Nokia's Lumia phablets and Windows RT tablet: Two steps forward, one step back?

Nokia has shown off two Lumia phablet devices today – a top of the range 1520, and its more modestly priced cousin, the 1320.
Written by Jo Best, Contributor
Stephen Elop shows off the 1320.
Stephen Elop shows off the 1320.

As the rumours predicted, Nokia has today unveiled some significant new hardware: two phablets that many have been waiting for, and a Windows RT tablet that they probably haven't.

At the Nokia World event in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, former Nokia CEO and current Microsoft devices head Stephen Elop took to the stage to launch a cluster of new phones including a trio of Asha handsets.

But the devices that has generated the most buzz, and the most leaks, also made their appearance: a six-inch upmarket phablet, known as the Lumia 1520; its lower end cousin, the 1320; and the 2520 tablet (find out more about the Lumia 2520 here).

The 1520 is a glossy phablet with a host of features and some range-topping specs. There's a Full HD AMOLED display at 1080x1920 pixels and, thanks to the extra screen real estate and the Windows Phone GDR3 update released last week, it has a three column layout.

"We have boosted the Lumia design to a six-inch screen," Elop said.

"We've collaborated with Microsoft on the design of the user interface with the introduction of the three-column layout, which lets users get to their information faster and with less scrolling. There's more room for people who like lots of tiles."

Onboard, there's 32GB of storage, with a further 64GB expandable via the microSD slot. Powering the device is Qualcomm's 800 Snapdragon chip, along with 2GB of RAM — making it one of the most heavyweight Nokias yet.

For the business minded, the 1520 has Office and Lync onboard, as well as the more consumer-focused comms package Joyn.

When it come to imaging, the 1520 isn't quite as fancy as the Lumia 1020, but it's still a big jump up on most of the Lumia range: the device comes with a 20-megapixel rear facing camera and a 1.2-megapixel HD front facing equivalent, capable of 720p video.

The 1520 also comes with the new Nokia Camera app, which combines lot of the camera functionality introduced with the 1020, including the Smart and Pro apps, and there's also the option of post-focusing images through the Refocus Lens, handy for clearing up out-of-focus shots. Instagram is also due to arrive on Windows Phone 8 in the coming weeks, Elop said.

The device is available in a couple of Nokia's signature bright colours — red and yellow — as well as a more sombre black and white.

There's a solid 3400mAh battery and wireless charging, but no official word on expected battery life yet, though Nokia reckons its standby time is over 30 days, and you can get nine hours of video playback out of a full battery.

For those who need more time between charges, Nokia has brought out a nifty spare battery pack, also wireless. Nokia's pitch is that the battery pack can be charged up overnight, then kept in a pocket. Users can then put their phone into the same pocket when it gets low on charge, and the pack will give it a battery top-up.

The 1520 is pitched as having a similar seniority in Nokia lineup as the imaging-focused 1020, and is priced at $749 SIM-free accordingly — around double the price of the more mass-market 1320. It'll be released this quarter in Hong Kong, Singapore and US then expanded to China, France, Germany, UK and other European markets.

From bling to basic

In keeping with Nokia's design language, the lower-end 1320 has a rubbery-feeling plastic exterior and rounded lines compared to the sleeker, glossier look of the 1520.

The outer shell isn't the only compromise Nokia's made to bring the six-inch device in at a more mass market price: it's powered by a Snapdragon S4 dual-core 1.7Ghz chip, comes with 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of memory (expandable up to 64GB via microSD). Both the 1320 and the 1520 get 7GB of SkyDrive storage thrown in for good measure however.

As you'd expect, the 1320 also makes some tradeoffs on display and camera in line with its price tag: there's a five-megapixel rear-facing camera and a VGA front-facing equivalent, and the HD display is 1280x720. Compared to the 1520, there's far fewer of the imaging bells and whistles: Optical Image Stabilisation technology, six lens optics, 2x hi-res zoom or dual LED flash (the 1320's is single LED) are all found absent from the 1320.

