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Microsoft Lumia 950 XL Review: In Depth

The Good

  • Windows 10 has potential
  • Continuum
  • Sharp, colourful screen
  • Decent camera

The Bad

  • Windows 10 also has bugs
  • Plastic design
  • Windows Hello inferior to fingerprint sensors
3.5

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL Review: We test the new super-sized Lumia 950 XL’s Quad HD screen, battery life, performance, 20-megapixel camera and more, to see how this Windows 10 phone stands up to iOS and Android rivals.

Microsoft has finally launched Windows 10 on smartphone devices, with the arrival of the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL here in the UK. These two Microsoft mobiles sport very similar specs, but the Lumia 950 XL looms over its smaller brother thanks to its mighty 5.7-inch screen.

So, is Windows 10 a solid rival to Android and iOS and is the Lumia 950 XL an ideal slab of hardware to show it off? Check out our full Lumia 950 XL review, and don’t forget to read our in-depth Lumia 950 review too.

Design

Microsoft’s Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL both sport the same look, although the Lumia 950 XL’s boosted dimensions make it a little trickier to handle with one mitt. At 5.7-inches, we’re definitely in phablet territory and it shows. The Lumia 950 XL is a real pocket-filler, matching the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium for girth, although it’s also a wee bit lighter (not that you’ll really notice when you hold them both).

One-handed use might be tricky, but Microsoft has implemented a handy half-screen mode to compensate. Hold down the Windows button at the base of the screen and the top half of the display turns blank, crushing your desktops and apps into the bottom half. This works fine for checking messages and so on, but many apps lose vital functionality in one-handed mode. For instance, you can no longer swap tabs in Microsoft Edge (the web browser) and you can basically forget about playing games.

The Lumia 950 XL is one of very few phones of recent times where you can pop the back off, to access the removable battery and card slots. That backing is made of plastic, which is at odds with most other flagship phones; be it the glass-and-metal Sony Xperia Z5, or the all-metal HTC One M9, or the leathery finish of the LG G4. We don’t think the Lumia 950 XL is ugly, but it definitely lacks the premium touch that you’d expect at this price point.

Screen and media

That massive 5.7-inch screen packs a mighty Quad HD resolution and the Lumia 950 XL is definitely a media monster. Movies look fantastic, with colours that pop off the screen but aren’t excessively vibrant, plus a sharp finish as you’d expect. Contrast levels are strong too, with blacks that don’t come off as dark grey, while viewing angles also impress.

Sadly the audio quality isn’t quite as good, if you detest using earphones. The tiny rear-mounted speaker is far too easy to smother with a thumb or finger, while the output is loud but tinny, especially when playing dance music or anything with bass.

Still, at least you can expand the 32GB of built-in storage with a microSD memory card (up to 200GB supported) which means you can carry around a massive media collection. Microsoft’s online store boasts a decent selection of movies, TV shows and music, while Groove Music gives you unlimited streaming for a monthly subscription fee (a free 30-day trial is included as standard).

Windows 10 and other features

As one of the very first Windows 10 mobile phones, the Lumia 950 XL’s software is even more intriguing than the hardware. Well, if you’re a fan of Windows Phone, you’ll be right at home with Windows 10 on a Lumia phone, although there’s still a fair bit of work to be done.

At first glance, the Windows 10 interface is very familiar. The desktop is still filled with Live Tiles, which can be rearranged and resized as you like. Swipe down from the top of the screen and you’ll find your notifications screen, now with more shortcuts and toggles than ever before. And if you swipe left from your desktop, you’ll encounter an alphabetical list of all of your apps.

Windows is as simple as ever to use and well-suited to phones, with the added bonus that it looks and feels very similar to the desktop experience. However, there are also a fair few glitches in this early version which need ironing out.

In just a few days of use, I saw dozens of little bugs in my Lumia 950 XL, several of which were more than mildly irritating. Between videos locking up, photos glitching out in the camera album, my maps app refusing to actually display a map and the occasional crash, these issues soon piled up and made me long for a stable Android phone instead. Even the notifications bar occasionally takes two or three swipes to drag down, which is less than impressive.

Of course, every new OS always has issues like these – don’t forget iOS 9’s myriad of bugs when it first launched. Windows 10 seems to have more quirks than new versions of iOS and Android at the moment, but we’re sure that Microsoft will sort most of them out soon, especially with help from the Insider program.

So, apps eh? It seems inevitable that any discussion of Windows will eventually touch on the apps situation, and while great strides have been made in this area, there’s still much work to be done.

