Nokia Lumia 2520 review: a good Windows tablet, not the best for typing

The Lumia 2520 is Nokia's first Windows tablet -- and it may well be its last. By the time Nokia is ready to design a follow-up product, the Finnish firm might officially be a part of Microsoft. For now, though, the Lumia 2520 is about to go on sale worldwide under the Nokia brand, and will compete directly with Microsoft's Surface 2, the only other Windows RT tablet available right now. Like the Surface, it's a flagship-caliber device, with a 1080p screen and top-of-the-line processor. But whereas Microsoft sees the Surface as kind of a laptop/tablet hybrid -- a real productivity device -- the 2520 is, at its heart, just a tablet. The 2520 has no kickstand, no full-sized USB port -- not unless you buy the optional keyboard cover, anyway.

Nokia also brought its A-game imaging wise, installing the same camera used on the Lumia 720 (hey, for a tablet that's actually unprecedented). Additionally, there's one other thing the 2520 has that the Surface 2 doesn't: LTE. In fact, you can't even get the 2520 as a WiFi-only device; you can either buy it unsubsidized for $499, or you can purchase it here in the US for $400 on-contract. So it definitely looks good on paper (and in press photos), but what's it like to use? Turns out, it's pretty nice.

Nokia Lumia 2520 review

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Hardware

I'm truly excited to see what kind of hardware Microsoft and Nokia come up with once their designers are working under the same roof. Because right now, their design sensibilities couldn't be more different (even if they are equally awesome). Whereas the Surface 2 is made of magnesium alloy, the 2520 is fashioned out of colorful polycarbonate plastic, just like most Lumia phones. And whereas the Surface 2 is all chamfered edges and blunt lines, the 2520 is fully contoured, with the exception of some surprisingly pointy corners. What's interesting is that because the Surface 2 has a boxier shape, it appears thicker than the Lumia 2520. In fact, though, both measure a slim 0.35 inch thick -- at least according to Microsoft's and Nokia's respective spec sheets.

That optical illusion aside, the 2520 is still easier to use in tablet mode -- for the most part, anyway. Certainly, it helps that the 2520 is substantially lighter (1.36 pounds versus 1.49). At the same time, the tablet's sleek, minimalist design sometimes works against it. For all the 2520's curves and contoured edges, the corners are actually sharper than on the Surface 2, which means they dig into your palms more. Also, as we said in our review of the new Lumia 1520, which uses the same design language, those rounded-off edges don't really leave anything for you to press your fingers against. What's more, the backside is a bit slippery. Even the Surface 2, which actually has a smooth finish, still provides more traction than the 2520.

Now, this might be a good time to clarify that depending on which color you choose, the 2520 can have one of two finishes: either glossy (red or white) or matte (those are the white and cyan models). As it happens, I tested out the red version, which seems even slippier than the matte Lumia 1520 my colleague Brad Molen reviewed earlier this week. It's also more of a fingerprint magnet -- I had to give the lid a good scrubbing with a cheesecloth before I filmed that review video you see up there. It's a shame I couldn't have tested one of each: I would have liked to spend some time with the non-glossy version, though based on Brad's review of the 1520, it seems it's easier to keep clean, if also a bit tough to get a grip on.

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Taking a tour around the device, you'll find quite a bit of painted-on branding around back. This includes "Zeiss" near the 6.7-megapixel rear camera in the upper-left corner, making clear that Carl Zeiss is behind the f/1.9 lens. Nearby, the NFC area is clearly marked, with the Nokia logo stamped in the middle. Further down, just below the Nokia label, are both "Verizon" and "4G LTE" logos. Obviously, that's just one carrier variant, though seeing as how the 2520 won't be sold as a WiFi-only device, you're probably in for some operator branding no matter where you buy it.

As far as ports and buttons go, most of the action is along the top landscape edge. There you'll find a volume rocker and the all-important power/lock button, with the pin-locked SIM door nearby. Under that same door is a microSD slot, which can accept cards as large as 32GB. Over on the left side (still in landscape mode here), there's a 3.5mm headphone jack up top, with a 2.5mm power port down below. At first glance, they look the same, and you might accidentally try to plug the power plug into the wrong hole the first time you set up the tablet. But you're smart people: You won't make that mistake twice.

Moving on to the right side, there's a micro-USB 3.0 socket and micro-HDMI slot. On the bottom, meanwhile, is a proprietary docking connector that's meant to be used with the optional power keyboard, which adds two full-sized USB 2.0 ports along with a built-in battery rated for five hours of runtime.

