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Lumia 950 REVIEW: Right path, but not out of the woods yet

by Todd Haselton | December 4, 2015December 4, 2015 1:25 pm PDT

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Before the Lumia 950 was announced, I had already told our president Jon Rettinger that it was one of the phones I was looking forward to most. I’ve been a big Windows fan ever since I first started getting interested in computers, and have tested the early versions of the desktop and mobile operating systems for much of my career. On paper, the Lumia 950 looked like it was going to start to solve all of Microsoft’s mobile troubles.

Windows 10 Mobile, the iteration of Windows 10 for smartphones, aims to address Microsoft’s app gap by allowing developers to easily port and scale Windows applications down to mobile displays. Additionally, Microsoft Conitnuum, on paper, seemed to me like a great way to actually get work done on my phone. I’ve always, always wanted a full PC that fits in my pocket, at least since the days when I was addicted to Ultima Online and wished that I could take the game with me anywhere. Continuum seems like the first step in that direction, and Microsoft is indeed promising that it’s a tool that will allow folks to work from anywhere.

And yet, despite these promises and my deep and true love for Windows, I’m left disappointed in the Lumia 950. Microsoft’s engineers are on the right track, certainly, but the phone is buggy, the software feels and looks unfinished, and the final product that’s shipping is more like a beta test than something that consumers should actually spend their money on.

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Hardware

The look and feel of the Lumia 950 is pretty much typical Lumia, clearly a product of the end of the Nokia generation but, I guess, slightly cheaper feeling. It doesn’t have that heft, the rock solid feel that Nokia’s hardware business used to build. Its light, thin. On a desk, with the display off, my white unit looks like a smaller version of the budget Lumia 640 XL. Turn that display on, however, and you quickly realize this is the latest flagship Windows 10 Mobile device, the one Windows Phone fans have waited for. The screen is bright, colorful, and packs a Quad HD resolution, the first of its kind for a Windows Phone.

The Lumia 950 has a Snapdragon 808 processor under the hood, more than enough to cruise through Windows 10 Mobile, which runs just fine on much less powerful processors. That extra muscle is for a feature called Continuum, which I’ll touch on later, and to give the phone enough strength to power all those pixels on the screen. The power buttons are conveniently placed on the right of the phone, just above a power button and the dedicated camera key, which I love. I really, really, don’t understand why we don’t see this on all phones, and I hope Microsoft continues to do this.

You’ll find something special above the screen – an Iris scanner than Microsoft uses for Windows Hello. I’ll touch on that in the software review, but it’s unique and is used to identify you for unlocking the phone, instead of requiring a pin or a fingerprint reader. On the back, you’ll find a triple-LED flash, a 20MP camera and a small speaker grill. The back can be peeled off of the phone, though it feels flimsy and as if it could very easily crack at any moment while doing so. There’s a removable battery, a nanoSIM card and a microSD card sitting underneath. Love the microSD card support.

Finally, the bottom of the phone is home to a new USB-C port. It supports faster charging and quicker data transfer rates. I dig it, and it’s the first USB-C device I’ve extensively played with, which also means I need to make sure I’m always carrying a cable. I suppose I’ve become to accustomed to finding microUSB cables anywhere I look.

That’s it, though. There’s not a lot in the hardware department to chat about. It’s kind of boring looking. No metal, no flashy components. Just a black and white plastic slate.

I was able to get through the day charging it every night without an issue. The phone charges when it’s plugged in for things like Continuum, which probably consumes a good deal of power, so there’s no worry there. Also, the USB-C charger enables quick charging functions, so you’re not going to spend a lot of time waiting at the outlet for the Lumia 950 to juice up. One note, and I’m sure most people won’t care, is that the proprietary USB-C cable is attached to the wall-wart. So you need another one if you’re planning to transfer files over a USB-C connection and your computer.

Let’s move on to something that (should be) more exciting: the software.

Microsoft Lumia 950-5

Microsoft Lumia 950-8

Software & Apps

This is the very first phone from Microsoft that runs Windows 10 Mobile out of the box. There’s a lot to cover here, so I’ll try to touch on some of the important aspects. First, the interface is going to feel incredibly familiar to Windows Phone users. You get those tiles that we’ve all come to know and love (I say that earnestly.) There’s a bit more you can do with them now, like change the background wallpaper, but you can only choose from three sizes. In talking with Ron Parida, who reviewed the phone in our video, we agreed that Microsoft is missing a huge opportunity here, still. Imagine an Instagram tile that allowed you to swipe through photos, hearting and interacting with them, for example? Yet, that leads me to my next point.

