Microsoft Lumia 950 Review

A Glance At The Future Haunted By Its Past

It’s been nearly two years since we had a proper Windows Phone flagship and now it’s finally here, the Microsoft Lumia 950. Along with this release comes a new version of the platform, nostalgia for the Windows Phone handsets we’ve come to love, and a new vision for what a smartphone should be. Has Microsoft delivered with this device? Well, let’s talk about it.

Specs

  • 5.2” 2560×1440 AMOLED Display
  • Snapdragon 808 Processor
  • 3GB RAM
  • 32GB Internal Storage (expandable via microSD)
  • 20MP Rear Camera – Carl Zeiss Optics, f/1.9 aperture, OIS
  • 5MP Front Camera
  • USB C
  • 3,000 mAh Battery (removable)
  • Windows 10 Mobile

Hardware & Design

When you first look at the Lumia 950, you probably wouldn’t think it’s a flagship. The purely plastic body screams anything but premium, but once you pick it up that changes a bit. The matte polycarbonate body is comfortable to hold and surprisingly grippy. I bought a case for this phone at first since I figured it would be a bit slick, but I quickly decided to simply leave this one without a case. While this device is plastic, it’s built well. The buttons are very tactile and there’s no play in the back cover, although it will creak here and there if you squeeze it.

This is also not a large phone. With a 5.2” display surrounded by fairly minimal bezels and a fairly thin 8.2mm frame, this is a pretty compact display. It fits well in the pocket and it’s weight feels great as there’s just enough weight to feel secure when holding it, but not enough to where it feels heavy. One thing I found fault with in the hardware is not truly a problem, but simply a disappointment. Unlike previous Windows flagship like the 1020, 1520, and more, there’s no bright colors on this device. Instead of green, yellow, orange and more, it’s either black or white.



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The Lumia 950 is an unassuming device in terms of its design. It’s not impressive, it doesn’t stand out, and it doesn’t turn heads, but at the same time it doesn’t look bad, and it feels just fine in the hand. You can definitely tell that Microsoft wanted to play it safe here and overall, I think they did a fine job.

Display

One of the biggest highlights of this phone is the AMOLED display on the front. At 5.2” with a Quad HD resolution, this is one heck of an awesome screen. Blacks are absolutely pitch black and colors really pop. With dark mode turned on within the software the entire OS really shines on this display. Everything also looks sharp on the display from images to browsing the web as well. Viewing angles are also top notch. Even though I personally prefer larger displays, I have no issue whatsoever in saying that this is definitely one of the best displays on a smartphone today.

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Software

Windows 10 Mobile is easily the biggest and most important release in the history of the platform. Microsoft took the entire platform and reworked it from the ground up to present us with an experience that brings much of what we love from it’s desktop counterpart and brings it down to the size of a smartphone.

After unlocking the device the first thing you’ll see is the classic Start screen, something that thankfully hasn’t been changed much at all. Here things come down to a preference, you’ll either love the look and feel of the platform or you’ll totally hate it. Personally I’m a huge fan of live tiles and Microsoft’s design language in general with Windows 10 (smartphones and computers alike). It feels futuristic and simple at the same time. While it can be a bit busy, the beauty of the Windows 10 Mobile Start screen is that you can make it look however you want. Add just a couple of static icons or fill it with a dozen live tiles, that’s up to you completely.

It’s once you start using apps and making your way through the details where you’ll see exactly what Microsoft has changed. Unlike Windows Phone 8.1 and prior, Microsoft has made a lot of core UI changes to how apps work. Rather than swiping through screens to navigate an app, Windows 10 has adopted hamburger menus as we see on other platforms such as Android and iOS. While most Windows Phone purists absolutely hate this change, personally I’m in favor of it, but I wish Microsoft had gone the “whole nine yards” so to speak. While menus are there, you can’t swipe them in. Rather you have to reach up to the top of the display to press a button to bring in that menu. This really detracts from any one-handed usability.

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One area in which you can really notice this change is the Store. Microsoft has completely revised this app in Windows 10 and while it does look great, it’s a mess. It’s ridden with bugs and it suffers from some of the not-so-great changes that have been made in Windows 10 Mobile.