You can now download big name apps such as Netflix, WhatsApp, Spotify and Adobe Photoshop, with plenty of third-party solutions for missing apps (including Phonos for controlling Sonos speakers, as an example). Well-known gaming titles such as Hitman Go, Crossy Road, Monument Valley and Leo’s Fortune have finally slinked onto the platform too, which is very encouraging.

Read next: Best games for Windows phones

However, many apps we tried have vital functionality missing, which makes them inferior to their iOS and Android counterparts. For instance, the YouTube app is little more than a link to videos, which actually open in the Edge browser, while BBC’s iPlayer Radio app won’t even let you sign in to access your favourite shows. We’re sure this situation will eventually be rectified, but for now the Windows app experience is still lagging behind the competition.

Features

There’s no fingerprint sensor on the Lumia 950 XL, but Microsoft’s Windows Hello feature allows you to unlock your phone with your eyes instead. Just stare at the front-facing camera and the lens will automatically detect if you’re the registered user and unlock.

Of course, it’s far from a perfect system. For one, you often have to hold the phone quite close to your face and keep it steady for Windows Hello to work, which makes you look a bit daft if you’re out and about and proves rather tricky when walking. In dark environments you’ll often get a fail, in which case you’re forced to enter a PIN instead. However, even when Windows Hello works, it’s often no faster than tapping in a four-digit unlock code. A fingerprint sensor such as the Xperia Z5’s and Galaxy S6’s is definitely preferable.

Much more impressive is Continuum. This allows you to attach your phone to a TV or monitor via HDMI or DisplayPort and create a temporary desktop machine, handy if you’re always on the move and don’t want to lug about a laptop.

Personally we reckon Continuum is a game changing feature, proving that mobile phones really can replace almost any kind of tech out there. We’ve seen it in action and it works well, with the ability to hook up a wired or wireless keyboard and mouse to complete the setup. You can access all of your phone’s features as usual, but with a desktop-style setup on a big screen.

Of course, to use Continuum you’ll need to stump up close to £100 for Microsoft’s dock, and unfortunately we didn’t have one of these docks to fully test the feature at the time of review. We’ll update with our full thoughts when we get our hands on one.

Performance and battery life

One of the few differences between the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL is the processor that keeps things running. While the Lumia 950 packs the hexa-core Snapdragon 808 (just like the LG G4, Nexus 5X and Moto X Style), the Lumia 950 XL boosts up to an octa-core Snapdragon 810.

Despite this, we didn’t notice any real difference in performance between the two Lumias. Apps load quickly and games run smoothly, with only the occasional stutter cropping up (most noticeable in Edge when trying to swap tabs). We had no trouble streaming HD media either, with solid WiFi and mobile reception where expected.

Like its smaller sibling, the Lumia 950 XL uses Type-C USB to recharge, which gives you a 50% charge in roughly half an hour or a full charge in just over an hour and a half. There’s also out-of-the-box support for wireless charging, if you stump up for a wireless charging pad.

Although the Lumia 950 XL boasts a bigger battery, that enlarged screen means you’ll get about the same battery life as the Lumia 950; in other words, a day of use between charges, provided you don’t go mental and stream video non-stop. With that kind of punishment, you can expect between five and six hours of playback per charge, which is about average these days.

Cameras

The Lumia 950 XL packs a 20-megapixel ZEISS lens with triple-LED flash around the back, plus a 5-megapixel front-facing camera. I’ve extensively tested the Lumia cameras and you can read my thoughts, plus check out sample photos and video, in the full Lumia 950 and 950 XL camera review.

Verdict

Windows 10 is bursting with potential, despite its familiar appearance. Give it time and Microsoft’s OS will hopefully be an easy equal to Android, offering a simple and attractive interface for smartphone noobs as well as plenty of functionality for everyone else.

However, right now it’s a bit of a buggy mess and Windows Hello is an inferior replacement for faster, more accurate fingerprint sensors. And while the Lumia 950 XL’s Quad HD screen and solid 20-megapixel camera are undeniably quality, you’ll find rival Android hardware for the same price that’s just as good.

Of course, the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL are the only phones to boast Continuum, which should be a major draw for many WIndows 10 users. Here’s hoping that it’s as excellent as promised.

Specification

Screen size5.7-inches
Screen resolution2560x1440
Weight165g
OSWindows 10
Rear Camera20-megapixel
Front camera5-megapixel
ProcessorSnapdragon 810
MemoryN/A
Storage32GB + microSD
4G LTEYes
Bonus featuresContinuum

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