Microsoft Lumia 950 Review: Can a Smartphone Be Your PC? – Wall Street Journal

One day I’ll tell my grandchildren of life during the Great Gadget Identity Crisis.

“You had the phablet—phone plus tablet. The tablet with a keyboard? Tabtops. And don’t forget the laptops with tablets for screens. We called those … laplets! It was not a pretty time, kids.”

The crossbreeding continues. On Friday, Microsoft
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began selling the Lumia 950—a smartphone that can become… a desktop computer. Before I go any further, can we all agree not to call it a phoneputer? Good.

The Lumia 950, the first premium phone released by Microsoft since its acquisition, of Nokia,
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runs Windows 10. Yes, the same software Microsoft released earlier this year for laptops and desktops—except with a mobile-friendly interface on the smaller screen. Its Continuum feature allows the software to bend and stretch to different screen sizes.

The Lumia 950 becomes a desktop computer.
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Smartphones are becoming more and more powerful. They’re already the primary computer of many people in the U.S. and abroad. So why lug around another computer just to use when you’re at your desk? Microsoft says it’s not pushing Continuum as the answer to everyone’s needs, but let’s face it, without a trick like this, why even consider a Windows Phone?

After failing miserably to compete with the iPhone and the Android army, Microsoft’s latest mobile phone strategy is to lean on what it knows best: traditional, get-work-done computing. And it’s seriously impressive how this phone takes to monitors and keyboards. It makes the idea of our phones being our main computers seem far from crazy.

But this isn’t the Hail Mary Microsoft needs. For now, it’s simply too limited as a computer—and a phone.

The Lumia 950 scans your iris to unlock your phone.
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As a Phone

If you’re still thinking of Microsoft as just a software maker it is time to stop. The Lumia 950, like the Surface Book and Pro, proves that it is right up there with Apple
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and Samsung
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when it comes to making gadgets.

The Lumia 950’s phone hardware is top notch. The 5.2-inch, 2560×1440-pixel screen is bright and crisp. Despite having a plastic—sorry, “polycarbonate”—back, the phone feels well made. The battery inside lasted me until my 11:30 p.m. bedtime, and the USB Type-C port charges it up in less than two hours.

Microsoft nailed the camera, too. Leveraging Nokia’s imaging prowess, the 20-megapixel camera quickly snapped very crisp, detailed and well-lit photos—indoors and out. In low light, it consistently took better shots than the iPhone 6s, though not quite as good as Samsung’s Galaxy S6.

And like Apple’s new Live Photos, Microsoft’s Living Images snaps a little video when you take a shot. I just wish it was smart enough to not record video of still subjects. I have a beautiful video clip of a stationary burrito if anyone would like to see it.


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You know what the iPhone doesn’t do though? Make me feel like James Bond. The infrared sensor on the front of the phone along with the Windows Hello software, scans your iris to unlock your phone. In good lighting it worked well—but it takes a hair longer than the best fingerprint sensors. Also, it refused to let me in once it got dark out, or when I was wearing glasses.

And none of those tricks ease the pain pain of software bugs and a terrible app experience. Because Windows Phone lost so badly in the smartphone war, key apps are either missing or crazy out of date. While Microsoft’s apps—Outlook, Maps, Weather—are all good at the essentials, I had to reach for my iPhone to pay for my latte at Starbucks,
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check in on my Nest Cam’s live video feed and order my dinner through Seamless.

Worse, the apps that are there seem to have been abandoned. Instagram, still in beta after nearly two years, doesn’t allow you to record video. Twitter
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lacks many of the new features, including GIF support. Facebook
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Messenger is a pale version of its iOS and Android self, and it kept crashing. I could go on. Microsoft says its tools for developers to bring their Web, iOS and Windows desktop apps over to the platform might help improve the situation. Soon it will provide a “bridge” for Android developers to port apps as well.

With Windows 10, the Lumia 950 becomes a desktop computer when docked.
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As a Computer

I spent most of my week using the Lumia—not out and about but right at my desk. Plug it into the $100 Microsoft Display Dock, attach a monitor, mouse and keyboard and you’ve built your own desktop. No screwdriver required!

I’m amazed just how the software adapts. Up pops a Windows 10 desktop on the bigger screen. Tap the phone’s Continuum app and the screen even becomes a trackpad for the cursor. Crazy enough, it’s actually better than what’s on most Windows laptops. Two-finger scrolling was smooth, and pointing and tapping was more responsive.

The rest is… well, Windows! There’s a Start Menu in the bottom left corner and a taskbar along the bottom to show you open apps. Hovering in the top right corner shows brings up the “X” and “—” to close and minimize windows. Shortcuts work, too. For instance, Alt+Tab brings up the new Windows 10 open-app view.

When docked, the Lumia 950 becomes a trackpad.
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All together, this made for a decent basic desktop computing experience—decent enough for me to write this entire review and not spend every minute pining for my laptop. Word, Excel, PowerPoint all look and feel like they do on a laptop, and the Edge Web browser loads desktop sites instead of mobile ones.

The problem is, despite the hexa-core processor and 3GB of RAM, the system feels out of power. Having just five or six open tabs reminded me of the dial-up modem days. Not only were sites slow to load over Wi-Fi, but the entire system and browser got bogged down. Besides, Google’s Chrome is just a far better desktop browser, feature-wise.

But that’s not the worst of it. Remember those app problems? Because this is Windows 10 Mobile and there is no Intel
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chip inside, Windows desktop apps don’t work. That means no downloading the desktop version of Spotify or Slack or iTunes. You can’t run mobile apps on the big screen, either. For example, I couldn’t open the Windows Phone Spotify app in the desktop PC mode, but I could run it on the phone while I did work on the computer monitor.

Microsoft's Lumia 950 is the first phone to run Windows 10.
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Microsoft’s own apps—Outlook, Office, Maps, Weather—are what the company calls “Universal Apps.” They’ve been written to work on Windows 10 phones, tablets, laptops and desktops and everything in between. Microsoft is betting that app makers will begin to release their own Universal Apps, especially now that there are more than 110 million devices running Windows 10. But since those Windows 10 PCs can run standard desktop versions of popular software, the developer incentive to go universal is a little shaky.

If phones will one day replace our computers, we’re going to choose the phones with the apps and services we already love. Unfortunately for Microsoft, right now those are iPhones and Android phones, which already work great with Microsoft’s own apps and services.

It feels like the Lumia 950 is a proof of concept that might help Microsoft get momentum for its new strategy. But I can’t recommend buying a $600 proof of concept. For now, your phone stays … a phone.

Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JoannaStern.

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