Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: Lumia 635 Smartphone

Sadly, I broke my Xperia Z1, and it's broken in such a way that I'm not 100% sure that Sony will fix under warranty. So this time, I'm determined not to buy an expensive smartphone (and that way, if Sony betrays my expectations and actually fixes my Z1, I wouldn't be out a ton of money). I was going to buy another Lumia 521, but it was sold out everywhere I looked. I settled on a Lumia 635 which was on sale for about $65.

This turned out to be a more than reasonable choice. The 635, unlike the 521, has LTE coverage. T-mobile's been rolling out LTE, so this actually matters now. Furthermore, in the half year since I used the 521, Microsoft has addressed 3 out of the 4 issues I described in the ecosystem comparison! Lumia phones now have a swipe keyboard. The latest Windows phone OS's browser now supports the Digg Reader in landscape mode, and uniquely (and surprisingly to me), the 635 supports the SensorCore SDK, which means that functionality that I missed in the Moves app is now available in the Microsoft Health and Fitness app. This last bit surprised the heck out of me --- basically, this now obviates the $70 Vivofit. The only issue left un-addressed is Google voice support. To be honest, however, Google Voice's been becoming increasingly flakey and unreliable, and most of my friends (even Google employees!) have been slowly abandoning it due to Google's lack of attention in this area, so I'm not sure that Google Voice is a reason to stay on an Android platform for much longer.

There are two versions of the 635: the T-mobile version and the AT&T version, with T-mobile version being more expensive. The reason the T-mobile version's better if you're a T-mobile user is that it comes with WiFi calling, which is a nice feature especially if you travel overseas and frequently have WiFi but not phone signal. The different versions of the 635 are carrier locked, so you cannot use a T-mobile SIM in an AT&T phone and vice versa.

The big downgrade from the 521 is that the 635 does not have a camera shutter button. This would be a big deal  breaker except that the camera on either phone is worth jack, and I'd only use them under duress.

Compared with the Xperia Z1, the 635 has a few surprising strengths. The first is battery life. I'm willing to bet that any Windows phone outperforms any Android phone in this regard. On the Virgin Islands trip, my moms' 521 hardly ever needed to be charged, while the Android phones (and even the lone iPhone) were frequently on the charging table. I'm confident that the 635 will go all day without charging and then some.

The second is the bluetooth implementation. For whatever reason, the Z1 would frequently stop responding to next-track and previous-track requests from the Scion's steering wheel controls, and despite being told repeatedly to play music whenever it was connected to the car's audio system, the Z1 would refuse to do so without manual intervention. By contrast, the 635 reliably talks to the car's audio system, even going into driving mode and ignoring text messages and other random notifications, by contrast.

The third interesting thing is that Windows Phone OS is far snappier than Android! The 521 occasionally would lag a bit while resuming an app, but the 635 with a quad core CPU and a 20% MHz bump hardly ever shows me the app resumption screen, and even when it does it's only for a second or less. The Windows phone OS team has done a far better job than the Android OS team on UI optimization and such.

The weaknesses of the phone can easily be seen from the specifications. A 4.5 inch screen with 800x400 resolution just cannot compete with the Sony's beautiful screen. It's also not waterproof (though reports are that you'd better not rely on Sony's waterproofing claims), and doesn't have the magnetic charging dock capability or Qi wireless charging. For $65, I wouldn't be screaming for that. The 512MB RAM also prevents me from posting large Facebook photos, for instance. Given the poor camera on the phone, this is probably a good thing for my readers and followers on Facebook, but it also means that I wouldn't be processing RAW photos on the Windows phone and posting them while on trips. The phone camera also doesn't have a flash nor does it have a front-facing camera. Given the poor quality of the rear camera, I would have preferred to just have a front camera for Skype video chats and such.

One thing that the Sony had that I missed is the nice NFC-backed tap to pair with my SBH-52. No big deal, since surprisingly, the SBH-52 picked up my Windows phone quickly and eagerly pairs with it even without prompting, something that my Z1 didn't always do! So much for vendor-driven integration.

All in all, the 635 is a surprisingly good package at a low low price. If I had to live with this as my only phone for the next 2 years I'd miss the Z1's excellent camera and flash, but wouldn't necessarily feel deprived. At this price range, there's no competition that even comes close. The Moto G LTE phone, for instance is $190, which is more than twice the price I paid! You'd have to go with the Moto E GSM ($115) to come close, and that phone only gives you 2G on T-mobile in the US! And both phones running Android would be far more sluggish than the 635.

Needless to say, this phone therefore comes recommended.

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