Budget doesn't need to be a dirty word. Just look at the Nokia Lumia 635, which costs just $168 on T-Mobile (without a contract) and offers a vivid display, snappy performance and more than eight hours of battery life. Some concessions had to be made for the low price, including a missing front camera and rear flash. But in the tug-of-war between value and functionality, shoppers win with this smartphone.
It's a budget phone and it shows. The majority of the Lumia 635 is wrapped in a white plastic shell. It's not pretty, but it's functional, offering a sure grip. When I passed the phone around to fellow staffers, one remarked that the back felt more like a case than a traditional rear panel.
This was especially true when it came time to pop the rear cover and get a look at the battery and microSD slot. Removing the back involved wedging a fingernail between the side of the phone and the shell and gently disengaging the cover by pushing it off the top of the phone. The first time I attempted to remove the back, I was scared I was going to crack the screen, but it came off without a hitch.
Overall, the 635 is a bare-bones operation in terms of design. Instead of an elaborate rear-camera setup like the Lumia 928, Icon and 1020, there's just the simple 5-megapixel camera lens. An unassuming gray Nokia emblem runs down the center with a small circle cut out in the bottom right corner for the speaker.
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Click to EnlargeThe volume rocker and power buttons sit on the right, but there's a notable omission versus other Windows Phones -- the camera button. I was a little put off at first, but my Lumia 928 is full of dark or blurry pics from those times the button accidentally depressed in my pocket.
I was a little annoyed to discover that Nokia placed the Back, Home and Search buttons in the actual display area instead of below the screen. I prefer dedicated buttons. The front area is also missing a camera, so selfie and video chatters will have to resort to other means to get their fix.
Measuring 5.09 x 2.62 x 0.36 inches and weighing 4.72 ounces, the Lumia 635 is slightly thicker and heavier than budget Android phones such as the Alcatel One Touch Fierce (5.13 x 2.64 x 0.35 inches, 4.7 ounces), but sleeker than the Alcatel One Touch Evolve (4.78 x 2.52 x 0.46 inches, 4.8 ounces).
Click to EnlargeI have to hand it to Nokia; they really know how to deliver a good display, even on a budget phone. Colors on the 4.5-inch panel were impressive. While watching the X-Men: Days of Future Past trailer on the 635, Mystique's cobalt-blue skin looked particularly alluring as she dispatched a few guards with her lithe movements and sharp kicks.
However, the display's low 854 x 480-pixel resolution obfuscated the pattern of Professor X's tweed jacket, as well as the ridges in Wolverine's bone claws. The viewing angles weren't as wide as I'd like, either.
The Lumia 635's screen averaged 292 lux on our brightness test, which is well below the 433 lux smartphone average and the Fierce (327 lux). However, the Nokia topped the Evolve's 271 lux.
Sometimes you get what you pay for, and in this case, it's a lackluster audio experience. Although it cranked out 80 decibels on the Laptop Mag Audio test--on a par with the smartphone average--the 635's single speaker failed to fill the small office I used as a test space.
When I listened to Pharrell's "Come Get It Babe," the artist's voice had a hint of distortion at maximum volume that worsened when the background vocals came in. The usually clear snaps and snares were so quiet they were practically nonexistent.
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Windows Phone 8.1 OS
Click to EnlargeThe Lumia 635 joins Nokia's growing collection of smartphones shipping with Windows Phone 8.1. The update adds several useful features that borrow heavily from Android and iOS, but they're welcome enhancements just the same.
For example, Windows Phone users finally get an omnipresent status bar that sits at the top of the display, showing time, Wi-Fi and battery life. If you swipe down, you'll access Microsoft's Action Center, which is basically a notifications shade and quick settings menu in one.
Click to EnlargeYou can customize the Action Center shortcuts in the Settings menu, swapping them out for items such as airplane mode, location and rotation lock. I applaud Microsoft for jumping on the convenience convoy, but I wish there were more than four options available at once.
Long-pressing the Back button still displays all your currently open apps. In another nod to convenience and modernity, swiping down let me close out a program instead of making me repeatedly hit the back button to exit everything.
Swype, is that you? Microsoft has finally added the word-tracing software Windows Phone so desperately needed. The aptly named Word Flow works well in practice, producing a thick blue line as I dragged my finger from letter to letter. The word prediction was fairly accurate, too, suggesting most of the words I was attempting to type (or swipe) before I had a chance to finish.
Click to EnlargeMicrosoft has also entered the digital assistant arena to play up the company's gamer/geek cred. Microsoft has dubbed its assistant Cortana, after the Halo series' well-known AI character, going so far as to recruit the voice actress to record some of the responses.
There is just something thrilling about hearing Cortana from the Halo series answer my questions. It definitely has a sense of humor. When I asked where Master Chief was, Cortana said that it hopes Master Chief is getting some rest and relaxation since "he HAS saved the galaxy three or four times."
Cortana answered more mundane questions, such as who is the U.S. secretary of state and who won the Mets game, quickly and correctly. However, questions about making a proper Manhattan or who is Emmett Till were met with silence and Bing Search.
I successfully used Cortana to navigate to a friend's house in Brooklyn. She pulled up directions from HERE maps, which provided driving, public transit and walking directions.
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The biggest hurdle Microsoft has to overcome is its relatively small app store. To date, the Windows Store offers approximately 240,000 apps, which is a drop in the bucket compared with the 1 million-plus apps each featured in the Apple Apps Store and Google Play.
