Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review blog: Windows 10 Mobile fails an otherwise good hardware

Microsoft Lumia 950 running Windows 10 Mobile is finally here. We reviewed the device for a week, so here's our blog with all the details

Rating: 3 out of 5
Written by Karthekayan Iyer | Updated: April 8, 2016 10:39 am
Microsoft, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review, Windows 10 Mobile, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review blog, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL specs, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL features, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL price, smartphones, technews, technology Microsoft Lumia 950 XL is one of the first devices to run Windows 10 Mobile and comes with flagship standard specs

For Microsoft, it is a do or die situation in mobile. Microsoft will never shut shop, but it definitely does not want to be out of the smartphone segment, which occupies so much mind space at the moment. I still remember the early days when I had a HTC phone with slide out keyboard, stylus and Windows Mobile. Yes it was a time when only three types of mobile devices existed – BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and feature phones. It is worth reflecting that all the three have lost ground. Microsoft is trying hard to revive its mobile fortunes with Windows 10 Mobile.

Under CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s mobile ambitions are certainly clearer than ever before. Microsoft will only make devices that consumers would care to know about (buying is a definite second thing). And the initial products based on this sentiment are the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL. We finally have the Lumia 950 XL with us, and I have put across my experience with this Windows 10 Mobile device in this daily blog.

First Impression

Microsoft, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review, Windows 10 Mobile, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review blog, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL specs, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL features, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL price, smartphones, technews, technology Microsoft Lumia 950 XL is made out of plastic mold and it feels lighter than other metal and glass flagship devices

The moment I unboxed Lumia 950 XL, the plastic design of the phone left me wondering whether it’s priced right. Not an impressive sign to start the review. While most flagships, including those mid-range Chinese flagships, feature metal or glass in their construction, the Lumia 950 XL comes out of a plastic mold. The plastic is definitely of better quality here; it doesn’t crank or make any creaking noises.

I would say this one is built way better than Google’s plastic Nexus 5X. The plastic build does have one advantage – Lumia 950 XL is lighter than iPhone 6s Plus and Sony Xperia Z5 Premium in terms of weight. Also Lumia 950 XL is wider than competing smartphones, and I did find it different yet attractive.

Microsoft has already lost when it comes to design, but the idea here is to serve you a great smartphone experience. In order to do that, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL comes with a spec sheet that will put Galaxys, Nexuses and iPhones of this world to shame.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL weighs 165 grams and is 8.2 mm thick Microsoft Lumia 950 XL sports a 5.7-inch display, weighs 165 grams and is 8.2 mm thick

The Microsoft Lumia 950 XL sports a 5.7-inch ClearBlack AMOLED display with Quad HD (1440 x 2560) resolution, and it is undoubtedly one of the best displays ever put on a smartphone. As the name suggests, the blacks are really deep and colour saturation is better than any other Lumia launched before. To be precise, this display won’t give you any complaints.

The Lumia 950 XL is powered by Qualcomm’s most powerful processor available right now – Snapdragon 810 and there is 3GB RAM to keep things flowing. The review unit came with 32GB internal storage with 29GB memory available out of the box. There is absolutely no bloatware here like most Android flagships and Microsoft’s own apps consume very little space.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL retains the proprietary Pureview image sensor. It is now 20-megapixels and has optical image stabilisation Microsoft Lumia 950 XL retains the proprietary Pureview image sensor. It is now 20-megapixels and has optical image stabilisation

That brings me to the camera – Lumia camera. Ever since Nokia introduced Pureview 808 followed by Nokia Lumia 1020, even its budget smartphones have got stunning image sensors and Lumia 950 XL is no exception. The 20MP Pureview image sensor comes with optical image stabilisation, and the full manual mode is in a league of its own. I clicked some pictures and didn’t find any reason to complain, but I would like to click more before really calling it best.

To summarise, I think Microsoft has got the hardware right this time but I am yet to set this device up as my primary phone.

Follow the blog tomorrow for my experience setting up the device, transferring data and most importantly finding and downloading my favourite apps.

Getting Started: Setting up the device and transferring the device

The moment I booted Lumia 950 XL, it took me to the Start Screen. In stark contrast to Android or iPhones which ask you to login with your Apple ID or Google account, this was a smooth affair. I didn’t even put my SIM card in, something Apple would have flagged right away.

