Deep-dive review: Microsoft's Lumia 950 phone introduces mobile Windows 10

lumia 950 marketing 01 dsim
Credit: Microsoft

Both the phone and the OS have some interesting features, but neither is revolutionary.

With the release of the Lumia 950, the mobile version of Windows 10 is ready for its close-up -- the device is the first handset that sports the new operating system. Microsoft is betting big on it, hoping that the new OS, which shares a code base and features with the PC version, will resuscitate its tiny mobile market share.

Did Microsoft succeed? Is the Lumia 950 a phone that buyers will flock to, driven by Windows 10? Should you buy one? I spent more than a week putting the phone through its paces in order to come up with some answers.

Design and hardware

You likely won't be impressed by the Lumia 950 design -- with its simple, straightforward look and plastic back, it practically cries out middle-of-the-road. When placed next to my iPhone 6S it looked like a visitor from an earlier era. In the hand, the plastic has a cheap feel compared to the sleek metal of the iPhone 6S and other recent high-end smartphones.

The Lumia 950 is a visitor from an earlier era in another way as well -- but in a good way. By inserting a fingernail into a tiny slot on the bottom, you can remove its back to replace its battery and insert a micro SD card with a whopping 200GB of storage. (The SIM card slot is also here). None of the latest crop of smartphones have removable batteries, and many -- such as the iPhone 6S and the Samsung Galaxy S6 -- don't include micro SD card slots. So in this area at least, the Lumia 950 bests them.

The screen is a winner. It's a 5.2-in. AMOLED display with a 2560 x 1440 resolution at 564 ppi -- significantly larger and with higher resolutions than the iPhone 6S's 4.7-in. (1334 x 750 and 326 ppi) display, and essentially identical to the Samsung Galaxy S6's 5.1-in. (2560 x 1440 and 518 ppi) display. But specs are one thing and real-life experience another, and in my experience the screen is a beauty, with sharp contrast and rich colors that are most noticeable when watching videos.

Underneath the hood you'll find standard fare: a six-core Snapdragon 808 processor, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. Unlike most of today's phones (with some exceptions, such as the Nexus 5X and 6P), it has a the new USB Type-C port, which offers performance increases (although you probably won't have extra cords available to use with it). It also supports Qi and PMA wireless charging.

Nokia, which manufactured the phone, generally does a fine job with its smartphone cameras, and the Lumia 950 is no exception. Its 20MP rear camera has a Zeiss lens, optical image stabilization and triple LED natural flash. In operation, I found that the camera took clean, vivid photos with nice contrast. It also has a feature similar to the iPhone 6S's Live Photos, which the Lumia refers to as Living Images -- two-second videos that stop at the end with a still image. Meanwhile, the front-facing 5MP camera has a wide-angle lens so you can get a panoramic-like background for your selfies.

Many phones these days have fingerprint readers to let you unlock them. The Lumia instead uses a Windows 10 feature called Windows Hello, which uses the phone's biometric technology to scan the irises in your eyes and thus lets you unlock the phone by looking at it -- in theory, that is. In practice, though, it frequently didn't work for me unless the lighting conditions were right and I held the phone a certain distance from my face and at a certain angle.

The Lumia 950 is available from AT&T for $150 with a two-year contract, or from the Windows Store for $549 unlocked. Its larger-screened sibling, the Lumia 950 XL, has a 5.7-in. display and a more powerful processor (an eight-core Snapdragon 810), but is otherwise similar; the 950 XL is currently available for $649 unlocked from the Microsoft Store.

It's all about Windows 10

For me, though, what's most important about the Lumia 950 isn't the hardware -- it's that the device is the first phone that comes equipped with Windows 10. Based what I found, I don't expect it to make a dent in Microsoft's low-single-digit smartphone market share.

windows 10 mobile

Continuum makes it easy to connect your phone to a larger display (left). However, besides a few new features, Windows 10 for phones doesn't appear much different from its predecessor (right).

One problem is that, on a phone, Windows 10 simply isn't different enough from Windows Phone 8.1 to make much of a difference in the way the device is used. The interface looks and works much the same: A scrolling collection of large, live tiles that can deliver information on the tiles themselves, such as the latest news, and that launch apps when you tap on them.

That being said, there is a Windows 10 feature that may find a niche demographic: Continuum, which lets you turn your phone into a mix of a phone, tablet and PC.

Continuum changes the Windows 10 interface to suit the device on which you're running it. In the case of the Lumia 950, it allowed me to plug into an external display, a keyboard and a mouse using a $99 Microsoft Display Dock -- and turn the phone into a Windows 10 computer.

The Display Dock has six ports: Three standard USB ports, an HDMI port, a DisplayPort and a USB-C port. Connect the phone to the dock via the USB-C port, connect a display to the dock via HDMI or DisplayPort, and you can start working with Windows 10 on the display. (You can also connect to the display via Wi-Fi if it's Wi-Fi enabled via a Miracast dongle or other wireless-capable device -- the requirements can be found here.)

Once you've made the connection, your Windows 10 interface switches to the larger display. Your phone display, meanwhile, changes to a simple touchscreen you can use to control the cursor. If, like me, you find the touchscreen cramped and difficult to use, you can connect a keyboard and mouse to the Display Dock (or to the phone via Bluetooth) and use them instead.

