Friday, January 31, 2014

Nokia Lumia 521 (520) Windows Phone Compared to iPhone 5

I have recently bought Nokia Lumia 521 phones for my family to use them with T-Mobile. The phones were under $100 each and I never expected them to compare well to the iPhone 5 I have been using before. I was pleasantly surprised though.

Apple iPhones with 4-inch screens (5, 5s, 5c) sell (without subsidies or contracts) for $500-750 and purportedly cost Apple slightly under $200 to make. The $200 might or might not include the cost of software, I don't know. But regardless, even if you consider the cost to Apple, less than $100 including taxes and profits of the manufacturer should make for a rather shoddy and limited device. But somehow this Nokia Lumia 521 (T-Mobile) or Nokia Lumia 520 (AT&T) manage to deliver so much for so little. No wonder it is one of the most popular budget smartphones.

Disadvantages over iPhone 5/5s/5c.

Still, the switch from the iPhone 5 to this Lumia has not been painless. Although I read some online reviews of people who claimed that they didn't have to sacrifice much when they switched from the iPhone to this phone, I found this not to be the case.

  1. The screen has no olephobic coating so you have to wipe it more frequently.
  2. The screen has slightly lower resolution overall and per inch. The iPhone 5 is 640 x 1136 wherewas this Nokia is 480 x 800. The pixel density is 326 vs 235 respectively. The result is visible decrease in sharpness of the fonts. Whereas iPhone has fonts that are readable even when small, the Lumia 521 makes your eyes strain.
  3. No front-facing camera (e.g. for Skype).
  4. No Flash for back-facing 5MP camera.
  5. No flashlight capability (see above).
  6. No support for Google Chromecast. Aside from the Tubecast app that lets you cast Youtube content to Chromecast.
  7. Limited Youtube app in comparison to either Apple or Android version. But see the point above.
  8. Poor integration of weather/stocks/etc. In iPhone everything happens "automagically".
  9. Flimsier construction.
  10. Less easy to use.
  11. Slower to power up.
  12. 4G LTE is not supported (but 4G HSPA+ is).
  13. Volume is adjusted for all sources with one hardware switch, meaning if you are changing the volume of the speakerphone, that changes the volume of the ringer correspondingly as well. This is no longer valid after Windows Phone 8.1 update. Separate volume control is there.
  14. Music playback over the headphone jack is of noticeably poorer quality. Generally sounds muffled and lifeless with lower dynamic range and uneven frequency response. Can't drag the slider to navigate within a song either.
  15. Downloaded MP3 playback is done through a screen that is very limited. You cannot drag the slider to navigate through a file quickly. But this improved after the Windows Phone 8.1 update.
Advantages over iPhone

  1. Price.
  2. Dedicated camera shutter release button. Not only it is located in a proper spot, it also has a half-pressed position for focusing, like in a real camera.
  3. Standard micro USB interface for charging and data transfer.
  4. WiFi calling available on T-Mobile (iPhone was not supported, but now is) which is a godsend for our concrete building where only Verizon allows some wireless reception.
  5. Memory expansion using MicroSD cards.
  6. Replaceable battery.
  7. Exclusive Nokia apps such as HERE drive and HERE maps for true offline navigation.
  8. MS Office integration.
  9. Can transfer music and other files from and to the phone by drag/drop and overall in Windows Explorer. No need to install any software, unlike Apple products that require installation of iTunes bloatware.
  10. More sensitive screen - can be used with gloves on.
Advantages over Android Phones

  1. Security. Android devices are known to suffer from security breaches and malware. Windows Phone (WP8) and iPhone (iOS) not so much.
  2. Maintains faster operation over time.
Disadvantages over Android Phones

  1. No Google Chromecast support, aside from Youtube Chromecast support using TubeCast app.
  2. Less polished apps such as Youtube app or GasBuddy.

The sound quality when speaking on the phone or Skype is excellent. Photos are very good, but in low light they are noisy, especially since there is no flash.

Overall, the device is responsive, easy to use and convenient to hold. The dedicated shutter release button for the camera has a half-depressed position for focusing.

When playing music through the headphone jack, the sound quality is adequate but not great. It is noticeably worse than that of the iPhone 5 or a dedicated Sony NWZ-S639F MP3 player. There is a general lack of dynamic range, resolution and some frequency ranges seem muted. Instrument separation is pretty low as well. The above applies both to portable headphones such as Koss KSC75 and over-the-ear Creative Aurvana Live!

I wrote a separate music sound quality comparison. Nokia's sound through the 3.5mm headphone jack is definitely sufficient for podcasts and when listening in noisy environment where the sound quality is not super-important. The volume levels are adequate for even low-sensitive headphones.

Screen Brightness

The screen is slightly too dim when set to adjust brightness automatically. When auto-brightness is turned off, it can be set to be quite bright.


There is no front-facing camera, so you can see other people in video calls, but they cannot see you. On the other hand, it used to be so that when you used Skype to call land lines, Skype app used the speakerphone only so you will got no privacy. It has been fixed, so now when you put the phone to your head, the screen dims and the sound comes out from the proper location.

Copying Contacts from Old Phone

It was very easy to copy the contacts from my old phone to this one using Bluetooth. The app installed on this Nokia guides you step by step and the 80 contacts I had were copied in a matter of minutes.

Wi-Fi Calling

The WiFi calling works very well. I am able to use the phone in all parts of our concrete-walled apartment and the sound quality is very good.

Windows Phone 8.1 Update

WP 8.1 update added more polished interface, Cortana and other features. But the phone became a little less responsive.

Bottom Line

It is unfair to compare an expensive flagship such as iPhone 5/5s/5c to device that is 1/10th the price. But surprisingly the Nokia Lumia has some advantages over the iPhone. And in case of T-Mobile WiFi calling was not available on iPhones (but now is).

For me the choice was simple. Because I needed WiFi calling, the phone had to be either Android of Windows Phone (WP8). And because Android phones are less secure, I chose an WP8 phone. Note that iPhones now support WiFi calling.

For a family plan with 3 lines, getting the cheap Lumia 521 results in significant savings and if any one of us drops or damages the phone, I can buy another for less than $80. The phone lets us check emails, talk, send messages, browse the web, navigate the city, use Skype and more. And when I need to use Google Chromecast, I can use the Tubecast app.

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