Now that the phone is powered on, I decided to set it up with my Outlook account. It was a dead simple step and I was logged into most Microsoft services in a few seconds. Most of my settings and apps updated based on the last activity on my Windows 10 PC. There is serious synergy between Windows 10 Mobile and Windows 10 PC. We are taking baby steps towards ubiquitous computing.

Microsoft's Transfer Data is only capable of transferring contacts and messages. It requires manual efforts to transfer pictures Microsoft’s Transfer Data is only capable of transferring contacts and messages. It requires manual efforts to transfer pictures

When I had iPhone a few months back, I took an exercise to move my data from Android with Apple’s Move to iOS app and I thought it worked decently well. Microsoft has something similar called ‘Transfer my Data’. This tool was successfully able to transfer only my contacts and messages. I was left with a task to move my pictures (tonnes of them actually) and app data now.

At this moment, I remembered the ease of switching several Android phones in the past with the help of Google Drive – the first app I missed on Windows 10 Mobile. I did comply with Microsoft and uploaded all my stuff to OneDrive and in matter of minutes, I had all my pictures on Lumia 950 XL. Getting closer to bringing my contents on to the ecosystem.

As we all know and agree, the app ecosystem is the biggest pain point of Windows 10 right now. I read a lot, especially a lot of online content and I rely so much on Pocket (formerly Read It Later) that I have several hundred megabytes of contents saved there. You guessed it right – Pocket is not available as yet and there are no signs of it landing here anytime soon. I was left dejected.

But I can definitely go slacking on Windows 10 Mobile. Slack along with Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat and Twitter serve as the primary communication tools here. I downloaded all of them and one must note that old WhatsApp chats are not going to appear here automatically. You have to start afresh – signs that technology has not yet merged.

Microsoft took some efforts to package apps like Amazon, Uber, Ola, Zomato, Audible out of the box. There is also Jet Airways for all those frequent flyers out there. Yay, this is a business phone and it delivers business.

Did I miss any app? Yes I did and that too a handful of them. I use Google docs to write most of my articles including this one and Docs is not available on Windows 10 platform. My colleague asked me to share a Google Sheet this morning and I realised there is no dedicated app. I did figure out a solution using the Edge browser, but there is no app.

Since November 2015, I have been using Apple Music as my favourite music app and yes that it is not available either.

Here is a checklist.

Google Chrome – No

Hangouts – No

Fleksy Keyboard – No

YouTube – Big No

There are apps, but still not great ones or fully functional ones. Facebook and Messenger are there, but they are not as cool as ones on Android or iPhone while Instagram Beta lacks simple thing like verified profile.

So that’s the story, if you live around apps then this is not that phone.

Windows Hello: Unlocking smartphone with iris is super cool

Windows Hello is Microsoft’s answer to fingerprint scanners on flagship devices. It eliminates the need to retype the PIN constantly by recognising you visually.

Windows Hello is a more smoother setup than fingerprint recognition on iPhone or Android flagship but accuracy is lacking Windows Hello is a more smoother setup than fingerprint recognition on iPhone or Android flagship but accuracy is lacking

While Surface Pro 4 comes with Intel’s RealSense camera, the iris scanner here is a smaller and modest one. It scans the iris of your eyes to give access to the device. The setup is simple where you allow iris scanner to scan your eyes for few seconds and it remembers your iris (not you) with a reference image.

The unlocking works just like it did with face unlock on Android a few years back. But here one needs to take the phone closer to their eyes. It could get annoying at times but will improve with time for sure. It works beautifully even when the light is bit off.

For me, Windows Hello worked only six out of 10 times. Most times I ended up typing that PIN which is not the case with fingerprint scanners on even sub-Rs 8k smartphones. Windows Hello is cool but the experience is mixed bag for now.

Windows 10 Mobile: Universal apps and Windows Hello work

I was extremely impressed with Lumia 950 XL’s hardware but then also found it extremely difficult to move contents from my Android phone. But then I decided to discover and experience the Windows 10 Mobile platform rather than keep fuming over its inconsistency or lack of apps thereof. Here is what I discovered

Windows 10 Mobile looks and feels very much like Windows Phone 7 before it and it’s a good thing. You get live tiles up front which now come in three sizes – small, wide and large. While large and wider tiles support live view, smaller tile sacrifices that ability for simplicity.

So what’s different between Windows Phone 8 and Windows 10 Mobile? The OS moves ahead of being just aesthetically brilliant. Microsoft has refined its OS to address consumer needs that aren’t available on other platforms. For instance, one can reply to a text message right from the notification tray. Yeah, Windows 10 Mobile doesn’t open the messages app to accomplish that simple thing. Anyways, who even sends texts these days? I see a very good chance of this feature being extended to other messaging platforms like Messenger and WhatsApp.

