retail;
$200 contract
$750 retail; $250 (Sprint), $300 (Verizon) $705-$725 retail;
$300 contract
4G LTE Yes Yes Yes
NFC Yes Yes Yes
Bluetooth 4.0 4.0 4.0
Special feature Wireless charging Fingerprint sensor S Pen stylus


Nokia Lumia 1520: Biggest, fastest Windows phone
The 1520, along with its midrange Lumia 1320 sibling, is one of a pair of Nokia's supersize smartphones, and the first to feature a quad-core processor. The two Nokia newbies are also the first Windows Phone 8 smartphones to use a 6-inch screen.

I'm a fan of the phone's unibody design and color choices, but find the phone the hardest to hold of the three because of its rounded sides. The red color's glossy finish makes the 1520 the easiest to drop, though the yellow, white, and black colors come in matte.

Microsoft adapts to the larger display with a three-column start screen layout, which I really like, and it helps for showing more e-mails, photos, and calendar items on the screen at one time. Although pixel density is the lowest on this phone of the trio, its screen is the easiest to read outdoors, thanks to Nokia's glare-fighting ClearBlack Display filter, which makes a noticeable difference in outdoor reading.

The phone's 20-megapixel camera is a nice touch, producing high-quality images. However, ease-of-use isn't exactly its strong point. I'd look to the tutorial if I were you.

On the 1520's performance front, its Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor stands up to the test. Unfortunately, it's the Windows Phone operating system's voice features that hold it back. With a screen so large and hard to operate one-handed, I wanted to use much more robust voice inputs much more often than I could. It truly made the phone harder to use to its full potential while walking down the street, riding the bus or train, and even when I just wanted to give my fingers a break.

I generally like the 1520 and find it the most advanced Windows phone around in terms of its specs. However, a better-developed OS would have given Nokia a much bigger assist.

HTC One Max: Elegant, but heavy
Of these three enormous phones, the 5.9-inch One Max is the most finely crafted, hands down. Its metal elements also make it the heaviest. I found it fairly well balanced, but CNET reviewer Brian Bennett thought it felt top-heavy. Steep, straight sides make it easier to grip than the Lumia 1520.

The phone's fingerprint scanner on the back is a differentiating feature, but it usually only worked about half the time for me (I had the best success when dragging my fingertip down across the scanner slowly). I wouldn't buy a phone just for this and I wouldn't miss it if I turned the feature off. That said, if I had the Max, I would use the scanner unless or until failed attempts drove me batty. I guess I spend so much time swiping the screen, it's nice to use a different gesture for a change of pace.

I really like HTC's Sense interface, and I enjoyed using this interface the most of the three phablets. As a person who doesn't typically use ROMs and launchers, the out-of-box experience is key.

You'll still find the IR blaster and all the HTC One original's photo tricks. In a nod to customer demand, HTC has added a microSD card slot that takes up to 64GB storage; this is a new and very laudable move for the One line.

However, there's no Beats Audio here, and those who require removable batteries still won't be able to take theirs out. This doesn't bother me much, personally. I'm more concerned about storage space.

Spec-heads may lament that the One Max has a slightly slower version of Qualcomm's quad-core Snapdragon processor, but you'll still find the One Max plenty speedy.

Apart from its heft, the main issue is how pricy the phone is: $250 for Sprint and $300 for Verizon. Yes, it has more features than the less expensive Lumia 1520, but the feature set doesn't justify the price on Verizon. If you're prepared to strike during a special promotion or wait for the price to drop, I think you'll find it a more valuable offer.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3: Light, with a stylus edge
With "just" a 5.7-inch HD display, the Galaxy Note 3 is the smallest of this enormous bunch. A slightly smaller screen makes pixel density just a bit sharper. It's also the lightest and easiest to operate one-handed, though that's purely relative.

As with the One Max, the Note 3's straight sides help keep it clamped in the hand, and it's the only one that utilizes a physical home button to help navigate around. Side by side, the Note just looks cheap, especially when you take in the tacky plastic "stitching" on the back panel that's meant to emulate classier leather.

I like the Note 3's stylus for use in everyday life , and it certainly adds to the phone's value. With high-end specs that surpass even the flagship Galaxy S4, the Note 3's abilities are impressive, though I don't use a large number of the phone's software addenda, and Samsung's custom TouchWiz interface isn't as appealing to me as HTC's Sense.

The Note 3 is easier to find no matter your provider, but it's also the largest price commitment across all carriers, and perhaps costs too much if you're never planning to use the stylus.

Which is the better buy?
As a small-handed person who uses a stylus to take notes, the Note 3 is my all-around favorite, though it's pricier and its craftsmanship is questionable.

AT&T customers looking for the best all-around viewing experience and affordability should stick to the Lumia 1520 for its large screen size, ClearBlack display, and $200 price tag -- the same price as a smaller premium phone. (The midrange Samsung Galaxy Mega has a 6.3-inch display, but I prefer the 1520's hardware, no question.)

Again, there's plenty to like in HTC's One Max, but you do get a heavier phone with all that metal, and Verizon customers should wait for costs to drop. It also helps not to overhype the fingerprint scanner's cool factor, because it just might disappoint.

Phablet-lovers, what do you look for in a supersize smartphone? Shout out your preferences in the comments below.

Article originally published 10/22/2013 and updated 11/25 with more details and comparison.

 

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