While the number of apps is problematic, the quality of apps is definitely troubling. The Windows Store is still missing such popular apps as Snapchat and YouTube. The Instagram app, while available, is still in beta, and daters looking to swipe their way to true love will have to make do without Tinder.
Still, Microsoft has made some progress, adding Facebook Messenger, Uber, Roku, Vine and WhatsApp to its catalog.
Click to EnlargeNokia and T-Mobile have teamed up to fill the app void with their own branded software. Nokia Drive, for instance, provides accurate and free turn-by-turn GPS navigation, while HERE maps is better for when you're on foot, helping you get from point A to point B and find places to go in cities.
Music lovers will want to check out MixRadio, Nokia's version of Slacker. The app offers several mixes created from global music experts, or you can listen to stations based on a particular artist. You can also download mixes for offline listening.
Click to EnlargeT-Mobile-branded apps include My Account, which offers account info, device how-to's and a link to tech support. TV buffs can also take advantage of the T-Mobile TV app. Name ID is a $3.99 monthly service that acts like caller ID, showing the names of all your callers -- even those not listed in your contacts.
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Running a 1.2-GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 GPU with 512MB of RAM, the Nokia Lumia 635 is deceptively powerful. I found swiping around the home screen and opening apps to be fairly swift. Surfing was nearly seamless; I encountered a few instances where the page lagged behind my finger.
I took some laps in Asphalt 8 to test the Lumia 635's gaming performance. The performance was smooth for the most part, but the loose tilt controls forced me to tilt the phone at extreme angles to keep from crashing.
On the WP Bench benchmark, which measures overall performance, the phone scored 262.26. That's significantly higher than Nokia Lumia 531 and its 1-GHz dual-core Snapdragon CPU, which notched 178.08.
The Nokia Lumia 635 comes with 8GB of onboard storage with a microSD that can expand the storage up to 128GB.
Camera and Camcorder
Click to EnlargeThe Lumia 635's 5-megapixel camera delivered lackluster results. A shot I took of red roses and pink lilies had deep, vivid color, while a photo of golden sunflowers looked rather pallid. Don't expect much detail. At a nearby firehouse, the edges of the Engine 14 sign were fuzzy, as was the golden F.D.N.Y. lettering on the bright red door.
Click to EnlargeThe camera did surprisingly well indoors, using the minimal light in the room to capture a decent photo of a co-worker. Without a flash, however, you'll get images rife with visual noise in dimmer conditions.
I experienced better results when I used the 635 to take video of New York City traffic. The 720p video showed off bright yellow taxis and gleaming black Crown Victorias. The edges of the circular decal on the taxi's side looked nice and crisp.
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Click to EnlargeDespite being a budget phone, the Nokia Camera app serves up myriad manual controls via a cool radial interface with numerous sliders. ISO, shutter speed and white balance are just a few of the settings that can be tweaked. The company was thoughtful enough to include a tutorial for newbies.
One of my favorite apps, the gif-tastic Nokia Cinemagraph, is also on the Lumia 635. The app takes a few seconds of video and lets you choose which parts are still and which parts are animated. Creative Studio is Nokia's answer to Instagram, providing photogs with eight filters to trick out their photos. Now your food pics can have that quaint, antique look.
Click to EnlargeNokia Glam Me is an interesting new addition. The app is positively made for selfies, automatically smoothing out skin tones and removing unsightly blemishes. You can take the beautification process even further with the editing tools that allow you to enlarge/shrink your eyes, widen your smile and even slim down your face.
There's a catch. In the absence of a front camera, you have to rely on the rear shooter to take your selfie. Glam Me solves this dilemma by adding an auto-selfie mode that detects when your face is in front of the camera. Once your face is in range, the phone emits a series of beeps to let you know it's OK to take the photo. I got a few good shots, but I'd prefer a front camera to check out my pose beforehand.
The Nokia Lumia 635's 1830 mAH battery lasts a long, long time. Over the course of an 8-hour day, I watched video, browsed the Web, snapped and edited a few photos, and the 635 still had about 30 percent battery life.
The phone lasted over 9 hours on the Laptop Mag battery test (continuous Web surfing over 4G LTE), easily beating the 7:43 smartphone average. The Alcatel One Touch Fierce gave out at 6:33 and the Alcatel One Touch Evolve quit at 4:17.
Due to an errant pop-up during the test, the display was dimmer than the 50 percent setting we were going to use. We will rerun the test and update the review the review.
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Like most carriers, T-Mobile's coverage can be spotty in some areas. To combat this, the provider offers Wi-Fi Calling on the Lumia 635. This allows users to send and receive calls over Wi-Fi instead of using your calling plan.
When I used Wi-Fi to dial one of my co-workers, voices were crystal clear on both ends. However, as I moved farther away from my router, I could hear a small bell signaling that the call was in danger of being dropped.
Click to EnlargeNo, you don't get a front camera or flash on the back, but the $168 Nokia Lumia 635 is a solid choice for the price. This Windows Phone delivers smooth performance, long battery life and a surprisingly lovely display. The 5-MP camera isn't great, but Nokia's suite of camera apps helps make the best of it.
Prefer Android to Windows Phone? Shoppers should check out the $150 Alcatel One Touch Fierce, which is slimmer and lighter than the Lumia with a brighter display. You'll also benefit from a much bigger app selection. But if you're willing to take Microsoft's user-friendly and fun interface for a spin, the Lumia 635 will satisfy.