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Microsoft Lumia 950/950 XL review: A decent option for the fans, but price and trade-offs are too much for others

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Written by Matthew Miller on
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7.8

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL

Very good
Like
  • Excellent camera
  • Removable battery
  • microSD expansion card slot
  • Live tile interface is useful and refreshing
Don't Like
  • OS is currently buggy
  • Core apps are missing features found on competing platforms
  • Application quality is lacking
  • No fingerprint scanner, iris scanning is slow
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

Back in July, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wrote an email to employees stating that there would be three phone customer strategy: enterprise customers, value phone customers, and fans. After spending a couple of weeks with both the AT&T Lumia 950 and dual-SIM Lumia 950 XL it's clear that these phones are only ready for the die-hard fans that love Windows Phone.

The Lumia 950 XL is $100 less than the least expensive iPhone 6s Plus, but you really can't compare the two directly as the Lumia 950 is just a phone not the flagship we have been waiting for. The specifications match other flagships, but the uninspiring hardware shows little innovation, the well-known app gap exists, and Windows 10 Mobile is buggy. The camera is excellent and the live tile interface offers an efficient user experience.

Out of the box impressions

I already posted my detailed first impressions so won't go over those thoughts again. I've come to like the matte finish and feel of the Lumia 950 XL, despite the simple design.

It's nice to see Microsoft include a USB to USB Type-C cable along with a USB Type-C A/C adapter in the box. This is especially helpful if you buy the Microsoft Display Dock.

Specifications

  • Processor (Lumia 950 XL): Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 2.0 GHz octa-core
  • Processor (Lumia 950): Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 1.8 GHz hexa-core
  • Display (Lumia 950 XL): 5.7 inch AMOLED 2560 x 1440 pixels ClearBlack resolution, 518 ppi, Corning Gorilla Glass 4
  • Display (Lumia 950): 5.2 inch AMOLED 2560 x 1440 pixels ClearBlack resolution, 564 ppi, Corning Gorilla Glass 3
  • Operating system: Windows 10 Mobile
  • RAM: 3GB
  • Storage: 32GB internal storage with microSD card slot
  • Cameras: Rear 20 megapixel camera with f/1.9 aperture. 5 megapixel front-facing camera
  • Sensors: Ambient light sensor, accelerometer, proximity sensor, barometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, SensorCore
  • Wireless: Bluetooth 4.1, 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, GPS, NFC
  • Battery (Lumia 950 XL): User replaceable 3,340 mAh battery with fast charging and Qi wireless charging support
  • Battery (Lumia 950): User replaceable 3,000 mAh battery with fast charging and Qi wireless charging support
  • Dimensions (Lumia 950 XL): 151.9 x 78.4 x 8.3 mm and 165 grams
  • Dimensions (Lumia 950): 145 x 73.2 x 8.2 mm and 150 grams

As you can see the specifications match other flagships for the most part. The Microsoft website, and the device itself, are a bit in error though where it stated secure NFC for payment since Microsoft currently lacks a mobile payment system.

While a dual-SIM device may appeal to the world traveler, I'm very disappointed in the compromises that were made with such a configuration. Visual voicemail doesn't work and everything I've been able to find about this states that the dual-SIM implementation is the reason why. After a hard reset and then full setup via WiFi before adding my T-Mobile SIM I was able to get MMS working. WiFi Calling also does not work on T-Mobile, but the specs list it as supported so it may be possible in the future.

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Hardware

The two Lumia devices are very similar with the differences being the screen size, processor, and battery. I like big phones so had no issue with the 950 XL, but I think the 950 will appeal to more people who want something a bit more pocketable.

The front is dominated by the display and thankfully we see Microsoft went with Nokia's ClearBlack technology here again. The display looks fantastic and while Windows Phone has never needed high resolution to look good, it doesn't get much better than these display.

There's a bit more of a ridge rising above the flat glass display on the 950 than on the 950 XL. The front facing camera and iris scanner are located above the display. A red light shines so you know exactly where to look and unlock your device with Windows Hello.

The Windows Hello feature seemed to work pretty well in most lighting conditions with and without my glasses, but it was faster to enter a PIN to unlock the phone. I found I had to hold the Lumia about a foot or less from my face, which is fine most of the time since you are going to look at your phone anyway. However, I find fingerprint scanners to be much faster and more convenient.

On both phones, there is nothing on the left side, a 3.5mm headset jack on the top (one is centered, the other off to the right), and a centered USB Type-C port on the bottom. The left side contains the same power, volume, and camera capture buttons, but strangely the power button sits between the two volume buttons on the Lumia 950 XL. This took a bit of time to get used to.

The 20 megapixel PureView Zeiss cameras are found cented on the back. As you can see in my image gallery, the cameras have slightly different designs on each device. The camera performed very well, matching the best Android phones and beating the Apple iPhone 6s Plus. While there are a couple samples in my image gallery, feel free to browse the full resolution images and make your own judgements by viewing my Flickr album.

At first I was a bit disappointed in the uninspiring design, but after a few days I came to be satisfied with the finish and feel in my hand. The plastic is not as good as older Lumia devices like the 1520, but it is usually a more durable material for drops.

It's great to have a hardware camera button again on a phone and still wish we would see others add this as more and more of us use our phones as our primary camera.