Optional keyboard

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Speaking of the sort, I had a chance to test out the keyboard cover, which sells separately for $149. To give you a quick rundown of the design, it's made out of a black soft-touch material -- a pleasant contrast to the smooth plastic on the tablet itself. All told, between the soft finish and the fact that it doesn't pick up fingerprints, it has a premium feel; it looks the part of a $149 accessory. What I like best is that the part of the case that props up the tablet attaches to the base with a satisfying magnetic thump. Once it's latched on and you've got the tablet standing up, you'd have to actively pull it away from the magnet to separate the two pieces. Likewise, when the case is shut, the touchpad flap folds over and attaches magnetically to the rest of the book.

Another nice thing about the design is that it leaves the top, left and right edges exposed, so you can keep your headphones or power cord plugged in as you're typing. Indeed, to charge the case you just need to have the tablet plugged in and connected to the AC adapter. Which is nice because it means you only have to remember to take one charger with you. As for those two USB ports, they're located on the back edge, at the base of the "kickstand" portion of the case -- not the easiest place to reach, but at least you can keep cables out of sight.

So what's it like to type on? Well, it's better than nothing. With the exception of some larger buttons, like the Enter and Backspace keys, all of the buttons here have a small, square shape, about the size of a thumbnail. A handful of buttons, including the question mark key, are even smaller. The buttons also have a textured plastic finish -- not unlike a netbook circa 2008. It's a pretty cramped layout, not least because Nokia built in some space between each key. That said, I rarely made any typos, even if I did start to feel a little claustrophobic using a keyboard meant for a 10-inch device. You wouldn't want to peck out a 15-page term paper on this, but for answering emails and doing web searches, it's serviceable.

Nokia Lumia 2520 vs. the Surface 2

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There's a bigger issue with the 2520's keyboard cover, though, and that's that it can be uncomfortable to use in the lap. Part of the problem is that the case's weight distribution is such that it's heavily stacked toward the back end, making it easier to topple over. Also, the tablet only props up in one position. Of course, it just so happens that the viewing angles on this thing are great, but even with that highly readable screen, this propped-up position doesn't feel very stable. Which is a shame, because it feels like Nokia is making the same mistake Microsoft made with the first-generation Surface, which could only be propped up in one fairly upright position. The whole reason Microsoft went with a two-stage hinge in the Surface 2 was to enable a more stable in-lap typing experience. It's frustrating that Nokia had to make the same first-time mistake, even after watching Microsoft come out with its first generation of products.

As I alluded to earlier, the case has a touchpad built into the flap hanging off the bottom of the keyboard. If you're already using the 2520 as a laptop (or if you're trying to select things in desktop mode), you can do single-finger taps without having to press much harder than you would on a normal trackpad. You can also do two-finger scrolls, with a little extra pressure. Even pinch-to-zoom works, although it's difficult to control the scaling so that you don't jump back and forth between extremes. That last maneuver is frustrating enough to pull off that you might throw up your hands and just pinch the screen with your fingers instead.

Update: Nokia has announced that from November 22nd through December 2nd, customers are eligible for a free power keyboard. Not a bad deal at all. Reserve yours here, if interested.

Display

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Much has been made of the 2520's design -- that it's basically a Lumia phone, writ large. In fact, it's received so much attention for its colorful design that you might not be aware of what a gorgeous display it has. Like the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, the 2520 rocks a 1,920 x 1,080 IPS display, though because its screen measures 10.1 inches instead of 10.6, it has a higher pixel density of 218 pixels per inch. As we all know, though, pixel count doesn't tell the whole story and indeed, it's not the sharpness that makes this a better display (in fact, we can't even in good faith say the 2520's screen is noticeably crisper).

What makes this screen such a stunner is its brightness and also its color accuracy. For starters, the brightness here is rated at 665 nits, versus 400 on the Surface 2. In particular, Nokia's touting its "5 percent reflectance," which means the tablet should be easy to read both indoors and out. Sure enough, I had an easy time framing most of my photos outdoors, though I did start to squint at the screen once I started standing in direct sunlight.

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Left: Microsoft Surface 2; right: Nokia Lumia 2520.

In addition, the screen makes use of Nokia's ClearBlack technology, ensuring that -- yep, you guessed it -- the blacks are deep black and the whites are white. Take a look at the colors, though, and you'll see they're exceptionally vibrant, but without being oversaturated. And -- not to belabor the comparisons with Microsoft's device -- if you put the 2520 side by side against the Surface 2, the difference is obvious. Startling, even: It didn't even occur to me the Surface 2 had a dull display until we played with the 2520. Now I don't want to go back.

