The Nokia Lumia 635 adds a sprinkling of 4G magic and external bling to the impressively solid and ultra-affordable Nokia Lumia 630. It makes a positive first impression but is its existence strictly necessary?
While Microsoft's modern Windows Phone reinvention was intended as a premium smartphone experience, Nokia has recently established that the low-end is where it's at for the platform.
With the Nokia Lumia 520 flying off shelves (relative to previous Windows Phone handsets at least), Windows Phone 8 is establishing itself as a bona fide alternative to all those cheap (and often nasty) Android phones.
The Nokia Lumia 630 showed off Nokia's current vision of a classy entry-level phone, and the Nokia Lumia 635 is identical in all but three areas.
The first and perhaps most notable of those areas is its price tag. At the time of writing, Nokia is touting a SIM-free price from £129.95 (around US$238 / AU$255) for the Lumia 635 compared to a £110 (US$189 / AU$201) price tag for the 630.
That additional cost gets you 4G LTE network connectivity, as well as a glossy finish to the Lumia 635's colourful rear cover. Is that really worth the price bump?
Alongside these extras, the Nokia Lumia 635 offers the same 4.5-inch 854 x 480 display, the same quad-core Snapdragon 400 CPU backed by 512MB of RAM, the same 8GB of storage, and the same 5-megapixel rear camera as the 630.
In fact, it inherits pretty much all of its sibling's strengths and weaknesses.
With the average smartphone size seemingly expanding by the year, the Nokia Lumia 635 almost feels small in the hand. In fact, moving from an iPhone 5S to the Lumia 635 didn't feel like such a jolting leap as moving to something like the Nokia Lumia 1520 or the OnePlus One did.
But with a 4.5-inch display, it's small in relative terms only. In fact, I'd probably say that the Nokia Lumia 635's screen is very close to optimal in terms of the balance between single-handed usability and widescreen media clarity.
Sadly the Lumia 635's screen is not going to show your HD movies or favourite web pages in the best light. At 854 x 480, the resolution is distinctly behind the smartphone curve. The similarly priced Motorola Moto G, for example, offers the same size of screen with a 1280 x 720 resolution.
Still, Nokia has always had a number of display tricks up its sleeve, and the Lumia 635 is no different. IPS and ClearBlack technology combine to ensure that viewing angles and outdoor legibility are above what you'd normally expect from a "cheap" smartphone.
However, I was disappointed that there was no apparent sign of Nokia's super sensitive touch display technology, meaning you can't operate the phone with gloves on. This was even present in the Nokia Lumia 520, so it's not as if it's a high-end feature.
Nor do you get the desirable tap-to-power-on option that the likes of the Nokia Lumia 1320 possessed, or the ability to glance at the time and whether you have any new notifications by hovering your finger over the display. The absence of these features is perhaps a little more understandable as Nokia strives to keep costs down on the Lumia 635.
Aside from a somewhat underwhelming display, the Nokia Lumia 635 is a pretty desirable piece of kit. Like the Nokia Lumia 630, it features a clever two-part design that almost makes it feel like one of Nokia's premium unibody constructions.
The screen, the removable battery, and all of the phone's innards for that matter are all contained within a skeletal core unit. The other part of the Lumia 635 is an extended cover, made of fairly thick plastic (or 'polycarbonate' to use the fancy official branding), which fits around the back and the sides of the device.
Once clicked into place, this is a solid device with minimal flexing or creaking. We've said it before, but no one does affordable phone design as well as Nokia.
Having said that, I didn't find the Nokia Lumia 635 to be as nice to look at or hold as the Nokia Lumia 630. It's opted for a glossy dual-layer effect, which makes it look like it's covered by a thin, clear gel layer.
While this differentiates the Lumia 635 from the 630, I preferred the latter's matte finish. Not only does it look nicer (which is admittedly subjective), it also feels nicer in the hand (which is less so). There's a certain clammy greasiness that accompanies the Lumia 635's slick finish, especially in warmer conditions.
Otherwise, the dimensions of these two Nokia Lumia phones are identical. Like the 630, the Lumia 635 weighs 134g, and measures 9.2mm thick. Not the slimmest or lightest of smartphones, then, but neither is it the bulkiest.
With identical dimensions you can swap a glossy cover for a matte finish one on the 635, so if you really can't live with the shiny shell there is an easy work around.
Button layout is as I like it for any phone over 4-inches in size (which is the vast majority these days), with both the volume and power keys located on the right-hand edge of the phone. This makes them nicely reachable when held naturally in one hand - whether you're talking right or left.
