Friday, 8 May 2015

Review: Microsoft Lumia 640 XL

Review: Microsoft Lumia 640 XL

Introduction

While we wait for Windows 10 Mobile to show up later this year here's another affordable, decent-looking, unfussy Windows Phone 8.1 model to tide us over.

Since Microsoft bought Nokia's phone division at the end of 2013, we've seen quite a few perfectly adequate handsets that aren't going to burn too big a hole in your pocket or get your pulse racing all that quickly.

And so to the Microsoft Lumia 640 XL, the bigger brother to the Lumia 640, which was also announced at MWC in March. Overall, It gives the impression that Microsoft is just killing time before Windows 10, but it's still worth a look if you're in the market for a competent Microsoft-powered handset right now.

Nokia Lumia 640 XL review

Microsoft says a SIM-free Lumia 640 XL will set you back £219 in the UK and AU$399 in Australia, with US pricing to be confirmed (it's around US$324 with a straight currency conversion).

As usual, you can shop around for different prices on and off contract. The phone is available in cyan, orange, black or white with a matte finish, or glossy white.

That affordable price and the 5.7-inch screen size (it's Microsoft's second-biggest handset after the 6-inch Lumia 1520) are the most notable features here.

As with every other Windows Phone 8.1 device out there, Microsoft is promising a free upgrade to Windows 10 when the time comes, so you're not limiting yourself to outdated technology.

Nokia Lumia 640 XL review

Behind the scenes, there's a 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 quad-core processor, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage (expandable via memory card, as we've already said).

The Lumia 640 XL sports a very large 3000mAh battery and an Adreno 305 GPU powering its 720 x 1280 pixel screen. There's a rear-facing 13-megapixel camera and a 5-megapixel snapper on the front.

Design

Pick up the Lumia 640 XL and it feels like the budget phone that it is: lightweight, plastic, nondescript. The bright plastic backing (mine was orange) is pleasing to the touch, and the workmanship is solid, but you won't mistake this for a premium device.

The back pops off, so you can replace the battery, add the SIM and slot in a microSD if you want to. It's a sign of the device's robustness – this is not a phone that's going to mind a scratch – though if you often swap cards out, it has the potential to become annoying.

Nokia Lumia 640 XL review

From the removable back to the volume and power buttons, the Lumia 640 XL has a feeling of cheapness, but it's not quite as negative as that sounds. It's solidly put together, despite the low-grade materials, and no doubt some users will enjoy having a phone that can get bashed about a bit.

It's also distinctly Lumia, with a raised camera lens module, edges that are curved and rounded, and a choice of colours for the back casing.

As usual, the 3.5mm headphone jack sits atop the device, while the microUSB connector port is positioned underneath. The power and volume buttons sit on the right, with the power button lowest, as is the norm for Lumias.

Nokia Lumia 640 XL review

Like the 5-inch Lumia 640, the 5.7-inch Lumia 640 XL has a screen resolution of 720 x 1280 pixels. That takes the PPI sharpness down to 259, but it's not a bad screen to look at: like most Lumia displays I've seen, the colours are bright and engaging and everything on the interface looks sharp enough.

With that large screen and dimensions of 157.9mm x 81.5mm x 9mm (6.22 inches x 3.21 inches x 0.35 inches), you're going to need two hands to operate this properly (like the iPhone Plus 6 and Nexus 6). It weighs in at 171g, but feels pretty light in the hand.

Nokia Lumia 640 XL review

OneDrive is now firmly established as Microsoft's great hope for consumer cloud storage, and of course the app is built right into the software on the Lumia 640 XL.

Microsoft has confirmed that buyers will get a year's subscription to Office 365 with their purchase – that's a £59.99 (or US$79.99) saving straight away, and also includes a handy 1TB of OneDrive space.

Key features and performance

The key selling points of the Microsoft Lumia 640 XL are its price, its size, and the fact it runs Windows Phone 8.1 (and will eventually get Windows 10).

As for its price, it feels like a phone that's good value – Microsoft has said it's targeting business users with the handset, and for people glued to Office and Outlook all day it makes a lot of sense.

Large, phablet-sized phones may be awkward to use with one hand, but they leave more room for spreadsheets, websites, photos and everything else.

Nokia Lumia 640 XL review

There are benefits if you're watching movies on the go, too, though of course you don't have the solid ecosystem offered by iTunes or Google Play. Netflix and BBC iPlayer are on Windows Phone at least.

