Microsoft Lumia 535 Review

Posted on January 17, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware with 7


In mid-July 2014, Microsoft announced the first truly abysmal Lumia handset, the Lumia 530, setting a new low bar for the quality of entry-level smart phone handsets. So it was with some reservation that I took possession of the Lumia 535, a 5-inch sibling to the 530 that also targets the low-end of the market. I shouldn’t have worried: This is a great entry-level device and the model for Microsoft to follow for future Lumia handsets.

Indeed, that has apparently already happened: Just this past week, Microsoft introduced two other low-end handsets aimed at emerging markets, the Lumia 435 and 532, and both will cost under $100 at launch. These devices clearly take more cues from the Lumia 535 than they do from the Lumia 530, and that’s a good thing.


A tale of three low-end Lumias: The Lumia 530 (left), Lumia 535 (middle) and Lumia 635 (right)


But today, let’s focus on the Lumia 535, which is now fairly broadly available, see and how it differs from the 530.

Microsoft launched the Lumia 535 in November 2014 and its immediate claim to fame was that it was the first Lumia handset to carry the Microsoft branding. (Previous Lumias all bore the Nokia name.) I don’t find that to be particularly interesting personally, but it was the headline at the time.

The Lumia 535 is powered by a 1.2 GHz quad core Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 processor, 1 GB of RAM, and 8 GB of internal storage (expandable via microSD). Most of those core specs represent important upgrades from the lackluster Lumia 530, which features the same processor but is hobbled by only 512 MB of RAM and an unacceptable 4 GB of internal storage.

The biggest improvement over the 530, however, is the screen. Where the Lumia 530 features an embarrassingly bad 4-inch LCD display running at 800 x 480—easily the worst screen I’ve ever seen on a modern smart phone—the 535 features a decent 5-inch qHD (960 x 540) IPS display with Gorilla Glass 3. And while it can’t claim to be HD resolution, everything in the Windows Phone OS scales nicely, though small text isn’t as razor-sharp as I’d like. You also need to be looking at the screen dead-on for the best quality—viewing angles aren’t great, as you can see below—but it’s a smart phone. That’s how you use it.


(Like many other low-end Lumias, the 535 lacks hardware Back, Start and Search buttons and instead employs a software-based navigation bar that includes these buttons. I like this navigation bar for a few reasons—it’s much harder to hit the Search button by mistake, a common issue with Windows Phone handsets, for example—but it also means that the UI is taking up some onscreen real estate at times. You can configure the navigation bar to auto-hide, or you can manually do so at any time, which is really nice.)

There’s another important difference between the 530 and the 535, and here again we see Microsoft taking a good idea to heart for newer devices like the Lumia 435 and 532. Where the Lumia 530 includes only an accelerometer sensor, the Lumia 535 is equipped with a more reasonable array of sensors, including ambient light, accelerometer, and proximity. And these little doohickeys go a long ways toward making for a better experience: Unlike the 530, the Lumia 535 supports display auto-brightness, and the screen will dim when you raise it to your face to make a phone call.

The rear camera on the Lumia 535 is pedestrian as they come, it’s a 5.0 megapixel unit with LED flash. But it also has a front-facer 5.0 megapixel wide angle unit that appears to be very similar to the “selfie” camera on the Lumia 735. By comparison, the Lumia 530 doesn’t even have a front-facing camera, and the rear unit—also 5.0 MPX, but with a fixed focus—lacks an LED flash. The Lumia 535 doesn’t have a camera button, a missing feature now common across all of Microsoft’s low-end Lumias. (You have to step up to a mid-range Lumia 830—which costs an unforgiveable $500 unlocked—to get a dedicated camera button.)


A few other points about the specs. Like the recently-announced Lumia 435 and 532, the 535 is aimed at emerging markets, so it does support dual SIMs—still a curiosity here in the States—but only 3G/HSPA cellular networking. So there’s no LTE support at all, limiting the 535’s appeal in established markets. That said, it is running Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1 with Lumia Denim, and is at this moment the only phone I have capable of running the Lumia Camera app, though of course the camera isn’t powerful enough to use any of that app’s advanced new features. (And the pictures it takes are nothing special.)


I outfitted the review unit with a microSD card so I could load it up with media—and offload as much apps and data from internal memory as possible—and use the Lumia 535 the way I think it will be most often used in places like the United States (though you cannot at the moment even buy this device here from a wireless carrier): As a media player. And in this capacity, the Lumia 535 absolutely shines, and it has replaced my previous Lumia media player, the 635, which has a smaller 4.5-inch screen.

Lumia 535 (top) and Lumia 635 (bottom)

Lumia 535 (top) and Lumia 635 (bottom)

Before I could get that microSD card into the 535, however, I had to figure out how to get the back cover off. Many Lumia devices feature a removable back cover, allowing you to access hidden SIM card and microSD slots, and a removable battery, or replace the cover with a differently-colored cover or flip case. And as you might expect, I’m quite familiar with how these covers work. Yet, I’ve had a heck of a time getting the 535’s back cover off.


I’m not entirely sure why. The cover itself is much thinner than other Lumia covers, which contributes to this device’s delightfully thin form factor. But this thinness is responsible for a certain creakiness I’ve never experienced in other Lumias—including the otherwise terrible Lumia 530, which has a thicker and more solid case—and also, I think, to my issues removing it. In fact, I’ve bent the cover around the USB hole because I’ve struggled with it so much.


Fortunately, Microsoft sells replacement covers. Not here, in the United States, of course, but I was able to order a delightfully retro Lumia cyan-colored case from Alibaba to replace it. (It hasn’t arrived yet, and I’m not ready to recommend this option to potential US-based buyers.)


Looking at Microsoft’s international sites, I see this device is available for about 95 pounds in the UK ($144 USD), and Expansys is selling the device to US customers for $129. When you consider that a no-contract version of the Lumia 635 is currently selling for about $129 in the US as well (sometimes a bit less on sale) this seems like a great price, and given the option I would opt for the Lumia 535 personally.

Of course, most 535 buyers are coming at this device from a different worldview. It’s either their first smart phone, or they’re moving to the 535 from a previous device that wasn’t as full-featured. And aside from all the hardware niceties available here, it’s worth remembering that it features all of the latest Windows Phone features—Cortana, Skype, Office, OneDrive, and Lumia exclusive apps—plus some neat camera functionality, especially with the front-facing selfie camera, and is both expandable and customizable. And Microsoft sells a number of colorful accessories that can complement this purchase. There really is a lot of value here.


The Lumia 535 is a fine low-end smart phone and a great example of what’s possible in this market segment. Cheap doesn’t have to mean low-quality. And the Lumia 535 is just the latest in a growing family of inexpensive Windows devices that delivers great value for those without a Platinum American Express card. As such, the Lumia 535 is highly recommended.

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