Sunday, 2 March 2014

Nokia Lumia 520 Windows Phone 8 Review


Having lived with the Nokia 520 for the last eight months it’s time to review how is the phone has been coping with the rough and tumble of everyday life after the glamour of a new toy has worn off.

I'm going to try and split my comments into those relating to the phone and those based on the Windows Phone 8 OS, but it's hard to completely separate the two on a device as integrated as a smartphone.


The Nokia Lumia 520 is a relatively cheap entry-level smart phone, currently selling unlocked on Amazon UK for less than £100. That means it's only got a 480x800 pixel screen with equally modest processor and memory specs, but I wasn’t looking for something very powerful. The metro tile user interface was also too interesting a design to not try for this kind of price. The low price would also explain why the Nokia 520 is the best selling Windows device of 2013.


The Phone


Nokia have managed a good trick with the 520 as it doesn't feel cheap, even if it’s a cheaper smartphone. The weight and size are good, possibly for my larger than average hands, and it doesn't feel flimsy, even with a thin snap-on plastic back cover. I've held much more expensive high-end Android phones that feel flimsier and more toy-like than the 520.


It's an uncomplicated slab design and while there's a limit to how many ways you can round the corners on a rectangle, I’ve seen plenty worse. On higher-end phones there must be more motivation to show that design effort has gone into sculpting the shape of the phone, which sometimes leads to some strange choices, but here simple works. The buttons all click nicely and the USB and headphone jacks are still working after eight months of living in my pocket.

My only complaint with the shape is that the corners can be a bit too pointed; if you're pressing the phone hard against your ear when making a call in a noisy place one of the corners always starts to dig in uncomfortably after a few minutes. For a phone that should probably be a major complaint, but like most people, using the 'phone' to make phone calls is a long way down the list of things I use it for. I've probably used it more often to prop open a book I'm trying to read while eating breakfast than I have to make calls.

The biggest physical issue I have with the phone is that getting the sim card or the micro SD card in and out is difficult and I can't do just using my fingers, plus it requires removing the battery. Taking the battery out for any length of time soft resets the phone, meaning you have to re-enter the date and time the next time you power it on from 03:27, Wednesday March 6th 2013; not that I've seen that date so many times I've now memorised it. Given the state of the Windows Phone sync programme for non-Windows OSs, you have to take the SD card out if you want to download your photos from the phone or to load music onto it. (A friend with a Lumia 900 has the same problem after a soft re-set, you can't remove the battery on that phone.)

While sturdy enough to survive being dropped from standing height a few times, when it lands edge on, the back cover and battery fly off, leading to an undignified scrabbling on the floor for the bits, plus having to re-set the time and date. Again.

Battery life hasn't been an issue and I can leave it two days between charging, but I normally I leave the Wifi off, which can be a big battery drain.


Windows Phone 8


The simple style and clever tile idea was the main reason I wanted to try and Windows 8 phone, and it feels like the first original idea when it comes to a phone interface since the original iPhone made Windows Mobile look medieval.

The live tiles counting the number of texts, e-mails or Facebook messages unread is a smart idea. Also, if you pin a contact to your home screen, they get a count if any of the e-mail or text messages come from them, a nice feature. Sadly some apps, like Whatsapp, don’t contribute to this count, so there's room to improve the integration.

I’ve heard a few complaints that WP8 doesn’t have an integrated notification centre, but to me that’s the lock screen, which counts the various notifications you have and can be checked in one glance. It also displays details of your next calendar appointment, very handy if you want to see where you’re meant to be next without having to open the calendar, or even unlocking the phone.

The built in calendar is fine and syncs with Google Calendars, but feels like it’s missing a week view. There’s an agenda (list) view that doesn’t give quite enough overview and a month view where the text is so small you can barely read it. Something in between would be just right.

I’ve long ago abandoned dedicated music players for my phone, for which WP8 has an interesting combination of clever and stupid features.

If you have a lot of music on the SD card it can sometimes cause the music app to stall and think before playing the first track. Also on some screens the position of the play triangle is confusing and doesn’t un-pause the current music as expected, rather it starts playing your whole music collection on random, making the phone unresponsive until it gets going.

The little drop down; 'back, pause, skip’ menu that appears when you use the volume control is a great way of not having the leave the currently open app (or lock screen). What does seem stupid is that there is only one volume control for the whole phone. If you turn the volume down to listen to some music in a quiet place, then later unplug the headphones and leave the phone in your pocket you have no chance of hearing it ring.

There are a few built in irritations though. Some are small and surely simple to fix; like the autocorrect refusing to step in a capitalise a single ‘i’ by itself, making you capitalise if yourself every time.

Another bugbear is when it comes to contacts that synchronise with Google Contacts. It works, mostly, but the WP8 contacts have a much more limited set of labels that Google does (Google Contacts allows you to create your own labels). This means if you’ve stored a friend’s phone number under something nonstandard, 'British Mobile', then it just won’t appear in the WP8 contact details. To make it appear the only solution I’ve found is to change the label to one of the presets WP8 has, such as ‘Mobile 2’ or ‘Car Phone’. Who outside of an 80's reenactment still has a car phone?