That brings us to Windows Phone and a story we've had to lay out a hundred times before: app choice is its biggest weakness. Some people might be able to live without Snapchat and Crossy Road, but to not have anything official made by Google – from Gmail to YouTube – is a real problem.

Nokia Lumia 640 XL review

That's not to say there aren't big names in the app catalogue. Spotify, Evernote, WhatsApp, Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter and (a beta version of) Instagram are here, but in terms of the big picture you're still a second-class apps citizen if you plump for Windows Phone.

The development of those big-name apps often lags behind the iOS and Android versions and most of the best new apps, as well as the majority of mobile games, never make it to the platform. Will the situation change with Windows 10 and 'universal apps'? We'll have to wait and see.

On the flip side, integration with Microsoft services is excellent. Outlook, Skype, Office and OneDrive all run smoothly and appear as soon as you sign in with a Microsoft account.

The Windows Phone interface has matured over the years, with improvements to live tiles and notifications, and it's not that far behind iOS and Android if you take apps out of the equation.

Performance

With specs such as those in the Microsoft Lumia 640 XL, you're never going to get blistering performance, but it's debatable whether or not you need it on a smartphone anyway (unless you happen to be a hardcore mobile gamer, perhaps).

A quick blast of Subway Surfers proved to be no problem for the Microsoft handset, and we'd expect you wouldn't have issues with most apps.

Nokia Lumia 640 XL review

Windows Phone 8.1 was snappy and responsive on the handset, and I didn't notice any issues with lag or stuttering while I was using it.

One area where it perhaps has the edge over iOS and Android is in the uniform design style adopted by all of its apps – it's strange but actually quite appealing to see everything from Spotify to Facebook making use of the same look.

Nokia Lumia 640 XL reviewI should also mention Cortana, which mixes in some of the best features from Google Now and Siri to create an app that can control your phone's settings as well as schedule your meetings. It shows a lot of promise and it's only going to get better.

The well-respected – if a little outdated – AnTuTu Benchmark app gave the Lumia 640 XL a score of 11,671. Compare that with the 67,520 points raked in by the Samsung Galaxy S6 and you can see the kind of market segment we're in.

The Windows Phone benchmark app hasn't been updated for three years, but it gives you a broad idea of this phone's capabilities – it's not right at the budget end of the field, but it's close.

We had a few goes on Asphalt 8, one of the more demanding mobile games out there, and though it wasn't the most fluid or high-resolution experience we've ever had with the game, it performed well without any lag or stutter. What's more, the handset didn't heat up at all.

And Windows Phone is Windows Phone, which you probably know all about by now. It has its quirks, such as the live tiles, and despite the advancements it's made recently it still feels less polished than iOS or Android. Over to you in the summer, Windows 10.

Battery life and the essentials

Battery life

I was impressed with the battery performance of the Microsoft Lumia 640 XL in the time I had it, performance no doubt helped by that lower resolution display and mid-range internal components.

I was regularly finding 25-30% left at the end of the day, though of course it depends what you're doing.

Nokia Lumia 640 XL review

A spot of intense Asphalt 8 gaming and I was seeing drops of around 15% an hour, which is still very good (some other Microsoft phones drain twice as fast). Even if you're absolutely hammering the battery, it's going to last you for several hours, which isn't something you can say about every smartphone on the market with a 5.7-inch screen.

Even with sync ramped up and plenty of music listening and maps checking, I never felt panicked about the phone running out of juice.

Like most phones, you'll be charging this every night, but if you forget you should have some battery life left to see you through the morning – and that's out of the ordinary in today's market.

The TechRadar video test (a 90-minute high-definition clip on loop), the great leveller around these parts, saw the Lumia 640 XL dropping from a full charge to 86%. That's substantially better than the Lumia 630 (77%), the Lumia 520 (66%) and the HTC One M9 (69%).

If you're willing to plump for lower specs you can often feel the benefit through the resulting battery life, and that's certainly the case with the Lumia 640 XL – the large 3000mAh battery really impresses.

The essentials

Let's not forget the old phone calling and text features either – in both areas the handset performed solidly, with no drops in signal or broken calls. Speakerphone volume and quality was fine, as was music playback through the single speaker sat near the camera – nothing to write home about, but by no means a disaster.

Nokia Lumia 640 XL reviewThe Windows Phone keyboard still feels as if you're playing around with a kid's toy, but at least it's bold and clear with keys that are easy to hit.

The phone was able to take full benefit of the 4G speeds offered by O2 in Manchester, with pages loading promptly over a data connection or Wi-Fi.