However, even though your phone's workspace has switched, what you see on the larger screen isn't the same as what you'd see on your phone. Instead, you see several features from the PC version of Windows 10: a taskbar at the bottom that gives you access to the Start menu, a button for launching Cortana, a button for switching between apps via Task View (it works like Alt-Tab on a PC or laptop), and icons for any apps that you launch.

Once you've got Windows 10 running on the monitor, click the Start menu button on the lower left. The Start menu that appears shows tiles for all the apps on your phone. It looks much like the PC version of the Start menu, although it doesn't have the left-hand portion with links to Most Used, File Explorer, Settings, Power and other features.

Click any tile to run its associated app. Apps runs full-screen only and can't be resized. When you launch another app, the first app minimizes to the taskbar and the second app runs full-screen. You can keep running apps this way, and switch between them either by clicking their icons on the taskbar, or else clicking the Task View button on the taskbar, which presents all of your running apps as icons against the Windows 10 background in the same way that Alt-Tab does it on the desktop. You can also minimize and close apps by hovering your mouse over the upper-right corner and clicking the appropriate icon.

microsoft display dock 03 Microsoft

The Microsoft Display Dock uses Windows 10's Continuum feature to connect to a larger display.

The phone-based version of Continuum is still a work in progress. The biggest problem is that, despite the fact that it looks like a full desktop version of Windows 10 on the larger display, it currently works with only a subset of Windows 10 apps -- those created by Microsoft. So, for example, you can't run Facebook, Netflix or countless other Windows 10 apps this way. Microsoft says it's working on increasing the number of apps, but there's no word about which ones they're working on and when they might be able to run. (You can, however, run the mobile version of Office, which worked on my display without a hitch.)

I found other problems. The edges of the screen were cut off on my display so that the Start button, taskbar and Start menu were only partially visible. Microsoft acknowledges the problem in its FAQ and suggests that users with this issue should go to the settings menu on their TVs or monitors and select a picture or image setting that will resolve the issue. But the FAQ also notes, "Not all TVs and monitors have this setting." Mine didn't.

One more problem: At one point, my phone went to sleep; when I woke it up, all the apps I had been running had automatically closed.

For me, there's an even bigger issue: Currently, this feature (especially with the limited number of applications available) has little real practicality. After all, you're not going to lug a display, keyboard and mouse around with you when you travel or leave your office. You could use the Display Dock to bring work home (although you can probably do just as well using your home system to access cloud-based data) or to enable presentations at others' offices, for example. But from my point of view, Continuum on a phone is currently more a nifty parlor trick than it is a real-life productivity booster.

Other changes

Although Continuum is the main new Windows 10 feature for phones, there are other smaller changes as well.

Most important is that Windows 10 syncs all of your settings and a list of your most recently used files among all of your devices. So if you work on a Word file on your PC and then save and close it, when you launch Word on your Lumia 950, that file will show up on the list of recently used files -- and vice versa. Similarly, Cortana remembers you from device to device, and so becomes more useful the more you use it on your computers, tablets and phones.

Microsoft has also refined the general interface. Tiles are more subtly colored than in Windows Phone 8.1. Gone are the hardware buttons at the bottom of the phone. Instead there are three soft buttons that appear when you swipe up from the bottom of the screen.

Many Windows 10 apps have been redesigned to match their desktop-and-tablet counterparts, including Maps, Outlook (formerly called Mail), Calendar and the Store. In general, they're now more fully featured. For example, Maps now has a satellite view as well as a good local search that ties into Yelp. In addition, Edge replaces Internet Explorer as the phone's browser.

On the downside, the release of Windows 10 did nothing to solve a problem that has bedeviled Windows phones since their release: The fact that there are far fewer apps available for Windows than for iOS or Android. Want a Gmail or Google Drive app? You won't find one. How about one for Snapchat? You won't find that, either. Or for Pinterest, Tinder or others.

The bottom line

Will the Lumia 950 will help Microsoft gain mobile market share? The answer is: Not likely. According to Gartner, Windows Phone captured only 1.7% of smartphones shipped in the third quarter of this year, and the analyst firm doesn't expect Windows 10 to change that.

From a hardware perspective, the Lumia 950 is a decent phone that doesn't quite measure up against its more slickly designed competitors from the iOS and Android ecosystems. But no one will be buying this phone for its hardware. Instead, Microsoft is probably hoping that its new OS will be the big draw.

However, as I used the Lumia 950, I found that there was just not enough new in Windows 10 for it to make much of a difference to me. Windows 10 does have a nicer fit-and-finish than Windows Phone 8.1, including better Windows 10 apps. And Continuum lets you move your work smoothly from one device to another, although it is still a work in progress (and a Windows phone connected to a monitor, keyboard and mouse doesn't come close to replacing a desktop or a tablet). But little else in Windows 10 for phones is especially noteworthy compared to Windows Phone 8.1.

The upshot? If you don't use a Windows phone now, there's little reason to switch to one now. If you're committed to the Microsoft ecosystem, however, and are ready to upgrade to a more modern phone, the Lumia 950 could be a worthy upgrade.

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