Review: Updated: Microsoft Lumia 950

Introduction

Whenever I look at the Microsoft Lumia 950, it scans my eyes, winks at me and unlocks with the words “Hello, Matt” – as if it knows me and wants to flirt. In a way, I feel like I recognize it, too. And, I won’t lie, I kind of like it back … just not that much.

It reminds me of my first true smartphone, the Audiovox SMT 5600, a rebranded HTC Typhoon, before HTC even sold phones. It was small, so it looked like an everyday phone and, importantly for me at the time, it ran Windows Mobile 2003 SE.

Microsoft Lumia 950 reviewMore than a decade later, that’s once again the appeal of the Lumia 950. It looks, feels and runs like your average-sized Android phone. Only the phone’s operating system is Windows 10 Mobile, much to the benefit of Microsoft’s diehard fans and PC holdouts.

This 5.2-inch phone does try a few interesting tricks so that it’s not too basic. Its iris-scanning technology makes for a nifty unlock method and Continuum lets me scale the software to TV proportions for a useful desktop-like mode.

Lumia 950 lays the foundation for Windows 10 Mobile, and it’s off to a better start, even if Lumia sales are dismal. I felt like that about the Audiovox SMT 5600, too, before the Redmond company blew it in mobile.

But now it’s up against the best phones ever made, like the similarly-sized Samsung Galaxy S6, iPhone 6S, LG G4 and Nexus 5X. Does it really have what it takes to win converts from iOS and Android, or keep Windows Phone 8.1 users from defecting? Clearly, it’s not that simple.

Design

Lumia 950 does its best impression of an average Android phone, almost as if it’s trying to get you to buy it, take it home and say, “Too late! You’re running Windows now.” It reminds me a lot of my Google Nexus 5X in size, color and styling.

Microsoft Lumia 950 review

It doesn’t measure out to be the thinnest or lightest phone of its size, with dimensions of 145 x 73.2 x 8.25mm and a weight of 150g. But it’s still a nice fit for one-handed use with a little extra stretch. The boxy design is palm-friendly, and the thicker-than-normal bezel means you’ll never accidentally touch the display.

You’ll also never mistake this for a “premium” handset, either. The Lumia 950 is enveloped with a one-piece plastic shell that overlaps its Gorilla Glass 3-protected screen. While the front is in a glossy black, the rear cover comes in matte white or matte black. Gone are the fun, vibrant colors of orange or lime green, as seen from last-generation Windows phones.

Microsoft Lumia 950 review

Microsoft played it safe with colors, and it did the same with the microSD card slot and removable battery. It has both, while other phone manufacturers (namely Samsung) have axed these key features, much to the chagrin of vocal critics.

The microSD card and battery are easily accessible behind the removable plastic cover, a boon for professional users. Even the expandable storage slot can be accessed without removing the battery (but the same doesn’t apply to the the stacked nano SIM card underneath of it).

Microsoft Lumia 950 review

Powering that 3,000mAh removable battery is a USB-C port on the bottom frame with fast charging capabilities. I still hate carrying around an extra cable, as much as I appreciate the reversible connection. It’ll be easier once microUSB is further phased out of devices at the end of 2016.

The top of the Lumia 950 frame has a normal headphone jack, while the right side houses a power button and volume rocker, or more accurately the volume rocker and power button. They’re in reverse order from many of today’s phones, and that’s how Nokia had them. Sadly, there’s no double-tap-to-wake function. In fact, the only way to turn on this phone is to press that tiny power button on the right side.

Microsoft Lumia 950 review

I was hoping to see a pair of front-facing speakers, but there’s one in the back of this phone, right next to the camera. At least the 20-megapixel (MP) camera is flanked by a fancy triple LED flash on its left side, and there’s no significant camera bulge, like on the Nexus 5X.

Instead of the speakers I was asking for, I got something else that’s long been on my wish list: a dedicated camera button. Truthfully, I’ve been asking for this for a while, to the point where I have gotten used to – and like – the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 double tap mechanic for launching the camera app, but I’ll certainly take this, too.

Microsoft Lumia 950 review

The words “Microsoft” are above the screen, and there’s an on-screen Windows logo acting as the home button on the front. Around back, just off-center is another Windows logo. You’d never know it was a Microsoft phone without these, meaning Microsoft’s fitting in just fine with cheap phones made of plastic these days.

Display

Windows Mobile 10 has a dark theme turned on by default, and it really lets the deep blacks and Microsoft’s familiar blues shine on this 5.2-inch AMOLED display.

