After years of misguided attempts at mobile, Microsoft is ready for a fresh start. While Windows Phone 8 and 8.1 mostly just looked like their desktop counterparts, Windows 10 Mobile aspires to something even more substantial. This time, Microsoft tried to build a mobile platform — and a phone — that can seriously replicate some of those big-screen experiences. Rather than just peck out emails and rough drafts on the new Lumia 950, Windows 10 makes it possible to connect a keyboard, mouse and display and let Universal apps like Word and Outlook to get more done.
Microsoft doesn’t think the Lumia 950 is a new phone as much as it a symbol of something new — a standard-bearer for a kind of mobile computing that won’t be contained by a single box in your pocket. Their vision is ambitious, and who knows! They might be right about all of this. For now though, it’s clear Microsoft still has plenty of work to do.
The Lumia 950 is the first phone to run Windows 10 Mobile, a revamped software platform that aims to make Windows Phones do more than ever before. Both have promise — the former with its great camera and super high-res screen, the latter with stand-out features like Continuum and Windows Hello. Ultimately, we’re left with a phone that doesn’t feel as expensive as it is, running software that still needs some polish and stronger app support.
The Lumia 950 ($550 unlocked, $600 with AT&T) isn’t much of a looker. Its face is nondescript, save for a Microsoft logo, 5-megapixel front camera and an easy-to-miss sensor meant to identify your eyes. All of that sits just atop a pocket-friendly 5.2-inch WQHD AMOLED display. The 950’s backside is more interesting, and not just because of the shiny, metallic Windows logo inset a few millimeters north of center. Beyond that lies a tri-tone flash (the better to capture natural colors, my dear), a single speaker and a 20-megapixel camera sitting between the two.
Thankfully, what’s inside is a little more tantalizing. If it were an Android phone, the 950’s hexa-core Snapdragon 808 chipset and 3GB RAM would put it firmly in the upper-middle class. There’s another version of the 950 — the XL — that comes with a bigger screen and an even more potent processor, but there’s more making Windows run smoothly than just pure power. Remember, Windows Phone has almost always performed smoothly even on straight-up weak hardware, so my expectations going into this were pretty high. More on that later, though.
Under that removable polycarbonate back sits a removable 3,000mAh battery that plays nice with the Qi wireless charging standard. The battery is flanked by a nanoSIM slot and a hard-to-spot microSD slot just under that. You might not need it too since there’s 32GB of internal storage waiting for you, but hey — who couldn’t use up to 200GB of additional storage space? Leave it to Microsoft to include what many Android device makers just won’t. And while we’re talking about things that Android-friendly OEMs don’t all agree on, the Lumia 950 also use a USB Type-C port for charging and data transfer.
Now that the tour’s over, how does the phone feel? Not as premium as I’d hoped. There’s no creaking or groaning when you start twisting it — and really, who doesn’t do that to a new phone — but Microsoft’s lackluster design and fondness for lightweight materials mean the Lumia 950 doesn’t feel like a flagship phone. Actually, Android purists might be amused to learn it feels just like the Nexus 5X, almost down to the ounce. There are worse phones to feel like, but it’s still a little odd that Microsoft’s would-be mobile savior feels more like a Lumia 640 than a Lumia Icon. The removable polycarbonate back doesn’t reach all the way up the phone’s sides, which is a little concerning since it appears to leave the edges of that Gorilla Glass 3 plate uncovered. Fortunately, the phone is more rugged than you’d expect and it’s all holding together nicely even after a few butter-fingered drops.
Display and sound
The Lumia 950’s 5.2-inch screen does a fine job packing in those pixels (564 pixels per linear inch) but in other respects it’s less than stellar. First up, it’s just not as bright as the devices like the iPhone 6s or the Moto X Pure Edition, and whites take on a distinctly greenish cast. It should come as no surprise that blacks are deep and sumptuous since we’re in AMOLED country, and colors rendered on this screen do at least show more depth than on others. That said, the general dimness of the screen means those colors often feel a little muddy — you’ll notice this more in photos with lots of warm colors. At the very least, you’ve got the option to swap between Standard, Vivid and Cool color profiles, as well as tweak the color temperature, tint and saturation from the Extras section in the settings.
