I have been a long time Windows Phone user, so I’ve been waiting for way too long for a new flagship smartphone, and what amazes me most about the release of the Lumia 950 and 950XL is how a years worth of anticipation disappeared in minutes. I’m not saying that Windows Phone isn’t worth a serious look, but I have to vent my frustration as a long time Windows Phone user over what I experienced reviewing the Microsoft Lumia 950XL.
There is one thing that I want to get out of the way before I dive into this review of the Lumia 950XL, it’s that I haven’t reviewed the Lumia 950, and talking to a few people I trust who have reviewed both, it seems that I am saddled with the more disappointing handset. So I’m reserving judgement on just how disappointed Iin Windows 10 until I get that device in hand.
The Lumia line of smartphone has a long legacy of high build quality with bold bright colors, the Lumia 920 is fresh in our minds as our last Lumia device, the Denim update had me head over heels back in love with Windows.
Things are different under the Microsoft brand, gone is the quality build Nokia was known for. You won’t find a lick of Scandanavian design in the Lumia 950XL, it is the most uninspired mid range build I have seen all year. Meizu & Oppo are doing a better job at coming out with sleek well build phones, the Lumia 950XL audibly creeks in hand. It sounds, looks and feels cheap.
The biggest adjustment for me was the significant decrease in handset build quality.
It’s $570 and if you want it to feel premium you’re going to have to pick up a 3rd party case, and there are some pretty nice ones out there. The 950XL is generic and uninspired and it’s build quality feels very midrange.
The Lumia 950XL sports what should be flagship hardware, we’ll get into why it might not feel like it in the Performance section further in the review. Under the hood we have a Qualcomm Snapdgragon 810 processor with 3GB of RAM.
The phone comes packing 32GB of storage (29 of which are available out of the box) and also offers a MicroSD slot for up to 200GB of additional space. That slot sits under a removable back cover alongside a 3,340 mAh battery which is also removable. It measures 8.1mm thick and weighs in at 165grams.
The display does not feel budget, it’s HD with a ClearBlack polarization filter for better daylight visibility, and with the amount of text that you can pack on to the Windows Start Screen you can easily see how crisp things are. Add into that the inky blacks and heavy saturation common to OLED screens, if only you could see nothing else. One feature that pulls over from Windows 10 is the brightness controls, you are only able to increase or decrease in increments of 25%, on the desktop version you can use keyboard shortcuts to get finer levels of adjustment, but there doesn’t appear to be such a feature on Mobile.
The camera is familiar and of good quality, I just didn’t feel like it was a great as the 920 for low light. The Lumia 950XL sports a 20MP PureView camera with optical stabilization and a new triple-LED flash. Like all Lumia devices before it you have a dedicated camera key that we wish more manufacturers would include.
Microsoft has preserved the full suite of manual controls Nokia introduced back in 2013: ISO can be set to a maximum of 3200, exposure time goes all the way up to 4 seconds and focus can be adjusted on the fly. If you’re an experienced photographer accustomed to working with manual settings, you’ll feel right at home on the Lumia 950 and you’ll churn out some amazing photos with this very capable camera – photos which you can save in either JPG or DNG format.
But if you’re looking for a point and shoot there are better options out there, we found the photos a little cool and flat compared to other devices and forget about it in low light. There is a always a small measure of blur even if I rested my hand on the table to take a shot.
Windows 10 represents a substantial update to the Windows Phone platform, Continuum is compelling for a certain demographic, and universal apps hold a lot of promise for the future of the platform. Thankfully after such a long break from using Windows, things might have been tweaked in the operating system but it fundamentally feels the same. Until you starting really spending time with it, then instead of feeling like coming home, you’re entering into a house tht looks a lot like your house but some one has taken away or replaced some of your favorite furniture. To some the change might as well have been for the worse. When it works, Windows 10 is smooth clean and straightforward, but when it doesn’t, it is not pretty.
I had a hard time getting over missing long time Lumia staples like double-tap-to-wake being completely absent yet Glance Screen remained. It’s a mish mash of legacy features new design, which make sense since Windows 10 is theoretically a big step forward for the operating system. The one aesthetic change that best demonstrates my frustration is the People hub sporting circular icons..the entire operating system in square, circles stand out like a soar thumb. Good intentions and poor design seem to be thematic to this iteration of Windows Phone.
Still, moving into the Lumia 950XL after taking a lengthy sabbatical feels good. I LOVE Windows Phone and I get why the community keeps making excuses. “It’s in Beta” Sorry guys, it’s not, a developer program is called that, or Windows Hello, labelled in Beta. This is a mainstream product selling to regular consumers. It’s clear that Microsoft has made a mistake, Amazon Germany has pulled it from their store, retailers in the UK are also following suit. I’m willing to forgive a lot of things for a UI that I find fast and intuitive but constant performance hiccups in terms of apps opening is something that you just can’t look past.
