Lumia 950 XL Review

The hotly anticipated Lumia 950 XL is the latest phablet-sized flagship out of Microsoft, and the first of its kind to come out of Redmond since the Nokia acquisition in 2014. It’s also the spiritual successor to the long-lived and well-received Lumia 1520. So the XL’s got big shoes to fill, figuratively and literally.

Reviewing the Lumia 950 XL puts me in a rather interesting predicament: my esteemed colleague Kareem Anderson put out an immensely comprehensive review of the Lumia 950 recently. Because the two 950 flagships are so similar, as I illustrated in my comparison video, the vast majority of what I ought to write for in this sort of review will overlap with Kareem’s article, which covers certain things such as Windows 10 Mobile app usage, better than I ever could. I highly encourage you all to read his article.

Design and Build Quality

The Lumia 950 XL is the thinnest Lumia device ever produced at 8.1mm, and it feels it, especially with the tapered edges. This pays huge dividends in making the phablet easier to hold and manipulate with one hand, unlike its much thicker predecessor.

Lumia 950 XL Review XL back

The 950 brothers have been routinely criticized for looking “cheap” and “plasticky.” I can certainly see why people might feel that way. Alas, I disagree. Maybe it’s because I tend to value function over form, but I think the Lumia 950 XL looks gorgeous. The matte white plastic backing looks sharp, and the silver/chrome accenting found on the embossed Microsoft logo on the back, and on the buttons on the side accentuate a subtle, restrained, understated premium feeling. The plastic also feels far more durable, easier to hold, more scratch-resistant, and easier to clean than its competing metal housed counterparts feel.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I think the Lumia 950 XL looks gorgeous[/pullquote]

Another advantage the plastic backing adds is reduced weight. While the Lumia 950 could be described as being on the heavier side of phones in its size range, the XL is downright feathery compared to other phablets. It weighs 165 grams, within the same ballpark as the Lumia 950’s 150 grams. By comparison, the iPhone 6S Plus weighs 192 grams, a difference that’s very noticeable. The 1520 weighs 209 grams. The fact that its so much lighter than its screen-size suggests makes it feel lighter than the Lumia 950 at times: because you don’t expect it to be that light.

Like its predecessor, the 1520, as well as its twin, the 950, the XL has a camera bulge sticking out on behalf of the more sophisticated camera it houses. Many have panned the Lumia 950 for the “tacky” silver ring found outlining its camera housing, preferring the XL’s more elegant and civilized demeanor.

However, very close inspection of the XL’s camera housing will reveal traces of the same silver ring outlining the bulge. It’s virtually impossible to see in marketing pictures, and very hard to see in person, but it’s there.

Lumia 950 XL Review XL camera housing

Same silver lining outlines the XL’s camera, but to a much less noticeable extent.

Another point of controversy for the 950 XL is its side button layout. Rather than the conventional design of a power button with two volume buttons above, the 950 XL has the power button sandwiched between two smaller buttons. In my weeks of using the 950 XL, the new layout has given me zero issues. The button layout is also important because it makes the volume buttons much more reachable for the thumb on this large phone. It’s very easy to tell even without looking which button is which because of the staggered sizing between the volume and power buttons. My thumb can easily feel when it’s pressing a very small volume button and when it’s pressing a relatively larger power button. I also believe the power button is a bit more shallow than the volume buttons, but I can’t quite confirm whether that’s by design or simply a defect on my device.

Lumia 950 XL Review XL button layout

XL’s peculiar button arrangement on top, standard arrangement on bottom

As it happens, the 950 XL is far from being beyond criticism. Strangely, the XL begins to lose its premium facade on the sides of the device. The black lining that meets the white plastic back cover is also a matte plastic black. This is important because the same lining is a glossy texture on the Lumia 950. The sizing between the two is also different. On the XL, the black lining is perfectly uniform with the white backplate, making it seem as if it’s one side that happens to be painted in two colors. The 950, on the other hand, has a rounded, glossy lining that’s actually smaller than the back plate, resulting in the white back plate giving the device a sort of white, halo outline. At first, it seems weird, but it soon impresses upon you a depth that isn’t there in the XL.

