Microsoft Lumia 535 Review: The selfie-oriented budget smartphone done right
In the past, Nokia’s then CEO Stephen Elop talked about the top-to-bottom approach to releasing smartphones in its Lumia lineup. Nokia would start a new generation of devices by first unveiling a flagship packed with all the latest technology that the company has to offer, and as they progress towards the mid-range and lower-end more and more features are removed. Some key features stay to make these budget devices stand out from the crowd like Super Sensitive Touch for example.
Since Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia’s Devices & Services business we are yet to see that cycle restart under a new brand, instead we’re seeing new budget devices getting released. The Lumia 535 which we are having a look at here is the first Lumia smartphone to carry Microsoft’s brand, followed by the recently announced Lumia 532 and 435, with higher-end devices like the Lumia 1330 expected to show up any time now, it seems the cycle has been reversed.
We can speculate all day as to why Microsoft might have turned the gears here, but we’re guessing the reason lies in the numbers. Windows Phone has as of late been faring a lot better on lower-end devices than on the high-end ones, so what’s so special about these entry-level devices? Let’s find out.
At first glance, the Lumia 535 carries the same design you’d find on other Lumia devices of its generation, in other words, it’s minimal. It comes in matte white, black, grey, and cyan, and glossy orange or green. Our white model here was selected purely because it was the only other color available besides black. While the store clerk sifted through the dozens of Lumia 535 boxes in storage to check for the available colors she told me that the orange, green and cyan ones didn’t sit on the shelf for more than a day or two, and that people would rather wait for new stock to come in than to pick up a white or black one.
Everything is where you’d expect it to be on this device. On the front is the 5” display and the 5MP front shooter, more on these later. The right side is where the volume rocker and power button live, no dedicated camera button unfortunately. There’s a headphone jack at the top and the MicroUSB port at the bottom, the left side is clean. Towards the back is another 5MP camera, LED flash and a loudspeaker.
At 8.8mm thin the device is only out-slimmed by the Lumia 830 in this generation. It is pleasant to hold and has smooth rounded corners that don’t dig sharply into the palm of your hands (looking at you 1520!). Speaking of comfort, its 5” screen size is perfect for one handed use, and the Word Flow keyboard makes it that much easier to type one-handed.
The build quality though isn’t all that great, the differences between how solid the device feels in hand compared to the more higher-end devices is very noticeable. The back cover in particular feels a little flimsy as it creaks under pressure. This may not be the case with the glossy color options that add an additional layer to the back cover, the in-store display unit in glossy green definitely felt a little more solid in hand. So overall, first impressions of the Lumia 535 were just okay.
Hardware and Performance
Pry off the back cover and you are welcomed to a MicroSD card slot and one or two MicroSIM card slots. There’s also a removable 1905mAh battery that should make those who prefer to carry interchangeable batteries with them on road and camping trips happy.
Powering the Lumia 535 is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 Quad-Core processor running at 1.2GHz paired with an Adreno 302 GPU that features unified shaders and DirectX 9.3, OpenGL ES 3.0 and Open CL support. This makes navigating the Windows Phone OS a rather lag-free and enjoyable experience, although there were a few noticeable delays when apps resume from standby. In the couple of days spent using the device, lag was practically non-existent which is fantastic especially considering the kind of performance expected from competing devices at the same price point.
The Lumia 535 also comes with 1GB of RAM, which is evidently the new standard for budget Lumia devices. This means that users will no longer face any restrictions when installing apps that require at least 1GB of RAM to operate, particularly some of the demanding games available for Windows Phone.
There is only one integrated storage option available which is 8GB, double what is currently available on the Lumia 530, but right out of the box there was just over 5GB of free storage left for personal content. Although the device did come with a few localized pre-installed applications, after uninstalling them free storage went up to about 6GB. If that isn’t enough, the device supports up to 128GB MicroSD cards and let’s not forget the free 15GB of OneDrive cloud storage that comes with a new Microsoft account too.
While there is no NFC chip on board, the device does come with Wi-Fi 802.11n and Bluetooth 4.0. It supports A-GPS and GLONASS for navigation which are rather accurate. Other sensors include an accelerometer and a proximity sensor but no gyroscope or magnetometer (compass) unfortunately.
The specs may be a bit on the low end, but the sound this thing produces definitely isn’t. Crank the volume all the way up and you’d be surprised what a tiny single loudspeaker can accomplish. Sound quality is another matter entirely though and the Lumia 535 falls short here. You’d be better off using the included earphones or investing in a dedicated Bluetooth speaker if you plan on sharing your music with others.
