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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. We took their new budget offering for a spin, and our Nokia Lumia 521 review found that the phone offers a ton of value to T-Mobile customers for just $149.

Nokia Lumia 521 Review

The Nokia Lumia 521 runs on a 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, 512 MB of RAM, and packs in 8 GB of storage and 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 resolution display does Windows Phone 8 enough justice, and the IPS display also offers good viewing angles.

The Lumia 521 measures 4.72″ x 2.52″ x 0.39″ and weighs 4.39 oz. T-Mobile is offering the Nokia Lumia 521 in a choice of white or black, but the backplate is removable, so keeping in line with Nokia’s tradition of 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 tough 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 Nokia Lumia 521 packs in a 5 MP camera with auto focus and 720p HD video recording. Unfortunately, our Nokia Lumia 521 review found that 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, 5 MP is more megapixel then you’ll see on a lot of other budget prepaid smartphones. Besides, megapixel count is not everything—image quality is. Fortunately, the Nokia Lumia 521’s camera does not disappoint too much and is 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 grainy. A Panorama app is also included.

Thanks to HD Voice tech, calls on the Nokia Lumia 521 sound fantastic! For our Nokia Lumia 521 review, we made and took several calls, and found that callers consistently came through very loud and clear, saying 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 20.

The removable battery inside the Nokia Lumia 521 offers a 1,430 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 Nokia 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. The Nokia Lumia 521 also comes preloaded with some T-Mobile bloatware like 411 & More, CallerTunes, and T-Mobile TV.

Unfortunately, the Nokia 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 Nokia Lumia 521 has 4G support. In any case, SpeedTest.net results for the Nokia Lumia 521 are still quite acceptable with average download of 9.64 Mbps and 2.53 Mbps.

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 Nokia Lumia 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 Nokia Lumia 521 offers.

Overall, our Nokia Lumia 521 review found that this is 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 Nokia 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.

Update 8/24/14: The Nokia Lumia 521 is now available for just $69.99 at T-Mobile, for $102 unlocked as the Nokia Lumia 520, or for just $49.99 at AT&T as the Nokia Lumia 520.

Buy the Nokia Lumia 521!

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