And, unlike its higher-specced cousin, there's no wireless charging, although the pair do share the same 3400 mAh non-replaceable battery. There's also no NFC to be found on the 1320.

Both tablets will come with Beamer, an update to the Photobeamer app found on most Lumias. By way of a QR code, Lumia devices with the Photobeamer app installed can show their photos on any screen that can bring up a browser. By pointing the browser to photobeamer.com then scanning the QR code that appears with the phone, the browser will bring up the pictures on the screen as you scroll through them on the handset. Now, Beamer has extended that functionality to all the other stuff you might want to show on a friend or colleague's PC — documents, videos and so on.

The 1320 will be available for $339 early next year, first in China and Vietnam, then Asia, Europe, and India. It'll be available in orrange, yellow, black and white.

Getting into phablets

Nokia has been one of the few major handset makers to have held off on making phablets: BlackBerry's Z30, HTC's One Max and Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 have all hit the market recently, and Apple is rumoured to be not far from bringing out its own supersized device in the near future. Initially derided as palm-breakers when they came out, phablets and larger-sized devices are gaining an increasing slice of the mobile market.

While the cost of the 1520 may seem prohibitive to many, the similarly-expensive 1020 has already proved that Nokia can produce devices that justify a top-end price tag. It looks like it's pulled off a similar trick with the (from what little hands-on time we've had with it) rather desirable 1520. Releasing a 1320 is an even smarter move, allowing the more hard-up consumer to get a reasonably close approximation of the 1520 at a more sensible price. After all, it's the lower end Lumias, not the flagships, that have helped establish Nokia in the smartphone market post-Windows Phone.

An Asha trio

At the other end of the device stack, Nokia gave its Asha lineup a spruce up with three new devices, following the lead of the 501 launched last in May.

Debuted today were the 500, a lower end model that come in both single and dual SIM variants, and the higher specced 502, also single and dual SIM, and 503.

All have been given a design makeover in the form of a see-through shell Nokia's calling Ice. It's made of perspex, and has been introduced with an eye on adding durability to the emerging markets range.

All three touchscreen devices feature the Asha UI that Nokia released earlier this year, including Fastlane, the homepage that shows all a user's most recent activity including photos, contacts and social media updates.

The 500 is the most basic model and the cheapest Asha so far. There's a two-megapixel camera on the 2G device, and it comes with the longest standby time of the bunch: 39 days. It's priced at $69 and will be realeased this quarter.

The 502 has a slightly bigger screen than its cheaper counterpart — three inches compared to 2.8 — but is also 2G only. It's priced at $89 and will be available this quarter. The 503 ups the ante with a three-inch Gorilla Glass screen, wi-fi, and 3.5G connectivity.

Despite a crop of 4G launches in the developing markets that the Asha range is targeting, Nokia told ZDNet it has no plans to bring an LTE Asha to market, as the cost of the extra radio would put the phone beyond the reach of the buyers it's aimed at.

WhatsApp will also be coming to the Asha range next month, the company's CEO Jan Koum announced at Nokia World.

The future of the Asha range, and the cheaper Series 40 and Series 30 devices even further down Nokia's device stack has been in doubt since Microsoft announced its proposed acquisition of Nokia's devices and services unit for €5.4bn earlier this year.

While Microsoft has said that it intends to hold on to Nokia's feature phones business for now, using the devices as an "on ramp" to eventually persuade consumers onto Windows Phone. With the price gap between Nokia's range topping Series 40/Asha phones and the lower end Windows Phones narrowing, it's not hard to see a time coming in the near future when Nokia's feature phones are surplus to Microsoft's requirements.

However, for now, demand for featurephones may be shrinking, but it's far from dead: Nokia's featurephone business brought in revenues of €1.4bn in the last quarter, compared to its Windows Phone unit's €1.2bn.

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