A bland plastic design and minor updates to Windows keeps this Lumia from reaching its full potential. That and a talked-up breakout feature that ultimately falls flat.
I have a soft spot for Windows on phones. Something about the clean, simple interface appeals to me as an alternative to the relative clutter of Android and Apple's iPhone, and chats I've had with Windows phone fans do make me believe that there are people out there better served by this approach to mobile software.
That's why it pains me to see the Windows 10 update in the Lumia 950 fall so short of its promise. The hardware itself is fine, if disappointingly uninspired. But the software, especially the buggy new Continuum feature that's supposed to let you turn your phone into something approaching a full-on Windows PC, only highlights Microsoft's inability to meaningfully keep up with Android and the iPhone.
Yes, the phone has a gorgeous display that's easy to read outdoors and camera image quality that keeps me smiling, especially in low light. I can even deal with the plastic construction because of the Lumia 950's removable battery and microSD card slot, which many metal phones don't have. The Cortana voice assistant is also better than Apple's Siri in my book.
But when you consider all the things that make up a modern mobile operating system -- mobile payments, access to limitless apps, software extras that work consistently well -- Windows 10 doesn't fix enough past problems and only introduces others. I was hoping for more with Windows 10 on phones, wanting to believe in the promise that Continuum would give the Lumia a competitive edge by boosting your productivity. It doesn't.
At the end of the day, the Lumia 950 costs too much and offers too little for all but Windows diehards to take seriously. It's been five years since Microsoft rebooted its old, failing Windows Mobile software into the Windows phone platform we see today, and the company still hasn't been able to work out the kinks. Microsoft's future as a world class software-maker for mobile phones is looking dim.
The Lumia 950 starts at $550 in the US, but you'll need to check with carriers, since their prices and payment plans will vary. AT&T, for example, sells it for $600 outright, $150 with a two-year contract, and for monthly installments that vary between $20 and $30 per month depending on which of its three Next plans you choose. The larger, 5.7-inch Lumia 950 XL will cost more, and goes on sale before the end of 2015.
What if your phone could double as a makeshift PC? That, in a nutshell, is the promise of Continuum. It's arguably the big distinguishing feature of Windows 10 phones and something that doesn't really exist in the Android or iPhone realm. It should work with most future phones with Microsoft's mobile operating system (the low-end Lumia 550 won't have it), but the Lumia 950 is the first model to boast the functionality.
How do you use the phone as a PC? Pair a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to the Lumia, and use a PC monitor or TV as the primary screen. For any of us who have had to transition from writing a bevy of one-line emails and texts to writing some 1,000-plus word documents from a hotel room, the idea is instantly enticing. And that's why I tested it by using it to write this phone review. (In fact, I'm typing this on my phone -- by way of a paired keyboard, monitor and mouse -- right now.)
The catch is that you need to tether to your big-screen display, through two possible methods, and they're both something of a pain. If the TV has built-in support for the wireless Miracast video standard -- or if you have a Miracast dongle plugged into the TV -- you can beam the signal from the phone through the preloaded Continuum app. Alternately, you can go with a more reliable wired setup, using the Microsoft Display Dock (which is what I used) -- it costs $80 in the US and AU$149 in Australia. (You'll also need the right cables.)
Once you get it working -- in a living room, a hotel room or conference room -- you can share stuff like a PowerPoint presentation or home video with a group of people on the big screen. Then undock the phone, and resume working on the exact same project seconds later while walking down the street.
The idea is really cool, and once I got going (around this paragraph, actually) things started to really flow. There were a lot of false starts, however, and some major setup hurdles that make me seriously question Continuum's reliability. First, you need all the right hardware and cables, including an HDMI and USB Type-C cords. A wired or wireless keyboard and mouse are optional, too, but you can also navigate from the phone screen (while also using the phone independently).
