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Lumia 950 – Review

When I was invited to a Lumia Voices event in London on December 2nd 2015, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The Lumia 950 and 950 XL devices had just been officially released for sale, as had the Continuum dock, so hands on time was a given, as was a two-week review period for the 950. But what to expect of the much-anticipated Windows 10 Mobile device experience and the phone burdened with the expectation of it all? Let’s take a look.

Disclaimer: We’ve had the Lumia 950 in-house for around 2 weeks. Within this time we’ve used it alongside our existing daily driver and have attempted to use it as much as any other device, again daily. In addition to the phone, Microsoft provided a Display Dock to give us a taste of Continuum. Thanks again to the Lumia Voices crowd for getting us involved.

First Impressions

Granted this wasn’t a retail package I was opening, but it was still a premium experience. The package housed not only the Lumia 950, the Display Dock, and the required charging and connectivity cables, but also a bluetooth foldable keyboard, and an Arc Mouse for good measure. Everything we would need to put this phone, and the wider Windows 10 experience, to the test.

Lumia 950

Let’s start with the main focus of this piece however, the Lumia 950. Back on October 6th, Microsoft announced the Lumia 950 and 950 XL at their predominantly Surface based event. During that event the likes of Panos Panay and the Microsoft team waxed lyrical about the design aesthetic, the performance, and the evolution of the smartphone from merely a content consumption technology to a content creation and productivity heavy tool. Much of this was due to the announcement of the Display Dock and it’s ability to expand the functionality of the smartphone.

So, here I was, looking at the press pack and reaching for the device for the first time. My first ‘grasp’ wasn’t really the experience I had hoped for. A very light, angular device with an uninspiring design aesthetic. Inoffensive whilst being decidedly unremarkable was my first thought about the Lumia 950. The polycarbonate backing, along with the large microphone pinhole inexplicably placed on the front of the device doesn’t particularly scream “premium”.

Luckily moving on to the actual use of the device, some of this is offset. The software is very Windows Phone 8.1 but with a number of new tweaks and rounding of the previously sharp edges.

Hardware & Device Overview

Let’s have a look at the Lumia 950 in a little more depth. The first aspect of note is that 5.2″ QHD (1440 x 2560) AMOLED display with Corning Gorilla Glass 3 protecting it. It’s pleasant enough, bright, and with excellent colour reproduction and at 5.2″, is a good size for content consumption whilst being comfortable in hand too. Aside from the actual display, there are a bevy of sensors at the top of the front panel, alongside the front facing 5MP camera, and the earpiece. Moving on, the right side of the device is where all of the button interaction will take place with the volume rocker, power button and the dedicated 2 stage camera shutter button. On the top of the device, offset to the edge, is the 3.5mm headphone jack, and at the bottom of the device is the USB Type-C charging/data port. Finally we come to the rear of the device. This is where the 20MP PureView Zeiss camera is, flanked by both the Natural Flash LED and the rear facing speaker grill. More on the optics later.

 

Delving into the nitty-gritty, your Windows 10 experience on the Lumia 950 will be powered by a Snapdragon 808 chip running at 1.8Ghz along with an Adreno 418 GPU and 3GB RAM. Android users will see these specifications as par for the course in flagship devices but Windows Mobile enthusiasts will recognise this specification sheet as decidedly more powerful than any of the previous Lumia offerings. For more detailed specifications, check out the in-depth numbers at GSMArena.

So whilst the hardware is more premium than ever before, the design, sadly, is not. As I mentioned in the first impressions, the polycarbonate is decidedly 2013. Since the Lumia brand transferred from Nokia to Microsoft, fans of the eco-system have been waiting for a pure “Microsoft” designed device to understand exactly what they intend to offer. On the evidence of the Lumia 950, Microsoft hasn’t done much to inspire them. The shape, footprint, material choice, and button placement are all very similar and frankly all similarly cheap feeling/looking. There will be some consumers who would be happy that the aesthetic remains largely untouched, however I believe many will be disappointed, and those truly seeking something a little different should look elsewhere.

The buttons on the device are another less-than-premium inclusion. Significant wobble, clumsy bottoming out and poor differentiation in feel mean that the correct button isn’t always immediately found, and the depressing mechanism feels less than natural. Furthermore, whilst a dedicated camera button is something I always applaud in smartphone design, the actual use of the two stage button whilst taking photos often results in ‘shaky’ shots due to the movement required to trigger the shutter. Not ideal, but with practice it can be overcome.

Performance & Use

As you’d expect from the specifications, performance is snappy and speedy in almost all standard applications and menus. However when there are slowdowns (check out the software section) in the operating system and third-party applications, these seemingly have nothing to do with the internals, and are more related to the software.