It's not going to let you down as far as the basics go, and in some ways the sparseness of Windows Phone as a mobile OS makes for a more straightforward experience. You certainly wouldn't pick the dialler or messaging apps ahead of their iOS or Android equivalents, though, whether you were basing your choice on looks or functionality.

Ultimately, Windows Phone 8.1 just isn't as refined as iOS 8 or Android 5, mobile OSes that look as though they've been through eight (or five) iterations to get where they are today. It's not without its charms, but speaking objectively it's difficult to see how you would choose this over its rivals if you were picking based on software alone.

The obligatory Settings app does the job nicely, and I like the battery saver feature as well as the built-in utilities for managing phone storage and data usage. The quiet hours feature is an intuitive take on shutting off interruptions and notifications at certain times.

Speaking of storage, though, you are going to want to buy a memory card — after installing Asphalt 8 (around 1.5GB) and snapping a few photos, we had less than 1GB of the 8GB internal space left. It's another reason why power users will pass on this handset.

Music and video playback is very good, provided you have enough storage to keep your files with you. Like the minimal apps in the desktop version of Windows, everything is easy to navigate around and control. The MixRadio app is a definite highlight, playing a jukebox of bands you like, and there's an integrated FM radio here, too.

Camera

The overall narrative of the Microsoft Lumia 640 XL continues with the camera's capabilities: it's decent but not much more than that. Good lighting conditions lead to good shots, albeit a little under-saturated and noisy when you get right down to the details.

Low-light performance was impressive, though, and shutter speed relatively fast, so when you consider the price I'd say this is a 13-megapixel camera that overperforms for the section of the market it's in.

Nokia Lumia 640 XL review

Weigh it up against the iPhone 6 and you're likely to be disappointed; compare its pictures with snaps taken by similarly priced Android phones and you'll be pleasantly surprised.

The integrated LED flash deserves a mention, too, managing to add light to shots quite nicely without washing them out. Of course, there are better mobile cameras out there, but the Lumia 640 XL holds its own in the photo-taking stakes and isn't going to have your Facebook friends laughing at your attempts to take a nice beach or landscape shot.

The Lumia Camera app that comes as standard with Windows Phone 8.1 offers basic manual controls for ISO, shutter speed, white balance and brightness, so if you want to play around with these settings then the option are there.

I'm not sure the quality of the lens is up to it, but if you know your photography then these settings can help you get better shots.

Nokia Lumia 640 XL review

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Microsoft Lumia 640 XL review

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Microsoft Lumia 640 XL review

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Microsoft Lumia 640 XL review

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Microsoft Lumia 640 XL review

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Microsoft Lumia 640 XL review

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Microsoft Lumia 640 XL review

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Microsoft Lumia 640 XL review

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Verdict

With the usual Windows Phone caveats, the Lumia 640 XL is a strong device from Microsoft. Not a terribly powerful handset but the lacklustre internal components and a slightly cheap feel are made up for by a nice big screen, good battery life and that appealing price point.

As for Windows Phone 8.1, not everyone wants the latest must-have app – for some of you, Office is probably far more important than Periscope. It's still playing catch-up to iOS and Android but you do get Office for a year and Windows 10 Mobile is imminent.

Microsoft Lumia 640 XL review

We liked

Using the Lumia 640 XL for a week was a surprisingly pleasurable experience. It's solid if unspectacular in its build quality, the display pops nicely and the camera isn't going to let you down.

Having a phone with battery life that you don't need to worry about is a refreshing change, too - especially when the screen is as big as it is on the Lumia 640 XL.

We disliked

You don't get the fine craftsmanship of something like the iPhone 6 or the Nexus 6 here, with the plastic body feeling cheap, yet sturdy in the hand.

The screen is low-res by today's standards and the internal storage space isn't really adequate – factor in the cost of a microSD card when you're working out if you want to make a purchase.

Microsoft Lumia 640 XL

Final verdict

Microsoft promises it has some Windows 10-powered flagship phones in the pipeline, and it's unfair to compare the Lumia 640 XL to the Galaxy S6 and the best models on the market.

If you're on a budget and you want a big phablet-style handset, then give the Lumia 640 XL some serious consideration. The only unknown is how much of a difference Windows 10 is going to make, so you might want to hold off for a few months until the first reviews appear.

Hardware-wise, it's a very good value handset for the price. In terms of software, iOS and Android still have the edge in several areas, so be sure to weigh up the pros and cons before you decide this is the phone for you.

First reviewed: April 2015








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