The IMAP syncing with GMail is OK to the phone, but not great on synchronising back. Sometimes e-mails aren’t marked as read and I can’t seem to get them to archive from the phone reliably. It seems hit and miss and when it does archive them it normally leaves them unread. The other issue is that you can’t ‘Send As’ from multiple e-mail aliases as you can from a native GMail app or the web interface, it always uses the default ’Send As’ address.

Apps


For most people the app selection is the most important element of a smartphone, and unless ‘There’s an app for that’, there’s not much point in having the phone. I don’t need many apps, but the few I do use get very heavy use.

One of the original things making me hold out on WP8 was a native Spotify app, which is now happily available. Occasionally a bit slow, Spotify mostly works well. It has a few bugs though; first it takes ages to remember which playlists and songs are downloaded and available. Second after an uncertain amount of time of being paused a song will vanish from the drop down music control menu and you’ll have to re-start Spotify from scratch, having forgotten where in your playlist you were. I assume this is some kind of battery or memory saving feature kicking in, but since it doesn’t do this with the built in music player it feels very inconsistent.

Last, and most irritatingly, Spotify will only store offline tracks in the phone’s main memory. Having a 32Gb SD card in the phone means nothing to Spotify and it will happily fill up the meagre 8Gb of phone memory with music, where it’s competing with apps, offline maps, system files and anything else the phone needs to remember. This can sometimes be very limiting, especially if you use Spotify for most of you music management.

For RSS feeds I use NextGen Reader, which is great and handled the transition from Google Reader to Feedly very smoothy last year. I was more than happy to pay for this app, the only request I’d have is to add a scroll bar so you can see how far through an article you are.

One app I felt I shouldn’t have paid for is Pouch, a Pocket readying a syncing app. I love Pocket and use it on my Nexus 7 and laptop regularly, but there’s not yet a native WP8 app, and Pouch is a disappointing substitute, but I’ve still not found a better solution. For a long time it wouldn’t sync at all and for a period the updates would regularly bring a pop-up saying that it had thrown an exception. At some point it changed it’s name to include ‘Beta’ in the title, clearly showing that even the developer didn’t think it was ready, or possibly worth paying for.

In the last few months it’s improved and is now mostly stable, but still misses some really obvious things, like how to add articles to your Pocket collection. It doesn’t appear on the share options and if you copy a url, there’s no paste option on the keyboard when you open the ‘add’ url box. Recently Squirrel has appeared as a Pocket syncing app, but after trying that for a while it seems to be plagued with similar problems; can’t find articles, crashing out and not rending articles correctly. At least you can try it for free.

The Facebook Beta app works very well most of the time. The main issue is that the feed filtering is poor, so if a popular friend has a birthday you can guarantee that the first six screens of updates will be birthday wishes from all and sundry. Also irritatingly sometimes clicking ‘read more’ on a long status updates throws you into Internet Explorer and asks you log into the website.

Lastly there are a few apps that work so well you even forget they’re there, such as Podcaster and Evernote. Having previously used Google Docs for a casual making and sharing of notes, the lack of Google Docs on WP8 made my try Evernote, which works across all the current ecosystems. I now find Evernote indispensable, being especially useful in organising the move my girlfriend and I recently did.

Skype works OK most of the time, but has the glaring omission that you can't paste copied phone numbers from either websites or your contacts into the dial box.

The last app everyone uses and is worth commenting on is maps. The built in Nokia/Here maps are good for actual navigation, finding streets etc. but the search is not very forgiving. Once searching for an outdoor shop somewhere unfamiliar Nokia maps drew a blank with the search term 'Cotswolds outdoors', but the Google maps website realised I'd be happy with the location of a Cotswold Outdoor shop. Luckily there's a very good mash up app that uses the Nokia maps overlaid with Google data called GMaps+. Sadly you can't buy it, so it it'll just keep nagging you for donations and 5 star reviews at the most inopportune moments. The downloading of offline maps is very well handled and the GPS, even on a cheap phone like this, gets an accurate fix very quickly.

Conclusion


So, here's the acid question; if in some misfortune my phone should slip from my grasp and be destroyed under the wheels of an ever punctual German bus, would I replace it with another Windows Phone or switch back to Android? If it happened tomorrow, I’d stick with WP8.

Looking at Android phones now they seem like cartoonish Fischer-Price toys in style to the clean design of WP8 and the Nokia handsets available. I also believe that Apple’s recent flattening and lightening of the iOS interface must have been influenced by the much simpler and cleaner Metro interface, but even with that, iPhones still look busy. Also to Microsoft’s credit, most app developers have gone with the flow. Apart from one guitar-tuner app I occasionally use, all have adopted the Metro style, giving a very coherent feeling, unlike the menagerie of styles that Android attracts.





Other items are successes by their omission; for example Internet Explorer. It’s not spectacular, but it works well enough that I’ve never noticed it, which is saying a lot for an app carrying that name. The camera struggles in low light and doesn't have a flash, but takes reasonable snaps suitable for quick sharing, as above.

The photo gallery, tethering, app list, call quality etc. have all been strong enough that I’ve never noticed them, and while that seems like faint praise, most of the time you want something that works so well you don’t even notice it.

It’s not perfect and given the ability to change three things instantly I’d ask for; a decent Pocket sync app, customised contact detail fields to appear and to have separate ringer and music volume levels, but for now these are minor flaws that I can live with.