Microsoft Lumia 640 review: It's the practical Windows Phone most people can afford

Microsoft’s Lumia 640 is the tract home most Americans pretend to shun, but end up buying anyway: friendly, unpretentious, with an exterior that cheerfully advertises something different in just a few stock colors. 

Inside, it’s the same home as the rest of the block, with a few upgrades. Think of the new Windows Phone 8.1 Update 2 that powers it as the granite countertops and track lighting of Microsoft’s suburbia. And it’s cheap: just $130, according to Cricket, the first carrier to offer the phone. There’s even a move-in special, a free year’s subscription to Office 365 Personal worth $70 if you buy the phone before June 30.

Once you’re settled, though, chances are you’re going to feel a bit cramped. Neighbors in the Android and iOS clubs may titter and point to the Lumia 640’s dowdy display. And always, always you’ll glance up enviously at the more luxurious homes dotting the hills: the Lumia 830s, Icons, and 930s. But thread your way through the mountains of photos that clog your living space, ease past the massive apps that fill your bedrooms, and take pride in the fact that you saved some cash.

Just clearing the hardware bar

Lumia phones seem to ship in one of two varieties: chunky, solid flagship phones, or the candy-coated, plasticky cheaper variants. Measuring 5.56 x 2.84 x 0.34 inches and weighing 5.1 ounces, the Lumia 640 is one of the latter, with a slick plastic backing that probably should be textured to add a bit more grip. 

Lumia 640 back camera Rob Schultz

The Lumia 640 is housed in a slick plastic chassis that can feel too slippery at times.

The phone’s 1280x720, 5-inch IPS display fits well in the hand, but can’t hold a candle to the exquisitely detailed displays that iOS and Android phones tout. Don’t write it off just yet, though: Apps render just fine. The only real annoyance I have with low-res Windows Phones is that webpages displayed via Internet Explorer can require you to turn on Reading Mode before the font is large enough to read comfortably.

In fact, the Lumia 640’s display, internal processor (a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400), and memory (1GB RAM) are identical to last fall’s Lumia 830. Benchmarks were nearly identical, too: SunSpider 1.0.2 (1.24 s), Antutu 0.8 beta (11,123) and WPbench (237.72) were all about half the performance of the Lumia Icon, with its 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chip. As with the Lumia 830, we used Asphalt 8: Airborne as an informal games metric, and the performance was a bit stuttery, but not unplayable.

The Lumia 640’s rear camera (eight megapixels) is a step down from the 10MP model that the Lumia 830 offered, and the 0.25-inch sensor inside it is slightly smaller than the 0.29-inch sensor inside the 830, meaning that it captures a bit less light at twilight and in dimly lit rooms. A dynamic flash feature supplies enough light to reveal the detail on night shots, but just barely. You can either use the 0.9 MP front-facing camera for selfies, or the nifty Lumia Selfie app to automatically orient the rear camera for a higher-res shot.

lumia composite night shots Mark Hachman

A composite night shot shows the low-light capabilities of the Lumia 830, the new  PCWorld | Server Error

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