I had some issues with connection and pairing, and the third-party HDMI dongle that Microsoft sent as an alternative to its homegrown Display Dock puck didn't even work when I went to activate it -- its website said it didn't yet support Windows 10. Luckily, I had the Display Dock as a backup. Microsoft's Continuum app on the phone gives you a partial walk-through, but you'll still have to work out some things on your own. As promised, the image scaled well on the computer monitor I used, but didn't quite fit the frame of the 50-inch Samsung TV panel. At least only a sliver of image was cut off.
Navigating around the phone contents on a larger screen worked pretty well. Until it didn't. The phone spontaneously rebooted several times during my testing, but only while using Continuum, so that seems like the cause. One major use case is to craft documents using Microsoft Office. Keyboard shortcuts don't work the same, which means you'll do most of your formatting using the toolbar or mouse submenu. Not being able to paste or undo with keyboard shortcuts hampered my workflow.
The cursor doesn't quite keep up when you're typing quickly either, so there's a bit of visual turbulence as your fingers fly, and without automated spell check in the Word doc, it's hard to correct errors -- sometimes you will see suggestions appear on the phone screen, all the way down by your elbow.
I do like the freedom of seeing what I'm doing on a larger, easier-to-read screen, but I'd much rather use a laptop for projects. Still, the option to use the HDMI dongle on your TV is the closest you can come to Google Chromecast for Windows phones (Chromecast does work with Windows laptops, though).
Besides Continuum, Windows 10 brings some nice additions to the Lumia 950. While every other phone is embracing the fingerprint reader in various locations, Microsoft carried over Windows Hello, its iris-scanning biorecognition software, from the Surface tablet to the phone.
Even in beta mode, Windows Hello has been working quickly and accurately to sign me in when I peer into the front-facing camera -- much of the time. It sometimes won't recognize you in certain lighting conditions, but there's a PIN for backup, and you can improve accuracy by running it again (and again) in various lighting scenarios so it creates a larger library of your authentic eyes. It even recognized me through my glasses, although you'll need to take them off on your setup scan.
Setup was easy, though the app is hard to find -- get to it through Accounts or Lock screen submenus. In settings, you set the allotted interval required to sign in this way, and you can use it to authorize changes to the phone and buy apps.
Iris scanning isn't faster or easier than a fingerprint scan, and depends too much on lighting to get it right. It's a unique way to sign in, but not always better.
Windows 10 overall gives the Lumia 950 a much cleaner, more sophisticated look in every menu, from the settings array to the way you choose your themes. The app store looks great (but still doesn't have all I need -- see below), and there are a few extras lurking in the menus, including the ability to double-tap nav bar to turn off the screen (but not back on again). Cortana is a good voice-controlled personal assistant, and the ability to download offline maps is a real perk, especially when you're traveling in rural areas or cities abroad, and Wi-Fi and data are limited.
Yes, Google Maps has an offline feature that lets you save a specific map area that you already navigated to, for 30 days. The built-in Here maps app lets you download maps for an entire city or region to use any time, so long as you have enough space.
There have always been hard-to-pinpoint things about the operating system that don't seem to work as smoothly as they should, because they seem tiny enough to ignore, like when I email a photo, the Outlook logo takes over the screen until the pictures send. Disturbing this threatens to cancel your email.
If the new features of the operating system are decent (or at least promising), one aspect of buying a Windows phone remains a compromise at best, and a dealbreaker at worst: app selection.
For starters, Google refuses to support the platform, which means that the services I rely on daily for work and personal life -- Gmail, Google Maps, Google Drive, Google Docs -- are accessible only through third-party apps or through the Web. While Microsoft does have an extensive network of its own similar services, like OneDrive, it's a hassle to switch for people like me who are already firmly ingrained in Google's online world.
Google, of course, has strategic reasons for not helping a competitor like Microsoft. But Microsoft's sliver of market share -- only about 2 percent of the world's phones run Windows -- means that neither Google nor most other developers, big or small, wants to invest time and effort into appealing to such a small audience.
To its credit, Microsoft has tried to address the issue with "universal apps." That means that any company producing software for the Windows 10 app store on PCs can, in theory, use the same code base for a mobile version of the same app. It's a nice idea, but it still requires the developer to close the loop on the mobile version.
