Review: T-Mobile Nokia Lumia 521

While Nokia has been busy unleashing the Lumia 520 Windows Phone to various global markets, T-Mobile has landed an exclusive variation, the Lumia 521. It's a compact, budget oriented Windows Phone that reminds me of the Lumia 710.  Maybe a little more refined that the older Lumia.

The scaled back Lumia 521 lacks a front facing camera, camera light and isn't that bountiful on RAM or storage space. While the Lumia 521 may not be a "high end" Windows Phone it fills a niche.  In combining the low-cost of about $150 and T-Mobile's "no contract" plans, the Lumia 521 is a good choice for the first time Windows Phone owner, parents looking for a reliable Windows Phone for their teenager, or anyone else just looking to save a few dollars.

After spending a little time with the Lumia 521, we've found it to be a rather solid addition to the Windows Phone family.

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The Good? Build quality, fit and feel, the 5MP camera, the pricing, the battery life, Wi-Fi calling and more.The Bad?  It may be obvious.  Low on-board storage, low RAM, no light, no front facing camera.  But with what's on board, there really isn't any one feature that sinks the Lumia 521.  Maybe the white color?
The Lumia 521 isn't for everyone.  It is missing features we've come to know and appreciate on other Windows Phones but you've got to remember it's a budget oriented Windows Phone.  There had to be some sacrifices to maintain the sub-$150 pricing point.  What we get is a well built, solid performing Windows Phone.  Nokia did a good job of scaling back the Lumia 521 to keep its price low while not driving a stake through the phone's performance.

The Design

The Nokia Lumia 521 departs from the uni-body design of the Lumia 92x phones with a removable battery cover. The phone does have a "plastic" feel to it but not a cheap plastic feel that would confuse the phone with a children's toy. Measuring 4.8x2.5x.4 inches and weighing only 4.39 ounces, the Lumia 521 is fairly compact and with the curved sides, fits rather comfortably in the hand.  It's compact size also makes it a very comfortable pocket carry phone.

Working around the device you'll find the volume rocker, power button and camera button along the right side; down below is the micro-USB port, the left side of the phone is bare; and up top you'll find the headphone jack. To the rear is a 5MP camera and the phones speakers.

Underneath the battery cover you'll find a 1430 mAh battery, your SIM card slot, and microSD expansion card slot.

The button layout is fairly typical of Nokia's Windows Phones. The buttons are raised ever so slightly to give them definition and functioned in suitable fashion. No stickiness, softness, or other unpleasantries to report.

What's missing? The Lumia 521 lacks a camera light/flash, NFC, wireless charging and a front-facing camera. Personally, I've never had much use for the camera light beyond using it as a flashlight and don't video chat much. I've used NFC maybe once on the Lumia 920 but have grown addicted to wireless charging.  For the most part, what's missing isn't that much of a loss for me but others may see it differently.

Again, the Lumia 521 does have a "plastic" feel to it but a solid "plastic" feel. The plastic battery cover has a little bit of texture to provide a decent grip and snaps firmly in place.  I'm not particularly a fan of the white color but was impressed how it held up to dust and dirt.  The Lumia 521 did get a little dusty hanging around the wood shop but wiped clean rather nicely.

Overall, the Lumia 521 doesn't step out on the wild side with regards to design and is a well built offering from Nokia.

Under The Hood

Here is where some will shy away from the Nokia Lumia 521. Under the hood the Lumia 521 has a dual-core 1GHz Snapdragon CPU, microSD card expansion, and Windows Phone 8. Pretty good so far, right?

What will make many pause is that the Lumia 521 only has 512MB of RAM and 8GB of storage (only 4.61GB free out of the box). There's no NFC but the Lumia 521 does have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.  While 1GB of RAM would be nicer, the 512MB performs quite well. As Dan noted in his first impressions post, there is a delay here and there but not enough to be frustrating.

The 8GB of storage may seem paltry but you do have microSD expansion and cloud storage to help handle your storage needs. You may have to manage your apps, games and music files a little more carefully but 8GB of storage is doable.

The 4" screen is an IPS 800x480 Super-sensitive Touch display. It lacks the Clearblack screen polarizer, PureMotion technology and Gorilla Glass but for all that is missing, the Lumia 521's screen performs rather nicely.  Colors are sharp, brightness levels good and in most lighting conditions the screen has a bit of pop to it. The Super-sensitive touch gives the screen fantastic touch responsiveness.  The Achilles heel for the Lumia 521's screen is what hinders most screens, bright sunny days.  The screen just gets overwhelmed by bright sun more easily.  The Lumia 521 does have the "Sunlight Readability" setting that does help with things but you'll still find yourself hunting for shade on those cloudless, sunny summer days.

