A Second Look at the Lumia 735 and 830

A Second Look at the Lumia 735 and 830

"Selfie phone" or "affordable flagship"?

I've had an unexpected reaction to the newly-arrived Lumia 830 and Lumia 735, though I hinted at the root cause in my first impressions of the latter device. Despite their relative model numbers, the Lumia 830 isn't always better than the 735. That is, there are quite a few things I prefer about the Lumia 735, the supposed lesser of the two devices.

A bit of background.

Generally speaking, I've always been a fan—for some reason—of "good enough" computing. So, for example, I've derived just as much enjoyment from the $200 Acer Aspire E15 I recently reviewed as I have from the $1400 Apple MacBook Air, a trendy thin and light mobile computer that few would argue has any peer.

And you may recall my fixation on last year's low-end Windows Phone, the Lumia 520, which went on to become the best-selling Windows device of 2013. That handset really captured my attention and speaks to that "good enough" philosophy. It's no iPhone, I get that. But you don't need to overspend to get good technology, and more expensive devices don't always deliver better value.

This year, however, a Lumia 635 has replaced my Lumia 520 as my go-to media player. I like this handset so much, I've purchased a more colorful (green) cover replacement (I did the same for the 520, for whatever that's worth) to customize it. But there's a big difference between the Lumia 635 and the 520, and it has little to with specs or technical features, though the size of the device and its screen does come into play here. I've actually considered using the Lumia 635 as my daily driver. I really like this handset.

Weird, right?

We all have our own preferences of course. But while it may not be hard to imagine why someone might be drawn to a beautifully-designed product like an iPhone, it may be a bit harder to imagine falling for a fairly low-end plastic device like the Lumia 635. I get that. But ... I really like it. I like the way it feels when I hold it. Like the size and weight of it, the balance, for lack of a better term. It's not ideal in so many ways from a specification perspective. And I could use any phone I wanted. But I'm drawn to this thing. I can't explain it logically.

When I first saw the Lumia 735 and 830 in late August, I had two immediate reactions. First, Windows Phone fans were going to be really upset that Microsoft/Nokia didn't have a real flagship phone on offer. (On cue, check.) And second, despite the obvious similarity of these devices to previous Lumias, each in its own way seemed quite special. And part of the reason they seemed special—to me, that is—is that each speaks to the same "good enough" thing as both the Lumia 520 and the Lumia 635.

Both of them are incredibly light and thin compared to the devices they replace. The 735 in particular, is shockingly light, as if it were filled with helium instead of electronics. But compared to the Icon/930, the 830 is of course much lighter and thinner too. In both cases, you wonder why Nokia didn't go with these designs in the first place. (Which is unfair, but whatever.)

The Lumia 830 was the more obvious choice and I've been considering it as a more realistic daily driver than, say, the low-end 635. From the look of the device, it's the Lumia Icon/930 that people really wanted. (Well, not really: What people wanted was a thin and light 5-inch version of the 1520 but whatever.) That is, it looks just like those devices and provides a reasonable approximation of their amazing cameras, but in a thinner, lighter and more easily customizable package. Win-win.

And that is indeed the 830 in a nutshell. You can remove the color back and replace it with a different color, or a flip case, which is really nice. Since the days of Plus! for Windows 95, I've always believed that even basic customization choices that let you personalize the products go a long way towards making them better. This is a bigger deal than many realize. With many phones, all you can do is throw a heavier, bigger case on top of the device in order to customize it, an act that ruins the natural design of the device and the beauty that may have drawn you to it in the first place.

This was a problem with many Lumias too. All those solid polycarbonate designs—the 800, 900, 1020, 1520 and so on—had their own style, which many like. But you had to bulk them up with a case to change the color.

These new Lumias both feature pop-off cases. This is a huge feature, at least on the 735, where you can change the color completely (as you can with the physically identical 730). And you can change the color of the back of the 830, which is nice but not as obvious a change, since you barely ever see that color anyway. Advantage 735.

Now that I have both devices on hand, I've swapped SIMs around—I have three phone lines on AT&T—and have been using both regularly. The results, again, have been surprising. This is what experience does, I guess. It changes your preconceptions, evolves your opinions.

