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Nokia Lumia 630 / 635 Review


[To say that this review is long overdue would be to make a massive understatement. Given that it has been over three months since the friendly folk over at Conversations by Nokia (now Microsoft Mobility) sent me a Lumia 630 to play with, one might think that I've been intentionally neglecting my duty as a blogger to write about it. While there is some shred of truth in this accusation, the real reason for this piece's tardiness has a rather mundane cause: I've simply lacked the time necessary to keep this blog updated, apart from one brief update back in August, of course. Now that I've managed to find and allocate the time necessary to once again write for fun, I hope to avoid a repeat of this summer's blogging draught for as long as possible. So, without further ado, I bring you a much belated review of a product that was released over five months ago.]

Introduction
When I asked the nice people over at Conversations by Nokia for a new device to play with, their suggestions failed to elicit any sort of excitement. That's because the phone they offered to send my way was the Lumia 630: a phone billed as the successor to the exceptionally unexciting Lumia 520. My curiosity began to grow when I started to read some of the product reviews written by a number of my blogging peers, as it seemed as though they actually liked the device. Despite its budget hardware specs, it was being lauded for its screen, quick performance and minimal if understated design. Was it possible that I'd written off the follow-up to the 520 too quickly?

My curiosity reached its peak when a very small package was delivered to my desk at work. Surely there was nothing more than a couple of stacked CD jewel cases inside- how could this possibly be the packaging for a phone? Sure enough, however, the mustard-yellow DHL bag did indeed contain a phone box that efficiently protected both the Lumia 630 and the usual complement of required accessories. Curiously enough, there was no USB cable enclosed, which became something of a problem for my colleague- an Apple-centric iOS developer- for whom I'd requested a tandem trial.

Over the course of the next two weeks I used the Lumia 630 as if it was the only phone in my possession, leaving my Nexus 4 safely tucked away in my desk. That's when a most peculiar thing happened: I became rather fond of this entry-level device that I was testing. So attached, in fact, that I decided to purchase a local variant of the phone (Lumia 635), prior to the conclusion of the trial period. How often does a reviewer actually go out and purchase the thing that they were sent for free?

Because the unit I purchased was equipped with all of the frequency bands necessary to work most optimally in my locale, what follows from here on out is a review of that specific device. Because the only real difference between the two devices is the inclusion of an LTE radio in the 635, everything mentioned is equally applicable to both. I desired to include at least a few pictures of the 630, but due to some unfortunate data corruption, none of the pictures I took managed to survive. Anyway, time to begin.




Design
"Wow. This feels nice to hold." Those are the words of a colleague from when he first handled the 635, and they are words that I couldn't have put better myself. This is a device that feels, quite simply, nice to hold. While it seems to be the opinion of many reviewers that devices best described as minimalistic slabs are not very exciting and thus not very desirable- a rather bold claim to make in the face of Apple's extremely popular device designs- I rather enjoy the simple mixture of polycarbonate and glass found on this Lumia. While it is in no way made of the sorts of premium materials found on flagship devices, the 635 is still far and away a much better looking device than its predecessor.


The most notable improvement from the 520 is the move away from a round and toy-like body. Seen in profile, the 635's chamfered sides look sharp and professional. Unlike its predecessor, it looks much more at ease in the company of iPhones and Android-powered devices. I was even asked one time if it's the "new iPhone." Such is high praise for any smartphone, but to hear a budget phone being referred to in such a manner is unheard of.

An omission is present on the 635 which most Windows Phone enthusiasts will immediately point out: a dedicated camera shutter key. Rumor has it that Microsoft lowered its hardware requirements in order to help partners build increasingly cheaper devices. (Though, in reality, this is more likely just an attempt to urge partners to release Windows Phone-powered devices based on hardware they'd already used for Android offerings.) Also missing are hardware soft keys, a staple WP hardware design up until this point. Windows Phone 8.1 instead supports on-screen soft keys similar to those found on many Android devices.


The rest of the device is more or less the same as most mid- to low-tier Lumias. The body is made up of a single polycarbonate shell with cutouts for the volume and power keys, Micro-USB port, loudspeaker, camera and 3.5mm audio jack. Unlike many premium Lumia devices, however, the buttons found on the 635 are not made out of ceramic. Instead they are composed of some sort of glossy plastic.


As was the case for its predecessor, the 635 does feature swappable backs. So while this one came with a rather hard-to-keep-clean white shell, it can be swapped for a more subtle black colored one. Or, if vibrant colors are your thing, neon green, orange and yellow shells are also available for purchase. Underneath the shell is located a swappable 1,830 mAh Li-Ion battery and Micro-SD and Micro-SIM slots, the latter two of which are not hot-swappable. Absent are an NFC antenna or a Qi charging coil, though it is likely possible to install an aftermarket Qi-to-Micro-USB adapter underneath the shell.


