When you stick the word “budget” in front a product category like laptops or smartphones, it often conjures up negative connotations of something so cheaply made, slow, and full of trade-offs that’s it not worth your time or money. But that’s not always the case, and the Nokia Lumia 635 is a good example of the exception.
The latest Windows Phone device from Nokia (now part of Microsoft), the Lumia 635 is currently available from several different retailers. T-Mobile is offering the phone for $0 down and 24 equal monthly payments of $7. Meanwhile, AT&T is selling the Lumia 635 as part of its prepaid GoPhone service for $99. You can also purchase the phone off-contract from Microsoft for $129.
To be clear, there are some trade-offs when it comes to the Lumia 635. The handset doesn’t have the sharpest display. It lacks a front-facing camera, and the main five-megapixel camera is only mediocre. Windows Phone also lacks the breadth of applications offered by iOS and Android.
Despite all this, I’d still recommend the Lumia 635 to first-time smartphone buyers and those on a tight budget. It has a solid design and smooth performance. It’s also one of the few devices in its price range that offers support for faster 4G LTE cellular-data speeds. For example, the $129 Moto E, only works on the older and slower 3G networks. And while Motorola’s other budget-friendly phone, the Moto G, now comes in a 4G model, it costs $90 more.
One of the first things that impressed me about the Lumia 635 is that it didn’t feel like a budget phone. I’ve tested some with plastic chassis that were so flimsy I was afraid they might crack under the slightest pressure. But the Lumia 635’s polycarbonate plastic shell felt sturdy, and I liked the matte finish. It made the phone easier to grip, and less of fingerprint and grease magnet. The phone comes in black or white, but the back shells are removable, and other colors (green, yellow and orange) are available for $15 each.
The Lumia 635 measures 5.1 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide and 0.4-inch thick, and weighs 4.7 ounces. I was able to comfortably wrap my hands around the phone, and tuck it into my the back pocket of my jeans without it protruding too much — a nice change of pace from the larger phablets of late.
As I mentioned before, you’re not going to get the most spectacular display. The phone features a 4.5-inch touchscreen with an 854 by 480 pixel resolution, so text and images don’t look as crisp or vibrant as they do on higher-end phones like the iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxy S5.
The Moto E actually has a slightly sharper 540 by 960 display, but again, you’re losing the 4G support if you go that route. Personally, I’d rather take the faster data speeds over a slightly better screen. Plus, I found the Lumia 635’s display to be sufficiently clear and bright.
One aspect that may be disappointing to users is the lack of a front-facing camera. That means you won’t be able to take any selfies or make video calls using apps like Skype, which comes preloaded on the phone. I’m not a big selfie person, but I do occasionally like to have video chats with my friends, so I did miss having that feature.
There’s a five-megapixel camera on back, without flash. It takes decent photos when shooting outdoors, but it struggles in low-light conditions, with many pictures turning out too dark or looking grainy. In addition to the camera’s various settings, there are multiple apps, including Nokia’s own Creative Studio, where you can edit things like brightness and clarity after a photo has been taken, and add various filters. For storing photos and other files, the smartphone offers eight gigabytes of internal memory, and a microSD card slot located by the battery.
The Lumia 635 is one of the first smartphones shipping with Microsoft’s latest mobile operating system, Windows Mobile 8.1, which brings a host of new features. One of the biggest additions is Cortana, a voice-controlled digital assistant designed to rival Apple’s Siri and Google Now. You also now get a notifications window where you can see if you have any new messages, missed calls, and other alerts.
Overall, I found Windows Phone easy to use, and the new features bring it more in step with iOS and Android. You can read more about Windows Phone 8.1 in my review here. Microsoft also recently announced another forthcoming update that will bring features like smart screen folders and support for smart cases.
For my review, I tested the T-Mobile version of the Lumia 635. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the phone wasn’t overloaded with T-Mobile apps and services. But there are a lot Microsoft and Nokia apps — some useful, like Microsoft Office; and some not so useful, like Nokia’s Glam Me photo app for selfies. Fortunately, you can uninstall unwanted apps. And while the Windows Phone Store has come a long way in filling out its app catalog — you’ll find many top apps like Facebook, Instagram, Netflix and Pinterest — it’s still missing other popular ones like HBO Go and WatchESPN.
The Lumia 635 features a quad-core processor from Qualcomm. It’s a less-powerful version than the ones found in more expensive, high-end smartphones, but I found that it handled various tasks — checking email, browsing the Web, playing casual games, and streaming video and music — without problem.
Call quality was also clear as I made several calls around San Francisco using T-Mobile’s network, and I experienced fairly good data speeds. Based on Ookla’s Speedtest app, I averaged download speeds of 9.47 megabits per second and upload speeds of 7.95 Mbps. When my colleague Walt Mossberg tested the 3G-only Moto E, he struggled to get download speeds of even 2 Mbps, though this was over AT&T’s network, and in different cities (New York and Washington, D.C.).
I didn’t perform a formal battery test, but with moderate usage, the Lumia 635 easily lasted a full day on a single charge.
While it won’t satisfy the needs of selfie fans, or anyone looking for the greatest and latest in smartphone tech, the Lumia 635 offers first-time and budget-conscious buyers a great value.