Lumia 950The battery is perhaps the most essential component in modern-day smartphones with users wanting to take advantage of the technology within their mobile devices more often than ever before. The Lumia 950 delivers a 3000 mAh battery to power its functionality and this is a double-edged sword. The good news; it’s removable which is something that’s long since become a forgotten feature in many a recent flagship, but its return is welcome here. Welcome, and required. The bad news is that the battery can and does drain very quickly compared to some Android counterparts and it’s highlighted even further when compared to iOS devices such as the iPhone 6S Plus. Whilst usage drain is acceptable, the Lumia 950 sheds battery percentage points speedily in stand by. To offset this somewhat, Microsoft have included fast charging capabilities that actually deliver. From dead, the Lumia 950 can be charged up to 50% in just 30 minutes. You’ll find yourself using this technology more here than with other devices so it’s satisfying to know it stands up to close scrutiny. Incidentally a full charge will take approximately 90 mins in our testing, which is respectable also.

Let’s get back to that display. At 5.2″ it’s an industry standard size and what many believe to be the “sweet spot”. That assertion is backed up by the in hand feel. It’s comfortable to reach across the display however Microsoft could have looked to lower the bezel at the top and bottom respectively. It is a nice display though. The AMOLED technology means that Microsoft’s glance features won’t drain the battery and the colour reproduction on the display is quite good. Brightness, whilst not an issue here, isn’t industry leading. In direct sunlight it’s still not the easiest to see and with that brightness up you can expect to lose battery percentage points speedily.

Windows Hello
Windows Hello

Speaking of sunlight, when charging or completing CPU intensive tasks, the back face of the Lumia 950 will feel like it’s been sitting in direct sunlight for ages. It gets hot, very hot. If I didn’t know that this ran a Snapdragon 808, I’d be convinced it was running an 810 due to the temperatures I felt. I’m not quite sure why this happens but I’d be inclined to state that this could be resolved in a software update. It’s also not isolated to my review unit. Many of the 950 reviews state the temperatures.

There are however some nice tricks that Microsoft users haven’t seen before here. Glance Screen, as previously mentioned, is very similar to what we’re seeing on Android devices in that it allows the time and some notifications to be seen without unlocking the device, when the device it touched/moved. Windows Hello is also here courtesy of an Iris scanner. Yup, you read that correctly. Fingerprint scanners are so 2014 it seems and Microsoft have plumped for scanning users eyes to unlock the device. It works really well for a first generation implementation too and even works in the pitch black. It’s fast and reliable and I hope to see this in many other devices to come in 2016.

Other features include Qi wireless charging (a staple of Windows Mobile devices of previous years), USB Type C as already mentioned, Wireless AC with 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands available, NFC as well as the ability to add a microSD Card up to 200GB.

Continuum

Then there is Continuum. Now, I’ve had many conversations in which I’ve asserted that Continuum via the Display Dock is an attempt by Microsoft to create a new vertical in the mobile technology marketplace, just as they did with the Surface line. Continuum marks Microsoft’s continued stance that a convergence of mobile technology is required in order to deliver the requirements for the modern mobile technology consumer. It’s very likely that many reading this will have a Desktop PC in the house, a (or a number of) Smartphones, as well as perhaps a Laptop and a tablet device. Microsoft’s main assertion seems to be that moving forward the workloads that would be completed on this variety of devices will be able to be completed on one device. The Surface line of devices looks to deliver both a tablet and a laptop experience whilst leveraging the ever-increasing power of mobile CPUs to allow complex workloads to be undertaken. Now, with the Lumia 950 and 950 XL aligned with Windows 10 and Continuum, Microsoft are pushing for a “one mobile device” eco-system.

Firstly, developers wishing to deploy applications to the Windows Store can utilise the Universal Windows Platform (UWP). The UWP allows developers to not only provide applications to the Windows Store for use by mobile devices, but immediately broadens the scope of visibility for developers by verifying that the application will work just fine on desktop Windows devices. This is key to Microsoft’s growth in this sector and the uptake of forthcoming Windows 10 devices. To date, the number of UWP applications available in the Windows Store is minimal but the Lumia representatives I spoke to were confident of a growth spurt following the release of these two mobile devices. So, to why the UWP now has a unique place in Microsoft’s plans; Continuum.

 

Continuum essentially delivers a Windows desktop experience via the power of your Windows 10 smartphone device. Using the Lumia 950, consumers can connect to the Display Dock (optional extra – £120) or to a wireless display (Smart TV, etc) and access a more desktop-esque workplace in which to operate.