Lumia 950 XL Review side lining comparison

XL on the left, 950 on the right

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]What really bothers me is the build quality[/pullquote]

What really bothers me is the build quality. Usually, this is the part where I say the XL is “typical Lumia, with excellent, solid build and a tight quality remonstrating great Nokia brick engineering.” I definitely got that impression in my time with the 950, but not with the XL. The XL suffers from a weird issue where the bottom of the back plate seems perennially misaligned, which results in an obnoxious creaking noise every time any pressure is applied to the bottom. At first, I thought this was unique to my particular unit, but a quick tour around the internet, as well as comments from our own readers, confirm this is a common issue.

This is frankly unacceptable in a $650 USD flagship and has really mitigated my enjoyment of the 950 XL. To give you some perspective in how badly it affects my daily life, it creaks loudly every time I slip the XL into my tighter skinny jeans pockets. Heaven forbid a pretty lady sits on my lap. Very unsexy.

Software and Performance

It’s no secret that Windows 10 Mobile is not the most mature or refined mobile OS out there, and it shows. As seen in my comparison video, basic apps such as the Settings app have a habit of crashing. It’s so routine and predictable I could actually plan a film around it.

Using apps is not a particularly pretty situation either. While the universal apps, such as the well-regarded Readit reddit client, are spectacular and deliver speedy and refined user experiences, a lot of apps, even some of Microsoft’s own, are still carrying with them baggage from earlier API foundations, such as the outdated app bar designs. It certainly doesn’t help that a lot of apps don’t yet work with Continuum, one of Windows 10 Mobile’s most highly touted feature.

Even more puzzling is the omission of traditional Lumia features such as double-tap to wake. The Lumia Icon/930, many of you might recall, did not have Glance, an even more heinous omission. I don’t know what it is about the engineering behind Lumia devices, but lately they just can’t seem to give us Lumia flagships that are pure no-compromise. If I were a betting man, I suspect we will never get double-tap to awake, because if we are meant to they probably would’ve mentioned it already. A lot of you eagle-eyed viewers may argue that the feature should be coming since it already has “double-tap nav bar to sleep”, arguing “the technology is clearly there.” Not so fast. There’s a world of difference between actuating a touch feature when the screen is on (thereby making it a simple software programming exercise) and when it is off in standby, which I suspect requires bypassing hardware limitations. I sorely hope my prediction is wrong.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I feel the OS isn’t really making good use of the 3GB of RAM found in the 950 and 950 XL[/pullquote]

On the bright side: speed and performance, even on this beta of an OS, is sublime. Apps load up instantly through silky smooth animation without being obscured by painfully long feathering animations found in earlier Windows Phone operating systems. Interesting, I feel the OS isn’t really making good use of the 3GB of RAM found in the 950 and 950 XL, as I find myself bumping into a loading screen more often than I should.

Typing on the 950 XL is also great, with widely spaced keys making it easy for thumbs to dance around. Although word flow (swipe to type) now sports a fancy animation that realizes the spelling as you swipe, it seems to be less accurate than before, often completely ignoring very basic English words. What’s also a bit disconcerting is the inability use word flow when typing in the Edge web browser. I can see why Microsoft would intentionally disable such a function as web addresses don’t have spaces or a concept of sentences to them, but I think this is a mistake, as users can also type to search in the Edge address bar rather than just enter a website URL. It’s also inconsistent with the keyboard orientations found in the rest of the OS.

Display

It’s stunning. Enough said. I really have no complaints about it other than that I suspect it’s a big battery hog.

Fonts are crispy sharp. Images are gorgeous and vibrant, and well-saturated, but not to an obnoxious extent as found in earlier Lumia flagship AMOLED offerings such as the Lumia 925. Colors are dead-on accurate. And even the flat Metro icons and top overhead display have a crispy sharpness that I don’t see on my Lumia 1520.

