Another week, another Lumia. This latest grenade thrown by Nokia in its continued assault on the smartphone market is the Lumia 625. Following up on its previous high-end devices -- the good-looking one, the one with the fancy camera -- the 625 is a soldier of lower rank. There's already an army of budget Windows Phones that fill various niches, so what's the deal? Well, despite the number on its dog tag, the 625 is far from a Lumia 620 variant: it's a completely different phone. For starters, it sports the biggest screen of any Lumia to date (for now, anyway). Actually, make that any Nokia phone ever made. But the real reason it exists has nothing to do with the display size; it's all about the 4G radio hiding away inside. Does LTE, plus a big screen and eyebrow-raising price tag, make it worth your while, though?
The 625 is everything we've come to expect from Nokia, especially its lower-end Lumias: it's simple, colorful and fun. The phone is just a basic black, square slab when disrobed, but much like the 620, it's the polycarbonate shell wrapping the back and sides of the device that gives it personality. Up front is a single pane of Gorilla Glass 2 that curves ever so slightly at the edges to meet the thin black rim that holds it in place. Behind it sits the 4.7-inch display with a few millimeters of bezel on each side. The standard Windows Phone back, home and search soft keys sit below the screen, with a small grey Nokia logo and front-facing camera above. A tiny, almost unnoticeable nick on the bottom edge of the thin peripheral rim identifies the microphone, and a larger slit that consumes a small section of glass superior to the Nokia stamp serves as the earpiece.
There's not much to see around the edges of the device, which are covered by the one-piece polycarbonate shell. The top is home to the 3.5mm headphone jack, while the micro-USB port for charging and data transfer sits on the bottom side, aligned with the home button. As with all Windows Phones, the right side bears the volume rocker, power key and two-step camera button. These keys are part of the shell itself, and in the one supplied with our handset, at least, they're sturdy and well-sized, so they don't wobble or drift around. Also, the camera key on our unit has the perfect amount of resistance, clearly separating the first and second shutter steps.
The back of the Lumia 625 is as clean and uncluttered as the front. Down near the micro-USB socket is a tiny oblong loudspeaker grille, and etched into the middle of the back cover is another small Nokia logo running landscape-a-ways. Above that is the main camera lens flanked by its modest LED flash module, both of which are sunken into the shell just enough to protect them from any particularly abrasive surfaces you might place the phone on. Nothing too exciting is hidden under that bright case. All you'll find is a more industrial-looking version of the loudspeaker grille and two slots on the left edge, arranged bunk-bed style, for your micro-SIM and microSD storage booster (up to 64GB cards welcome). If you were hoping for a removable battery, you're out of luck; that built-in 2,000mAh unit will have to do.
Now that you know what's underneath, a quick note on getting the plastic cover off. It's one of the most awkward Lumias to unclothe, as there's nothing to use as leverage but the cover itself. On the Lumia 620, for example, you have the camera / flash module to push down on while you work the case off. With the 625, however, you have to plant a thumb somewhere in the top half of the case, and kind of pry it off from the micro-USB end (there are teeth on the top inside edge of the cover that prevent the reverse maneuver). What this means is to get the shell off, you effectively have to bend it around a pseudo-hinge you create with your thumb.
At first, we were worried about it stretching. You see, to the phone's credit, the shell fits incredibly tightly to the frame, and it's hard to find an area where it gives or creaks. It feels like a complete device and you get a sense that Nokia spent a decent amount of time measuring things up to ensure as much. As it turns out, our concerns were ill-founded. After removing the case upwards of a hundred times, we decided it had no impact: the shell seemed to fit as snuggly as it always had. Then, the incident occurred -- it cracked during one particular removal, right by the power key. It gave up at the point that suffers the most as you bend the cover; in other words, where it bears the most physical stress. However, we probably weren't as careful or gentle with the shell as we could've been; another Engadget editor using the 625 suspects the break was less about flawed design, and more about oafish technique.
As we've said, the back covers are what make this a Lumia. Classic black and white, plus mint green, bright yellow and red-orange are the official case colors. Our unit came with the latter, and rather than it being a solid, block color, it reacts to changing light. This is due to the "dual-shot color" shell construction, just like on the 620, which produces a semi-transparent effect and adds a certain depth that means the etched logo appears to float on the surface. Our particular model had a white base with a red layer on the top, hence the orange result. The 625 may not be as pleasing to the eye as, say, the gorgeous 925, but looks certainly weren't an afterthought. It's something of a younger, chubbier and less-serious version of the Lumia 720, which itself is a pretty charming package.
