Introduction and features
The Christmas period wasn’t kind to Windows 10 Mobile. With the Lumia 950 and 950 XL being the first flagship smartphones to come bearing the new operating system, they also came bearing the weight of expectation.
Unfortunately, despite significant efforts on the part of Microsoft, their arrival was heralded by persistent software bugs and lukewarm reviews.
Things have gone rather more smoothly, however, for the Lumia 550, the budget entry in the Windows 10 Mobile lineup.
While some retailers even chose to postpone the release of the 950 and 950 XL, mainly due to the aforementioned software problems, the 550 has sailed onto the market virtually unannounced.
And at £99.99 (US $139.00, AUS $199.00) direct from Microsoft, the phone has a price to set it apart from the likes of the dominant Moto G, competing directly with the likes of the Moto E, which can be found for a similar price.
Is this alone enough to see the 550 succeed? And can it garner some desperately-needed positive press for the Lumia camp?
Over the years Microsoft has gained something of a reputation for products that scream ‘productivity’. And any mention of productivity, in turn, tends to suggest phones that aren’t likely to set pulses racing when it comes to design.
Sure enough, with its preponderance of straight lines and matte plastic, the Lumia 550 is likely to be greeted by phone fans who place a premium on style with an audible “meh”.
There’s a distinct lack of original features on the handset. Aside from the different camera modules on the back there’s almost nothing to distinguish the Lumia 550 from its more expensive siblings, asides from the apparently superior build of course.
The Lumia 550 has a more solid overall feel in the hand, and the few flaws that are present are made tolerable by the price. And there may be a rather simple explanation for this.
While the Lumia 950 and 950 XL are made for the most ardent of Windows Phone fans, the Lumia 550 is made for a different market altogether: IT managers. These are devices made to be bought in bulk by those looking for lots of bang for their buck.
The look of the handset may seem familiar, however. Weighing in at 142g and with a 4.7-inch display, in the hand the Lumia 550 feels identical to the Lumia 630 in almost every respect.
Indeed, with the two devices side by side, the only immediately noticeable difference is in the branding, with the newer handset being a product of Microsoft rather than Nokia.
On the top edge of the phone is the 3.5mm headphone jack. At the bottom is the micro USB port for charging and data transfer. Mercifully, Microsoft hasn’t made the leap to USB Type-C just yet, which means you won’t have any problems when you need to charge the device.
The right side of the handset is standard issue for a Lumia, with the power button at the mid-way point and the volume rocker above.
On the rear are an understated silver Windows logo, and the 5MP rear-facing camera with a single LED flash. The back of the handset is removable, enabling access to the 2100 mAh battery, nanoSIM slot and the microSD slot.
The front is home to the comfortably-sized 4.7-inch screen, which proves to be a nice compromise between maximum screen real estate and easier one-handed use. Above this is the 2MP front facing camera, along with a brightness sensor.
The screen on the Lumia 550 is one of the highlights of the device. Over the years, as components have become less expensive, high-quality screens are one of the features that have found their way down the pecking order from higher-end handsets.
With a resolution of 720p stretched across those 4.7 inches, the Lumia 550 boasts a pixels-per-inch count of 312, bringing it comfortably into ‘retina’ territory.
Although it’s ‘only’ an LCD panel and not AMOLED, such as on the Samsung Galaxy S6, contrast and saturation are very pleasant overall. Whether watching videos, browsing the web or reading long-form articles, I was perfectly happy with the display quality.
Although it doesn’t boast the greatest range of viewing angles, suffering from flat colours at the extremes, the Lumia 550 is nonetheless comfortably bright in a variety of viewing environments.
The ambient brightness sensor can, however, be a little finicky; I found that I had to manually adjust the lighting on several occasions.
While corners have inevitably been cut to help keep costs down, in terms of its screen the Lumia 550 strikes a reasonable balance between price and quality.
Outlook and Edge
A new Outlook
Along with the latest Lumia handsets comes the mobile version of Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 10 Mobile. But this isn’t merely a phone – and tablet-friendly version of the desktop variant – Microsoft envisions a grand scheme under which its entire ecosystem of hardware and software will be unified.
For the moment, however, the reality is a little more mundane, with Windows 10 Mobile mostly limited to visual overhauls of the existing Windows apps baked into devices, and a refresh of the start screen.
