The Lumia 950 was released on November 20, 2015, and as part of our testing and a full coverage of the new Windows 10 Mobile device, we have incorporated input from several WinBeta writers who were using the Lumia 950 as a daily driver (i.e. primary device) for several weeks.
Using the Lumia 950 as a daily driver and keeping in constant contact, we were able to test performance deviations among each user, pinpoint device specific bugs, and measure varied impressions of both the hardware and software. Reviewing the Lumia 950 also meant going through reboots, hard resets, app updates, and much more to best replicate every day use and answer common concerns both new and old users may have.
The Lumia 950 is a Windows phone that sports all of the trimmings of a flagship but with a few unfortunate weaknesses. With the expandable memory and USB Type-C quick charging, the Lumia 950 impresses but where the Lumia 950 waivers is mainly in the software experience. Similar to the Xbox One, it’s going to be Microsoft’s refinement of this iteration of the Windows 10 operating system (Windows 10 Mobile) that perfects the Lumia 950 hardware over time.
In the hand
The Lumia 950 is a smartphone that weighs less than the Lumia devices that came before it and is on par with recent offerings from other vendors. At 150 grams, Windows phone fans who are accustomed to the weighty Lumia 1520, 1020, 920, 930, or Icon, the Lumia 950 will take some getting used to. The slick back of the removable polycarbonate casing stands defiant of industry trends that point towards aluminum, glass, faux metal lining, and polycarbonate injected molding as suitable flagship materials.
[pullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]the removable polycarbonate casing stands defiant of industry trends[/pullquote]
The smooth detachable back of the Lumia 950 fits snug enough around the outer casing of the phone and leaves little room for flex or depression around the device and feels every bit as solid as previously injected molded casings or the aluminum backing of other handsets. With that being said, there is a pronounced separation that appears around the 5.2 AMOLED screen of the Lumia 950 and the detachable back plate. There is also a hair-sized separation that's present in the penny-sized aluminum cased camera ring on the back. Running a finger along the side of the device only emphasizes the distance between the screen and the casing. Whether or not the noticeable separation affects the overall screen durability of the phone is unknown.
Along the sides of the device, Windows phone users will encounter the familiar button layout of a Lumia device. The volume up and down, power, and camera shutter buttons are all present and accounted for. Due to the phone's detachable nature, the buttons have shallow travel and can wiggle in their housing, unlike the machine-attached buttons on most other devices.
On the top of the device resides the 3.5mm headphone jack that sits to the right corner of the handset instead of the traditional center position of older Lumia devices. On the bottom center of the device is the USB Type-C port and just off to the right of the port is a slight indentation for detaching the back of the phone. Other ports include a small mic hole at the bottom right of the screen, two more speaker holes machine aligned on the back plate at the top and bottom of the phone and a pinky-sized speaker grill offset of the camera module.
Lastly, the Lumia 950 locked to AT&T sports an aluminum sheet embossing of the carrier logo as well as a fingerprint size Microsoft Windows logo. Both logos are semi-reflective but small enough and spaced far enough apart to keep the phone’s minimalistic design philosophy intact.
Underneath the casing rest a 3,000mAh battery, slots for a sim card, microSD expansion port for up to 200GB of additional storage and dual Qi wireless and PMA charging plates (for AT&T variants) that sit on the inside of the back plate.
[pullquote align="left" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]It is easy to see how some might find the Lumia 950 a tad disappointing upon first glance[/pullquote]
In the end, arguments of how a premium device should feel are left up to individual preferences. Some Windows Phone users have gotten use to dense feeling phones as signs of premium materials, others have come to equate Microsoft’s previous lightweight efforts with the Lumia 640 and 640XL as budget-feeling. With the Lumia 950 feeling and looking more like a Lumia 640 rather than the higher end Lumia 930 or Icon, it is easy to see how some might find the Lumia 950 a tad disappointing upon first glance. However, with a few weeks of use under the belt, the weight and feel of the phone become less of a factor and more of a familiarity in hand, and in pocket.