They made the push to put the product on the market for Christmas and it feels rushed and half baked. Even though things aren’t working as smoothly as we’d like the great virtual keyboard (now with a curser) is wonderful. The email client isn’t capable of priority inbox but the UI design is better than what Google has served up. Cortana is only getting better and better…you may have forgotten my love affair with her, if not we do go on a date in New York.
As good as Cortana is, I have to mention the pervasive “app gap” 3rd party apps are missing or poorly built. Windows Phone has challenges, developers are actively discontinuing support for their Windows apps. Which is growing pains in a promising proposal, soon, we’ll be getting an all-new Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger apps for Windows 10. These will be “Universal Apps,” which will work on every form factor from the desktop to smartphone. 110 million Windows 10 devices are currently on the market and developers will be able to run apps on every screen size. They’ve laid the foundation for this, but in the store right now, we have some poorly executed follow through. Even if the apps aren’t ready, don’t show me apps from Windows 10 that don’t run on my phone. Why suggest that I download them if they aren’t compatible? We’re in some awkward growing pains right now. And this is where the community speaks up and says…wait … it will be better. And they might be right, for my sake I hope so, I’m not sure I could go through another review full of such disappointment.
Even still, if you’re willing to look past general usefulness for a more work singular work focus. I’ve always loved Windows Phone for work, the Lumia 950XL is no exception, Word, PowerPoint and Excel have gotten better and if you’re in need of Microsoft enterprise offerings it is a dream.
The most futuristic feature on the phone is one that I’m not fond of, Windows Hello let’s you unlock the phone by hitting the unlock button and raising to your face. The phone’s infrared sensor matches your iris, It’s cool but it’s not nearly as fast as simply pressing down on a finger print sensor.
The Lumia 950XL does not take advantage of the high end spec sheet that Microsoft has provided. Windows Phone has a history of running on lower spec’ed hardware and doing it shockingly well. It performs swiftly and competently but on the high end Snapdragon 810 processor with 3GB of RAM we have a mix bag of results.
The Lumia 950XL does an amazingly fast job at saving photos with a lot of post processing and doing it in large RAW formats with the file size to go along with it. But, we did see one or two UI glitches, there is even one in the video that we show but don’t really make a big deal about. When I was editing the video I caught a few and it made me realize that I was being forgiving, I’m a Windows Phone Lover, so I didn’t see it in hand. If you look past the occational stutter the Edge browser isn’t very fast, it’s very slow to render webpages and when the apps do work they refresh abnormally often which makes using the phone slow.
Gamers won’t be impressed with the performance, Asphalt 8 took almost 5 minutes to load the first time and around 2 minutes every other. It ran fine but loadtimes are what makes this experience feel midrange.
If you’re wondering how the Lumia 950XL benchmarked here are some results:
Benchmark OSII 1502
At 5.7 inches and 8.1mm thick and 165grams we should have a little more umph in the sound department. The Lumia 950XL is loud but it is tinny and hallow. You won’t be struggling to share media or a song or two, which is all that matters. There are no high end audio codecs are hardware kicking around either so forget adding extra value when you plug in headphones.
There is no way that this phone should cost $570, it’s build quality just doesn’t justify it. Adding in features no one else is including like a removable battery isn’t enough for me to pay significantly more than other comparable smartphones.
I like Windows Phone, Windows 10 is a great start to a brave new world and I’m looking forward to the day that they release a polished version with hardware reminiscent of the Nokia days. I’m willing to forgive a lot as a Windows Phone Fan, but there are too many concessions to me made in it’s current state. The Windows Store is a big issue getting the limited apps that are available running. There’s no equivalent of Apple Pay or Android Pay, though the phone does have NFC. This isn’t a dealbreaker for me, but it might be for others.
The battery life isn’t what it needs to be, I can get through the day most of the time but standby just seems to eat battery life. An easy all day can be mared by a 20% drop for no reason. Things could improve over an update, but that’s my other pet peeve. This isn’t a beta product, it’s not a developer edition, it’s a product being sold in stores. And it doesn’t surprise me that Amazon Germany has stopped selling it, the 905XL is just not ready, the OS feels glitchy and half baked, your loyal community isn’t going to stay loyal for much longer with glitchy software and poorly built hardware.
The camera was leading edge on previous generations, but in today’s competitive landscape it’s disappointing that it’s a subpar point and shoot.
Windows Fan girl or not, I’m pretty upset that this is what I’ve been waiting for.