Nokia's Lumia 625 may be the largest phone the company's ever made, but don't be fooled by the record. These days, it's hard to figure where the line separating tablets from phones is anymore. With a 4.7-inch LCD display and dimensions of 133.2 x 72.2 x 9.2mm (around 5.2 x 2.8 x 0.4 inches), the 625 is most definitely a smartphone -- you could even consider it a little on the small side compared to everything else that's hitting the market. It's not the thinnest, or the lightest, at 159g (5.6 ounces), but it's well-balanced and contoured. All the corners and edges are rounded off, and the shell is marginally convex, so it rests nicely in the palm. This editor can just about reach all four corners of the screen without stretching and is happy with the handset's quiet pocket presence. No one would mistake the 625 for a premium handset, but then again, Nokia's not trying to deceive anyone, either. This phone is sturdy, fun and agreeable to use, which is more than satisfactory considering the price.
Where to start? Well, let's look on the bright side, if only to soften what's to come. Discounting the high-end Lumias, all of which sport 4.5-inch displays, the 625's screen exceeds its nearest brethren by a 0.4 inch -- the 720 and 820 both have 4.3-inch windows to work with and, if you've been paying attention, you'll know we're looking at 4.7 inches on the diagonal for the 625. In some circumstances, bigger is better. Navigating through menus, peeking at the Live Tile home screen, framing a photo and poking at the on-screen keyboard are some of the tasks that are just inherently easier on a larger screen. Colors are vibrant enough, and whites are accurate, but after that, we begin to run out of complimentary points.
ClearBlack is missing... and missed.
While the IPS LCD display has Nokia's glove-friendly Sensitive Touch technology, ClearBlack is missing... and missed. The 625 falls short in many of the same areas the Lumia 520's panel did. Blacks often look like navy, and although it's not always easy to spot, the display is patchy and over-lit on the bottom edge, above the soft keys (this is easier to spot with dark images). Then, there's the resolution. When we reviewed the Lumia 720, we felt the need to defend its mediocre pixel density -- after all, the WP8 UI doesn't suffer from a low-definition screen, and the 625 is further proof of that. But, stretching 800 x 480 pixels across a 4.7-inch display results in an almost upsetting density of 201 ppi. It's not the end of the world or anything, especially if you're just poking around WP8. It is irritating in several situations, however. You'll find it lacking detail when browsing desktop sites or using the camera, for example. At the same time, it'll do the job if you just want to catch up on the odd TV show. Anything 720p or above, though, means you'll be looking at more black bar than anything else.
Aside from the resolution, viewing angles are pretty poor, and the slab of Gorilla Glass 2 covering the entire face of the phone holds on to more grime and fingerprints than we'd like. Outdoor visibility isn't too bad, really. The panel is bright enough in most situations, but glare can sometimes get the upper hand. It might be the biggest display of any Lumia, but it's far from the best and honestly, a little disappointing. But, at least it's not too hard on the battery, right?
What's Windows Phone 8 like on the Lumia 625? Well, it's like Windows Phone 8 on other Lumia devices. Those who have been treated to the recent Amber update, anyway. The new version -- comprising Microsoft's GDR2 update and Nokia's input -- comes pre-installed on the 625. On top of the original experience, it brings various fixes, tweaks image processing and adds an FM radio player, as well as the new Data Sense app for tracking those megabytes. Also, Xbox Music and Internet Explorer have been tuned up, and finally, much to this editor's glee, CalDAV and CardDAV calendar and contact formats are now supported, making it infinitely easier to get Google accounts synced up. It really is a breeze.
Unfortunately, hardware limitations of the Lumia 625 mean you miss out on some of Nokia's goodies. The Glance Screen feature, which leaves the display on in a low-power state, permanently showing a clock and any relevant notifications, is not available on the 625. While Nokia claims this is because of inadequate "display memory," it's really due to the LCD display, which would munch battery life if always lit, even on a low brightness setting. (With AMOLED screens, only the pixels in use need be active.)
Note: The Lumia 920 has an IPS LCD display (with ClearBlack) that is Glance Screen-friendly, so it's not an AMOLED-only feature as described above.