Another downside to the screen is that it can be a fingerprint magnet. At first I thought it was the jelly doughnuts I ate earlier in the day (ran out of pie at the house) but even with freshly washed hands, you'll see fingerprints a little more that usual. Nothing a few shirt swipes won't clear though.

Everything is powered by a 1430mAH battery that is rated for 400 hours of standby time, 9 hours of talk time and 45 hours of playback time.  Not sure we can dispute those numbers but in using the Lumia 521 modestly during the day (a few calls, a few games, a few web searches, and email) the Windows Phone made it through a full day with about 25% battery life still on the ticker.

It's hard to say Nokia skimped under the Lumia 521's hood because the phone performed rather nicely. To keep the pricing point low, Nokia had to make some concessions. Sure, there was some give and take but in the end, Nokia found a way to scale back the specs and maintain modest performance.


The Lumia 521 has a bit of an odd camera layout. The Windows Phone has a 5MP rear camera, no front facing camera and no light, and a scaled back settings menu. The camera does capture both video and still images.

The rear lens has a focal length of 28mm and has a fixed aperture of f2.4.  It lacks the Carl Zeiss lens and BSI sensor to keep costs down.  Images captured at 16:9 are 3.77MP while the 4:3 Ratio captures 5MP images.  The camera also has a 4x digital zoom.  

Nokia Lumia 521 28mm view

Nokia Lumia 521 at 4x Zoom

While I'm still skeptical off digital zooms, the Lumia 521 does a decent job of things with only a hint of distortion at four times zoom.  Nothing earth shattering but much better than what we've seen in the past.

Menu Settings for the still camera cover:

  • Scenes: Auto, Close-up, Night, Sports, and Backlight
  • ISO: 100, 200, 400, 800
  • Exposure Value (Compensation): +2 to -2 stops
  • White Balance: Auto, Cloudy, Daylight, Fluorescent, Incandescent
  • Aspect Ratio: 16:9 and 4:3

While scaled back, the Lumia 521's camera menu does cover the bare boned basics. The menu does feel like something was left out with no creative filters but you do have Nokia's Creative Studio in the Lens section that makes up for the loss. Still on-board filters can be rather convenient.

Nokia Lumia 521 Indoor Photo Sample

As scaled back as the camera is on the Lumia 521, it performs rather nicely under a humble range of lighting conditions. It doesn't have the low light punch of the Lumia 920 but did a decent job of things indoors under moderate lighting. Images were sharp but I did see a bit of color cast and low color saturation with the Lumia 521.  Then again, the weather wasn't exactly cooperative with overcast skies and rain in the area.

Nokia Lumia 521 Outdoor Photo Samples

The Lumia 521 has a Close-up Scenes setting that pulls the camera to within six inches from your subject and performs rather dandy.

Nokia Lumia 521 Close-up Photo Samples

Night or low-light images are the cameras weak point. With ISO maxing out at 800, the camera relies on slower shutter speeds which in turn results in blurry photos due to camera movement. Then there's the fact that you lack a light on the Lumia 521 so you won't have the benefit of any lighting to assist with focusing. You can take "okay" photos at night but a rock steady hand (better yet a tripod) and a little luck is a must.

Nokia Lumia 521 (left) and Nokia Lumia 920 Night Photo Comparison

It may not be a fair fight but the left image was taken with the Lumia 521 and the right with the Lumia 920. The lighting was a single street lamp well after sunset. It took four tries before I could hold the 521's camera still enough to eliminate the camera blur while the Lumia 920 only took one try. The tale of the tape? The Lumia 521 shot this at 1/8th shutter speed at ISO 800. The Lumia 920 was set at 1/6th shutter speed at ISO 640.

Nokia Lumia 521 Photo Sample

Taking everything into consideration with regards to still images, the Lumia 521's camera isn't too shabby for a scaled back 5MP shooter.  The camera does needs a little fine tuning with the saturation levels and white balance but neither are so bad a little post-processing can't fix.

Nokia Lumia 521 Photo Sample

Video quality was rather impressive. Footage was sharp, the microphone picked up on things nicely, but without optical stabilization you get a lot of bounce.

With the Lumia 521's video settings, you have options for:

  • White Balance: Auto, Cloudy, Daylight, Fluorescent, Incandescent
  • Continuous Focus: On or Off
  • Video Mode: High Quality (720p) or Standard Quality (WVGA)

I think if you can control the bounce, the video quality on the Lumia 521 will please most.