Microsoft Lumia 950 review

The quad HD resolution at 2,560 x 1,440 doesn’t hurt either, packing 564 pixels per inch (ppi) into this 16:9 display. That’s sharper than the iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus and ties the Galaxy S6, but it doesn’t come close to matching Apple and Samsung’s brightness levels.

Brightness has become more important for me than resolution ever since we hit 1080p. I’m now more interested in seeing my smartphone in bright sunlight at the beach, not being able to appreciate extra pixels too small to detect with the naked eye. The Lumia 950 does well enough outdoors and has wide enough viewing angles, but it could be brighter at its max.

Microsoft Lumia 950 review

Whatever the brightness setting, I noticed this phone runs hot when in use for longer than a half hour. It’s most evident when scrolling with my fingers using the touchscreen. The slower (and less problematic) Snapdragon 808 chip shouldn’t run this hot, like a problematic Snapdragon 810, but maybe this is why the new Microsoft Lumia 950XL uses “liquid cooling.”

Microsoft Lumia 950 reviewThe Lumia 950 doesn’t have liquid cooling, but it does offer a handy glance screen. This shows limited information, like the time, date and simple notification icons, when the phone is asleep. Like Motorola’s slightly more advanced Moto Display, the static text here is in white against the otherwise turned off AMOLED display in black. It’s not a battery hog, but this feature can be turned off in settings.

Windows 10 includes a one-handed-use mode, sort of like Apple’s Reachability mode. It drops the entire screen down and stays there even when you tap into other menus. You have to tap the Windows home button to revert it or let the screen sit idle for a while. This helps that 5.2-inch display feel a smidge smaller for critical, one-handed touchscreen tapping on the subway or tube.

Windows 10 Mobile and Continuum

Here’s where the Lumia 950 is nothing like Android or iOS. It runs Windows 10 Mobile with a slick Live Tiles home screen. There are just not enough apps to fill it up. It’s a bit lonely.

There’s no question that scrolling up and down the “Start screen” is a smooth experience, giving me a nice overview of the important apps I decided to pin there. It feels very customizable.

Each app tile is able to take on three different sizes, and many of them move within their square borders. The Photos tile is a slideshow of my recent pictures, the Store tile is a gallery of recommended apps in the Windows 10 Mobile Store and the People tile shuffles around the never-ending rows of contacts’ heads – like it’s trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube puzzle.

Lumia 950 review

Front and center are Microsoft’s most colorful and recognizable apps: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. They’re here in full, but then again, you no longer need to have a Windows phone in order to access these Android and iOS-compatible Microsoft Office apps. Furthermore, Outlook is here, but it just works better on Apple and Google-powered phones.

The Lumia 950’s stylish interface works well with almost everything else about the operating system. Notifications peek in at the very top, there’s a dropdown Action Center for quick settings and notifications history and the on-screen volume menu lets me set the ringer-and-notifications volume and media-and-apps volume separately. Apple is now alone in making this confusing.

Microsoft’s mobile app problem

That’s why it’s a shame that many of the Windows 10 Mobile apps aren’t better. It doesn’t even have a handle on the basics. Facebook is here, but is often slow. Instagram is outdated, with just one size for your snaps (the app updated weeks ago for iOS and Android), and everyone on Tinder is going to wonder why you’re MIA. Don’t even to bother to look for any Google app, either.

Lumia 950 review

Then there’s the problem of having an equivalent app available, but it’s from an unknown third party. HipChat, a chat app we use here at techradar, is the perfect example. I’m trusting someone with my workplace messaging and, in return, get a stable, though unrefined app. I’m less likely to do that with many Google apps by third party developers. I also can’t interface with most cars, door locks or any other neat Internet of Things gadgets compatible only with iOS and Android.

Microsoft Maps is almost “Apple Maps bad,” with a poor interface that doesn’t use half of the screen. Exits on a major downtown Los Angeles highways are dubbed as “Unknown road,” as well as hard-to-find points of interest that should be based on my immediate location or search history. Google has a lock on both. The same applies to Cortana when compared to Siri and Google Voice Search, with cumbersome dictation capabilities.

Lumia 950 review

Data really drives Android, and it’s going to take time for Microsoft to catch up. In the meantime, its own apps could use retooling. Half of the app menus throw me into the Edge browser when I click too deeply into their settings or my account information, with HTML that isn’t ready for mobile. This made signing up for Groove Music and setting up OneDrive a chore.

