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

Nokia's 6-inch Lumia 1520 brings on the hardware goods with a zippy quad-core processor and 20-megapixel camera. Unfortunately, the Windows Phone OS needs a boost for the phone to achieve its true potential.

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Money, How-To & Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads the CNET Money, How-To, and Performance teams. A California native who grew up in Silicon Valley, she's passionate about connecting people with the highest standard of advice to help them reach their goals.

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13 min read

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.

Nokia_Lumia_1520_35829228-7165.jpg
8.0

Nokia Lumia 1520

The Good

<b>Nokia's Lumia 1520</b> 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.

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.

Nokia's surprisingly slim 6-inch Lumia 1520 (pictures)

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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.

Back on the hardware end of things, there's NFC, or near-field communications, onboard the 1520, and Qi wireless charging makes its return.

Cameras and video
Nokia's deep investment in outrageous optics continues in the Lumia 1520. Like other Nokia phones, the 1520 uses Carl Zeiss Optics and the PureView technology that Nokia is associating with its brand. There are ball bearings for effective optical image stabilization, and a dual-LED flash instead of the Xenon flash found in both Verizon's Lumia 928 and in the Lumia 1020.

You'll also find a backside-illuminated sensor and a f/2.4 aperture, 16:9 default aspect ratio, and 26mm focal length.

In addition to hardware, the 1520's camera app has roughly the same Nokia Camera app we saw in the Lumia 1020, down to the onscreen controls you can tap to futz with exposure ratings, and so on -- either individually or all at once. The 1520's version also bundles in a shortcut to the Nokia Smart Cam app, which was previously a lens of its own. Now, you tap an onscreen button to get at those tools, which include "Best face" for group photos and some action modes, the start of a good consolidation.

Nokia's Camera app now incorporates the Smart Cam app, previously its own lens. Josh Miller/CNET

Nokia also provides a handful of separate lenses (read: camera apps) like Panorama mode, Nokia Creative Studio, Nokia Video Trimmer, and a new one called Refocus, which works sort of like the Lytro camera to shift focus after you take a shot.

These additions certainly boost the camera's capabilities...in aggregate. Unfortunately, Nokia hasn't made fixes that would answer most of my UI critiques, which is to basically blend functionality into one single app. The new Refocus app perfectly highlights my frustrations. A specific app for a specific task, Refocus doesn't actually invoke the flash, so forget about taking well-lit shots with it at night.

Also, because Refocus takes a series of shots to wield its computational magic, you also have to anticipate wanting to play around with focal ranges or pops of color, its secondary task. I never found a natural use case where I was unsure where I wanted to focus the lens. When in doubt, I would personally just take two separate pictures myself.

Even the Smart Cam app carries over some problematic logic, like some confusing icons and missing onscreen controls to quickly toggle between the front and back cameras. Since you're processing much larger images, and saving both the full size image and a 5-megapixel image that's used in most sharing situations, it takes much longer to process photos. Count on four seconds from one shot to the next, instead of one or two seconds.

Note, too, that the default camera app isn't the native Windows Phone camera, so if you'd prefer to use that one, or Panorama mode, or the video trimmer, you'll need to switch. Every. Single. Time.

Image quality isn't as sharp as it is on the 41-megapixel 1020, which lets you get astoundingly up close in lossless cropping. Still, the 1520 produces strong images on its own. Low-light conditions are better than some when using the focus flash even when the regular flash was turned off, but aren't quite as impressive as they are on other Nokia phones. Cropping still yielded some detail-rich results on the 1520, even if the camera tended to cast objects in a slight blue light.

And now without further ado, photos taken with the Lumia 1520; unless noted, photos were taken on automatic mode and have not been cropped or resized. Click to enlarge.

The lovely but elusive Lynn La, CNET mobile editor, captured indoors in her native habitat. Josh Miller/CNET
The fabled gumball machine, repurposed for dark chocolate and mint M&Ms. Josh Miller/CNET
This flower was shot outdoors in the shade; it looks slightly more blue here than it does to the naked eye. Josh Miller/CNET
Captured in bright sunlight, this necklace has detailed lossless cropping. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
This fidgety pooch was a great subject for testing the 1520's optical image stabilization. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Liquid metal tagging in bright sunlight looks especially cool, particularly when cropped. Josh Miller/CNET
Focus flash helped lock onto this very dimly lit night shot, making details appear out of shadow. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Sliders in the night. Again, with the flash turned off, the Lumia 1520's Nokia Camera App. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Compare studio shots from other phone cameras in this Photo comparison gallery.

Call quality
I tested the Lumia 1520 in San Francisco using AT&T's network. Call quality was passable, but not enjoyable. I heard a persistent white noise shhh when making calls and voices sounded muted, though still intelligible. Volume was loud at a bit over half.

