Microsoft Lumia 950 Review: The Phone That Can Be a PC

We’ve never expected more from our smartphones than we do today. Smartphones are truly pocket computers now: tiny tablets with fast processors that happen to also make phone calls. Microsoft lost the battle for top smartphone. Years of dithering and revamping their platforms have left them in a very, very distant third place. Some have said that the Microsoft Lumia 950 is the company trying to establish itself as a legitimate rival to Apple and Google’s partners have to offer, but the Lumia 950 isn’t Microsoft’s take on the iPhone. I’d even argue it’s not an example of Microsoft trying to revitalize is dwindling fortunes in the mobile phone space. The $149 Lumia 950 is a test bed for a new type of device, a device that can be your pocket PC and your regular PC, with the right equipment. Also, it’s an amazing camera.

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Lumia 950 Impressions (1)

Microsoft Lumia 950 Review: Design & Internals

Encased in white or black plastic, the Lumia 950 isn’t one of the best looking smartphones to ever run Microsoft’s Windows mobile operating system. Its rear shell is a removable plastic cover that’s dominated by a reflective Microsoft logo. A triple LED flash and 20 megapixel camera sensor act as the rear’s only true flourishes. On the right edge of the Lumia 950 XL are volume buttons, a shutter button and the power button. On the bottom edge is the USB Type C port that allows for speedy data transfers and fast charging. A headphone jack is the only thing that sits at the top. An earpiece and a high-definition 5.2-inch display dominate the front of the Lumia 950.

If this all sounds very pedestrian to you, that’s because it is. The Lumia 950 isn’t that attractive and isn’t that well designed. You can change out the covers from third-party accessory makers and add some flourish, but what shoppers get straight from their local AT&T Wireless Store or the Microsoft Store is a black or white uninteresting slab running Windows 10.

Lumia 950 Impressions (4)

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Inside there are some really nice things present. The device has NFC so that it can communicate with other devices wirelessly. There’s support for faster LTE data networks and the latest Wi-Fi standard. A Snapdragon 808 processor with 6 cores and 3GB of RAM powers the Lumia 950.

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There’s wireless charging and support for Microsoft Windows Hello login system so that owners can unlock their phones by just looking at them. The Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 both have the same feature, though it’s better implemented on those devices. With the Lumia 950, you have to hold the device about a foot away from your face before it unlocks.

Even if the Lumia 950 is ugly, it has the right internals. Apps open quickly. Video on the AMOLED 2560 x 1440 display looks great thanks to bright colors and deep blacks. You can load tons of video to try out the screen; 32GB of storage comes standard and there’s a slot to add more. Call quality and reception are great, with no obvious issues as you move your hand around the device.

Microsoft Lumia 950 Review: Continuum

Continuum for Phones (4)

Surface has taught Microsoft to disrupt markets by focusing on a few key scenarios. The Surface created a niche for itself around being able to replace two devices.

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Continuum and the Microsoft Display Dock are the beginnings of that same strategy in smartphones. With the Display Dock plugged into a monitor or television, the Lumia 950 can operate almost like a full-size Windows desktop. Apps installed on the phone from the Windows Store supersize themselves and the phone’s Start Screen becomes a Start Menu on the external display. External storage, a mouse and keyboard can all be added. The Lumia itself can double as a touchpad.

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This and the software that powers it are the true reasons to own a Lumia 950. Microsoft is betting that it can change the expectations of millions. It’s hoping that everyday users will realize there’s no need to have a desktop PC when they have a phone in their pockets that’s often times just as capable.

That’s the promise anyway. In practice, there’s some nuance. Plugging the Lumia 950 into the Display Dock went fine every time, but the relatively buggy state of Windows 10 mobile makes everything a chore. App windows sometime take longer than they should to adjust after you’ve resized them. Apps downloaded from the Windows Store do perform well, but more often than not, don’t work with Continuum. To work with Continuum apps need to be what Microsoft calls Universal Apps. Otherwise, they’re stuck on the phone.

Luckily, many of Microsoft’s own apps are Universal Apps. Groove Music, Microsoft Edge, Outlook Mail and Outlook Calendar all supersize themselves and work flawlessly, keeping the settings and options from their smartphone versions. This is by design, these aren’t different versions of apps already available on the phone. These are the same apps with all of your content already in them. Microsoft Edge, the company’s latest browser, hangs and breaks in Continuum. Some Microsoft-made apps are even missing features that their regular Windows counterparts offer. The Xbox app just doesn’t work in Continuum.

