Lumia 950 XL second impressions: was it worth it?

Our initial review of the Lumia 950 XL (by the illustrious Oliver Fuh), along with Kareem Anderson’s Lumia 950 review, laid out the basics of the first Windows 10 Mobile phones to hit the market. A beautiful screen on a large device, with mediocre battery performance and an unfinished operating system, coupled with some fancy new technology called Continuum, and a great camera, that’s the 950 XL in a nutshell.

Continuum

Continuum and the Display Dock

I’ve been using the 950 XL as a daily driver since day one, running the latest Windows Insider bits on the device, giving Continuum a try, and taking some pretty impressive photos along the way. I’ve been frustrated by battery life, fairly unimpressed by the state of Windows 10 Mobile, and loving the form factor of the new phone. Let’s dive in to a few of the highlights:

Form Factor

The Lumia 950 XL, with its 5.7” display, has been described as a “phablet”, but really it’s the size a phone should be, in my opinion. I’ve always thought of the earlier iPhones as laughably small, and the Lumia 635 I used as a stopgap after my 1020 died proved that point. Each time I used that phone, I thought “I wish it was bigger.” The Lumia 950 XL doesn’t feel too big, it feels just right.

Lumia 950 XL 635

Lumia 635 on the left, 950 XL on the right

In looking for a successor to the Lumia 1020, I checked out the 1520, and it was just too dang big. It felt uncomfortable to hold with one hand, too big to pocket, and overall, just too big. The Lumia 950 XL, on the other hand, feels just right, balancing a large screen that you can actually do things on with a size that’s still easily holdable. Whatever my next phone turns out to be, I want it to be this size.

Build Quality

I just never really think about whether the Lumia 950 XL feels “cheap” or not. To be honest, my concentration is on the screen and not the back, and on the front, the screen is simply beautiful. When showing off pictures to friends and co-workers, I get as many “woah, what phone is that” as I do oohs and ahhs about the images themselves.

The on/off and volume buttons are not ideal — it’s difficult to find the off button easily and I have to stop and think and feel around with my finger to find the right button. Gaining back the dedicated camera button (from the lower end Lumia 635, which scrimped on a button for the camera) has been a welcome pleasure. I missed the camera button on the 635 and am very glad it’s back on the Lumia 950 XL.

I’ve also had some problems with the USB-C socket. The connection seems loose, and at times, I’ve had to jiggle the cord to get a connection. I had to do this multiple times with multiple cords that would fall out leaving me without a connection — obviously not ideal when you’re using Continuum or plugged into a car charger. I did take it back to the Microsoft Store once, and the salesperson blamed the cord. To be honest, I don’t plug it in that often (I use a JBL PowerUp for charging), and after asking around it seems to be a one-off issue, but it’s worth mentioning.

Durability

OK, confession time, I scratched the heck out of my Lumia 950 XL. While at the dog park, I had my phone in a coat pocket, separate from my keys on my left-hand side, ironically, so that it wouldn’t get scratched. I got out of the car, and the phone fell face first on the gravel parking lot, unbeknownst to me. I then stepped on what turned out to be my phone, moshing it face first into the gravel.

Owch - sucks

Owch – sucks

While it did scratch, certainly enough for me to shed a little tear each time I use it now, my iPhone friends were amazed that it didn’t shatter altogether. The phone is still perfectly usable, and will hold up fine until my next purchase (probably a Surface Phone, but boy that HP Elite x3 is tempting!)

Windows 10 Mobile

Like most of you here reading WinBeta, I’m here because I’m a long time beta tester and OS fiddler, and if I can I always choose the latest beta version I can get my hands on. With Windows 10 Mobile, that’s more of a necessity than an adventure, however. Simply put, Windows 10 Mobile is a long way from being finished, no matter how close we are to a launch on current Windows Phone 8.1 devices. I’ve come to anticipate new Windows 10 Mobile builds, not to expose exciting new features, but rather to fix glaring bugs or return basic functionality, stuff that all existed and worked well in Windows Phone 8.1.

While each new build takes several steps forward, they seem to take a few steps back each time, too. Apps that used to work fine crash, basic functions remain elusive, and we still haven’t reached a point where “steps forward” means introducing cool new features and not fixing broken old stuff.

So it’s frustrating. Windows 10 Mobile, like Windows Phone 8.1 before it, remains fast and fluid, and extremely easy to navigate. Live Tiles (while they sometimes seem to show something that happened a while ago more than “Live” tiles) are useful and fun, and make the static tiles on other OSes seem boring and somehow broken. Having OneDrive and Office on the phone (they’re available now too on iOS and Android) makes living a Microsoft life easy, and that great screen and “large” (read: just right) form factor makes composing or editing and Office document not only possible but doable.

But Windows 10 Mobile, from a long list of missing apps, to bugs and crashes, to basic functionality that’s only partially there if at all, still has a long way to go.

Imagery

The Nokia Lumia phones were known for their cameras, and Microsoft has carried on the tradition with the Lumia 950 XL. While we haven’t seen significant advancements (like the awe-inspiring 41 megapixel Lumia 1020), the camera in the Lumia 950 XL is as good as a camera needs to be. I’m almost always satisfied with the images I take (mostly spur of the moment event captures, or a recording of some important text or layout), and most noticeably so with low light photography.

Bale of hay in a dark barn

Bale of hay in a dark barn

This is a picture I took in my brother’s barn last weekend, and it’s a little hard to capture just how good the low light imagery really is. That isn’t strong sunlight hitting the hay bale, it’s typical cloud obscured Pacific Northwest February light, and I had trouble seeing at all inside the barn. The Lumia 950 XL, in fact, “saw” much better than I was able to.

Here’s another set of images, the first with flash, the second without. Again, impressive camera work for being handheld in difficult lighting situations.

Lumia 950 XL low light photography

Tack, with flash

Lumia 950 SL low light photography

Tack in the barn, without flash

Are these images better than what you could get from the latest iPhone or Android device? I don’t use either, so I don’t really know. What I do know is that I don’t need a camera better than what’s in the Lumia 950 XL, either to capture images or impress friends.

Conclusion

The Lumia 950 XL is my best Windows phone yet. I love the form factor and continue to be impressed by the camera and the operation of the OS. It’s thin and light and feels “just right” in my hand or in my pocket. The Windows design language, with Live Tiles and simple navigation, just keeps getting better, but Windows 10 Mobile has a long way to go before it’s “ready.”

Continuum, while a bit of a novelty, actually works when you really need it to, and the concept of a computing device you carry in your pocket expanding to offer full screen and keyboard capabilities is definitely intriguing.

The Lumia 950 XL is no flagship phone, it’s a stopgap between Nokia’s Lumia and the Surface phones to come, a placeholder for an OS that’s not ready for prime time. Still, it has a great camera and a great form factor that’s the best of portability and workability. If it does its job and holds down the fort until we get a Surface phone (and an improved OS) this fall, I’ll be happy, scratches and all.

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Are you happy with your 950 XL?