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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

First Impressions: Nokia 521 Smartphone

Microsoft can't seem to do anything right, so when they paired up with Nokia (who can't seem to make a fashionable smart phone) to make phones, I expected the results to be irrelevant. In the past, whenever I've made a trip to Europe, I've carried an unlocked phone, and bought SIM cards in every country I visited in order to make phone calls or surf the internet. There were several problems with this approach:

  • Cyclists tend to visit small towns and rural areas. It's frequently difficult to buy SIM cards in those areas. In 2011, it took multiple days in France before we could buy more than 1 SIM card.
  • Pre-paid SIM cards with internet plans aren't always cheap or easy to get.
  • You end up with this big collection of SIM cards and swapping them around as well as keeping track of how much money was on each card became problematic.
T-mobile's International Roaming plan changes this dynamic in a big way. Not only do you get unlimited text and data while traveling, you also get calls for about $0.20 per minute in nearly every European country. Now let's couple this with some very specific features of the Nokia 521:
  • Off-line navigation and maps. Prior to travel, or any time you have WiFi, you can download maps of any and all countries onto the device. If you're familiar with Google Map's off-line modes you're probably thinking that this is useless. But this is Nokia's maps we're talking about. Nokia owns Navteq, and and it's maps are actually designed to operate off-line. What this means is that routing, address search, etc all works without access to online mode. This is FAR more useful than Google Map's off-line mode. This not only reduces your data use while traveling, it enables you to find destination even in places with no data connection. Yes, the device has a real GPS unit, so navigation while offline is accurate and reasonable.
  • FM Radio. This is a very unusual feature, in that it's implemented by using your headphone's wires as an antenna. This means no need to worry about paying for Spotify, etc. Of course, in some countries, FM radio might not get you any English songs or programs, but if you're a cyclist on an independent cycle tour, getting in part of the culture is a plus, not a minus.
The Nokia 521 is available on Amazon for about $68, which means that for a trip to Europe, it's less than 5% of the cost of a typical plane ticket during high season. You might imagine that for that price, you're getting a slow, old phone. And you'd be wrong. The phone is fast! It's faster than my 2 year old Galaxy Nexus, and that $248 phone even now at loading e-mail, and browsing the web. It's the same speed as my wife's Galaxy Note 2, which is a $400+ phone. It's hard to imagine that the same company that produced the slow, bloated Windows Vista produced Windows Phone 8.

The phone has an SD card slot, so you can load up with videos, music, and a replaceable battery, if you're not going to be able to charge it for a while. It has a rear camera which is lackluster, and interestingly enough, is missing a front camera, so you can't easily video-Skype with it. The battery life is incredible, easily going a couple of days without charging (though expect that battery life to fade quickly if you're navigating).

The lack of apps is a problem. Fortunately, the only apps I care about when traveling in addition to the above listed ones are Facebook and Amazon Kindle, both of which are available in the appstore. I don't expect Google+, Blogger, etc to be available any time soon, but the web browser on the phone is perfectly functional for those websites. The phone even comes with WiFi calling, which disconcertingly uses your T-mobile phone limits, but does come in useful for those of you who (like me) live in houses with poor T-mobile connectivity.

All in all, this is going to be my approach for the 2014 edition of the Tour of the Alps, and I'll report back on how useful everything is at the end of the trip. In any case, if you're running T-mobile, I highly recommend this phone as a backup phone or even for general use. It is as fully featured a phone as you can imagine, and much faster than other phones that cost double or triple what this one costs.

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