One omission that might rankle with faithful Windows Phone users is the lack of a dedicated camera button. In previous phones this would grant point-and-shoot-like two-stage control over your shots, not to mention reliable snaps when in a rush or shooting from an awkward position.
It would also grant the quickest and most reliable shortcut to the camera app possible. It was missed here, but it's one more element that's been sacrificed in the name of cost cutting, and it's an understandable one.
Nokia has included a microSD card slot in the Lumia 635, which is a good job given the scant 8GB available internally. You'll need to remove both the rear cover and the battery to access this port, though, just as you do with the microSIM slot.
The Nokia Lumia 635's stand-out feature has to be 4G. Unlike its sister the Nokia Lumia 630, the Lumia 635 can connect to the UK's fastest LTE mobile networks.
I took the Lumia 635 for a spin in a 4G-equipped town, and sure enough, I comfortably attained broadband-like download speeds without so much as a sniff of Wi-Fi.
Even with only two 4G signal bars showing out of a potential five, a quick Speedtest.net test yielded download and upload speeds of around 4Mbps either way.
So the Nokia Lumia 635 is automatically a good choice for those who are intent on capitalising on the fastest connection speeds currently available, but who don't want to pay the earth for the privilege.
It's worth noting that 4G contracts tend to come at a premium, so if you value fast network speeds over class-leading hardware, the Lumia 635 could be your phone.
That's not the Nokia Lumia 635's only stand-out feature though. Following closely on the coattails of the Nokia Lumia 630, the 635 is only the second smartphone to ship with Windows Phone 8.1 as standard.
I'll discuss the ins and outs of the latest Microsoft mobile OS in the next section, suffice to say that it's a notable (if not wholesale) improvement over Windows Phone 8.
In particular, you finally get the notification menu that we've been crying out for since Windows Phone 7 launched four years ago, and which Android and iOS adopted some time ago.
You also get a Swype-like keyboard that allows you to type out messages by sliding your thumb from letter to letter. Again, this is a feature that has been on Android for some time, while iOS is lagging behind. Regardless, we're glad it's here on Windows Phone now.
Windows Phone 8.1 is coming to all Nokia Lumia phones currently running Windows Phone 8, but it's available right now on the Nokia Lumia 635 (and 630).
That Nokia and Microsoft would make these two budget phones the first to receive such a major update says a lot about how important they are to both companies.
One final key feature I should talk about is that removable rear panel. Nokia has always been good at providing alternative covers for its phones, and that's certainly the case with Nokia Lumia 635.
Share my distaste for the glossy finish? Just purchase a new one and swap it around.
Interface and performance
If you've used a Windows Phone device before, then the Nokia Lumia 635 will feel familiar to you.
You get the same rigid two-homescreen layout, with the first dedicated to widget-like Live Tiles that provide you with key information at a glance (such as freshly taken photos, or news headlines), and the second showing you a simple list of installed applications.
Familiar, then. But not identical.
For while Nokia hasn't modified Microsoft's OS at all (beyond a few additional settings and stock apps), this is one of only two smartphones at the time of writing to run Windows Phone 8.1. It's a subtle update from WP 8, but it does bring some notable additions.
As mentioned in the previous section, the most noteworthy addition here is Action Centre, which is the name Microsoft has given to Windows Phone 8.1's long-awaited notification menu.
Now, when you drag down from the top of the screen from within any app, an overlay will drop down detailing your latest unread notifications. Emails, SMS messages, social network posts, app updates, downloads - anything you need to know about will be in here.
Tapping each notification will jump you to the appropriate app, while a swipe will dismiss it from view.
Notifications aren't the only thing you'll find in Microsoft's new Action Centre. You also get some handy shortcuts for commonly-used functions. By default this includes Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and screen brightness toggles, as well as a camera shortcut (handy given the lack of a physical camera button).
These can be swapped out and customised in the settings menu, so you can add a rotation lock toggle, a flight mode shortcut, or a range of other functions.
Talking of the settings menu, Action Centre also provides a shortcut to this vital hub. Indeed, it felt like I spent a little too much time in this settings menu, and it was slightly overloaded with options that were difficult to sift through and differentiate.
It's a problem that seems to have grown with Windows Phone's functionality ever since Windows Phone 7, so I hope Microsoft has a better solution in mind for version 9.
Of course, such tweaking shouldn't be necessary for the average casual user, and Windows Phone has never been more usable outside than it is here.