Display and Speakers
The 5.2-inch WQHD screen resolution of the Lumia 950 packs an impressive 2560 x 1440 aspect ratio and 564 pixels per inch into an AMOLED display. Out of the box, the default screen settings are set to a very neutral tone, but for fans of more punchy and vibrant displays, a few tweaks in the display settings can bring the screen to life. Coming from the beastly 6-inch Lumia 1520, I’m sold on the 950’s pocketable use of the 5.2-inch screen real estate. Narrowing the bezels on the side and swipeable on-screen navigation buttons go a long way to maximizing every inch of the display.
The AMOLED nature of the display holds up very well against all common viewing angles and does a solid job of continuing to keep content viewable during some less than usual angles. Reviewing recently captured Living Images and 4K pics were enjoyable, despite some issues with the Photo app. Unlike the Lumia 950XL which uses Gorilla Glass 4 tech for its display, the Lumia 950 makes use of the slightly older Gorilla Glass 3 tech that has been tested for better scratch resistance versus the more break-resistant focused Gorilla Glass 4.
[pullquote align="full" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]Lumia 950 speakers can be held hostage to your finger placement[/pullquote]
Regarding the rear-firing speakers on the Lumia 950, they’re loud for a smartphone. Despite the tech behind them, I’ve found most smartphone speakers as useful as cameras on tablets, nice to have but only used in rare situations. Unfortunately, the Lumia 950 speakers can be held hostage to your finger placement. Since the main speaker is located on the back, when holding the phone right side up (side buttons facing upwards) to share the occasional YouTube video or Groove song, my fingers often relaxed right over the speaker grill, muffling the sound slightly. Even when covered, the speakers were still loud enough to hear content clearly. At high levels (past 24 on the volume slider), the speakers can become slightly distorted depending on the content.
Beyond how a smartphone feels in your hand or the materials a company uses to justify its premium price tags, it’s what the handset enables its user to do that reflects its real value. With Windows 10 Mobile, the notion of ‘enabling’ a user feels similar to enjoying a bag of jellybeans, mostly great with the occasional anissed licorice flavor mucking up the process.
The Start Screen layout, Live Tile functionality, Apps List and Action Center are right where they were left in Windows Phone 8.1. General navigation is on par with what Windows Phone users have come to appreciate with Windows Phone 8 and 8.1 where long pressing on most items offers a multitude of functionality. The new Start Screen options also dance the fine line of Android-like customization and familiar Windows Phone styling.
Where some Windows Phone fans may feel lost with Windows 10 Mobile, is in its new Spartan-like design language. For better or for worse, the visually distinct spirit of Windows Phone is all but gone. The large typeface headers, swipeable pivots, and image-rich backgrounds have given way to smaller text fonts, hamburger menus, and an abundance of iconography. As uninviting as the switch may seem to some die-hard Windows Phone fans, what Microsoft stripped of in visual flair, it replaced with raw functionality.
Take for instances the new Groove Music app, which has fallen victim to Microsoft’s utilitarian design philosophy. While the pivot navigation and large album and spanning artist imagery have been removed from the app, it's much more usable as a result. For years now, many Windows Phone users have complained of the Xbox Music app’s inability to be the Zune player from years ago. Groove Music makes no attempt to be a Zune conciliation, but rather a function-first music player. Sacrificing design, the app now hosts a much-needed landscape view, automatic menu caching that includes menu settings and places in songs. The user might forgive Groove’s lack of design for an arguably better-exploring experience than what was present with Xbox Music.
The Groove Music App is indicative of much of the Windows 10 Mobile experience. Conscious sacrifices Microsoft made in the name of rapid updates, uniformity, and usability. First-party apps such as the Photos, Phone, Contacts, Maps, Weather, Movies & TV, Mail, Calendar, Messaging, and the Store have all undergone the Universal Windows app re-design, all sacrificing old paradigms to implement bug fixes and add user requested features much quicker than on Windows Phone 8.1. Getting used to using Windows Universal apps both on a PC and a Lumia 950 has conditioned me to look for other apps that have been updated as Universal apps because I know that app will most likely offer addition functionality or a landscape mode. Apps such as Messaging, Calendar, and Mail offer dual pane views. While many are against it, landscape view is where Microsoft’s implementation of the hamburger menus shines for most apps.