The front of the phone is dominated by the 4.5in IPS LCD display featuring Nokia's ClearBlack polarization technology and Corning's Gorilla Glass 3. While not of HD resolution, the display features an adequate 480x854 resolution. Of course, once you subtract those soft keys, the actual usable resolution equals about 480x800, the same as its predecessor. While this is undoubtedly bottom-shelf hardware, the display does manage to win back points with its great viewing angles and high-contrast colors. Using a display like this will make it impossible to be satisfied with a screen as poor as that found on the now-retired 520. Notably missing is an ambient light sensor and a front-facing camera. The absence of both is a shame but given that this is a budget device, their omission was perhaps a necessary sacrifice in order to make a particular price point.


Usage
This is the first time in over a year that I haven't been able to casually mention Microsoft's operating system and then move on. That's because the 630 launched with Windows Phone 8.1, the first major UI revision to the operating system since it launched under the guise of Windows Phone 7 a few years ago. When Windows Phone 8 was released, it brought with it support for the high-powered hardware that only Android users were enjoying, but didn't bring much else along for the ride. It also left Windows Phone 7 users in the dark as they weren't given the possibility to upgrade. It's not like they were missing much, in terms of a UI makeover, so this was by no means the end of the world for them.

Windows Phone 8.1, however, brings a number of subtle-though-essential UX changes to the operating system. While my blogging peers have documented these in extensive detail, I'll simply list the most obvious changes. For starters, there now exists a notifications tray with toggles for common settings. Search is now handled by Cortana, a virtual assistant running atop Bing that behaves a lot like Siri on an iPhone. Then there's the Swype-like keyboard that makes it a lot easier to use the device one-handed. All-in-all these bring the operating system up to speed with features existing on competing platforms.

That's the thing, though. All of these features have existed on Android or iOS for years now. Windows Phone is still playing catch-up. I've not once met a Windows Phone user who chose their device for the software. It has always been the camera (Nokia) or hardware design (HTC) that appealed to them in one way or another. This is a problem that has been compounded recently by the exceptionally slow roll-out of WP8.1 to devices currently running WP8. Having monitored the official Nokia upgrade availability matrix for a couple of months now, it doesn't surprise me to hear the complaints of many recent converts to Microsoft's ecosystem, who feel like they've been duped into an operating system that will never be as up-to-date as that running on the phones of their peers.

Returning to the 635, which shipped natively with WP8.1, and you'd think all would be good and dandy, right? Well, that's mostly correct. While the hardware feels great and the internals seems quite capable, the software has a number of bugs. Nokia Drive, the free turn-by-turn navigation suite, doesn't always open properly and thus must be restarted frequently. This becomes a real problem when attempting to get directions from Cortana, who is likewise unable to start the app correctly. Then there's the inconsistent behavior of the notifications tray and frequently encountered loading screen when switching between apps. Oh, and then there's the constant app update notifications. Guess it's too much to ask for the touchscreen driver to have been perfected before releasing the phone into the wild, eh Nokia?

It's not all gloom and doom, however, as there are many good parts of the 635 which are hard to ignore. The first would have to be an exceptionally long battery life. With email set to constant synchronization and Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp all doing their own thing, I could easily manage a bit over two days before I'd start to look for my charger. Then there's when Cortana comes into her own: a dialogue system to facilitate hands-free SMS-based communication. While driving over a thousand miles solo this summer I never once felt truly alone, thanks to Cortana cheerfully reading my incoming messages and helping me to respond, all while the 635 was located safely in my pocket. I'd love to see this feature in other phones.


Conclusion
The last time I wound up buying a phone immediately after having used it on a trial basis was back in 2009. (It was the E71, a phone I loved so much that I actually bought a second one at a much later point.) The Lumia 630 kindled a similarly infectious desire to own one for myself, replacing my previous device. That's rather impressive considering my former daily carry was a flagship Android device.

In short, the Lumia 635 (and its identical brother, the 630) is a solid buy at around a hundred bucks off-contract. While it doesn't feature many of the bells and whistles found on more expensive handsets, it also doesn't have the same cheap build quality and subpar performance that most other similarly priced handsets are plagued with. While it's true that its 512 MB of RAM limits it from running a lot of applications found in the Windows Phone App Store, none of these apps are truly essential.

Ultimately, though, the 635's biggest downfall for me is its operating system. Welcome as they may be, the improvements and new features found in Windows Phone 8.1 do very little to assauge the feeling that Android can simply do more than WP will ever be able to do. It's for that reason that I actually find myself once again using a Nexus 4 and putting my 635 up for sale on eBay. I came back to Nokia for the UI and to be a bit different. But I'm afraid that being different isn't going to help me get things done.

For others, though, I would heartily commend them on choosing a Lumia 630/635 to be their own smartphone of choice. It's well priced and performs well in just about every situation. Despite a few little annoyances it's also a lot less frustrating than most budget Android handsets. And that's something that shouldn't be overlooked.

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