Microsoft's other attempt to pull in more apps has been to create tools that supposedly make it easier for developers to "port" their existing mobile apps from Google's Android, Apple's iOS and the mobile Web. But the Android version has already hit a snag, which doesn't exactly engender confidence.
Microsoft has been able to twist the arm of Facebook, so its main app, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram are all here. So are Twitter and Candy Crush. But updates to apps for Windows phones typically arrive later; Android and iOS remain top mobile priorities for most developers.
I'll just come out and say it: The 950 is a blah-looking phone, even by Lumia standards. It's plastic, which we're somewhat used to, though last year's Lumia 930/Icon had a comely metal frame. It has a removable backing, which gives access to the battery and a microSD card slot. It comes in black or white, and none of the crazy color options that Lumias are known for, like shocking cyan, lime, red, orange and green. Compared to the sleek metal aesthetic we see everywhere, the 950 is a country bumpkin. (Though it does have metal buttons and a camera mount accent.)
The 5.2-inch screen keeps the handset size under control. If you seek a bigger phone, you'll want the 5.7-inch 950 XL. Readability on the crisp, up-to-spec display is strong in direct sunlight. There's a dedicated camera button, which I like; double-pressing it launches the app even when the phone is locked. Press it once more to take shots.
USB Type-C is still a very new connector port for phones, which makes the Lumia 950 cutting-edge in this regard, along with the OnePlus 2, Google Nexus 6P and 5X. The good news here is that you can plug the charging cable in rightside up or upside down and it makes no difference, and the technology is futureproof. If you don't have a lot of USB-C cables already, however, you'll probably want to pick up another one or two.
I would like it if the included wall charger had a cable that separated from the charging brick, like pretty much every other phone charger has. That allows you to plug one end into the device and the other end into another USB port. This wall charger does not separate, which means you'll have to buy a USB-to-USB-C cable, or an adaptor for your existing micro-USB cable.
Microsoft didn't make many changes to its native camera app, which I feel was a missed opportunity. Image quality is still very good in nearly all lighting situations, but manual options aren't always easy to figure out, and there's some missing information in the settings menu. For instance, the 950 has a 20-megapixel camera sensor, but if you pick the 16:9 aspect ratio, you can only go as large as 16 megapixels. You get 19 megapixels if you switch to the narrower 4:3 aspect ratio.
There's support for 4K video capture, but video defaults to 1080p (it's crisp and clear on the phone screen and when played back on a 50-inch 1080p TV). I appreciate manual controls to get that macro, and you can set the camera for timed shots and photo burst capture. You can capture a few seconds of "living images" that's just like Live Photos in the iPhone 6S. That's mildly interesting, I guess, but I'd rather have an auto-HDR toggle and Panorama already installed. You can get those and other options, too, by downloading separate "lenses", or apps, but I think more people would use and appreciate preinstalled features versus common settings they have to find themselves.
I continue to be impressed with the Lumia's ability to take crisp, usable photos in a variety of settings. Lumias often cast a blueish or yellowy tint to scenes. Warm yellows were punched up in some scenes, making them richer than real life; in other circumstances, tones were true. There's a triple LED "natural" flash that says it'll smooth out lighting too.
The 5-megapixel front-facing camera took clear shots with a fairly wide-angle lens that fits a lot of your background into the frame without having to stretch your arms.
Navigation is fast and effortless, without any lag. The camera loads as quickly as other phones, and a burst mode setting means shot-to-shot time can shave down to almost nothing. It's also negligible without that setting -- autofocus is on point.
Riptide GP2 is my go-to game for baseline comparison, and I typically pump the settings up to maximum. Graphics weren't as sharp or smooth as on other phones with the Snapdragon 810 processor (probably because it has to resolve pixels for the 1440p (2K) screen, but it did better after dropping shadow complexity. Casual gamers shouldn't have a problem.
I will note that the phone does get hot after extended use. This isn't unusual so I wouldn't worry (all phones do when we use and test them nonstop), but it does happen.
