Nokia Lumia 1520 review: Nokia goes big, but OS stays 'small'

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MSRP: $749.00

The Good Nokia's Lumia 1520 delivers a large, glare-fighting screen, a fast processor, plenty of storage, and a strong 20-megapixel camera for the same on-contract price as a smaller premium phone.

The Bad Its size makes one-handed operation difficult, and call quality was muddier than on most Nokia phones. Limited voice dictation and voice assistance in the OS hobbles its usefulness as a phablet.

The Bottom Line Though it lacks some features found in its big phone rivals, the Nokia Lumia 1520 is a great buy for Windows Phone fans seeking a supersize smartphone with premium hardware.

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8.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8

Bigger isn't always better, but in Nokia's case, it is. The 6-inch Lumia 1520 for AT&T is the fastest Windows Phone ever made. Slimmer and lighter than you'd expect for a supersize handset, the 1520 brings home the goods: a huge 1080p HD display, a 20-megapixel camera, and a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor -- the latter a first for Windows Phone.

That high-res camera and outdoor legibility were bright spots. My red model's slippery finish, however, made it too easy to fumble. Some weak points with the platform itself -- like a limited voice assistant and missing TV and movie store -- hobbled the true usefulness of a phone whose screen size cries out for unending visual consumption.

The Lumia 1520's impressive specs and bold design are undoubtedly worth its $200 on-contract price tag for Windows Phone fans. However, if you're aching to milk every last drop of large-screen goodness from a tabletlike handset, then choose from any one of the multiplying Android options, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, HTC One Max, and potentially even the curved LG G Flex.

Design and build
Nokia's smartphones tend to be chubsters, especially when there's a higher-resolution camera involved, but not so with the 1520.

This colossus is much slimmer and sexier than many a Nokia handset -- a svelte 8.7 millimeters (0.34 inch) compared with the Lumia 1020's 0.41-inch depth. That's still slightly thicker than the Note 3 (0.33).

At 7.4 ounces, it's significantly heavier than the 5.9-ounce Note 3, but a tad lighter than the One Max (7.7 ounces). It feels hefty in the hand, but not too onerous for a phone of this size. I already carry a heavy purse stuffed with electronics; the 1520 fit right into the jumble.

Amazingly, the 20-megapixel shooter only puckers out from the back panel to form an "O" about the size of a quarter. Nokia switches out the Xenon flash of its Lumia 1020 camera workhorse for a dual LED flash here, partially in an effort to cinch the 1520's waistline.

The 1520 -- which comes in glossy red, matte black, matte white, and matte yellow (we reviewed it in red and black) -- handles well for its size, though the shiny variants are harder to grip, and the slippery device often tumbled from my fingers. Rounded sides and a curved back soften the 1520's sharper corners, making it more comfortable to hold -- though less easy to clamp in place than either the flat-sided One Max, Note 3, and even the 6.4-inch Sony Xperia Z Ultra.

Proportionally, the 1520 feels tall rather than squat, though the device is still far too massive for my hands and I had to strain my fingers to (try to) perform some tasks one-handed. Of course, my paws are smaller than some, and size is (always) a matter of personal preference. It sticks out halfway from my back pocket, and even more from the front pocket. It did, however, fit better in the front and back pockets of the loose slacks of several men, and I could see it sliding into the internal pocket of a blazer. Likewise, there's plenty of room for a 1520 in a satchel or purse.

Unlike Samsung's Note 3 and 6.3-inch Galaxy Mega, the Lumia 1520 has no software provisions for one-handed operation. That isn't necessarily a bad thing; I'm not convinced that those modifications work terribly well anyhow. On the other hand, the 1520's touch-sensitive targets are larger, so you'll have a better-than-usual chance of nailing the spot you want. For instance, I was able to effectively scroll through information-rich Web sites like Wikipedia with my thumb on the very edge of the display.

The 20-megapixel camera barely protrudes from the back. Josh Miller/CNET

As for the materials, Nokia sticks with its signature polycarbonate unibody design, adding a microSD card door to the nano-SIM card door, both of which are flush with the left spine. This slot, which you open with a tool that comes in the box (or an earring back, in a pinch), puts the 1520 on par with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and HTC One Max -- all three have 32GB of internal storage, and can accept up to 64GB more. The SIM card tray is awkwardly positioned upside-down, which means it could fall out if you're not careful.

The Nokia Lumia 1520 (center) takes on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (left) and HTC One Max. Josh Miller/CNET

You'll find the headset jack on the top rim, a Micro-USB charging port down below, and the power/lock, volume, and camera shutter buttons on the right spine. Nokia proudly points out that the 1520 houses four microphones, one for the top and bottom of each side, to control noise if you do happen to hold the alarmingly large handset to your ear.

