The Microsoft Lumia 950 XL is an amazing pocket computer

This high-end phone doubles as a legit pocket computer.

lumia 950xl marketing 01 dsim
Credit: Microsoft

I’m typing this on a Microsoft Lumia 950 XL.

It’s not as convoluted as it sounds. The phone is connected through a Microsoft Display Dock to a Philips HD monitor with exceptional color quality. (Shh, it’s an unreleased model under embargo.) The Display Dock has an HDMI-out port and a USB-C input for the phone -- plus three extra USB ports. The dock is tiny -- about the size of mouse but heavy (at just over 8 ounces), which helps it stay put on a desk.

I’m using Microsoft Word Mobile, a version that is designed for Windows 10 but is also fine-tuned to support desktop mode (through the Microsoft Continuum platform). I have a Logitech K810 keyboard and a Logitech Ultrathin Touch T630 mouse both connected over Bluetooth to the phone. And, I’m loving it.

This is the first time in 15 years I’ve felt a “pocket computer” actually works. I’ve seen pocket computers in all shapes and sizes. In fact, one just arrived today -- the Asus Chromebit that plugs into an HDMI port. There’s another one that looks promising called the InFocus Kangaroo. Many companies are trying to get the thumbdrive computer to be a reality, but they suffer from the same disappointing ailment: They are just small boxes that don’t do anything when you disconnect them.

Motorola tried something very similar to the Lumia 950 XL a few years ago called the Atrix. I tried one at CES 2011 in fact and then tested it several times in my office using a similar setup with a monitor, keyboard and mouse. It just wasn’t the right timing. That “computer” ran slow and crashed often. There were large, cumbersome components you had to use to make it all work. I rarely if ever used it.

Recent Android phones like the Nexus 6 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 can connect to an HD monitor using the new version of Google Chromecast, a tony dongle that weighs only 1.3 ounces. Yet, it's a terrible computer. You can connect a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, but the phone is jumpy. The lag makes it impossible to get any real work done, but at least you can watch The Avengers.

The 950 XL is a different beast. For starters, it has a Snapdragon 810 octa-core processor and 3GB of RAM. The dock barely has any lag. As I type right now, the characters pop up instantly. I can Alt-Tab over to the Microsoft Edge browser in a split-second and c heck Gmail, research a topic, and jump right back into Word.

As I mentioned, Microsoft obviously made sure Word on the 950 XL runs fast. It’s almost as responsive as Word on a laptop, although this version is a bit stripped down. There are only a few basic options for inserting images, text boxes, headers, and other elements. You can change the layout and add breaks, use Smart Lookup, and make basic formatting changes. All of the template options are here for creating brochures, and it’s genuinely useful – even if a few features are missing. (Most notably, I don’t see that you can edit documents as a group, which is a big addition to Word 2016.)

I just like the idea of carrying a gadget that functions as a phone (one that happens to have a bright 5.7-inch screen and a 20-megapixel camera) but also works as a desktop computer, even if the extra dock costs $99 and the unlocked phone is $649.

What does it all mean? Continuum is a powerful, useful workflow aid that’s a game-changer for IT workers. It means I can carry my smartphone with me and store documents on it, then connect up in a remote setting with a keyboard and mouse and keep right on being productive, no laptop needed. Every other “pocket computer” I’ve tested didn’t really offer this much power and flexibility. Maybe the power without the flexibility, maybe the flexibility without the power, but not both.

There are a few oddities, though. One is that, in desktop mode, you won’t see an obvious way to close apps. It’s not a hold-over from Windows 8 where you draw the screen down to close. If you hover to the upper-right, you’ll see a close box. Also, if you use the Lumia 950 (not the XL version), you should expect some jittery behavior and maybe a crash or two. That phone has a quad-core processor that, when I tested it recently as well, but it just couldn’t quite provide enough speed for desktop mode.

The 950 XL is one of those rare devices that pushes the tech industry forward. It's not perfect, but it's getting us one step closer to the real pocket computer. Ironically, even Microsoft knows it needs some work. A recent blog post asked for feedback about apps (you only can use a few for browsing, music, and docs but not Halo: Spartan Assault or some of the other more compelling mobile apps), connecting over wireless, and a few other topics. Here's hoping this gets the attention it deserves.

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