Battery life will last a full working day, though I did notice some faster drain times when I had the iris scanner set to eye-dentify me each time I unlocked the phone. On our looped video test, the battery ran an average of 11 hours, 18 minutes -- that isn't bad, but it's average.
Call quality was as expected when I used the phone in and around San Francisco, but speakerphone quality was especially strong and clear. I was able to engage in a 20-minute, hands-free conversation this way, noting how little echo I heard. My calling partner likewise noticed that I sounded clear, and never asked me to repeat myself. This is typical above-average behavior for Lumia phones, which is great.
I do believe there are some people who will like the Lumia 950, which is good from a hardware perspective, if not terrific. I do enjoy Windows 10's visual update, even though it's a minor boost that doesn't add much substance, and the camera takes pleasing photos. Still, it's hard to recommend the 950 and all it represents.
While an interesting idea, Continuum suffers too many issues that get in the way of daily use. The software's capabilities lag too far behind Android and iOS to justify spending good money (and lots of it) on an ecosystem that doesn't give you the option to choose which services you want -- like mobile payments, Google Maps in addition to the native Here maps app, and other apps besides.
It's only fair to mention that Microsoft will also sell the Lumia 950 XL, a larger, 5.7-inch phone with a slightly more powerful processor that otherwise does the exact same thing as the 950 with the same specs.
In my opinion, though, you'll get more from similarly priced or even cheaper Android phones. Samsung's excellent Galaxy S6 starts at about the same price in some regions (the S6 is costlier in the UK, for instance). The Huawei-made Google Nexus 6P and Motorola's Moto X Pure/Style are also high-performing and give you pretty much any app you'd ever want and all of Google's services, like the excellent Google Now and online Google Docs.
I'm sad to see Microsoft drag behind, but rooting for this global underdog is getting harder all the time.
|Microsoft Lumia 950||Apple iPhone 6S||Samsung Galaxy S6||Google Nexus 6P||Motorola Moto X Pure Edition/X Style|
|Display||5.2-inch AMOLED with 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution||4.7-inch IPS with 1,334x750-pixel resolution||5.1-inch AMOLED with 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution||5.7-inch AMOLED with 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution||5.7-inch IPS LCD with 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution|
|Dimensions (imperial)||5.71x2.88x0.32 inches||5.44x2.64x0.28 inches||5.65x2.78x0.27 inches||6.27x3.06x0.28 inches||6.06x3.0x0.44 inches|
|Weight||5.29 ounces (150 grams)||5.04 ounces (143 grams)||4.9 ounces (138 grams)||6.27 ounces (178 grams)||6.31 ounces (179 grams)|
|Mobile operating system||Microsoft Windows 10||Apple iOS 9||Android 5.0 Lollipop||Android 6.0 Marshmallow||Android 5.1.1 Lollipop|
|Fingerprint sensor||No, iris-scanner||Yes||Yes||Yes||No|
|Camera, video||20-megapixel, ultra HD video (4K), living photo capture||12-megapixel, ultra HD video (4K), slow motion video||16-megapixel, ultra HD video (4K), slow motion video||12.3-megapixel, ultra HD video (4K), slow motion video||21-megapixel, ultra HD video (4K), slow motion video|
|Optical image stabilization||Yes||No (only 6S Plus)||Yes||No||No|
|Processor||1.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 808||64-bit A9 chip with M9||Exynos 7420||2.0GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 810||1.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 808|
|Storage||32GB||16GB, 64GB, 128GB||32GB, 64GB, 128GB||32GB, 64GB, 128GB||16GB, 32GB, 64GB|
|Expandable storage||Up to 200GB||No||No||No||Up to 128GB|
|Battery||Removable 3,000mAh||Nonremovable 1,715mAh||Nonremovable 2,550mAh||Nonremovable 3,450mAh||Nonremovable 3,000mAh|
|Starting price||$549, £449, AU$999||$649, £539, AU$1,079||$552, £560, AU$1,000||$499, £449, AU$899||$399, £399, AU$1,992|