On the other end, my test partner said she could tell I was on a cell phone, but volume was strong and I sounded clear. She noticed occasional modulation when I spoke, and sibilance wasn't always crystal clear. On the whole, this was a similar experience to most phone calls, she said.

Nokia Lumia 1520 call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone quality dropped on both ends of the line. Voices sounded crackly and distant on my end, and much more muffled than before. Similarly, my calling partner said she had to strain to understand me. There wasn't any static, but words became less distinct. As a plus, volume remained the same on speakerphone.

Performance: LTE, processor, battery life
The first Windows phone with a quad-core processor, the Lumia 1520 has a lot to prove. Qualcomm's 2.2 GHz Snapdragon 800 is currently the brawniest on the market, and in my tests, it upheld standards for all tasks I threw its way. The phone comes equipped with 2GB RAM.

Operations meant to be snappy never lagged, and it handled gaming graphics well for high-resolution titles like Temple Run. (Unfortunately, not all games I downloaded were formatted to look good on the 1520's screen, but that certainly isn't the CPU's fault.)

Diagnostic results from the Speedtest.net app (L) and AnTuTu Benchmark CPU test. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Diagnostic results with AnTuTu came in at 25,000 after three tests, slightly lower than the Note 3's score of 27,000 (using the same Snapdragon 800 chipset). The 1520's benchmark was also lower than the HTC One Max's score of 26,375 using its Snapdagon 600 chip. I'm skeptical of this readout for a few reasons. AnTuTu is much better developed for Android, where graphical tests take a few minutes and you can watch along. On Windows Phone, AnTuTu runs as a beta and is over much more quickly; the one graphical test you see animates a grid of boxes rapidly changing color, a test you don't see anywhere on the Android counterpart. Finally, AnTuTu also incorrectly detected the 1520's screen resolution at 800x480 pixels, rather than its actual 1,920x1,080p resolution.

Diagnostic results for the 1520's 4G LTE data speeds were much lower in downtown San Francisco than I expected for the usually blazing AT&T: 3.5 to about 7.5 Mbps down, rather than 15Mbps to 30Mbps down on other phones. Upload speeds were faster on the 1520, between 8Mbps up and 12.7. However, the scores of an AT&T Note 3 were on par when I tested it in the same location.

Real world tests were satisfying and fast, with Web sites loading up quickly, and music and videos streaming without hiccups, skipping, or delay.

Nokia Lumia 1520 AT&T
Install Endomondo (3MB) 19.6 seconds
Load up Endomondo mobile app 3.4 seconds
CNET mobile site load 4 seconds
CNET desktop site load 30 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 32 seconds
Camera boot time 3-3.5 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 4 seconds with autofocus, flash (Nokia Cam)

Battery capacity is a respectable 3,400 mAh, which should more than keep the 1520 going for at least a full workday without requiring a charge. Nokia rates battery life at 25 hours over 3G (there's no 4G rating), but depending on how you use it, you'll drain resources faster doing things like streaming photos and video. In a traditional battery drain test, the 1520 had a 12 hour, 15 minute talk time.

The Lumia 1520 has a digital SAR of 0.59 watts per kilogram, according to FCC radiation tests.

Supersize me: Giants of the smartphone world (pictures)

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Buy it or skip it?
Nokia came to compete in the extra-large smartphone space, and that it does, bringing top-notch specs and attractive hardware to an increasingly crowded field.

Competitively priced at $200 retail with a two-year AT&T agreement, the large, slim, fast Lumia 1520 comes in $50 cheaper than Sprint's 5.9-inch HTC One Max and $100 less than Samsung's Galaxy Note 3, sold on multiple carriers. (The phone has a premium price tag of $750 off-contract.)

However, monster megapixel camera aside, the 1520 lacks the other phones' flashier window dressing: the Max's fingerprint scanner and the Note 3's stylus. The Windows Phone operating system itself is also more simplistic. While there's NFC, lock-screen shortcuts, and some slick-but-subtle touch screen controls, the OS just can't compete with Android and iOS on voice assistance, mapping, integration with Google services, and a wider variety of content you can buy, rent, and download from a native store.

The Windows Phone interface, though clean and useful with the additional third Start screen column, is also the least visual OS overall. If all that sounds about right to you, then buy the Lumia 1520 -- it delivers large, clear screen; competent camera; and slimness for the on-contract price of a smaller-screen phone.

Buy the Nokia Lumia 1520 if you:
-Crave an extra-large screen
-Like a high-resolution camera and lossless cropping
-Don't want to pay more for a phablet

Skip the 1520 if you:
-Want a smartphone with a highly-developed voice assistant
-Prefer a screen that's easier to operate one-handed
-Like the ability to deeply customize the OS experience

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8.0

Nokia Lumia 1520

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8
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