The Good Microsoft’s Lumia 950 takes good pictures, has a crystal clear screen and a removable battery. Cortana’s voice assistant and offline cards remain a privilege.
The Bad Windows phones still have a huge shortage of apps compared to iPhones and Android. The Continuum 950’s stand-out feature is flexible and cumbersome and requires the use of separate equipment. The design of the phone’s home rubber seems dated.
The Bottom Line The Lumia 950 is basically a mid-sized smartphone that gives iPhone and Android users no reason to switch and offers little appeal outside of a Windows phone.
I have a soft spot for Windows on my phones. Something about the clean, simple interface appeals to me as an alternative to the relative overflow of Android and Apple, and the chats I’ve had with Windows Phone fans make me believe that there are people who are better suited to this approach to mobile software.
That’s why it hurts me when the Windows 10 upgrade to the Lumia 950 fell short of its promise. The hardware itself is good if it is disappointing. But the software, especially the formidable new Continuum feature, which should allow you to turn your phone into something that comes close to a full-fledged PC on a Windows PC, only underscores Microsoft’s inability to keep up with Android and iPhone .
Yes, the phone has a great display that is easy to read on the outside and a camera image quality that allows me to smile, especially in low light. I can even deal with the plastic construction through a removable Lumia 950 battery and a microSD card slot that many metal phones do not have. The Cortana voice assistant is also better than the Apple Siri in my book.
Microsoft Lumia 950 unleashes Windows 10 Mobile (pictures)
But considering all the things that make up a modern mobile operating system – mobile payments, access to limitless applications, software applications that work consistently well – Windows 10 does not fix enough past problems and presents only others. I was hoping for more from Windows 10 on my phones, wanting to believe that Continuum would give Lumia a competitive edge by boosting your productivity. It does not.
After all, the Lumia 950 costs too much and offers too little for everyone but Windows to take seriously. It’s been five years since Microsoft restarted its old one without plugging Windows Mobile software into the Windows Phone platform we see today, and the company has still been unable to develop a fracture. Microsoft’s future as a maker of world-class mobile phone software is dim.
Prices and availability
The Lumia 950 starts at $550 in the US, but you’ll need to check with carriers, since their prices and payment plans will vary. AT&T, for example, sells it for $600 outright, $150 with a two-year contract, and for monthly installments that vary between $20 and $30 per month depending on which of its three Next plans you choose. The larger, 5.7-inch Lumia 950 XL will cost more, and goes on sale before the end of 2015.
Continuum: Phone becomes PC (or TV)
- View the contents of your phone on a larger display
- You can use a wired or wireless keyboard and mouse
- Docking or HDMI connection options
What if your phone could double as a makeshift PC? In short, it is a promise of a continuum. This is probably a great feature of Windows 10 phones and something doesn’t really exist in the realm of Android or iPhone. It should work with most future phones with Microsoft’s mobile operating system (it won’t have the Lumia 550), but the Lumia 950 is the first model to boast functionality.
How do you use your phone as a PC? Pair the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse with the Lumia and use your PC monitor or TV as your home screen. For any of us who have gone from writing a set of one-line emails and texts to writing some 1000 text documents from a hotel room, the idea is instantly enticing. And so I tested it using it to write this phone review. (In fact, I’m typing this on my phone – with a dual keyboard, monitor and mouse – right now.)
The problem is that you need to join the big screen with two possible methods, and they both hurt. If your TV has built-in Miracast wireless video support – or if a Miracast key is connected to your TV – you can send a signal from your phone via the pre-loaded Continuum app. In addition, you can use a more reliable flagship application using the Microsoft Display Dock (which is exactly what I used) – it costs $ 80 and $ 149 in Australia. (You will also need the right cables.)
As you work in the living room, hotel room or conference room, you can share content such as a PowerPoint presentation or home video with a group of people on the big screen. Then unplug your phone and continue working on the same project seconds later walking down the street.
The idea is really cool, and as soon as I started moving (around this paragraph, actually), things started to really flow. However, there have been many erroneous starts and some major setbacks that make me seriously question the Continuum reliability. First, you need all the equipment and cables you need, including HDMI and USB Type-C cables. A wired or wireless keyboard and mouse are also optional, but you can also navigate from your phone screen (while using the phone yourself).
