Windows Phone may not have unseated Google's Android or bloodied the nose of Apple's iOS since it burst onto the mobile scene in 2010, but Nokia's latest release could mark a significant change in its currently dire fortunes. The Lumia 610 is the first Windows Phone for the cheaper end of the market -- a sector which has been ably exploited by legions of low-cost Android devices.
With weaker technical credentials but also a more reasonable price tag, the Lumia 610 aims to expand Windows Phone's reach to younger mobile buyers. Monthly contract prices start from around £15, while SIM-free handsets can be picked up for roughly £180.
Should I buy the Nokia Lumia 610?
If you've watched the development of Microsoft's Windows Phone platform with interest but haven't been brave -- or perhaps rich -- enough to take the plunge, then the Lumia 610 is going to be right up your street.
The cheapest Windows Phone device yet seen, the Lumia 610 doesn't offer the latest quad-core tech or a pin-sharp display, but instead provides a smooth and satisfying experience for a fraction of what its larger rivals cost. It also compares very favourably with the vast majority of similarly priced Android devices, boasting a superior user experience and better build quality.
Design and display
In keeping with its cheap and cheerful aspirations, the Lumia 610 showcases a modest handset design. The screen is surrounded by a plastic bezel, which is clad in a faux metallic coating. On the back, you'll find a soft-touch plastic battery panel that wraps around the lower section of the phone, forming a rather fetching chin.
Removing the cover reveals the battery, a micro-SIM slot and nothing else -- there's no microSD support on this device.
In terms of physical inputs, you'll find the volume, screen lock and camera keys on the right-hand side of the Lumia 610. The three standard Windows Phone commands -- Back, Home and Search -- are capacitive buttons below the 3.7-inch screen.
The rest of the phone is entirely bare, apart from the 3.5mm headphone socket and micro-USB port on the top edge. You certainly can't describe the Lumia 610 as fussy, and that's to its credit. I really like the minimalist yet surprisingly robust design. Despite its restrained and understated nature, this feels like a handset that's worth more than its retail price.
The phone's 3.7-inch LCD screen has a resolution of 480x800 pixels -- standard fare for Windows Phone devices. It utilises a capacitive touch panel, which means you don't need to apply pressure to register an input. This results in better accuracy and responsiveness, but it also means you can't use a traditional stylus, like the one supplied with the Samsung Galaxy Note.
The LCD screen itself is pretty average. Viewing angles are decent, but colours look a tad washed out, and blacks aren't as deep as they appear on phones with AMOLED screens. It's not the best display I've ever clapped eyes on, but to get the phone to market at such a low price, sacrifices are inevitable.
Processing power and internal storage
The Lumia 610 is part of Nokia and Microsoft's new approach to Windows Phone. While previous efforts were subject to rules and restrictions on minimum specifications, these have now been relaxed slightly in order to bring in more affordable handsets.
The Lumia therefore has an 800MHz single-core processor and just 256MB of RAM -- about half the memory seen in most currently available Windows Phone devices. This move has created some headaches for Nokia -- with downloads such as Angry Birds and Skype refusing to operate with the reduced RAM -- but updates are expected to rectify such issues.
Fragmentation -- an ever-diversifying range of devices with varied capabilities -- has been an issue for the Android platform. If Microsoft and Nokia want to compete in the same sectors as Google and its hardware partners, they're going to have deal with the kinds of problems this throws up too.
There's 8GB of internal memory included with the Lumia 610, but the aforementioned lack of a microSD card slot means you can't expand that figure. Thankfully, Microsoft's SkyDrive service offers 25GB of free cloud-based space for this device, which should help overcome your more pressing storage conundrums.
Windows Phone 7.5
The Lumia 610 ships with a version of Windows Phone 7.5 called Tango. It's slightly adapted to the lower specs on board, but as with Mango, the operating system revolves around Microsoft's innovative tile-based Metro user interface. The intention is to avoid hammering the user with endless torrents of information and instead focus on important activities.
Given the humble nature of the hardware, I fully expected the Lumia 610 to stumble and stutter -- after all, most low-cost Android phones are plagued with performance issues. Amazingly, Windows Phone runs almost identically on the Lumia 610 as it does on the pricier Lumia 800. Transitions are smooth, navigation is fast and there's no irksome delay when switching between applications. Microsoft has clearly done a fantastic job of optimising its operating system for lower-specced devices. Google's software engineers should probably give them a call.
Despite the encouraging performance, there are some caveats to consider. The aforementioned issues with apps not being compatible with the Lumia 610's decreased RAM is one I've already touched upon, but Nokia has also had to remove some features to make sure the OS plays nicely on its hardware. For example, HD video playback is no longer supported, which could dent the phone's appeal with mobile movie watchers.
It's also worth pointing out that Windows Phone Marketplace's application and game support is lagging behind iOS and Android by a considerable margin. Given the popularity of mobile downloads with young people, this could prove to be the Lumia 610's Achilles' heel -- even more so if developers refuse to optimise their apps to suit the phone's lower RAM quota.
Camera and video recording
There's no front-facing camera on the Lumia 610, so face-to-face video calls via Skype are off the menu. This is disappointing, but not entirely unexpected when you consider the low cost of the phone. What's more bothersome is the generally poor quality of the shots captured by the 5-megapixel rear-facing snapper.
I took photos in a wide range of conditions and the common theme throughout was a lack of accurate colour replication. Shots taken in bright environments look washed out and drab, while the Lumia 610's LED flash rarely grants enough light to fully illuminate your subject when shooting in dark locations.
The camera software is curiously lacking in creature comforts, with no face tracking or panoramic shooting mode. On the upside, the dedicated camera button enables you to fire up the camera quickly and lends a tactile experience to taking pictures.
To expect HD video capture on such a low-cost device is probably pushing it. True to form, the Lumia 610 lacks even 720p-resolution recording. Instead, you have to make do with a 640x480-pixel resolution, which is adequate if all you intend to do is exchange movies with friends on social networks like Facebook. It's less than ideal for committing special moments to digital memory.
I had high hopes for the Lumia 610's stamina. After all, lower specifications should mean lower power demands and a longer-lasting battery. Thankfully, this has proven to be the case. While not quite in the same realms as some of Nokia's pre-smart phone devices, which could happily last an entire week between charges, the staying power of this budget blower is encouraging.
After a day of constant use, the Lumia 610 had enough juice in the tank to make it through the night. Following the next top-up, I adopted a more casual pattern of usage and found that the phone's power cell was still beating strongly at the end of another day. If you're super-fastidious in your mobile habits then you could eke out even more performance per charge.
I think that expanding Windows Phone into the budget arena is a very wise move from Nokia and Microsoft. Although tech boffins love to bleat about the high-end Samsung Galaxy S3 or HTC One X, there are lots of people looking for low-cost smart phones, as Android handset manufacturers like Huawei and ZTE have discovered.
The Lumia 610 is actually a cut above its budget Android rivals, despite the lowly tech spec. It offers a silky smooth experience that's often missing from cheap Google phones. The blissfully intuitive Windows Phone UI is sure to appeal to cost-conscious mobile newbies -- possibly even more so than the often befuddling Android operating system.
Update: A previous version of this review said the Lumia 610 runs Windows Phone 7.5 Mango, when in fact it runs Tango.