If you're bored of staring round at the same grey slabs in everyone's hands and want something more cheerful in your life, Nokia's Lumia range might be right up your alley. All its models sport eye-wateringly vibrant bodies, along with the kaleidoscopic live tiles of the Windows Phone operating system.
The Lumia 520 is the final addition to the current range, sliding in at the very bottom of the pile. Although it's the entry-level model, the 520 is far from basic, packing a respectable 800x480-pixel display and a dual-core processor.
Should I buy the Nokia Lumia 520?
The 520's crisp, vibrant 4-inch screen is easily among the best displays at this price range and is in fact the same resolution you'd find in the more expensive Lumia 720. It boasts a dual-core processor that you'd usually found in more expensive mobiles -- again, it's in the 720.
You also get the same Nokia apps -- including the excellent GPS satellite navigation tool Drive -- on the 520 that you will on any of the other Lumias. It's very difficult to recommend the 720 as so many of its features are shared by much cheaper models. The 520, however, is unquestionably a fantastic bargain.
It's colourful, easy to fit in the palm of your hand, and you can replace the back covers when they start to look worn. It doesn't have the same camera skills as its higher-end brothers though. Its 5-megapixel camera can't compare to the 720's snapper. If photography is important to you, avoid the 520.
If you want a pocket-sized, easy to use smart phone and don't want to break the bank, the 520 is a superb choice. The Lumia 620 costs £30 more on O2, but it has a front-facing camera for video calling, a compass to let you use the City Lens app as well as NFC capabilities for instant pairing to compatible Bluetooth devices.
Alternatively, you can turn to Android -- you'll have a much wider selection of apps to choose from. At £90 the Acer Liquid Z2 is even cheaper than the 520, but its screen doesn't even come close.
Design and build quality
The bright yellow plastic back of the 520 should immediately give you a whopping clue that this is part of Nokia's vivid Lumia range. Like the 620 above it, the 520 is available with a range of colourful back casings.
Also like the 620, these cases are removable, letting you change the colour to match your outfit if you're that way inclined. It also means you can throw out your battered and bruised case, replacing it with a sparkly fresh one. No top-end smart phones make use of interchangeable cases like this -- scratch up your £600 iPhone 5 and there's not a thing you can do about it. The screen can't be replaced though, so you'll still need to be careful -- it's no CAT phone.
The phone is 120mm long, 64mm wide and is 10mm thick. That's longer and wider than the 620, thanks to the 4-inch display -- the 620 has a smaller 3.8-inch screen. Its size means you're not forced to attach extending tips to your thumbs to make them stretch across the screen. If you find phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S3 a tad on the wide side, you'll be well served by the 520.
The rounded plastic back sits very comfortably in the palm of your hand and with a weight of only 124g, it won't drag you down. The light weight has the knock-on effect, however, of making it feel cheap, which isn't helped by the flimsy back panel. It is extremely cheap of course, so I'm happy to forgive that. Let's not forget the much more expensive S3's back panel feels horrifically plasticky -- and that didn't stop it selling by the boatload.
The back cases are at least thick enough to protect its more delicate internal components from the majority of wear and tear. Elsewhere, there's nothing about the 520's construction that caused any concern -- and that's not something I can say about all phones at this price.
Around the sides you'll spy a volume rocker, power button, dedicated camera shutter button, micro-USB port and 3.5mm headphone jack. The 520 comes with 8GB of internal storage, but you'll find a microSD card slot hidden under the battery. It allows you to expand the storage if you want to save more music and videos locally -- a useful feature you don't find on many high-end phones, such as the Lumia 920 or iPhone 5.
The 520's display is almost definitely the best display I've seen on a phone for this price. Its 4-inch size means there's enough room to properly show off Web pages without having to do too much zooming, but isn't so big as to act as a wind break when you take it out in a breeze.