Imagine Instagram wasn’t in beta. Microsoft has repeatedly failed on its promise to get more apps for Windows Phone and the situation is looking dire for Windows 10 Phone, even with better tools in place. We still don’t have a full version of Instagram, though Facebook has promised something. No Snapchat, no Periscope, banks are pulling their apps, there’s still nothing from Google, YouTube merely directs to the mobile website. Look, there’s some good stuff, but plenty of popular, really good apps are missing. And developers still haven’t seen much of a reason to create apps for the platform. Worse, it’s not just major apps, it’s the smaller things, too. I started playing Star Wars: Battlefront, for example, and the companion app wasn’t made for Windows. I mean, it stinks missing out on that kind of stuff.

The app situation remains a Catch 22. Developers aren’t creating apps for the platform nobody uses, and nobody uses the platform because there aren’t any apps. We’ve beaten this point to death, Microsoft knows it, we all do. So far, developers don’t seem to have been porting over apps, and it seems like there would be plenty if it was as easy as Microsoft says. Worse, there’s also no reason for some apps to exist as “Windows” apps. Why would Snapchat write a Windows program, for example? Microsoft thinks that it’s in a better place now, that developers can easily port apps over from iOS and Android, and new Windows apps can scale right down. I want to believe it but, as the old saying goes, fool me once…

Let’s back away from the apps, though. Folks who like Windows on mobile get it, no need to beat this any further.

The UI is another area that feels unfinished to me. Take a look at notifications in Android and iOS that are rich and actionable, for example, and then look at a notification on Windows 10 Mobile. It’s like looking at an alert from 1990. I get that we all have different preferences for aesthetics, but I don’t think this is even finished. It’s raw, unpainted, as if Microsoft’s design department didn’t have time to give it a look. I’ll just give you a small example – hold an application in the “apps” list – which itself looks fine – and the pop-up menu that provides an option to “Pin to Start” looks awful. It’s oversized for the text. It looks like the kind of rectangle button a high school kid made in HTML class a decade ago. This kind of stuff is all over the place.

There are features of the software I like, though. Cortana can be great. The expanded notification shade, while ugly in comparison to other platforms, is at least useful. At least it exists. The keyboard is also great and remains super easy to type on. And, again, I love how alive the home screen feels with live tiles, though I wish they had additional features.

Continuum

Microsoft has been making a big deal out of Continuum in its marketing for the Lumia 950. The company promises that, paired with the special $99 dock and a keyboard and mouse, your Lumia 950 will get “PC-like powers.” That’s true, sort of.

I paired the Lumia 950 with a Continuum dock provided by Microsoft and paired it up with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. Connected to my 32-inch TV, it was pretty awesome seeing my phone’s start screen appear as the Start menu. You can open Edge and browse sites as if you were on a PC, work in a robust version of Word, Outlook or any other Office app that’s scaled to fit a larger screen. And apps like Photos scale, too. Others, like third party ones that aren’t supported, are simply grayed-out on the big screen. It looks cool. Unfortunately, it doesn’t perform that well.

I first tried writing some of my BlackBerry Priv review from the Lumia 950 in Continuum mode. Microsoft Word crashed a couple of times over the span of two days, however, so I figured it just wasn’t worth risking losing my work. Also, I ran into times when the Lumia 950 would reboot itself connected to Continuum. That latter problem was only present on a single review unit and didn’t happen on a replacement sent by Microsoft.

I wasn’t able to write my review right in our system online, since the Web browser was painfully slow. It’s OK for reading sites, sure, but if you’re going to run into trouble if you try to open up multiple sites and work at once.

Continuum just doesn’t work well right now. Not well enough that I’d recommend it to friends, anyway. And that’s unfortunate for two reasons: first, it’s bizarre since I can easily work in multiple tabs on an Android device hooked up to a big screen, keyboard and Bluetooth mouse, though it doesn’t look as pretty. Second, I’m bummed because I think this is the future, and I think Microsoft led me to believe, through marketing and early pitches, that it was ready now. Maybe software updates in the future will fix this, so I’m still holding out hope.