A large part of that is down to Action Centre, but there's also a neat lock screen that helps. Once again you have to dive into that murky settings menu to get it running to its full potential, but once you do you can set the background image to reflect the weather or your Facebook account, to name but two options.
You can also choose an app from which to show a detailed status, such as your latest email, and to show artist information when playing music.
Also new to Windows Phone 8.1 is an improved keyboard. It still looks much like the stock (and non-swappable) Windows Phone keyboard of old, but it now comes with the addition of Word Flow.
If you've ever used Swype or SwiftKey Flow on Android, you'll know what this means. You can type out words by sliding your thumb between letters, with spaces entered when you remove your finger from the screen.
It can be extremely quick to type out words in this way, once you grow accustomed to it, and it's more reliable when trying to type one handed whilst walking along. It's a welcome addition, though with Apple unexpectedly joining Android in relenting to demands for third party keyboard support in iOS 8, it's in danger of looking like a token gesture on Microsoft's part.
General navigation through Windows Phone 8.1's menus on the Nokia Lumia 635 was predictably smooth. There were no stutters at all when flitting between the home screens and scrolling down through my Live Tiles, which is what I've come to expect from Nokia and Microsoft's joint efforts.
Where I did notice performance issues was in more intensive tasks, such as when installing or updating multiple apps, which caused significant (though temporary) freeze-ups.
Jumping into the camera, too, takes longer than I would like.
You might initially be surprised at this when you consider the Lumia 635's hardware. While it only runs on a relatively modest 1.2GHz processor, it is a quad-core Snapdragon 400 unit.
This somewhat sluggish performance was reflected in my benchmark tests. An average WP Bench score of 255.45 is significantly slower than that of the Nokia Lumia 1320 at 312.22.
The Lumia 1320 runs on a dual-core variant of the same Snapdragon 400 chip - albeit one that's clocked 500MHz faster, suggesting that the Windows Phone OS perhaps continues to be optimised for raw clock speed over multi-core cleverness.
Of course, a more likely culprit in all of these performance issues is the Nokia Lumia 635's 512MB of RAM, which is half that of the aforementioned Lumia 1320.
It has an effect on game playing too. Taking Asphalt 8 for spin, while general performance was okay, there were periodic stutters to both the frame rate and the soundtrack - a sure sign that the Lumia 635 is straining against memory limitations.
Of course, when placed against Nokia's older budget phones like the Lumia 520 and the Lumia 620, the Nokia Lumia 635 comes out on top thanks to its stronger processor. When viewed in this entry-level context, it's a decent little runner. Just don't expect a premium, completely uncompromised Windows Phone 8.1 experience.
Battery life and the essentials
As with the Nokia Lumia 630, the Nokia Lumia 635 is powered by an 1830mAh battery. It's more than enough for a smartphone with such modest specs.
Having said that, the standard TechRadar battery test yielded some surprising results. I ran our usual 90 minute 720p video with all notifications on and screen brightness set to maximum.
The result was an average of 71 percent remaining battery life, which doesn't sound particularly great. Indeed, it's not, and what's more it's a good six percent less than the Nokia Lumia 630 managed.
"Aha," you're probably saying. "That's because it's 4G."
Nice idea, but when I ran the tests I was in a 3G area. So why the discrepancy? I honestly have no idea. Maybe there's something in the Lumia 635's different network chip that requires more juice.
Still, that's a pretty specific battery stress test. In general usage, which included dealing with emails and messages, a little light gaming, fielding and making a few calls, checking a few websites and taking a handful of camera snaps, the Nokia Lumia 635 comfortably made it through the day.
Nokia's official figures reflect that, with 14 hours 3G talk time, 12 hours of 2G talk time, and 58 hours of music playback.
Windows Phone 8.1 also includes the latest version of Battery Saver, which is a stand-alone app that allows you to monitor and adjust power usage settings.
For example, you can spot a particularly power-hungry app and opt to turn off its ability to run in the background.
You can also opt to save battery life by cutting down on such background processes whenever battery life gets low, or until the next charge.
These are all handy features for extending the Lumia 635's life when caught short.
Microsoft's Windows Phone OS isn't readily customisable like Android, so the Nokia Lumia 635 doesn't offer up any software surprises - especially as we've already seen this particular Windows Phone 8.1 configuration in the Nokia Lumia 630.
Naturally, as a Nokia device, you get Nokia's own custom apps such as Nokia Camera in place of the stock Windows Phone camera app (though you can switch between the two). You also get HERE Maps and HERE Drive, which are two of better navigation apps to be found on any platform.