Better yet, it has an 800x480-pixel resolution, which is actually the same number of pixels you'll find in the Lumia 720 and 820, which come in at £300 and £350, respectively, on pay as you go. If you're forking out that kind of cash, you'd be right to be miffed that you're getting the same pixels as a phone a third of the price. Looking at it the other way round, however, means the 520 is great value.
It has a pixel density of 235 pixels per inch (ppi), beating the 217ppi you get with the more expensive 720. Small text was perfectly legible and edges around Windows Phone's gaudy tiles were sharp and clear. By comparison, the Acer Liquid Z2 packs only a 480x320-pixel resolution, which made text look poorly defined.
It's not only sharp, but black levels are deep, contrast is impressive and colours are satisfyingly rich. It's easily among the best screens you can get on a phone of this price, if not the best.
Windows Phone 8 software
It's running on Windows Phone 8, the latest mobile operating system from Microsoft. It's a very different beast to both Android and iOS -- if you want something that doesn't look like all your mates' Android phones and iPhones, it's a fun option to consider.
Its homescreen is made up of a long grid of colourful tiles, each displaying live information. You can move them around and resize them to your heart's content. It has an even simpler aesthetic than iOS, but allows for some of the customisation tweaks you'll find in Android. Any apps you don't want to put pride of place on your homescreen can be found in a list when you swipe to the left.
The People and Me hubs are the undeniable gems of Windows Phone. Connect your social network accounts and you'll be able to see updates from all your friends in one place. You can easily find contact details and message them using any of the methods you've added -- social channels, email, text and so on. You're able to group your favourite friends together for quick access to their updates.
In the Me hub, you can post updates and photos to all your linked social accounts from the one spot -- saving you having to jump in and out of separate apps. It'll show all your notifications too. If you're a social butterfly, you'll find it very easy to see what's going on and tell everyone about your food and pets without lots of additional screen taps.
Windows Phone is still let down by its app selection though. Although it's slowly increasing, adding key items like Netflix, Skype and Spotify, it's woefully understocked compared to Android and iOS. Those of you who love chatting about the latest fashionable game to hit the iPhone won't be satisfied with the selection, or the long wait you'll have to endure to get games that everyone else has already gotten bored with.
Nokia has bundled a host of its own software with the 520, which helps plug some of the holes left by the understocked app store. They're mostly map-based apps, so gamers shouldn't get too excited -- there's no classic Nokia Snake -- but they're handy additions.
Nokia maps -- now called HERE maps -- show you a mass of local business information, showing nearby restaurants, bars, shops, hotels. You'll also see contact information, user reviews and professional industry reviews, if available. If you find yourself in a new town and don't know where to get a bite to eat, Nokia isn't going to let you go hungry.
One thing the 520's missing is City Lens, which shows the same info in an augmented reality view. You'll have to fork out extra cash for the 620 (or above) if you want it, as the 520's hardware doesn't support it. I doubt you'll miss it.
HERE Drive -- previously called Nokia Drive -- provides turn-by-turn GPS satellite navigation, letting you slap your phone on your dashboard and follow its directions across the country. You can download the maps to your phone too, saving your 3G data allowance and stopping you getting lost if your signal cuts out.
You can only use Drive in the UK and Ireland on the 520 -- global navigation is reserved for the 620 and above -- but Nokia is hoping to allow you to buy extra maps, country by country. If you don't drive outside of the UK though, you're well catered for. Considering the TomTom sat-nav app for the iPhone costs £27, Nokia's app is undeniably a great free addition.
If you can't be bothered to drive, don't have a licence or simply fancy popping in for a sweet sherry on the way to your destination, you'd be wise to take public transport and Nokia has you covered here too. The Transit app lists all local bus, Tube and train stops around you, together with live departure information. Pop in your start and end points and it'll tell you exactly how to get there and when the next service is leaving.
