On the other hand, it's not like camera isn't fun. Nokia is putting real effort into its software, and even though there aren't as many settings as we'd like, there are plenty of quirky "lenses" to play around with. These include Cinemagraph (check out the video review for an example), Panorama and a Best Shot mode -- all of which work, but each suffer from general sluggishness, both in terms of loading up a lens and saving its results. This pretty much kills spontaneity and means you have to be really deliberate in how you use them.
Lastly in this section, the Lumia 520 deserves a nod for its basically efficient 720p video output. Just as with the 620, there's no image stabilization to speak of and the 10 Mbps (1.3 MB/s) data rate (a whole 1 MB/s less than some high-end phone cameras) makes color and dynamic range compression a tad severe, as well as introducing some choppiness when there's a lot going on in the scene. Still, the focusing, auto-exposure and microphone work all work fine, resulting in usable footage that will probably capture what you want it to, so long as you don't over-do it with movement or high levels of detail.
Performance and battery life
The Lumia 520 handles Windows Phone 8 just fine, with its top-notch cellular components offering decent HSPA+ speeds (nominally up to 21 Mbps down), on a par with other smartphones we've tested on Vodafone's network in London. In some places it got an extra signal bar over fancier phones, so reception is definitely on the strong side.
In terms of computing performance, the Lumia 520 behaves identically to the 620 and 720 in every single respect except for one -- it's seriously lacking in stamina, particularly for a low-performance handset.
Somehow, despite the fact that the 520's removable battery has a higher capacity than the 620's (1,430 vs. 1,350mAh), the 520 is left worse off. This is probably due to less-efficient components -- with the most likely culprit probably being the cheap display. In any case, the 520 only lasted two-thirds as long as the 620 in the WPBench rundown test, and it struggled to survive 12 hours of moderate to heavy use. Keeping brightness set to high makes things worse, even though the reflective screen will often make you want to do that. If we used the phone primarily for calls during the morning, then did something more taxing in the afternoon -- such as 30 minutes of playing around with Cinemagraph -- the phone would die by 10 PM.
Although some high-spec Windows Phones have similar run-down ratings, they weren't quite this bad in terms of real-world battery life -- and it's also easier to be forgiving when you're getting premium features out of faster CPUs. It's in comparison to the other budget offerings that the Lumia 520 really suffers.
At this point, we really must distinguish between the two types of buyers who might be interested in this phone. If we were coming to the 520 as a smartphone beginner, or as someone who had a brief run with a budget Android, but couldn't get along with it, then this Nokia phone would be everything we need. It provides access to the Windows Store, which, these days, has enough first-party apps (or good third-party ones) to cover most mainstream needs and eventualities. There's OneNote, Evernote, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Spotify, Kindle, WhatsApp, Skype -- which is usable for video chat if the two parties take turns to gawp at each other -- and so on ad infinitum. Well, not quite infinitum, but we'll get to that in a moment.
We also get access to Nokia's suite of services and Lumia exclusives. These apps mostly have counterparts in other ecosystems, but as a cohesive bunch they have real value. This is particularly the case with Nokia's so-called Here apps for location services and navigation. CityScape is still a bit of novelty, but Maps and Drive are real heavyweights. In fact, Drive is almost good enough to be replacement to the TomTom app on other platforms, which costs £40 ($50) -- unless you rely on traffic updates and re-routing or speed camera alerts, which Drive doesn't yet offer in the UK (even though Here Maps does show traffic congestion).
It says a lot about the strength of Nokia's Lumia smartphones that they are often their own worst enemy.
Now, let's look at the Lumia 520's software from a different perspective -- that of an experienced smartphone user coming from an alternative ecosystem, like Android. From this point of view, we have to give the same old boring warning we always do with Windows Phone handsets: don't expect to participate in everything, or have all the apps you're used to.
This UK-based author uses Google+ for social stuff, Amazon Cloud Player for music, Kobo and Google Books for reading, Zinio for magazines, Springpad for notes and iPlayer for TV. None of those apps are yet available on Windows Phone in the UK -- even though some are coming -- and this constitutes a major barrier to me using Windows Phone as my primary device in 2013. The overall landscape is improving but don't expect things to move as fast as you'd like.
Bear in mind that the Lumia has only 512MB of RAM, too, so a few apps and games available in the Windows Store may be specifically denied to you. Not a big deal, but it's that sense of exclusion again -- something that probably wouldn't be an issue with a similarly priced, similarly specced Android device like the Huawei G510. Then again, Huawei's Android skin just doesn't have any of the welcoming feel or flair of Microsoft and Nokia's combined efforts, so that's the choice you make.
It says a lot about the strength of Nokia's Lumia smartphones that they are often their own worst enemy. The Lumia 520 offers a full-fledged, fluid and friendly smartphone experience, but it sits in the shadow of the 620, just like the 920 makes life harder for the 720 and 820. It's sibling rivalry of the worst kind, because for once, it actually results in us loving one more than the other -- and, in this case, we're still so attached to the 620's design and extra features that we just can't recommend the 520 to a mainstream budget audience. What's more, considering that the 620 has already been offered on deals in the UK for as low at £130 ($200), we'd suggest snapping up a similar bargain as soon as one comes around, rather than plumping for the moderate savings offered by the 520.
If the Lumia 620 were ruled out for some reason -- perhaps due to a strict budget or local availability -- we'd probably look more kindly on the 520. After all, it still contains all the essentials of the modern Lumia offering, with lots of personality and a welcoming OS. But even in this scenario, we'd come up against the battery life issue -- which is a spec that rival budget Windows Phones do much better on, not to mention Ashas and probably other future barebones options that will cost half of the 520's price. Advanced smartphone users may be used to seeing red battery symbols late in the day, but for this type of phone, which is bound to be picked up by people who are making the leap from a feature phone, it's not quite good enough.