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Microsoft Lumia 950 Review: In Depth

3.5
There's a lot to like about Windows phone 10...

The Good

  • Easy to use
  • Excellent camera
  • Continuum

The Bad

  • Windows 10 is a bit buggy
  • Feels cheap

Microsoft Lumia 950 Review: Windows Phone 10 has arrived in the form of two new handsets, the Lumia 950 and the Lumia 950 XL. With its 20-megapixel camera, Quad HD 5.2-inch screen and solid battery life, is the Lumia 950 worth buying over its iOS and Android rivals?

After a ridiculous wait, Microsoft has finally unleashed its new Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL smartphones, packing premium specs for a premium price. These are important devices for Microsoft, not because the Nokia name is nowhere to be seen, but because they mark the arrival of Windows 10 ─ the latest and greatest operating system and one that seeks to make phones more akin to their tablet and laptop brethren.

But with Android still dominating and the iPhone very much in favour with the iPhone 6s, has Microsoft done enough with the Lumia 950 to steer us away from rival flagship handsets? And how does the Lumia 950 compare with the bigger Lumia 950 XL?

Read next: Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL UK price and release date

Design

The Lumia 950 is a flagship device, but its SIM-free price of £419.99 makes it far cheaper than some of its rivals (yes iPhone, we're looking at you). It is, however, much plainer to look at and the polycarbonate plastic case is somewhat lacklustre. A 'Surface Phone', this most certainly isn't.

Microsoft Lumia 950 front Microsoft Lumia 950 back

Still, the Lumia 950 is at least solid and comfortable to hold, while the traditional Nokia layout that puts the volume rocker and power/lock button on the right makes it ergonomic, especially when the display is a hand-friendly 5.2 inches in size.

Those slightly underwhelming looks do play second fiddle to the functionality. For instance, the Lumia 950 works with the Qi wireless charging standard so you can ditch cables altogether, while plastic is better at absorbing a drop than some glass rivals such as the Xperia Z5 from Sony.

Meanwhile the back of the case can be removed, giving you access to the battery, nanoSIM and a microSD slot capable of up to 200GB of storage space, which, when combined with the standard 32GB, makes the Lumia 950 an impressive media hoarder.

Microsoft Lumia 950 back off

We have to be honest though, this device feels somewhat cheap in comparison with Android flagships, serving only to heighten our desire for a Surface phone made from metal or something other than lightweight plastic.

Screen and media

Microsoft has fitted the Lumia 950 with a 5.2-inch AMOLED display with a Quad HD resolution of 2,560x1,440. This gives 564 pixels per linear inch, making it very detailed and perfect for movies or photo browsing.

Microsoft Lumia 950 screen

The Lumia's screen is less bright than some of its rivals, but still clear enough to view in bright lighting conditions, while whites have a slightly grey-green tint to them – even at full brightness. At least the blacks are deep, though, and it is possible to change the colour setting (Standard, Vivid, Cool or custom) for a warmer or cooler palette, depending on whether you like the old rich Samsung look or something more akin to Sony's Bravia.

Rear-facing speakers are a bit of a pain sometimes because it's easy to block the sound, but the quality itself is good enough and avoids being too tinny. Don't expect anything rivalling the HTC One M9's BoomSound speakers though.

Features and user experience

Windows Phone's Live Tiles and app launcher are still very much present so newcomers will find it easy to use and existing users will instantly feel at home. In all honesty, only a few design tweaks – including a clearer font – indicate it's a fresh start for Microsoft and one that mirrors the desktop OS. But it's good to see the phone's interface mirroring that of the desktops, for a consistent look and feel.

Sadly Windows 10 is rather buggy, which you would expect when comparing it with its predecessor that enjoyed a number of updates and revisions. It's not broken - far from it - but every now and then you're reminded that this is software at the start of its lifecycle.

Microsoft Lumia 950 camera

For instance, there is an annoying quirk that means pulling down the task bar often takes two or three swipes, which was never an issue with the Lumia 930. Then there's the change from square profile pictures to circle, which makes it harder to see your contacts. We also experienced a few random restarts while simply trying to unlock the phone to use it.

It's not all bad news, however. In fact, the new Action Centre finally lets you remove all notifications in one go, and you can respond to texts without having to tap your way into messaging, making it easier to send those 'running late, on the way' type messages. The Action Centre also has a good number of options you can now quickly jump into, including a flash light, VPN and Battery Saver.

Windows Hello is another welcome new addition, which lets you unlock your phone using just your eyeballs. It worked well for us even to the point where it would recognise us even with glasses on (even though it warns you to take them off when during the setup process).

The thing is, it takes a bit of time to scan your eye – occasionally long enough to enter a standard PIN number. Your face also needs to awkwardly close, which makes it somewhat embarrassing to use in public. Should it fail to recongise you, which happens quite often in dark environments, it will ask you to enter your PIN anyway.

