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Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review: This capable phone lacks the sparkle of a true flagship

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Microsoft launched the Lumia 950 XL and its little brother, the Lumia 950 to usher in the new era of Windows 10 for mobile. The 950 XL is the larger of the two phones, packing a 5.7-inch display, but bringing few features of its own.

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7.2

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL

The Good

The Microsoft Lumia 950 XL has a pin-sharp, vivid display, plenty of power, expandable storage and a solid camera.

The Bad

The app selection for Windows phone is still very limited and the phone's design feels plasticky.

The Bottom Line

While the Lumia 950 XL has the specs you'd want from a top-end phone, the Windows 10 experience offers no compelling reason to switch from iOS or Android.

Just as you'd expect from the flag bearers for Microsoft's latest mobile software, the phones are stuffed with the latest technology on offer. The 950 XL has a pin-sharp high-res display, a powerful octa-core processor and a great 20-megapixel camera, but it's all let down by the software.

While Windows 10 for mobile is a refreshing change from iOS or Android, and it's pretty straightforward to use, it's plagued by the same issue that faced Windows Phone 8 before it: apps. The app store is still woefully understocked compared to Android and iOS, and app developers rarely put any effort into bringing new releases to Microsoft's mobile apps first.

This could change with Microsoft's universal apps which theoretically can work across the mobile and desktop versions of Windows 10. App developers then would have a much larger audience to develop for and would therefore be more keen to bring their apps to Windows sooner.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

App issues aside, the Lumia 950 XL is a perfectly capable phone, and if you're already a Windows Phone user who isn't keen to switch operating systems it's the most powerful Windows phone you can buy right now, even slightly more so than the 950. Windows 10 for mobile needs a lot of work however before it becomes a compelling choice over Android or iOS -- at this rate, that doesn't seem likely.

You can pick the Lumia 950 XL up now in the UK for £530, in the US for $649, and for $1,129 in Australia, all directly from Microsoft.

How much bigger is the 950 XL over the 950?

Quite a bit, as it has to squeeze in that larger 5.7-inch display. The XL measures 152mm long and 78.4mm wide (5.9 x 3-inches), versus the standard 950's 145 x 73.2mm (5.7 x 2.8-inches). You'll notice the extra size of the XL when you try to stretch your thumbs across to type -- it's not a phone for one-handed use. If you prefer your phones a little more compact and easier to hold, the smaller 950 might be better for you.

What other design elements should I know about?

There's a minor cosmetic change to the camera unit -- the 950's has a silver ring around the lens, while the XL has a black disc -- but otherwise both phones look identical. They have the same removable plastic back panel, which feels every bit as flimsy here as it does on the 950. It's a very plain design, as well, and certainly not one that will pique much interest in gadget fans. If style is your chief concern, look toward the curving glass and metal of the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Beneath the plastic back panel is a microSD card slot, which supports cards up to 200GB. The battery is removable and the phone charges using the latest USB Type C -- features shared on both the 950 and the XL.

How good is the display?

Both the Lumia 950 and 950 XL share the same 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution. As the XL's screen is physically bigger, however, it means those pixels are spread out over a wider area, reducing the pixel density. While the XL has a pixel density of 513 pixels per inch, the smaller 950 has that beaten with 564 ppi. It's not a difference that you'd ever notice though.

The XL's display is crystal clear, lending high-res photos and videos a satisfying level of clarity. Black levels are deep, resulting in good contrast too. Its larger size helps show off photos and videos in a more immersive way, but both screens are great for everyday essentials.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

And the camera?

The camera units are identical on both models, with 20-megapixel resolutions, 26mm lenses and apertures of f/1.9. Like the 950, the 950 XL can take some great shots with vibrant colours, even exposure and little image noise in low light shots. The main camera also shoots video in 4K resolution that looks crisp and clear when played back. The 5-megapixel front facing camera takes Instagram-worthy selfies.

It runs the same Windows Phone 10 software as the Lumia 950, right?

Yes. Both phones are the first of Microsoft's handsets that show off the latest version of the Windows mobile software so you'll find absolutely no differences in the software. For a full rundown of everything you can expect to see in this latest version, make sure to read our in-depth review of the 950.

What's Continuum?

It's the name given to the 950 and XL's ability to be hooked up to a full-size PC monitor, keyboard and mouse to work like a PC. You can either use an HDMI dongle to wirelessly mirror content from your phone to the bigger screen, or you can buy a display dock (sold separately for $80 in the US and $140 in Australia, with UK pricing yet to be announced), which then plugs into a monitor using HDMI. From here, Continuum lets you use apps like Word, email or the browser just like you would on a regular PC, only they're powered by your phone.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

How well does Continuum work?

In theory, it lets you work easily on office tasks when you're at your desk, and simply take your phone with you and continue to work on the same documents on your commute home. It works well on the 950 XL, with CNET editor Nic Healey reporting that it's a breeze to set up using the optional Microsoft display dock. Nic concluded: "I've been very impressed by the combination of the Display Dock and Continuum and I'm very keen to try completely replacing a PC for a while to see how it pans out long term".

When she reviewed the 950, CNET editor Jessica Dolcourt found Continuum worked less well, with the phone rebooting several times while in use. With setup proving challenging too, Jessica found that Continuum on the 950 needed some attention before it could be a useful tool.

Does it have the same processor as the 950?

Yes, the Lumia 950 XL uses an octa-core Snapdragon 810 processor, which is a slight step up from the 950's Snapdragon 808 hexacore processor. Both phones have 2GB of RAM. It's not a huge increase and it's unlikely you'll find much that can really challenge it. Swiping around the tiled Windows interface was smooth and water racer Riptide GP 2 played well.

Does the XL's bigger battery last longer than the 950's?

No, not really. It's only marginally bigger (3,340mAh on the XL over 3,000 on the 950), and any benefit from the larger cell is lost in powering the bigger display. The XL managed a little over 11 hours on a video drain test, which is about average, and also how long the 950 lasted. Like all phones, battery life varies depending on how demanding you are.

You should easily be able to get a full day of use from the phone if you don't spend your day playing games with the screen brightness ramped to max. We found that to also be the case with the 950.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Should I buy this or the smaller 950?

The specs are so similar that it really comes down to what you want to do with the phone. If you like playing games, watching Netflix and looking through photos, then the larger display of the XL will help show off that content at its best. If you like a phone to be a touch more pocketable and easier to use in one hand, go for the 950.

Should I even buy a Windows phone at all?

That's the bigger question and I'd have to say that unless you're a die-hard Windows fan (and why would you be?) then you'd have a better mobile experience from Android or iOS. Continuum is a great idea, but it's just not there yet and Windows' lack of love from app developers means its store still lags far behind the competition.

Which other phones should I consider?

For the top-end price Microsoft wants for the XL, you can pick up some brilliant flagship Android phones. The Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge has a much nicer curved glass and metal design, a brilliant camera, tons of power and will cost you less money. LG's G4 is similarly luscious, with its real-leather back. It too is great for photography and costs a lot less than the XL.

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7.2

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 8Camera 8Battery 7