Is that the selling point? No, the real deal with Windows 10 Mobile is it Universal apps ecosystem, Continuum and Windows Hello.

Microsoft acknowledges the fact that there is significant app gap with Windows 10 and it has come up with Universal apps to address that. Universal apps is a new set of code that would allow a developer to write one set of codes for a large no. of devices running Windows 10. So an app designed for mobile would scale itself automatically for the big screen and it really shows up with some of the Universal apps.

Universal apps are the real deal with Windows 10 Mobile. While there aren't really big names, Microsoft still shoulders the ecosystem Universal apps are the real deal with Windows 10 Mobile. While there aren’t really big names, Microsoft still shoulders the ecosystem

The best showcase of universal apps has to be Microsoft apps. The Outlook Mail is the only email app you ever need. It sure works great with Outlook mail but fits well with Gmail too. I even had an option to connect my IBM Notes Traveler account without the need to download another app. For enterprise customers, there is support for POP, IMAP, Exchange and Office 365 accounts just like its desktop equivalent. That’s simplicity folks.

Other Microsoft apps like Calendar, Maps, Messages, Weather, Store among others all look and work exactly like they would do on a Windows 10 desktop. I must admit that the Maps app feels more useful on a Windows 10 Mobile device than it does on a Surface Pro 4. If you are someone already hooked onto Windows 10 desktop, these apps will feel more like home.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL's minimal camera interface is highly impressive. It makes it easy to find settings and frame any subject Microsoft Lumia 950 XL’s minimal camera interface is highly impressive. It makes it easy to find settings and frame any subject

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL has one of the best smartphone cameras right now. Its camera app is even better than the one on Android or iOS. On Lumia 950 XL, the entire 5.7-inch screen becomes your viewfinder since it has dedicated shutter button. When held in landscape mode, the camera option and other settings appear at the top centre and sliding the virtual shutter key to the left brings manual mode.

Manual mode is a photographer’s delight. From manual focus to setting the aperture and ISO, you can set almost everything. The shutter speed goes from 1/16000 of a second to 4 second while ISO tops at 3200. This is a phone with one really great camera.

Microsoft, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review, Windows 10 Mobile, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review blog, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL specs, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL features, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL price, smartphones, technews, technology The manual mode on Lumia 950 XL is a photographer’s delight

Yesterday, I missed Google Docs and Google Sheets but I quickly realised that Microsoft wants users to be tied to Office 365 and use its productivity apps. Word, PowerPoint, Excel are the gems of Windows 10 Mobile’s enterprise push and I would pick Lumia over an iPhone for editing my next spreadsheet.

There is a decent number of third party Universal apps on Windows Store. The most prominent one for me was Twitter app. It looks and works exactly same on mobile and desktop. There is seamless data flow in this one. Other Universal apps worth checking out are Fitbit, Netflix, Uber, Shazam, Audible and The Weather Channel.

I miss Apple Music on Windows 10 Mobile, but I think Saavn does a decent job too. Since its an universal app, my music travels seamlessly from mobile to desktop. Otherwise Flipkart, Jabong, Myntra, Zomato, Mobikwik are all universal and work pretty much fine.

Bottomline: There is a decent mix of universal apps right now, but Microsoft is shouldering the ecosystem and the day Google gets its apps onboard, the ecosystem could turn great. We will be watching with open eyes.

Windows 10 Mobile : Cortana and Camera are its real plus points

After using Lumia 950 XL for over three days, I am convinced that the backbone of this device is the 3C – Cortana, Camera and Continuum. While I touched upon the camera bit yesterday, today I will show you some real samples to believe its performance.

As I wrote yesterday, there is no other smartphone available in India which can do manual photography as good as the Lumia 950 XL. Sure you can get this feature on iPhone with a paid app and even on Android but the ease and elegance here is unmatched. The camera is great for clicking infants and it is awesome for clicking flowers too. Aren’t those the dominant subjects on Instagram?

The colours captured by Lumia 950 XL are extremely warm and they have a saturation that looks highly real, sure that 2K screen does make everything look nicer. Take my words, they look nicer on other displays too. The sample images below are real proof. If you want a smartphone with great camera and one that behaves as you want, this is it.