There’s also a bit of space between the display panel itself and the sheet of Gorilla Glass covering it, but viewing angles were generally fine anyway; no weird color distortion when you peek at the screen askance. At best, Microsoft’s screen choice gets the job done. The same could be said of the single speaker sitting just to the right of the camera, actually. Rear-facing speakers have always been a pet peeve of mine but the 950 is capable of cranking out some loud, if sometimes muddy, sound. Your audiobooks and YouTube videos will sound fine; just don’t expect to gain any new aural insight into your favorite tracks.
Let’s be honest: You’re not here for the hardware, are you? Here’s how Windows 10 Mobile’s big bits come together on the 950. First off, Windows Phone devotees will have a little acclimating to do. Most of Windows Phone’s broad strokes — the homescreen full of Live Tiles, the minimalist app launcher, the Action Center we got in WP8.1 — are still here and act as intuitive anchors for people trading one mobile version of Windows for another. Peer beyond the familiar facade, though, and some big changes quickly become apparent.
Consider the Windows Store, for instance: Gone are the big-fonted categories, replaced with a more nuanced look in line with its desktop counterpart. More importantly, Microsoft says it tweaked the algorithms that dictate which apps get recommended to you and when. It’s a very subtle change, only really apparent after you’ve been a user for a while, and I haven’t noticed a real leap in quality of recommendations. Frankly, old-school Windows Phone’s store was a sleek-looking mess; this new version lacks some of the original’s style but makes up for it with pure functionality.
The stock Messages app has grown dramatically, too. In addition to firing off standard texts, you also have the option of linking it to your Skype account for more of an all-in-one experience. Well, more or less. From your point of view, SMS and Skype messages are folded into the same threaded conversation. Unless the person you’re talking to also has a Windows 10 phone, they’ll just get those messages in two different places. You might also notice a curious blue nub in the corner of the keyboard while you’re thumbing out those messages. Think of it as a software version of little red nub on ThinkPads: It’s meant for fine-grained control over the cursor, but it moves so slowly I basically gave up on it.
Microsoft went big with its Edge browser on Windows 10 for the desktop, so of course it did the same here. To give you some context, Edge on the desktop was a marked improvement over the beleaguered versions of Internet Explorer it replaced. Here, the improvements are less dramatic. Pages load snappily over LTE, and scrolling through them (even really long ones) is generally smooth. Beyond that, though, there isn’t a whole lot to say; you can save articles to a Reading List where they’ll be converted into a handsome file with larger typefaces, and your favorites still get synced across devices when you’re logged in with your Microsoft account. And of course, everyone’s favorite Halo-inspired digital assistant Cortana is here too. Rivals like Google Now and Siri have benefitted from years of iteration and augmentation but this version of Cortana is plenty capable. The line between this version and her desktop counterpart is reassuringly thin, and that’s mostly a good thing.
All of your email will pass through Outlook, which means you can kiss pinning individual email accounts to your Start screen goodbye. Full disclosure, by the way: I’m a huge fan of Outlook on other platforms, but this version just isn’t as feature-rich. Setting up the email associated with your Microsoft account (you do have one, right?) requires zero work, and even adding my weirdo corporate Gmail account with its separate security layers took just a few moments. Triaging those missives is easier now too thanks to the gestures Microsoft picked up from its acquisition of Acompli last year — a swipe to the left archives an email while swiping in the opposite direction flags it for later perusal.
Even better, Outlook now lets you attach honest-to-goodness files (that is, things that aren’t photos) to emails! It’s the little things, people. Speaking of little things, here are a few more. The icons for friends and contacts in the People app are circles now instead of square, which is surprisingly jarring. You can now clear out all the notifications in the Action Center with a single tap. And certain notifications — like those for Facebook updates or text messages — let you respond without having to open the associated app. Three words: It’s about time.
