Nokia Lumia 630 review: Windows Phone 8.1 shines, shame about the selfies

Summary:The first Windows Phone 8.1 handset packs most standard smartphone features — except a front-facing camera — into an attractive and affordable package.

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Nokia's 4.5-inch Lumia 630 is the first shipping handset with Windows Phone 8.1. It's powered by a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon SoC with 512MB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage. It only has one camera, a 5Mpixel unit at the back. Image: Steve Ranger/ZDNet

The Nokia Lumia 630 is the latest in the line that includes the Lumia 620 and 520 — two of the most popular Lumia handsets to date. And while the entry-level Lumia 630 lacks the hype, glamour and rich functionality (much of it often little-used) of a flagship smartphone, it packs in the elements most people — and certainly those upgrading from a feature phone — will need.

The Lumia 630 retails from £89.95 (inc. VAT) in the UK, which makes it one of an increasing number of handsets (like Motorola's Moto E) that promise a good-enough user experience without the wallet-emptying price tag of a high-end device.

Lumia 630 hardware

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The Lumia 630 is available with a range of brightly-coloured polycarbonate shells. Image: Nokia

Nokia has always been famous for the quality of its industrial design, and the Lumia 630 doesn't betray that heritage. The top and bottom bezels may be a little oversized, but the bold and all-but-fluorescent colour scheme of the snap-on shells gives the handset some attitude: I'll take the dayglo-electrics of the Lumia over the muted pastels of the iPhone 5c any day .

The matte polycarbonate covers come in orange, green and yellow, plus white or black for the less showy. The shells for the 4G version of the handset — the 635 — have a glossy finish to differentiate them.

Inevitably, there some trade-offs with the Lumia 630 compared to its more expensive rivals, and this is mainly to do with the hardware. For most, probably the biggest compromise — as with the Moto E — is the lack of a forward-facing camera: no selfies here, unless you're adept at taking them blind with the rear camera. There's no flash either.

The 4.5-inch IPS LCD screen is of decent quality, with good viewing angles and Gorilla Glass 3 protection. The resolution is only 480 by 840 pixels (218ppi), which is even less than the 4.3-inch Moto E's 540 by 960 pixels (256ppi). It's absolutely fine for watching video, although on the review model I tested a white screen (on a webpage for example) tended to display some shadowing around the edges. This is not a huge problem, but it is enough to be mildly distracting. The screen was also less touch-responsive than a more expensive device would be.

Although the speaker generates decent levels of sound, it's built into the back of the handset, which means it tends to fire sound away rather than towards you.

The flash-free 5-megapixel rear camera is adequate at best. The Lumia 630 also boasts the Nokia Camera app, but I found the lag too irritating for anything other than the most posed photos, and defaulted to the more limited but quicker standard camera app, which generates so-so images.

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The volume and power buttons are both on the right-hand side of the Lumia 630. Image: Steve Ranger/ZDNet

The Lumia 630 is a relatively light handset at 134g, although I was underwhelmed by its battery life. I had hoped that, with fewer bells and whistles to power, the 1,830mAh battery might last a little longer than usual, but that was not the case. During the test period I needed to recharge the handset daily — but of course those with lighter usage patterns will get more life out the battery than I did. For the record, Nokia claims up to 16.4 hours' 2G talk time, 25 days on standby, 9.4h of wi-fi browsing, 8.8h of cellular browsing, 7h of video playback and 58h of music playback.

The Lumia 630 has 2G (GSM) and 3G (HSPA) connectivity via a Micro-SIM, but you'll need the step-up 635 model if you require 4G (LTE) mobile broadband.

One oddity is that the power button and volume rocker are both on the right-hand side of the handset, which is unexpected — more than once I managed to switch the phone off mid-call by accidentally holding the power button down when trying to turn up the volume.

Lumia 630 software: Windows Phone 8.1 arrives

It's worth noting the Lumia 630 is the first Windows Phone 8.1 handset, and the polish of the operating system almost made up for the compromises of the hardware.

The home screen is composed of live tiles — brightly coloured blocks for each app that flip to show information or images like weather forecasts, stock prices or photos. These give the phone a vibrant, personal feel.

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Windows Phone 8.1's Start screen features resizable Live Tiles. Image: Steve Ranger/ZDNet

One nice touch is that the tiles can be rearranged and resized to give more prominence and real estate to the apps that you value most. The tiles also show different amounts of information depending on size they are set to: the smallest weather tile will give just weather and temperature, while the largest offers a five-day forecast. All of this makes Windows Phone a fluid and perky experience — certainly compared to the frankly staid and prim look that Apple has stuck to with iOS 7.