Continuum tuning and usage
I’m having some connection and connection issues, and a third-party HDMI dongle that Microsoft sent as an alternative to its home-grown Display Dock washer didn’t even work when I went to activate it – its website says it doesn’t yet support Fortunately, I had a backup of my display. The Microsoft Continuum app on your phone gives you a bit of a walkthrough, but some things will still have to be handled independently. As promised, the image scales well on the computer monitor I used, but it didn’t quite fit the frame of the 50-inch Samsung TV panel. At least only a portion of the image was cut off.
Navigating the content of the phone on the big screen worked quite well. Until that happened. The phone accidentally rebooted several times during my testing, but only while using Continuum, so that seems to be the reason. One of the main use cases is to produce documents using Microsoft Office. Keyboard shortcuts do not work the same way, which means you will do most of the formatting using the toolbar or mouse submenu. Unable to insert or undo with keyboard shortcuts has hindered my workflow.
The cursor also does not have time to type quickly, so you have your fingers, and without automatic spell check in Word Word it is difficult to correct errors – sometimes you will see suggestions appear on the screen of the phone up to the elbow.
I like the freedom to see what I’m doing on the big, easier-to-read screen, but I’d better use a laptop for projects. However, the ability to use an HDMI cable on your TV is closest to you when you can access Google Chromecast for Windows Phones (Chromecast works with Windows laptops).
More Windows 10 software: iris scan, cleaner look
- Windows Hello
- Interface refresh
- Settings settings
In addition to the continuum, Windows 10 brings some nice additions to the Lumia 950. Although every other phone uses a fingerprint reader in various places, Microsoft has moved Windows Hello, its iris bio-recognition software, from the Surface tablet to the phone.
Even in beta mode, Windows Hello works quickly and accurately to get in when I look in the front camera most of the time. Sometimes it does not recognize you in certain lighting conditions, but has a PIN to back up and you can improve accuracy by running it again (and again) in different lighting scenarios to create a larger library of your true eyes. He even recognized me through glasses, though you will need to remove them during setup.
Setting up was easy, though the application was hard to find – accessed through the Accounts submenu or the lock screen. In the settings, you set the allotted interval required to log in this way, and you can use it to authorize changes to your phone and purchase applications.
Iris scanning is no faster or easier than scanning fingerprints, and it depends too much on lighting to set it correctly. It’s a unique way to sign in, but not always the best.
Windows 10 generally gives the Lumia 950 a much cleaner, more sophisticated look in every menu, from the array of settings to the way you choose your theme. The App Store looks great (but still not all I need – see below), and there are several extras on the menu, including the ability to double-tap the navigation bar to turn off the screen (but not back again). Cortana is a good voice-driven personal assistant, and the ability to download offline maps is a real benefit, especially when traveling in the countryside or abroad and with limited Wi-Fi and data.
Yes, Google Maps has an offline feature that allows you to store a specific area of the map you have already transitioned to for 30 days. The Here Maps built-in app lets you download maps for the entire city or region to use at any time if you have enough space.
There have always been hard-to-know things about the operating system that don’t seem to work as smoothly as they should, because they seem tiny enough to ignore, like when I email photos, the Outlook logo scans the screen while the photos send. Fearing this threatens to cancel your email.
Achilles Fifth: Choosing Apps
If the new features of the operating system are decent (or at least promising), one aspect of buying a Windows phone remains a compromise at best and an attacker at worst a choice of apps.
To begin with, Google refuses to support the platform, which means that the services I rely on daily in my work and personal life – Gmail, Google Maps, Google Drive, Google Docs – are only available through third-party applications or the Internet. While Microsoft has an extensive network of proprietary services such as OneDrive, it is not easy to reach people like me who have already logged on to the Google Internet network.
Google, of course, has strategic reasons not to help a competitor like Microsoft. But Microsoft’s market share – only about 2 percent of the world’s phones have Windows – means that neither Google, nor most other developers, big or small, want to invest the time and effort into attracting such a small audience.
In his honor, Microsoft tried to solve the problem of “universal applications”. This means that any company that makes software for the Windows 10 application store on a PC can theoretically use the same code base for the mobile version of the same application. It’s a good idea, but it still requires the developer to close the loop on the mobile version.