Then there’s Windows Hello (still in beta), which uses a tiny infrared sensor to peek at your iris and verify your identity. The setup process basically just involves lining up your eyes in an on-screen box while Microsoft’s algorithms do their thing — just remember to take your glasses off the first time you run through it. That’s right, first time — you can run the setup multiple times to give Windows a better glimpse at your eyes in different conditions, like when they’re sitting behind a scuffed pair of Warby Parkers. The practical benefits to Hello’s iris scanning are still very limited; you can use your eyes to unlock the phone instead of punching in a PIN or got authorize purchases in the revamped Windows Store. It’s never faster than just entering a numerical code either, which is frankly silly. At least it’s accurate (even with glasses), especially once you get a feel for how far away from the camera you need to be for it to work.
When you screw up enough times that Hello gets blocked though– and this will almost certainly happen — you’ll be asked to enter your PIN to reactivate it. Fine! Except by default, Windows 10 doesn’t prompt you for a PIN for 15 minutes after you’ve already entered the phone. That means if you just leave all options as they were, you’ll either have to wait 15 minutes or go back into the Settings, set the screen to lock immediately, lock the phone and unlock it again to make Hello work again. I’m not holding this inelegance against Microsoft (too much) since it’s still a beta feature, but yeesh. I hate to say it, but that lack of polish is a running theme so far in Windows 10 Mobile.
There’s a slight, noticeable pause when you swipe in and out of the app launcher. A few times, the 950 completely locked up while trying to fiddle with the screen’s brightness; not even the sleep/wake button did the trick. Good thing I could remove the battery. When checking my email in Outlook, I’ll sometimes be brought straight to the accounts settings menu for no reason I can figure out. My homescreen tiles once disappeared entirely after Windows took 45 seconds to launch an app. The list goes on. These are little things, certainly, but together they mar an otherwise strong step forward for Microsoft. After my days of testing, Windows 10 Mobile is equal parts functional and frustrating. It’s perhaps unfair to compare brand new software to Windows Phone 8.1 and the extra year of development and polish it got, but there were definitely moments when I missed the snappy cohesiveness of the previous version. We’ll soon start to see some of these rougher edges get sanded down via update, but until then, there’s one more feature that might make this all worth the trouble.
Using the Lumia 950 to power full-size apps on external displays is most interesting part of Windows 10 for mobile, though even Microsoft’s brass admits some people will never, ever use it. And you know what? When it works, it’s pretty brilliant.
When you fire up the 950, you’ll spot a big Continuum tile on your homescreen, but you might not even need it. It took mere seconds for the phone to realize I had connected it to Microsoft’s $99 Display Dock over a USB Type-C cable. With just a few taps, I was looking at what amounted to a Windows 10 desktop on my monitor. It’s obviously not a one-to-one translation of the typical Win10 experience, though; instead of the Start button and search bar, there’s a quartet of icons. The back and search icons are pretty self-explanatory, and indeed, you’ll be using the Windows one most often. That one launches the “Start menu,” or in other words a replica of your phone’s normal homescreen. Click over into your app list and you’ll find a majority of them are greyed out; the ones that aren’t are what Microsoft calls “Universal” apps — that is, applications with a single codebase that intelligently expand and contract based on the display they’re on.
For the most part, the ones Microsoft built in-house work well. The stock Weather app uses all that extra space to show off the week’s forecast, plus an hourly breakdown and additional details for the day. The grid of stories that seems so constrained in the Money app’s mobile view suddenly has room to breathe and it’s beautiful (if a little overwhelming). Ditto for the included Sports app, which I can’t really decipher anyway. Microsoft’s mobile Office suite is perhaps the biggest argument for using Continuum because the apps often work so damned well. I wrote this entire section on a full-sized USB keyboard connected to a phone connected to a television. That sentence wouldn’t have made a lick of sense just a couple years ago, and now it feels like the most natural thing in world.
Are the Word experiences (or the PowerPoint, or the Excel) full replacements for their desktop equivalents? Maybe not. Still, the ability to craft a letter or a decent-looking slide deck on a big display and pick things up near-seamlessly on a small screen after disconnecting everything is a pretty powerful argument for Continuum’s existence. Right now, there are two big problems. First is a slight sense of inconsistency. Still other apps on the 950, like the calculator, are just stretched out versions of the normal, mobile view and are pretty lame. Thankfully, you can use the phone to run apps and take calls while it’s connected to a secondary display. Sure enough, you’re better off running those non-optimized apps there instead.