Speaking of the Messaging app, that too has seen some much-needed love, including communication mainstays as GIF reading, one button calling, additional attachment features, and integrated Skype functionality. When in landscape view, users can easily hop in and out of conversations without being forced into full screen messaging, making multi-contact texting a breeze.
Microsoft has also put a lot of work into the Edge browser, presumably to make up for the lack of native apps for the platform. When an app isn’t being offered natively, the next best option for some users is to head straight to the browser, and the Edge browser is a great alternative. Once the browser is synced with its PC counterpart and brings over saved reading list, favorites, and histories, it becomes a thing of beauty. While the browser may lack the extensions some crave on desktops, it’s quick, reliable and great at showcasing content on mobile. Continuing with its Windows 7, 8 and 8.1 ancestry, the navigation tools remain at the bottom. However, I was confused early on by the menu access versus the tabbed view buttons. Three or four days in though, the buttons became second nature.
Unlike iOS and Android, Edge does not yet offer ad blockers by default, but the Reading View option goes a long way to removing ads from a user’s viewing experience. In most cases, I preferred using Reading View more often than not. What I do miss from the Windows Phone 8.1 Explorer browser is swipe navigation between pages. Hopefully, the Edge team is working on bringing that back.
Other edges of the operating system have been rounded out as well, for instance, the keyboard has gone on a bit of a diet and slimmed down and added a more refined ‘cursor nub’ option. The phone dialer has navigation buttons in addition to its pivot nature. The file explorer has also been beefed up, containing useful navigation features (and acts as a serviceable desktop utility via Continuum). The Windows Store was given a full makeover, and where it lacks in visual grace, it more than makes up for in utility and navigation. Smaller tweaks such as putting recently downloaded apps at the top of the app list or, the added organization of the settings menu help the entire package feel cohesive.
Navigating in and out of apps experiences offers a slight change from the way things were done on Windows Phone 8.1. Instead of the rolling animation of tiles that used accompany clicking into and backing out of apps, Microsoft has taken a page from Apple’s iOS 7 where apps and tiles fly/fade in and out. It’s noteworthy because the new transitions are far less likely to visually hang as they began to on Windows Phone 8.1 for some users. When the system would slow down (admittedly, not often), transitions is where it had the most noticeable effect, where the rolling transition would have apps one by one in a glitch manner, appear and reappear.
Upon first launch, it's super obvious that Microsoft has done a lot of work making the Continuum environment look and feel exactly like the desktop environment found on a real Windows 10 desktop. You are welcomed with a familiar taskbar, complete with Start, back, search and task view buttons. You also have access to the notification center on the far right of the taskbar. The Start Menu when in Continuum is simply your phones Start Screen, so you know exactly where everything is when the Start Menu opens for the first time. You can also access the All Apps list by pressing the All Apps list button at the bottom of the Start Menu and it looks identical to what it looks like on your phone.
Launching an app will give you a nice zoom animation, displaying the apps watermark for a brief second as it loads up much like apps normally do on a phone. You are then welcomed with your phone app, but scaled up as if it were running on your Windows 10 desktop. A big wow moment for me was launching the Office Mobile apps. I know what they look like on my powerful desktop PC at home, and I know what they look like on a mobile device, but when launching that same Mobile app in Continuum mode, it seems as if the desktop app I’m used to at home displays itself, and I can use my familiar keyboard shortcuts and mouse to navigate the app, just like I know how.
[pullquote align="left" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]Continuum for Phones will likely remain a gimmick for most[/pullquote]
Continuum for Phones works with either a Microsoft Display Dock, or via Miracast. I suggest using Continuum for Phones with the dedicated dock however, as over Miracast does lag a fair bit with a mouse and keyboard. What's good though is your phone will act as a trackpad and keyboard if you don't have the dedicated hardware to use with Continuum for Phones, so if you're out and about you technically don't need to be carrying extra hardware with you. Great for people who are always traveling light.
