Introduction and features
‘Premium’ is a word that’s bandied about a lot in the smartphone world these days, especially by PRs and marketing types. And manufacturers, eager to justify the increasing prices of their most highly-specced models, are now in something of an arms race to present each new product as the most ‘premium’.
The Lumia 650 is the company’s attempt to address its shortcomings in this area. The words, ‘polished’, ‘diamond’ and ‘aluminum’ all feature prominently in the ad copy for the handset, promising much.
At £149.99 (US$199, around AU$260) SIM-free it costs roughly twice the price of the Lumia 550, despite having a similar set of specifications – so you’re certainly paying a premium for that upgraded finish.
But with firms such as Xiaomi, OnePlus and Huawei turning out all-metal and glass designs at ever-lower price points, is the Lumia 650 ‘premium’ enough to keep up?
Design is the raison d’etre of the Lumia 650. Microsoft claims the device is its slimmest Lumia ever, and with a soft-touch matte plastic rear, 5-inch Gorilla Glass-strengthened screen and aluminium frame, it certainly feels lovely in the hand – to the extent that you can feel it at all.
It weighs a mere 122g, and after months using the brick-like Lumia 930, when I first handled the review unit I was given it felt as though my hand was empty; that sensation soon passed, but the abiding feel in the hand is quite pleasant.
While not quite up to the standards set by higher-end phones with near-perfect fits and finishes (there are a few sharp edges here and there), the Lumia 650 is certainly the nicest Windows Phone I’ve ever held.
On the top of the device is the 3.5mm headphone jack and a microphone, while the right side of the device is home to the volume rocker and power key. On the bottom of the device is the micro USB port, for charging and connecting the device to a PC.
The back of the device houses the rear-facing 8MP camera, flanked by a single LED flash and a subtle Windows logo.
On the front of the device the 5MP wide-angle front-facing camera is positioned above the 5-inch, 720p screen, with the front-firing speaker (which is really rather decent) at the bottom edge.
The screen really is a looker. In day to day use – reading emails, browsing the web, watching a few YouTube videos – it certainly hits the mark resolution-wise. Although it has a PPI count of ‘only’ 297, it packs enough pixels to please all but the most ardent of peepers.
More important than the resolution, however, is the rest of the tech powering the screen – for a display is about more than just sharpness, regardless of how beautiful the panels on the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge may look.
The Lumia 650 has an OLED screen, which differentiates it from competing phones that still largely employ LCD technology – and the difference is something that can be appreciated even by those without a trained eye.
OLED panels deliver much better contrast and infinite blacks, and have a great deal more ‘punch’ than all but the best LCD efforts. Moreover, the Lumia 650 also supports the ‘Glance’ always-on display feature. Lumias have been offering this for years, and the result is as pleasant and useful as ever.
The panel on the 650 also has excellent colour accuracy and nice viewing angles, really helping to bring the live tiles of Windows 10 Mobile to life. This is one area in which Microsoft has clearly taken some care and time to get things right, and it shows.
Windows 10 Mobile
A lot has been said about Windows 10 Mobile, both good and bad. Having used several devices on the operating system, my experience with it so far has been, well, middling.
On many levels, the changes made to the layout in the upgrade from Windows Phone make a great deal of sense. The settings menu is far easier to navigate than it once was, and the new level of control afforded to the user is very welcome.
Take, for instance, an instance when I received a call from an unknown number. With Truecaller installed I was able to immediately identify the number as from a regular spammer and ignore the call, something I could never have done on the more locked-down Windows Phone.
Windows 10 has, though, experienced ongoing issues with bugs; however I didn’t find this was as much of an issue with the Lumia 650 as with other phones.
Other reviewers have commented negatively on their experience with the software, but on the whole I found the OS to be mostly stutter-free, with just a few quirks here and there.
Some simple things still need fixing though. What was formerly ‘Music’ is now, confusingly, ‘Groove Music’, and ‘Calendar’ is now ‘Outlook Calendar’. While not wholesale changes, these do interfere with the muscle memory, and can be irritating when you’re in a rush.
Other issues, such as Outlook Mail still taking forever and a day to open even the smallest of attachments and many apps still not ‘talking’ to each other properly, add to the confusion, while an odd issue with the device refusing to stay connected to my home Wi-Fi for any longer than an hour also persisted.
Unfit for business?
Last year Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced that the Lumia product line was to be trimmed down to three distinct categories. The first contained devices for serious Windows fans (the Lumia 950 and XL), and the second was handsets for budget hounds (the Lumia 550).
The final category was a relatively difficult market to court: devices for business users, who this handset is meant to appeal to. And with a still-unstable operating system, Microsoft has a great deal of work to do to bring those customers on board.
Although the Windows phone app store is far from barren, there’s still a paucity of high-quality first-party apps for many clients. Twitter hasn’t updated in some time, Instagram is in a seemingly indefinite beta, and the likes of Snapchat are nowhere to be seen.