Although there's just one speaker on the back, music from Pandora, games, and Nokia Music Mix and YouTube videos streamed out loudly and clearly. Movie previews from Flixster sounded thicker and more garbled, which I suspect was more of an issue with Flixster's files than with the phone's ability to play them.

Screen quality
Most of the phone's chassis is taken up by its 6-inch 1080p HD LCD screen, which made the Windows Phone start screen pop.

Colors look bright and edges crisp on the Lumia 1520's screen, which has a pixel density of 367ppi. The One Max and Note 3, with their slightly smaller screens, do pack in more pixels, but the difference is hardly noticeable.

Nokia always wins my appreciation for its work on ratcheting down screen reflectance with a polarizing filter called ClearBlack Display. Not only is it intended to fight glare in direct sunlight -- which makes screens easier to read -- it also helps keep light bounceback in check indoors. With the sunlight readability setting on (relax, it's default), the Lumia 1520 automatically adjusts when it registers bright rays, and backs off when you go back inside. This makes a big difference when you're relying on your phone to read directions or reference a Web site while you're walking outside.

The Lumia 1520 is too large to comfortably fit into small pockets. Josh Miller/CNET

Indeed, with all three phones on both automatic settings and maximum brightness settings, the Lumia 1520 was the easiest of the trio to read outside in the direct noonday sun. Colors were punchier, text looked sharper (and also rendered larger), and glare was easier to dodge. If you're a fan of a different color tone, you can adjust the phone's color profile in the settings.

Thanks to its sensitive screen, you can operate the phone with (most) gloves or with a fingernail.

OS and features
Along with the midlevel Nokia Lumia 1320, the Lumia 1520 is the first to ship Microsoft's slightly updated OS, imaginatively called Windows Phone 8 Update 3. The main thing you need to know is that this tweak introduces a three-column view for device screens measuring 6 inches and above.

This layout fits naturally on the 1520, not toylike as it could have looked if Microsoft had just opted to increase the size of its already large live tiles. The three-column view has the bonus of bringing more icons to the screen, which means less scrolling for you, especially if you make use of the smallest tiles. You'll also find that more e-mails and gallery photos fill the screen, another fringe benefit of upsizing.

Windows Phone gives you standard calendar and alarm tools, Xbox gaming tie-ins, podcasts, and the mobile version of the Microsoft Office suite. Also included is 7GB of Skydrive cloud storage. Multitasking, multiple inboxes, integrated social sharing, music identification, and a barcode scanner are also woven into the Windows Phone platform.

The Lumia's 1520 uses Windows Phone's new three-column interface for ultralarge devices. Josh Miller/CNET

Perhaps more important than what's there is what's missing. Microsoft's outdated TellMe software can open any installed app, make calls, send a text, and search the weather (among other things,) but it lacks the kind of deeply-integrated natural language engine powering Apple's Siri and Google's Voice Actions (commonly called Google Now).

Microsoft is hard at work on Cortana, its belated answer to these two, but that doesn't help the 1520. Unlike iOS and Android, you can't specifically search for much, and the phone sure won't read out answers to you. You can't even dictate text into messages using a keyboard toggle; it doesn't exist. For a phone as large and sometimes hard to hold as the 1520, voice dictation integrated into every keyboard (not just e-mail and text composition) is something I yearned for throughout my testing period.

Also conspicuously absent is a native Microsoft store for buying and renting TV shows and movies, a shame since the 1520's 6-inch screen is primed for extended video playback. Of course, there are plenty of third-party ways to get content: Hulu+, Netflix, Vevo, Vimeo, YouTube, and Crackle, for example, plus AT&T's aforementioned U-Verse Mobile TV service. But don't let those distract you from Microsoft's missed opportunity in closing the loop itself.

As for preloaded apps, a plethora from AT&T, Nokia, and Microsoft and their partners awaits -- like Nokia Music and Here Maps, AT&T's subscription Mobile TV ($10 per month), and Bing Finance and Weather, to name just a few. The Vine video snippet creation app, Yellow Pages Mobile, and Zinio are other examples of partner installations.

This slim metal tool now opens two doors: the SIM card tray and the microSD card slot. Josh Miller/CNET

Seek out Nokia's many branded apps, and you'll find a new one that the company is pushing hard. Called Nokia Storyteller, this optional app (whose shortcut is preloaded by default) essentially mashes up your photo gallery with geotagging to create a timeline of your happenings which you can follow on a map.

The interface looks clean, and I love the idea of Nokia software intelligently using metadata to cluster together photos by theme (yes, you can edit them if the groupings are wrong). Over time, and travels outside your home city, it promises a more comprehensive way to tell family and friends about recent trips, especially since the app uses Nokia's Here mapping software to pull in nearby businesses and landmarks.

At these early stages, it just isn't clear if Storyteller is a pretty but minimally useful addition, or a feature that people will learn to use. Folks who prefer a spatial reference to locations (like my dad, who endearingly interrupts stories to ask for cross streets), are likely to get the most excited.