Windows 10 Mobile has made a lot great changes to the platform, but it’s still haunted by it’s past. The app gap is still very clearly here, in some ways worse than ever before, and with so many bugs on what is supposed to be a consumer-ready device, it’s clear that Microsoft still has their work cut out for them.

Windows Phone has always felt like an OS that knows that it wants to be and how it’s different, but with Windows 10 Microsoft has lost track of that vision. Rather than being unique, Windows 10 Mobile feels like it wants to be every other operating system while maintaining it’s roots, and that’s just not possible.

Continuum

One of the biggest highlights of Windows 10 Mobile is Continuum. With this feature you can simply connect your device to any monitor and bam, you’ve got a full size computer. Now first things first, let’s make it clear, this is not full Windows 10. You can’t install .exe programs, so you’ll be limited to Windows Phone specific apps or universal apps. This means that programs like Word, Outlook, and more will work on this setup.

So how does it perform on the Lumia 950? Suprisingly well. It’s nowhere near the performance of your average PC, but it will allow you to get your work done. The point of Continuum is not to give you a desktop PC, but to allow you to to use your smartphone on an expanded canvas. Surfing the web, responding to emails, and using most applications is pretty easy and works well. Don’t expect to do anything intensive, but the basics work.

Windows Hello

Although it’s only a beta feature at this time, Windows Hello has really been a highlight of the 950 for me. The embedded iris scanner on the top right side of the Lumia 950 is fast, it’s accurate, and it’s just insanely cool.

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While you can type in a short PIN in about the same amount of time that you’d use the iris scanner in, I found the trade off worth it. A quick 2-3 second glance and you’re in. It was extremely rare that the scanner didn’t work and even then, it was most of user error than anything else. The real trick is holding the phone correctly. You can’t expect to unlock the device when it’s outside of a clear line of sight or far away. The most reliable results will occur when the device is held about 1-3 feet away from your face as long as it has a clear line of sight.

Battery Life & Charging

The Lumia 950 is part of a rare breed in 2016. Under it’s removable rear shell you’ll find a removeable 3,000 mAh battery. This allows users to easily swap their drained battery for one that is fully charged. Luckily however, that’s not something you’ll need to do often. The 950 can easily make it through a day of even heavy usage. Playing games, streaming music, and surfing the web shouldn’t present you with any battery life issues at all.

If you do manage to drain the battery before the end of the day, the 950 includes a USB C port for charging. The included USB C charging brick is capable of fast charging and there are of course third-party options available. You’ll need to be careful with what you buy for fast charging, but even with this young standard, you shouldn’t have any issues.

Camera

Sitting on the back of the Lumia 950 is a 20MP camera which is nothing short of spectacular. Shots taken in daylight are fantastic and even shots in low light come out nicely. There’s plenty of detail in every shot and overall I have absolutely no complaints with the camera.

Full Size Photo Gallery

The app is also fantastic with an easy to use interface which has a ridiculous amount of manual control. You can control just about anything you’d like when taking a picture and with the included retouching tools, you’ll be suprised with how great shots come out.

One of my personal favorite features of the camera is how it handles the flash. If you take a shot with the flash on, you can later edit the photo and decide how the flash’s effects show in the final picture. Usually I tend to avoid taking pictures with the flash on, but with the Lumia 950 that was the least of my concerns.

Speakers

One of the biggest letdowns on the Lumia 950 was the speaker. In a world where just about everyone is placing their speakers either on the bottom of the device or on the front, Microsoft decided to stick this one on the back of the device. While it’s not the worst speaker in the world, this is a huge flaw on the device in my opinion.

Final Thoughts

So at the end of the day is the Lumia 950 a device worth buying? That all really depends. If you’re a diehard Windows fan, sure, why not? If you’re a business user who relies heavily on the Microsoft ecosystem, again, why not? However if you don’t fit either scenario, it’s not easy to recommend it. Windows 10 Mobile is a bit step forward for the platform, but it’s still haunted by it’s past. App support is still not as easily available as it is on Android and iOS, and even Microsoft’s own apps work just as well if not better on those other platforms.

Unless you know you need a Windows phone, the Lumia 950 probably isn’t for you. This is a device where if you know you want/need it, then it’s the right device for you, but if you’re a little unsure, it probably isn’t.

– Lumia 950 unit provided for review by AT&T