Testing: Microsoft Lumia 950 Smartphone

By Daniel Falconer

This phone is a stopgap until Satya Nadella and Panos Panay figure out what Windows 10 Mobile means to the new Microsoft.

The Microsoft Lumia 950 comes nearly two years after the last Lumia flagship, the Lumia Icon, was released in the US, and a year and a half after the same phone was released internationally as the Lumia 930. With such a long gap between releases one would expect a noticeably better device, and on paper the Lumia 950 has everything you'd expect from a 2015 high-end phone; a high resolution screen, a hexacore processor, and a 20MP camera. It also showcases Microsoft's new mobile OS, Windows 10 Mobile. I've been testing the 950 for three months, since it came out in late November, and have been an avid user of Windows Phone for over four years.

The Nitty-Gritty

Previous 900-class Lumias could go toe-to-toe with the latest iPhone and Android flagships when it came to specs. In some ways the Lumias were even a step ahead of the competition.

This time out the newest Lumia has a 5.2 inch 2560x1440 AMOLED screen, and it's stunning, if not a little excessive. At a ridiculous 564 pixels per inch, even the smallest text appears sharp. That's significantly higher than the retina screens of the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, at 326 and 401 ppi respectively, and similar to 2015 flagship Android phones such as the LG G4, 5.5" at 538 ppi, and the Samsung Galaxy S6 with a 5.1" screen at 577 ppi. Colors might be a little plain out of the box, but, as with previous Lumias, the color profile can be easily changed. With the ClearBlack polarizing filter and Sunlight readability brightness setting, the screen gets plenty bright even under direct sunlight. And Glance Screen, the fan favorite Lumia feature that provides glanceable information without turning the display on, is back, but the Lumia 950 is curiously missing Double Tap to Wake.

Overall, I can't tell much of a difference between this screen, and the 1080p AMOLED screen of the Lumia 930. I can see the reasoning behind having a 2K screen on a 5.7" device. But, on a smaller phone I feel it's excessive and an unnecessary bullet point. I'd much rather have a great quality 1080p display, more battery life, and a potentially cheaper device.

Inside the Lumia 950 is a 1.8GHz Snapdragon 808 processor, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage with the option to expand it via a microSD card slot. By now many of you are likely aware of the issues surrounding the Snapdragon 810. While it's technically more powerful than the 808, the 810 runs hotter than previous Qualcomm chips, so the processor's performance is throttled heavily in some phones in order to keep the temperature within reason.

The 950's larger counterpart, the Lumia 950 XL, has the 810 along with liquid cooling to help with heat management. Nevertheless, performance on the smaller Lumia 950 with the 808 is fast and fluid. Moving through the OS and UI animations are smooth. Switching between apps is quick and on newer builds of W10M I haven't seen a single "Resuming…" screen, which older and slower Windows phones are plagued by. Even something like HERE Drive only takes a second or two to get going again. That being said, more taxing apps like navigation apps and games will get the phone warm, though not uncomfortably so.

Games like Lara Croft GO were a real joy to play, even for what I would consider longer sessions (20+ minutes). While it may not be as graphically intense as something like the Asphalt series, it's still an absolutely gorgeous game. Load times seemed quick to me, although I did notice some dropped frames here and there later in the game when things got more intense.

Battery life is great and with a 3000 mAh battery this phone lasts all day for me with moderate usage. But even if you do something that quickly drains the battery, the 950 supports USB-C Fast Charging. I've gone from a dead phone to 30% in about 15 minutes, and then 80% in less than two hours. Even though the 950 supports both Qi and PMA wireless charging, I've gone back to plugging in my phone given how much faster it charges.

The Best PureView Camera Yet

The follow up to the Lumia 930 is once again packing a 20MP PureView camera, but don't let that fool you. The 950's camera has a significantly larger aperture, f/1.9 compared to f/2.4 for the 930's camera, and slightly bigger sensor. That, combined with software changes, means that photos taken with the Lumia 950 when compared to its predecessor provide a greater dynamic range and a better depth of field, as well as sharper and more saturated pictures. The Lumia 930 could close the gap slightly if Rich Capture (HDR) is turned on, but pictures from the 950 would still be better.

The LG G4 set itself apart from the many Android phones of 2015 by having a really good smartphone camera sensor and lens. In my testing, the G4's camera, similar to the 930, lacks the sharpness and dynamic range of the Lumia 950 when using auto settings. However, the Lumia suffers at times from a slight yellow tint after post-processing. This problem is somewhat alleviated by the usual Lumia manual controls and the 950's ability to capture in RAW alongside the oversampled JPEG image.

