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Microsoft Lumia 535 review: Microsoft's first Lumia phone tries a bit too hard to be cheap

The Microsoft Lumia 535 comes with a 5-inch display, a 5-megapixel camera and the latest Windows Phone software. It's very cheap, too.

Andrew Lanxon headshot
Andrew Lanxon
Andrew Lanxon headshot

Andrew Lanxon

Lead Editor, CNET Advice, Europe; Lead Photographer, Europe

Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.

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6 min read

Now the ink is dry on Microsoft's buyout of Nokia, the Nokia name is now a thing of the past on Lumia phones. Say hello, then, to the Microsoft Lumia 535. Name aside, it's business as usual for a Lumia. It has that familiar plastic body, with rounded replaceable covers. But instead of celebrating the Microsoft takeover with an all-singing, all-dancing flagship, the Lumia 535 is an ultra-budget phone.

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6.3

Microsoft Lumia 535

The Good

The Microsoft Lumia 535 is very cheap, it has a fun design with interchangeable cases, a 5-megapixel front camera and software features found on higher-end Lumias.

The Bad

It doesn't have 4G LTE, its under-powered processor results in a sluggish interface, the touchscreen can be unresponsive and the screen is neither sharp nor particularly vivid.

The Bottom Line

The Lumia 535's cheap price, big screen and colourful body earn it plenty of points, but its lack of 4G LTE, unimpressive display and sometimes sluggish interface mean this phone isn't suitable for anything more than the basics.

Its 5-inch display has a 960x540-pixel resolution, it has a 1.2GHz quad-core processor and 5-megapixel cameras on the front and back. One area that's particularly lacking is its connectivity -- the Lumia 535 does not support 4G data speeds, so you'll only be able to use 3G networks.

Microsoft Lumia 535 (pictures)

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The Lumia 535 is widely available in the UK for around £85, and from online retailers in the US for $130, and in Australia for around AU$170. You should expect it to be offered for even less when subsidised by phone networks.

Design

Microsoft may have slapped its own name over the phone, but the 535 doesn't stray far from the usual Lumia design scheme. It has a one-piece plastic rear shell -- available in a range of vibrant colours, of course. It's a cheery, fun design that stands out from the usual miserable grey slabs that you'll find in the bargain section (I'm looking at you, Huawei Y550 ).

It feels well put together and as the rear case is interchangeable, you can always swap it for a fresh one when it starts to look a little battered. Or simply change it for a different colour if you want it to match that day's outfit.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

With a 5-inch display shoved inside, the body has to be quite large. It measures 140mm long, 72mm wide and 8.8mm thick (5.5 by 2.8 by 0.3 inches), which may be a tad cumbersome for many of you. It's certainly easier to type on using two hands, rather than using one and stretching out your thumb.

You'll find the power and volume buttons around the edges, along with the 3.5mm headphone jack and micro-USB port for charging and data transfer. Underneath the casing is where the microSD card slot and SIM tray are hiding. It supports microSD cards up to 128GB in size and I suggest you pick one up -- a 32GB one won't set you back much -- as the 8GB of built-in storage won't last long.

Display

The Lumia 535's 5-inch screen is on the large side for a budget phone. That means there's loads of space for you to really make the most of watching YouTube clips or browsing through your photos.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It has a 960x540-pixel resolution, which isn't particularly high and does result in small text looking a little fuzzy. High-resolution photos, too, lack the crisp clarity you'll see on screens with more pixels. The Windows Phone interface is perfectly clear, however, and basic apps like email and calendar, along with commonly used apps such as Twitter, Facebook and Spotify, are all easily readable.

Colours aren't great -- they look particularly washed-out when you view them next to more vivid displays such as the one on the slightly pricier Lumia 735 -- but viewing angles are fair. It's not an amazing screen by any means, but for this little money it's more than adequate.

Windows Phone software

As a Lumia phone, it of course comes with Windows Phone 8.1 , along with the latest software update, codenamed Denim. Windows Phone 8 is easy on the eye, made up lots of large, bright tiles that show live information. You can resize these tiles and reorder them to suit your preferences, set different backgrounds and group tiles together into folders, thanks to the Denim software update.