As for durability, Nokia covered the screen in Corning Gorilla Glass 2. To be honest, even after stuffing the tablet in a bag with other items (and no case protecting it), I still can't spot any scratches on the display. (I did slightly nick the plastic lid in a few spots, but that's a different story.) That being said, when Brad reviewed the Lumia 1520, which also has Gorilla Glass 2, he did pick up some nicks, and found himself wishing Nokia had gone with the newer Gorilla Glass 3. Then again, the Lumia 1520 (a giant phone) is probably more likely to slip out of your hands than a 10-inch tablet.

Software

App selection

Because we just reviewed the Surface 2 a few weeks ago, we've recently had reason to take stock of the Windows Store, which is where all your apps will come from (this being a Windows RT device and all). As I said in that review, the selection is still hit-or-miss across the board, but the catalog has also made significant progress -- and continues to grow like a weed. For instance, when we reviewed the original Surface, we named 20 apps that weren't available in the Windows Store. Of those, nine were in the store by the time we reviewed the Surface 2 a year later. Even in the weeks since then, we've crossed one more off the list: Literally the day after our Surface 2 review went up, Nokia announced that Flipboard was coming to the Lumia 2520. Now, a few weeks later, it's available for all Windows 8 devices. So, as much as I'd like to see apps like Instagram, Tumblr, Rdio and Spotify, I'm increasingly hopeful they'll eventually make their way to the platform -- perhaps sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, I still sometimes wish Windows RT tablets could, in fact, run traditional x86 apps. Not heavy-duty apps like Photoshop, mind you, but lightweight apps, like HipChat or Pidgin. IM applications, basic photo editors. The app I normally use to resize a bunch of photos all at once. I have no doubt that tablets are now powerful enough to run such lightweight programs, and I also think we'll eventually see versions made specifically for the Windows Store (HipChat, for instance, is available on other mobile platforms, just not Windows). Until then, though, if these apps aren't in the Windows Store, and the tablet can't run legacy applications, there's not much of a workaround except to find a new app that does the same thing.

If nothing else, hopefully we can agree on this: It's a marvelous thing that Windows RT tablets come with Microsoft Office installed. I imagine of all the desktop apps someone could possibly want, this is the most popular. So it's a good thing it's installed right out of the box.

Nokia apps

In addition to all the new apps that come baked into Windows RT 8.1 (Bing Food & Drink, Reading List, et cetera), Nokia also added a few applications of its own. On board, you'll find Nokia Camera, which we'll discuss in more detail in the camera section (long story short: It introduces tap-to-focus, a feature you won't find in the stock Windows 8.1 camera app). There's Nokia Storyteller, which makes its debut on the 2520 and 1520. Basically, it's a fancy photo viewer that arranges your geotagged photos according to where you shot them. It's a cute idea in theory, except the software can be a bit arbitrary in deciding where you took the photos. Some of my shots were labeled "New York," for instance, whereas others were said to be taken in the neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Never mind that I took most of those pictures within a seven-block radius. So, those photo events now show up as separate chunks, even though I took them on the same day in generally the same place. Fortunately, you can split or merge these albums, as well as rename them. Essentially, then, you can arrange your photos however you want.

Nokia Lumia 2520 screenshots

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Nokia also included its Nokia Music app (yes, it's called that, even though Nokia Music has since been renamed to Mix Radio). As ever, you can listen to music you have stored locally on the device, as well as add favorite artists and create mixes (hence, the new name). You can also whip up offline mixes to listen to even when you don't have an internet connection. Meanwhile, Nokia Video Director lets you choose clips you have stored on the device, set them to music and pick a transition style. Final Cut Pro this is not, but it's dead-simple to use, which is perhaps exactly what you want on a touchscreen device.

Rounding out the list, Nokia included its own Here Maps application, which brings downloadable offline maps. You'll also find My Nokia, where you can register your device, sync your Nokia apps between devices and enjoy live chat support. Depending on the carrier, too, you may also see some apps having to do with your data usage. Verizon, for instance, bundles separate My Verizon and Verizon Connection Manager apps, though we can't speak for every other operator that will be selling the 2520.

Camera

The 2520 has a 6.7-megapixel BSI sensor, Carl Zeiss lens and f/1.9 aperture -- the same camera module used in the Lumia 720, according to Nokia. Indeed, performance hasn't changed here, though what's merely average for a smartphone is actually quite good in the world of tablets -- just because tablet cameras are rarely any good. After pressing the shutter, you'll need to wait a second or so for the photo to process, but this will really only be an issue if you're photographing moving objects.

On the flip side, the camera consistently excels at macro shots, in a way that most tablet cameras don't. The colors, too, are generally accurate, both in natural light and under fluorescents. In low light, we sometimes had to make use of the Nokia Camera app's touch-to-focus feature, but once we guided the camera, it was quick to lock focus. All in all, the results were reasonably sharp -- and that's despite the fact that there's no flash on board.