Sample shot taken with Microsoft Lumia 950 XL shows very natural reproduction of White colour Sample shot taken with Microsoft Lumia 950 XL shows very natural reproduction of White colour This picture was shot at night with an exposure time of 1/10 second shows excellent use of manual mode This picture was shot at night with an exposure time of 1/10 second shows excellent use of manual mode

On the other hand, Cortana has become even more intelligent. She charms you with her answer but her voice is still not something I am in love with. It feels she is in urgent need of some strepsils.

I tried Cortana in preview stages and her UK tone wowed me but this Indian tone somewhat undermines our ladies. Maybe they should have courted Shreya Ghoshal for the voice. Nevermind, she is still at her charming best when it comes to getting things done.

Firstly, Cortana answers your queries like weather, time to reach a particular destination, score from the last Arsenal game. She answers them straight and precise. I love that and she even tells jokes, and good ones too. My favourite being this “Why do seagulls fly over the sea? Because if they flew over the bay, they’d be called bagels.”

It does pull you into a nostalgia at times but she does need to learn a lot. She needs to answer “What is one trillion to the tenth power?” because Siri does that very well.

Watch: Cortana dictates email on Windows 10 Mobile

Cortana for me did few things exceptionally well – dictating emails being one. I have very poor pronunciation and getting a virtual assistant that can nullify my accent amazes me. Also a very neat feature is integration with LinkedIn.

Whenever you save a calendar appointment, Cortana tries to pull that person’s LinkedIn profile giving you some extra details ahead of meet. It stays very professional on that front. I really want Microsoft to integrate Twitter so I can understand what that a person likes to tweet about.

Overall, I am highly impressed with Cortana and Camera. They work as advertised, at least this is a space where Microsoft isn’t over exaggerating. These should be two of the pillars on which your buying of Lumia 950 XL should be based.

Tomorrow, I will tell you everything about Continuum and mostly importantly answer whether it really works like PC.

Continuum blows up the phone into a full fledged PC

The Display Dock connects to Lumia 950 XL via USB Type-C port which also charges the smartphone The Display Dock connects to Lumia 950 XL via USB Type-C port which also charges the smartphone

I gave you every important bit about camera and cortana in the last few days and that left me with one uncharted territory – Continuum. Microsoft is banking heavily on this for the success of Lumia 950 XL. Microsoft is pitching buyers to actually buy the Display Dock with its phone. I trusted Microsoft and jumped right in with an hope that Lumia 950 XL will work like a PC. Did it? Read on to find out

We all have smartphones, even tablets and PCs. At the moment, none of these device can replace the other and only complement each other. With Lumia 950 XL, Microsoft wants you to ditch that PC altogether for one flagship smartphone.

Display Dock is an accessory that can be used to convert Lumia 950 XL into a full fledged PC Display Dock is an accessory that can be used to convert Lumia 950 XL into a full fledged PC

At the heart of all this is a Display Dock and Microsoft’s software algorithm called Continuum. Continuum lets you mirror your phone contents onto a larger display, but the mirroring here is a standalone one and offers a very rich experience.

The Display Dock needs to be powered and connects to any display via HDMI. It connects to the smartphone via USB Type-C port. The Display Dock also comes with a displayport and three USB ports for connecting any kind of USB device like keyboard or mouse.

Display Dock completely covers the user needs with three USB ports, a display port and one HDMI port Display Dock completely covers the user needs with three USB ports, a display port and one HDMI port

Once connected, the smartphone shows a neat introduction video and in matter of seconds, the whole phone is now on the TV. The important thing to note here is the speed, everything happens real quick and there is not a percentage of lag whatsoever.

Before we get into Continuum, users need to know that Display Dock keeps charging your smartphone and your smartphone itself is standalone. So if you have something beamed onto a display and message pops in, you can still reply from your phone. Continuum and Display Dock are the most useful ideas from Microsoft in the last few years.

So what is Continuum? Continuum is a Windows 10 extension that allows users to scale a mobile app onto any type of screen. In simple words, it shows the scalability of Windows 10 universal apps. Yeah that is the catch – only Universal apps work via the Display Dock. Twitter app installed on your phone will turn into a full fledged Windows 10 app when beamed through the Display Dock but same won’t be the case with WhatsApp.

Lumia 950 XL when connected to a larger display via Display Dock turns into a full fledged Windows 10 machine. It works seamlessly with universal apps and provides snappy app switching experience Lumia 950 XL when connected to a larger display via Display Dock turns into a full fledged Windows 10 machine. It works seamlessly with universal apps and provides snappy app switching experience

Now that Netflix is available in India, one can simply use Netflix (which is an universal app) on their phone and connect to larger display via Display Dock for a more immersive experience. The content flow is extremely smooth and it’s so fluid that I kept wondering how Microsoft even accomplished this stuff.

