Bigger is better. The best things come in small packages. The encyclopaedia of clichés offers no firm conclusion about whether large trumps little.
Few seem to be siding with the small people in the phone world, though. While the growth ray used by Samsung and co to GMO-ise their phones seems to have slowed, there’s little call for truly dinky phones these days. The Microsoft Lumia 640 XL likes this news.
This is a giganto-phone that has little reason to exist beyond having a great big screen. A full 5.7in across and with a nice bold character, it’s not bad for a sub-US$250 mobile. Not bad at all.
Size is the Microsoft Lumia 640 XL’s only real selling point, though, so make sure you’re truly a card-carrying member of the ‘big is beautiful’ camp before applying.
The give and take of the Microsoft XL 640 is not hard to understand. You get a giant screen and in return the phone can be a bit of a pain in the backside to carry around and use from time to time.
Let’s start with the good bits, though. When we’re feeling a bit less Mr Motivator and a bit more mid-reform couch potato, we like to watch a bit of Netflix in the gym. Rest your phone on the exercise bike’s stand and the minutes roll past much more quickly. Few mobiles since the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 have been better-suited to the role than the Microsoft Lumia 640 XL.
The same is true when you can’t figure out what else to do with your life of a morning other than watch puppy videos in bed. Wasting time can be quite a lot of fun with the Lumia 640 XL. And even if you’re not a gym-dodging puppy-lover, perhaps you have a boring train journey to work to spice up. There's nobody who can't use a bigger screen from time to time, right?
What's that bulge?
It’s in-between these idler moments that the phone isn’t quite so great. Try to fit it in a pocket with a full wallet and you’ll earn a bulge that makes it look like you’re packing a 3DS XL in your jeans, while in the hand the phone will be flat-out too big for many.
Part of the problem is that as well as casting a big shadow area-wise, the Lumia 640 XL isn't quite as thin as something like the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 either. In fact it’s 9mm thick.
Still, while those not used to it might struggle with its girth, if you’ve used a big phone before you shouldn’t have too much trouble. Unlike the Nexus 6, for instance, there are no parts of the interface or hardware that really make you strain your thumb to a ligament-stretching extent.
The software soft keys are within easy reach and the power button is actually more than 50% of the way down the side of the phone, right under where an adult thumb lands. You know what? It looks like Microsoft has just about got away with the 640 XL’s design. It’s not for everyone, but if you care about a big screen, the design does make sense.
Looks and feel-wise, the Microsoft Lumia 640 XL is just like the other more affordable phones in the Lumia series. It comes in bright orange, blue, black and white colours, and all use matte, lightly textured plastic.
The plastic back is a removeable shell that makes up the sides and rear of the phone. Everything but the screen, really. Some say it means that Lumias fly apart a bit too easily when dropped, but it also gets rid of any awkward-looking seams and allows for a pretty good feel.
Aside from those bright colours, the Lumia 640 XL has what has become an inoffensively generic phone design among Lumias. But maybe that’s fine.
Display on display
So how good is the screen? Technically it’s no marvel, but once you’ve accepted that it’s not a truly high-end display we think you’ll enjoy it a lot.
The Lumia 640 XL’s resolution is just 720p, where for a bit more dosh in Android-land you can get a phone with a 1080p screen. At this size, pixel density is not remotely Retina-like: 259ppi. Look at the screen critically and it’s not hard at all to make out some pixellation. That low resolution really makes itself known when browsing the web, with smaller characters showing the Lumia 640 XL up a bit.
But that's about as far as we'd go in criticising it. In many ‘normal’ situations, where your eyes aren’t hovering five inches from the screen, watching a good 5.7-inch 720p screen is much better than looking at a 4.8-inch 1080p. Wait for the cliché: sometimes size matters.
Colours are very punchy too, and contrast seems better than the non-XL Lumia 640. It has almost everything going for it, bar resolution. You can also customise the screen’s style a bit, as the phone lets you fiddle with colour temperature and saturation in the Settings menu.
Like most other mid-range or upper-entry level phones, the Lumia 640 XL uses an IPS LCD display, getting you the strong viewing angles we’ve come to expect from a quality phone or tablet.
Software vs screen
Unfortunately, the 640 XL’s Windows Phone 8.1 software offers precisely zero optimisations aimed at making use of the super-size screen. Back when Nokia was the name behind Lumia (Microsoft bought Nokia’s phone division in 2014), you were able to add an extra column of Live Tiles to phones if you wanted. No more: you’re stuck with three here, and have to use info-lite miniature ones if you want more.
The one interesting thing the Lumia 640 XL does do with its screen is something that doesn’t depend on size. The Glance feature displays the time and teeny-tiny notification icons when the phone is sleeping, letting you know how many new emails, texts and so on you have.
It’s dead handy as it comes on whenever you turn the screen off, making it pretty useful as a clock even when it’s just lying around resting. What's more, Microsoft really seems to have worked some clever magic here, as it doesn’t appear to kill battery life.
Why would it? Well, as we said a bit earlier, the 640 XL uses an IPS LCD screen. As a result, whenever something is displayed onscreen the backlight has to be activated. Even at the dim setting Glance uses, we’d expect it to drink a fair bit of juice. But in reality it doesn't seem to. Well, not in big enough quantities to put us off using such a nifty feature at any rate.