Nokia Lumia 2520 sample shots

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Speaking of Nokia's camera app, it's worth noting the differences between that and the stock Windows camera app, which you can also use if you prefer. Though Nokia's app is missing a panorama mode, you might want to use it anyway because of that tap-to-focus feature. Just keep in mind that whereas the stock Windows app lets you snap a photo by tapping anywhere on screen, with Nokia's app, you have to hit the shutter button, specifically.

For first-time Windows tablet owners, this might not be confusing, but if you're graduating from an older Windows 8 device, you'll need to re-train yourself quickly, or else you risk losing photos that you thought you took, but didn't. (Yeah, I'm talking from personal experience here.) Truly, though, that tap-to-focus feature is nice to have, though the camera does such a good job focusing itself that you might not even need it for daytime shots. As we said, however, it can be a godsend in low-light conditions when the camera doesn't know what it's supposed to be looking at.

Otherwise, there aren't any options in the Nokia Camera app; you can change the aspect ratio from 16:9 to 4:3 and that's about it. In other words, you won't enjoy the same scene types, ISO, exposure or white balance settings that Microsoft offers in its stock Windows Phone 8 camera app, so the experience of using the camera here is a bit different than it was on the Lumia 720. Fortunately for all of us, the camera does just fine in auto mode, which means you can achieve generally good results even without manual options.

That's true of still photographs, anyway. Video recording feels like more of an afterthought, as it did on the 720. Our 720p/30fps sample clips showed the same balanced colors as our photos, but the video occasionally slipped out of focus, and there's no image-stabilization technology to help mask camera shake. The sound quality is also a bit weak, in part because the mic setup doesn't always cancel out wind noise.

Performance and battery life

Tablet Battery Life
Nokia 2520 13:28 (tablet only) / 16:19 (with dock)
Microsoft Surface 2 14:22
Apple iPad Air 13:45 (LTE)
Apple iPad mini 12:43 (WiFi)
iPad mini with Retina display 11:55 (LTE)
Apple iPad (late 2012) 11:08 (WiFi)
Apple iPad 2 10:26
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime 10:17
Apple iPad (2012) 9:52 (HSPA) / 9:37 (LTE)
Nexus 7 (2012) 9:49
Microsoft Surface for Windows RT 9:36
Apple iPad 9:33
ASUS Transformer Prime Infinity TF700 9:25
Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 8:56
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 8:40
Hisense Sero 7 Pro 8:28
Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 7:38
HP Slate 7 7:36
LG G Pad 8.3 7:19
Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 7:18
Nexus 7 (2013) 7:15
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook 7:01

Just like the new Lumia 1520, the 2520 runs Qualcomm's latest and greatest processor: a quad-core, 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 chip, paired with a quad-core Adreno 330 GPU and 2GB of RAM. Until recently, we've mostly seen the 800 used on Android devices, with the Lumia 1520 being the first Windows Phone device to make use of it. Likewise, this is the first Windows RT tablet we've seen with an 800 chip, though admittedly, the only other RT device is the Surface 2, which has Tegra 4. At any rate, we now have proof that the 800 is just as capable of handling Windows RT as it is Android and Windows Phone. Programs launch quickly and it's easy to navigate menus and cycle through open apps. Occasionally, the display didn't respond when I used a single finger to tap an on-screen object, like a backward-navigation arrow. Thankfully, those hiccups were the exception, not the rule.

In outdoor use, the GPS radio found my coordinates almost instantly, putting me not only on the right block, but also in front of the right building. From there, I was able to smoothly zoom inside Nokia's Here Maps app without any tiling or stuttering. For whatever reason, Speedtest.net gave me some suspiciously low numbers when I tried to test Verizon's data speeds, so I decided not to publish them. That said, I was always able to find a signal, though in areas with lots of tall buildings, my connection often fell to two bars. At that point, I could still load webpages in a few seconds, but with more of a pause than there would have been otherwise. In web browsing, the 2520 ranked slightly worse than the Surface 2 in the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark, with a score of 508.4ms (lower numbers are better). It's still a strong score, though, by any measure.

Don't be fooled by Nokia's battery life claims. Though the 8,000mAh battery is technically rated for eight to 10 hours of use, the 2520 actually lasted through 13.5 hours of video playback. That was with the tablet connected to WiFi and with the brightness fixed at 50 percent (no small feat, considering the brightness goes up to 665 nits to begin with). To put that in context, that's one hour less than the Surface 2, which, again, has a less-bright display. Besides, once you get to the point where 13.5 hours counts for shorter battery life, do we really want to quibble about an extra hour? No. No, we don't.

