One of the best things about Nokia’s Lumia phones was how well each one handled the Windows Phone 8.1 operating system. The budget handsets were particularly impressive, as even the £90 Lumia 530 with its meagre 512MB of RAM felt consistently smoother and more responsive than many similarly priced Android phones. Sadly, the first Lumia phone to arrive without any Nokia branding brings this legacy to a grinding halt.
On paper, the Lumia 535 should be a fraction faster than the smaller Lumia 530, as it now has 1GB of RAM accompanying its quad-core, 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 processor. This certainly seemed to be the case in our web browsing benchmarks, with the Lumia 535 finishing in 1,258ms compared to the Lumia 530’s 1,453ms.
In practice, though, Microsoft somehow seems to have broken its own operating system, as the 535 is not only noticeably jerky when swiping between menus, but it also regularly failed to register taps while typing and using the onscreen menu buttons. Even worse, we found pinching-to-zoom while web browsing nigh on impossible, as it nearly always selected a link instead or made the whole page wobble as it decided whether to scroll or zoom. It’s the first Windows Phone we’ve ever found truly frustrating to use, and we can’t quite believe how much it pales in comparison to previous Nokia efforts.
Battery life is equally terrible. In our continuous video playback test, the Lumia 535’s 1,905mAh battery lasted just 7 hours and 10 minutes with screen brightness set to the medium profile setting. That’s the worst battery score we’ve seen from a Lumia phone this year. Admittedly, the Lumia 530 only lasted another 75 minutes under the same conditions, and that has a much smaller screen eating up less power, but if the £100 Lumia 630’s 1,830mAh battery can manage just over 12 hours, then we’d expect the Lumia 535 to last around ten hours at the very least.
That said, the Lumia 535’s 5in 960×540 display is much brighter than almost every other Lumia phone we’ve tested this year, bar the Lumia 830. With a peak brightness of 427.69cd/m2, this will draw more power regardless of which of the phone’s three brightness profiles you choose, but at least it means the phone is easy to use when you’re outside.
A high brightness level also means washed-out blacks, though, as our black level measurement of 0.44cd/m2 meant that text and the black menu background looked noticeably grey compared to the phone’s jet black bezels. Text was still legible, thanks in part to the decent contrast ratio of 960:1, but the tiny 960×540 resolution means that desktop sites are quite a strain on the eyes when you’re fully zoomed out.
One thing the 535 does have in its favour is a reasonably accurate screen, as our colour calibrator showed it was displaying 83.5 per cent of the sRGB colour gamut. This isn’t fantastic, as we now regularly see at least 90 per cent from budget Android phones, but it’s at least in keeping with the Lumia 630 and surpasses the Lumia 530’s 67.1 per cent score by quite some margin.
The Lumia 535 has all the latest Windows Phone 8.1 features, including Cortana, Microsoft’s personal digital assistant that can search the web to answer questions and queries via voice control. As with previous Lumia handsets we’ve tested with Cortana, there’s still a long way to go before it can rival Apple’s Siri in terms of accuracy and efficiency, but it is still in beta at the moment, so we’re hoping it will be improved over the coming months.
The main problem with Cortana in its current form is that you have to be very specific in your requests. For instance, if you try making an appointment for “Monday morning”, Cortana will default to 8am and trying to change the time involves several more steps and requests that we’d rather do without. Siri, on the other hand, immediately asks you what time you’d like to make the appointment for and schedules it accordingly.
Trying to change conflicting appointments with Cortana was also a bit of a hassle, as she would only notify us of a conflict after she’d scheduled the second appointment. Siri, on the other hand, immediately picks up conflicts and asks what to do.
Cortana’s main strength was creating reminders, as she immediately asked us when and what time we’d like to be reminded about our request, whereas Siri just created the reminder and that was it. You’ll have to be careful in how your phrase your reminders and appointments, though, as neither assistant picked up conflicts between reminders and calendar appointments.
Other requests and questions result in general Bing searches as well, which only search for the terms you posed in the question. For example, when we asked Cortana “What’s the latest celebrity news?” it only turned up broad hub pages for “celebrity news”. Siri, on the other hand, found specific stories about individual celebrities that looked far more interesting to read.
One Cortana feature we particularly like is Quiet Hours. This turns off all calls and notifications during set times of the day, which is really handy if you don’t want to be disturbed in the evening when you’re at home. Close friends and family can still get through if you add them to your ‘inner circle’, though, so you needn’t worry about missing anything important. Anyone who calls twice within three minutes will also be allowed through in case of an emergency, but you can always disable this feature if you prefer.
The Lumia 535 has five-megapixel cameras on both the front and back of the phone, but we weren’t very impressed with the overall picture quality. Outdoors, our shots were reasonably well-exposed with rich, accurate colours, but particularly light or bright areas seemed to bleed out into the surrounding picture, making certain areas appear slightly soft and hazy. We found this rather off-putting as it removed a lot of the detail on show and gave everything a noticeable white and yellowish sheen. Objects and buildings further also weren’t particularly crisp round the edges, but this isn’t surprising for a 5-megapixel camera.
We’re not sure how Microsoft’s gone so wrong with the Lumia 535, but it remains one of the worst Windows phones we’ve ever tested. This is a shame, as it’s just as well built as other Lumia phones and its funky set of colours offer a great alternative to the swathe of budget black and white Android phones available. Still, if you’re set on getting a cheap Windows phone, the Lumia 630 is a much better buy than this poor first effort, as it’s not only much quicker and easier to use, but it also has a much longer-lasting battery.