Nokia Lumia 521 Review: The Best Affordable Prepaid Smartphone

According to NPD, one-third of U.S. smartphone sales were prepaid in Q1, so it’s clear that the prepaid market is growing fast. That said, Windows Phone has taken its time to bring a prepaid phone to market, but it was worth the wait. The new Nokia 521 for T-Mobile has been  designed especially for T-Mobile’s prepaid customers and offers a ton of value for just $149.

The Lumia 521 runs on a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, 512MB of RAM, and packs in 8GB of storage and packs in Nokia’s super sensitive touchscreen. The screen is also a 4″ IPS display with a 480 x 800 pixel resolution and 235 ppi. This display can hardly go head to head with the display on the Nokia Lumia 920, or a higher end smartphone like the Galaxy S4, but it’s still quite a good display. It’s also a lot better than most of the displays we have seen on sub $250 smartphones. To that effect,  its colors tend to be quite accurate, if not super vivid. It’s also able to get adequately bright so that you won’t be straining your eyes. Plus, the 480 x 800 pixel does Windows 8 enough justice, and the IPS display also offers good viewing angles.

The device itself measures 4.72″ x 2.52″ x 0.39″ and weighs 4.39 oz. T-Mobile is offering the Lumia in a choice of white or black, but the backplate is removable, so keeping in line with Nokia’s tradition for interchangeable faceplates, you’re sure to see other colors available as accessories down the line. The actual build quality of the device is very good too. The backplate is very touch and overall it seems like the device will be able to handle wear and tear well. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to believe that the build quality is this hardy at this price point. Other features include a removable battery and a MicroSD card slot, which are actually two welcome design features that many premium Windows Phone devices lack.

The Lumia 521 packs in a 5MP camera with auto focus and 720p HD video recording. Unfortunately, they have cut corners by not including a front-facing camera, and the rear-facing camera doesn’t have a flash. But don’t most flashes on phone cameras suck anyway? In any case, 5MP is more megapixel then you’ll see on a budget prepaid smartphone. Besides, megapixel count is not everything – image equality is. Fortunately, the Lumia 521′s camera does not disappoint too much and is quite good for this price point. The camera app opens fast and the shutter responds quickly. Unfortunately, colors are very washed out and muted, and indoor shots tend to be quite grainy, but the pictures do tend to be pretty sharp. A Panorama app is also included. Overall, the camera is still quite good for this price point.

Thanks to the HD Voice tech, calls on the Lumia 521 sound fantastic! Callers come through very loud and clear and said they heard us very clearly as well. This is one of the better phones when it comes call quality. Wi-Fi calling is also available via an update, as of May 20th.

The removable battery inside the Lumia 521 offers a 1430 mAh capacity. Overall the battery is quite good and can last through a full day of moderate to heavy use.

Thanks to Windows Phone 8, the user experience on the Lumia 521 is top notch. Performance wise you’ll barely experience any lags. We challenge you to try to find that kind of experience on a budget Android phone. Unfortunately, most budget Android phones, especially in the prepaid market, are all running older buggy versions of Android, making the user experience an unpleasant one.

When it comes to apps, the device comes preloaded with Creative Studio, HERE Drive. HERE Maps, Nokia Music, Panorama, Slacker Radio, Smart Shoot, Scout, Angry Birds Roost and Transfer my Data for migrating data over from your previous phone. comes preloaded with some T-Mobile bloatware like 411 & More, CallerTunes, and T-Mobile TV

Unfortunately, the Lumia 521 is 4G only, and has no LTE support. However this isn’t such a big deal for the moment because T-Mobile has only rolled out LTE to a few markets. That said, most prepaid smartphones lack 4G support altogether and are 3G only, so at least the Lumia 521 has 4G support. In any case, SpeedTest.net results for the Lumia 521 are still quite acceptable with average download of 9.64Mbps and 2.53Mbps.

Verdict

Years ago Nokia made a name for itself by pumping out great affordable phones, but somewhere along the way they lost their way, especially in the U.S. Fortunately, the 521 brings back that heritage. Sure, there is no front facing camera, or LTE, but who could complain at this price, especially when the phone is so well rounded. Plus, when you look at the landscape of sub $250 off-contract smartphones, most of them offer a worse camera, a lower resolution display, less storage, and an older OS than what the 521 offers.

Overall, the Lumia 521 for T-Mobile a budget smartphone that doesn’t make compromises when it comes to the most important features. It’s also quite a durable phone, with a nice design and great build quality. The Lumia 521 could be the phone to really help introduce Windows Phone to a whole new market of users whom otherwise would have been drawn to Android.

The Nokia Lumia 521 will be $149 at Microsoft Retail Stores. The device is also available for just $129 at Walmart with their exclusive T-Mobile no contract $30 per month unlimited Web and text plan. As a matter of fact, it has reportedly been selling out at WalMart. The phone is also available for $29.99 down with 24 equal monthly payments for customers on T-Mobile’s Simple Choice Plan.

 The Good: Amazing value for the price, tough build quality, HD Voice makes calls sound really clear and loud, you get many of the same great bundled Nokia apps that you would get on Nokia’s more premium handsets, quite a durable phone, very good performance, Wi-Fi calling support, good battery life

The Bad: No LTE support, no front-facing camera or flash, backplate is tricky to remove