The bigger problem is capability. Microsoft seems intent on demolishing the barrier between a mobile-first and desktop experience, but it just can’t do it without help from developers building the universal apps that would make Continuum shine. I’m told the interest is there — too bad there aren’t many great universal apps at this early stage. Among the standouts: Amazon’s Audible app (I’ve got a Robert Heinlein audiobook playing as I write this) and CBS’s. On the flip side, the Windows Store also plays host to Universal stinkers like Facebook which just blows out the mobile view again. Here’s hoping Microsoft can persuade those app creators on the fence. This feature deserves it.
Alas, Continuum doesn’t handle everything the way I’d like it to. Let’s say you’re pecking out a lengthy something in Word and you wander off to make a sandwich. By the time you return, your phone will have likely gone to sleep, and when you wake it up to pick up where you left off, Word has disappeared from your monitor. The lack of persistence might not be an issue for some since you’re meant to be able to yank your phone out at any moment, but it makes sessions of prolonged productivity trickier to manage. Your best bet is to set the phone to never go to sleep, which can be problematic in its own way.
Microsoft originally sent Engadget what appeared to be a defective unit. It had some serious trouble with input devices and Continuum. On a few occasions, Windows didn’t know what to do when I was using a mouse’s scroll wheel. Sometimes it would cycle through tabs in Edge when I was wanted to read more text. Other times it just stopped working completely. This was the case with multiple mice too, by the way, including Bluetooth and wired models. Thankfully wasn’t an issue with the second unit I tested.
If you try to launch an app that isn’t Continuum-friendly, Windows will offer to launch it on the phone instead. In the case of media apps like Spotify, the program and all its controls still pop up on the phone, but the audio will route through your display’s speaker (if it has some, that is). Well, almost all the controls. If an app has key functions located very low on the screen, the “Tap to control your display” bar that sits atop the regular interface might push them down too far to see. I’ve haven’t come across any apps that have been made completely unusable by that pesky UI flourish, but some come close; only the top third of Spotify’s playback controls were visible and they were tough to properly poke. Like the rest of Windows 10 Mobile, Continuum is far from perfect and suffers from a dearth of stand-out third-party apps. But as with the rest of Windows 10 Mobile, there are glimmers of promise that could give Microsoft a distinct edge as we step further into the post-PC era.
Nokia’s love of photography manifested in devices like the PureView 808 and the Lumia 1020, and Microsoft was more than happy to try and keep that tradition alive. The act of snapping a photo is remarkably fast, punctuated by an ersatz shutter sound and a brief darkening of the screen. Resulting snapshots tend to look incredible by default on the 950’s pixel-dense display, with bright poppy colors and loads of detail to pick out.
The real magic, though, happens after the photo’s already been taken. Pop into the camera roll and Windows will mention it’s applying some finishing touches to the most recently taken photo. A moment later that photo will subtly change (usually for the better) as Windows takes the edge off overexposed spots and restores a touch of reality to colors that sometimes feel overmagnified. Very helpful. That’s not to say that immediate post-processing is always a good a thing; I snapped a few shots of an L figurine under some diffused lights and the colors were crisper and more dramatic before the camera app decided to wash them out.
The 950 even does surprisingly well in low-light conditions, though you’ll still never completely escape the grain that plagues small smartphone camera sensors. That’s where the software really halps. While snapping a photo (even one that gets saved as an 8MP JPEG and a 16MP DNG) is super fast, a tap on the floating menu lets you manually focus, not to mention fiddle with white balance, shutter speed, ISO and exposure with those trademark circular sliders. Kudos to Microsoft — and Nokia — for making one of the more elegant shooting experiences you’ll find.
Here’s the rub, though: While the 950 has a great camera, it doesn’t have the edge over the competition as older Lumias. Modern smartphone cameras have gotten so good that it takes a seriously special combination of sensor and software to push the industry forward. I still prefer photos taken with the likes of the Galaxy Note 5, though the 950 generally punches in the same well-respected weight class as the iPhone 6s.