While they're perhaps not as immediately familiar or intuitive as Google Maps, both have the distinct advantage off allowing you to preload maps for offline usage.
In the case of HERE Drive, in particular, this makes for a genuine sat nav replacement. That's not to be sniffed at.
For web browsing, Windows Phone 8.1 comes with Internet Explorer 11. Unsurprisingly, it's much the same as Internet Explorer 10 for Windows Phone 8, with its topsy-turvy universal address bar configuration (it's on the bottom rather than the top which actually makes a certain amount of sense) and severely stripped-back style.
New to version 11 is InPrivate browsing, which lets you set up a private browsing session from the Tabs menu. No data is stored or shared in these private sessions. It's not the first web browser to do so, but it's a welcome feature nonetheless.
Another nice-but-hardly-original addition is Reading View. Tab the book icon that appears in the address box when a web page loads, and it will switch to a stripped-out, mobile-optimised view. It makes standard web content that much more readable, and on a phone like the Lumia 635 with its less-than-sharp display, that's a big plus.
Talking of tabs, you can now have more than six of the things open at once. There's also great synchronicity with Windows 8, better web search predictions, and the option to save rather than open downloaded files.
In terms of general performance, Internet Explorer 11 on the Nokia Lumia 635 keeps up with its rivals on other platforms. The full TechRadar web page loaded up fully in around 10 seconds, which is a strong result.
However, I'd recommend keeping the default mobile website bias in place, as viewing desktop websites on that low-res 4.5-inch display isn't pretty.
Besides the aforementioned Battery Saver, Windows Phone 8.1 also includes Data Sense and Storage Sense. These allow you to customise settings aimed at optimising your data allowance and physical storage respectively.
Given that the Nokia Lumia 635 is aimed at those on a tight budget, who will likely be on low-cost contracts, and who probably won't be splashing out on a 128GB microSD card (yes, they're supported!), these are particularly noteworthy features.
Call quality during my time with the Nokia Lumia 635 was strong. You can always rely on Nokia to remember that these are phones first and foremost. Connections were consistently stable and voice quality was loud and clear, if a little harsher than on a high-end phone like the iPhone 5S.
Microsoft's People app is a colourful way to deal with your contacts, as always, though there continues to be an issue with contact duplication.
I've noted before that this is the case when implementing your Facebook contacts, but I found it with Gmail too. There seems to be some kind of HTC-like contact-linking feature to help cut down on all those irritating doubles, but for some reason it lets certain examples slip through the net.
That aside, I continue to appreciate the ability to scroll right from your contacts list to view a social network hub, summarising your contacts' latest posts on Facebook, LinkedIn, and the like.
The Nokia Lumia 635's camera offering seems pretty weak at an initial glance. The main rear snapper is a basic 5-megapixel offering with no flash whatsoever, so night shots are out.
But do you know what? The Lumia 635 is capable of taking some surprisingly decent shots. I'm not saying it's anything to write home about, particularly, and there's certainly nothing here that warrants the PureView label of Nokia's high-end cameraphones.
But this is a pretty well balanced smartphone camera for the price, and it's certainly better than the vast majority of low-end Android phones that pass through our doors.
Scenery snaps picked out the clouds surprisingly well, though the darkened foreground revealed the need for a HDR mode. Meanwhile close-up shots of flowers revealed reasonably sharp edges and accurate colours.
Finally, low-light indoor shots were distinctly less grainy than many of those aforementioned cheap Android efforts can manage.
More problematic for our money is the total lack of a front-facing camera. That means no video calls from the preinstalled Skype app, but more importantly, given the likely target audience, no selfies.
With that cheap price tag and gaudy design, the Lumia 635 is clearly going to be an appealing choice to kids - or at least to parents footing the bill for their kid's new phone. So omitting the facilitator for one of the key things kids do with their phones these days seems a little strange to say the least.
Video recording on that rear camera is a bit of a weakness. It's 720p, but pretty much all of our test videos had an element of shake and blurriness to them, while it didn't react too swiftly to changes in lighting conditions.
On the software front, the Nokia Camera app is as intuitive as always, but it doesn't have a lot to work with here. There are settings for white balance, ISO, exposure and the like, but there aren't any funky filters or settings beyond Smart Sequence.
The latter takes a series of quick-fire photos and lets you form a single perfect photo from them, doing things like removing moving objects, changing faces (perfect for group or family photos), or simply picking the best shot.