All universal apps should work with Continuum, as they are developed to scale different screen sizes. That means apps like the Store, Alarms, News, Weather, Settings, etc., all scale up like their desktop counterparts when using Continuum for Phones. It’s really fantastic, but what really blew my head off was the fact that you can actually continue to use your phone like normal when Continuum is running. For example, if you’re running Excel in Continuum mode, you can also be running the messaging app on the same device you are Continuum’ing from at identical times, so if you get a phone call or message, your presentation or workflow will not be interrupted when Continuum is in play.
Right now, Continuum for Phones works only with universal apps. What this mean is you can't run desktop apps or non-universal Windows Store apps, which is a shame. There are rumors of Microsoft adding this functionality in the future, but until then Continuum for Phones will likely remain a gimmick for most. To me however, Continuum for Phones is great. I'm a frequent user of universal Windows apps and I've always dreamed of being able to travel around with just my smartphone. Now, I can. Continuum for Phones can only get better.
Perhaps due to Microsoft stripping out the visual flair, the entirety of the operating systems seems snappier than Windows Phone 8.1. The story of Windows Phone has traditionally been about how well optimized the operating system has been, and with Windows 10 Mobile, that story continues.
However, that is not to say the 3GB of RAM, hexacore Snapdragon 808 chip, or Adreno 418 GPU aren’t immune to the occasional slowdown. Fortunately, it seems most performance issues can be attributed to Windows 10 Mobile than the hardware of the Lumia 950. I say, fortunately, because, as Microsoft has reiterated time and time again, Windows 10 Mobile is a work in progress. Thanks to the decoupling of core apps in the operating systems, Microsoft can and is moving at a much quicker step to add functionality, optimize and squash bugs. Moving about Windows 10 Mobile is quick and straightforward, it is in using the Edge browser and camera/photos app where users might notice some head scratching performance lull’s.
While the Edge browser is a pleasure to use, on my device it also seems to be the culprit of significant battery drain and heat buildup. Using apps like Twitter, Vine, myTube, or playing most games do far less to my battery drain than operating the Edge browser for minutes at a time. The 3000 mAh battery on average, netted me roughly 8 hours with moderate to heavy use and 11 hours with light use and Battery Saver mode enabled. Once again, I believe the battery life I sustained is mainly due to Windows 10 and not the 808 processor or the removal battery. My device also heats up from time to time using the browser. Heated areas usually occur at the center of the device, just left of the Microsoft logo on the back.
Mentioned earlier, the camera/photos apps is another place where performance takes a perceivable hit. Now, to be clear, the Camera app is amazingly quick and marketably faster than the camera on Windows Phone 8.1, it’s the image processing software where users will be left waiting. Snapping off several images in a row on my Lumia 950 give my wife’s iPhone 6S a run for its money and leaves my lowly Lumia 1520 in the dust. More on those test later.
Once an image is snapped is where Microsoft needs to optimize the experience further. The Photos app need to sync with my OneDrive (albeit setting it to local folders only speeds this up) has often made it less than reliable when sharing images lighting fast, and Lumia camera magic being applied to photos after snapping can improve upon its speed.
However, once an image has been captured and processed, the magic of the Lumia (now just called Camera) excels. More on the camera later.
Windows Hello and other cool stuff
In its favor, the Lumia 950 does pack some state of the art high-end features, chief among them is the new alternative biometric sensor used for Windows Hello. Similar to bucking the trend of magnesium, glass and aluminum castings for high-end phones, Microsoft once again, decided to use an alternative authentication method to the rising popularity of fingerprint readers. With speculation that the Lumia 950 was a leftover design reference from the old Nokia guard, it makes sense that Microsoft would implement a relatively inexpensive infra-red sensor that does not change the design of the phone to spruce up the Lumia 950.
Using Windows Hello is positively satisfying... When it works. The setup process is a bit of foreshadowing for the actual usage of Windows Hello. When establishing the eye scan, users are required to hold the phone in a delicate distance from their face. Too far away and the animated eye that appears on screen will fail to identify the user, and too close negates the perceived convenience of Windows Hello. For a while, I disabled Windows Hello due to its inconsistent login attempts and believing it would result in positive battery life management similar to PC devices. However, I’ve recently re-enabled Windows Hello, with the understanding that it is a beta product that is more of an added safety measure rather than the only gateway to my information as previously conceptualized. Like some, I pick up my phone every 15 to 20 minutes. My current lock screen settings negated much of the necessity for using Windows Hello as my primary authentication, leaving my pin code a justifiable input and Windows Hello as an added security feature.
