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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Some more valuable apps and features

In addition to Windows Phone 8.1 features, the Lumia 635 came with several interesting apps and features. A free MixRadio streaming music app was one of my favorites and came with no ads or the need to sign up. (T-Mobile also began offering free data use for a number of music streaming services in early July, but hasn't so far included MixRadio.)

I enjoy streaming radio mixes such as MixRadio offers, because they expose me to new music. And MixRadio lets you easily download a mix of songs to the phone to listen to music offline.

Here Maps and Here Drive+ are also among my favorite features. I can use Cortana to start navigating with a simple voice command to find a favorite restaurant; a simple touch on "Start Voice Nav" will then activate Here Drive+ with voice directions. The process is simpler than with Google Maps and some others I've tried, and the maps are clearer to read.

Here Drive+ also knows the speed limits for each segment of a roadway, and users can set the navigation service to sound a tone when the car's speed goes over that limit. You can easily set at how many miles an hour over the limit you want the tone to sound, or completely turn it off. Display options for the maps can be changed from 2D to 3D, and there are 88 different navigation voices to pick from, including a goofy-sounding male Surfer Dude voice. (All this is especially handy because it's very hard to read anything on the Lumia 635's display when outdoors or in a car.)

Another useful feature is the 15GB of free cloud storage that you get on OneDrive. Automatic backups are possible via your data stream or Wi-Fi, and you can limit uploads of photo and video files to Wi-Fi only. It's also easy to share a document with someone else via messaging or email from the cloud with just a few taps.

OneDrive capabilities are a reminder that Microsoft has made cloud computing a centerpiece of its future strategy. Another Microsoft priority is expanding on the ability to use Office software on any device, including Surface tablets, laptops and smartphones running Windows Phone.

The Lumia 635 comes with an Office app that let me create, access, edit and share Office documents and OneNote notebooks. With the app, I was able to create a Word document on the phone, save it, send it to OneDrive and thus share it with other devices. It all worked well, and I really appreciated the value of widespread adoption of Office software on an inexpensive phone, especially combined with the quick shape-writing capabilities of Word Flow.

The phone also comes with a few camera-related apps that try to make up for the inclusion of a single 5-megapixel camera.

Aside from the deplorable Glam Me selfie-taking app mentioned above, there's an app called Smart Sequence, which captures a burst of photo frames to get the best facial expression for each person in a group shot to be combined into a final shot. Another app called Storyteller makes it easy to tell a story with photos and videos, after the phone itself has grouped a given set of photos or videos by time and place. You select two or more pictures and tap a merge icon to create a slideshow.

Nokia Cinemagraph blends photos with simple animation, which might be useful to liven up a presentation or a personal message. I took a photo of my dog Scout and with some quick onscreen touches, the result was a brief animation of her head turning side-to-side, almost in time lapse.

In addition to these camera apps, Microsoft has pre-installed Skype on the phone, but only for calling and texting. (Remember, there's not a front-facing camera for videoconferencing.) T-Mobile also supports Wi-Fi calling on the Lumia 635.

A note: I've read complaints that Windows Phone is deficient in offering only about 300,000 Windows Phone apps, less than a third of what's available on Apple's App Store or Google Play.

In response to the criticism that it has too few apps, Microsoft says it has 90% of the top 20 apps that smartphones users say are important (and the list is constantly changing), and has recently added Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram and Vine. Microsoft also claims it has a lot of developer interest in creating apps, with more than 500 apps added to its store each day.

In conclusion

Overall, the Lumia 635 is an odd mix of hardware cutbacks for affordability with some premium software features thrown in.

It's rather strange that the Lumia 635, which has a single camera and only a moderately good display and processor, is the first to offer Windows Phone 8.1 and the perks that come with it, such as Office software, Here Drive+ navigation and a Cortana digital assistant that is sophisticated enough to create reminders by tracking information inside of emails. Maybe the phone doesn't know if it wants to be a kid or a grown-up.

Some buyers might wonder if it makes sense to buy a Lumia 635 if Microsoft has even vague plans to sell off its phone business in two years, but that shouldn't matter at all given the short life of phones.

But while I wouldn't write off the Windows Phone entirely, in this case, you might want to look elsewhere. In the U.S., the smartphone market is fairly saturated, and many people already own a high-end smartphone like the Apple iPhone 5S or the Samsung Galaxy S5, both of which sell for $200 with a two-year contract. Recently, Best Buy dropped the new well-ranked LG G3 to $99 on-contract with three national carriers. At that price (assuming you can afford a contract), the LG G3, which runs Android 4.4 and comes with two cameras, is a better buy than the new Lumia 635.

This article, Deep-dive review: The Lumia 635 smartphone -- a study in contrasts, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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