Deep-dive review: The Lumia 635 smartphone -- a study in contrasts

With Nokia's new low-cost phone, it's Microsoft's Windows Phone 8.1 that makes it good.

Nokia's new Lumia 635 smartphone could be a glimpse of what future lower-cost Lumia devices will be like -- assuming there are any. After several days of use, I found that its greatest strength was the fact that it comes with the latest version (8.1) of Windows Phone -- which includes Office software and a new "personal assistant" called Cortana.

AT&T will introduce a prepaid version of the Lumia 635 for a $99 promotional price starting July 25th and $140 after Aug. 8th; T-Mobile began selling it on July 9th at $7 a month over 24 months, for a total of $168. Both offers are without contract.

Nokia Lumia 635

Using the Lumia 635 can be an adjustment for a smartphone user who is accustomed to higher-end devices such as iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones, but the device may be attractive to buyers looking for a low-cost Windows Phone.

The new Windows Phone 8.1 operating system retains the great Windows Phone live tile concept that, to my taste, offers the best home screen look and feel on the market. With live tiles, you can pin your favorite website to your home screen and it's large enough to easily see it constantly updated.

Still, the Lumia 635 is a phone laden with contradictions: For example, there's only one camera in the rear with just a 5-megapixel lens, even though, before its acquisition by Microsoft, Nokia was known for including high-quality cameras in most of its other phones.

Ultimately, the Lumia 635 is a mixed bag.

Hardware -- many lower-cost tradeoffs

The look and feel of the Lumia 635 is a lot like the iPhone 5C. The back cover is a shell made of polycarbonate plastic. My review unit from T-Mobile had a white cover, but Microsoft has promised black, orange, green and yellow covers also. The display runs nearly to the edges without any physical buttons, with the back cover wrapping around the front just a bit to leave an attractive slim trim edge all around the rectangular device. The corners are rounded off, so it almost has the shape of a somewhat larger iPhone.

What's going on with Microsoft and the Lumia line?

Microsoft finished the purchase of Nokia in April and in early July released the low-cost Nokia Lumia 635 to the U.S. market.

Initial sales of the Lumia 635 came just days before Microsoft said on July 17 that it would lay off 18,000 workers (including 12,500 people from Nokia), its biggest layoff ever.

The layoff announcement also included a reorganization of Microsoft smartphone production, with a focus on lower-cost Windows Phone devices and the conversion of some planned Nokia X smartphone designs, which were originally intended to run Android, to run Windows Phone.

With low-cost Lumia smartphones, Microsoft is apparently hoping to improve its slim global smartphone market share of just over 3%. However, some analysts have predicted that Microsoft is readying its smartphone business for possible sale or spinoff in the next 18 months, following the pattern of Google after it bought the Motorola phone business and quickly sold it to Lenovo.

The phone is easy to hold, even with a fairly large 4.5-in. display. At 5.1 x 2.62 x .36 inches and 4.7 oz., it is a tad heavier and thicker than the 4-in. iPhone 5S but almost exactly the same weight as the 4-in. iPhone 5C (although it's slightly larger).

The Lumia 635's display has a comparatively low 854 x 480 resolution. Microsoft promotes the ClearBlack display as offering visibility in bright daylight, but that was hardly the case for me. Even at the brightest display setting, I could hardly make out anything on the screen outdoors during daylight, even from inside a car. While it's manufactured of scratch-resistant Corning Gorilla Glass 3, almost all I could notice when outdoors or in the car were my fingerprints, which were more obvious than on any smartphone that I've ever used.

The plastic back cover pops off easily to reveal the battery and a slot for a micro SD card of up to 128GB. The phone itself comes with 8GB of internal memory and online access to 15GB free OneDrive cloud storage.

There's a Qualcomm Snapdragon quad-core S400 processor running at 1.2 GHz, along with 513MB of RAM. There are now a number of phones on the market with quad-core processors from Qualcomm, but they are clocked at faster speeds.

The processor worked fairly well when I played back streaming video, with occasional brief pauses (which I can't positively blame the phone for, since it could be attributable to the slower T-Mobile 3G or 2G network where I live in Virginia -- the phone supports LTE 4G speeds). Audio streaming was quite good over many hours of use, and some simple car racing games worked well on the device.

