I started using Microsoft's mobile devices 15 years ago and earlier this summer wrote that I was finally giving up my long time optimism. After a week with the newest Microsoft Lumia 950 and 950 XL, Microsoft hasn't yet changed my opinion.
A couple of weeks ago ZDNet's Mary-Jo Foley posted her initial impressions of the Lumia 950. Since Mary-Jo is a Verizon customer, there is not an opportunity for her to test the device out as her primary daily driver. That was the case for me as well when I was handed an AT&T Microsoft Lumia 950 to evaluate last week.
After using the AT&T model for a couple of days, I realized I needed to jump in with both feet and try a new Windows 10 Mobile device as a daily driver. I found a black Microsoft Lumia 950 XL at my local Microsoft Store and have spent a couple days with it serving as my primary phone on T-Mobile.
When I first took the Lumia 950 out of the package I was honestly a bit disappointed. The design is similar to the vast number of Nokia Lumias we have seen in the past couple of years with an uninspiring, simple rectangular form factor and a plastic snap on side and back panel. The sharp buttons wobble around a bit in their openings, which takes away a bit from the fit and finish.
The Lumia 950 XL is larger than the 950, but has the same look and feel. The buttons on mine are not loose like they are on the 950 so it might just be a manufacturing issue with the one AT&T device I am testing.
At first I thought the removable back plastic felt a bit cheap, but after a couple of days I came to actually like the matte finish and feel. It's very different than the glass, aluminum, and rubber backs I am used to on the latest iPhone and Android smartphones, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily worse. The nice thing about a plastic back is that the phone usually survives slips and drops better, especially compared to glass backs. I also don't see any fingerprints on the black plastic back while the glass on my Note 5 is terrible.
The display is fantastic. It's bright and crisp so there are no concerns there. It's very nice to see a removable battery and microSD card slot, which is rare on most of today's modern smartphones.
I've only had the chance to take a few photos so far, but they look great. The competition is stiff with the latest Android smartphones though. I plan to take lots of comparison shots this weekend in preparation for my full review going live next week.
Wireless charging is very convenient and I appreciate having it on the Lumia 950/950 XL The phone charges quickly via USB Type-C. It's too early to judge battery life, but another week of use should give me some good indications of its performance.
It's not the app gap, it's the app crap
Even the die hard Microsoft smartphone fans acknowledge that there is an app gap between iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. I notice some missing apps, but to be honest all of the critical apps that I use daily are either built into the operating system or available for Windows 10 Mobile.
I can make and receive calls, send and receive text and email communications, interact on social networks, perform calculations in Excel, review documents in Word, and complete 90 percent of what I deem essential with Windows 10 Mobile.
I can't find the Great Clips app I use once a month to reserve my spot in line for a haircut, the silly Snapchat app I use once a week to reply to my daughters' funny pics, or the Xfinity TV app to watch missed TV shows on my train commute. None of these are critical, but when they are available on the other platforms it's tougher to justify going with a platform that doesn't give you everything you want.
However, looking beyond missing apps, my primary issue is the stark contrast in quality, features, and performance in using the same apps across iOS, Android, and Windows 10 Mobile.
You know it's bad for Microsoft when Microsoft's own apps on Windows 10 Mobile lag behind those same apps found on iOS and Android. Outlook Mail is a prime example here. Let's take a closer look at my setup and the differences. I have Live.com, Exchange, and Gmail accounts setup in Outlook on all my devices.
Live.com and Gmail have good spam filters so my inbox stays fairly clean. However, there are also a ton of other emails that are not critical that end up in Gmail tabs like social, promotions, forums, etc. On the Lumia 950 XL all of these emails end up in the Inbox. On iOS and Android, the inbox is divided into focused and other tabs. This simple division significantly improves the efficiency of handling email on a smartphone.
There is also a simple filter for unread, flagged, and attachments on iOS and Android. Windows 10 Mobile has unread or flagged options. The attachments filter is almost as important to me as the unread filter.
In addition to this inbox filtering, you can view one centralized inbox showing all of your accounts on iOS and Android. There is still the option to quickly switch and show just a single inbox as well. On Windows 10 Mobile you have to switch between each account, which is a serious time waster. I understand Microsoft may be working to bring back this unified inbox, but it better also have the focused and other separation or there is no reason for me to use a Windows 10 Mobile device for email.
How does Microsoft launch a new phone and OS with such key limitations and expect people to not be concerned?