Another attempt by Microsoft to attract more applications was to create tools that supposedly make it easier for developers to “port” their existing mobile applications from Google’s Google Android, Apple’s iOS and the Web’s mobile network. But the Android version has already hit a snag, which is definitely not certain.
Microsoft has managed to shrug off Facebook, so its main app, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, is here. So did Twitter and Candy Crush. But updates to applications for Windows phones usually come later; Android and iOS remain top mobile priorities for most developers.
Design: the same old plastic
- 5.2-inch AMOLED display (650×1,440 pixels resolution)
- 5.71 by 2.88 by 0.32 inches (145 by 73.2 by 8.2 mm)
- 5.29 oz (150 grams)
- USB Type-C Charging Port
- Black or white colors
I’ll just go out and say: the 950 is a great phone, even by Lumia standards. This is the plastic we are used to, though last year Lumia 930/Icon had a wonderful metal frame. It has a removable backing that gives access to the battery and microSD card slot. It comes in black or white, and none of the crazy color variants known by Lumi as shocking blue, lime, red, orange and green. Compared to the smooth metal aesthetics we see everywhere, the 950 is a country. (Although it has metal buttons and an emphasis on mounting the camera.)
The 5.2-inch screen controls the size of the phone. If you’re looking for a bigger phone, you’ll need a 5.7-inch 950 XL. The clarity on a crisp, clear display is strong in direct sunlight. There is a special camera button that I like; double-clicking on it launches the application even when the phone is locked. Press again to take pictures.
USB Type-C is still a very new phone connector, making the Lumia 950 the foremost along with the OnePlus 2, Google Nexus 6P and 5X . The good news here is that you can plug the charging cable to the right or upside down, and it doesn’t matter, and the technology is reliable in the future. If you don’t have too many USB-C cables, you might want to take one or two more.
I wish the included wall charger had a cable that is as disconnected from the charging charger as almost any other charger. This allows you to connect one end to the device and the other to another USB port. This wall charger is not detachable, meaning you will need to purchase a USB-to-USB-C cable or an adapter for an existing micro-USB cable.
The 20MP camera shoots pretty hard
- Camera button highlighted
- 20MP sensor
- 5 megapixel front camera
- 4K video recording; 1080p Front Capture
Microsoft has not made many changes to its native camera app, which in my opinion was a missed opportunity. Image quality is still very good in almost all lighting situations, but manual settings are not always easy to understand and there is a lack of information in the settings menu. For example, the 950 has a 20-megapixel camera sensor, but if you choose a 16: 9 aspect ratio, you can only get 16 megapixels. If you switch to a narrower 4: 3 aspect ratio, you’ll get 19 megapixels.
There is support for 4K video recording, but the default video is up to 1080p (clear and crisp on the screen of the phone and when played on a 50-inch 1080p TV). I manually appreciate the controls to get this macro, and you can set up a camera for taking snapshots and taking photos. You can take a few seconds of live pictures, just like Live Photos in the program iPhone 6S . This is mildly interesting, probably, but I would rather install an HDR switch and Panorama already installed. You can also get these and other options by downloading individual “lenses” or programs, but I think most people will use and appreciate the pre-installed features compared to the general settings they need to find.
I continue to impress with Lumia’s ability to produce crisp, comfortable photos in a variety of conditions. Lumiens often give scenes a bluish or yellowish tinge. In some scenes, warm yellows made their way, making them richer than real life; in other circumstances the tones were true. There is a triple LED “natural” flash that says it will also smooth out the lighting.
The 5MP front-facing camera takes clear shots with a fairly wide-angle lens that fits a lot of your background into the frame without having to stretch your arms.
Performance: CPU, battery life, call quality
- Six-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 with 3GB of RAM
- 32GB internal storage, up to 200GB external storage
- 3,000mAh battery
Navigation is fast and effortless, without any lag. The camera loads as fast as any other phone, and the shooting mode setting means that shooting time can be almost nothing. It’s also miserable without this setting – autofocus stands on point.
Riptide GP2 is my baseline comparison game, and I usually pump my settings to the max. The graphics weren’t as crisp or smooth as on other phones with the Snapdragon 810 processor (probably because it should handle pixels for the 1440p (2K) screen, but it was better after the shadows went down. Casual gamers should have no problems.
