Microsoft's Lumia launch plans continue to run at full speed, most recently resulting in two affordable handsets: the Lumia 640 and its phablet-sized XL cousin. It's the latter device, the Lumia 640 XL, with its 5.7-inch screen and aggressive price point, that's the subject if this review.
Part of what Microsoft is doing with such releases is bolstering the ranks to provide a wider range of options for businesses. There are devices at most sizes, even if the numbering of those devices perhaps doesn't follow logic as cleanly as it once did.
In numbers terms the 640 XL sits alongside the Lumia 640, but differs in specification, offering a quite different proposition, as well as a hefty difference in price. It sits at about the same specification level as the Lumia 1320 from last year, but betters it in a number of areas. Is it the affordable phablet to plump for?
Chunky side of design
The Microsoft Lumia 640 XL sits on the chunky side of things in design terms. Measuring 157.9 x 81.5 x 9mm and weighing 171g, this is a big lump of phone. Its design is instantly recognisable as a Lumia, with a colourful plastic back and black front.
There's a distinct and well-defined edge to the 640 XL, rather like the Lumia 930, allowing for plenty of grip, but making it pretty thick. That makes the handset a little harder to use one-handed than some of the big devices you'll find elsewhere, such as the Nexus 6 or Samsung Galaxy Note 4, both of which sit in the hand more naturally.
However, it's well constructed. Although simple in design, it exhibits those aspects we've come to appreciate from Lumia. It's fuss-free and we like the elegant simplicity of the white handset we have in for review, with neatly contrasting black buttons on the side. It's a more casual look than the luminescent greens and other colours typical of Lumia devices.
We rue the loss of the dedicated camera button and we accept the bump of the camera on the back, although that means this phablet doesn't quite sit flat on the desk. Otherwise, this is a good example of how to use plastics well, which even at double the price, some manufacturers don't quite get right.
It might be big, but it's still more or less pocketable in an average pair of jeans. Having carried it around for some time, it's certainly manageable, even if you have to wiggle it around or out of a pocket when you sit down. Is that a Lumia 640 XL in your pocket? It most certainly it.
Mid-range hardware, latest software
We're all still waiting for a flagship Lumia in 2015, so there's no surprise that the 640 XL device falls into the mid-range. In many regards it's designed to be affordable, with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 quad-core chipset and 1GB of RAM taking command of proceedings.
With 8GB of internal storage supported you'll need to take advantage of the microSD card support (expansion up to an additional 128GB) if you've any desire to carry much of anything with you. The low internal storage is one of the inherent weaknesses you'll notice, but it's one method of keeping the price down.
Despite the 640 XL not being the most powerful or fastest handset in the Windows Phone armoury, it performs well enough in daily tasks. Saying that, we've always felt that Windows Phone OS takes its time. Rather than snapping to the next task, WP8.1 takes a slightly more leisurely pace - and you'll be out-paced by Android rivals in many common tasks - so you'll spend plenty of time looking at loading screens, or waiting for things to update or open.
At the launch of the Lumia 640 XL, Stephen Elop, VP of Microsoft Devices, confirmed that the Lumia 640 XL would support Windows 10 when it launches later in the year. Until then it runs Windows Phone 8.1 update 2 with Lumia Denim, which is the latest mobile software available at the time of writing.
That isn't a huge difference from WP8.1 update 1, it mainly supports some additional features required in the US, rather than a swathe of consumer benefits to enjoy. Windows Phone is a great operating system, however, and has evolved over the past few years to deal with some of the pain points that previous editions encountered. We like that the settings menu is now more distinctly broken up into sections, thus making it easier to navigate.
The Lumia 640 XL has the SensorCore, which means you get useful features like tap to wake, and also the handy glance screen which provides a little information when the display is in standby.
It also means support for step tracking, with the addition of a Fitbit app to do that for you. Unfortunately we found the Fitbit often crashed, reporting that it had stopped syncing in the background.
Aside from the addition of Fitbit, the Lumia 640 XL comes with a free 1-year subscription to Office 365. This is a Personal subscription, letting you install apps on PC/Mac, phone or tablet. If you don't have Office, that's a great incentive, plus 60 minutes of Skype talk time per month and 1TB of OneDrive storage is included - it's a pretty enticing deal overall, especially for those looking to use this phone as a personal (rather than work) device.
