Nokia Lumia 521 review: High-value budget hit, but no LTE

One telling test is our indoor studio shot, which we take with every smartphone camera (see our comparison gallery here). Colors were even and objects were more or less sharp. Smartphone cameras often throw a brown, red, or blueish tint onto the scene. The 521, happily, did not.

When it comes to evenness and tone, the Nokia Lumia 521 pretty much aced our studio shot. Josh Miller/CNET

In addition to taking photos, the Lumia 520 captures 720p HD video. Without a flash, you'll need to keep an eye on the environment, but overall, autofocus jumped in at the right times and the picture looked as detailed and clear as you'd expect for 720p HD. I'd be more than happy to upload a quick video to YouTube or a social network, though I probably wouldn't want to film a full-length feature to play back on my large-screen HD TV.

Nokia Lumia 521 camera test
A dim restaurant atmosphere didn't blunt the Lumia 521's ability to pretty clearly snap this personal cheesecake. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Call quality
I was able to comfortably hold long phone conversations when testing the Lumia 521's call quality in San Francisco using T-Mobile's network (GSM 850/900/1800/1900). There was some skipping in the flow, and I had to set the volume to high to really hear. Beyond that, I didn't detect any background noise in my calls, and voices sounded natural.

On his end of the line, my chief testing partner had a slightly degraded experience. Although he said I sounded loud enough, my voice came across echoey and hollow, though intelligible. He heard extra distortion on the high peak, and noticed that my voice quality was a little raspy.

Nokia Lumia 521 call quality sample Listen now:

I tested the speakerphone by holding the device at hip-level. Volume immediately jumped. Voices were natural and fairly clear, considering the nature of speakerphone. The audio quality wasn't excessively echoey or hollow, and though it didn't deliver absolute clarity, I could keep a conversation going indoors for quite some time without wanting to switch back to the standard earpiece.

Call quality didn't differ much from the switch to speakerphone and standard for my caller, though he did notice that turning on speaker mellowed the distortion peaks he heard we I spoke with the phone at my ear. Otherwise, the audio traits remained throughout the transition.

Performance
Without 4G LTE onboard, the Lumia 521 will never load Web sites or upload photos as nimbly as LTE-ready T-Mobile phones. However, 4G HSPA+ support means that the 521 isn't stuck in 3G limbo-land, either.

Speedtest.net results on Nokia Lumia 521
The 521's HSPA+ Speedtest.net results were consistent with other non-LTE phone in T-Mobile's network. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Speed results taken through the Speedtest.net app (which we also use for Android and iOS speeds) were in line with T-Mobile's other 4G HSPA+ phones that I've tested in San Francisco. Downlink speeds of 3 or 5Mbps were about right, with much slower upload speeds.

Real-world tests designed to stress data and processor speeds also showed the Lumia 521 in the middle of the pack, right where you'd expect. Downloads took significantly longer over 4G HSPA+ rather than the fastest LTE network, but load times weren't so long I wanted to smash down the phone in frustration. Thankfully, loading up mobile-optimized sites like m.cnet.com took just under 10 seconds.

It's worth pointing out that while T-Mobile's LTE network is still in its infancy, available in seven cities, the majority of T-Mobile customers are using HSPA+ on non-LTE handsets. As its LTE network grows, speeds and coverage can vary and change. So far, though, we were impressed with the carrier's 4G speeds . New phones will need to start out LTE-compatible to remain attractive.

Nokia Lumia 521 (T-Mobile 4G, no LTE)
Download Endomondo (3MB) 42 seconds
Load up Endomondo mobile app 5.3 seconds
CNET mobile site load 9.5 seconds
CNET desktop site load 28 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 38 seconds
Camera boot time 3 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 2.5 seconds with autofocus

On the processor side, the Lumia 521 comes with a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8270 processor, compared with a dual-core processor for the more powerful phones. The 521 isn't as snappy as those, which means that the gamers among you may not see the same crispness or detailed gameplay in graphics-heavy games.

There's 8GB of internal storage, and phone owners have access to 7.2GB of them, and a smaller 512MB helping of RAM versus 1GB or 2GB in today's top phones on any platform.

The 521's removable 1,430mAh battery is rated to yield up to 9.6 hours talk time and 15 days standby time. It has a digital SAR rating of 1.02 watts per kilogram.

Should you buy it or skip it?
Though it lacks 4G LTE support, the $150 Nokia Lumia 521 still gives you quite a bit for your money. Pricing is absolutely this phone's primary value proposition, but the essentials all seem to work, the hardware is sturdy, and the camera is better than average. This is a good buy for someone seeking a wallet-friendly smartphone off-contract.

Buy the Lumia 521 if you...

-Want one of the lowest-cost smartphones around
-Seek a handset off-contract
-Value a strong camera with HD video capture
-Enjoy the Windows Phone ecosystem

Skip the Lumia 521 if you...

-Prioritize 4G LTE speeds
-Seek slimmer, more-sophisticated hardware (hold out for T-Mobile's Nokia Lumia 925)
-Decide that price is not an issue

What you'll pay

    Pricing is currently unavailable.

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    Where to Buy

    Nokia Lumia 521 (T-Mobile - Flat White)

    Part Number: LUMIA521 Released: 28 Apr 2013
    Pricing is currently unavailable.

    Quick Specifications See All

    • Regional specs shown for US. UK specs are unavailable.

    • Release date 28 Apr 2013
    • Service Provider T-Mobile
    • Diagonal Size 4 in
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