Nokia's music service is on board too. It lets you create random playlists based on up to three chosen artists and even download up to 14 hours of music to your phone for offline use. It's free and best of all isn't ad-supported. You can't pick and choose specific tracks -- you'll need a Spotify subscription for that -- but it's a smashing addition for the casual music fan who wants to listen to new artists.
It's powered by a dual-core 1GHz processor with 512MB of RAM. That's the same processor you'll find inside the Lumia 720 so, as with the screen resolution, you're getting much better value for money at the lower end of the range than at the top. It's a much lesser engine than the quad-core beasts you'll find in phones like the Galaxy S3, but the fact remains that there's less to tax your phone on Windows Phone, so there's less need for such raw power.
Indeed, I found the 520 to be perfectly swift, providing smooth navigation with none of the annoying lag and juddery screen transitions that plague many phones at the budget end of the market. I was able to play the 3D racer Asphalt 7 with no trouble -- graphics looked good and the frame rate was sufficient to provide smooth gameplay.
It's got more than enough power to handle all the essential social networking tasks, with enough left over to chew through photo editing and gaming when you're done tweeting about your delayed bus.
Stuck in the middle of that colourful plastic back you'll find a 5-megapixel camera. It doesn't bear the PureView branding of the Nokia 808 or 920, nor does it use the high-quality Carl Zeiss lens. Nokia has a decent track record with its cameras though, so it wouldn't be out of the question to see good results even on this budget blower.
Checking out some fresh produce in London's staggeringly expensive Borough Market, the 520 did an acceptable job of capturing the fruit -- tomatoes are fruit, incidentally. The image wasn't particularly sharp and in general it seemed darker than the Lumia 720's attempt. For the money though, I've seen worse cameras.
Away from the bright sunlight inside the CNET UK office, the 520 didn't cope quite as well. It failed to expose for the window in the background, resulting in light bleed. It suffered from image noise in the darker areas and lacked the clarity of the 720.
The 520 might share many specs with its bigger brother, but it can't match its camera. It'll give acceptable results for shots of your mates in the park, but if photography is important to you, it's worth looking at the higher end of the range. There's also no front-facing camera, so you won't be able to video chat using Skype. If you want that feature, you'll need to pony up for the Lumia 620.
Nokia chucks in a bunch of camera software for its Lumias too, all of which you'll find on the 520. There's a panorama function, built-in editing tools, a Cinemagraph app for making odd little GIF images and a best-shot tool that combines multiple shots of your mates into one, letting you pick the best faces from each image.
The 520 gets its juice from a 1,430mAh battery, which isn't exactly the most capacious of cells. Windows Phone likes to boast of its skill at eking the last drop of life out of its power packs, so it should hopefully be able to put up with some punishment.
Nokia reckons you'll get around 9 hours of 3G talktime out of it, which I reckon isn't too far from the truth. After a full charge, I found the battery had dropped to 56 per cent after an hour of YouTube streaming, a couple of rounds on Asphalt 7 and a 45-minute streamed programme on Netflix.
That's not exactly impressive, but it was pretty intense use -- keep things limited and you shouldn't struggle to get a full day out of it. Avoid streaming media and keep Bluetooth and GPS turned off and you'll enjoy much better battery life.
If you want the benefits of actually having a smart phone though, using things like push email, you should probably keep a USB charger on your person. The battery is removable though, so you can theoretically carry a spare if you can't stand the thought of running out of juice. It performed roughly as well as the 620, which has a similarly sized battery and about the same quotes of longevity from Nokia.
With its processor, screen resolution and added Nokia apps matching those you'll find on the much more expensive Lumia 720, the 520 definitely packs an impressive punch for the money. Its bold display is one of the best I've seen in the low-end market and Nokia's software additions -- particularly the Drive app -- are excellent.
If you particularly want a more impressive camera, look towards the higher end of the Lumia range. The 520 packs many of the same specs as its bigger brothers though, making it excellent value and a fantastic smart phone to consider on a budget.