Without a flagship Windows Phone device from Microsoft since the Lumia 930 last summer, fans of the young operating system have been chomping at the bit for something that is both impressive and beautiful. Microsoft tried to plug that hole with the Lumia 830 in the autumn of 2014, but that phone, while highly desirable, did not really fit the flagship mould. It was almost a year ago that the 830 appeared, which now seems like decades ago. The processor in the 830 is a capable Snapdragon 400, but at times I noticed a small amount of lag when switching between apps. The camera is a decent 10MP PureView shooter, but reframing photos is not as ‘magical’ as other Lumias have managed in the past. The 1GB of RAM may have been sufficient, but again, some lag was experienced when using it heavily. So no, the Lumia 830 did not satisfy the masses, and to make things worse, it was priced way over its value (in my opinion), almost as a side-effect of Microsoft’s calling it the “affordable flagship”. Well, flagship it ain’t, and to many, neither is it affordable. Even today, it is listed on Amazon through AT&T (but without an AT&T contract) at a staggering $419.99 (plus tax) off-contract. Don’t get me wrong, the Lumia 830 is a lovely device, with much going for it, but it just simply doesn’t represent good value at that price. I should mention that the international unlocked version is also available on Amazon for a much lower price of $259.99, although you’d have to check if that version carried the 4G LTE capabilities.
So, with no real flagship slated to be launched for sale until much later this year (think October/November), what can buyers get their hands on?
Released earlier this year, the Lumia 640 XL seems to me to be the best mid-ranger from Microsoft that ticks most of my boxes, and while not a flagship device in any way, it is a sturdy member of the Lumia family with rock-solid specs at a very sensible price point. AT&T are selling the Lumia 640XL at just $249.99 (plus tax) on their website and in their stores, off-contract. If you’re happy to be locked into a contract for two years (although I have no idea why anyone would!), then picking up this beauty will set you back all of 99 cents (plus tax). In New York, that means you could walk out of an AT&T store with a brand new Lumia 640 XL, and having paid just $1.08 on the day for it.
So what’s it like? Well, Windows Phone 8.1 Update 2 is on-board, and there’s not much else to say about the operating system itself, as it is a carbon copy of most Windows Phones that are running at least Update 1 on 8.1. The main differences are that the Settings pane has been given a polish, and individual settings can now be pinned to the Start screen – very useful if you find that just four quick action buttons isn’t enough for you in the Action Center.
But the interface aside, the real pull is the hardware. Nokia-engineered or not (I’m assuming some ex-Nokia folk are still there!) this is a beautiful slab of a phone. The phone’s chassis is a matte plastic that does not feel cheap, but feels well-made, well-constructed, in the same vein we’ve come to expect in the Lumia line-up. Interestingly, with a large “phablet” sized screen at 5.7″, it’s quite a bit smaller than the oven-tray-sized Lumia 1520, which has a full 6″ screen. The slight difference is very noticeable, and the 640XL is much more comfortable to hold in the palm of your hand. The corners are much more rounded than those of the 1520, so there’s less “dig” into your fleshy palm. It’s also lightweight, at only 171g, compared with the hefty weightiness of the 1520 at 209g.
But Microsoft have been careful not to compromise too much on this, as it is clearly a more-affordable option over the 830 for fans to enjoy, until the real flagships come out this autumn. The screen is a very decent IPS LCD 720×1280 choice, with an approximate pixels-per-inch result of 259. Compare this with the almost-equally offered 830 which comes in at ~294 PPI, a slight difference with the additional 0.7″ on the 640XL, but it’s a lovely screen all the same. It’s a minor difference but worth pointing out. If Microsoft can tout the 830 as an “affordable flagship”, what does that make the 640 XL? The “more affordable, affordable flagship”??
The biggest difference comes with comparing the two cameras. The 830 has a respectable 10MP PureView arrangement, with a 1/3.4″ sensor and optical image stabilization. I used it for a while earlier this year, and I was quite impressed with its photos.
The Lumia 640 XL has a 13MP non-PureView shooter with a slightly larger sensor at 1/3″, but no optical image stabilization. Unfortunately there isn’t a hardware camera shutter button on this device which again is a physical reminder that this is not a high-end phone and so compromises have to be made. But it’s always a shame to find that button missing because it’s always so easy and useful to launch the camera from standby just by pressing on that button. Oh well. (That feature used to be advertised on TV as a main selling point for Windows Phone 7!)
So on paper, it’s a list of pros and cons. However, the real test comes when using the 640 XL’s camera in the real world, day to day, away from the spec sheets.