The good news is that I think Microsoft is definitely on the right track here. It seems natural to hook up a phone at a desk and work right from the computer in our pockets. Rumor has it a future Surface Phone with an Intel processor might even allow us to run x86-based applications – standard PC applications. I can’t wait.

Microsoft Lumia 950-23

Microsoft Lumia 950-20

Windows Hello

Here’s something awesome about Windows 10 Mobile, and Windows 10 in general: Windows Hello. It’s Microsoft’s biometric security software that can be used for logging into devices easily with either a quick iris scan or a fingerprint read. On the Lumia 950, Windows Hello uses an iris scanner.

It’s currently in beta, but I found it worked really well almost all of the time. When you pick up the phone, a small red light will glow and you simply bring the phone close to your face. It’ll scan and, in just a couple of seconds, confirm whether or not you’re you. It apparently can’t be tricked with photos and even distinguishes between identical twins. I don’t wear glasses, but some folks have apparently had trouble getting it to work properly if they do (or at all).

This is probably one of my favorite features of the phone, maybe because it just feels so futuristic, and I wonder if Microsoft has plans to expand it to payments, though I suppose a fingerprint reader might work just as well and would work without a user having to worry about whether or not she has glasses on.

Camera

The 20MP camera on the Lumia 950 is really solid, but it’s not my favorite camera on the market. The photos seem to be accurate and colorful, and those megapixels give you lots of capability to crop later. You get the live photos function, which Nokia was doing way before Apple, and other awesome functions like the ability to control the level of the flash after the photo was snapped. Wouldn’t be surprised to see that copied by someone later on. Speaking of the flash, you get a triple-LED for really accurate flesh tones and colors that aren’t blown out when you do need a little extra light.

I do have some issues with the camera, though. It’s slow to focus at times, and taking multiple pictures can be slow. I also miss some of the other modes found on other smartphones, like time lapse. There are third party applications that advertise the feature, but don’t work nearly as well as the native functions on phones like the iPhone 6s Plus or LG V10. Also, the phone does a lot of post processing that takes a while after each phone is snapped. You’ll spend about 2-3 seconds waiting for the preview of each photo. I know, maybe I’m being impatient, but sometimes you need to know quicker if you’re going to have to shoot another photo or not.

Ultimately, I don’t think you’ll find a lot of complaints with the photo quality of this camera, which is what’s going to matter to most people.

 

Rating: Don’t Buy

Let these grapes ferment some more, and we might end up with something much sweeter.


I was really, really, looking forward to the Lumia 950. It’s been a while since us Windows Phone fans had a flagship to toy with, and I was really excited to try Continuum and see what Microsoft has been up to. But now, after having spent the last few weeks with the phone, I’m actually pretty bummed out. The display, the camera, the battery life, all of that is just fine with the Lumia 950. Folks who know the app situation and don’t mind it, they’ll be happy with the hardware here, I think.

For everyone else, though – the ones who wanted to actually use Continuum to work, the ones who want Windows 10 Mobile but who also want apps – well, I think you’ll find that this is very much an unfinished product. Continuum just doesn’t work well and isn’t reliable enough to recommend as a productivity tool, which is how it’s being marketed. I think it’s the future, though, and I want Microsoft to continue pushing with it, and I applaud the engineers for getting it going. The app situation hasn’t improved, and I’m not sure how much it actually will at this point. The tools are available, so there’s hope.

I’m going to keep using the Lumia 950 on the side (with Microsoft’s permission of course.) And I hope that Continuum improves over the coming months. In the meantime, I don’t recommend you buy this phone unless you’re a huge Windows fan and, as one myself, even then it’s hard to recommend anything more than “wait.” But I think we’re on the right track, let these grapes ferment some more, and we might end up with something much sweeter.

PROS

  • Good camera
  • Good battery life
  • USB-C
  • Forward-thinking

CONS

  • Buggy
  • Continuum isn’t ready
  • Poor app selection

Disclaimer: Todd and Ron used the Lumia 950 for about a week and a half during the review period. The Lumia 950 units were provided by Microsoft.


Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...

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