And that’s to say nothing of Google services, which in app form are mostly absent from the Lumia 650. To make matters worse, trying to access many of these services from a mobile browser is often a painfully slow experience.
This hammers home the issue with regard to attracting business buyers. Those reliant on Google services, such as Analytics, Docs, Pages, Forms and so on have no native support for those apps, limiting the 650’s usefulness to a significant degree.
Of course, anyone using Microsoft’s own robust suite of offerings are well catered for – but then so are users of those apps on iOS and Android, given the Redmond firm’s understandably enthusiastic support for other operating systems.
There’s a wider problem beyond the simple availability of apps however, and that’s the issue of quality and reliability. Many apps on the Store have seen no development since the late days of Windows Phone 7, or the early days of Windows Phone 8.
What this means in daily use is apps that freeze for no reason, crash, won’t uninstall, function slowly, won’t scale to higher resolution screens and won’t interact properly with the baked-in programs.
That isn’t to say there has been no progress at all. Apps such as Facebook, Just Eat, the Daily Mail and The Guardian have all updated to Windows 10, mostly using the Project Islandwood app portability bridge from iOS.
While this means the programs aren’t built using a unified design language, or with Windows Phone in mind, these second-hand apps from iOS nonetheless represent welcome signs of life in the dusty mausoleum that the Windows Phone Store has become.
Part of the appeal of Windows Phone, and now Windows 10 Mobile, has always lain in the promise of easy access to Office applications.
For many people and businesses the likes of Word, Excel and Powerpoint are nigh-on essential. Having access to a powerful productivity suite on the go is a strong selling point, and Microsoft mostly delivers on the promise.
Starting with perhaps the most popular offering, Word, it’s clear that a great deal of thought went into the features of this app. Via the ellipses menu at the bottom of the screen, users have easy access to formatting, fonts, word counts, tables, pictures, spellchecker – all the mod cons that make the modern Office suite so useful.
Powerpoint, Excel and OneNote are equally well presented, with the latter featuring a handy ‘Note’ drop-down in the quick settings area. In all, this is a powerful suite of tools for those who need them.
There is, of course, the issue that all these apps exist on other platforms – platforms on which they’re often even more feature-rich, and certainly receive better support from Redmond.
Indeed, some features, such as the focussed Outlook inbox, are still exclusive to the Android and iOS versions, giving even less reason for those on other operating systems to switch to Windows 10 Mobile.
It’s difficult to shake the feeling, though that such observations fall on the deaf ears of both Microsoft and many users of its smartphones.
Performance and battery life
The Lumia 650, for its price bracket, is well specced in almost every category. It features a nice design, a decent camera layout, a nice screen and a front-firing speaker. And yet it lags behind in one rather crucial area: the processor.
While even the cheapest of the Android competition come sporting, at the very least, the likes of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 410, the Lumia 650 boasts the relatively anaemic Snapdragon 212. It comes from the lowest end of Qualcomm’s product line, and its shortcomings are painfully obvious in day to day performance.
When you’re swiping through the operating system, and opening and closing ‘normal’ apps (email, messaging etc), the Lumia 650 doesn’t miss a beat. Aside from some extended load times and an unusually long app ‘hydration’ period (waking from sleep), performance is certainly tolerable.
Launch any vaguely demanding application, however, and things change considerably for the worse. Take the Maps application; it’s something of a system hog at the best of times, and here loading directions and changing areas takes an age.
Another case in point is Basemark OS II, a popular Windows Phone benchmarking app. On my Lumia 930 the app mostly flew, as it did even on my considerably less powerful Lumia 520.
On the 650, though, the app wouldn’t even open, freezing on the permissions startup page, which needless to say made for an inauspicious start.
As for games… well, you can mostly forget about games. Some titles, such as Timberman, run at a reasonable pace, but anything more demanding than Crossy Road is pretty much out of the question.
What makes this all the more surprising is that last year’s model actually surpasses the Lumia 650 in this regard. Saddled with a Snapdragon 400 processor, the Lumia 640 (also currently much cheaper than the 650), runs the same application with relative aplomb.
Although that phone lacks the newer model’s nicer in hand feel, that this is the case seems rather counterintuitive, against the established smartphone ‘laws of nature’.
Using the Lumia 650 will challenge the power user’s notion of what a smartphone should be. For those buying their first smartphone, those looking for a solid budget option and for business users attached to the Microsoft ecosystem, it’s a reasonably attractive proposition.
Although performance on many games and some apps is inadequate, the overall experience of using the handset is mostly satisfying, aided in no small part by the 1GB of included RAM (until recently a real rarity on budget Windows devices).
After myriad updates, Windows 10 Mobile is starting to take shape – and it shows, mostly in the day-to-day performance of the OS, which is far improved from even just a month ago.