Apple and Google both now have smartphones using fingerprint scanners to secure and unlock devices, including using this technology with mobile payments. Microsoft implemented eye scanning technology into the Lumia 950 and 950 XL. While there is a setting for mobile payments, actually I think every person working on Windows 10 Mobile put in a separate setting, there is no mobile payment system yet available for Windows 10 Mobile.
These newest fingerprint scanners work very well, but they also require a physical button either on the front or back of the phone to activate. The iris scanner sits above the display and the unlock motion is pretty natural as you hold your phone in front of your face. At times, I have to hold my phone a bit closer than I would like, but it's a pretty cool technology and works well with the way I pick up and use my phone.
Setup was easy, although you need to do it without glasses the first time. This may cause some problems for those who have poor vision and cannot read the setup instructions so Microsoft should consider audible instructions as a future update.
After the initial setup, I encourage you to go through the improve recognition option in different lighting conditions to improve recognition. Windows Hello was able to recognize me with my glasses on and off in various lighting conditions and I am enjoying this security approach.
Other Windows 10 Mobile features
There are several Windows 10 Mobile features that I enjoy using and am loving them on the 950 XL. These include the Action Center, the awesome keyboard and predictive text engine, and reader mode in the browser.
I also like Hey Cortana functionality, but saw that function disappear for no reason yesterday. I performed a soft reset and had it working again, but it seems a bit buggy at the moment.
I counted over 100 main settings screens, not even counting the screens that appear as you dive deeper into the settings. I visited a few settings, but couldn't find them again and had to use the included settings search bar to find the setting again. There's a bug though that kept kicking me back to the Start screen when I selected the settings search result.
It seems to me that the OS may be a bit too much for the consumer market when there is a search option just for settings because there as so many specific settings. This shows me that the consumer market is truly not a focus of Windows 10 Mobile, which Microsoft made clear when it said it was focusing on fans, the enterprise, and customers looking for cheap devices. I would hate to hand this Lumia 950 to my mom or aunt as it would just turn into yet another device that I have to provide tech support for.
Usage on T-Mobile USA
AT&T has some kind of unexplained exclusive, that is officially not an exclusive, on the Lumia 950. That model comes with a single SIM card slot and some pre-loaded AT&T bloatware. The unlocked model of the 950 and 950 XL purchased from the Microsoft Store is a dual-SIM, unlocked model that can be used on AT&T, T-Mobile, Cricket, and other GSM carriers.
Usually, the SIM-unlocked model is the best one to buy since it is free of carrier junk and is usually first to be updated by the operating system developer. Unfortunately, if you plan to use either of these new phones with T-Mobile in the US, then you are going to have a compromised experience.
With the Lumia 950 XL that I have, T-Mobile customers will not have visual voicemail, WiFi Calling, or VoLTE functionality. I have tried several different settings and am also currently unable to get MMS, picture and group messaging, working on the Lumia 950 XL.
I understand that the visual voicemail problem may be due to the dual-SIM card support. Dual SIM cards may be useful for a few people who travel overseas with two SIM cards, but this is another clear example that these phones are not meant for the consumer market. Having dual phone dialers and dual messaging apps on the phone and in the notification bar can cause confusion and as we see with visual voicemail, even loss of core functionality.
These advanced calling and messaging features may not matter to you, but they are important to me and if they don't get ironed out in the next week or so then this Lumia 950 XL is going back to Microsoft and Microsoft will have shown that I have valid reasons to leave Windows Phone/Windows 10 Mobile behind.
Summary of my initial thoughts
I have a Continuum Display Dock coming tomorrow so will be testing out that functionality over the next week. I will also take photos, test more core apps, continue to explore the incredibly vast number of settings, and push myself to use the Lumia 950 XL on T-Mobile as my primary device.
After I pulled the Lumia 950 XL from the box, I thought the hardware would be what most concerns me. It turns out I am satisfied with the hardware, even if it is a bit plain, while the software greatly concerns me.
I've been running buggy early test versions of Windows 10 Mobile on my Nokia Lumia 830, which by the way is a device with excellent fit and finish, but figured Microsoft had things worked out with the shipping version of the software on these two new Lumia models. That doesn't seem to the case and I'm a bit worried about the core software performance at the moment.
If Microsoft truly wants to compete for enterprise customers and satisfy its fans with the Lumia 950 and 950 XL, then it needs to jump on the core software gaps and work to make Windows 10 Mobile as fluid and stable as Windows Phone 7 and 8 were over the last few years.