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Lumia 635: Could this be the low-priced future of Windows Phone?

Lumia 635: Could this be the low-priced future of Windows Phone?

Two weeks ago, we would have written the Lumia 635 off as a middling device you'd probably pass over

I initially wanted to dislike the Lumia 635, only because I feel Microsoft's Lumia phones can aspire to something better. But the phone delivers the basics, with one inexplicable omission: a front-facing camera.

Microsoft's new Lumia 635 may be marketed as one of the first Windows Phones to be sold to customers with the amazing features of Windows Phone 8.1, but that doesn't mean much: the "Cyan" update will soon roll out Windows Phone 8.1 to all Nokia Windows Phone 8 handsets. No, it's the price that matters: $168 at T-Mobile, or $7 per month over 24 months. (The Lumia 635 is also available via AT&T for $139.)

Why is the price so important? Because Microsoft said this week the midrange is the company's new focus. In July 18 report, analyst firm, Chitika, revealed that the Lumia 520 and Lumia 521 delivered more than 54 percent of the ad impressions to the Windows Phone platform. The new chief of Microsoft's device business, Stephen Elop sealed the deal.

"In the near term, we plan to drive Windows Phone volume by targeting the more affordable smartphone segments, which are the fastest growing segments of the market, with Lumia," Elop wrote in a memo this week.

That puts new pressure on the Lumia 635.

No muss, no fuss

The Lumia 635 is an inherently basic phone; the 4.5-inch, 854x480 display even has something I'd forgotten about: visible pixels. The display is viewable in bright sunlight, but you'll need to maximize the brightness, and there's no adaptive brightness control to facilitate that. In general, it looks a little dull.

Inside is a 1.2-GHz Snapdragon 400 quad-core chip, which is no slouch. Still, don't expect to run high-performance apps. Our SunSpider test averaged 1.47 seconds, about three times slower than the flagship Lumia Icon. (Our Peacekeeper test failed to run.) But the 512 MB of RAM the phone includes means that you'll be seeing the "Resuming..." message quite a bit as you switch between apps that the Windows Phone OS has suspended. I also noted several instances where the phone would simply lock up briefly, such as after entering the PIN to unlock it.

But this phone has one feature other Windows Phones don't: motion-data collection. This enables it to act as a pedometer in addition to tracking your distance traveled via GPS. That feature ties into the Bing Health & Fitness app, as well as other apps you allow. Personally, knowing I walked a mile or so is good enough for me; but for those obsessed with accomplishing 10,000 steps or more, it might eliminate the need for a separate fitness tracker.

The Lumia phones' other selling point has traditionally been the camera, so I was surprised to find the experience with those phone rather middling. Lumia fans will be disappointed to find out that the camera hardware button on the side of the phone has been removed; in fact, the home, back, and search buttons on the phone are also screen icons now. (Only the power and volume rocker switches remain.)

What, no selfies?

As I mentioned up top, the front-facing camera is gone as well. You can forget about taking selfies with this phone. For me, that's almost unforgiveable in this day and age. Sure, there's trimming the fat to save a few bucks. But this is trimming the fun.

The rear camera, meanwhile, is just 5 megapixels--that's a far cry from the 41MP the Lumia 1020 offers. The one unexpected plus is that the notorious shutter lag--the time from when you touch the camera shutter icon to when it takes a picture--has disappeared almost entirely. And I found nothing to complain about save for the fact the photos looked a bit washed out, as the Nokia Camera app (not the other stock "Camera" app) includes all the lovely manual controls.

I discovered numerous other oddities and bugs, too. Although the T-Mobile version of the device supports its LTE bands and Wi-Fi calling, it failed to connect to T-Mobile to register it, popping up a "REG90 Failed to Connect" warning over and over and over. Apps loaded slowly, and although the phone shipped with a Hulu+ live tile, the app wasn't actually installed.

These latter glitches could have been just the vagaries of a test phone. I hope so. Fortunately, the Lumia 635 handles the basics pretty well. Calls were fairly clear, and they connected quickly. My only complaint while surfing the Web was that the low display resolution made pages like SFGate.com difficult to read when the desktop page was preferred. And the camera, while basic, did the job.

I wonder, though, how many Lumia 635s will be returned when consumers discover the lack of a front-facing camera. That's a real blow to the platform, especially when you factor in the lack of first-party apps in the Windows Store. Phones like the Lumia 1020, Lumia Icon, and Lumia 1520 have given Lumia owners something to brag about. Phones like the Lumia 635 will straddle the narrow line between value and mediocrity.

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Tags LumiaWindows Phone 8.1consumer electronicsMicrosoftsmartphonesWindows Phone

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