Review: The Lumia 2520 Is the Tablet Nokia Was Born to Build

The Finnish phone maker's first -- and possibly last -- tablet is nice. But like all Windows tablets, it's short on inspiring apps.

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Like Apple — and unlike most other tech companies — Nokia has always had an overarching, distinctive sense of style. Phones such as the Lumia 1020 stand out from the crowd with their pleasing use of plastics, graceful curves and lack of unnecessary adornments. Take off the Nokia logo, and you’d still know they were Nokias.

It’s an admirable trait. And it’s very much on display in the newest Lumia, the Lumia 2520, which happens to be the company’s first tablet. This Windows RT device is instantly identifiable from its similarities with its classy smartphone siblings, exuding the design panache I hope doesn’t get lost in the shuffle when Microsoft completes its $7.14 billion takeover of Nokia’s devices and services group next year.

And in a move that makes more sense when you consider that Nokia is a phone manufacturer, the 2520 isn’t available in a Wi-Fi-only version. It includes built-in LTE 4G wireless broadband and is being offered by AT&T and Verizon Wireless with 32GB of storage for $499. (I tried the black-cased AT&T model, as provided for review by Nokia; Verizon is also offering a red variant.)

If you sign up for a two-year data contract, the 2520 is $399. That’s a pretty skimpy discount, but even at $499, the tablet undercuts the price of a similarly-equipped iPad Air by $240. And until January 31, Nokia has a mail-in offer for a free keyboard case with a built-in battery that extends the 2520’s life.

Of course, the high-profile tablet this Lumia resembles most isn’t the iPad Air. It’s Microsoft’s own Surface 2. Both run Microsoft’s Windows RT 8.1, which means that they’ve got the slick Metro interface and come with a full copy of the Office suite, but run only Metro apps, not conventional third-party Windows programs.

I was startled when I checked the specs and learned that the Lumia 2520 and Surface 2 are both .35 of an inch thick: The Lumia feels svelter, probably because its case, much like that of a Lumia phone, is made of gracefully-curved soft-touch polycarbonate rather than the Surface’s Bauhaus-like shell of sharply-angled magnesium. The Lumia is slightly lighter: 1.36 pounds to the Surface’s 1.49 pounds. That’s not enough to obsess over, and in the era of the one-pound iPad Air, neither of these tablets counts as a featherweight.

The 2520 is presumably lighter than the Surface in part because it doesn’t have the Surface’s signature built-in kickstand, which, along with one of Microsoft’s keyboard covers, lets you use that tablet like an ultraportable laptop. Nokia’s screen is 10.1 inches — a popular size among full-size tablets, but a tad less roomy than the 10.6-incher Microsoft chose. Text and photos are both pleasing; as with all wide-screen tablets, however, this one is largely designed for landscape-mode use. (Hold it in portrait orientation, and text on web pages has a tendency to shrink to a size that doesn’t make for comfy reading.)

Hardware-wise, there’s nothing about the 2520 that boldly goes where no tablet has gone before, but everything about it is quite nice. Packing a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chip with four cores of processing power, it feels plenty fast, and in my informal tests, battery life was in the impressive neighborhood of the “up to” 11 hours claimed by Nokia. The 6.7-megapixel rear camera, though no match for the groundbreaking shooter incorporated into Nokia’s Lumia 1020 smartphone, is respectable by tablet standards. The speakers sounded decent — again, for a tablet — even when I pumped up the volume.

For my money, 4G LTE broadband is one of the most delightfully luxurious features a tablet can sport, and the 2520’s AT&T service worked well when I tried it around the Bay Area. Not everybody needs built-in 4G: It’s a pricier way to get online on the go than mooching  free Wi-Fi at Starbucks or using a smartphone that has wireless hotspot capability. But it’s also the easiest, most reliable route to the Internet, and the fact that you can’t get it in a Surface is a notable omission. (Microsoft says LTE will arrive as an option in 2014.)

Overall, as long as you’re using the 2520 like a tablet rather than a pseudo-laptop, it’s not a strikingly different experience from using a Surface. Windows RT’s interface is fun to use, and efficient, too, thanks to features like the ability to snap two apps on-screen at once. Having Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook on board is a plus for productivity, but not a deeply satisfying one, since the apps, unlike all of Windows RT’s other major offerings, have been only superficially rejiggered for tablet use, not reimagined.

As with the Surface 2, the Lumia 2520 is a solid hunk of hardware that would be a lot more interesting if it had some killer apps — ones so compelling that you could see yourself forsaking the 475,000 third-party offerings on Apple’s App Store to get them. At least the software situation is gradually getting brighter: For instance, one of my favorites from other platforms, Flipboard, is now available in a nifty version for Windows 8.1 and Windows RT tablets.

Nokia also provides a bunch of its own apps, including the excellent Here Maps, a Pandora-like music service with offline listening, a video editor and more. Nothing game-changing, but a point of differentiation compared to the Surface 2.

In the end, the Lumia 2520 is in the same tough spot as a bunch of tablets before it: It’s a perfectly pleasant piece of hardware, but it doesn’t trump the iPad and can’t compete with its abundance of apps. And given Nokia’s impending acquisition by Microsoft, the Finnish phone maker may not get the opportunity to try its hand at building a second-generation version. Still, the company got enough things right with its first tablet that it would be a shame if it turned out to be a design dead-end. Here’s hoping its influence is felt in models yet to come — even if they have a Microsoft logo rather than a Nokia one.

Nokia Lumia 2520 []