What’s also fabulous about the display is its AMOLED nature. In particular, it allows Glance to be right at home, lighting up only the pixels that need to be lit up, allowing the rest of the screen to remain pitch black. This is in contrast with LCD based Glance devices like the Lumia 1520, which light up the whole screen, and emit very muddy text that can be hard to see. Glance on the Lumia 950 XL is so bright that I really have to force night time mode to be something other than pure white, lest it will act as a nightlight.

The only downside I can think of is that it colors can slightly change in tint if you view them from very extreme angles. But we don’t use our phones at extreme angles either.

Lumia 950 XL Review XL front

Speakers

Mounted on the back, toward the top next to the camera housing, the speakers aren’t in the best location, as the sound can be muffled when the phone is resting flat atop a surface or pillow. Mind you, it’s worlds better than than the speaker placement on the Lumia 1520, which is on the back toward the bottom, often being blocked by my hand.

The speakers can be turned up to almost obscenely loud volumes, and remain very crispy and well-sorted in the top-end. However, compared to my Lumia 1520, it seems to perform very poorly at recognizing the lower end of the sound spectrum. I often struggle to hear certain drum or bass sounds that give songs their rich character.

Lumia 950 XL Review XL speaker placements

Yellow 1520 speaker on the left, White 950 XL speaker on the right

Battery Life

Solid, but not spectacular. The Lumia 950 XL has a slightly bigger battery than the Lumia 950, and has almost the same size battery as the Lumia 1520, but I suspect the more dense display and the unrefined, non-optimized OS really hampers its immortality factor. Battery life easily lasts a solid workday, even under moderate to heavy use, but anything more is really stretching it. The Lumia 1520, by comparison, can go a day and a half, maybe two, under similar usage in my experience.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Battery life easily lasts a solid workday, even under moderate to heavy use, but anything more is really stretching it[/pullquote]

The Lumia 950 XL, as well as the Lumia 950 in my experience, also heats up randomly while asleep, often draining 10 to 20 percent in a span of 30 minutes for no obvious reason. Again, Windows 10 Mobile is the likely culprit.

Speaking of heating up, the liquid cooling technology found in the XL seems to pay big dividends in cooling the device, as even with the notoriously hotter Snapdragon 810 SOC, I almost never feel it get anything more than warm. This is in stark contrast with the Lumia 950, which has heated up to the point of being very uncomfortable to touch. The only time the 950 XL gets really warm is when charging through the fast-charging power cable provided with the 950 XL.

Speaking of charging times, with the provided fast cable charging times are ludicrously fast, often charging from almost empty to near full in under an hour. When connected with a typical computer, the charging times are much more muted and typical for a smartphone.

Camera

As it shares the same camera as the Lumia 950, it’s hard to say anything other than what I’ve already said in the camera section of Kareem’s review.

Lumia 950 XL Review XL pond

Lumia 950 XL pond shot at the Grove in LA. You can’t see his face, but that guy’s jaw is dropping as much as mine is

Lumia 950 XL Review 1520 pond

Lumia 1520 comparison image

Lumia 950 XL Review XL grove tree

Lumia 950 XL Christmas tree shot

Lumia 950 XL Review 1520 grove tree

Lumia 1520 comparison image. Lighting is completely wrong.

Lumia 950 XL Review XL fountain

Lumia 950 XL fountain shot

Lumia 950 XL Review 1520 fountain

Lumia 1520 comparison image. Strange turquoise tint prevails all over image

Much like the 950, I am thoroughly impressed with the XL’s ability to shield itself and temper from the blinding rays of sharp light sources such as the sun and street lamps. This is in contrast to the Lumia 1520, which often found itself blinded by the light on top of getting the lighting and mood of the scene completely wrong. Images taken with the XL are consistently vibrant, accurate, and well-saturated. I am floored by the XL’s camera in normal daytime shots, and I feel they are comparable to those taken by my Nikon D3300 DSLR.