Where I noticed the slower processing was when I switched between apps on the phone and constantly got a "resuming" or "loading" message in the middle of a black screen before the launch of the next app. Sometimes it would take several seconds for the new app to launch, something that quickly became very annoying.

The battery, rated at 1,830 mAh, lasted three days with what I'd call a moderate usage pattern of emailing, taking pictures, Web surfing, listening to music, watching a few short videos, talking on the phone and more. Microsoft rates the talk time at up to 14 hours on 3G, with video playback at up to seven hours, so that sounds about right.

As mentioned earlier, there's just one back-facing 5-megapixel camera, when most phones today have front and rear cameras with at least one rated at above 9 megapixels. (A high-end phone such as the LG G3 boasts two cameras with a 13-megapixel rear camera.) There's also the ability to shoot video at 720p and 30 frames per second, which offers capable video capture, especially for snippets going to the Web.

One of the most mind-boggling problems of having one camera only in the rear is that it hinders the ability to take good selfies or conduct a videoconference. Nokia has substituted something called Glam Me (yes, really!), which requires you to hold up the phone while facing its blank rear side while looking into the camera lens, then listen for a series of beeps that increase in tempo to indicate whether your face is centered in the frame before hearing a shutter sound.

Clearly, having just one camera helps Nokia lower costs. However, the fault in this Glam Me system is that while your head (or heads, depending on how many people you're photographing) will be centered in the frame, you don't have the level of control you need over many factors, including facial expression or the proper lower or higher camera angle. There are some editing capabilities in the Lumia 635 that can help correct some problems in a selfie image, but not whether the subject is posed to look completely ready for the shutter click. All those Lumia 635 editing tricks can't make up for the lack of a front-facing camera.

There's one speaker on the rear of the Lumia 635 (unlike the stereo speakers in some other smartphones), which worked quite well when laid on a table to play rock and pop music, but not for orchestral sounds, including strings. I got better sound with ear buds plugged into the 3.5mm jack on the top edge.

When I used the Lumia 635 as a phone, my callers sounded a bit like they were coming from inside a box, but the sound was still clear enough to be passably good.

The power button and volume up and down buttons are on the right side, but seemed a little hard to push sometimes. A standard micro-USB charging port is on the bottom edge.

When I first got my review unit, it wouldn't power down properly. I followed the shutdown prompts, but the phone would at first shut down and then immediately start up again. That kind of start-up after powering down happened at least 10 times, both while the phone was plugged in for charging and while unplugged. After a reboot (accomplished by holding down the power button and the lower volume button for several seconds), that problem corrected itself.

Subsequently, at several different times over several days, a somewhat similar problem surfaced: I would close an application on the screen only to see it suddenly re-open. One more try at closing always finally closed it. I haven't seen any similar reports, so these could simply be a problem with the early-release review unit.

Cortana shines

The 635 is technically the first Lumia device to get the newest Windows Phone 8.1 software, although the 8.1 preview version was used on the Lumia 520 on AT&T's network and got a few positive reviews, including from Computerworld's Ryan Faas back in May.

Windows Phone 8.1's biggest new feature is Cortana, a savvy voice-activated digital assistant.

Cortana is a very good digital assistant, but it's not quite as "truly personal" or artificially intelligent as Microsoft officials would have had us believe when it was first unveiled in April. In fact, Cortana is still technically in beta and it's not clear when the beta period will end.

Cortana will greet you each day with a text update and can take voice commands.

When Cortana is activated for the first time, you are asked a series of questions to help it establish your voice, behaviors and preferences. The first question I was asked was how I wanted Cortana to say my name. Then I was asked to state two things I do in the evenings and, later, my two main motivations for going out. (I tried to impress Cortana by saying I go out to learn something and to improve myself.)

After using Cortana for nearly a week, I couldn't detect much personalization from my answers to those initial baseline questions. Instead, I was given a "Good morning!" screen in text each day with the day's weather for my area and top headlines, followed by health, entertainment and business news. There didn't seem to be much, if any, automated customization of the content I was receiving. Perhaps I need to use it much longer to see the personalization benefits.

Cortana saves all your preferences in what is called a Notebook; you can tweak those preferences manually by tapping on the Notebook icon. For example, you can add sports to your interests and follow a favorite team (Red Sox, in my case, even though it's not a great year). I could then ask Cortana to notify me of score updates for the team.