There are also too many sign up screens when Microsoft’s apps need to work more cohesively. Once I log into my Microsoft account the first time, I should be good to go. Instead, I find myself logging into each app again and again. Just as inconvenient: there’s no way to download apps that are in Microsoft’s Windows 10 Mobile store on a computer, then have them pop up on the phone.

Lumia 950 review

All said, there are helpful nuances to WIndows 10 Mobile. Work Access, Kid’s Corner, the guest-limiting Apps Corner and Provisions help break up the operating system and its apps. Find My Phone is a great way to track down a lost device, too, with frequent pings in case it powers off. Apple has this, Google does not.

But the OS has got to have the apps everyone wants in the first place. It’s also no help when few people have the same phone as you do. If you’re not an experienced techie, it’s harder to troubleshoot issues through Google or at the few Microsoft Stores.

Windows Hello iris scanning

Lumia 950 review

The Lumia 950 doesn’t have a fingerprint sensor. Instead, a special camera and Windows 10 Mobile allow this phone to use what seems like a completely futuristic iris-scanning sign in option through Windows Hello.

Eye-scanning is both novel and secure, and I wasn’t able to fool it by handing off the phone to a friend or pointing it at a dozen sunglasses-free Facebook pictures of myself. The red light in the corner lit up to recognize me, but it knew my trickery and asked me for my PIN instead.

I really want to say “Thankfully, Windows Hello’s eye scanner doesn’t need my jaw not to be dropped, because that’s where it was,” but there’s a few caveats with the feature. It’s not nearly as a fast as a fingerprint sensor, and I had to look at my phone in the exact same orientation as I trained it.

The Nexus 5X Imprint Sensor, iPhone 6S Touch ID sensor and Samsung Galaxy S6 fingerprint sensor all work in a third of the time, or a split second. They just don’t have the same wow factor when showing it off to someone else for the first time.

Windows Hello works well on Surface Book, Surface Pro 4 and compatible Windows 10 PCs, where fingerprint sensors aren’t growing ubiquitous, but for phones, it’s a different story. Like everything about the Lumia 950, it’s a great start. In this case, it just needs to be faster.

Continuum

Science fiction tells us that we’ll one day be able to carry a computer that’s the size of a phone inside of our pocket, and then be able to scale it to a big screen for desktop-level productivity. That’s future isn’t here yet. Maybe it’ll come in a two-for-one deal with hoverboards.

Right now, Continuum is Microsoft’s attempt to fulfill this dream in 2015, and it turns out to be a major selling point for the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950XL. It’s successful – up to a point.

Lumia 950 review

The Display Dock accessory mediates the connection between the phone and a television for a clean, PC-lite experience that’s still a bit messy from a hardware perspective. I had strung three cables into this square box: a USB-C cable between it and the Lumia, the USB-C charging cable to power the Display Dock, and an HDMI (or DisplayPort) cable to send video to a television.

I then attached two USB accessories in back (there are 3 USB ports in total) for mouse and keyboard support. Both wired and wireless peripherals work here.

Pairing via Bluetooth, a mouse and keyboard is tricky, because many of my devices showed up with a vague “Accessory” descriptor. Clearly, it got its directions from Microsoft Maps. This is also when the USB-C cable connected to the Lumia 950 stopped charging the phone due to the power drain with any one accessory plugged in. Understandable, but I have to note it, because it may catch you by surprise.

I was able to work through spreadsheets, surf the web and scroll through my newsfeed on Facebook via a 24-inch monitor. I could even play my Groove Music songs through the television’s speakers.

Downloading anything through the Microsoft Edge browser was on my phone as soon as I unplugged it. After all, everything here is on my phone, being projected onto a television with a desktop interface. It sure beats syncing through Dropbox every five seconds.

This makes Continuum ideal for the frequent traveler or business professional in a co-working environment with access to a television or monitor. But it’s not a desktop or Surface Book replacement by any stretch. Not yet at least.

Right now, supported apps are limited, I couldn’t install “.exe” files, and the desktop remained devoid of shortcuts. Everything is contained in the Start menu. I found I could use the phone separately from the big screen or use it as a touchpad instead of a mouse. However, I couldn’t turn it off, because it turned the television off, too.

I also got a chance to try out Continuum through a wireless Miracast dongle. The ScreenBeam Mini 2 is fine for streaming video and charts, but I left the heavy duty productivity up to the more lag-free wired connection of the Continuum Display Dongle. It’s a start, and if Microsoft can bring Win32 apps to the desktop-like experience, I’m in.