Where the Lumia 950's camera significantly differentiates itself from previous Lumias is night time photography. With that better sensor, the 950 takes in about as much light as the 2013 Lumia 925 (8MP f/2.0 ), but the images are of course much sharper. And compared to the G4, low light shots seem to be a little better on the 950.

Lumia 930 on the left, 950 on the right

The camera on this phone is essentially the culmination of all previous Lumias; the low-light capabilities of the Lumia 925, and the oversampling sharpness of the Lumia 930. The 950 also sports a 5MP wide angle front facing camera. I would never claim to be to an expert on the artistry of selfies, but I was mildly impressed the first time I used the front camera.

Videos recorded with the Lumia 930 were amazing, so the 950 didn't have much to improve on. That being said, the 950 adds the ability to shoot longer 4K videos, as well as slow motion videos at 120 fps/720p. Auto-focus can be a little more jumpy when compared to something like the G4, which has laser assisted focusing, but if what's being recorded isn't moving a whole lot or you just manually set the focus you won't notice it.

Low light with the Lumia 950

This continues to be one of my favorite features, hands down. Between the great sensor, Optical Image Stabilization, and four microphones, videos shot on the 950 are phenomenal. Be sure to check out my video review below to see what I mean.

The Most Boring High-End Lumia

The Lumia 950 might not seem like it has so much great hardware though, as the design of it is uninspiring. The all plastic removable shell is uncharacteristically utilitarian, coming in only black and white. While this is the first high-end Lumia from Microsoft, this is likely a final hold-over design from the Nokia era. (Panos Panay, Microsoft's head of devices, said he'd been working with the Lumia team for only "a very short time" when the 950's were announced.) That's surprising given the beautiful designs of previous phones.

Nokia's eye catching phones meshed so well with Microsoft's tiled UI. The cyan color quickly became synonymous with Windows Phone. And while the colors may have changed over the years, the build quality that Nokia phones were known for held strong. But, with the Lumia 950 I managed to get a small crack at the edge of the glass, and I never even dropped it. My previous 900-class Lumias took countless bumps and small drops and came away with barely a scratch. My 930 did take a fall and got a similar crack in the glass, but that was from bouncing out of my truck and then hitting the concrete of my driveway. Aside from a flashy metal ring around the camera, the 950 is basically just a low-end Lumia 640 when it comes to looks.

Microsoft has partnered with Mozo Accessories, a third-party company made up of ex-Nokia people that make Lumia cases, to create better back covers for the Lumia 950 and 950 XL. I love their leather back for the 950. It adds just enough weight and thickness to the phone to feel near perfect in the hand. I also eagerly await Mozo's colored polycarbonate backs, but that doesn't excuse Microsoft for putting out a high-end Lumia that doesn't look like one.

Microsoft Rebuilt Its Mobile OS…Again

Hardware is only half of the story though with the Lumia 950, which is running Microsoft's latest mobile operating system, Windows 10 Mobile.

The name change from Windows Phone back to Window Mobile is fitting as the new OS is more tightly integrated with its desktop counterpart, much more so than Windows Phone 8 ever was with Windows 8. This is also the biggest UI update to the mobile version of Windows since the introduction of Live Tiles in 2010.

The Start screen has been spruced up, now with transparent live tiles and full background wallpapers. When it comes to the out of the box experience with all smartphones, I feel like Windows Phone has offered the most personalizable options, and these new additions give users the ability to make vastly different and unique homescreens.

The Action Center and notifications have been improved, with the key update being actionable notifications. This is most useful when receiving text messages, as it is on any smartphone, and I prefer Microsoft's implementation compared to stock Android because I can still see the text as I'm typing my response.

All of the core apps have been updated, mostly for the better, and will be familiar to anyone that has used them in Windows 10 on the desktop. In fact, thanks to the new Universal Windows Platform, they're the same apps and have just been scaled to the smaller screen of a smartphone. If you're using Windows 10 you can see this for yourself. Try opening up Calendar or Settings, then resize the window to roughly phone size and you'll see what the app looks like on a phone.

Outlook Mail and Settings have both received long overdue updates. The former might not be quite as good as the iOS/Android version, but it's certainly much better than what Windows Phone users have had to use up until now. And at this point any update to Settings was a welcome one, so the fact that it's now a night and day difference compared to the old layout is worth mentioning.

I don't have as much time to hop on Xbox Live nowadays, so the new Xbox app is nice for keeping up with what my friends are up to. Microsoft's new Groove Music service is noticeably better than Xbox Music. Hopefully they won't reboot it again and can finally make something on par with Zune.