So far, the Lumia 830 is mostly what I thought it was.

I tested the camera first since that's a big area of concern for me, and I've gotten mixed results in the sense that—fairly or not—the camera in this midlevel device obviously doesn't measure up to the superior cameras in the Lumia 1020, 1520 or Icon/930. It does compare favorably to the camera in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, however, and while the final mod may need to be towards Cupertino—we'll see—the results are pretty close. Which is amazing given how much less expensive this Lumia is.

But it was during this camera testing that the doubts started to creep in. I noted earlier that the Lumia 830 is much thinner and lighter than the Icon/930 with which it shares its design, and that's true. But when you compare this device to the iPhone 6, which has a similarly-sized screen, they're in different leagues. Where the 830 is boxy and thick (compared to the iPhone), the iPhone 6 is thin, light and elegant. It's almost perfect from a form factor perspective.

This realization prompted me to spend a bit more time with the Lumia 735. And that experience has been something of a revelation.

The Lumia 735 is truly thin, light and even attractive, especially if you real bought into—as I did—that whole unibody Lumia design aesthetic. It weighs just 134 grams, about the same as the iPhone 6 (which is indeed a bit lighter at 129 grams, though no one in their right mind would use the iPhone without a case).  By comparison, the 830 is a heftier 150 grams.

Thanks to its pleasantly plastic body, the Lumia 735 is nicer in the hand, and more similar to the iPhone thanks to its rounded edges. It just feels right. (Compared to the plastic iPhone 5C, the 735 has a right-sized screen and the color part is replaceable. FTW.)

That many of the core specs of the Lumia 735 are identical or similar to those of the 830 is interesting. But some specs are actually better on the 735. Key among these is the screen. Yes, it's a bit smaller at 4.7 inches than the sweet spot 5-incher on the 830. But it's also a superior OLED display, compared to the IPS LCD screen on the 830. The difference is noticeable: The 735 has deeper colors and blacks, and is more easily viewable off-center where the 830 is (relatively) washed out, especially when viewed off-center.

The 830 has the better camera, of course. But I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the 735's 6.7 megapixel camera, which I'd normally assume to be inferior. It's actually really good for a smart phone camera. And certainly good enough for casual shots, for the types of things most people would want. (It lacks a hardware camera button, however, another feature the 830 includes.)

A few specs aside, it's hard to explain logically why the Lumia 735 is so wonderful, where the 830 is merely competent. It may be simply that the 735 is true to itself. It's a midmarket phone with no upscale ambitions, and it excels at that. The 830 is a midmarket phone that's been outfitted with a few slightly upscale features. But you're buying a Toyota with an options package here, not a Lexus.

While I don't appreciate the artificial differences between the devices, part of the problem is not really Microsoft/Nokia's fault. Because of the way most people buy phones in the United States, the real world price difference between a high-end phone and a midmarket device is negligible. That is, few people are buying phones outright here as they do in Europe and elsewhere. We're all about mortgaging our futures in the US, so we just care about the monthly bill and two-year contracts. And spread out over two years, what's a few more bucks? You may as well just get that iPhone 6 or Note 4 or whatever, and not some dumbed-down Lumia.

And on that note, I'm pretty sure these new Lumias are mostly aimed at international markets, where Microsoft is trying to bump up the average selling price of its phones just a bit. These devices aren't aimed at me or other US buyers, not really.

Don't get me wrong, the 830 is fine handset. And I can't render any kind of reasonable verdict until I've used it more and actually know how much this will set you back in the United States. (How we don't yet know the prices of these handsets is unclear to me. Seriously, guys.) But the Lumia 735—like the Lumia 520 and 635 before it—is ... special, for lack of a better term. It hits this sweet spot of size, form factor, weight, screen and personalization. You need to pick one up to understand why that's so. Carry it around. Actually use it. But it has replaced the Lumia 830, for now at least, as my daily driver because I find myself reaching for it over my other choices more and more.

I'll keep testing both, of course. But long story short, the Lumia 830 hasn't surprised me, it's a nice smart phone. But the Lumia 735 really has surprised me. It's special.

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