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A Lumia 950 plugged into a Display Dock may give you the same sensations as using traditional Windows, but you don’t have to look too hard before you realize it isn’t. A status bar on the top of the screen provides battery life figures and there’s a rudimentary Taskbar at the bottom of the desktop. Show Windows users a Desktop and they assume that apps from the internet, like iTunes, can be installed. The Lumia 950 won’t install anything that’s not from the Windows Store.

Not being able to install Desktop apps derailed Microsoft’s first Surface. Certainly, not being able to do that here hurts too. The Windows Store is filling out nicely with big name apps, but not enough to bridge a few obvious gaps.  You’ll  have to turn to the Edge browser to fill these in. Banking apps, for example, are still missing.

Continuum on the Lumia 950 feels ripped from the future, but Microsoft really does need to get its phones running on Intel processors for that future to be fully realized. If it does, the Lumia 950 could actually act as both your desktop PC and phone.

Microsoft Lumia 950 Review: Camera

Continuum misses the mark ever so slightly, but Microsoft nails the camera experience. Great sensors, optical image stabilization technology and a physical camera button have always made the higher-end Lumia smartphones winners where photography is concerned. The Lumia 950 is no different.

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The Lumia takes great pictures in every kind of light, whether it be in a darkened room or a cloudy day outside. Holding the shutter button down instantly takes you to the Camera app which is responsive and fully featured. Bite-size video, called Living Images can be captured automatically. White Balance, ISO Level, Exposure and Bracketing are all available.

The time it takes for a picture to save from when you capture it has improved a great deal. The camera experience is spectacular.

Microsoft Lumia 950 Review: Windows Phone 10

Lumia 950 Impressions (2)

The Lumia 950 is one of only two phones available in the United States and abroad that comes with Windows 10 Mobile. It’s the only device with the operating system available on AT&T or any American carrier. The phone can also be purchased off contract from the Microsoft Store.

In the past, it was always hard to recommend a Windows Phone because of missing apps or rough hardware. I’d say that Windows 10 itself is the major problem for this device. Microsoft is positioning all Windows 10 devices as brothers, a cohesive experience that spans devices. Apps that you download from the Windows Store can work on your Windows 10 PC and the Lumia 950. Contacts, browsing history, passwords and favorites all sync between the two. Cortana, the Windows personal assistant, can reach you on Windows 10 phones for a reminder like she can on a Surface. Xbox games that you buy for your notebook or tablet, unlock for mobile if there’s a compatible version.

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To build this utopia Microsoft left some serious stuff on the cutting room floor. Playbook controls on the lock screen for easily changing between songs are gone. Rewriting many of the apps again killed some good ideas that were unique to Windows Phone. The People app, which was very good at sharing messages across platforms, is now a glorified contact finder. Outlook Mail doesn’t allow you to link multiple email inboxes into one view for easier browsing.

There are some big improvements though. Microsoft has moved most of its apps to a design that mimics iOS and Android, meaning they’re more familiar to people even if they aren’t as attractive as they once were. Companies like TuneIn, iHeartradio, Audible and more are already embracing the new design in earnest. There are more Start Screen customization options than ever. Skype is built-in again. Work and personal accounts can be synced to a single device, something that really wasn’t possible before.

Microsoft Lumia 950 Review: Should You Buy

Lumia 950 Impressions (3)

Windows Phone owners on AT&T don’t have much choice. This is the only Windows Phone the carrier has going into the holiday season. The Lumia 950 can’t replace your PC, but is a perfectly capable phone despite it being the ugliest direct competition for the iPhone 6s there is right now.  I firmly believe that Continuum can be a game-changer. For $149 with a two-year contract, you’re getting an “I Owe You” from Microsoft though.

Windows Phone user or not, I simply can’t recommend that anyone, anyone at all, purchase the $550 Unlocked Lumia 950 without a two-year contract. Google and Motorola make cheaper smartphones that are just as capable. The Motorola Moto X with 64GB of storage is $499, $150 cheaper than the Lumia 950. Worse, the Moto X is customizable and doesn’t feel like a throwaway phone in your hand. Continuum, a great camera and useful integration with Windows 10 simply don’t make up for this device’s lofty price tag.