Deep-dive review: The Lumia 635 smartphone -- a study in contrasts

With Nokia's new low-cost phone, it's Microsoft's Windows Phone 8.1 that makes it good.

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Cortana shines

The 635 is technically the first Lumia device to get the newest Windows Phone 8.1 software, although the 8.1 preview version was used on the Lumia 520 on AT&T's network and got a few positive reviews, including from Computerworld's Ryan Faas back in May.

Windows Phone 8.1's biggest new feature is Cortana, a savvy voice-activated digital assistant.

Cortana is a very good digital assistant, but it's not quite as "truly personal" or artificially intelligent as Microsoft officials would have had us believe when it was first unveiled in April. In fact, Cortana is still technically in beta and it's not clear when the beta period will end.

Nokia Lumia 635
Cortana will greet you each day with a text update and can take voice commands.

When Cortana is activated for the first time, you are asked a series of questions to help it establish your voice, behaviors and preferences. The first question I was asked was how I wanted Cortana to say my name. Then I was asked to state two things I do in the evenings and, later, my two main motivations for going out. (I tried to impress Cortana by saying I go out to learn something and to improve myself.)

After using Cortana for nearly a week, I couldn't detect much personalization from my answers to those initial baseline questions. Instead, I was given a "Good morning!" screen in text each day with the day's weather for my area and top headlines, followed by health, entertainment and business news. There didn't seem to be much, if any, automated customization of the content I was receiving. Perhaps I need to use it much longer to see the personalization benefits.

Cortana saves all your preferences in what is called a Notebook; you can tweak those preferences manually by tapping on the Notebook icon. For example, you can add sports to your interests and follow a favorite team (Red Sox, in my case, even though it's not a great year). I could then ask Cortana to notify me of score updates for the team.

For business users, Cortana can detect flight itineraries and other tracking information from your emails and add them to the Notebook to be able to provide reminders (with the user's permission, naturally). Users can also disable email integration entirely.

When I tested Cortana, some of the more basic requests worked really well, such as, "Show me the Mexican restaurants nearby" or "Show me the nearest hardware store" or "How far to the nearest airport?"

One of my most interesting test cases for Cortana was a reminder to pick up milk when I got to the store, making use of the phone's GPS capability. (Reminders given to Cortana can be made using time or contacts, as well as by location.) I activated Cortana by touching the Cortana tile pinned to the home screen, then touched the microphone and said, "Remind me to pick up milk when I get to the store."

Cortana's voice repeated my request and then showed me a list of the nearest store with milk. I could tap on that store or tap "any store" as well. It then activated a text reminder with a tone alerting me to the text once I was parked a few feet from the entrance to the store.

Later, I altered the command to, "Remind me to pick up milk when I'm anywhere near a store" to make it useful when driving by a store, not actually going to it. But Cortana repeatedly kept changing that request to the older command, which it truncated as, "Remind you when you get to store. Is this the one you want?"

Trivia note to gamers: Cortana's female voice is synthesized in part from an AI character named Cortana (played by actress Jen Taylor) in the Halo video game series. (There is a male voice available as well.)

And there's humor: When you ask Cortana on the phone if she's better than Siri, she comes back with even more Halo insider wisdom, nutty as it is: "Not to brag, but apparently I'm going to help save the universe in about 500 years."

Overall, Cortana isn't everything one might hope for, but it gets a 9 out of 10 in my book. Voice input and response have really come a long way, and represent a major asset for Microsoft, should the company should sell off its smartphone division or make some other drastic move.

Other Windows Phone 8.1 features

There are other Windows Phone 8.1 features that I liked. For example, a new Word Flow feature adds shape writing to the virtual on-screen keyboard (shape writing is a process of drawing on the keyboard with a finger to reach each letter without lifting the finger to touch each letter). Action Center, which handles notifications and other phone settings, and Sense, which manages data and battery use, are two other powerful new additions in Windows Phone 8.1.

To see Action Center, you swipe down from the top of the screen. Four buttons at the top let you control Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, airplane mode, display brightness and more; they can be swapped out with others you find more important. There's also an "All settings" button if you want to view the entire list of settings. Beneath that are notifications of recent emails, messages and headlines.

Nokia Lumia 635
Storage Sense helps track data storage and decide where to keep it.

Sense lets you manage storage, battery and data use with easy-to-view displays. Storage Sense lets you can see how much battery life is left and also get an estimate of how long that will last, as well as the time since the last charge. Sense also detects which apps deplete the battery the most and optimizes each app to extend battery life, according to Microsoft. Data Sense is helpful for tracking a monthly data allotment from a carrier; users can customize alerts to say when a data limit is near so they can be directed to free Wi-Fi hotspots. Wi-Fi Sense instantly connects the phone to free Wi-Fi.

The Word Flow shape-writing keyboard works smoothly and as well as many of the other shape-writing apps on the market (and I've tried many of them). In a message or email, you tap the first letter of the word to be typed, then drag your finger to each of the next letters, picking up the finger when the last letter is reached. At that point, the word appears on the screen. It's quite a bit faster than picking out each letter. I intentionally tried to flub on picking letters, and Word Flow still figured out the word I was typing almost every time.

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