The Pro Camera app, also from Nokia, isn't compatible with the handset: you need a 920 or above for that perk. Smart Camera is your consolation app, however, and comes pre-installed alongside the older Cinemagraph. Nokia's cloud-compression Xpress browser is pre-loaded, too (although we tended to stick to the more familiar IE experience), as is the beta for App Social, a software-recommendation service.
The Lumia 620 got lucky when Nokia decided to bundle the global Drive+ navigation service with it. Since then, all other budget Lumias have made do with the local, non-plus version, 625 included. The only other software of note that's on the phone from the get-go is bloatware. Luckily, you're only looking at the World of Red Bull portal, and the Angry Birds Roost dedicated store / content service-type thing. Both are easy to uninstall. There's nothing unique about Windows Phone 8 on the Lumia 625. In fact, we feel like we're missing out by not being able to toy with the Glance Screen feature or Pro Camera app. In short, if you've ever poked around in Microsoft's mobile OS before and have peeked at the GDR2 / Amber changelog, you already know the score.
While Nokia's Lumia 1020 is currently the cameraphone of the moment, the 625 is at the other end of the spectrum specs-wise. The main shooter is a 5-megapixel affair (not backside-illuminated), with an f/2.4 lens and small companion LED flash. Before we get to the nitty gritty, let's deal with the front-facing VGA (640 x 480) camera with f/2.8 lens quickly. Long story short: it's not great. Even in fantastic conditions with a wealth of natural light, images were a bit noisy for our liking. Not that we were expecting the earth from a VGA shooter, and at least you can spice up your selfies with Nokia's Glam Me app, if inclined.
Now, back to the main camera. Our sample images were a bit of a mixed bag, really, but we want to point the finger at software, to some extent. The default camera app is the opposite of Pro Camera, in which you have manual settings that offer a lot more control. Apart from tinkering with scene selections where appropriate, we left the ISO, exposure and white balance settings on auto. Incidentally, we were impressed with how quickly the core camera app loaded up, as we've been irritated by the boot time in budget Lumia reviews of old. Whether that's because the 625 packs a slightly faster processor than other budget Lumias, or whether the slow start-up time has been addressed in the Amber update, we're not quite sure. The Smart Camera "lens" is almost as quick to load, while others like Panorama and Cinemagraph still take a few seconds. Even if you can't fiddle with many of the settings in the core app, at least it's there when you need it for opportunistic shots. Shutter response is also greatly improved over old budget Lumias. In favorable lighting conditions (i.e., when the phone doesn't hang to suck up more light), you can snap successive shots pretty rapidly, at maybe two per second.
As you can see from the sample gallery, colors went from well-represented to pale and lifeless, depending partly on the lighting conditions, but, mostly, based on our distance from object. White balance was accurate enough -- it was light metering and the automatic exposure compensation that were often off the mark. In close-up situations, images tended to be slightly overexposed and washed out. In landscape scenarios, the opposite was true, with pictures coming up dark and underexposed. We might have had more success if we committed to manually adjusting exposure, but ain't nobody got time for that. The few well-balanced, well-lit shots we did achieve, however, show that, with a bit of TLC, you can squeeze some acceptable images out that 5-megapixel sensor.
Considering the sensor is not backside-illuminated, we were surprised by its low-light capabilities. You need a really steady hand to keep a snap in focus, but wait long enough for the 625 to inhale the light it needs, and voila! What was pitch black in real life becomes a grainy, noisy, slightly out-of-focus image of whatever you were pointing your phone at. You won't be winning any photography competitions, but at least you've recorded what you intended to. That small LED flash delivers a substantial kick for its size. Up close, it's too bright for its own good; too far away, and the 625 slacks off in its low-light duties, believing the flash will do all the work. At mid-range, however -- say, four to six feet -- it's better on than off.
Low-light performance when recording at 1080p (30 fps) is understandably much worse than stills. When it's truly dark, video is useless, although the fact that audio capture isn't half bad means at least you have something to listen to. In twilight, it's better, if not a tad grainy, and in good conditions, it takes a pretty nice clip, with consistent focus and exposure. You'll want to move your pictures and video onto something with a better screen before peeking at them, though. As you can probably guess, you're not seeing anything close to full picture or video quality on that 201 ppi display.
