Nokia Lumia 1520 review: Good things come in huge packages

Because of Microsoft’s(s msft) once-stringent Windows Phone hardware requirements, Nokia(s nok) was never able to go truly spec-crazy with any of its Lumia devices. The latest update to Windows Phone 8, however, finally includes support for features like 1080p displays and quad-core chipsets. Perhaps that’s why it seems like Nokia decided to throw just about every big feature it could think of into the new Lumia 1520 – including its size. With a 6-inch display, the Lumia 1520 is truly gargantuan. It’s also the best Windows Phone yet – provide you can wrap your hands around it.

Lumia 1520 hands on

Goldilocks syndrome

I have to get this out of the way at the top: I would never use the Lumia 1520 in any personal capacity. It’s just way too big. I’ve tested plenty of “phablets” over the last couple of years, but never before has it felt so daunting to simply hold a device. Not only that, but I just plain felt embarrassed using the Lumia 1520 in public. It’s almost like holding an iPad mini(s aapl) up to your face.

That said, I know there are plenty of people out there that love phablets – the bigger the better. The Lumia 1520 is for those people, and I will try not to let my own personal feelings on phones this big color my review.

So just how big is the phone? Physically, the Lumia 1520 measures 6.4 by 3.36 by 0.34 inches and weighs 7.26 ounces. By comparison, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 features a 5.7-inch screen, measures 5.95 by 3.12 by 0.33 inches and weighs 5.93 ounces. That’s still big, but it feels worlds different from the 1520.

Lumia 1520 size comparison

Left to right: Nokia Lumia 1520, HTC One Max, Moto X, iPhone 5s

I think my biggest problem is the width. There’s simply no way for me to hold the phone in one hand and reach my fingers all the way across the keyboard. To type, I actually have to hold the 1520 in my left hand, while I use my right hand to press the keys on the touch screen. And I’d say I have decently large hands.

The only other phone I’ve tested that I also find too big to use properly is the HTC One Max. That phone measures 6.47 by 3.24 by 0.40 inches and weighs 7.65 ounces. With a 5.9-inch display, it’s effectively in the same size category as the Lumia 1520. But again, these phones are too big for me. Anyone that values size above all else will be thrilled.

Design and display

Clumsy size aside, the Lumia 1520 is about attractive as a giant phone can be. Available in a number of different colors, the phone is made from a single piece of sturdy polycarbonate, though the tiered display feels somewhat tacked on. I reviewed the matte black version, but the phone is also available in matte white, yellow or a glossy red.

Lumia 1520 display

And if there’s one thing all that size is put to good use for, it’s to showcase the Lumia’s truly magnificent display. The 6-inch IPS LCD features 1920 by 1080 resolution, which works out to a tight 367 pixels per inch. That’s not quite as dense as the HTC One Max or the Galaxy Note 3, but the difference in negligible. Colors look super saturated, particularly blacks. Taking photos and watching video on the Lumia 1520 are a joy. And Nokia’s ClearBlack polarization means you still see the screen pretty well outside. It’s also responsive enough that you can use it with gloves.

All of your physical controls are located on the right side of the phone, including Volume, Power and Camera buttons. There’s a nano-SIM slot on the left, along with a microSD card slot that accepts cards up to 64GB, though you need to use a special tool to access either of these slots – a pain if you take your microSD in and out a lot.

Lumia 1520 buttons

There’s a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on top of the phone, and a gigantic 3,400mAh battery sealed inside. Nokia claims the battery is good for up to 24 hours of talk time. I found that I was able to completely drain the phone with a day of heavy use, with lots of streaming video and the brightness set to high. I think most people should be able to make it through a full day of moderate usage.

The Lumia 1520 works on AT&T’s(s t) 4G LTE network. Call quality was solid on both ends, though again, I felt pretty silly holding such a big phone up to my face. Data speeds were good, too – on par with what I’ve seen from AT&T in Manhattan recently.

Windows Phone: Better than ever, but still a compromise

The Lumia 1520 is the first Windows Phone device to use Qualcomm’s(s qcom) new Snapdragon 800 processor. The phone is powered by a quad-core 2.2GHz chip, and if you thought Windows Phone felt fast before, wait until you use it now.

