Microsoft is back with what could be the company’s final smartphone before the launch of Windows 10 Mobile. How does it stack up against similarly priced phablet devices?
With Microsoft recently revealing plans to scale back its mobile division in an obvious attempt to lure more third party manufacturers to the Lumia dominated Windows Phone operating system, it highlights the difficulties faced by a platform with only one true marketable brand.
Its decision to cut back the Lumia line to only six phones per year is further evidence of this, with the Redmond technology giant taking an Apple-like stance of quality-over-quantity that will hopefully make them stand out in a crowded marketplace.
The Lumia 640XL could be the swansong of this Windows Phone generation, with the next major release likely coming just before or after the availability of Windows 10 Mobile. It keeps with the company’s now defunct marketing method of attacking every possible device range and product line imaginable, which has so far saturated the Windows Phone brand to near drowning point.
This device primarily competes with phablet devices around the six inch range, meaning it’s got tough competition from the likes of the Apple iPhone 6 Plus and Samsung Galaxy Note 4. However, in typical Microsoft fashion, they’ve priced the device cheaper, opting to use cold, harsh cash as a way to lure people into the Windows ecosystem. In reality, it should be scared of similar devices like the Asus Zenfone 2.
Functional and simplistic are words I would use to describe the Lumia 640 XL. The Microsoft devices certainly have a unique appeal about them but rarely set the world alight with spaceage materials and paper-thin slimness.
Polycarbonate plastics make up the majority of the device, with an all-glass front comprised of cornering Gorilla Glass 3. It’s a design theme that you will notice through most of the Lumia line and you’ll either love it or hate it.
There’s a bit of dÃ©jÃ vu in the Lumia 640 XL, as you could be forgiven for thinking it was a standard Lumia 640. The only major difference is the size – the 640 XL dwarfs its little brother.
At 9mm thick it’s not the slimmest device in the world, though the curved edges help to make it feel a lot smaller than it actually is. With a 5.7 inch display, it’s also smaller than most other phablets on the market which tend to float around the six-inch mark.
Still, it does feel quite bulky and wide, with my hands struggling to grip the thing comfortably at times. The speaker vent has been moved from its original position on the Lumia 640 and now resides next to the camera sensor, a much better placement that doesn’t result in your hands smothering the sound in landscape mode.
As is typical with other Lumia devices, you get plenty of colour options to choose from. The back panel is removable, allowing you to easily switch things up and access the microSD/SIM card slot. There’s also QI wireless charging as standard, which is a nice feature if you have the required peripherals to use it. The Lumia 640 XL is available in a mix of both matted and glossy variants. As always, we reckon you should opt for the former, which is far less likely to become a fingerprint magnet.
The camera on the Lumia 640 XL is a trump card that manages to take some very good images for the price. With a 13 megapixel sensor and Carl Zeiss optics, there is a notable increase in image detail over the standard Lumia 640. It still doesn’t excel in low-light and it does struggle with a bit of noise, but even these are all acceptable compromises given the price. In well-lit conditions, the camera even manages to challenge the more expensive Lumia 830, showing just how good Microsoft’s camera tech has become across the range.
The five megapixel front camera is also equally impressive for such an inexpensive device, providing a good amount of detail in well-lit conditions. With 1080p 30fps support for both this and the rear camera, those who enjoy Skype calling and Instagram should be satisfied with its ability to take selfies and video.
The Lumia 640 XL has a large 5.7 inch panel with a middling 1280 x 720 HD resolution. At this size, that equates to only 258 pixels-per-inch. In the days of Full HD panels and 300+ DPI resolutions, it’ll be a little disappointing to some people. Pixilation is evident up close and jagged edges can be clearly seen around lettering and images. It’s likely that a Full HD panel would have bumped up the cost a fair amount, so it’s understandable that Microsoft went for a generic display at this price point. On the plus side, the panel itself is a very high quality IPS display, with no colour deviation even at extreme angles. It also has a really impressive maximum brightness, making colours literally pop out of the screen.
You get the proprietary ClearBlack built into the panel, which is a technology previously developed by Nokia to enhance dark contrast and colours. By using three special layers within the panel, it helps to increase sunlight readability and colour reproduction by reflecting unwanted light away from your face. Imagine it as a pair of sunglasses for your smartphone screen.
Although the device is bigger and more expensive than the 640, it uses exactly the same quad-core 1.2GHZ Snapdragon 400 processor as its little brother. It’s a little disappointing and it would have been nice to see a Snapdragon 610 make an appearance. Still, the processor is partly one of the reasons it has managed to keep the device so cheap. Thankfully, Windows Phone is so well optimised that even lower-spec hardware feels quick and speedy, with little lag when navigating the user interface.
Responsiveness was almost identical to the Lumia 435 we reviewed last issue, with only a slight delay in opening apps and impressive gaming performance. Playing Asphalt 8: Airborne was a buttery smooth experience, with a near consistent frame-rate. Obviously, detail settings are dialled back somewhat versus the Android flagship counterparts but the loss is only minimal. I’d take that over a low frame rate any day. As an added bonus, the device remained ice cool during the entire 45 minute session.
Running on Windows Phone 8.1 Update 2 with Lumia Denim, it brings some notable updates to the unique operating system. The settings menu has undergone an overhaul, with everything now clearly labelled and much easier to access. Live Tiles can now be grouped into folders, helping to unclutter an otherwise congested home screen.
Features such as independent volume controls and a dedicated notification centre make a welcome return, which help complement the unique live tile experience. Glance has also got an improvement, showing health and fitness information while the phone is sleeping plus weather updates. As always, we recommend using this feature with an OLED display to reduce battery drain.
The OS has also gained its own dedicated voice assistant, Cortana, which sits somewhere between Google Now and Siri in functionality – the service made the jump to Android and iOS in July. Google is still light-years ahead of the competition when it comes to sheer data but Cortana has some unique abilities itself that helps to give some identity.
The ability to act as a secretary and set appointments or reminders is a handy tool. It also has a home page that acts as a hub for all your news, appointment information and locations, handy if you need to check your schedule at a glance.
You’ll also get a year’s free subscription to Office 365 worth £59.99, which gives you Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, plus 1TB of OneDrive cloud storage. As we stress every time a Windows device gets reviewed, the operating system is still struggling to attract third party applications with a poor selection currently available.
Many of the official apps such as Facebook and Instagram are pretty dire versus their Android/ iOS counterparts, though in some cases there are viable alternatives within the store which offer a better experience. It’s a shame too, as those which do put in the effort really show how great the OS can look and feel.
The Lumia 640 XL has a monstrous battery that you’ll be hard pressed to find on devices with six inch screens, let alone 5.7 inch variants.
At 3000mAh, it puts most competitors to shame and easily reaches one and a half days of relatively heavy usage. Even gaming proved to be no match for its huge battery, slipping only about 7-10% after a good 45 minutes on Asphalt 8: Airborne.
Under normal usage, you should have little problem getting the device beyond the two-day mark. It also has a fully removable battery, which is another huge positive. If you’re ever out on a long camping trip but need to keep in touch, it’s far easier to bring a spare battery than lug around a power bar. Other phone manufacturers would do well to follow in its shoes.
There’s very few bad things to say about this device considering the price and features that you get for the money. It’s got an excellent screen that could perhaps do with being a higher resolution and a processor that’s a little on the slow side but still capable given the speedy Windows OS. Aside from this, both cameras are very good and the overall design is sturdy, if a little bulky.