The smartphone can operate independently during this connection which is nice, as the connected display’s increased real estate can be used for more productivity orientated tasks such as creating and editing Microsoft Office applications as well as web browsing. A neat trick, but not without its issues.

This isn’t a Continuum review, but a few things of note. the Continuum desktop does not allow layered windows as a normal Windows 10 desktop would. Multiple applications can be run simultaneously, but only one can be displayed at any one time which exposes its mobile operating system’s base.

Secondly, as previously mentioned, the number of UWP applications available currently is few and far between which mean they will not scale to the larger Continuum desktop and will instead, if invoked, open on the smartphone which can be highly infuriating and at odds with targeted unified experience. Not great for new consumers to buy into, whilst those Microsoft fans might just be kept interested enough to hang around for improved generations that will no doubt be forthcoming.

Continuum

Finally, Continuum isn’t quite the desktop it aspires to be yet. The Lumia 950 runs an ARM-based processor, and as such all applications are truly mobile apps, regardless of their scaling ability (or lack thereof). This means that one cannot download additional applications with the Continuum desktop web browser and simply install new applications as you would on an x86 based Windows desktop. A lot of web apps (Hangouts was one I use a lot and failed miserably at) either don’t work, work intermittently, or redraw relatively frequently.

The good news is that it’s a very good stop-gap in order to gain a little more productivity. A great first step. Carry the Desktop Dock, a keyboard and mouse, HDMI/Display Port cable, and find vacant monitor and away you go. Word processing becomes easy, emails (providing you have the right app or web-based client) and calendars are easy to organise and one can even stream music directly from the phone whilst working.

It’s a nice concept and one I personally believe will take off dependant on the next few updates and feature additions. It’s not quite there yet, but for the ‘everyday’ consumer, whilst a niche feature, it should provide sufficient productivity to be a viable and utilised addition to Microsoft’s line-up. Now, back to the phone!

Camera

The cameras in previous Lumia devices have often been the stand out feature on the handsets and I’m happy to report that the Lumia 950 keeps up the proud tradition of quality main shooters in Lumia devices. The Lumia 950 has a 20MP main camera and continues to utilise the tried and tested Carl Zeiss lens. This is no Lumia 1020 by any means. That device attained legendary status for its optics. However the average consumer might see the Lumia 950 as a better all round camera for today’s use, and a compelling argument could be made to support this viewpoint.

As smartphone point and shoot cameras go, this has a speedy shutter, decent post-processing and fast focusing. IT’s a joy to use quite frankly and gives many an Android/iOS device a run for its money. If I had to compare, I’d put this on par with the LG G4 camera with the Galaxy S6 optics being slightly more impressive.

The majority of the shots above were point and shoot, however some utilised the pro aspects of the camera app. The ability to select a truly dynamic shooting configuration including ISO settings, white balance, focus and exposure to name a few, is something that in many devices is appallingly delivered, however in the Lumia 950, is quite subtle and simplistically deployed. During testing I found I used the focus manipulation most often and this provided some good shots. White balance was the least impressive setting which seemed to provide minimal changes in the temperature of the final shot. Rich Capture, Microsoft’s take on HDR, also delivers improved contrast and vividness of the shots taken in that mode. However the best aspect of this device is the shutter speed. I found myself taking 4-5 shots of each subject in order to ensure I managed to get the right shot. Most of the time this proved a fool-proof method, allowing me to discard any blurred shots and pick the best for us in social media.

 

Now, the video recording aspect of the optics is a slightly different matter. The Lumia 950 records in 4K (3840 x 2160) as well as 1080p and 720p options. 4K records at 30fps whilst 1080p can record at a maximum of 60fps. OIS is supposed to help with all modes however in my testing OIS wasn’t overly helpful with better OIS implementations to be had elsewhere, as will be evidenced in my video samples.

The detail on the 4K recording is evident though. Colours are close to lifelike, and focus is usually spot on. See what you think.

4K Samples:

 

1080p Samples:

 

720p Slow Mo Samples:

Software

Lumia 950So here we go. This is where we get to the real meat of the Lumia 950 and it’s ability to compare to established Android and iOS devices. You see it’s on Windows 10 that Microsoft has banked its mobile reputation. Windows 10 is not just a Desktop operating system any longer, it’s also a mobile operating system thanks to the aforementioned UWP. The universal development platform is key in bringing the Windows 10 eco-system to the mobile platform and with it, Microsoft hopes, developers. Developers are the single biggest demographic that Microsoft have to win over in order to ensure continued revenue from their mobile devices. It’s no secret that the Windows Store remains severely crippled in terms of application options. Key applications such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc are all available, but in many cases are not a patch on the same apps for other mobile operating systems. Microsoft have started to address this working with key partners to ensure quality rather than quantity starts to proliferate the App Store and I was assured this would be the case over the back-end of 2015.