Note that the phone heats up after hot use. This is not unusual, so I wouldn’t worry (all phones do when we use and test them continuously), but it does.
The battery life would last a full day, though I noticed a few faster downpours when I had a rainbow scanner installed that would detect my eyes every time I unlocked my phone. During our looped video test, the battery lasted an average of 11 hours, 18 minutes is not bad, but on average.
The call quality was as expected when I was using the phone in and around San Francisco, but the quality of the speakers was particularly strong and clear. I managed to enter into a 20-minute loudspeaker conversation, noting how little echo I heard. My phone partner also noticed that I sound clear and never asked me to repeat it. This is typical behavior over average for Lumia phones, which is great.
Buy this phone or something else?
I believe there are some people who like the Lumia 950, which is good from a hardware standpoint, if not extraordinary. I like the visual update of Windows 10, even if it’s a slight increase that doesn’t add a lot of substance and the camera takes nice photos. Still, it’s hard to recommend the 950 and all that it represents.
Although an interesting idea, Continuum suffers from too many issues that hinder daily use. Software capabilities are way behind Android and iOS to justify spending good money (and more) on an ecosystem that doesn’t give you the choice of what kind of services you want – for example, mobile payments, Google Maps in addition to the Here Maps native app and other applications.
It’s fair to mention that Microsoft will also sell the Lumia 950 XL, a larger, 5.7-inch phone with a slightly more powerful processor that does differently to the 950 with the same specifications.
In my opinion, however, you will get more from similar or even cheaper Android phones. Samsung’s excellent Galaxy S6 starts at about the same price (for example, the UK S6 costs more). Google Nexus 6P and Huawei’s Motorola Moto X Pure / Style are also highly effective, giving you almost any application you would ever like, and all of Google’s services, such as the excellent Google Now and Google Docs online.
I’m sad to see Microsoft pull in behind, but the rooting of this global andergo is getting harder all the time.
Microsoft Lumia 950 specifications comparison
|Microsoft Lumia 950||Apple iPhone 6S||Samsung Galaxy S6||Google Nexus 6P||Motorola Moto X Pure Edition/X Style|
|Display||5.2-inch AMOLED with 2,560×1,440-pixel resolution||4.7-inch IPS with 1,334×750-pixel resolution||5.1-inch AMOLED with 2,560×1,440-pixel resolution||5.7-inch AMOLED with 2,560×1,440-pixel resolution||5.7-inch IPS LCD with 2,560×1,440-pixel resolution|
|Dimensions (imperial)||5.71×2.88×0.32 inches||5.44×2.64×0.28 inches||5.65×2.78×0.27 inches||6.27×3.06×0.28 inches||6.06×3.0x0.44 inches|
|Weight||5.29 ounces (150 grams)||5.04 ounces (143 grams)||4.9 ounces (138 grams)||6.27 ounces (178 grams)||6.31 ounces (179 grams)|
|Mobile operating system||Microsoft Windows 10||Apple iOS 9||Android 5.0 Lollipop||Android 6.0 Marshmallow||Android 5.1.1 Lollipop|
|Fingerprint sensor||No, iris-scanner||Yes||Yes||Yes||No|
|Camera, video||20-megapixel, ultra HD video (4K), living photo capture||12-megapixel, ultra HD video (4K), slow motion video||16-megapixel, ultra HD video (4K), slow motion video||12.3-megapixel, ultra HD video (4K), slow motion video||21-megapixel, ultra HD video (4K), slow motion video|
|Optical image stabilization||Yes||No (only 6S Plus)||Yes||No||No|
|Processor||1.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 808||64-bit A9 chip with M9||Exynos 7420||2.0GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 810||1.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 808|
|Storage||32GB||16GB, 64GB, 128GB||32GB, 64GB, 128GB||32GB, 64GB, 128GB||16GB, 32GB, 64GB|
|Expandable storage||Up to 200GB||No||No||No||Up to 128GB|
|Battery||Removable 3,000mAh||Nonremovable 1,715mAh||Nonremovable 2,550mAh||Nonremovable 3,450mAh||Nonremovable 3,000mAh|
|Starting price||$549, £449, AU$999||$649, £539, AU$1,079||$552, £560, AU$1,000||$499, £449, AU$899||$399, £399, AU$1,992|