Again, I've never been a fan of the light/flash on our Windows Phone cameras so its absence on the Lumia 521 isn't missed. And while I rarely use a front facing camera, I can see where some will miss this feature. Are either a deal breaker? Just not seeing it.

In looking at the big picture, the Lumia 521 has a rather peachy camera. While the camera may lack optical stabilization, a higher pixel count, a light, and a few menu features other Windows Phone cameras may have it performs rather well. Whatever tinkering Nokia did under the hood of the camera was done exceptionally well in most areas of performance.

The Software

The Lumia 521 runs Windows Phone 8 and does come with a handful of pre-loaded apps. You have the Weather Channel, Slacker Radio, along with apps from the Nokia Collection such as the HERE Suite (Drive, Maps, Transit), Nokia Music, Cinemagraph, and Creative Studio.

You also have preloaded T-Mobile software such as 411 & More, My Account, T-Mobile TV, and CallerTunes. 411 & More is an odd sort of app that gives you a direct dialing link for 411 Directory Assistance, the current weather, a horoscope line and a sports report line. The directory assistance link will cost you up to $1.99 per call with the other calls being free.

I'm suspecting CallerTunes is a ringtone app and T-Mobile TV streams your favorite television shows. I kept getting a "network not available" error in launching either app so I can't say if they are worth keeping or not. The My Account app taps into your T-Mobile account where you can review your account status, any notifications and get device support.

Settings are fairly standard for a Windows Phone 8 device. You're likely going to need to update the Lumia 521 out of the box to OS version 8.0.10211.204. You won't have firmware features such as Storage Check, but you can always pick up the Beta version.

While the pre-loaded software isn't too shabby, the Lumia 521 only has 4.61GB of free storage out of the box. In the end, if you aren't going to use these apps, deleting them will free up some space. Also, keep in mind with the Nokia HERE maps, you can save them to your microSD Card to free up on-board storage as well.

The Phone

We often overlook or seldom mention the phone part of our Windows Phone. It's easy to have the phone aspects overshadowed by stunning camera performance or jaw dropping graphics.

With respect to the Lumia 521 as a phone, it performed rather agreeably. Nothing over the top but par for the course as Windows Phones are concerned.  Earpiece volume was good, the microphone picked up my voice with no issues, and the rear speaker did a decent job of things.

In addition to the traditional wireless calling, the Lumia 521 also has Wifi Calling. It's a new feature that comes along with the latest firmware update and allows for calls to be made over Wi-Fi. It's a nifty feature when you're in an area with weak network coverage but have access to a Wi-Fi network. Think of it as a mobile microcell for your Windows Phone.

Just remember you'll need to hard reset your Lumia 521 after updating for the Wi-Fi Calling app to appear.  Remember to back up things before hand.

The only issue I had with phone service was reception. The Lumia 521 barely made it past three bars but I can't necessarily blame that on the phone. T-Mobile doesn't have the best coverage in my neck of the woods and it could easily be a network issue. It was nice that Wi-Fi Calling is available for the Lumia 521.

The Overall Impression

After tinkering with the Nokia Lumia 521 for a few days we find it to be a well built, budget friendly, solid performing Windows Phone.

The Lumia 521 is a scaled back phone with no camera light, no NFC, no front-facing camera, 512MB of RAM and 8GB. Sacrifices likely to keep the Lumia 521 at a very amicable pricing point. Fortunately, we didn't find any of this detrimental to the Lumia 521's overall performance.  The screen has a little pop, the camera is a good shooter, call quality won't leave you asking "Can you hear me now?", and battery life is respectable.

The Lumia 521 is what it is. It's not intended to compete with the Lumia 92x series but instead it offers a budget oriented option for those who want to save a little or just want to dip their big toe into the Windows Phone swimming pool.   I can also see the Lumia 521 as a good option for the younger Windows Phone user who doesn't need the larger sized alternatives. My teenage son actually found the compact size of the Lumia 521 a little more appealing than the larger Lumia 920.

The Lumia 521 is offered exclusively through T-Mobile and can be found at your local T-Mobile Store and various retailers such as Wal-Mart and the Home Shopping Network.  Pricing for the Lumia 521 ranges from about $130 to $150, depending on the retailer.

George Ponder

George is the Reviews Editor at Windows Central, concentrating on Windows 10 PC and Mobile apps. He's been a supporter of the platform since the days of Windows CE and uses his current Windows 10 Mobile phone daily to keep up with life and enjoy a game during down time.