Performance and battery life
When the Lumia 950 is quick (which is most of the time), it’s really quick. What else did you expect from a Lumia? It even handles games like Asphalt 8 Airborne pretty well, though you’ll spot a dropped frame here and there. In fact, it’s that general smoothness that makes those occasional hiccups feel especially troublesome. It seems clear that the hardware isn’t at fault; we’ve seen this same chip thrive in plenty of other phones. Promising as it is, the software still feels unpolished, leaving the Lumia 950 to act like less of a speed machine than it could have been. I’m willing to cut Microsoft a little slack here; after all, it’s very early days for Windows 10 Mobile and it’s unfair to compare this version to Windows Phone 8.1, which became more polished over time. Still, that’s a very nerdy concession to make; if weren’t already fond of Windows Phone, you’d be way less inclined to forgive Microsoft for a new OS that has its fair share of bugs.
On the flip side, the 950 does well as a phone. People I spoke to remarked on how clear I sounded, and I had no trouble hearing them while walking down the street. Battery life was nothing special, though having a fast charging, removable cell might be enough to make it up to some of you. I spent more than a week testing two different Lumia 950s, and both of them stuck around for a full workday of Slacking, triaging emails, jumping on phone calls and playing games. My routine usually means I pulled the 950 off the charger at about 7:30AM and both units routinely ran until about 6:30 before needing a quick top-up. You can easily extend that time by firing up the Battery Saver mode, and extra gains might be found by disabling Hello’s eye scanning. When it’s finally time to take a trip to the wall outlet, the included USB Type-C charger brings the 950 from bone-dry up to about half-full in a little over 30 minutes.
This goes without saying, but do not buy a Windows Phone that isn’t this thing or its more powerful cousin, the XL ($649 unlocked). The full-on Windows 10 Mobile rollout will begin in December and so you shouldn’t be caught with older Windows Phone hardware if you can avoid it. For those of you who are getting a first smartphone, or mulling a move away from Windows as a mobile platform, Windows 10 Mobile and Lumia running it provide an intriguing view of the future of computing. Still, there are plenty of other options you should consider.
The iPhone 6s, for instance, is one of the best smartphones out there and has a library of software that Microsoft’s platform can’t match yet. Apps aside, the 6s also has a great 13-megapixel camera that excels at snapping quick, impressive photos with hardly any effort. There’s also the Huawei-made Nexus 6P ($499 and up), which brings the cleanest build of Android you can get. While it, too, is deceptively light, Huawei’s sleek constructed aluminum body is a treat and the combination of a Snapdragon 810 and 3GB of RAM make for snappy performance.
If you’re on more of a budget, you could even go with the Nexus 5X ($379 and up), which packs the same brains as the Lumia 950 into a body that basically feels the same. The same could mostly be said of this year’s Moto X Pure edition — it hangs onto the Snapdragon 808 but squeezes it into a body that feels remarkably well put together. The Pure edition is also highly customizable, and more importantly, poised to get Android software updates nearly as fast as Google’s own Nexus devices. Beyond the hardware, these three devices have the maturity of iOS and Android propping them up. Developers are creating apps for these platforms at a far faster clip than Windows Phone or Windows 10, and even now it’s hard to ignore the persistent app gap.
Microsoft’s ideas about the future of smartphones are intriguing, and they might even have legs. After all, who among us hasn’t idly dreamed of toting around one device that works elegantly in multiple contexts? In order for Microsoft to deliver that vision, it has to (among other things) deliver a phone people will actually want, and the Lumia 950 just doesn’t feel like it. This isn’t a flagship phone. This is a first step.
I have no doubt that Microsoft will iron out the bugs in Windows 10 Mobile; what choice does it have? As it stands, when Continuum works, it’s kind of amazing. And there’s no denying the Lumia 950 has a strong camera, not to mention robust underlying hardware. Still, though, I’d be shocked if the Lumia 950 managed to find an audience beyond die-hard Windows fans who have been hanging on to their 920s and 1520s. If that hit a little close to home and you’re dying for a new phone, you’re still probably better off getting a Lumia 950 XL. The rest of you have two other options: Find a home on a different platform, or wait to see what a few extra months of progress does to a platform with so much unrealized promise.