One can edit documents on the larger screen and yet keep responding to WhatsApp messages on their phone. The larger screen utilises the resources of your smartphone without compromising on its individuality. Microsoft has already blown up a smartphone into a full PC.

In my own experience, everything was smooth and fluid, but the display resolution didn’t really keep up. I tried scaling the aspect ratio but even then I had Windows Start button squeezed to the left hand side. When connected the smartphone acts as a touchpad which eventually shows the responsiveness of Lumia 950 XL’s display.

As I noted in my previous blogs, the universal apps ecosystem is shouldered by Microsoft and there are many big names missing out from that app development story. Display Dock and Continuum will amaze you but that doesn’t really last long. While Display Dock doesn’t make much sense to consumers, enterprise will appreciate it. An enterprise built on Microsoft services can rely on Lumia 950 XL and Display Dock for their productivity and I don’t see a reason to get disappointed.

After a few hours with the Display Dock, I ended up thinking that I need the phone to be a phone and not PC. But if we are heading towards ubiquitous computing then it starts right here for me. Continuum shows that Microsoft has still not lost its cool, it can still do innovation that will leave you spellbound.

I will actually go with Microsoft’s claim of works like a PC but it makes sense only when every other app on the Windows Store becomes universal.

Verdict: Windows 10 Mobile fails an otherwise good hardware

There is a lot riding on the success of Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL. If these devices fail, then Microsoft fails entirely. Its OS will be in jeopardy, and probably the company will never make a comeback on this front.

After using Lumia 950 XL, I have mixed feelings for it. With Windows Phone market share being below 2 percent, I don’t see Windows 10 Mobile as any relief. The worst part is that some goodness of Windows Phone is being ported to iOS, making the ecosystem completely paralysed.

If you want to go to a party, you will probably take an iPhone, and if you want to enter the boardroom then, Lumia is that phone. There are definitely some things to like about it.

Lumia 950 XL is a rare beast among flagship smartphones with user replaceable battery Lumia 950 XL is a rare beast among flagship smartphones with user replaceable battery

The Lumia 950 XL comes with a design that may be outdated but works. I had no issue with it, and since it is plastic, the heat dissipation is not as evident as it would be on a metal and glass smartphone. The smartphone is powered by Snapdragon 810 and Lumia’s liquid cooling succeeds in keeping it cool for most part. The 5.7-inch display is the best on any smartphone right now. It has great colour saturation, and its adequately bright even at 25 percent.

The Lumia 950 XL retains two great features of previous Lumia devices – camera and battery. The 20MP Pureview image sensor produces absolutely great, and crisp images. The colour reproduction on this one is closer to reality. If you dislike some shot, you can always frame that to your liking with full manual controls. Microsoft has packed a relatively beefy 3340mAh battery, which is user replaceable. It lasts well over a day but carrying that USB Type-C charger is a must.

Microsoft, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review, Windows 10 Mobile, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review blog, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL specs, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL features, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL price, smartphones, technews, technology Microsoft Lumia 950 XL also comes with a beefy 3340mAh battery that lasts well over a day

On top of all these things is that very beautiful interface one can’t ignore. If Microsoft has to win some award for hardware then this is it, but then it struggles with Windows 10 Mobile.

The first real problem is that Microsoft is shipping a real product with an OS, that is still very much a work in progress. Windows 10 Mobile is a beta software, sans the Beta tag. It works nice but can give nightmares at its worst.

The lack of great universal apps doesn’t help Windows 10 Mobile either. There is one saving grace called Continuum with the Display Dock. It is exceptional to see a smartphone turn into a PC with a tiny dock. It is an idea that deserves more than appreciation. Its a proof that Redmond is still rich with talent.

At the end of the day, all of this is just not enough. After thoroughly using the device or rather living with the Windows 10 Mobile device, I am convinced this is not yet that phone. In fact, I cannot recommend this one to anyone till Microsoft seeds some software updates.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL is undoubtedly the best Windows Phone till date, but I feel even Windows Phone fans have migrated to another universe, where Microsoft dominates with its services. Microsoft folks told me about a top Indian CEO currently using this phone as his primary device and I see reason there, but for a consumer who doesn’t use or rely on Microsoft services, this would be an unconvincing buy.