For business users, Cortana can detect flight itineraries and other tracking information from your emails and add them to the Notebook to be able to provide reminders (with the user's permission, naturally). Users can also disable email integration entirely.

When I tested Cortana, some of the more basic requests worked really well, such as, "Show me the Mexican restaurants nearby" or "Show me the nearest hardware store" or "How far to the nearest airport?"

One of my most interesting test cases for Cortana was a reminder to pick up milk when I got to the store, making use of the phone's GPS capability. (Reminders given to Cortana can be made using time or contacts, as well as by location.) I activated Cortana by touching the Cortana tile pinned to the home screen, then touched the microphone and said, "Remind me to pick up milk when I get to the store."

Cortana's voice repeated my request and then showed me a list of the nearest store with milk. I could tap on that store or tap "any store" as well. It then activated a text reminder with a tone alerting me to the text once I was parked a few feet from the entrance to the store.

Later, I altered the command to, "Remind me to pick up milk when I'm anywhere near a store" to make it useful when driving by a store, not actually going to it. But Cortana repeatedly kept changing that request to the older command, which it truncated as, "Remind you when you get to store. Is this the one you want?"

Trivia note to gamers: Cortana's female voice is synthesized in part from an AI character named Cortana (played by actress Jen Taylor) in the Halo video game series. (There is a male voice available as well.)

And there's humor: When you ask Cortana on the phone if she's better than Siri, she comes back with even more Halo insider wisdom, nutty as it is: "Not to brag, but apparently I'm going to help save the universe in about 500 years."

Overall, Cortana isn't everything one might hope for, but it gets a 9 out of 10 in my book. Voice input and response have really come a long way, and represent a major asset for Microsoft, should the company should sell off its smartphone division or make some other drastic move.

Other Windows Phone 8.1 features

There are other Windows Phone 8.1 features that I liked. For example, a new Word Flow feature adds shape writing to the virtual on-screen keyboard (shape writing is a process of drawing on the keyboard with a finger to reach each letter without lifting the finger to touch each letter). Action Center, which handles notifications and other phone settings, and Sense, which manages data and battery use, are two other powerful new additions in Windows Phone 8.1.

To see Action Center, you swipe down from the top of the screen. Four buttons at the top let you control Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, airplane mode, display brightness and more; they can be swapped out with others you find more important. There's also an "All settings" button if you want to view the entire list of settings. Beneath that are notifications of recent emails, messages and headlines.

Storage Sense helps track data storage and decide where to keep it.

Sense lets you manage storage, battery and data use with easy-to-view displays. Storage Sense lets you can see how much battery life is left and also get an estimate of how long that will last, as well as the time since the last charge. Sense also detects which apps deplete the battery the most and optimizes each app to extend battery life, according to Microsoft. Data Sense is helpful for tracking a monthly data allotment from a carrier; users can customize alerts to say when a data limit is near so they can be directed to free Wi-Fi hotspots. Wi-Fi Sense instantly connects the phone to free Wi-Fi.

The Word Flow shape-writing keyboard works smoothly and as well as many of the other shape-writing apps on the market (and I've tried many of them). In a message or email, you tap the first letter of the word to be typed, then drag your finger to each of the next letters, picking up the finger when the last letter is reached. At that point, the word appears on the screen. It's quite a bit faster than picking out each letter. I intentionally tried to flub on picking letters, and Word Flow still figured out the word I was typing almost every time.

Some more valuable apps and features

In addition to Windows Phone 8.1 features, the Lumia 635 came with several interesting apps and features. A free MixRadio streaming music app was one of my favorites and came with no ads or the need to sign up. (T-Mobile also began offering free data use for a number of music streaming services in early July, but hasn't so far included MixRadio.)

I enjoy streaming radio mixes such as MixRadio offers, because they expose me to new music. And MixRadio lets you easily download a mix of songs to the phone to listen to music offline.

Here Maps and Here Drive+ are also among my favorite features. I can use Cortana to start navigating with a simple voice command to find a favorite restaurant; a simple touch on "Start Voice Nav" will then activate Here Drive+ with voice directions. The process is simpler than with Google Maps and some others I've tried, and the maps are clearer to read.