Other premium features of the Lumia 950 include access to the 3000 mAh battery, microSD slots, quick charge technology, advance Glance screen options. As well as HD Voice Call, Noise Cancellation, Font magnification, Visual Voicemail (carrier dependent in some areas), Call Recording (state legality pending), and Qi and PMA wireless charging tech.
Last but not least is the reimagined look and feel of Cortana for Windows 10 Mobile. To some, the new look and feel of Cortana has left many users feeling the experience is bolted on in comparison to the Windows Phone 8.1 implementation. In Windows Phone 8.1 Cortana information cards and results rested against the dark or light theme settings of the phone that left the viewing experience feeling a bit more organic compared to the currently distilled card interface. Due to the seemingly arbitrary borders set around the new cards, information reliant on visuals often result in low-res snapshots and compacted layouts. Again, Cortana very much gets the job done but the new design loses the elegant blending factor of Windows Phone 8.1.
The flagship lineup of Lumia devices have always been known for stellar imaging abilities and the Lumia 950 is no exception. It is a massive improvement over its predecessors' 20 MP cameras (found in the Lumia 1520 and Lumia 930).
As illustrated above, the Lumia 950 is shockingly good at tempering light sources. Where the Lumia 1520 constantly found itself blinded by the light, the Lumia 950 bends the light in its favor. No image I've ever taken with the Lumia 950 thus far has ever been inhibited by a beaming light source in any way.
The camera in the Lumia 950 is not without its flaws, however these flaws seem to be more endemic to the software surrounding the camera than the camera itself. While the camera shoots pictures almost instantly, you have to wait several seconds for every image to finish processing before it can be manipulated, or even fully see the final render of the image. This is very annoying and inhibitive, especially when trying to capture that perfect shot.
The Lumia 950 consistently captures photos that are well saturated and bright. It makes the previously excellent Lumia 1520 dull by comparison.
Video recording is similarly impressive. The device captures the crispiest details in audio with its four microphones, between the splashing droplets of water to the idle family conversations surrounding, alongside all the flourishing details and reflections in the visual scene, all in 4K at 30fps.
The Lumia 950's triple LED RGB natural flash is great for the most part, adding a very natural, yellow sunlight kind of lighting to an image. This can also be undesirable at times, however, as it can a lot of images seem a little too "late afternoon", making the mood downright inaccurate at times.
While Rich Capture sounds like a very vibrant and exciting feature, has limited usefulness for two reasons: it requires flash to be on (naturally) and everything else on auto (forbidding you from manually tailoring your shots), and is primarily useful only in areas where lighting is a bit lacking, but not too lacking.
When lighting is "too lacking", such as with night time shots, the camera's auto settings tend to be very clumsy, often having no idea what to focus on, even if you direct the focus with a tap. This results in auto shots that are far beneath the camera's capabilities.
Rich Capture seldom helps this as changing lighting won't correct the fuzzy details brought about by subpar focus. Of course, these problems can be seen other phones as well, and in complex night time shots it's often preferable to take over manually anyway. And when you do take over, my goodness do you get some stunning results.
All told, the Lumia 950 has a stunning camera that seems to have one of its hands tied by the unrefined software that controls it. As Microsoft and Nokia have done in the past, I suspect a lot of these faults will be mitigated with software and firmware updates in the future.
With no other phones headed to market in the U.S. from Microsoft, and the mythical Surface Phone rumored to be released possibly late next year, I find it hard not to recommend this phone to Windows Phone fans. Granted, there are other Windows 10 Mobile devices being pushed by supporting international vendors at excellent price points and for some Windows Mobile users, perhaps taking a cautionary look at those handsets might serve well. My only contention arises when comparing the Lumia 950 to the rest of the market, especially to non-Windows Phone fans or users.
