Microsoft Lumia 950 Review: the phone for Windows fans (and no one else) [UPDATE: Now with more XL!]

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Update: After a week with the Lumia 950’s bigger brother, the 950 XL, we’ve decided to append our new observations to this review. Scroll down to the bottom for that addendum if you’re interested in hearing about Microsoft’s bigger and badder (in more ways than one) Windows smartphone.

When Microsoft announced in July that it was writing down almost the entire cost of its Nokia acquisition and laying off 7,800 employees from its phone division, many took it as a sign that the bell had finally tolled for Windows Phone. Despite a promising debut in 2010 and some very compelling offerings since, Microsoft’s mobile platform has failed to gain significant traction, peaking at just 3.4% of the global market in 2013 before plummeting to its current low of 1.7%. Microsoft’s restructuring, along with its move to port its Office productivity suite to iOS and Android, was seen by some as a tacit admission that it had lost the smartphone war – and mediocre hardware offerings like the Lumia 830 did little to change that perception.

The October launch of the Lumia 950 (and its larger sibling, the 950 XL) opened a new chapter in Microsoft’s mobile history. The Lumia 950 is a bundle of contradictions: a halo smartphone in a ho-hum chassis; a cutting-edge operating system with a still-nascent ecosystem; a product built not necessarily to sell in volume, says Microsoft, but as a kind of concession to the long-suffering Windows Phone loyalists. In other words, the Lumia 950 is unlike any smartphone that’s come before. While it probably doesn’t represent the future of Windows on phones, it’s one of the only two flagships available on the platform today. So is it worth the $600 Microsoft wants for it?

Only if you’re a fan.

Video Review · Specs & Hardware · Windows 10 Mobile · Continuum · Camera · Performance ·

Pros/Cons · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion

 

Lumia 950 Review Video

Index

Specs & Hardware

Lumia 950 Review Windows Phones

Out of the box, the Lumia 950 is an almost totally unremarkable smartphone. Its matte-finish polycarbonate evokes memories of older, prouder Lumias like the 1020 and 930, but it lacks the reassuring heft of the former and the classy metallic trim of the latter. Also absent is any of the whimsy of earlier Lumia designs, the old neon colors replaced by staid black and white options, the storied Nokia logo erased in favor of Microsoft’s minimalist branding. At 8.2mm thick and 150g in mass, even the Lumia 950’s size is middle-of-the-road. (Fortunately there’s an easy way to gussy up the device: accessory manufacturer Mozo has crafted some excellent leather backs for the 950 which give it an entirely different look and feel. We’ve spent most of our review period with the brown leather edition, and we wouldn’t go back.)

Lumia 950 Mozo Pocketnow

Get past the uninspired aesthetics and there’s plenty to like here, starting with the screen. The 5.2-inch display bears a ClearBlack polarization filter for better daylight visibility, and it brings with it the inky blacks and heavy saturation common to OLED screens. While the display brightness toggle in the Action Center only allows for four levels of brightness control, Windows 10 provides for more granular adjustment in the settings menu, and the “Extras” section contains options to tune the display profile for more or less vivid colors. Also, from the moment the little Microsoft logo pops up on the boot screen you know you’re looking at a Quad HD display: the 564ppi sharpness is especially notable on Live Tiles with a lot of text, and on the downsized notification symbols in the new Windows 10 status bar.

Lumia 950 Review Display

Normally we find spec listings pretty banal, but Windows Phone fans have been waiting nearly two years for a proper flagship, so some high points deserve calling out. There’s a 20MP PureView camera here with optical stabilization and a new triple-LED flash, tied to the dedicated camera key we wish more manufacturers would include. The phone comes packing 32GB of storage (29 of which are available out of the box) and also offers a MicroSD slot for up to 200GB of additional space. That slot sits under a removable back cover alongside a 3,000 mAh battery which is also removable – a rarity these days. The battery is rechargeable via a USB Type-C connector on the bottom of the phone or via Qi/PMA wireless charging. Further down in the guts of the 950 sits a Snapdragon 808 processor backed up by 3GB of RAM.

 

 

If that’s not enough to bamboozle you, there’s one more trick hiding beneath the Gorilla Glass 3 faceplate, and it’s a doozy. Hit the phone’s unlock button and the Windows Hello interface lights up, an animated eyeball prompting you to look directly at the screen while the phone’s infra-red sensor matches your iris with the unique hash stored in memory. It takes a bit of training and it’s not 100% effective (Windows Hello is still in Beta) but it’s surprisingly speedy when it does work, and it’s absolutely the coolest means of signing into a smartphone you’ll see this year.

Index

Windows 10 Mobile

Windows 10 Mobile

Lumia 950 Windows 10 1Once you get past the Hello gatekeeper, you’re dropped straight onto the Start screen, and for all that’s changed in the jump from Windows Phone to Windows 10, we’re glad to see the Start screen is much the same as ever. Sure, you have a wider range of accent colors and wallpaper options now –it’s nice to be able to choose whether your background image is painted directly on the tiles or draped behind them– and little things like animations have been tweaked, but by and large this is the same old Start screen, with options galore for minimalists and info-hounds alike.

