The budget end of the phone market is dominated by a slew of Android phones, most of which have near-identical black or grey designs and the same outdated software that slogs through even the basics.
The Microsoft Lumia 640 is a bit different however. It's running Windows Phone software, made up of big, colourful tiles that will come as a refreshing change to anyone that's become a little jaded with Android. It has a great 5-inch display, 4G LTE connectivity and an 8-megapixel camera. That's all wrapped up in plastic shells that are swappable and come in a range of vibrant colours.
You can buy the phone SIM-free directly from Microsoft in the UK for £120, or get it for free on a range of contracts starting at only £13.50 a month. The phone will be coming to the US, although it's currently listed as "coming soon" on Microsoft's site and prices aren't yet known. In Australia it's available outright and will cost you AU$299.
The Nokia name may have gone from the phone, but its design is still unmistakably a Lumia. It has the same one-piece back panel seen on almost all of the recent Lumia phones, which bends round to meet the screen at the front. It has more angular edges than the rounded Lumia 735, but it's no less comfortable to hold.
The stiff plastic helps make it feel sturdy and well-built, and the interchangeable covers let you swap the colours to match your mood or your outfit. It also allows you to pop on a fresh panel when your existing one starts to look a bit battered and worn -- something you can't do with most phones. The bright colours and plastic body gives the phone a fun, child-like appearance, which helps it stand out from usually black and grey midrange Android phones.
It measures 141mm long, 72mm wide and is 8.8mm thick (that's roughly 5.5 by 2.75 by 0.34 inches). It's quite a big phone, but it's possible to type messages with just one hand -- although you'll likely need two hands if you're writing more than a sentence. The 3.5mm jack is on the top, the Micro-USB power port on the bottom and the Micro-SIM and microSD card slots are found beneath the plastic back panel.
You'll want to make use of that microSD card slot, as the phone only comes with 8GB of onboard storage. Using the Storage Sense app, you can select an external SD card as the default place to store apps, photos and videos however, so make sure you pick up a 32GB card (they're incredibly cheap these days) if you plan on taking a lot of photos or playing games.
The 5-inch display has a 1,280x720-pixel resolution, resulting in a density of 294 pixels per inch. While that doesn't compare well to the full HD (and higher) flagship phones, it's perfectly adequate on a phone of this price. It's also more than enough to give the Windows Phone tiles a crisp edge and make even small text on Web pages look perfectly readable.
Colours are rich, as well, and there's a decent level of contrast which helps make dramatic movies on Netflix -- such as the awesome snowboarding movie "Art of Flight" -- look particularly luscious. The sheer size of the display provides a more immersive feel, too. It's bright enough to counter the overhead lights in the CNET UK office, although it may not fare as well in the bright summer sunshine.
The 640 runs the latest version of Windows Phone 8.1 , which is codenamed Denim. It's made up of the same scrolling list of colourful tiles that show live information, and that you can resize and rearrange to make the interface to your liking. The latest version of the OS brings much-needed updates like a pull-down panel showing incoming notifications and settings like the screen brightness and Wi-Fi.
Windows Phone is easy to use and actually quite fun, which is a nice alternative to the often clunky and bloated Android interfaces found on budget mobiles. The ability to make important tools such as the phone dialer and text messages appear as big tiles right on the front of the phone also means it's a good option for anyone who's nervous about taking their first steps into the smartphone world.
The understocked app store has always been a downside of Lumia phones, and that continues with the 640. While you can get most of the big names now, including WhatsApp, Netflix, Spotify and Instagram, Windows Phone almost always receives new apps much later than iOS or Android if it gets them at all. What's more, some popular apps like Facebook , for example, are developed by third parties with a quality level that doesn't quite compare to other mobile operating systems. If you love browsing the new upcoming apps on an iPhone and are always keen to try the latest indie games when your friends do, Windows Phone won't suit.
It's powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 dual-core processor clocked at 1.2GHz, backed up by 1GB of RAM. That may not sound impressive on paper, but it's more than enough to make swiping around those colourful tiles swift and free of lag. Menus open without delay, editing photos in Adobe PhotoShop Express was tackled without incident, and even demanding games like Asphalt 8 played fairly smoothly.
If you only want the phone for everyday essentials like Facebook and Instagram, the Lumia 640 has more than enough power and does have some left over for more demanding tasks, too.
An 8-megapixel camera that's capable of taking some decent shots is located on the back of the phone.
This shot of St Paul's Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge comes out really well, with rich colours, a fair amount of detail and a good balance between the bright sky and shadowy areas.
This second shot as well has a great overall exposure and a deliciously rich blue sky.
Dynamic range on these flowers is again pretty good, and there's a decent amount of detail, even at full screen.
The camera has rather tripped up here however, overexposing the whites on the flowers, resulting in quite a poor image.
The 640 puts in a strong effort indoors, as well. The bright window has been overexposed, but it's kept a lot of detail in the shadows inside. There's also a general lack of image noise in the darker areas, which is something that often plagues cameras on budget phones. There's a definite lack of clarity on the pool cues at the back. This is something I wouldn't expect to see on higher-end cameras, but it's a great job considering the price.
Similarly, in this shot of a kiwi in a dimly lit part of the CNET UK office, there's not much image noise, and the camera has achieved a sharp focus on the fruit.
Overall, the Lumia 640's camera is excellent for the small amount of money it costs. Sure, it doesn't have the pin-sharp quality of phones like the Galaxy S6, but it costs a fraction of the price. The camera is certainly among the best you'll find in the budget market.
The same can't be said for its front-facing camera however, which comes with a very disappointing 0.9-megapixel resolution, which is what I'd expect to see on feature phones from several years ago. It's really not a phone for taking dazzling selfies, but it will at least let you make video calls over Skype, which comes pre-installed.
Powering the phone is a 2,500mAh battery, which is a decent sized cell, particularly when you bear in mind that it's powering a low-resolution screen and a dual-core processor -- neither of which are very power hungry. Even so, after a little over two-and-a-half hours of video streaming, the 640's power had dropped from full to 56 percent remaining, which is only average.
It's quite a demanding test however, which won't necessarily reflect how you'd use the phone yourself, so you can expect your own times to vary. If you keep the brightness turned down, you can expect to get a lot more time from it. Avoiding demanding tasks like video streaming will help massively, too, and if you're struggling for power, turn off Wi-Fi and GPS. If you're careful with the 640, you shouldn't find it difficult to get a day's use from it, but as with all smartphones, charging every night will be essential.
With its big, vibrant screen; colourful, interchangeable back panels and great camera, the Microsoft Lumia 640 provides everything you'd hope for from a budget phone -- and does it with a bit of fun, too. Whether you're after a budget phone and simply don't fancy an Android, or if you're taking your first steps into the smartphone world and need something simple to use, the Lumia 640 is a great choice. Just don't buy it if you always want the latest apps.