Lumia 1520 back

Try as I might, I could never get the 1520 to slow down. Asphalt 8 ran flawlessly, and looked amazing on the huge screen. It’s a shame Microsoft didn’t include support for more souped-up processors until now, because they really get along well with the operating system. If you ever thought that Android(s goog) was too laggy, no matter the horsepower, Windows Phone will feel like a breath of fresh air.

Windows Phone itself has seen a number of tweaks and enhancements, thanks to Microsoft’s WP8 Update 3, as well as Nokia’s Lumia Black update. For instance, you can now toggle screen rotation and close apps right from the multitasking window. You also get Bluetooth 4.0 LE and the ability to wake the phone with a double tap, like the LG G2. That winds up being pretty convenient since the buttons on the side of the phone can be a little too flush to get a good handle on.

While those are the sorts of features you’ll figure out over time, one thing you’re sure to notice right away is the new Live Tile arrangement for the big screen. You now get a full extra column of Tiles (for a total of three medium-sized Tiles per row), though they still max out at two columns wide. It would’ve been nice if the extra screen real estate put to good use in other places, like seeing more in the browser. But for the most part things just seem to be scaled up to fit.

Lumia 1520 vs iPhone 5s

The iPhone 5s on top of the Lumia 1520

The Windows Phone app selection is constantly improving. Just within the last month we’ve seen access to popular apps like Instagram and Vine. That said, there are still plenty of glaring omissions, such as Google apps like YouTube and Google Maps. Sure, there are third party YouTube substitutes like MetroTube, and you get Nokia’s Here Maps, which are actually quite good.

But ultimately, you’re just not going to be able to use all of the same apps that your friends on iOS(s aapl) and Android have. I’d suggest poking around the Windows Phone app store online to make sure the apps you want to use are available before committing to the platform.

Camera and conclusions

Given the glorious 41-megapixel PureView camera on the Lumia 1020, I had high hopes for the 20-megapixel shooter on the 1520. And while the 1520 doesn’t quite match the image quality of the Lumia 1020, or the iPhone 5s for that matter, it’s still a very good phone camera.

The Lumia 1520 features a backside-illuminated sensor with f/2.4 aperture and 26mm focal length. It protrudes much less than the 1020’s camera, and uses dual-LEDs for flash instead of Xenon. Pictures taken with good lighting look sharp and detailed, with accurate color reproduction. The camera doesn’t fare as well in low light, losing a good bit of detail; the Lumia 1020 does a much better job here.

Lumia 1520 test photo

This shot taken with the 1520 shows accurate colors and good detail when you zoom in

My biggest complaint is that the 1520 takes a long time in between shots. You need to wait a good second or two after taking a photo before the camera is ready to shoot again. The iPhone 5s, by comparison, can fire off a few shots in a second if your trigger finger is fast enough.

Like the 1020, the 1520’s camera allows you to crop photos and zoom in to a certain point without losing any detail. It also has a number of cool software tricks, like Nokia Refocus. This allows you to adjust the focus on a photo you’ve already taken from one spot to another, like a Lytro camera. Other features include the ability to take 10 photos in 3 seconds (which is a way to get around the pronounced downtime between shots), from which you can create an action shot, swap faces, or just select the best image. There’s also Nokia Storyteller, which uses the GPS location data attached to your photos to plot them on Nokia’s Here map with a really cool interface. Finally, you can also capture RAW images for editing later on your computer.

Lumia 1520 vs LG G Pad

The Lumia 1520 on top of the 8.3-inch LG G Pad

Despite my own personal misgivings about the size of the phone, the Lumia 1520 is the best Windows phone there is right now. It has fast hardware, a solid camera and the best version of Windows Phone software to date. Another great thing about the Lumia 1520 is its price – $99.99 with a two-year contract. That’s $200 less than AT&T charges for its other big phablet, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

The Galaxy Note 3 brings you hundreds of thousands of more apps, a more manageable form factor, as well as a stylus, designed to take advantage of all that screen real estate. It’s also a good phone, so a lot of it comes down to software preference. But if you want one of the largest phones possible, with a high-resolution camera and a relatively low price tag, the Lumia 1520 is a great deal.