Another welcome addition here is the 16GB of included storage, rather than the 8GB of recent Microsoft handsets, which is expandable by up to 200GB via microSD card card.
Although Windows Phone/10 Mobile handsets have long boasted adoptable storage, enabling users to install apps to the microSD card as well as music, video and photos, this increase in native storage still makes juggling apps without a microSD card just a little easier.
Battery life is perhaps the biggest bugbear for the modern smartphone user, and for many it’s the first spec they’ll check out when researching their next purchase.
I count myself among this group – although I generally live life in close proximity to my charger, as knowing I have the juice to make it through the day means one less thing to worry about.
So when I learned that the Lumia 650 only sports a 2000mAh battery, I was a little apprehensive. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried.
Aided by a power-sipping processor, a relatively low-resolution screen and the tight resource management of Windows 10 Mobile, the Lumia 650 was generally able to last me through a solid day of use.
Waking up at 7am, listening to some music via Bluetooth on the commute and reading some articles during lunch, all the while answering emails and sending messages along with around an hour of calls, generally saw the battery drop to around 45% by 6pm, which is perfectly acceptable.
It should be noted that this impressive performance is in part due to the fact that most owners of the Lumia 650 won’t be using their handset as a ‘smartphone’ in the common sense of the term, simply because it lacks the power to indulge in anything resource-intensive – or, for that matter, fun.
Regardless, for the regular user there’s certainly enough juice to make it through the day. Moreover, for business and power users, the ability to ‘hot-swap’ in a freshly charged battery when the going gets tough is a major advantage.
Smartphone cameras are getting better all the time, helped by the availability of cheap high-megapixel BSI sensors from the likes of Sony and OmniVision. Although generally still lacking when it comes to low-light photography, they’re generally capable in most situations.
And this is true of the Lumia 650. While not boasting the same megapixel count as cameras on devices such as the Honor 7, Wileyfox Storm or even the Lumia 640 XL, the 8MP rear-facing snapper is still a dependable workhorse in most situations.
Images shot in good light are sharp and colours are well reproduced, and the handset displays an acceptable dynamic range.
One odd quirk is that images have a tendency to be quite dark, although this can be easily remedied courtesy of the well-designed Windows Camera app, a legacy of the former Windows phone-builder Nokia’s smartphone camera dominance.
The app offers easy access to settings such as white balance, ISO, shutter speed and manual focus, and exposure compensation is also easily applied.
As ever, the Rich Capture mode is a welcome assistant, and at this price point having such an easy access to usually hidden features is a nice bonus.
The only real weakness of the camera (apart from a lack of resolution) is its low-light performance, which just isn’t up to par. For a quick snap in a dimly-lit bar, shared to Instagram, it’s certainly sufficient, but you’ll be lucky if you get a shot you’re proud of.
The lack of a two-stage camera button is also something of a let-down, as there’s no more convenient way to launch a camera quickly, while also providing tactile feedback.
For the selfie-lovers out there, the 5MP wide-angle front-facing camera is capable enough. There is some detail in the shots produced, although as you might expect they look quite flat and muted. It’s a similar story with video, with footage appearing crisp, if over-sharpened.
The Lumia 650 is something of a strange beast. Despite the odd choice of an underpowered processor, its try-hard design it makes for a nice first impression. But with such strong competition out there, is it enough?
The screen on the Lumia 650 is really rather good. With great colour accuracy, plenty of punch, good brightness and sufficient resolution it’s one of the strongest displays at this price point.
The phone feels great in the hand – it’s easily the most comfortable Lumia I’ve ever used. And despite having a somewhat small battery pack, it has enough juice to make it through a full day of typical use.
The front-firing speaker is decent, turning out a respectable volume, and both cameras are capable enough for the most users, with the camera app offering a good degree of manual control.
Windows 10 Mobile, although improving at a reasonable click, is still quite buggy in general, with a number of long-standing issues persisting. The operating system still lags behind when it comes to apps as well, with the lack of high-quality first-party apps in particular a concern.
And while the Snapdragon 212 chipset does its best to power things along, it just isn’t enough. Especially for the price point, this is a very slow phone.
The 600 series within the Lumia line-up has always been where the best of budget and premium combine to offer something distinctive. From the 620 through to the 640, these have been popular, powerful devices. The Lumia 650 is a different beast.
It’s the experience of using this phone that sets it apart. The lovely in-hand feel, the dependable camera, the decent battery life, the surprisingly good speakers and the mostly smooth day-to-day operation are all key to what a good smartphone experience should be.
The poor processor selection is all that holds this device back from real greatness. If Microsoft had followed the competition, and gone with the likes of a Snapdragon 616, 652 or 617, and maybe doubled the RAM, the Lumia 650 would fly.
Despite this, for business owners invested in Microsoft’s services, for Windows fans, and for those looking for a respectable upgrade, this phone is well worth a look.
First reviewed: March 2016
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