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Nokia Lumia 1520 Marks Giant Leap (In Screen Size) for Windows Phone

What’s big and red (or yellow, or white, or black), makes calls and plays movies, and doubles as a butter dish for Thanksgiving dinner? Why, it’s Nokia’s latest Windows Phone device, the Lumia 1520, of course. And I’m just kidding about the butter dish part — sort of.

The Lumia 1520, which is available now from AT&T for $200 on contract, is Nokia’s first foray into the world of “phablets” — those hybrid devices that try to be both smartphone and tablet.

Till now, the largest screen to appear on a Windows Phone handset measured 4.5 inches. But the Lumia 1520 ups the ante with a six-inch full-HD display, which I found great for watching movies, reading text and even working on documents.

But, as one would expect, it also makes for a large device. Not Samsung Galaxy Mega big, but big enough that it’s cumbersome to hold and carry. Personally, I couldn’t imagine using this as my everyday phone, and it’s a bit too small to be my go-to tablet. And I’m not singling out the Lumia 1520. I feel the same way about other phablets, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and HTC One Max.

Left to right: iPhone 5, Nexus 5, Nokia Lumia 1520

That said, I know there is a segment of the population that want these big-screen smartphones, and the Lumia 1520 makes for a solid phablet. Aside from the large, sharp display, it also has a fine 20-megapixel camera, and offers fast performance and good battery life. Windows Phone still has a ways to go to catch up with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android mobile operating systems in terms of functionality and apps, but is making some strides with the recent addition of some big-name titles like Instagram and Vine.

When designing the Lumia 1520, Nokia said that in order to offer its customers the best range of devices, it couldn’t just jump from a 4.5-inch display to a five-inch display. It had to go bigger, and in doing research, the company found that six inches was the largest it could go while still being able to offer a device that could be used comfortably with one hand. But I didn’t really find that to be the case.

The Lumia 1520 measures 6.41 inches tall by 3.36 inches wide by 0.34-inch thick, and weighs 7.3 ounces. For comparison, the Samsung Galaxy Mega comes in at 6.6 inches by 3.46 inches by 0.31 inches and 7 ounces, and the HTC One Max is 6.48 inches by 3.25 inches by 0.41 inches and 7.7 ounces.

But even though the Lumia 1520 is smaller than the Galaxy Mega, and thinner and lighter than the One Max, I had a tough time wrapping my hand around the phone, and I really had to stretch to perform certain tasks using just one hand. Admittedly, I have small hands, so I handed the phone off to a couple of people with larger mitts than me, including my dad and brother. They had a slightly easier time using the Lumia 1520 one-handed, but they all commented on how strange it felt to hold up to the ear for phone calls.

Portability was also an issue for them. While I could simply throw it in my purse, carrying the phone around in a pants pocket was difficult. It either stuck out of a back pocket or made for a very snug fit in the front pocket (insert “Is that a phone in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” jokes here).

The extra-large, six-inch touchscreen was a draw, though. With a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, images and text looked sharp, and colors were bright. While waiting for a flight at the airport, I used the Lumia 1520 to catch up on some episodes of “Friday Night Lights” (I know, I’m horribly late to this show) on Netflix, and afterward, I didn’t feel as much eye strain as I usually do when I’m watching videos on my iPhone 5’s four-inch screen.

I also had to zoom less when reading articles on the phone’s Web browser. That said, I felt like Samsung took better advantage of the larger screen, by adding such features as stylus support and multi-window view, which allows you to work in two apps side-by-side.

One nice thing about the Lumia 1520, though, is that it automatically adjusts the display’s brightness depending on whether you’re indoors or outdoors. As a quick comparison, I pulled up the same article on the Lumia 1520 and iPhone 5, and tried to read them outside on a sunny day. It was much easier to do so on the Nokia’s handset than on the iPhone.

Another area where Nokia is trying to differentiate itself from the competition is the camera. The Lumia 1520’s 20-megapixel camera doesn’t pack quite the punch that the Lumia 1020’s 41-megapixel camera does, but I was generally pleased with picture quality. It also comes with Nokia’s new Storyteller app, which aggregates photos based on when and where you took them, but I didn’t find it particularly exciting or groundbreaking. I was much happier to see that the popular photo-sharing app Instagram is now available for Windows Phone.

The Lumia 1520 runs the latest version of Windows Phone, which adds supports for three columns of tiles on the Home screen and faster processors, among other things. The phablet is using Qualcomm’s quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, and I found performance to be very smooth and responsive. While I didn’t conduct a formal battery test, I found that with moderate use I could go a full day before needing to recharge.

Call quality was also good. I made several phone calls in San Francisco and the Washington, D.C., area on AT&T’s network, and the audio was clear. But, given the Lumia 1520’s large size, I did have to adjust the phone a couple of times so I could get the earpiece in the right place to hear my friends.

For those craving big screens, Windows Phone now has a device to compete with the growing list of Android phablets. As long as you’re okay with the smaller selection of apps, the Lumia 1520 offers solid performance and a good camera for about $100 less than the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik