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

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The Good Nokia's Lumia 521 packs in a better camera and more software features than you might expect for its $150 off-contract price tag.

The Bad No LTE, poor screen quality, and no camera flash remind you that the 521 wasn't built to be a premium smartphone.

The Bottom Line Nokia's Lumia 521 is one of the best bargain smartphones on any platform, but skip it if LTE is of paramount concern.

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6.7 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 6
  • Performance 7

Review Sections

If you're all about value, then mosey on up to T-Mobile's Nokia Lumia 521. For $150 off-contract (or $130 if you manage to nab it from Walmart) the Windows Phone 8 device brings on solid performance and Nokia's signature apps for a bargain price.

Its biggest drawback -- besides the obvious step-down in screen and camera quality compared with the now-discontinued Lumia 810 and upcoming Lumia 925 flagship -- is that the 521 lacks LTE support. However, you won't be hobbled by 3G speeds; the 521 will still ride T-Mobile's 4G HSPA+ network.

Most $150 smartphones give you exactly what you pay for, namely cheap, functional hardware that sometimes struggles with the OS demands. The Lumia 521 delivers an above-average experience that more than fits the price, so long as you don't require T-Mobile's fastest data speeds. T-Mobile customers looking for a more complete package should scrounge up a Lumia 810 or hold out and save up for the Lumia 925, which will admittedly cost hundreds of dollars more.

Design and build
Matte white and square-faced, the polycarbonate Lumia 521 is smaller than its other Lumia brethren -- 4.7 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide -- but still typically thick at the standard 0.4-inch depth.

At 4.4 ounces, it feels sturdy and substantial, and the prominent curve of the back plate balloons out to fit comfortably in the hand. It slid into my back pocket just fine, though its curvy dimensions did cause it to protrude a bit.

Nokia Lumia 521
Nokia's Lumia 521 is the company's least expensive Windows phone yet. Josh Miller/CNET

The contrast of black buttons and screen paired with the white backing and rim is striking. However, when it comes to looks, the 521's dull white color, thick black bezel, and faded display keep it in its budget place. Neither is it very bright at automatic settings. I needed to turn off automatic brightness and set the screen to medium strength to make my peepers happy.

Speaking of that screen, the 521 sports a 4-inch LCD WVGA display (800x480-pixel resolution) that lacks the glare-fighting ClearBlack filter and lustrous sheen of Nokia's high-end Lumia line. That's an expected trade-off for struggling to hit a lower cost. However, Nokia did include the high-screen sensitivity of other Lumia phones, which means you won't have to shuck off your gloves to operate the 521.

I find typing more comfortable on Lumias with larger screens, but 4 inches is hardly small, and thankfully the standard Windows Phone keyboard is nice and accurate.

Nokia Lumia 928, left, and Lumia 521, right.
Side by side with Verizon's flagship Lumia 928 (left), you can see the Lumia 521's less premium build quality, but it fits the price. Josh Miller/CNET

Now for a tour through the other external hardware appointments. There are those signature oblong Lumia buttons on the right spine to control volume, power, and the camera shutter. Up top is the 3.5mm headset jack, and down below is the Micro-USB charging port. The Lumia 521 has no front-facing camera (another cost consideration), but there is a 5-megapixel shooter on the back -- no flash, though.

You may not know it by looking, but you can peel back the back cover to get at the Micro-SIM and microSD card slots below decks. It was hard to pry off the first time (hint, curl your fingers and pull the cover toward you), but it loosened up after that.

OS and apps
A Windows Phone 8 OS at is base, the Lumia 521 also includes all of Nokia's custom software that helps set its phones apart from other manufacturers' Windows phones.

You'll find Nokia's Here Maps and Here Drive apps with turn-by-turn directions, Nokia Music, which does song mixes, and various apps to enhance the native camera experience. Lenses, apps that hook into the camera app, add extra shooting modes and options like Panorama and Smart Shoot, nice touches for otherwise bare-bones hardware.

In addition to Nokia's haul, T-Mobile sprinkles in some apps of its own, like Caller Tunes, Scout, T-Mobile TV, and a data transfer app. Mostly, though, the preloads are at a minimum, with just Microsoft's ecosystem apps (like Office and the digital wallet) and Nokia's add-ons prepopulated.

As a reminder, Windows Phone lets you change theme colors, task-switch, and voice search, plus identify songs and change the sizes of the home screen's dynamic live tiles.

The OS has all Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS connections you'd expect, plus support for multiple e-mail inboxes and social networks. There's no NFC onboard, so you won't be able to use the Tap + Send feature to share photos, for instance. Wireless charging also fell by the wayside in an effort to keep costs down.

Camera and video
Although the 5-megapixel camera has no flash, it took decent photos. Images looked better when taken in scenarios with abundant, even lighting, though even a low-light photo of dessert looked much better than on other cameras.

Nokia Lumia 521 camera test
This photo of CNET's home office is totally usable, but not as sharp or colorful as on other cameras. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

On the whole, the Lumia 521 doesn't produce photos as distinct, detailed, or rich as do other smartphone cameras. That said, the photos are better than average for the phone's price. In other words, you'd never buy the Lumia 521 for the camera, but budget-seekers should be pleased with what they get.

Nokia Lumia 521 camera test
Cheers to this usable indoor photo, shot with a mixture of artificial and ambient natural light. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

As usual with Windows Phone, shot-to-shot times are slower than what they are on other smartphones. It's very possible to miss a moment. That said, I do greatly appreciate built-in autofocus.

Nokia Lumia 521 camera test
These berries never quite got into focus, but the bright reds are at least accurate. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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.