Windows phone fans, the wait is over. With the Lumia 950, Microsoft has finally delivered the premium smart phone we’ve all been waiting for, outfitted with a superior camera and unique Windows 10 capabilities such as Windows Hello and Continuum.
I’ve only been using the Lumia 950 since Monday, and to be clear this is the AT&T-shackled version, not an unlocked version that Microsoft will later sell from its own stores. Nor is it the phablet-class 950 XL, which should become available several days, or perhaps a few weeks, later.
But that’s just fine. Less than a week in, my time with the Lumia 950 has only bolstered the opinions stated in my initial hands-on experiences from last month. And that is this: The Lumia 950 is thin, light, and beautiful, with a stunning 20 megapixel PureView camera, an elegant mobile operating system, and enough differentiation from the smart phone norm to delight fans of the platform.
What the Lumia 950 doesn’t do, of course—and to be clear, this was never the plan—is create any uncertainty for those that have already succumbed to the allure of iPhone or Android. The app gap is still all too real, there’s no mobile payment system, and Microsoft’s muted distribution scheme means that many—especially Verizon customers in the U.S.—will find it difficult or even impossible to obtain this device.
These are concerns, yes, but I’ve written about them before. For now, I’d like to simply pay attention to this new phone. Which. I. Love. So. Much.
Thin, light, beautiful
First, the form factor. Like last year’s Lumia 850, the Lumia 950 is almost unnaturally light, and it too feels like a hollow prototype, not a shipping phone.
The plastic back cover feels cheap, like something Microsoft/Nokia would have put on a low-end device, but there’s good news behind that cover: It can be removed, which means it can be replaced, and that means you can snag a gorgeous alternative, such these stunners from Mozo. It also means you can access its innards, which include a SIM card slot (or dual SIMs, in some markets,) a microSD card slot for storage expansion, and of course the replaceable battery. Fantastic.
The Lumia 950 sports a 5.2-inch Quad HD AMOLED display that’s coated in protective Gorilla Glass 3, and it’s a stunner, with deep blacks and vivid colors. I’ve often discussed what I call the “sweet spot” for smart phone screen sizes, and here, as with the 950 XL, I think Microsoft has landed right on the money. In late 2015, 5.2-inches is the perfect screen size for a smart phone, just as the 950 XL’s 5.7-inch screen is the phablet sweet spot.
That display is well served by Microsoft’s excellent Glance screen, which provides the time, date, and notifications when the phone is in standby mode, and can adapt to the night with less glare. But it’s even better served by apps and games, which look fantastic thanks to its incredible high resolution and 564 pixel per inch (PPI) count. By comparison, an iPhone 6S clocks in at just 326 ppi. It’s not even in the same league.
Thanks to a new IR-backed camera, the Lumia 950 can be configured to use Windows Hello for device sign-ins, and my experience here has almost exactly tracked that of Windows Hello on PCs. Which is to say, it’s fun and interesting at first, but it quickly gets old. In this case, you have to hold the phone up in front of your face, and I find myself bobbing my head a bit to get it to sign-in oftentimes. I’ll be disabling this and going back to a PIN.
(Unfortunately, the Lumia 950 doesn’t support tap-to-wake, which is a feature I enjoy on other Lumias. I suspect Windows Hello is the reason, but I miss it.)
In use, the Lumia 950 is mostly very snappy, and ably served by its Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor and 3 GB of RAM. The only slight slowness I’ve seen is with the camera, not so much in the speed of taking photos, but rather in the post-photo-taking processing stage where I see an “Adding the finishing touches…” message if I switch to the camera roll right after taking as shot. It stays on screen for far too long, about 5 or 6 seconds, but you can at least zoom in and out on the shot while you’re waiting.
OK, the camera. I know this is what you really want to know. It’s certainly what I really want to know.
Short version: It’s excellent, and on par with my iPhone 6S Plus for most common, everyday shots. But where the Lumia 950 really excels is in low-light situations, which I’ve been able to test outdoors and in the dimly-lit pubs of Manchester, England this week at night.