Microsoft has finally reached a point with Windows Phone where it's offering a reasonably rounded media experience, and the Nokia Lumia 635 benefits from that.
In Xbox Video, Windows Phone at last has a video content store to call its own. It contains a pretty comprehensive library of TV shows and movies to rent or own at competitive prices.
This stand-alone video app forms one half of the replacement for the old music and video app. The other half, you'll be unsurprised to hear, is called Music.
Again, this is fairly complete store for music tracks, though there's not much of a storefront. You kind of have to know what you're looking for here.
Of course, Nokia provides its own means of music discovery in the form of MixRadio. This app provides free curated playlists built around certain themes. These can be based on genre, moods, or events like festivals. Each playlist can be downloaded for offline listening, too.
You can also create personalised mixes by feeding up to three artists into the app, which will then spit out a bunch of related tracks. You can't specify particular artists to play, and you're limited to six skips per hour, but as a free music discovery tool (with no sign-up required), it's hard to complain.
So Microsoft's media ecosystem has finally matured. We're not sure the Lumia 635 is necessarily the best handset to exploit that fact, though.
Its 4.5-inch display is large enough for videos, but again, that 854 x 480 resolution isn't quite sharp enough to show it in all its HD glory. SD material fares better, of course.
The same goes for gaming, which I touched upon in the performance section. While the Lumia 635's quad-core Snapdragon 400 CPU can just about run everything the Xbox Live app has to offer, it won't look at its best on the display. Still, for the price, you have yourself an adequate gaming machine.
Motorola Moto E
I didn't think Motorola could produce phone that represents better value than the Moto G... and it hasn't. But the fact remains that the Motorola Moto E is the cheapest phone in the range, and a pretty solid one at that.
It's cheaper than the Lumia 635 at £90, but its specs are roughly equal. While the Moto E's display is smaller at 4.3-inches, it's a good deal sharper at 960 x 540.
Conversely, the Moto E's dual-core Snapdragon 200 CPU is inferior to the Lumia 635's quad-core Snapdragon 400, and it only sports half the internal storage (a mere 4GB).
Moreover, the Moto E does not support 4G LTE network connectivity, which is the Lumia 635's major selling point.
Here's another of those rare entry-level 4G phones. While it's limited to EE (obviously), the Kestrel can be picked up for £99 on one of the network's PAYG deals, which is similar to the Lumia 635.
It's worth noting that the EE Kestrel hasn't been built by some naff no-name manufacturer and was made by Huawei and shares some similarities with the Huawei Ascend G6.
That means that it's not as stylish as the Lumia 635, but it is a decent Android-powered phone that runs on the same quad-core Snapdragon 400 CPU. It's also backed by double the amount of RAM, although it could be argued that the Android OS requires it more than Windows Phone 8.1.
What's less defensible is the fact that the EE Kestrel's display, whilst the same size as the Lumia 635's, has a sharper 960 x 540 resolution.
Also, its 5-megapixel camera comes with a flash, and there's also a 1-megapixel front-facing example for selfie fans and video calls.
The Nokia Lumia 635 adds 4G connectivity to the already decent Nokia Lumia 630 package. But it also adds an extra bit to the price tag, which is a considerable amount at this entry level.
That brings the Lumia 635 within range of far better-equipped Android phones, and makes it less easy to recommend.
The Nokia Lumia 635 is all about offering 4G connectivity at a low price, and it does that with Nokia's customary entry-level flair.
As only the second phone to ship with Windows Phone 8.1 out of the box, the Lumia 635 as a certain feeling of importance and exclusivity, and the new OS itself brings some notable improvements like Action Centre.
While similarly priced Android phones may have better specs, none have the premium feel and general cohesiveness of this Nokia effort.
The addition of 4G has nudged the Lumia 635's price up a little, but as a percentage of the Nokia Lumia 630's price it's quite considerable.
Now pitched up against a range of more powerful Android phones, the Lumia 635 is trickier to recommend.
I also can't fathom why Nokia has left off a front-facing camera. Given the youth audience the Lumia 635 is likely aimed at, taking away the ability to take selfies seems like quite the oversight.
The Nokia Lumia 635 is nigh-on identical to the Nokia Lumia 630, only with the addition of 4G connectivity. But the resultant bump up in price carries things in the wrong direction.
All of a sudden, comparisons to similarly priced Android phones become less flattering, and a case for buying the Lumia 635 becomes tougher to make.
The Lumia 635 remains a decent all-round phone, though, with a level of build quality that outshines anything else at this price point and a fresh new Windows Phone 8.1 OS.