Review: Nokia Lumia 635

Given the deep morass Nokia and Microsoft are currently slogging through—the blah earnings, the layoff plans, a still-small app store, general confusion—it’s refreshing to see that the mobile phone partnership is not all doom and gloom. The Lumia handsets are selling well and making waves in the mid-to-low-end smartphone market. Last year’s Lumia 520 in particular was a hit; Microsoft says over 12 million handsets were sold, and that success probably has very much to do with the phone’s sub-$150 price tag.

So here’s another Windows smartphone that should appeal the same crowd looking for inexpensive options: The Nokia Lumia 635. It’s among the first handsets to launch with the latest update of Windows Phone 8.1 software out of the box, along with its close relatives, the 3G-only Lumia 630 and the also-3G but smaller and weaker Lumia 530. All three are inexpensive (approaching $150, depending on the carrier) but the Lumia 635 is the only 4G phone of the bunch. There’s also the 5-inch Lumia 935 coming soon, but that’s a high-end offering with a premium price tag. As the success of the Lumia 520 has shown us, these Lumias—the cheap Lumias—are the ones to watch.

This latest version of Microsoft’s mobile operating system adds many new capabilities to the Windows Phone platform, including a voice-powered assistant, better notifications, tighter integration of OneNote and Office, and some fitness-tracking features. Sure, all Lumia handsets will get the 8.1 update in time, but there’s no denying the draw of shiny, new hardware.

The Lumia 635 is one of the cheapest 4G-enabled handsets on the market.

Probably the biggest update is Cortana, the digital personal assistant that responds to voice commands. It’s named after the artificial intelligence character in Microsoft’s Halo videogame saga, and AI is a big part of the experience. Cortana brings you both information you explicitly ask for, and other things you don’t. Just like Google Now, the cloud-powered service shows you things like driving directions and traffic updates, or helpful information for scheduling your commute. It keeps you updated on news, sport results and weather forecasts, and can automatically block calls, texts and notifications during quiet hours. Given a few simple voice commands, it can run web researches, set up reminders, and take notes. Cortana can even identify whatever music is playing, à la Shazam.

Also new to Windows Phone is the much-awaited drop-down notification panel. By swiping down from the top of the screen as you normally do on Android and iOS devices, you can now gain access to a panel with four customizable quick actions (Wi-Fi controls, screen brightness, a camera shortcut) and a link to general settings. It also shows notifications for recent texts, emails, missed calls, and app updates. Yet another new feature gives it a leg up in the fitness-tracking game: the handset’s accelerometer and location-reporting capabilities can be used for tracking your daily steps and gathering other motion data, such as distance traveled and calories burned. The Lumia 635’s GPS can also record the route you run or pedal during your workouts. All of this, right out of the box.

The 5-megapixel camera on the back is not even close to the outstanding shooters on the best Nokia phones like the Lumia 925 and 1020. However, it’s exactly what you’d expect on a cheap phone. It’s decent outdoors, but has problems handling low-light scenes. There are built-in manual controls for white balance, sensitivity, brightness, focus, and shutter speed, but playing around with those settings may keep you from capturing the right moments. Oddly, there’s no dedicated camera button for quick snaps. And also: no front camera, which means no selfies and no Skype calls.

On top of Windows Phone 8.1, Nokia has included its own apps like Here Maps, Drive (with offline navigation), and Transit. You also get a bunch of dedicated imaging applications: Glam Me lets you add creative filters to your shots, while Nokia Camera has a simplified interface and grants direct access to Creative Studio editing tools. For music lovers, the Lumia 635 features also MixRadio and an FM Radio.

So it’s a very basic phone that meets almost all the requirements of a modern smartphone user (reminder: NO front-facing camera). But the 625’s 4G capabilities and its low price make it something more than just another satisfactory phone. They make it a good buy.

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