Microsoft Lumia 950 Review

Posted on November 23, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Windows Phones with 0 Comments

Microsoft Lumia 950 Review

For the past week I’ve been using the AT&T version of Microsoft’s new Lumia 950 as my daily-use smart phone. And I was able to take the Lumia 950 to the U.K. and get real-world experience with the device’s battery life and camera, in particular.

Put simply, the Lumia 950 isn’t going to convince any Android or iPhone fans to come running to Windows phone, though to be fair that was never the plan. The question is whether this thin and light wonder ticks all the right boxes for Windows phone fans, and provides the flagship experience that had been missing in action on this platform for about 18 months.

950-hero

Functionally, I’d say it does, mostly. But despite Microsoft’s telegraphing of its marketing aims for the Lumia 950, many are still complaining about things that either don’t matter or were unavoidable. So let’s get some of that out of the way first.

Yes, the Lumia 950’s polycarbonate shell is thin and plastic-feeling, but that contributes to the device’s very low weight and provides numerous advantages: Hidden microSD and SIM card slots, a user-replaceable battery, and the chance to buy high-quality third-party replacement shells with rich textures. That shell also sports wireless charging capabilities, unlike any iPhone ever made.

Yes, the Lumia 950 is being sold in a curiously limited way—in the U.S. you can get it locked from AT&T or the Microsoft Store, or get it unlocked via AT&T—and, no, it will not work on Verizon. I’ve been explaining the why’s of that since July, and I’m not going to repeat it here: Put simply, the 950 won’t work on Verizon because of Verizon, period. More to the point, this was no surprise.

Yes, the Continuum feature is severely limited since the Lumia 950 cannot run Windows desktop applications. But Continuum’s very existence points to a future of Intel-based Windows phones, I think, that will be able to run desktop applications. And even in this more limited version, Continuum on Lumia 950 is a platform-unique bit of functionality that gives Windows phones a very real differentiator, and one that some users will truly find useful.

Complaints about the device’s specifications are ludicrous. With a hexacore processor, a stunning 5.2-inch QHD (2560 x 1440, 564 ppi) display, 3 GB of RAM, and 32 GB of storage (expandable via microSD), the Lumia 950 is absolutely a flagship-class device.

And then there’s that camera.

950-back

Even given the overly-negative world of tech journalism/bloggerism today, not to mention the echo chamber that is Twitter, the negative reactions to this wonderful camera have truly stunned me.

Yes, as I’ve observed again and again, Apple and Samsung in particular have really stepped up their games with the cameras in the handsets that have appeared since the holy Windows phone trinity of the Lumia 1520, Icon, and 930. And yes, it’s fair to say that the Lumia 950 doesn’t give us the same genre-busting, head-spinning jump that we got with the Lumia 1020.

But.

Isn’t it just possible that such a leap is in fact not possible in cameras this small? That by essentially matching the best that Apple and Samsung have to offer—and handily beating at least Apple in low-light situations—the Lumia 950 has in fact done what it needed to do in order to remain competitive in this very important category?

Camera love: Big Ben.

Camera love: Big Ben.

Having actually used the Lumia 950 to take several hundred photos now, I can say this: It takes fantastic photos. It takes photos that are on par with, or better than, the photos I’ve taken on vacations with iPhone 6S Plus, iPhone 6 Plus, Lumia 930, Lumia 1520 and Lumia 1020. As noted in my first impressions article, it excels in particular in low-light situations, and when you consider that virtually any modern smart phone can take a decent photo on a bright, crisp day, this is actually a big benefit. The iPhone cannot touch it.

Camera love: Wine.

Camera love: Wine.

The new Camera app is good, and while a nostalgic part of me will always pine a bit for the Nokia and Lumia-branded camera apps of the past, this app retains enough of the DNA to remain true to the Lumia flagships of the past.

Camera love: London lattes.

Camera love: London lattes.

What I mean by that is that the app still provides fully automatic and wonderfully malleable manual modes of operation, with the latter offering discrete control over white balance, focus, sensitivity, shutter speed, and brightness. There’s a wonderful Rich Capture mode for those who prefer auto—it’s like HDR on steroids—plus a Living Images feature that essentially creates short videos around each still photo. This will all be familiar to the Lumia user and fan.

Camera love: View from the Shard.

Camera love: View from the Shard.

Lenses are of course present. But some things are missing in action, key among them—to me, at least—a way to shoot panoramas.

The Lumia 950’s Camera app—like all flagships since the 1020—also offers multiple ways to save photos each time you take a shot. This time around, you can simply save a single 16 MP JPEG, a single 8 MP JPEG, or you can save two images: An 8 MP JPEG (for sharing) and a 16 MP DNG (for archival), which is a type of RAW image file.

Camera love: Because London.

Camera love: Because London.

The Lumia 950’s camera has optical image stabilization for still photos. It can shoot 4K video. And those videos can utilize digital image stabilization. All that’s missing is a holster that adds a standard camera mount so that we can use the thing with a tripod.