As the weeks have gone by, I’ve become increasingly more jaded with the both Lumia devices’ Rich Capture feature. This is partly because flash, which Rich Capture relies on, is rarely a good substitute for adequate lighting in the scene. Because Rich Capture needs to have everything set to automatic to work, making you helplessly dependent on the dimwitted software’s ability to catch on to what you’re trying to do.

Lumia 950 XL Review XL pasta rich

Lumia 950 XL pasta shot that chose to flash when left to auto. No amount of HDR post modification can correct how wrong this is.

Lumia 950 XL Review XL pasta

What it should look like

The main reason I don’t like Rich Capture is because of the triple LED RGB natural flash found on both devices. While excellent and even desirable in some scenarios, as I mentioned and demonstrated in the Lumia 950 review camera section it often imparts this “late afternoon” glow to the image that completely betrays the mood of the scene.

Lumia 950 XL Review XL icecream rich

RGB flash effect. Not as obvious as Lumia 950 Beef Stroganoff example, but it’s there

Lumia 950 XL Review XL icecream

What it should look like

Video recording with the 950 XL is sublime, capturing all the finest details and sounds in the surrounding vicinity.

The XL also performs spectacularly in low light conditions IF you take over manually. When using the camera in automatic mode, the camera often has no idea what to focus on, even when directing the camera’s focus with a tap. It will often take several seconds for the camera to figure out what to focus on in night time, and 9 times out of 10 it won’t even get it right.

Lumia 950 XL Review XL park auto

Lumia 950 XL park shot at night on auto

Lumia 950 XL Review XL park tree auto

Another auto night shot

Take over manually, and give yourself the right setup, and you get these:

Lumia 950 XL Review XL park

Lumia 950 XL park shot with 1 second shutter speed, manual focus

Lumia 950 XL Review 1520 park

Lumia 1520 comparison image

Lumia 950 XL Review XL park tree

Lumia 950 XL with 1 second shutter speed and manual focus

Lumia 950 XL Review 1520 park tree

Lumia 1520 comparison image

One particularly annoying thing about taking pictures with the XL is the post-processing. While the shots are taken virtually instantaneously (unless of course you manually elongate the shutter speed), the XL requires a few seconds of post-processing before these images are done rendering and can be previewed accurately and manipulated as images. Interestingly, where the post-processing takes an average of 6 seconds with the Lumia 950, the XL in my experiences takes half that, an average of about 3 seconds. This could be attributed to the more powerful SoC found in the XL, but I can’t say for sure.

Overall Usage and Conclusion

Using the Lumia 950 XL is much like using the Lumia 950 for reasons outlined in my comparison video. Wonky software scaling mitigates the core advantages of having a bigger screen, and unrefined software masks any performance difference between the two despite the different SoCs. The XL is a bit harder to use with one hand than the 950, although thanks to the new-found thinness, it’s much easier to use with one hand than it’s predecessor.

I’ve been using the 950 XL as my primary device over the past few weeks and I’ve enjoyed it. The only thing that really irks about the 950 XL is the software navigation buttons. Unlike the 1520, which had hardware navigation buttons that didn’t take up valuable screen space, the XL’s software navigation not only takes up screen space, it also pops in and out in seemingly random fashions. While you can swipe the software navigation away, the gesture to do it isn’t always reliable, and it just seems so pointless to do so, because most of navigation gets done with the back button anyway. This isn’t as big an issue on the Lumia 950, because it’s already a relatively smaller phone with smaller screen space, but software navigation on a big phone like the XL takes away from its value as a big phone.

And then there’s the creaking issue I mentioned earlier. Again, unacceptable in any phone, let alone a flagship, and while I wouldn’t discourage people from buying an XL, as many users will have creak-free XLs, it’s something that I feel compelled to inform you guys of given how common it is.

Ultimately, I enjoy using the XL, but to be brutally honest, aside from the jaw-dropping camera, it doesn’t blow me away either, especially in the face of its predecessor, the epic Lumia 1520.

It’s a great phone. Just not $650 USD great.

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