Another recent feature is the notification panel that you pull down from the top of the screen, like in Android. It shows incoming notfications from your messaging apps or emails, as well as giving quick access to critical settings such as Wi-Fi and screen brightness.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Denim update also includes Microsoft's new Siri-like voice assistant, Cortana. Like Siri, you can ask questions such as, "What's the weather like tomorrow?" or, "How much is £5 in dollars?" and you'll be given results in the app, or shown a list of Web results, if Cortana doesn't have the answer. It mostly works fine, although I'd say it defaults to a Web search a little too often. Being able to do a search by pressing and holding the search button and speaking your question is certainly quicker than typing out in a search in the browser.

Windows Phone is fairly straightforward to use and shouldn't throw up too many roadblocks to novice smartphone users. It's quite fun and makes a refreshing change from the sometimes clunky interfaces of budget Android phones, for example.

Its downside continues to be its app store, which still receives little love from developers. It's slowly getting better and many of the major titles are available -- Spotify, Netflix and Instagram are all on board. But new services and games that are delighting your Android- and iPhone-using friends are unlikely to see a Windows Phone launch for some time, if at all.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's powered by a 1.2GHz quad-core processor, backed up by 1GB of RAM. This is sufficient to run most everyday tasks, including streaming movies in Netflix, but more demanding games are not handled well. Simply navigating around the interface can be a little sluggish too. I saw some stuttering when browsing the live tiles and some screen presses not registering properly.

While that might not sound like a big issue, an unresponsive screen can be quite annoying. It's particularly irksome, for example, when the screen sometimes doesn't register your taps properly when typing. It certainly doesn't ruin the phone, but it does make it difficult to forget that you're using an extremely cheap device -- something you can easily do when using one of the slightly more expensive models, like the Lumia 735.

Camera

You'll find 5-megapixel cameras both on the back and the front of the Lumia 535. While that's not impressive for the back camera, it's a generous serving of pixels for the front camera on a budget phone. Both snappers seem to be acceptable for the price.

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Lumia 535 camera test (click image to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

On my first shot looking over an unusually sunny West London, there's enough detail to make it look good on Facebook, and the colours aren't awful either. It's not been able to perfectly expose for the scene though, resulting in the sky on the left of the image looking very washed-out.

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Lumia 535 camera test (click image to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It struggled in low light, with a huge reduction in quality on this shot of some of my favourite kitchen products. Some of the text is almost unreadable thanks to the image noise.

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Lumia 535 camera test (click image to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Clarity isn't brilliant on this shot from the front-facing camera, but it's acceptable . The phone definitely isn't going to replace your dedicated compact digital camera when you go on holiday, but it'll do fine for quick snaps for Instagram.

Battery

A 1,905mAh battery provides the power. That's not particularly capacious, but with its low-power processor and low-res screen not demanding much juice, the battery shouldn't be too heavily taxed. Indeed, Microsoft reckons you can get up to 13 hours of talktime over 3G, which isn't too bad.

In my own test, I found the battery had dropped from full to 77 percent remaining after one hour of streaming video, which is on the low side of average. It's a fairly demanding test though, so if you're careful, you shouldn't find it too difficult to get a day of use from it. Avoid demanding tasks like video streaming and gaming, keep screen brightness down and turn off Wi-Fi and GPS when not in use to save power.

Conclusion

The Lumia 535 has plenty to offer for its cheap price. The sheer size of its screen makes it pretty good for videos and photos, while the cheery cases make it attractive and above all, fun. It's great to see Cortana on board this bottom-end phone too, as it won't make you feel like you're missing out on much from the higher-end Lumia phones.

Its lack of 4G LTE, its sluggish performance and sometimes unresponsive touchscreen, however, mean this phone isn't suitable if you're looking for anything more than the everyday basics. If you hope to enjoy light gaming or video streaming on the move, a higher-end phone with 4G LTE -- such as the Lumia 635 -- is the better option.

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6.3

Microsoft Lumia 535

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 4
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