Of course, the devil is in the details, so I’ll have a complete camera test—pitting this phone against the iPhone 6S Plus, Lumia 930, and Lumia 1020—ahead of my full review. For now, I can say that Lumia aficionados will be very pleased, and not just that there’s a dedicated camera button.
In a nod to the future, the Lumia 950 utilizes a USB-C connector. This is mostly good news, though cable compatibility issues will dog some users for the foreseeable future. (And the 950 supports wireless charging if you prefer that, though I won’t be testing this.)
On the good news front, the device charges crazy-fast and you can extend the device’s battery life to 50 percent in less than 30 minutes. I’ll provide more concise information about this functionality—and the Lumia 950’s real world battery life—after I’ve used it more. Four days just isn’t enough for a real review.
USB-C can also be used with a Microsoft Display Dock to take advantage of one of Windows 10 Mobile’s most interesting usage scenarios, Continuum. (There are also wireless Continuum adapters, but you’re going to get the best performance with a wired solution.) I’ve only tested this a bit so far, thanks to my travels this week, but when you couple the Lumia 950 with the Microsoft Display Dock and a display, keyboard and mouse, the phone transforms into a Windows RT-like “sort of” PC where you can access universal apps full-screen on the external display and interact with them using the keyboard and mouse.
What’s interesting about Continuum is that the phone still works as a phone. So you can make phone calls and send and receive text messages with the phone, of course, but you can also run apps on the phone’s screen if you want. (To do so, you launch them from the Start screen on the phone rather than on the external display.)
Continuum—like the camera and USB-C capabilities—will require more testing. But as I’ve previously noted, this is no PC replacement until you can actually run Windows desktop applications when docked. A coming generation of rumored Intel-based Windows phones could (and should) offer that, but until/if that happens, Continuum remains more curiosity than real world benefit for most people.
Continuum isn’t the only way that you can use the Lumia 950 like a PC. Thanks to compatibility with Bluetooth- (and, I think USB-based, though I’ve not tried this) keyboards and mice, you can attach common peripherals to the device and use them together. I tested this with a Microsoft portable travel keyboard, and while I personally find the Lumia 950’s screen a bit small for real work, others will likely be fine with this configuration.
Windows 10 Mobile
As for the software, I’ve expressed doubts about Windows 10 Mobile in the past, but I find the shipping version on the Lumia 950 to elegant, fast and familiar. The tiles-based Windows 10 Mobile Start screen is vastly superior to anything on Android or iOS, and the bundled apps are mostly pretty great, though many seem to be updated on a nearly daily basis.
And not to harp on this, but many key apps are missing, including, curiously, the HERE Drive and Maps apps I’ve relied on for years.
So that’s just a mile-high overview. As you might expect, I swapped one of my own SIMs into the Lumia 950 immediately, and will be using this phone going forward. And as such, I’ll have a lot more to say about it—and the Microsoft Display Dock, and Continuum—in the weeks ahead. But for now, I’d like to put this device in perspective.
I know that some are going to harp on the cheapness of the plastic back, on the seemingly confused go to market strategy, on the various ways in which this phone falls short of iPhone and Samsung flagships. But at this point, such complaints miss the point.
No, the Lumia 950 is not going to set the world on fire. It’s not going to change any minds over at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, or any other publication that only sees a few high-end Android phones beyond their comfortable iPhone world. To such people, Lumia was never more than a curiosity.
But the Lumia 950 is important. It’s the first true Lumia flagship in over 18 months. And it’s a real Lumia, a PureView-powered wonder that Lumia fans should be celebrating, not trashing. In our rush to embrace some future (and largely imagined) Surface phone. I think we’re forgetting what it is we’ll lose should such a device ever materialize, and those things that are special about Lumia are all present in the Lumia 950. If you’re a fan, do not be so quick to dismiss this device.
Ultimately, Lumia 950 exists for one reason and one reason only. It’s for you, the Windows phone fan. The Lumia fan. It’s about giving you reasons to believe for the future.
And the Lumia 950 is indeed a reason to believe.