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Cheep and cheerful - Nokia Lumia 635 review

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#1
Tom Hopkins

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The Nokia Lumia 635 is Nokia’s newest addition to the bottom end of its range, adding 4G to the otherwise identical 630. And as you pull it out of its new-style (and very minimal) Nokia packaging, it becomes immediately obvious who they want to buy it.

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Plastic Cover, check. Lurid Colour, check. iPhone-sized, check (actually a touch larger). It’s the 5C for people who’d rather keep a serious chunk of their hard-earned cash, with the 635 setting you back as little as £130, compared to Apple's PAYG price of £369.

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In fact, mine came in an incredibly vivid Orange. I’m surprised I couldn’t see it through the packaging. We’re not talking the orange of the future being bright, here. Or even the orange of oranges. We’re talking radioactive, Chris Martin’s wrist band, David Dickinson’s face, youf orange. And it’s very nice, actually (on a phone). The back and sides contrast, and are offset by the standard totally-black front and small black camera peaking out the back.

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More orange than you could possibly imagine

What’s that? What about the buttons on the front? All windows phones have them: start, search and back up. Actually from this generation, the buttons are still mandatory, but they are no longer necessarily physical. Showing up on the screen only when it is activated.

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Look Ma, no buttons

Being virtual has a couple of benefits – the phone looks slicker when it’s locked, and the navigation bar can be styled. You can now choose to have it black, theme-coloured, or match the background (which makes it grey on light background colours). This does indeed work nicely. You can also turn haptic feedback on or off (i.e. off).

We hear the reason for this change is so that it will be easier to port Android devices over to WP8.1. Perhaps this was the motivation but in my limited time, I found it to be a benefit in its own right.

The physical camera button is gone too. Cost saving I suppose. But it leaves the phone very lean with just volume controls and the lock key.

Unfortunately the 635 lacks the ‘glance screen’ functionality found in many higher-end Nokias and the double tap to wake function which ends up quickly becoming habit. Nevermind, the power button is hardly difficult to find.

The phone comes with the latest Windows Phone software out of the box. This means all of the goodness of the relatively stacked 8.1 update, but also some tweaks that come with Nokia’s ‘Cyan’ firmware. Much of the Cyan goodness is about fixing bugs and optimising performance, enabling Bluetooth LE, treasure tag and so on. But there are some visible benefits too. There’s much more control over the screen’s brightness and colour for one. And certain features of built in apps like Nokia camera are also updated.

Just this week, Nokia has also released a Beta of the new lock screen tool. Again this brings some pretty nice effects (well OK, one nice effect, the one pictured). The lock screen’s always been really nice and simple in WP but this shakes it up a bit and provides quite a striking changes.

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In terms of design, the 635 (like its 4G-less cousin the 630) is miles better than its low-range predecessors, namely the 520 and 620, each of which was great in its own way. The 4.5 inch screen is – for my money – the perfect size. Slightly bigger than the iPhone (although perhaps not for long). But it’s the screen quality which impresses - despite being just 854 x 480 pixels (inferior to similar-priced Androids such as the Moto G), the 635 is much better than the previous bargain basement 520. Nokia’s clever technologies such as Clear Black elevate the screen beyond the story told by the spec. And it works particularly well with the bright blocky colours of Windows Phone.

In terms of performance, the 635 is at the low end: 8Gb storage (expandable to 64Gb with a micro SD card), Snapdragon 400, 512Mb RAM. However it’s perfectly snappy in everyday use, a testament again to Windows Phone engineering.

One element that might disappoint is the camera. 5 Megapixels is low nowadays and there is no flash. But as you can see below, for casual daylight snaps, it does the job pretty well, just as the 520 did.

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Perhaps even more disappointing is the front-facing camera. There isn’t one. So how is one supposed to take selfies? Surely this is an own goal given a decent proportion of the phone’s target market must come from the narcissistic generation.

What about the rest? In a way we don’t really need to go into it as most things are the same as on every other Nokia Windows Phone. And that is to say, the OS is great, some of the Nokia apps are amazing but the story with 3rd party apps is not good, with apps typically less good or missing entirely.

With 8.1, Windows Phone really did just get loads better, 100s of small changes and some big headline features such as Cortana (which is actually pretty useful), Swypey keyboard and the notification / control-center bridged the gap with iOS and Android. Many built-in apps (Music, Calendar, Store) were given a thorough polish too. And a more complete set of management tools (battery sense, data sense and so on rounded out the OS nicely).

There’s some silly stuff too, like the additional column of tiles and the background images. But obviously you can keep that comfortably turned off if you chose.

It’s subjective of course, but for my taste, Windows Phone 8.1 is better than Android (less fussy and confusing), and iOS (less fugly, simpler and quicker to use). The Nokia apps, and in particular Here Drive add a great deal too, creating a really good alternative to a standalone GPS. Plus, of course, let us not forgot too the Microsoft goodies under the hood, namely Office.

3rd Party apps have had some improvements too. The Facebook app (created by Microsoft) is on a par with its Google and Apple equivalents. Uber is already on WP, Instagram arrived in the end and so on. But if you’re in to having the best versions of apps and the latest apps, don’t get Windows Phone.

This sort of thing matters to the sort of people who review phones. I’m not convinced it’s so pivotal to your average user who wants to be able to call, text, email and do the basics. A few apps on top (and probably not the latest silly iOS stuff) is the icing on the cake. Not the cake itself. From this point of view, Windows Phone has plenty in the app store.

The 635 is the 630 with 4G. What we may need is a 636 which adds a front facing camera. As we skirt the bottom end of the market, however, Nokia is looking to be keen on price without substantially compromising on quality. Selfies may be one cut too far – after all, what are you going to upload over 4G if you can’t take pictures of yourself?

Sat next to its Android cousins, the 635 feels very premium. Sat next to the cheapest current iOS device, it looks like a steal. You could have 2 of these (or 3 of the 630) for the price of the Apple, and still have change for a spray tan, round of drinks and a kebab. And for anyone without a degree in Android or an obsession with apps, Windows Phone 8.1 could absolutely be the OS of choice.

The 635 should continue the Windows Phone sales spike the 520 started. Let’s just hope increased market share does get the developer community to do more.

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#2
mrrog

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Camera without flash, about as useful as a car.without headlights

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#3
hecatae

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whats the wifi reception like?


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#4
Tom Hopkins

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I found the Wifi reception to be pretty good, although James Norton pointed out to me that the Cyan firmware update seems to remove the ability to leave wifi on in the background (or perhaps the ability to toggle such a function).


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