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.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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

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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.

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.

Windows 10 Mobile (1)

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.

6 Comments

  1. Vito DeCarlo (@VitoDeCarlo)

    12/13/2015 at 8:17 am

    In your last paragraph, you state that a $499 phone is $150 cheaper than the $550 Lumia 950. What are we missing there?

    Reply

    • Juan

      12/13/2015 at 9:52 am

      Math class

      Reply

  2. Jared Newrk

    12/13/2015 at 4:32 pm

    Good article.

    Now I don’t wanna come off spammy when I say this but…. (I hate those obvious scams/spam) “Free iPhone” BS.

    I found actually found way to get some free electronics (well nothing is free :P It does take like 10 minutes of your time but.. yeah free)

    Basically I joined a website that is giving away $100 visa gift cards for answering some brand survey questions!! One of the those brand awareness/focus group things.

    I thought I’d share it here, since I know people are tight for money, and always looking to upgrade their electronics. It seems legit to me, the brands and advertisers just want you to give your opinion and get your email on their product in exchange for possibly getting the gift card. The survey I got was what Doritos flavor I liked best, but there are a few others that you might end up with. Pretty easy, and legitimate as far as I can tell. I really hope some of you fellow techies end up with some more $$ for electronics, just thought I’d spread the word. Also the website encourages you to share it so I’m doing just that.

    You just have to answer the questionnaire to see if you’re qualified. If I end up getting one of them I’m gonna buy a new camera or maybe some other electronics.

    1- Join teh site i posted (regsiter with real info so they can send you your gift card if you end up getting one)
    2- Answer the survey questionaire (fill out all teh questions, mine only had 5 or 6 of them)
    3- See if you’re qualified.

    please use my special link below =) (helps me out)

    Here is the link to the survey questionnaire website for the $100 visa gc Click here to join the survey questionnaire site – TechySurvey.com

    Hope it helps.
    -Jared aka the geeky teen dude :D

    Reply

  3. Didier

    12/14/2015 at 6:57 am

    Here my own feedback on the phone after using it for 6 days now.

    I’m very happy with the Lumia 950 XL. I used to have a 1020 and then a 930. I was a bit disappointed with the 930 because of the Camera and lack of Glance screen. Everything else was good but not perfect. In my opinion the 950 XL fix all the problems.

    Negative point: Finishing touch of the case does not feel Premium. Camera and Screen looks brilliant and Premium. Solution here is to order one of the case from Mozo, they are expensive but Premium look and quality.
    No oversampling in the Microsoft Photo app / Microsoft Camera.

    On the positive side of things:
    # Camera is much much better than the 930. Not as much detailed as the one on the 1020 when zooming (a lot) at the picture but very very close and the camera is also much much faster. Globally I’m very happy as I was very disappointed with the camera on the 930. Macro (close-up) and nigh shots are again very close or sometimes better than the 1020.

    # Support for Micro SD card.

    # Glance screen is finally back and I love it.

    # Continuum works very good. So far only few Apps are compatible but I’m confident it will increase. So far All MS apps are compatible (Groove Music, Microsoft Photo, Outlook, Word, PowerPoint etc…) and also FaceBook, TripAdvisor, FitBit, Uber. I’m looking forward to see TubeCast and Plex compatible with Continuum. So far I only had a chance to test it Wirelessly and it works very well. My free dock should arrive in the coming weeks.

    # Windows Hello is also a good surprise since I now see MS Application such as OneDrive and Third Party Application such as iHeartRadio using it to login rather than using a regular password. Just using Windows Hello to unlock the device is fun and works very well and quick but it is not that useful. However if in the future more apps use it and we don’t need to enter password anymore, then it will become my favorite new feature…

    Reply

  4. Larrykmelo

    12/16/2015 at 7:28 am

    1=17 my neighbor’s ex-wife makes $68 /hr on the laptop . She has been fired for 6 months but last month her pay was $18404 just working on the laptop for a few hours.
    navigate to this site…. See More

    Reply

  5. Javabri

    12/18/2015 at 9:11 am

    So, another review that seems to be missing a key point in my opinion. I have had the 950 for about a month now and feel like I am now familiar enough with the ins/outs to make an informed comment.