It has a dedicated camera button for crying out loud. Why doesn’t every smart phone have a dedicated camera button?

Long story short, if you’re a fan of the cameras in previous Lumia flagships, you’re going to love the Lumia 950.

Looking past the camera, I have found USB-C to be mostly good news, though of course this requires yet another cable type to worry about. The big benefit in day-to-day use is obvious enough: In under 30 minutes, you can charge a completely dead Lumia 950 to 50 percent and get on with your life. (Battery life has been excellent for me, and I’ve had no issues getting through a day of constant photography as a tourist in London.)

USB-C also makes Continuum more viable, since you can drive more—and do so more reliably—over a wire than you can with Bluetooth/Miracast-based solutions. (To be fair, this is not something I’ve used a lot yet since I’ve been traveling. I’ll have more to say about Continuum this week.)

Windows Hello has been a bit of a bust, though I do appreciate the Star Trek nature of this particular differentiator. To be clear, it does work. But I’ve found it to be a tad too slow, and find that entering a PIN is fast enough. The lack of tap-to-wake does make this a bit more tedious than it needs to be, of course. I’d prefer a fingerprint reader.

Windows 10 Mobile is familiar, and I still have an extreme bias for its superior user experiences and thoughtful design.

Most readers have probably read the term “grid of icons” enough to understand my disdain for iOS’s and Android’s out-of-date UIs, but Windows phones have always worked better, and they still do. It starts with the wonderful Glance screen, which provides the time, date, your next appointment, and notifications, all without having to touch the screen or press a button. And it extends to the superior Start screen and its live tiles that likewise provide useful peeks within apps: The latest news headlines and photos from MSN photos, your unread emails, your recent photos, and the latest weather, among many other possibilities. Android and iOS are dumb. But Windows phones—Windows 10 Mobile—is smart.

The app gap is a letdown that the Lumia 950 cannot, of course, overcome. For the most part, I’ve learned how to live without many of the apps that most people cite as reasons for sticking with other platforms. But in using Android and, more frequently, the iPhone 6S Plus in recent months, I can say this: In the same way that returning to the welcome embrace of the Windows phone user experience was exhilarating after the dull dumbness of those other UIs, giving up key apps that really work—Google Maps, for example, or a version of Facebook that is actually updated regularly and can do such basic things as upload photos—was a bit heartbreaking too.

The basics are there. Facebook, Twitter and Untappd. Audible and Amazon. Spotify and Netflix. Even The New York Times. But dig deeper and you’ll be disappointed. To be fair, this is not a surprise. And as I noted before, the Lumia 950 is aimed at the fans, not at people who may go iPhone or Android.

Honestly, the only major gripe I have with the Lumia 950 is the price. Unfortunately, this is a very big problem.

At $550 unlocked—or a bit more through AT&T, which has its own screwy ways of extracting money from its subscribers’s pockets—the Lumia 950 is simply too expensive.

Now, I write that knowing that a new iPhone 6S (with 16 GB of storage) starts at $650 and goes up from there, and that comparable Samsung flagships are similarly priced. But Microsoft isn’t really competing with these highly popular handsets. It’s competing with phones like the Google Nexus 5X, which costs $430 when configured like the 950. Microsoft’s new flagship is simply too expensive. $400 unlocked sounds about right.

And this, ultimately, is the deal breaker. Microsoft can’t claim that the Lumia 950 is a gift to fans if it’s priced out of the reach of most of those fans. And it can’t charge this price for a phone that lacks a meaningful app ecosystem, has absolutely zero in the way of mobile payments, and is only available from one major carrier in the U.S., no matter how good the camera. These things just do not add up.

So with Lumia 950 I find myself in a strange position. I love this phone, despite a few issues, and I point unreservedly to its camera as a key selling point. I will continue using it. But recommending it … hm. That’s a bit of a gray area.

If you’re a diehard Lumia fan and can afford this phone, you won’t wait for my review to buy it. You will forgive the plasticy back and enjoy the camera and gorgeous screen. You’ll goof around with Continuum and then, probably, never use it again.

If you’re a more casual Lumia fan who’s iffy on the pricing but looking for an unqualified “go for it,” I just don’t feel comfortable making that recommendation. $550 is a lot of money, and if you’re already using a Lumia 930, Icon, or 1520, in particular, get another year out of that device. Surface phone is coming.

And if you’re wondering if the Lumia 950 measures up in some way to high-end Apple or Samsung headsets, you’re already missing the point. The Lumia 950 is, in many ways, a stop-gap measure, not a serious try for the throne.

There is so much to like about the Lumia 950. But there is a lot to debate as well, and if the pricing was a bit lower—OK, a lot lower—that wouldn’t be the case. Microsoft needs to make the Lumia 950 a no-brainer. And it’s just not quite there yet.

 

Tagged with ,