Microsoft wasn’t taking any chances, though: the Lumia 640 XL has a battery to suit its monolith stature. Sure, it’s a 3000mAh unit whereas the Note 4 has a 3220mAh one, but don’t forget that while the Note has more than 3.5 million screen pixels to power, the 640 XL has fewer than a million (921,600).
We found that just using the Lumia 640 XL makes you want to watch more video on your phone, which is naturally pretty battery-sapping. But stay away from spending hours on YouTube and you’ll get almost two days’ use without trying too hard.
A giant phone like this isn’t really for people who are going to scrimp on using juice, but there is a standard Windows Battery Saver mode if you want to stay away from a charger as long as possible. It pulls the usual tricks of limiting background data and tasks.
Cleaning the windows
With the likes of the battery saver modes, the notifications drop-down and the Cortana voice assistant — one of Windows Phone 8.1’s most recent additions — Windows is becoming an almost like-for-like alternative to Android. However, some of the added features seem to have scraped off a little bit of the gloss that initially made us like Windows Phone so much.
These days there are a few odd glitches, some little juddery moments where an older version of Windows would have been nice’n’smooth. It’s not slow, but where once cheaper Windows Phones offered the slickest mobile experience around, the best Androids at the price are now looking as sharp or sharper.
Fingers crossed Microsoft is looking to clean up some of Windows’s loose dangly bits with Windows 10, due to arrive on the Lumia 640 XL later this year.
One thing that won’t fix, though, is the continuing lack of apps. Sure, the Microsoft Lumia 640 XL has access to thousands upon thousands of the things. But if you want to keep up with whatever new game your friends are talking about on Facebook, Twitter or, god forbid, real life, there’s a better-than-average chance it won’t be available on Windows Phone.
In short: fewer games and apps come to Windows Phone, and those that do tend to arrive late.
With great power....
Gaming performance is a bit patchier than it would be on an Android of the same spec too. That's mostly because the Lumia 640 XL has to make do with a Snapdragon 400 quad-core 1.2GHz processor just like the Moto G.
Nor is a lack of power its only problem on the gaming side: it lacks the storage to install much software anyway. You get a measly 8GB, around 3GB or so of which you can play with once Windows has taken its share. Thankfully there’s a microSD slot under the rear cover or you'd be completely screwed.
It does have 4G, which we're very pleased about, but BEWARE - there's a 3G-only version floating about too, so be careful you don't buy the wrong model.
Still, if the 640 XL's power suffers for the sake of the bottom line, its camera has no such worries. It has a 13-megapixel sensor and an f/2 lens, aka plenty of resolution and nice, fast glass. What’s not to like?
In most conditions, not a great deal. The sensor provides loads of detail, and while colours can take a hit in trickier lighting, the Lumia 640 XL’s brain does a good job of judging things such as metering.
We took the 640 XL into a dingy bar to compare it with its sort-of much more expensive brother from another mother, the Galaxy Note 4, and did find that, sure enough, the Samsung copes far better with lower-light conditions. The 640 XL sent streams out of lights like a lens-flare nightmare, and was all-round a lot softer.
This seems to be not just down to the Note 4 using OIS but also to it having a higher-quality lens (despite the Lumia being a ‘Zeiss’ one). Still, there is a bog-standard single-LED flash to help out at times like these. In daylight photos can look a little low on energy and contrast too. But if that all sounds a little critical, bear in mind that this is a decent mid-range camera, not a top-end one. The phone costs less than US$250 remember.
It also has a secret weapon under its sleeve. This is one of the first Windows phones we’ve used to feature a proper HDR mode. It’s called Rich Capture and takes a few shots before melding them together to ramp up dynamic range and get rid of any over- or under-exposure.
It’s really useful, as while the Lumia 640 XL generally comes up with even results, there’s only so much a smartphone camera can do.
Rich Mode’s results can be at best brilliant, radically transforming photos with much better detail and clarity. However, compare it to the HDR modes you get in today’s Androids and it seems hopelessly slow. Not only does it take a little while to shoot one (a second or two), the Lumia 640 XL then has to spend a good few seconds processing the thing.
As this happens in the background, you can carry on shooting. But take three HDR shots in a row and the 640 XL slinks off to a darkened room for a bit, refusing to take any more photos.
So, there’s a bit of work to be done here, but otherwise the app is really quite good. The advanced features are there if you want them, but if you don’t it feels nice and simple, with little more than the shutter button to worry about.
Nokia Lumia 640 XL verdict
Like any giant phone, the Microsoft Lumia 640 XL is not for everyone. It’s big, really big, and while it puts in enough thoughtful touches to avoid becoming a nightmare to use, the sheer dimensions take their toll along the line.
The current version of Windows Phone doesn’t exploit that extra space either, so we're not going to pretend this is a perfect phone that gets everything right.
However, for the price it's really quite good.
For movies and games that massive display is a huge benefit and although it's not particularly high-res, in most other respects it's a pretty good screen. The camera is better than many at this price too, the overall build quality is decent and there's a big battery inside it.
After a couple of years of falling behind Android with its budget phones, the Lumia series is finally reclaiming some of that lost ground and the 640 XL continues that trend.
So, if you want a big screen and the Windows OS without spending top dollar, this is your best bet.