The 1.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 SoC, backed by 512MB of RAM and 8GB of (MicroSD-expandable) internal storage, keeps Windows Phone zipping along: apps do take slightly too long to load, but once they're up and running there aren't any performance issues. Microsoft's Siri-rival, Cortana , hasn't landed in the UK yet, although the beta should be along soon.

I perhaps admire Windows Phone more than I like it, as there's something vertiginous about it: compared to the too-neatly arranged pages of apps on an iPhone, the endless scroll of tiles on the Windows Phone Start screen left me feeling a little lost and dizzy.  

Still, Windows Phone 8.1 brings a few nice additions, including an Action Centre, accessed by swiping down from the top of the screen, for viewing alerts. This is really just playing catch-up with Android and iOS, but it's also customisable so you can add the alerts or buttons that you find particularly useful.

Battery Saver is a neat addition that lets you see which apps are sapping the phone's battery life, and decide which you want to run in the background. If the battery is nearly flat, the phone will switch some apps from automatic to manual updates so they don't add to the drain.

Microsoft has a set of tools called 'Sense', which aim to make it easier to manage the phone's resources: Data Sense allows you to set a data limit; Storage Sense helps manage storage on the phone; and Wifi Sense automatically attempts to log the phone onto wireless hotspots and also allows you to share wi-fi credentials with friends (for example to let them log onto your home nework) without needing to share the actual password.

During testing I ran into a few glitches. For example, it was difficult to connect to some (admittedly quite tetchy) wi-fi networks I use; I also had trouble getting some apps (including Gmail and Twitter) to update content when I wanted.

And while the lack of useful Windows Phone apps is a common refrain, it's something that needs to be taken into account — although Microsoft is filling some of the gaps.

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Windows Phone 8.1's business features include the Office hub with access to Microsoft Office and OneDrive cloud storage. Image: Steve Ranger/ZDNet

One example: there's no Strava on Windows Phone, but Bing Health and Fitness does a reasonable job of tracking running and cycling (although without the leaderboard that makes Strava so addictive). There's no Flipboard either to name another. None of this may be a deal-breaker, but Windows Phone remains limited compared to Android and iOS on the apps front. One big plus, though, is the presence of Microsoft Office in conjunction with OneDrive, which could make the Lumia 630 a potential enterprise candidate — especially as Microsoft is promoting the business-friendly features of its updated mobile OS.

The competition

The most obvious rival would be Motorola's recently released Android-based Moto E, which has a similar spec (and similar compromises). If it's the colourful shell that's caught your eye, there's always Apple's  iPhone 5c — albeit at a much higher price.

Conclusion

What the Lumia 630 lacks the average user won't miss: no NFC, no fingerprint reader and no heart-rate monitor. It's a combination of good-enough hardware and an increasingly elegant operating system at a low price which will make it an attractive package for many. As such, phones like the Lumia 630 are throwing down a challenge to the smartphone flagships; give us useful and usable innovation and not just empty novelty, or we'll make do with handsets like this.


Verdict
8/10


Specifications

Operating system  Windows Phone 8.1
Memory  512MB RAM, 8GB internal storage (plus 7GB SkyDrive cloud storage), MicroSD card support up to 128GB
Display  4.5-inch LCD, 854-by-480-pixel resolution, with Gorilla Glass 3
Processor  1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon S400
Camera  5Mpixel rear camera
Dimensions  129.5mm by 66.7mm by 9.2mm
Weight  134g
Connectivity  USB 2.0, Bluetooth 4.0, WLAN IEEE 802.11b/g/n, 3.5 mm audio connector
Networks  2G (GSM), 3G (HSUPA)
Battery  1,830mAh
Battery life  up to 16.4 hours of GSM talk, 25 days on standby, 9.4h wi-fi browsing, 8.8h cellular browsing, 7h video playback, 58 hours music playback
Business apps  Lync (free download), Company Hub for enterprise applications, Office apps (Excel, Word, PowerPoint, OneNote), OneDrive storage for documents and notes, Adobe Reader (free download)


Further reading

Topics: Smartphones, Microsoft, Nokia, Reviews, Windows

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, and has been writing about technology, business and culture for more than a decade. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.

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