    First, let me start by saying this is my first Windows Phone. Prior to this I was first on iPhone for about 4 years and then on Android for the last 3 years. As such, I am familiar with the core concepts of both platforms.

    I think the flaw with most phone reviews is they only review the phone for the specs and basic user experience in an isolated environment. They don’t integrate the phone into their daily life for any period of time. So, this makes it difficult to really understand the user experience as whole.

    What makes this phone unique is the combined experience of both a phone and PC running Windows 10. The phone becomes an extension of the PC instead of an isolated experience. For example – Notifications, Cortana, Email, Calendars are all synced between devices. Set a reminder in Cortana on your PC, it shows on your phone, set it on your phone it shows on your PC. Notifications are common between the 2 devices. Menus are the same or similar between the 2, settings, display, etc. have similar layout/function. OneDrive, OneNote, Powerpoint, etc. all sync easily. The common experience between the PC and Phone creates a powerful experience that is being overlooked by most review sites.

    Yes, I could sync my email and calendars on both iPhone and Android but it was still a very isolated experience connected by a thin thread of an exchange email account. With Windows 10 on a phone, it feels much more like an extension of my PC and not a separate device to manage.

    So, let me share a practical example of this in use…I do a lot of presentations at customer meetings. I use my PC to build/develop the content in powerpoint. I then store that presentation on OneDrive. When I am at the customer location, I download the presentation onto my phone, connect to the projector using Miracast and run through the presentation without ever having to pull out a laptop. Leveraging the native capabilities of the phone, cloud, office applications and doing all of this through a common interface is very cool and more efficient.

    As for the phone itself, it seems like a very solid phone. This review and others complain that it does not look like a premium phone…really, does that matter? Look at it this way, most people I know put their phone in a case the same day they buy it…so you don’t see the aesthetic design anyway. So, what is the point? It’s not the statue of David or the Mona Lisa, it’s a phone. How much beauty can you put into a rectangular brick? Furthermore, you stare at the screen, not the back shell of the phone so shouldn’t you really care about how good the screen actually looks? The screen on this phone looks great. Colors are bright, text is crisp/clear, videos look awesome.

    Call quality is great on my end. Voices are clear and don’t have that digitized sound to them. No one has complained about how my voice comes through so I am assuming it is fine on the other end. It grabs the cell towers quickly when powered up or taken off airplane mode. Signal strength appears to be good in most places, I don’t know if this is due to improvements in ATT coverage or not but it does seem better than my previous HTC Android phone.

    Battery life, has been OK. I would not say great but not horrible. I think talk time, music playback, etc. are all fine. I do think that the GPS can chew through battery (like any phone) and driving the screen can pull it down. However, the Type C USB is freaking really, really fast at charging. I have gone from about 30% battery to 85% in about 15 minutes or less. This thing charges really fast.

    As for Apps…this is one that may or may not be important. For me, I found all the apps I had on my android phone with the exception of 3 (American Airlines, BofA and Capitol One). All the other apps I use were there (GoPro, eTrade, Fidelity, Gate Guru, Alaska Airlines, OpenTable, Netflix, etc.). I would also venture to guess that while people may have 100s of apps on their phones, they probably only use a small handful of them. Now, I get that some people may have very specific needs for some niche apps (like realtors, etc.) and those apps may not be available on this phone. For me, pretty much everything I used was available but then I am not a huge app guy.

    The camera, simply amazing but I don’t think anyone really doubts that part of this phone.

    I guess in the end, here is how I would put it. If you are happy with your current phone platform, then there is probably nothing that would pull you away from it in this phone. However, if you are happy then you are not looking to switch anyway. But, if like me, you are unhappy with your current phone platform (I was very unhappy with both iPhone and Android for a number of reasons), then you should strongly consider this phone. This is especially true if you are using Windows 10 on your PC. Again, this is my first Windows phone so it’s not like I am some Windows Phone fanatic. I was just not pleased with how iPhone or Android was working in my world so I decided to give Windows Phone a chance. So far, I am quite pleased with how the phone and PC work together to allow me to be more productive.

    Reply

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