Usefully, given the productivity-minded target audience of the Lumia 550, the apps that have received the biggest changes are the former Inbox and Calendar apps, reborn as Outlook Mail and Outlook Calendar.
Outlook Calendar is the most welcome improvement. Windows Phone was developed with a specifically ‘trendy’ design language in mind, which was fine in most situations but could negatively affect the visual presentation of some apps, and the former Calendar app on Windows Phone could often be a little cluttered.
Outlook Calendar now offers a plethora of different views and options for arranging appointments and different calendars, and syncs nicely with everything you throw at it. It makes working with several busy schedules much easier than previously.
This is also the case with Outlook Mail, although to a lesser extent. The existing app was excellent, but again the visual overhaul has mostly been implemented in a common-sense way, and proves to be practical in everyday use.
However, while these improvements will no doubt be appreciated by the productivity-focused, there is still once massive caveat: the absence of support for the Google app ecosystem. Anyone who regularly uses Docs or Hangouts will be left wanting, with the only workaround being to use the web browser.
It’s not completely out of the question, but it’s far from ideal if you’ve invested previously in Google’s way of life. Of course, if you’re already embedded in Microsoft’s ecosystem the offering on the Lumia 550 makes much more sense.
Microsoft Edge is the successor to Internet Explorer, and the native browser for the latest Windows phones. Pitched as something of a fresh start by Microsoft, it boasts a number of notable upgrades over its predecessor.
One area in which Edge can’t hold up alongside the venerable IE, however, is branding. When moving to start up the browser, having used a Windows phone for well over a year I found the absence of the Internet Explorer icon in my app list jarring.
No matter how hard I tried, tapping on Microsoft Edge when I wanted to get online never came close to becoming second nature.
Nomenclature aside, at least Edge is far faster at rendering pages than its predecessor, which makes browsing the web a far more pleasurable experience.
New features include Reading List, which works a little like the Pocket app, enabling you to save articles to read offline, and a much improved tab layout that makes it easier to manage open pages; those using the desktop version of Edge can also sync their tabs for a seamless browsing experience.
The browser does still have its weaknesses, however. Edge works by essentially enabling the Windows Mobile device in question to ‘pretend’ it’s running Android.
Although for the most part this ensures smooth performance, there are occasionally compatibility issues with sites, and small bugs still abound, with the app randomly closing at odd moments.
Whether this is due to the app itself or the operating system, it was nonetheless annoying.
Performance and battery life
Like Windows Phone before it, Windows 10 Mobile is an exceptionally resource-efficient operating system, which makes for mostly smooth performance, no matter the device specification, due in part to significant processor optimisations on Microsoft’s part.
Despite this, the decision to use a Snapdragon 210, clocked at 1.1GHz, in the Lumia 550 comes as something of a surprise. Recent low-end Lumias, such as the 630 and the more recent Lumia 640, have tended to use more powerful chips.
In general use browsing through the user interface is mostly lag-free, although this is something of an illusion generated by omnipresent animations.
When it comes to opening and closing apps, the chip quickly reveals its limitations. Though backed up by a healthy 1GB of RAM, moving from app to app could be quite slow on occasions, and I found that the Lumia 550 struggled with almost any game.
Predictably, higher-end titles such as Asphalt 8 run at barely playable frame rates, but again this isn’t a device built for intensive mobile gaming. However, when titles such as Crossy Road and Timberman begin to lag, then you know you have a problem.
As such, performance on the Lumia 550 is something of a low point for the device overall, which is unfortunate given the relative strength of the handset in other areas.
Another issue to note is that although the 550 has 8GB of built-in storage, only 3GB of this is available to the user, making a Micro-SD card an absolute necessity for most.
With a 2100mAh unit powering the Microsoft Lumia 550 I didn’t have high hopes for the battery life of the device, and my suspicions proved to be well founded.
Thanks to its combination of such a small battery and a (relatively) power-hungry HD display, I found that the handset needed charging up to three times a day during intensive periods of use.
Moreover standby time, previously a high point of the Windows Phone ecosystem in general, was also disappointing, with the device losing at least 40% of its charge over most nights. This is certainly not up to the high standards set by the likes of the Moto X Play.
At least a reasonably fully-featured battery management app is provided. This enables you to see which programs are consuming the most power, and also offers a battery saver mode, which limits connectivity to eke out a little extra juice when you really need it.