Once you do run out of juice, the tablet recharges to 80 percent within an hour. As for the optional keyboard case, which packs a five-hour battery of its own, it took our total runtime to 16 hours and 19 minutes. So we didn't get a full extra five hours, but considering the case is rated for five and the tablet is rated for 10, we still got more runtime than Nokia said we should.

Pricing and configuration options

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Curiously, Nokia says it currently has no plans to release a WiFi-only version of the 2520. That means if you're going to buy it, you're going to buy it with LTE. Unsubsidized, the price is $499 with 32GB of storage, putting it well below the price of a 32GB iPad Air with LTE ($729, to be exact). Even so, a WiFi-only version would have been nice because it would have driven the price down even lower -- a helpful thing when the keyboard dock costs an extra $149. That said, the 2520 with LTE will come as a relief to many a Windows fan: After all, this is the only Windows RT tablet with a cellular radio, so even if you would have paid more for a 4G Surface 2, this is your only option.

Here in the US, at least, the upfront cost for the hardware drops to $400 if you buy it on either AT&T or Verizon, but in both cases you have to commit to a two-year agreement to get that "discount." Some other details you should be aware of: Both AT&T and Verizon retail stores are selling the black model only, though Verizon will also be offering the red version to online customers. Also, if you strike early, AT&T is holding a promotion wherein the price of the tablet drops to $200 if you buy a Lumia 925, 1020 or 1520 at the same time.

The competition

It seems a bit silly to write this section, given how much I've already compared the 2520 to the Surface 2. That said, you might appreciate a more concise recap. In brief, the Surface 2 costs less, with a starting price of $449 for 32GB, but you lose the LTE connection you'd otherwise get on the 2520. The Surface 2 is a bit heavier, but also a bit more comfortable to hold, given its chamfered edges. Still, all things considered, the 2520 is easy to use in tablet mode.

As a laptop, though, the Surface 2 wins, just because its keyboard covers are less cramped (especially the Type Cover) and its kickstand was designed to be used for in-lap typing. Battery life and performance are roughly equal, but the 2520's 665-nit ClearBlack display easily trumps the one on the Surface 2. It's a tough call -- both are great products. In our view, it comes down to how often you think you'll be typing with it in your lap. If the answer is "often," you might still want to consider the Surface. Otherwise, the Lumia 2520 is the more well-rounded option.

In addition to the Surface 2, the 2520 also invites comparisons with the iPad Air. Both have nice screens and similarly long battery life, though the iPad has a fuller ecosystem. Then again, as mentioned earlier, the Lumia 2520 is much cheaper, considering it costs $499 unsubsidized with LTE and 32GB of built-in storage. For the same price, you could only leave the store with a 16GB WiFi-only iPad. Then again, the comparison is silly, in a way: If you're dead-set on iOS, you probably aren't considering a Lumia 2520, even if the price is lower.

Wrap-up

Considering the Lumia 2520 is Nokia's first Windows tablet, the company produced a strong product its first time out. Because it's so lightweight, the 2520 is easier to use in tablet mode than the Surface 2, and that stunning 665-nit display makes the experience even sweeter. Add to that long battery life, a high-quality camera and some generous pricing ($499 with LTE and 32GB of storage), and it's pretty clear Nokia did good.

At the same time, Nokia didn't get everything right: A cheaper, WiFi-only version would have been nice, and the polycarbonate lid, as pretty as it is, picks up scratches a bit too easily. More than any of that, my most serious complaint has to do with the typing experience: Though the optional keyboard itself is serviceable (and adds a few extra hours of battery life), it's uncomfortable to use in the lap, making on-the-go productivity a little more difficult. If you want a tablet that can pass muster as an occasional laptop replacement, you're still better off with the Surface 2, which was redesigned specifically so that it would be easier to use in the lap. Otherwise, if you want a Windows tablet that's mainly just a tablet -- or if you need a tablet with 4G data -- the 2520 is a strong choice.

Edgar Alvarez and Daniel Orren contributed to this review.

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Lumia 2520

Pros

  • Attractive design
  • Long battery life
  • Bright, vibrant display
  • Good camera performance
  • Offline music and maps

Cons

  • No WiFi-only option
  • Picks up scratches and fingerprints
  • Typing in the lap isn't comfortable
  • Windows Store still has holes
Conclusion

The Lumia 2520 is a good Windows tablet, with long battery life, a lightweight, modern design and best-in-class camera. However, it doesn't work well as a laptop replacement.

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Nokia Lumia 2520 review: a good Windows tablet, not the best for typing