Here Drive+ also knows the speed limits for each segment of a roadway, and users can set the navigation service to sound a tone when the car's speed goes over that limit. You can easily set at how many miles an hour over the limit you want the tone to sound, or completely turn it off. Display options for the maps can be changed from 2D to 3D, and there are 88 different navigation voices to pick from, including a goofy-sounding male Surfer Dude voice. (All this is especially handy because it's very hard to read anything on the Lumia 635's display when outdoors or in a car.)

Another useful feature is the 15GB of free cloud storage that you get on OneDrive. Automatic backups are possible via your data stream or Wi-Fi, and you can limit uploads of photo and video files to Wi-Fi only. It's also easy to share a document with someone else via messaging or email from the cloud with just a few taps.

OneDrive capabilities are a reminder that Microsoft has made cloud computing a centerpiece of its future strategy. Another Microsoft priority is expanding on the ability to use Office software on any device, including Surface tablets, laptops and smartphones running Windows Phone.

The Lumia 635 comes with an Office app that let me create, access, edit and share Office documents and OneNote notebooks. With the app, I was able to create a Word document on the phone, save it, send it to OneDrive and thus share it with other devices. It all worked well, and I really appreciated the value of widespread adoption of Office software on an inexpensive phone, especially combined with the quick shape-writing capabilities of Word Flow.

The phone also comes with a few camera-related apps that try to make up for the inclusion of a single 5-megapixel camera.

Aside from the deplorable Glam Me selfie-taking app mentioned above, there's an app called Smart Sequence, which captures a burst of photo frames to get the best facial expression for each person in a group shot to be combined into a final shot. Another app called Storyteller makes it easy to tell a story with photos and videos, after the phone itself has grouped a given set of photos or videos by time and place. You select two or more pictures and tap a merge icon to create a slideshow.

Nokia Cinemagraph blends photos with simple animation, which might be useful to liven up a presentation or a personal message. I took a photo of my dog Scout and with some quick onscreen touches, the result was a brief animation of her head turning side-to-side, almost in time lapse.

At a Glance

Nokia Lumia 635

NokiaPrice: $99 prepaid on AT&T until Aug. 8th, $140 after; $7 a month on T-Mobile ($168 total)Pros: Great new features in Windows Phone 8.1 include Cortana digital assistant, Word Flow, Action Center, Here Drive+Cons: No front camera, hard to read outdoors with low-resolution display, plastic case feels flimsy

In addition to these camera apps, Microsoft has pre-installed Skype on the phone, but only for calling and texting. (Remember, there's not a front-facing camera for videoconferencing.) T-Mobile also supports Wi-Fi calling on the Lumia 635.

A note: I've read complaints that Windows Phone is deficient in offering only about 300,000 Windows Phone apps, less than a third of what's available on Apple's App Store or Google Play.

In response to the criticism that it has too few apps, Microsoft says it has 90% of the top 20 apps that smartphones users say are important (and the list is constantly changing), and has recently added Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram and Vine. Microsoft also claims it has a lot of developer interest in creating apps, with more than 500 apps added to its store each day.

In conclusion

Overall, the Lumia 635 is an odd mix of hardware cutbacks for affordability with some premium software features thrown in.

It's rather strange that the Lumia 635, which has a single camera and only a moderately good display and processor, is the first to offer Windows Phone 8.1 and the perks that come with it, such as Office software, Here Drive+ navigation and a Cortana digital assistant that is sophisticated enough to create reminders by tracking information inside of emails. Maybe the phone doesn't know if it wants to be a kid or a grown-up.

Some buyers might wonder if it makes sense to buy a Lumia 635 if Microsoft has even vague plans to sell off its phone business in two years, but that shouldn't matter at all given the short life of phones.

But while I wouldn't write off the Windows Phone entirely, in this case, you might want to look elsewhere. In the U.S., the smartphone market is fairly saturated, and many people already own a high-end smartphone like the Apple iPhone 5S or the Samsung Galaxy S5, both of which sell for $200 with a two-year contract. Recently, Best Buy dropped the new well-ranked LG G3 to $99 on-contract with three national carriers. At that price (assuming you can afford a contract), the LG G3, which runs Android 4.4 and comes with two cameras, is a better buy than the new Lumia 635.

This article, Deep-dive review: The Lumia 635 smartphone -- a study in contrasts, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

Read more about windows phone in Computerworld's Windows Phone Topic Center.

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