If you're looking for a great budget smart phone, this year's entry from Nokia—the Lumia 635—is a winner. Yes, it gets dinged for a few budget-minded compromises, but the Lumia 635 carries on the proud tradition of the Lumia 520/521, and does so in a bigger, more comfortable form factor that retains the vaunted Nokia look and feel.
In the United States, the Lumia 635 is available without a contract from both T-Mobile and AT&T. Both are essentially identical phones—whereas last year's Lumia 520 (AT&T) and 521 (T-Mobile) were subtly (and pointlessly) different. On T-Mobile, you can grab the 635 for $0 down and $7 a month for two years ($168 total), or you can just pay for it upfront at just $129.99. On AT&T, it's even more affordable: The non-contract GoPhone version is just $99.99.
I've been testing the T-Mobile version, if you're curious. I highlighted some of the good and bad points of this device in my article Nokia Lumia 635: First Impressions and Photos, but now that I've really used the device both in the US and abroad, I'd like to expand a bit on those thoughts.
Good. First, the form factor. As noted, this device is a bit bigger than the Lumia 52x it's ostensibly replacing (though the more recently announced budget-busting Lumia 530 of course is a possibility as well). I vastly prefer the Lumia 635's large body and larger 4.5-inch ClearBlack display. It's a beautiful phone—mine came with a white back cover, though you can swap it out for other colors—with a gorgeous screen.
Nokia sells color covers for the Lumia 630 so you can personalize it
Good. I feel like I've been beating this drum to death, but let me repeat a very simple truth about Windows Phone: While tech snobs will snicker at the Lumia 635's low-resolution screen (854 x 480, or 800 x 480 if you ignore the always-on on-screen navigation bar with its Back, Start and Search buttons), it's not a problem because Windows Phone does a terrific job of scaling text, graphics, and app layouts. And I've used gorgeous 1080p Windows Phone devices. The Lumia 635's screen looks great, and while Nokia clearly skimped here to save money on the device, this is one area where most people simply won't even notice.
Gorgeous, readable text in the Bing News app
A closeup of the text in that app
Good. Speaking of A/V, I should also point out that I've been testing various music services and Audible on multiple devices (running different mobile OSes), and the sound quality of the 635's speaker—while not exactly audiophile quality—is superb. It's also much louder and clearer than the speakers in Apple's iPod touch (most recent version) and iPhone 5S, so I can listen more easily to podcasts while getting ready in the morning on the road.
Good. Performance is likewise excellent. I was a bit worried how the device's paltry 512 MB of RAM and 8 GB of onboard storage would impact things, but found that day-to-day apps worked just fine. You can't install "Modern Combat 5: Blackout" on such a device, but if you scan through the top 20 lists for games, you will find that most apps and games do in fact work just fine. I had no issues from a performance perspective.
OK. The onboard storage (8 GB) could be an issue, however, and many people will need to factor in the cost of a microSD card so that they can move as many apps, and as much data, as is possible onto the external storage. I threw a 64 GB SanDisk Ultra microSD card ($39.99 at Amazon) in the review unit, and after failing to get it to work, found I needed to reset the device first. (This was never the case with any other Windows Phone handset, so I'm not sure if this was a random issue or whatever.) $40 is a bit much to spend on an accessory for a $99 phone. But depending on your needs, you could get away with a 16 GB microSD card (a more reasonable $11.46 at Amazon) or a 32 GB microSD card, your call. The good news? You can put it off and see how it goes: Windows Phone 8.1 makes it super easy to move apps and content later.
Bad. The rear camera on the Lumia 635 is nothing special, a 5 megapixel unit with auto focus, 4x digital zoom, and a f/2.4 aperture. I've been spoiled by the high-quality cameras in the Lumia 1020, 1520, and Icon, so my views on this are a bit skewed. But looking at it objectively (literally in this case), the photo quality is honestly not horrible. What is horrible is that there's no front camera at all—sorry selfie fans, or Skype video chatters—and no dedicated camera button, something that was until now a mainstay of all Lumia handsets. As a longtime Windows Phone user, I miss that button tons. This may or may not matter to you, however. And you can of course use Nokia's wonderful camera apps to take, edit, and share your photos.