And ultimately the Lumia 550’s battery is replaceable, enabling users to ‘hot-swap’ in a fully-charged unit should they have one available.
Typically, more expensive handsets will come with various new or exclusive features to make them stand out from the competition. Budget devices come with only one real distinguishing factor: price.
As such, any feature that’s included beyond the bare minimum is worthy of note, and the Lumia 550 has one such high point: the rear-firing speaker.
Typically, stellar audio reproduction is not a priority for phone manufacturers; even HTC, with its vaunted BoomSound speakers found on the likes of the One M9, has opted to dial back its efforts in this area.
The Lumia 550, pleasingly, manages to far outperform its price point in this area.
As someone who enjoys a little impromptu shower karaoke (‘Firework’ by Katy Perry, if you must ask), it’s crucial that whatever speaker I use for my backing track must be able to be heard above the running water – and the Lumia 550 succeeded with aplomb.
In quieter environments I found that high and low tones were quite faithfully reproduced. While it’s not likely to impress the devoted audiophile, the 550 is nonetheless a very capable performer for the price.
Things are a little better with it comes to the cameras. The Microsoft Lumia 550 sports a 5MP rear-facing camera with autofocus and a single LED flash, along with a serviceable 2MP selfie camera.
Images shot with the main camera, using the excellent Windows Camera app, are perfectly respectable for the price point. Detail reproduction is acceptable, as are contrast and saturation.
Microsoft has resisted the temptation to overdo the image smoothing in a bid to reduce noise in photos, a common mistake of smartphone manufacturers, and this means images look a bit more natural than they otherwise might.
The selfie camera captures images that are fine for social media, and the video mode will be perfectly sufficient for blurry Skype sessions.
As for the Windows Camera app itself, it offers something of a neat trick in the shape of a Rich Capture mode, which is essentially Microsoft’s version of HDR, but with a twist.
With the mode active, before a photo is taken, the software will analyse the scene, and afterwards will apply effects appropriate to the lighting and so on.
The HDR function itself is a pale shadow of the modes seen in more powerful snappers on more expensive handsets, only merging three exposures rather than up to seven, but it will proved valuable in certain situations.
Meanwhile, having the ability to ‘change’ the level of flash in a picture by blending two photos, one taken with flash and one without, is a neat party trick.
With an attractive price, a great screen and surprisingly good speakers, the Microsoft Lumia 550 is a surprisingly charming device. However, it’s let down somewhat by poor battery life and anaemic performance.
The screen on the Lumia 550 is quite lovely, especially given the price of this handset. With faithful colour reproduction, strong contrast and excellent sharpness, it’s a pleasure to use.
Although placed on the rear of the handset, the speaker boasts decent sound reproduction, offering good volume and very little distortion at the higher end.
The rear-firing camera is another capable performer, turning out eminently shareable images, which is more than can be said for many devices in this price category.
Given its miserly battery pack it was a virtual certainty that the Lumia 550 wouldn’t have much staying power. And despite optimisations the weak Snapdragon 210 processor means overall performance is poor, with apps taking forever to load and games suffering from dropped frames.
The Windows 10 Mobile operating system is also still unfinished, suffering from random crashes on multiple occasions.
Lastly, with just 3GB of built-in storage available to the user, a microSD card is an absolute necessity. With 16GB of storage becoming the minimum in most phones, even at the budget end of the market, this seems a little stingy on Microsoft’s part.
The Lumia 520, released several years ago, is the best-selling Windows phone ever. Its party trick was to offer solid performance at a low cost, and the punters loved it.
With the Lumia 550, Microsoft is clearly attempting to pull off the same trick, clearly having put more thought into its lineup than simply releasing more variants of the divisive Lumia 530.
Windows 10 Mobile needs a saviour to bring Microsoft’s mobile ambitions back from the brink. Unfortunately, the Lumia 550 is not the device to do it.
This is mainly due to the state of the market – even at the budget end it’s no longer enough to be merely ‘good’ or even ‘great'; true excellence is expected.
The competition is getting tougher all the time, and set against the likes of the Moto E, which offers better battery life, far more apps and stronger performance, the Lumia 550 is a hard sell.
That said, given such a low starting price discounts are likely to come into play fairly soon, and the Lumia 550 could potentially be a nice little bargain for undemanding users.
For Windows die-hards looking for a cheap backup device this is also an easy pick. For everyone else, better value can be found elsewhere.