Specs and performance

Digging deeper into the Microsoft Lumia 950, the hardware reminds me of the Nexus 5X even more than the outside shell. It uses the same Snapdragon 808 System-on-a-Chip at its core with an embedded Adreno 418 graphics processor.

This popular, 64-bit Qualcomm hexa-core processor uses a faster 1.82GHz dual-core chip and more energy efficient quad-core 1.44GHz chip. The same combination can also be found in the LG V10, BlackBerry Priv, Moto X Style and LG G4.

The Lumia 950 is in good company, and bests some of the competition with 3GB of RAM instead of 2GB. This provides a higher ceiling for running more apps at once, when and if Windows 10 Mobile gets enough to max out its memory.

Lumia 950 review

The problem is that Microsoft’s phone runs hot with normal use. This may not be the chip itself, but the screen and the back of the phone heat up steadily of the course of a half hour. I expect this from the troubled Snapdragon 810 processor, but not the 808 chip.

It’s impossible to weigh the Lumia 950 against other phones using the standard GeekBench 3 benchmark app because, well, the operating system doesn’t support it. I can tell there’s some slowness between menus and apps, but it’s also impossible to turn off animations and I can tell there are a lot of underdeveloped apps that are at the root of the problem.

Lumia 950 review

Overall, I glided through the Windows 10 Mobile experience with ease and not too much lag. There’s the occasional glitch, but that’s something I expected going into this phone. I really appreciated exploring the files, coming from using the iPhone 6S Plus. Microsoft isn’t trying to lock down its file system, and that makes this phone stand out for tinkerers.

Call quality

The Lumia 950 can do a lot of neat things: the iris-scanner login screen is a cool party trick, Continuum mode is promising and the Microsoft Edge browser is competent.

Yet it can’t quite pull off some fundamentals, like making clear phone calls. I’ve been experiencing voices that sound as if they were echoing out of a tin can because either the speaker or software is malfunctioning.

Lumia 950 review

The Lumia 950 speakerphone made things worse. I was immediately asked “Are you on the speakerphone now?” by my mother when I sneakily switched. Moms always know, but in this case so did everyone who I called via speakerphone.

If the call quality is a software error, which it sometimes is, this can be handled through a Windows 10 Mobile update. The speaker issue is a different problem altogether. I will say that the people on the other end of standard calls reported no problems hearing me whatsoever, so at least the microphone is spot-on.

Camera

As much as Nokia Lumia phones struggled, many of their cameras did not. It’s the one feature that Windows Phone 8 holdouts still cling to in comment threads. I had high hopes for the Lumia 950.

It has a rear 20MP PureView camera that takes advantage of a 1/2.4-inch sensor, f/1.9 aperture and optical image stabilization. The 16:9 photos that result also benefit from a triple LED natural flash. There’s also a 5MP front-facing camera with a f/2.4 aperture.

These camera specs have all the marking for a spectacular snapper, and for the most part is succeeded in taking wonderful photos during my trip to the Los Angeles Auto Show. It just couldn’t always compare to the cameras on the best phones available.

Lumia 950 review

I carried the iPhone 6S Plus and Samsung Galaxy Note 5 with me, two top cameras on iOS and Android, for a proper comparison. The brightness of the Lumia 950 photos fell between these two. Apple’s camera suffers from darker-than-normal photos, while both the Lumia 950 and Note 5 punch up the colors and reduce shadows nicely without too much saturation.

While the main camera has a two-stage auto focus capture key, it did struggle at times to focus on moving dancers at an LA Auto Show afterparty. The lightning was appropriately odd, which you’d find in a concert venue, and no camera phone could have captured their fast motions well. However, more than a few shots were out-of-focus even when the dancers weren’t moving too quickly.

There was another issue of a little less detail in the cars, especially in the grill area, when I took photos of a Nissan being spray painted. You can still see the spray-painted-over Nissan logo in the iPhone 6S Plus and Samsung Galaxy Note 5 photos, but this detail is lost in the red-orange paint on the Lumia 950.

Lumia 950 review

With proper brightness, the Lumia 950 turned out fantastic and, with the flash, photos lit up with the right tones, just as Microsoft had wanted. The app, however, doesn’t have as much going on as past Lumia phones.

Lumia 950 review

Gone are the three Lumia camera apps, including the lauded Lumia Camera 5.0 app, and in their place in the Microsoft Camera app. It doesn’t have features I like, including Series Shot, but it does have a Rich Capture Mode for automatic fans and proper Manual controls hidden that expand out of the shutter button for everyone else. I also liked the zoom-in mechanic, which requires not two fingers to pinch the screen, but one finger up (to zoom in) or down (to zoom out).