[pullquote align="left" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]Lumia 950 is a pleasure to use in the hands of an experienced Windows Phone user[/pullquote]
The Lumia 950 is a smartphone that can fall short in some areas when compared to its competition, especially in the app department. I mentioned earlier; a modern day smartphone is only as good as its ability to enable its user. For standard smartphone use, the Lumia 950 excels at the basics and even a handful of sophisticated functionality. Call quality, according to my friends and family, is superb. The new keyboard equipped with cursor knob and Swype-like capabilities have made messaging a cinch. Other forms of communication such as email, video calls, and select social media are all covered by either adequate first party or exceptional third party clients. When it comes to entertainment, apps such as Netflix, Comedy Central, Pocket Cast, various beautifully crafted third-party YouTube clients, and gaming studios such as Gameloft and GameTroopers have kept the phone in my hand.
However, beyond that, Windows 10 Mobile and by relation the Lumia 950 begins to slow its pace behind the likes of the iPhone and Android variants. Parking, banking, transportation, payment, and specialized social media apps lack a significant presence on Windows 10 Mobile and the Lumia 950 at the moment.
Second, is the ecosystem of supported hardware, merchandise, and repair support. Being a Windows Mobile handset, means that most of those goofy but profitable phone case kiosk found in malls and shopping centers will not be carrying a case for the phone. While easily brushed aside by long-time Windows Phone users, iPhone and Android (Galaxy-specific) owners aren’t used to being told “No”, and “No” will be a word often used when it comes to the support for Windows Phone. Need to replace broken screen quickly and cheaply, “No, we only do iPhone and select Android phones.” Want to use particular call and volume buttons on your new headphones, “No. Only compatible with iOS, Android, and Blackberry,” yeah Blackberry support is still a thing.
Last and perhaps only applicable to the U.S. is carrier availability or lack thereof. Unfortunately, many smartphone buyers have yet to grasp the concept of pocketable PCs. To most smartphone shoppers, the device they run to in quiet elevators, awkward dinner dates, commercial breaks, or long road trips is a computer just like their desktop or laptop. As such, the unlocked prices of these devices are representative of PC-like quality, but carrier subsidies have corrupted that economic paradigm. Needing carrier provided internet and call access has only reinforced the idea that additional smartphone subsidies are a bonus rather than a cognitive hindrance.
My point is that the Lumia 950, even though it has wireless charging, memory expansion capabilities, DSLR-like quality cameras, battery life outpacing most laptops, and access to a breadth of content at a fingertip, is still a costly purchase. Standing at $550.00 (US), the Lumia 950 is a tough pill to swallow for most smartphone buyers outright. Without carrier subsidies and limited availability, Microsoft is putting the Lumia 950 behind the eight ball. Meanwhile, potential customers continue to trip over endless purchase opportunities for iPhones and Android phones.
[pullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]It's a well-crafted canvas and ultimately becomes what you make of it[/pullquote]
The hardware of the Lumia 950 is every bit as beautiful or bland as the sea of rounded rectangle slabs out there. Long gone are the days of brightly colorful and readily distinguishable Windows Phones, and for good reason, they didn’t sell well. As much as Windows Phone fans like to hold onto the notion of uniquely colorful phones being a selling point for customers, I would point to the arguably failed Moto Maker project or ask them to try and find a blue or green iPhone out in the wild.
As a smartphone, the Lumia 950 is a pleasure to use. In the hands of an experienced Windows 10 Mobile user, the handset can compete with the leading flagships of today. As with most phones, the Lumia 950 is a well-crafted canvas and ultimately becomes what you make of it, utilizing its multitude of features can put it in the upper echelon of current flagships, relying on apps to prop it up can also leave users feeling they overpaid on a seemingly unfinished product.
Pros: Lightweight and portable; Wireless charging (AT&T variant includes PMA as well); Memory (starting at 32GB, going up to 200GB); USB Type-C quick charging; Continuum Enabled.
Cons: Battery life is inconsistent; Windows 10 Mobile needs refinement; Availability/Carrier exclusivity.