The big sell of the Lumia 640 XL, in reality, is its 5.7-inch display. It joins the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 in giving you plenty of screen real estate. The difference here however - and this is fitting with the Lumia's price - is the 640 XL has a 1280 x 720 pixel resolution display (259ppi).
We've said before that Windows Phone doesn't feel like it needs the resolution that other platforms do thanks to the use of those big bold Live Tiles and larger text. We still think that's true to a point. Although you don't get the colourful pop to your images or graphics that you'll find on higher resolution displays at this size, the 640 XL doesn't suffer too badly. Fire up Netflix and you still get a great big screen experience when on the go.
The viewing angles are pretty good and there's plenty of brightness to cut through reflections. If you wear polarised sunglasses, however, you might be irked that it blacks out in landscape - not great for taking photos. Overall though, this is a great (big) display for an affordable device at this size.
Excellent battery life
Sitting at the heart of the 640 XL is a 3,000mAh battery which offers very good performance. We've seen a number of devices with that sort of capacity, but this Lumia offers stamina that's rare. It will get you through a busy day easily and we've often found ourselves with 60 per cent battery remaining at the end of the day.
Add that to the fact that you can swap the battery yourself and you're looking at one of the best performers around when it comes to longevity per charge. Of course, it isn't hugely powerful and it's not pushing a high resolution, but if staying connected is the most important thing then you'll not be disappointed.
Calling, connectivity and sound quality
The Lumia 640 XL is 4G LTE enabled, so you'll enjoy fast data when you're out and about. However, we found the signal reception on the device we had to be a little weak - both for the cellular network and Wi-Fi. Where other devices would be showing a good connection, the 640 XL was lacking those all-important bars.
However, the call quality is reasonable and, despite the size, we had no problem being heard by callers, or hearing them.
There's a single speaker on the rear of the handset, but its quality isn't great. If you want to really enjoy any sort of audio, you'll be better served by plugging in your headphones.
For a number of years, the camera has been the stand-out highlight of Lumia devices. It's here that the 640 XL really differs from the smaller 640. There's a 13-megapixel camera with a f/2.0 28mm Zeiss lens on the larger XL.
The camera is a little slow to launch and, as we've mentioned, we do miss the dedicated button to kickstart that launch - something that all Windows Phones once had.
However, the Lumia Camera app is packed full of features, giving you quick access to Rich Capture, which is basically like HDR (high dynamic range) evolved, with options to change the results with quick tap editing.
The camera will give you some great results in good light, although you need to be careful not to use Rich Capture all the time, as without editing (to remove the effect) you might find some of your images appear over-exposed, or forcibly brightened. However, left to its own devices in daylight and the results are good.
As the light drops, so does the shutter speed, while the ISO sensitivity rises. That never spells good things for any camera. In low light, even daylight indoors, you'll find image noise appears fairly quickly and processing makes things softer. In many cases, we've found this to be a by-product of the auto mode, and it can be bettered with a few taps to change the settings.
There are manual controls at the top of the Lumia Camera app if, for example, you wanted to lock the ISO, or raise the shutter speed again to avoid softness. Yes, on one hand the Auto preset shouldn't be so quick to bump settings unnecessarily, but at least you don't have to stray far to make things better. Overall it makes for a capable camera, with the app succinctly rolling together useful features. We also like the fact that there's the option to use the flash as a focusing illuminator in low light.
There's a 5-megapixel front facing camera that's also pretty good, giving great results in most conditions. You also get 1080p video capture on both the front and rear cameras, with good results.
The Microsoft Lumia 640 XL has surprised us. We've been critical of some phones in the past that seemed big with no real advantage to their size. Although larger phones are becoming more common - and the 640 XL is among the largest out there - we're quite taken with this Lumia.
The performance isn't the strongest that Windows Phone has to offer, so there's some slowness in places, and the connection seemed a little weak, but that's offset by battery life that's almost unbeatable: the Lumia 640 XL is a monster when it comes to endurance.
Although the display is large, the resolution is on the low side for this scale. That might not affect the day-to-day business of reading emails and keeping up with social media, but it lacks the punch of the best devices out there. You do, however, get a good camera experience.
At less than £200, the Lumia 640 XL is a well designed and affordable device that performs pretty well in all areas. It's a great choice if you want to go big and don't want to break the bank.