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

A surprisingly decent camera and $150 off-contract price tag make T-Mobile's Lumia 521 a go-to budget smartphones for any platform, unless you crave LTE.

Jessica Dolcourt
Jessica Dolcourt Editorial Director / CNET Franchises, How-To, Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads the CNET Franchises, How-To and Performance Optimization teams. Her career with CNET began in 2006, and spans reviews, reporting, analysis and commentary for desktop software; mobile software, including the very first Android and iPhone apps and operating systems; and mobile hardware, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of practical advice on expansive topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).

Expertise Team leadership, audience engagement, iPhone, Android, iOS, tips and FAQs.
7 min read

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.

Nokia Lumia 521

Nokia Lumia 521

The Good

Nokia's <b>Lumia 521</b> 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.

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.

Meet the ultrabudget Nokia Lumia 521 (pictures)

See all photos

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.

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.

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

Nokia Lumia 521

Nokia Lumia 521

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 7
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