Nokia has been especially successful with their entry-level range of Windows Phones, particularly the Lumia 520, which on the back of its dirt-cheap price, quickly propelled itself to be the best-selling Windows Phone. A successor was always on the cards, but what Nokia has provided – the Lumia 525 – is a little unusual.

Nokia Lumia 525 - $160 (unlocked)

  • 4.0”, 800 x 480 LCD display (233 ppi)
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 SoC
  • 1.0 GHz dual-core CPU, Adreno 305 GPU, 1GB RAM
  • 8 internal storage, microSD card slot
  • 5 MP camera, 1/4” sensor, f/2.4 lens, 720p video
  • 1,430 mAh, 5.3 Wh battery
  • HSPA+, Wi-Fi b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0
  • Windows Phone 8 Update 3
  • 124 grams, 11.2mm thick

In nearly every way, the Lumia 525 is the same as the Lumia 520: same Snapdragon S4 SoC, same five megapixel rear camera, same 4.0-inch WVGA display, same storage options and the same design. Nokia has bumped up the RAM from 512 MB to 1 GB, allowing you to run more apps in the background, as well as the latest games. The software included is also the latest and greatest, for what it’s worth.

However, since the Lumia 520 launched at the start of 2013 the entry-level smartphone market has changed; new hardware has been unveiled specifically for budget devices, and older parts have become cheaper. The competition is also ferocious, specifically Motorola's aggressively-priced Moto G comes to mind.

How does the Lumia 525 fit into the equation in 2014?

The Nokia Lumia 525 used in this review was provided by Expansys. Check them out for unlocked, off-contract devices at great prices, with fast shipping around the globe.

Design

If you were to put all of Nokia’s smartphones in a line-up, it’d be very difficult to pick apart the Lumia 520 and Lumia 525. In fact, it would be impossible, because the design of both phones is identical right down to the size and weight.

The front of the 525 is very rectangular, which suits the design language of Windows Phone 8 well. Display coverage of roughly 59% is mediocre, as can be appreciated by the large bezels around the four inch panel, but the display is positioned in the perfect position to make the phone easy to use. Below the display you’ll find the standard Windows Phone capacitive hardware buttons, and above is the in-call speaker and a few cleverly hidden sensors. You’ll note here there’s no front-facing camera.

While the front profile is rectangular, the edges of the Lumia 525 curve away significantly, making the handset fit well in the hand. The device is 11.2mm thick at its thickest point. There’s no mistaking that the 525 is a chubby phone, however at 124 grams it still retains a portable feel. Some of the thickness can be attributed to the removable back cover, which is made of thick, tough plastic in keeping with Nokia’s tradition of making ‘unbreakable’ devices.

The rear plastic cover on the white model is glossy, which I’m not particularly fond of. Luckily, the Lumia 525 also comes in black, red and yellow, which judging by the Lumia 520 will feature nicer matte plastic. The display is protected with glass; unfortunately not tough Gorilla Glass, but it should resist wear and tear.

The right-hand side of the Lumia 525 has all the hardware buttons in the usual Lumia configuration. At the top is the volume rocker, followed by the power button and the ever-useful two-stage camera button. The 525 isn’t the largest smartphone going around, and during my usage I found the power button to be a little bit low down for my liking, but it’s still easier to access than if it were along the top edge.

You’ll also find the microUSB port centered along the bottom edge, the 3.5mm audio jack offset along the top edge, the 5-megapixel camera in the top-center of the back panel, and a speaker grille towards the bottom. The speaker is quite weak and sometimes lacks the power necessary to be audible in loud environments, not to mention it’s terrible for music playback of any kind.

Taking off the Lumia 525’s back cover can be a challenge, but it does uncover the micro-SIM slot, microSD card slot, and – to the joy of many people – a removable, replaceable battery. The choice to include a removable battery does add flexibility to the 525, however with the trade-off that the battery itself will be smaller. AnandTech covers this well in one of their articles if you’re interested in further reading about the issue, and my thoughts are largely the same.

The budget-minded design of the Lumia 525 is fairly nice, and does the job without much fuss. Nokia has kept the 525 portable, usable and comfortable to hold, which is great even for a handset design that is now on its second generation.

Display

The Nokia Lumia 525 packs the exact same display as the Lumia 520, meaning that we’re getting year-old budget-centric technology in what’s being marketed as a new device: a 4.0-inch IPS TFT LCD panel with a resolution of 800 x 480. Other affordable devices are now packing 720p displays, which makes the 525 seem a little substandard.

The display’s low resolution (233 pixels per inch) is noticeable from the moment you turn the device on. That’s not to say the panel itself is bad – text is more than readable – but it’s no challenge to spot individual pixels. The edges of text and graphics are noticeably jagged, and it lacks the clarity you’d get from a higher resolution.

Nokia's IPS LCD offers good color quality and images can look vibrant in the right conditions, despite noticeable backlight bleed that reduces the panel’s contrast ratio. In the settings you can change the display’s color profile, with sliders to adjust both temperature and saturation, although I tend to find the default settings to be the best.

One of the key aspects that makes the Lumia 525’s display module different from a high-end smartphone is that the touchscreen digitizer and LCD panel are two separate components. This is great for repairability, but increases the layers between the LCD crystals and the outside air, reducing viewing angles and outdoor visibility, making the display feel like it is set back somewhat from the glass.

That said, viewing angles are still quite good thanks to the display’s use of IPS technology. Outside readability is okay by default, with the display unit reflecting a fair bit of light, but this can be improved through enabling the screen readability enhancements in the settings. With this feature enabled, the contrast is boosted when the phone detects a bright environment, which makes it easier to see the display at the expense of accurate picture reproduction.

The Lumia 525’s display is very bright at the maximum brightness setting, which helps in strongly lit situations, and the lowest brightness is low enough not to hurt eyes in pitch black rooms. The automatic brightness setting worked well in adjusting the display brightness according to light level changes, though I found it to be slightly too dim when indoors.

Nokia hasn’t skimped on touchscreen-related features. Like all high-end Lumia devices, the Lumia 525 comes with a high sensitivity touchscreen mode (enabled by default), which allows you to use the display with gloves on. This setting will drain the battery faster when it’s on, as more power must be sent to the digitizer, but it can be very handy on those cold winter mornings that demand the use of gloves.

There’s also a setting that allows you to wake the handset by double-tapping on the touchscreen, which I found to work reasonably well. Unfortunately a feature which sees the time always displayed on the screen hasn’t made the cut to the Lumia 525, but this is likely for power consumption reasons.