Zooming in on a photo taken with the Lumia 635: Actually not horrible at all
Good. And speaking of Nokia apps's the firm's excellent HERE-branded navigation apps, like HERE Maps and HERE Drive+, are both included with the 635 and support free, worldwide downloadable maps. So before our trip to Barcelona, I downloaded the Catalan maps and we now use the Lumia 635 in offline mode to navigate around the city. It works great. (And while this isn't specific to the 635, it's worth pointing out that T-Mobile provides free data internationally to its customers. It's great for checking email and other online tasks, especially for those not interested in paying big bucks for the privilege.) Anyway, you get a free offline GPS when you buy a 635. Bonus.
Offline maps are available for anywhere in the world, even Barcelona!
Good. The Lumia 635 is the first Windows Phone handset to ship with Windows Phone 8.1 and the Lumia Cyan firmware update in the United States. Windows Phone 8.1 is one of those things you can't live without once you've used it, and since arriving here in Barcelona I've updated it to Update 1.
I know, it's beautiful
Good. The use of an onscreen navigation bar with Back, Start and Search buttons was a cost-saving measure, but here's a secret: It also makes the device more usable. With hardware buttons, it's far too easy to hit the Search button (in particular, not sure why) by mistake. But with that button moved on to the screen, it's now much harder to hit. I really prefer this configuration and would like to see all future Windows Phone handsets adopt it as the standard. It's better than having hardware buttons. Really.
Good. As I noted in my Nokia Lumia 635: First Impressions and Photos article, the Lumia 635 is also the first phone to ship with SensorCore enabled. This is a Nokia technology for using the device's sensors to measure your activity in a very responsible way from a battery perspective. I wrote about this in Keep Moving with Nokia Lumia SensorCore, and it works great. This is a killer feature for such a low-end phone, and is very much in keeping with some of its other features that save you from having to buy additional devices or services. You could use this thing like a Fitbit if you wanted to, monitoring your activity and logging food intake.
Last year, I sang the praises of the Lumia 520/521 in my articles In Praise of the Nokia Lumia 520 and Nokia Lumia 520 is the Best Tech Deal of 2013, and elsewhere. And the Lumia 635 pretty much lives up to the reputation of its predecessors.
Yes, there is one basic downside to the Lumia 635 compared to the 520/521: There's no hardware camera button, which I'd miss (though I will not personally be using the Lumia 635 as my only phone). But everything else is just as good or better. That is, the value proposition of those earlier phones is essentially intact with the 635: At $100 to $130 with no contract, the Lumia 635 is a killer value. It's a good deal for an inexpensive smart phone. It's a good deal for a kid's phone. And it's a good deal for anyone who wants a cheap media player with access to Beats, Pandora, Spotify, MixRadio, iHeartRadio, Rhapsody, Xbox Music, Audible, Netflix, and many more services. It's a good deal for a mobile game player. A good deal for an offline GPS with downloadable maps. And it's inexpensive. Even with a 64 GB microSD card, a Lumia 635 will still come in under $200 and you just know prices will fall all year long. Meanwhile, a 64 GB iPod touch costs $300, and it's not even a phone.
No, the Lumia 635 can't give higher-end phones a run for their money. It's no Lumia 1020 or 1520 or Icon. It's no Samsung Galaxy S5. It's no iPhone 5S even, though I feel like that would be a closely fought battle. It doesn't have a 5-inch or bigger HD screen, a lot of onboard storage, a killer camera, or luxury features like NFC or wireless charging. Instead, it's just ... a great value.
I recommend the Lumia 635 highly, with the understanding that anyone familiar with Windows Phone will indeed miss that camera button. I can't believe they left out the camera button.
As for me, I will be using the Lumia 635 going forward as my media player, and a replacement for the Lumia 520. It's that good.