Software

I've been using Windows Phone since the beginning and before that Pocket PC. Windows Phone 7 was rock solid so I expected the same here with Windows 10 Mobile. It's strange to now be more satisfied with the hardware than the software on a Microsoft smartphone.

In the past, my Windows Phone devices never locked up or reset. Yet, I've seen this happen several times on both phones. It was real fun to see the phone lock up while taking photos for my comparison that then required a full battery pull to get it up and running again.

At first I didn't have MMS on T-Mobile and no matter how many APNs I tried, I couldn't get it to work. I then performed a full reset on the Lumia 950 XL, setup everything using WiFi, and then put in my SIM card. That did the trick and MMS was up and running.

I did a comparison between the apps I have installed on my iPhone and Android phones, only to find just a few key apps missing. Windows 10 Mobile is clearly missing the vast library of apps on iOS and Android, but the core OS is very functional and capable for many people. Banking is a huge gap area, but my primary question is why compromise on apps when there are options out there that offer everything? Until Microsoft can clearly articulate this and offer compelling reasons, I can't recommend the Lumia 950/950 XL for anyone other than die-hard Windows Phone fans.

It's really sad to see apps like Outlook Mail work better on iOS and Android than on Windows 10 Mobile though. While the unified inbox is one missing feature, I'm more disappointed in the lack of Focused and Other tabs. These tabs help my rock my email on my iPhone 6s Plus and Outlook is so good on iOS that I use it as my default email client.

The Action Center, Cortana, and keyboard are all excellent and some of my favorite features of Windows 10 Mobile.

Continuum

There is a Display Dock offer that you are supposed to be able to get with the purchase of a Lumia 950 XL. However, the Lumia Offers app keeps reporting errors so I'm not sure if the limited quantity is actually gone or if it's just another example of a failed Microsoft piece of software. Either way, it's not a good experience for a new phone owner which is yet another clear example of why this isn't a smartphone option for the novice.

Continuum seems like a cool technology and makes for a decent demo. However, unless you are in a developing country without access to a computer I don't know what the use case is for using it with a Windows Phone.

The Display Dock requires power via USB Type-C and then offers three USB, HDMI, and a DisplayPort connection. A USB Type-C port on the front connects to your Lumia 950/950 XL. Your phone will charge up via the dock connection too.

I connected my 22 inch Dell monitor and was impressed by what I saw at first. It looked like Windows 10 on my display. Email performed very well and the web browser was fine. Most apps did not work and a notification popped up letting me know that I could still use the app on my phone.

It was helpful to use the phone display as the mouse, but you can also add a Bluetooth or wired mouse if you like.

Office looked great at first, but when I tried to create a spreadsheet a notification popped up stating that I had to be an Office 365 customer. I have been for a couple years, but no matter what I tried I could not get the software to understand that my Live.com login has an account. I wasn't going to buy another subscription to test it out either.

Continuum on the Display Dock was enjoyable for the most part and I'm sure we'll see continued work on it to get more apps working.

Microsoft Lumia 950 and 950 XL product and image gallery

Pricing and competition

The Lumia 950 is $549 while the Lumia 950 XL is $649 at the Microsoft Store. AT&T charges $598.99 for the Lumia 950 and is currently the only carrier offering the device.

The Lumia 950 XL is $100 less than the lowest priced 16GB iPhone 6s Plus and is an even better value when you consider your storage options. The Lumias are value priced compared to the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.

However, the fantastic Nexus 6P 64GB model is 549. T-Mobile has the LG V10, also with a removable battery and microSD card slot, available for $600.

Compared to the other flagships, the Lumia 950 XL is priced about right. However, there is an obvious difference in the applications, both in terms of quantity as well as quality, and very few are purchasing Lumia devices. Thus, I expect the price to drop rather quickly as new phones launch in early 2016 and rumors of the Microsoft Surface phone continue to heat up.

Summary and conclusions

I still have a Lumia 830 kicking around that I turn on occasionally to test out the latest Windows 10 Mobile. The fit and finish is a lot better than these new Lumia devices and other than the excellent camera I don't see any reason to upgrade to a Lumia 950 or 950 XL.

My Lumia 950 XL purchase will be returned this week. After testing the Lumia 950 for a few days, I really wanted to like and keep the 950 XL. However, the lack of full T-Mobile support and unstable performance are forcing me to return it. I could live with the less functional apps for the most part, but not when it cost me $711 out of my pocket.

I recommend you check out the Pocketnow and TechnoBuffalo reviews. Both were written by friends who have used Windows Phone for several years and tell a similar story to what I have written.

If the Lumia 950 XL drops down to the $500 range, sees updates to improve stability and performance, and developers start coming back (especially banks), then I may consider one again. I remain concerned about the future of Microsoft's phone strategy as this half-hearted attempt doesn't show me much committment to the smartphone market.

Given the experiences that I am seeing with the Lumia 950 XL and Windows 10 Mobile, not to mention the large number of forum posts describing other bugs and problems, I really am left to question if anyone at Microsoft truly cares about the smartphone space. BlackBerry lost the enterprise and everywhere I look I see Apple picking up the torch rather aggressively. It would be nice to see Microsoft compete here, but I don't think too many IT managers are ready to deal with so many compromises and issues when other platforms just work.

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