The IPS LCD display on the Lumia 535 has its ups and downs. What’s good about it is that it’s covered in a layer of Gorilla Glass 3 and thanks to the proximity sensor, features auto-brightness adjustment. Colors and viewing angles on the other hand are good, but not great.
While its 5” screen size is great, it has a rather low resolution of 540 x 960 which translates to 220 pixels per inch. If you look close enough you’ll see pixels, and curved lines do look pixelated. They aren’t quite noticeable in the Windows Phone UI since its mostly straight lines and squares, but it becomes a lot more evident when browsing the web for example, or using applications.
Right out of the box the device did suffer from the touch sensitivity issues we reported about, but upon connecting to a wireless network a software update was waiting to be downloaded and installed. The display’s responsiveness was significantly improved after that, and disabling the screen magnifier feature which was on by default made it even better.
It's the year of the selfie, and the Lumia 535 comes prepared with two 5MP cameras. The rear camera captures 16:9 images at a resolution of 2592 x 1456 and has an aperture of f2.4 and a ¼” sensor size. It has a focal length of 28mm and a minimum focus range of 10cm. It also has autofocus (and tap to focus) support unlike the front shooter.
Speaking of which, the front-facing camera also has an aperture of f2.4 but a focal length of 24mm. It captures rather wide-angled images which should be good for the group selfies it’s included for. So if you take lots of selfies, you will certainly appreciate the 5MP front-camera compared to the 0.3 or 1.3MP front shooters found on most devices and even in high-end smartphones.
In terms of the image quality; it’s nothing to brag about for either camera. Unless you are taking pictures in a well-lit environment, images will appear grainy even if the single-LED flash is used. On a sunny day, images do look decent, and macro shots turn out good too on the rear camera.
Video quality isn’t great either, and that’s not really surprising considering the low 480p resolution is captures in and the lack of optical image stabilization (OIS) which results in blurry and shaky videos.
Call Quality and Battery Life
What good is a smartphone if it makes horrible phone calls right? Luckily for those interested in the Lumia 535, phone calls sound great. The device captures cellular signals well and voice sounds great on both ends of a call, and no dropped calls so far either.
Battery life is excellent on this device. Since pulling it out of its box and sitting in the charger till fully charged, it went through a software update, numerous app updates, syncing a Microsoft account, and a few hours of music playback, gaming, web browsing and general fiddling around with, and it is still had about 25% of battery left at the end of the day. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Lumia 535 hit two days on a single charge with regular usage.
Battery life is subjective though, it will depend on your individual usage scenarios. But according to Microsoft, the Lumia 535 should deliver 14 days of standby time, 11 hours of 2G talk time, 13 on 3G (yeah, weird), 78 hours of music playback, 8.5 hours of Wi-Fi browsing and 6.5 hours of video playback.
Pricing and Availability
The Lumia 535 launched with a MSRP of €110 (~$127) with Microsoft promising to offer decent hardware specifications at an affordable price, and that is exactly what was delivered. It was designed primarily for the Middle East and Asian markets which is why Microsoft launched it in those regions first. But if you live in the United States, the 535 has yet to launch on any of the major carriers. Although the device can be purchased contract free for $129.99 from Expansys.
While it is no longer the most affordable Lumia on the market – that crown goes to the Lumia 435 now – for its $129 retail price, simply saying that it’s worth the money is an understatement. After all, it is a budget smartphone with a quad-core processor, two 5MP cameras, a 5” Gorilla Glass screen and the latest version of Windows Phone running on it. Compare that to its closest Android competitor, the Moto E which for the same price, comes with a dual-core processor, a smaller display, half the storage space, a single 5MP with no front camera at all, yet manages to be thicker and doesn’t run the latest version of Android.
Simply put, if you’re on a budget or looking for a decent backup/secondary smartphone, the Lumia 535 is the way to go. Going camping or hiking and don’t want to risk damaging your primary smartphone? The Lumia 535 is perfect for that since it has great battery life, and if it falls on a rock, the Gorilla Glass screen will likely be fine. If the back breaks, you can easily replace it. You can let the kids throw it at each other, the dog chew it, or the cat knock it off a shelf without fearing for the worst.
Otherwise, if you’re looking for something even more affordable, the Lumia 435 and 532 should be hitting shelves in the near future. And if you find yourself with a little more to spend, then the Lumia 735 retails for about $100 more and improves on the 535 in almost every aspect while retaining the 5MP front shooter.
What we’ve always loved about Nokia, and now Microsoft, is the variety of options that it offers to customers. If you love Windows Phone, there will almost definitely be a Lumia device that meets your requirements and budget. So tell us, is the Lumia 535 the device for you?