A huge round of applause goes to the Type-C USB plug, which boosts charging speed to the point where it can half-charge the battery in just half an hour. We also love the fact the Type-C connector fits no matter what way you put it in, unlike microUSB, so it's easier to plug in at night or when inebriated.

One of the most irritating problems with the Lumia 950 is the navigation. Gone are separate Here Maps and Here Drive+ apps - instead you get both in one called Maps. It looks like a step backward and is more fiddly, while the offline maps have a habit of taking ages to update, making it too easy to go past where you were meant to turn.

Not only that, the Maps got confused with one route and kept trying to recalculate to no avail, leaving us with absolutely no idea where we were supposed to be going. That's not much fun when you're on a busy motorway and fuel is low or time is of the essence.

Microsoft Lumia 950 4/3rds

We also had trouble sharing a photo in an email, with the screen seemingly stuck on a loading screen. The photo did eventually send, but the loading screen would only go away once we chose to discard the draft.

Windows 10 is a step forward for the platform and no doubt an update or two will iron out the initial problems, especially as Windows 8 ended up being a very capable and likable operating system. But right now you should expect it to occasionally annoy, especially when the app catalogue is still behind that of Android and iOS. Most of the main bases are covered and where official apps are lacking there is usually a solid or better third-party alternative, but occasionally offerings have less features than the iOS or Android versions. For instance, the BBC iPlayer Radio app won't even let you sign into your BBC account to access your favourite shows.

As for Continuum, which lets you use your phone as a proper computer on a bigger display, we were unable to test it so expect a full update and Continuum review at a later date. This is an important addition and so its success could affect our overall star rating, even if the accessory needed to use it costs £80.

Performance and battery life

When Windows 10 is playing ball it's actually very slick and, like most Windows Phone devices, just as smooth. Microsoft Edge (the replacement for Internet Explorer) loads up quickly, as does the Groove Music app (formerly Xbox Music) and other standard apps.

The camera is especially quick to load, whether you hold the physical camera button when the phone is unlocked or you're already using it for something else. This makes it more suited to catching those impromptu photos you would usually miss.

Microsoft Lumia 950 buttons

It's hardly surprising that performance is a non-issue, when Windows Phone is extremely slick and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 hexa-core processor clocked at 1.8GHz (also seen in the Nexus 5X) has plenty of oomph.

Microsoft has fitted the Lumia 950 with a 3,000mAh battery, which is more than competitive. Keep the brightness at half way, avoid streaming video constantly and it can outperform the Lumia 930 by a noticeable margin, giving more than a day of use, but heavy users may have to worry in the evening.

Cameras

Windows Phone users will recognise the camera layout as it is largely unchanged. Expand the on-screen options and you can adjust the focus manually, turn the flash on or off and various other settings. It's an easy-to-use system that lets you get the photo you want relatively quickly, whether that's through the five-megapixel snapper on the front or the 20-megapixel Zeiss one on the back.

In terms of quality, photos look relatively natural and crisp and the zoom is particularly effective. The post-processing applied automatically after a photo is taken usually helps to clean them up, but we noticed it added a unsightly green hue to a few photos taken indoors. This is a minor issue though, as most photos come look detailed and sharp, especially with the high-resolution display helping show them off.

Overall the Lumia 950 is a step up in terms of quality, making it preferable for Windows Phone users who prioritise picture taking. But it's no class-leader anymore, with the iPhone 6S and other flagships just as capable.

Check out our in-depth Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL camera review for our full photo gallery, video samples and analysis.

Verdict

There's a lot to like about the Microsoft Lumia 950. It's well built, offers a lot of freedom in the form of expandable storage and a removable battery and the operating system is familiar yet more capable.

Not only that, the addition of Continuum paints a future where your smartphone becomes your computer, as opposed to an accompaniment. In a world that still predominantly uses Word, Excel and PowerPoint, that is a huge move ─ and one that makes Apple seem behind the times.

Microsoft Lumia 950 handheld

But we can't help but feel the Lumia 950 is a stop-gap device before the unannounced 'Surface Phone' or something grander. It's relatively cheap for a flagship but the exterior design and materials reflect that, while Windows 10 needs some spit and polish to make it more stable and user-friendly.

Get yourself a good SIM-free rolling contract and the Lumia 950 will prove to be one of the most affordable flagship experiences around, but those who take the plunge should expect to be patient while Microsoft irons out the creases.

Read next: Lumia 950 XL review

Key Specs

  • 5.2 inches
  • 2,560 x 1,440 pixels
  • 150g
  • Windows 10
  • 20-megapixel with Zeiss optics and triple-LED flash
  • 5-megapixel
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 1.8GHz hexa-core
  • 3GB of RAM
  • 32GB (expandable via microSD up to 200GB)
  • Yes
  • Continuum

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