Review: Nokia Lumia 521 - $129

I'll post a review of my new Lumia 521 here on Ting because although it's not currently on the Device list, it would make an excellent phone choice on Ting.

The Lumia 521 is an entry level phone that runs the latest Windows Phone 8 operating system, currently available at Walmart for $129 running on the T-Mobile no-contract network. It makes a number of strategic compromises to reach that price point - no compass, front camera, flash or NFC chip for electronic payments. But it does an excellent job on the smartphone basics - smooth reliable operation,  good call quality, dual core processor, modern operating system, and 4 inch IPS screen with 480x800 resolution.  This is my first experience with Microsoft's Windows Phone and I'm pleasantly surprised.  Our previous budget smartphones have been Android devices that suffered a variety of hardware glitches and poor support, so the Lumia is a huge improvement.

My goal was a phone that I could depend on for good call quality, reliable operation, good battery life, maps and navigation, and compatibility with our corporate exchange servers. I don't use my phone for Facebook chats, social media or gaming, so some of the Lumia's missing features didn't impact me.  Corporate connectivity is a strong point for Windows Phone, for example meeting attendee details include GAL (Exchange Global Address List) information such as phone extension, office location and building number within our corporate campus.  And Microsoft's official mobile versions of Word, Excel,and Powerpoint are bundled at no extra charge.

Windows Phone is a relatively young operating system.  I found Window's colorful 'Live Tiles' user interface to be intuitive and simple to use, but there are some areas, such as the lack of week view mode in calendar, and missing voice integration between search and navigation, where that youthfulness is a shortcoming.  And users that prefer the vast selection of applications and customization in Android might find Windows Phone a bit constricting.  For my uses the simplicity and dependability of Windows Phone on the Lumia was preferable to the outdated OS versions that ship with most budget Android phones.

Offline navigation is a real plus on a low-usage data plan such as Ting.  Nokia's native Drive navigation system allows the entire US map system to be downloaded at no charge and stored in memory, a process that took about an hour and a half on wifi.  Once downloaded no data connection or consumption is needed for mapping or navigation.  This is a huge plus for traveling in large areas of the mountain west that have no data roaming on carriers such as Ting.

In general the Lumia feels like a high-end phone for operating smoothness, speed, and reliability. Battery life has been fine and I can usually make it through a second day of light usage if I forget to charge at night, a big relief after our Ting Marquee handsets that couldn't make it past a single afternoon.  The one area that feels like a budget compromise is outdoor screen readability, the contrast washes out in bright sunlight.

Of course the rub here is that Nokia's Lumia 521 is currently available on T-Mobile rather than Ting.  I had planned to migrate our mishmash of prepaid plans onto Ting as soon as better low cost phones became available, but it turns out that T-Mobile's new 'Uncarrier' plans are similar in cost.  Four lines with unlimited minutes, text, and 500 MB of 4G data per line costs $100 per month. No contract is needed and the available 10% online discount helps offset taxes and fees.  Comparing our usage yields a slightly lower cost on T-Mobile when average data usage exceeds 250 MB per line versus a small savings on Ting if we stay below that level.  They're very close in cost.  T-Mobile does include limited amounts of data roaming which is handy when traveling.

Nokia releases these Lumia models as GSM world phones, and then produces CDMA versions only when requested by the two major US CDMA carriers.  Verizon provisions the high-end Lumia models but has no interest in the budget handsets or low cost plans.  That leaves Sprint to request budget versions, something they apparently have declined to do so far.  That's too bad as the Lumia 521 (or similar 520) would make an excellent entry level Windows Phone for Sprint's MVNOs.  Perhaps Ting can convince Sprint to reconsider.

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Comments

12 comments
  • Hi Peter,

    Thanks so much for the very in-depth review you gave of the Nokia Lumia! Sadly, we have no swaying power with decisions Sprint makes, particularly in regards to what devices they provide. We have no connection with the business side of Sprint - we just use their towers and devices that they provide for us.

    Again, thank you for your attention to detail and for thinking of Ting when you find a great device!

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  • If Google keeps forcing everything to go through Google+ I may be dropping Android. Ugh.  I will definitely give Windows Phone a look then.

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  • For anyone interested in these Lumia 521 Windows 8 Phones, Nokia has released an operating system update to support Wifi voice calls and text messages.  This provides extended call coverage for indoor areas with Wifi coverage.  The functionality is similar to Sprint's Airave, but doesn't require any special hardware (other than existing wifi router).  Once I configured the 911 emergency address on my account it seems to work well.  For original 521 units like mine it also required a master phone reset.

    Advantages of wifi calling (compared to Airave/ Femtocells):

     - No special hardware needed (other than wifi router)

     - Works anywhere you have wifi availability and login credentials

     - Can make free calls back home from Europe whenever wifi is available

    Disadvantages:

     - Won't automatically hand-off between wifi and cellular during call.

     - Requires e911 contact info to be configured on your account (presumably because cellular emergency location services may not work)

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  • There are some unlocked international version that claims to be GSM on Amazon. Would these work?

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  • @Vince, thanks for your interest in bringing this device to Ting. Unfortunately this device isn't listed on our supported device list and as a GSM device it would not be about to activate on our CDMA network. 

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  • Thanks Sam! Sorry I'm confused which network you guys are operating on, thought it was GSM.

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  • This phone is on the deal of the day with amazon for $19.99, If I get this unlocked, Can I use it in February with the GSM network? Its not on the network list.

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  • I mean the compatibility list

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  • If the deal unit is really a 521 it should be ready to go on the T-Mobile GSM network, since they generally allow locked phones to run on their MVNO partners.  But if it's a Lumia 520 then it was designed and locked to the ATT network, and has one fewer HSPA radio bands than the T-Mobile 521 variant.  If unlocked the 520 may well run on T-Mobile network with 3G speeds in original tower areas and HSPA+ 4G speeds in the refarmed network areas.

    I've personally run an unlocked 521 (T-Mobile) on the ATT MVNO network, but haven't tried a 520 (ATT) on the T-Mobile network.

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  • With the GSM network now available on Ting would I be able to activate a new unlocked Nokia Lumia 521 with Ting? Thanks for the answer.

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  • The Nokia Lumia 521 is T-Mobile native so you shouldn't even need to unlock it for use on Ting GSM.  Check the IMEI on the Ting BYOD page to make sure but it should be ready to go. And if you're buying new you might want to consider the newer Lumia 635 T-Mobile version that's currently available on Amazon for $78. It has an upgraded quad-core processor and the screen has better contrast for outdoor readability.

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  • I have, over the past two days, activated a pair of Lumia 521s on the GSM network without any issues.  These were brightspot mobile branded devices purchased from Target where they are currently on clearance for $19.99.  They are locked to the T-Mobile network, but that didn't appear to make a difference during Ting activation, and voice, data and MMS are all working great.  As a cheap backup or a burner to get you through a couple of weeks, I certainly recommend it.

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