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

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 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 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.

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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