Time was, the only road to a consistent smartphone experience was to drop a metric buttload of cash and hope the device lived up to its hype. If it didn’t, and you didn’t catch it before the return period expired, too bad: you were stuck with that $600 brick for the rest of your two-year contract unless you could find someone to take it off your hands.
Over the past year, the reality of the absurdly expensive smartphone has begun to come apart. Sure, most true flagships are still awfully pricey when you look at their off-contract cost, but devices like Motorola’s Moto G and Moto E have recently brought upper-tier Android performance to the low end for surprisingly small sums, and Nokia’s absurdly cheap Lumia 520 has done the same for Windows Phone.
With the Lumia 635, Microsoft (née Nokia) aims to continue pushing Windows Phone at the entry level. To give us an idea of what that entails, the company was kind enough to send us a demo unit with service from T-Mobile US. We used the combination to go back to basics over the weekend, and came away impressed with how smooth a smartphone experience you can get for less than $200 off contract.
Make no mistake: the Lumia 635 is still very much a low-end device. While Nokia’s build quality is as robust as ever, its matte-finish polycarbonate casing is cut in an odd tumblehome shape, making the phone awkward to hold and the power/standby key difficult to press. The coating on the Gorilla Glass 3 display protection isn’t as smooth as on higher-end devices, and it’s much easier to smudge with sticky fingerprints.
Missing components abound. There’s no front-facing camera, not even a proximity sensor to power off the display when you’re talking on the phone. Most irritating of all is the absence of a hardware camera key, a former staple of Windows Phones that Microsoft has chosen to ditch, much to our chagrin. And the entire spec sheet, from the Snapdragon 400 processor to the low-resolution FWVGA display, is a monument to sensible frugality.
Those shortcomings aren’t just sucky stigmas on the spec sheet: they bog down real-world performance, as well. Some big apps, like the Nokia Camera viewfinder, take up to six seconds to load, and the paltry 512 MB of RAM puts a big restriction on how many apps you can juggle at a time.
Still, as we found with our day-long test drive of the Moto G last year, you don’t really need top-shelf specs to deliver a solid day-to-day experience anymore. We saddled the Lumia 635 with an app load typical of our Windows Phone array on higher-end devices like the Lumia 1020 and Lumia Icon, and the 635 handled everything from the mundane Evernote to the more-elaborate Netflix and Sky Gamblers: Rise of Glory just as smoothly as its higher-end cousins.
Microsoft has also built in some intelligent touches to make up for the 635′s hardware shortcomings. Though there’s no ambient light sensor to automatically change screen brightness, Windows Phone devotes one of its notification toggles to allow for quick brightness adjustments (and a neighboring toggle serves as a software shortcut to the camera, helping to address the lack of a shutter button). And filling in for the missing proximity detector is a keen bit of software trickery: the screen goes dark when its upper half makes contact with the skin of your cheek during a call, minimizing accidental presses of the keys on the lower half below.
Microsoft is also placing lots of emphasis on Cortana with this release –her logo is plastered right on the demo device’s box– and with the virtual assistant’s recent upgrades, that’s no small inclusion. The 635′s special sensor core also enables the Bing Health and Fitness app, and the rest of Microsoft’s Windows Phone add-ons are represented here as well – from Data Sense to Nokia MixRadio to the HERE Maps suite and beyond. For more on that, see our Windows Phone 8.1 review and our Lumia 630 review.
Testing the Lumia 635 on T-Mobile US in the Greater Boston area meant we got a chance to revisit our Magenta Test Drive from February. Using the Lumia 635 side-by-side with the Galaxy S5 Sport on Sprint’s network, T-Mobile US blew the larger carrier away. T-Mobile’s signal strength in our market is much more resilient indoors: on several occasions, we were passing data easily over T-Mobile LTE while our Sprint device was trying –and failing– to make something happen over 3G CDMA. Sometimes Sprint flashed a no-service message while our 635 was still purring along contentedly on 4G.
That kind of reliable connectivity is nice, but it’s speed which suffered in our most recent round of testing. The peaks of 30+ Mbps we saw in February are nowhere to be found these days, with our fastest connections now hovering around the 12 Mbps mark. Again, this is only in our small corner of the world: your results will certainly vary. But combined with the brief hiccups we saw on AT&T during our Fire Phone review period, we’re wondering if these once-blazing fast networks are beginning to succumb to the strain of all the new customers they’re taking on.
If you’re willing to put up with the absurdly long launch time of the Nokia Camera app (which is slow even on high-end devices), you’ll enjoy the most elaborate camera experience on any low-end phone ever, with manual settings for everything from focus to shutter speed. Sadly, the 5MP camera hardware doesn’t live up to the software’s potential, with defects ranging from color reproduction to sharpness to low-light performance. It’s pointless to enumerate every failing of a low-end phone’s camera, so judge for yourself whether this device meets your own standards with the samples below.
So basically …
The Lumia 635 is listed as “coming soon” at AT&T, and it’s available from T-Mobile US right now for $168 off-contract (or $7/mo. for 24 months). That’s not quite the bargain-basement pricing of its $49 predecessor, but it’s still less than half the price you’ll pay for a higher-end device like the Lumia 925.
Are some of its workarounds hinky and hacky? You bet. Do we miss its glaring omissions? Oh yeah. Would we rather have a high-end Windows Phone in our pocket any day of the week? Darn tootin. And honestly, we’re jaded by the Lumia 520: we’d like to see the price come down a little further before we get all blown-away by this device. But by and large both the Lumia 635 and the magenta network powering it have delivered on their promises of providing a solid smartphone and network, for less. For a lot of cash-strapped consumers out there dipping their toes into the smartphone waters for the first time, this is a combo that’ll get the job done. Even if it doesn’t blow any socks off in the process.
If you want more detail on the Lumia 635, check out Adam Lein’s review of its spiritual forerunner, the Lumia 630. Still not enough for you? Join us this Friday for the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, where we’ll answer your Lumia 635 questions live on the air!