Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL Preview

Posted on October 7, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Windows Phones with 0 Comments

Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL Preview

Thanks to numerous leaks, we learned almost nothing new about the Lumia 950 and 950 XL at this week’s incredible Microsoft hardware devices event. But I still have good news: These are high-quality, high-end phones, and appear to be well worth the asking price. And what could put them over the top is their camera, which is common to both phones. Microsoft tells me is the best camera that has ever shipped in a Lumia.

Yes, I’m looking at you, Lumia 1020.

This is a big deal because many Lumia fans still hold up the 1020—despite its performance issues—as being some kind of high-point for Lumia cameras, if not for smart phones in general. But this is an outdated opinion. The Lumia 930, Icon, and 1520—which share the same 20 megapixel camera—are in fact superior, thanks to subsequent firmware updates (like Denim) and their faster processing.

Lumia 950 XL.

Lumia 950 XL.

The Lumia 950 and 950 XL have even better cameras, Microsoft tells me. Yes, they look like the Lumia 930/Icon/1520 on paper, as they are 20 MP units. But every single component in these cameras is new, offering incredible speed and motion-blur-free photos regardless of lighting conditions, plus 4K video capture.

This is a big deal to me, and I will of course be testing this as soon as possible.

For now, let’s look at what else is new. First, a weird inconsistency: Some have wondered about the curious hardware button arrangement on the Lumia 950 XL. On the regular 950, and on previous high-end Lumias, the right side of the device has four buttons: A power button at the top, two volume buttons in the middle, and a camera button on the bottom. But the 950 XL is different: Volume up, power, and volume down are together in that order in the middle, and the camera button is at the bottom. Why this strange arrangement?

As it turns out, for a good reason: This lets you use the phone one-handed. With the normal Lumia button layout, you would need two hands to access the power button. And Microsoft put little nubbins on the two volume buttons so you can more easily feel for them when you trace your thumb over these buttons.

Lumia 950.

Both devices are incredibly thin and light, and weighing the 950 XL and iPhone 6S Plus side by side in my hands, it’s interesting how much the Apple device feels like a dense brick by comparison.

The pre-release renders we saw do nothing to portray the elegance of these devices, and since you can remove the polycarbonate back panel, you can replace the battery and access ports for SIM and microSD cards, the latter of which can use 256 GB cards today (and up to 2 TB in the future). Since Windows Phone’s use of microSD is superior to that of Android’s, this is a big deal. Apple, of course, offers no such expandability.

Lumia 950 XL.

Lumia 950 XL.

Both handsets work with Continuum generally and with the coming-soon Microsoft Display Dock, which provides DisplayPort and HDMI ports for Full HD external video at 60 FPS, 2 USB 2.0 ports for keyboard and mouse, and USB-C for charging (and, optionally, DisplayPort over USB-C, though you can only connect one display at a time).


I’ve now had two short sessions with Continuum and it works as advertised, though of course the limit here is the universal app selection. Microsoft often shows Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote running on a Continuum-connected display, but that’s not “full” Office, it’s the Office Mobile apps. That will be enough for some people, but it won’t be a PC replacement for anyone who has more sophisticated needs.

Finally, both phones support Windows Hello via iris scanning. This feature was described as a “beta” during Wednesday’s press event, and it’s not clear yet whether it will even make the initial release. But it works quickly, much like a RealSense camera on a PC, with the only caveat being that bright sunlight can mess up the IR beam needed to make it work. This, too, is another area for future testing.

As I’ve previously noted, neither these phones nor Continuum is going to “save” Windows phone, nor is Microsoft’s more subdued launch strategy, whereby you can only purchase these devices through AT&T in the United States, or unlocked via Microsoft Store. (Sorry, Verizon and Sprint users, you’re out of luck.)

But the phones should appease Windows phone and Lumia fans who are eager for a truly high-end phone. Man-handling both, I’m not sure which I like better, but either would be a fine choice, and I am reasonably sure that one of these handsets will be my daily driver moving forward. So there’s an uncomfortable possibility I no longer need to worry about that.

The pricing is reasonable, if not quite as low as I’d like: $550 for the unlocked Lumia 950 and $650 for the Lumia 950 XL. Those prices are each $200 less than equivalent (e.g. 32 GB) iPhones.

I’ll be reviewing the Lumia 950 and 950 XL as soon as I can. Having finally gotten my hands on them, I am a lot more excited about these handsets that I was before this week’s event.

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