Lumia 950The software itself however still bears the hallmarks of the tiled Windows 8.1 interface but has smoothed some of the rough edges. Tiles representing applications are situated on the home screen and come alive with varying degrees of information to help you stay in touch with the latest updates. There’s an action centre still, delivering quick access to the latest updates from apps, as well as quick toggles for WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, and many more, all of which are configurable. The settings menu is easily accessed and is now searchable, which is a handy feature given the levels of settings available. This tweak, and many more, are small but much-needed changes that make Windows 10 on a mobile device an iterative step from Windows 8.1 and not a lot more.

Another alteration that’s made its way from the Desktop is the addition of Edge browser to replace Internet Explorer. Edge is much cleaner and much more responsive, but does still take a bit of getting used to. Other changes include the addition of cross-device synchronisation meaning a notification dismissed for an application on a desktop, is simultaneously dismissed on the mobile device also. Again these are minor but much-needed additions.

Lumia 950What let’s Windows 10 on the Lumia 950 down is the lack of confidence it suggests that you have for it. Whether it be application updates taking almost an entire day to download and complete, or application notifications sounding off for every missed notification upon turning the device on after a day with no power. It just feels a little undercooked and this is something that I’m still hopeful Microsoft can improve on. It’s fair to say that some, if not most of this issue lies with developers, and therein lies another problem which Microsoft have tried to address.

Microsoft have managed to deliver an operating system that could be equally intuitive to users from an iOS or Android background, should they look to switch eco-systems. The configuration of the tile interface is akin to adding widgets on the home screen like in Android, whilst the relatively static overall front screen could be seen to be similar to iOS. Sadly, Windows 10 delivers both the best and the worst of both operating systems and doesn’t make a compelling case for outclassing either, mainly again due to its lacklustre app store. It’s this note that Microsoft hopes will be rectified sooner rather than later with a new process of porting both iOS and Android applications. This remains to be seen however, but the concept is indeed sound.

Conclusion

Lumia 950During the two-week testing period I suffered numerous random reboots (usually from using the camera application, or closing in on a dying battery), stuttering during multi-tasking, consistent thermal issues, as well as the frustration of non-UWP applications failing to launch in the Continuum desktop. Yet I remain impressed with the Lumia 950 on the whole. Why? Well whilst it’s true that it’s very rough around the edge, it’s mainly due to what Microsoft have set the ground work for rather than the device itself. Future iterations of Windows 10, with improvements in Continuum look set to ensure that there is still life in the old dog yet, but one issue remains, looming as large as ever; the Windows Store. Without developers delivering the applications that consumers want, it doesn’t really matter how good a device is; it will fail. Microsoft have addressed this with the UWP, but it’s a tall task to get people to start adopting Windows 10 as a development platform without an established user base already. Microsoft will be hoping that usage filters down from the desktop world and drags developers with it.

The Lumia 950 delivers nothing new in the design and aesthetic department whilst managing to maintain many of the staples of Lumia devices in the days of Nokia’s stewardship; optics, fluidity and an intuitive UI. These all remain and have been, to a less or greater degree, improved. The device does however fail to deliver class leading battery life, and build quality, with many of the newer inclusions lacking a final polish.

The Lumia 950 is a generic mobile device which has the unenviable distinction of re-launching Microsoft’s bid to have a viable smartphone product line. Whether you should dip your toe in this particular water hinges entirely on one question: Do you buy into Microsoft’s vision for the future? If you want a device that can handle multiple scenarios and become more of a work horse than simply taking some selfies to upload to Instagram (which is still in Beta by the way!) then it might be worth the £420 it’s currently going for SIM free (the price being another bone of contention). If you want an established app store, with a large developer community and more configurability then you’re better off looking elsewhere.

The Lumia 950 is a decent device and where it does well, it truly excels. It’s where it tries hard, and comes close that this device will be judged on by the consumer market and I think it falls, just, over the line when scrutinised, with the promise of more to come.

Microsoft Lumia 950

£420.00
7.6

Build

6.5/10

Hardware

8.5/10

Software

8.0/10

Camera

8.5/10

Value

6.5/10

Pros

  • Good camera
  • Vibrant screen
  • Removable battery
  • SD Card expansion
  • USB Type C

Cons

  • Cheap feel
  • Tired design
  • Battery can drain speedily

About Craig Bradshaw

Tech enthusiast and Editor-in-Chief of MobileTechTalk

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