Nokia Lumia 1520 hands-on

Nokia's new flagship Lumia 1520 is big news and a big phone. The company's first "phablet" Windows Phone, it marks the debut of official 1080p screen support in version 8.1 of Microsoft's platform, not to mention a further distillation of Nokia's investment into PureView camera technology down into the mass market. It's also the device that Nokia hopes will rival top-tier iPhone and Android handsets that, so far, it has struggled to compete with. Plenty of high expectations, then, but does the Lumia 1520 live up to them? Read on for our first impressions.

If there was going to be a previous Lumia for Nokia to take 1520 inspiration from, we'd have liked it to have been the metal-edged Lumia 925. Instead, the new phone has the pillowed edges but none of the metal, sticking instead with polycarbonate plastic; it feels sturdy but not quite as premium as, say, an iPhone 5s or HTC One. We prefer the matte finish given to the yellow and black models, too, rather than the gloss of the red and white.

Of course, the big draw is the display, and it's certainly a beautiful panel. Nokia has used its ClearBlack technology again, for inkier contrast, and it looks great with broad viewing angles and punchy colors. Windows Phone 8.1 introduces support for a third column in the Start screen, not to mention more text shown in places like the email inbox, and it's a welcome improvement. In fact, the only thing we really miss is a digital stylus.

Nokia tells us that, while a generic capacitive stylus will work with the Lumia 1520's touchscreen, the decision was made to go finger-only so as to preserve the unibody design and avoid adding any extra bulk on top of what's already a reasonably large phone by accommodating an internal pen silo.

Windows Phone 8.1 also brings with it new processor support, and the Lumia 1520 doesn't hold back, packing a 2.2GHz quadcore from Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 800 range. Paired with 2GB of memory it keeps the phone moving smoothly, though we'll be curious to see whether Nokia's decision to go with a vast 3,400 mAh battery was a handy benefit of the larger casing or a necessity by virtue of the display and CPU. At least wireless charging is baked in as standard, rather than Nokia's disappointing tendency to pay lip-service to how committed they are to the system, only to then make it an optional extra.

For many, it'll be the opportunity to get PureView without the camera bulk that makes the Lumia 1520 appealing. The new flagship doesn't have the superlative 41-megapixel resolution of the Lumia 1020, but it uses its 20-megapixels well, offering 2x lossless digital zoom both before and after snapping a frame. There's less lag in-between shots, too, which undermined the Lumia 1020 experience for us, and the new Nokia Camera app is a welcome combination of the previously separate Pro Camera and Smart Camera apps.

It used to be far too time-consuming to shoot a regular image when you'd previously been using Nokia's filters; now, it's a screen-tap away. Of the new effects, the Lytro-esque "Refocus Lens" is the most appealing, which combines multiple images taken at different focal settings so that you can tap the frame to change the point of focus. It's fun to play with, and works surprisingly well despite the absence of trick optics like Lytro uses, but unfortunately there's no way to share the shots off of the phone and preserve the focus flexibility.

We've a similar issue with Nokia Storyteller, the company's new app which automatically builds photo journals out of your geotagged galleries. It works well, and the HERE Maps integration is neat, but aside from viewing the results on the Lumia 2520 tablet, you can't export them. We'd like to be able to share the galleries with family and friends at least.

Still, the Lumia 1520 ticks some of the key boxes for a flagship device – screen, camera, and speed – while Windows Phone 8.1 feels a lot more competitive too. We'll have to wait until we can spend some extended time with the phone to know more, however; that should happen closer to the launch in Q4 2013.