Performance and battery life
As we explained exhaustively in our review of the 720, Windows Phone 8 devices fit into two distinct classes. You've got phones like the budget Lumias and the HTC 8S that share basically every spec, including a 1GHz processor and 512MB of RAM, then you've got the higher-end handsets with at least a 1.5GHz processor and 1GB of RAM. There is one device, the Huawei Ascend W1, which ignores the rules with a dual-core 1.2GHz CPU. Well, we guess this is now a tier of its own in some respects, as the Lumia 625 also has a dual-core 1.2GHz CPU -- the MSM8930 Snapdragon S4 (Krait) with Adreno 305 GPU, to be exact -- paired with 512MB of RAM. You're also looking at 8GB of internal storage that you can boost with microSD cards of up to 64GB (there's 7GB of free SkyDrive space thrown in, too), and a 2,000mAh, non-removable battery.
Huawei Ascend W1
Nokia Lumia 520
*SunSpider: ms, lower scores are better
As the benchmarks show, the 625 rivals the Ascend W1. Both are just that little bit better than the tier below, but don't score as well as higher-end handsets. Having played with all the budget Lumias, that slight increase in processor clock speed does make a difference. Everything loads slightly quicker, and navigating the Windows Phone UI feels a tad slicker. That 512MB of RAM is a bummer, though. We wish Nokia would just understand that people are willing to pay an extra five bucks to get the full one gigabyte, and access to all the apps that require it (Halo: Spartan Assault, for example -- now works with half a gig). The original Temple Run launched on WP8 with such a requirement, as did Nokia's own Xpress browser, for that matter, but both now work with 512MB of RAM. Unfortunately, our favorite artifact thief drops several frames during his eternal escape. The game runs noticeably choppy on the 625, and we imagine it would be fine if we had those extra megabytes of memory.
The Lumia 625 boots from dead to usable in around 20 seconds, and once it's up and running on a full charge, it won't be forced to sleep again for quite some time. As the battery rundown test shows, that 2,000mAh pack really lasts. Maybe not as long as the Lumia 720's, but you'll still easily get a full day of power use out of it, or two days under normal circumstances -- some browsing (over LTE), taking a few pictures, listening to music, a few phone calls, emails, etc. The usual. We already mentioned that the display isn't a videophile's dream, and unfortunately, audio isn't the Lumia 625's forte, either. It's an acceptable tune machine, but max volume isn't particularly loud, and sound definition / levels aren't the best we've ever heard. The loudspeaker is no different than it is on most phones: tinny.
LTE is the 625's main weapon. Its USP, if you will. Well, we're happy to report that the chip in our handset worked as advertised. Our best speed test over 4G was 36 Mbps on the download and 16 on the upload. Download speeds were more in the region of 5 Mbps to 10 Mbps in central London due to network congestion, but for the vast majority of the time, we were browsing just as fast as IE could keep up. IE is pretty smooth in general, and though tiling while zooming in and out is noticeable, everything rebuilds so quickly you have to forcibly notice it. In other miscellany, WiFi range and connections are solid, GPS lock-on times are frighteningly quick and call quality is, well, just fine.
So, does Nokia need another budget Lumia? Well, yes. We get what the company was trying to achieve with the Lumia 625: 4G on a shoestring. In that respect, mission accomplished. We can't help but feel, though, that Nokia hasn't quite nailed the niche that it set out to, leaving space for a similar budget offering that's LTE-capable, and better executed.
We're not sure whether any of the big US carriers will add the 625 to their roster yet. In the UK, however, where Vodafone and O2 have just joined EE in the LTE club, the handset can be had for £179 (close to $280) on pay-as-you-go, or free from £21 (almost $33) per month on contract. (It's available on all three 4G networks). For that kind of money, the 625 is a pretty attractive proposition, but it could be better. Would it have killed Nokia to put an extra 512MB of RAM in there, especially since it went to the trouble of upgrading the CPU from previous budget efforts? Furthermore, the handset could've done with a smaller display, even if it would've made it slightly thicker. Keep the same resolution and preserve the battery life; just improve the ppi and make it Glance Screen-compatible. Alas, it's too late now. It's not a terrible device by any means, but, despite the 4G radio, it didn't charm us like the 620 did. Maybe the Lumia 725 will.
Daniel Orren and Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.