Microsoft’s first Lumia device is being officially unveiled as the Lumia 535 today, a low-cost smartphone that underlines exactly where the company is heading with Windows Phone. Microsoft’s Lumia 535 isn’t all that different from the Nokia devices that have come before it, but it’s the first to drop the Nokia branding in favor of Microsoft text at the rear and front, and a company logo on the colorful removable shell. All future Lumia devices will launch with Microsoft branding, and existing Lumias with the Nokia moniker will continue to be known as Nokia handsets.
With no new flagship Lumia devices planned this year, Microsoft is betting on low-end handsets to push Lumia sales and Windows Phone market share, a tactic that Nokia adopted before its phone division joined Microsoft earlier this year. Specifications might be low on the Lumia 535, but Microsoft has made some changes that don’t compromise the experience as much as some other budget Lumia devices. The Lumia 535 comes with a 5-inch qHD display (960 x 540), a 1.2GHz quad-core processor, and 1GB of RAM. While the screen is something you’d normally see back in 2011, viewing angles aren’t as bad as you’d expect even if the pixels are clearly visible.
The addition of 1GB of RAM here instead of the usual 512MB is an important move, especially as a lot of Windows Phone games require higher amounts of RAM. Microsoft has also included auto brightness, and a 5-megapixel forward-facing camera with a wide angle lens. In my review of Microsoft’s latest low-end Lumia 630 I had complained about a lack of forward-facing camera, 512MB of RAM, and a lack of automatic display brightness, so it’s encouraging to see Microsoft address all these drawbacks in a device at an even lower price point.
Microsoft is tempting potential Lumia 535 owners with what it calls a "5x5x5" proposition. Essentially, it’s five integrated Microsoft services: Skype, Office, OneDrive, Cortana, and OneNote. While Microsoft can and should be bundling these essential apps, it’s hard to see these — with the exception of Cortana — as differentiators. Microsoft’s Skype, Office, OneDrive, and OneNote apps are all better on iOS and Android compared to their Windows Phone equivalents. It might work at the low-end here with the Lumia 535 as owners aren’t expecting much for their money, but it’s increasingly difficult for the company to use these services as a unique offering for its Lumia phones across the board.
"Lumia is very much our smartphone brand."
What the Lumia 535 really signals is Microsoft’s clear plan for Windows Phone. The software giant has been signing partnerships with low-cost hardware makers, and Windows Phone is sorely lacking a flagship device to compete with the iPhone 6, Nexus 6, and many other high-end Android devices this holiday season. Microsoft is focusing on the low-end of the market to drive growth and keep Windows Phone healthy. Microsoft did have an opportunity to partially reset here, but it’s keeping the numbering scheme Nokia introduced, and even the Lumia brand. "We believe that there’s a lot of equity in people’s knowledge and understanding at the basic level of our numbering scheme," says Neil Broadley, director of phone product marketing at Microsoft. "Lumia is very much our smartphone brand," explains Broadley, noting that Surface will remain focused solely on "iconic tablet experiences."
Perhaps the most surprising part of the Lumia 535 is its price. Microsoft is aiming to make the handset available in single- and dual-SIM variants for around 110 euros ($130) in November. That’s slightly more than the $114 the Lumia 530 debuted at, but for the extra cash you’re getting a bigger display, forward-facing camera, and a reasonable bump in specifications. Microsoft’s Lumia 535 will be available initially in Asian markets, expanding to Russia and the Middle East in the coming months.