The post-processing always took five to eight seconds to pick the best version of a photo after snapping a series of shots, but the results generally turned out to be positive.

There’s also a treat at the end, by way of Living Images, Nokia’s trail blazed ahead of Apple’s “innovative” Live Photos. The short one-second video it records before photos is just the beginning. The Lumia 950 is also capable of shooting 4K video.

Lumia 950 review

Microsoft’s stripped-down camera app is clearly in its infancy. There needs to be more modes, including the return of many Nokia Lumia Camera 5.0 favorites. Samsung and LG are leading the way, and I particularly like LG’s wide selfie camera. Hate selfies? Well, it’s better than selfie sticks. That’s the kind of innovation I’d like to see in Microsoft’s budding return to phones.

I’ll continue to update this portion of the review with new photos as Microsoft continues to update its bare-bones camera app.

Camera samples

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Battery life

Windows 10 Mobile is a new operating system, and judging from our battery life tests, it’s not exactly polished enough to avoid being an energy hog. It barely lasts a day with normal use.

I was reaching for my USB-C charger before midnight every night in order to keep the Lumia 950 fully juiced. Its 3,000mAh isn’t a bad capacity for a smartphone of this size, as many direct competitors have smaller batteries.

Running our standard battery life test at maximum (like we do for all phones), the fully charged battery wore down to 72% during a 90-minute HD video on a loop. It only beat out the Moto X Style in recent tests, which went down to 70%.

Lumia 950 review

The good news is that USB-C charges this phone exceptionally quickly. From 0%, it bounced back to 10% in just four minutes. It’s a Microsoft miracle!

It went on to completely restore the battery in 1 hour and 29 minutes. USB-C charging is fast, and faster than some of those competitors’ batteries. The Lumia 950 seems to want to be the first to die and the first to spring back to life.

Lumia 950 review

Microsoft is likely to continue to refine the Lumia 950 software, so that it chugs along better throughout the day. It gets hot, and its standby time isn’t as refined as Android, which just tweaked its operating system with Doze mode for Android 6.0 Marshmallow.

Like I said with the camera, as the company continues to improve its performance with patches, I’ll update this portion of the review with fresh analysis.

Verdict

Are you willing to be a Windows 10 Mobile beta tester? That’s really what it feels like carrying around Lumia 950. It’s certainly not ready for everyone, but Microsoft’s “Insiders” will no doubt flock to this phone or its phablet counterpart, the Lumia 950 XL.

Lumia 950 review

We liked

The Lumia 950 is the first Windows 10 Mobile phone, and that probably fits your style if you’re reading this on a PC, Surface Book or Surface Pro 4. The phone revamps the slick Live Tiles interface that I really like, and the iris-scanning is a fun party trick, even if it takes longer to bypass.

Continuum is the most hyped feature of this smartphone, and it’s a handy way of working on full-scale spreadsheets and diving into Word documents with just a phone, Display Dock and several cables. It’s not going to replace your PC during travel just yet, but it’s something that should excite enterprise folks in the future.

Lumia 950 review

We disliked

There’s a lot of work to be done here, Microsoft. All of the top apps need to be a part of Windows 10 Mobile. Furthermore, the existing ones, like Instagram, need to get regular updates so that, next to iOS and Android, they’re not lagging behind in more ways than one.

The Windows Hello log in is literally eye-catching, but it’s too slow compared to a fingerprint sensor. Microsoft Maps isn’t ready for road warriors of any sort, and the phone gets too hot. Call quality could be better, as could the battery life and camera, all things that firmware updates may be able to fix – to a degree.

Lumia 950 review

Final verdict

Lumia 950 feels like a public beta test before Microsoft launches the long-rumored “Surface Phone.” It’s an incomplete picture that doesn’t quite deserve the Surface name, as much as I like the operating system underneath and some of its enterprise features.

Of course, this more than enough for Windows Phone 8.1 users to upgrade to the Windows 10 Mobile flagship’s debut. Seeing that attractive Live Tiles design on the phone and then, in less than a few seconds, transitioning to the desktop-like mode via Continuum is a dream come true. Phones are finally acting like computers in a way Apple and Google have barely tried.

Continuum needs to be fleshed out, and so does the app count, camera, battery life and phone call quality. Again, there’s a lot of work to be done. The Lumia 950 and Windows 10 Mobile feel like the first stepping stones before Microsoft dials it up to, say, Windows 11 Mobile.

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