I was astounded with the quality of the photos it produced. To be able to compare its abilities, I went out for a stroll with my Lumia 930, just to have something to use as a benchmark. Interestingly, and perhaps unfortunately for the 930, the 640 XL did not disappoint at all. In fact, on closer inspection on the respective phone’s screens, I could barely make out any difference in quality and detail in the photos. I can confidently say that the 640 XL, without much hesitation, produces excellent photos.
Below are some comparisons with my Lumia 930. The top photo in each pairing is from the Lumia 930, with the corresponding photo from the 640 XL below. As I’m sure you’ll agree, for the price point at which the 640 XL sits, it really is fantastic value.
Day-to-day usage is important when reviewing phones, and in my time with the 640 XL, I’d say you’d either have to be a bit of a geek like me, or a power-user to really notice any performance issues. The speed of the phone is good – not quite as liquid-fast as my Lumia 930. This is most apparent when shooting with Rich Capture. Rich Capture allows the user to shoot a scene with three, very quick and successive shots at different levels of exposure. The software then cleverly combines the three together for the user to choose an amount of HDR for the photo, maybe a tiny bit, maybe loads. It’s a great feature that would probably keep me on my Lumia 1020 if it had the hardware that could manage it, but alas, it does not. Now, the Snapdragon 800 coupled with 2GB of RAM in the 930 handles Rich Capture photos with ease and speed. It takes a few seconds for the phone to do the background processing of the three images before you’re presented with the option to edit the photo if you want to. But the 640 XL, carrying a Snapdragon 400 and just 1GB of RAM shows its weakness in this scenario. After snapping a Rich Capture shot, it does take quite a while for the phone to process the images, ready for your editing choices. It’s not a huge problem, and it’s not a deal breaker for many I’m sure, unlike how the startup and shot-to-shot lag on the Lumia 1020 is for many people. But it does highlight the importance of consumer knowledge when going in to buy a new smartphone; without the hardware chops behind-the-scenes, your experience may or may not be as great as it could be. Of course, this isn’t a huge negative jab at the 640 XL because its price is very reasonable, and one must remember with any consumer product: you get what you pay for (most of the time!)
Perhaps my biggest gripe with this phone is its responsiveness to touch input. Most of the time it was fine, and clicking links and pushing buttons went as expected. But occasionally, (and when the screen element was particularly small) the phone would either just not react, or a link/button close-by would be initiated instead. One example of this was when I was viewing webpages. For those sites that require a lot of reading, hitting the ‘reading view’ icon is a brilliant way to cut out the superfluous nonsense on the webpage. However, on the 640 XL, more often than not, tapping this icon (even with care) would actually initiate the ‘refresh’ icon instead, and the webpage would just reload. Quite annoying. I don’t know if that has to do with it being a cheaper screen, or if this particular device was a bit of a lemon in that regard, but it tainted my overall enjoyment of the device somewhat, if I’m honest.
Throughout the summer, I’ve been generally impressed with the 640 XL. A huge plus is its battery; the thing just lasts and lasts, which is quite important when you’re on vacation and you’re not exactly near any power outlets on the beach! I was also impressed with the bright sunlight handling of the screen; again, no problems editing beach shots and sending them off to Twitter; I could see it all, even if it meant I had to remove my sunglasses!
Having offline Here maps on-board was something else that came in handy while we were on our trip. It is a priceless feature that all Lumia phone users can enjoy. I had already downloaded three (entire!) States’ maps so when we were driving around in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal, we could still find our destinations and navigate to them when things went awry and original plans had to be changed. I know this isn’t exclusive to the 640 XL in any way, but it’s useful for sure. And having the option to use a microSD card means that you can fill that up with the all the maps you need without it having an impact on the phone’s own memory. Other Lumias without an SDcard slot might struggle with this.
One more thing I enjoyed with the 640 XL is having Glance screen again. Glance isn’t available on the Lumia 930, rather frustratingly, but it was a joy to see it back on the 640 XL. Once more I was able to simply glance over at the phone to see I had an email or a Facebook notification, all without touching the thing at all. I hope that Glance makes a return to the true flagship phones this autumn.
While the 830 seems a little overpriced to me, the 640 XL is at the right spot. I always buy my phones sim-free and off-contract; it allows me to chop and change networks if I want to, or to different plans within the same network without it being a problem. Paying $250 for this seems very reasonable to me, and while it doesn’t attain true flagship status, at this price I think it’s a Lumia that represents fantastic value for money.