However, one new app I do find issue with is Maps. It still uses HERE data, which has always been fine for me, but my problem with it is the user interface. The UI is so small it's impossible to see things like ETA and distance while driving. Maps is also missing great features from HERE Drive, like My Commute which gives alternate route information. So while Maps is still functional and likely fine for most people, overall I feel it's a step backwards compared to the HERE suite. Thankfully, those apps are still available.

Gone are the oversized titles and panoramic menus of Windows Phone 7 and 8.

In general the design language of these apps have taken a major shift. Gone are the oversized titles and panoramic menus of Windows Phone 7 and 8. While this user experience was better than iOS or Android, it unfortunately never caught on. And so, Microsoft has adopted the three line menu button, or "hamburger" button.

I don't think this is the end of the world; Windows 10 Mobile still has distinct style and design. But, these core apps need more consistency. In some apps settings can be found in the menu button, but in others the app's settings are still located in the legacy application bar (three dots menu). And Groove Music allows for you to swipe in from the left edge to open the side menu, but all other apps require you to tap the menu button to open it.

The OS also has a lot of little bugs everywhere. For example, the Messaging app will crash on me once or twice a day, every day. Sometimes it'll be when I hit the send button, as if it's acting as a kill switch, or often times just when I'm in the middle of typing. And after every new OS update it's a coin flip as to whether or not Alarms will work.

Microsoft rebuilding their phone OS for a third time brought with it some rough edges, although I do believe the new UI and design of W10M is a net positive.

The Future is Neat, but Not Quite Ready

Rather than including a fingerprint reader like other high-end smartphones, Microsoft has instead opted to look at your eyes with an inferred iris scanner. Once the Windows Hello biometric security system recognizes you, the phone will unlock.

While at first this seems really cool, in practice it's too slow and doesn't recognize me 100% of the time; not unlike fingerprint sensors when they were first introduced. The iris scanner does work if you have glasses, and it even works with sunglasses, but it functions noticeably better if you're wearing neither.

The Lumia 950 also supports Continuum. This is a feature of Windows 10 where the OS transforms based on the screen size and inputs of a device. So when the 950 is plugged into Microsoft's Display Dock accessory ($100) or connected to a Miracast display, you can use a desktop interface.

Remember when I said the apps on the phone are actually the same ones you use on the desktop? That becomes readily apparent in Continuum when you open Outlook Mail, for example, and you get the expanded view. Or, if you open any of the various Office apps you get a Ribbon at the top. And, you can still use your phone while in this mode.

Now, this feature does come with the caveat that you can only use the apps on your phone that support Continuum, so you won't be able to use Photoshop this way any time soon. This feature is cool, and it actually kinda works, at least over a wired connection. I was only able to test it wirelessly and experienced input lag and random disconnects. Still, I personally believe that this is the future of computing. But right now, Continuum with the Lumia 950 has limited usefulness, and I can't see the average person ever using it.

Closing Thoughts

The Lumia 950 is a good phone. It's technically better than any previous Lumia. I like it. But, I don't love it like my Lumia 930. That was a charming device with a wow factor, just like the Lumia 920 before it. The 950 on the other hand feels like a work in progress more than anything else. And of course, the app situation on Windows hasn't gotten much better.

This phone is a stopgap until Satya Nadella and Panos Panay figure out what Windows 10 Mobile means to the new Microsoft.

This phone is a stopgap until Satya Nadella and Panos Panay figure out what Windows 10 Mobile means to the new Microsoft. And so with that in mind, combined with the fact that there are an array of great Android devices to choose from now, it's hard to recommend the Lumia 950 to anyone other than the most diehard of Microsoft fans.

But why is Microsoft's first high-end phone a Lumia? Why not call it a Surface Phone? Well, the 950 was one of many phones in the portfolio of next generation Lumias designed and planned out by Nokia before Microsoft acquired their devices and services division in 2014. It takes a long time to develop phones, and Microsoft couldn't go another year without a new device. Even though the Lumia 950 isn't the greatest, having nothing out would have completely undermined the launch of Windows 10 and what it's trying to do. And slapping the Surface name on this phone wouldn't mean anything because its roots are Lumia through and through.

Surface represents transformation, both conceptually and literally. It's a product that sets a standard for Microsoft's partners and differentiates itself from competitors. A phone designed by Panos Panay and his team would be worthy of the name Surface as they bring to the table a strive for innovation and a level of creativity that is missing from the Lumia 950. For example, before release it was rumored that the Lumia 950 XL would support the Surface Pen, but that plan was canceled not because it didn't work, but because it allegedly seemed like too much of an accessory. It wasn't core to the experience. Using a stylus with a phone certainly isn't anything new, however a theoretical Surface Phone would implement it in a way that seems second nature. Microsoft's first homegrown Windows phone isn't going to magically save the platform, but it will almost certainly be different than the Lumias from Nokia.