We’re in the latter category, so our Start screen is packed with data. At the moment, our Money tile reports that America’s biggest gas field is finally succumbing to a downturn, while the Cortana tile is showing us a tech news headline about the Surface Pro 4. The Outlook tile is cycling between the subject lines of our three most recent emails, while the Blue Skies weather app is telling us that it’s 47 degrees in Somerville (and that we shouldn’t forget our umbrella). Other, smaller tiles bear simpler notification counts: Facebook 7, Tweetium 6, Slack 6, Instagram 79. Meanwhile, our Photos app serenely cycles between pictures we’ve taken, the Xbox tile occasionally flipping over to reveal our gamertag, the Outlook Calendar app reminding us it’s someone’s birthday. Some of our tiles represent not just apps but particular documents within apps: our Lumia 950 reviewers’ memo sits alongside a smattering of local points of interest at the bottom of the screen, all of them just a tap away. All this is instantly visible the moment we unlock the phone, and that kind of immediacy remains one of the principal benefits of using a Windows-powered smartphone. Yes, you can accomplish similar information density on an Android device, but not with the cohesive look and feel that Windows offers.

Lumia 950 Windows 10 2That uniqueness falls off the farther you get from the Start screen. Notifications are holed up in the Action Center above the screen, accessible via a cumbersome swipe-down just like on iOS and Android (while the leftmost homescreen panel, the perfect place for a notification hub, sits frustratingly vacant). Where older Windows Phones used elegant and easy-to-control sliding panels to access different corners of apps, Windows 10 Mobile has embraced the less-imaginative “hamburger menu,” generally placed far out of the way in the upper-left corner of the screen, aping one of iOS’s worst design precedents. By far the most egregious example of iPhone “inspiration,” though, can be found by holding down the Start key: do it and watch the UI slide halfway down the screen in a perfect imitation of Reachability. Meanwhile, longtime Lumia staples like double-tap-to-wake are notably absent from the 950, even as old favorites like Glance Screen remain. The result is a confusing mishmash of holdover features and absentee ones, with the occasional WTF peppered in: we took one look at the new People hub, with its ludicrously out-of-place circular avatars, and banished it from our Start screen faster than you can say “un-pin.”

Still, moving into the Lumia 950 after a long sabbatical from Windows Phone feels a lot like coming home. We love hearing the woodpecker clack of the excellent virtual keyboard again (now with a handy cursor mouse). Managing email and calendar appointments through the new Outlook apps is a distinctly beautiful experience thanks to their slick UI design. The Cortana virtual assistant is really good at context-sensitive notifications; when we travel to a new town, she’ll frequently pop up some bit of news specific to the local area, and a simple call of “Hey Cortana” is enough to wake the phone if you can’t spare a hand. Not all of this works flawlessly (see Performance, below) but when it does, the result is a mobile experience unlike any other.

Lumia 950 Windows 10 3We’d be remiss not to mention the pervasive “app gap,” the shortage of third-party apps in the Windows Store compared to iOS and Android equivalents. Sadly, Windows Phone’s most enduring challenge is only getting worse: developers are actively discontinuing support for their Windows apps. Big American banks led the retreat earlier this year, with Chase and then Bank of America pulling support for their Windows Phone portals. On the heels of those shutdowns came others: Intuit Mint, NBC and American Airlines all turned out the lights on their apps in 2015, with Hotel Tonight the latest major name to fall. Microsoft even discontinued a slew of its own titles for the platform (the entire MSN suite is gone) and some of its own apps, like Skype, offer a much better experience on Android. Meanwhile, titles like Instagram (still in Beta) haven’t seen a meaningful update in over a year, and stopgaps like the Microsoft-made Facebook app are slow and riddled with bugs.

Fortunately for the ever-patient fans, there’s good news on the horizon. Facebook has announced that it will be building all-new Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger apps for Windows 10, and because these will be “Universal Apps,” they’ll work on every form factor from the desktop to the handheld. That’s part of Microsoft’s new Windows 10 strategy: with 110 million Windows 10 devices currently on the market and a framework that lets developers build one app to run on every screen size, the company hopes to attract developers through sheer scale. And we’ve run into a few pleasant surprises during our time with the Lumia 950, too: apps that we didn’t expect to find, from Fallout 4’s “Pip Boy” companion app to the obscure “LiveATC” air-traffic control scanner, were actually present in the Store and ran well. Microsoft’s new integrated Maps application does a nice job of providing directions for driving, walking, and public transit, with turn-by-turn voice guidance that’s pretty accurate (if not always entirely prompt). And Microsoft’s tongue-in-cheek MS-DOS emulator contains a few marvelous Easter eggs for hardcore nerds who long for the days of Windows 3.1.

 

 

If this were an older Windows Phone, the discussion would stop there. But the Lumia 950 is a Windows 10 device. And that means it’s designed to get around the app gap using a whole new method: by transforming into a Windows PC.

 

Windows Continuum

Windows Continuum is one of those features that makes reviewing technology such a joy. It’s easy to see why Microsoft thinks it can be a key differentiator, because using it feels like magic. But it’s also such a niche feature, and so early in its development at this point, that we’ve got real questions about just who will find it worth using.

Using Continuum requires a few pieces of hardware in addition to your Lumia 950. You need to have access to a monitor, a keyboard, and Microsoft’s $99 Display Dock. (A mouse is optional, since the phone itself can stand in as a trackpad.) We tested the feature using both wireless and cabled keyboards –a Microsoft Bluetooth Folding Keyboard and a Filco Majestouch Ninja– and a Surface Arc Mouse, with a 25″ HP 25vx monitor. We wanted a beefier sound than the Lumia 950’s speaker could produce, so we also linked in a JBL PowerUp Bluetooth speaker.

Setup is pretty simple: you connect your monitor/keyboard/mouse cables to the Display Dock and pair your Bluetooth accessories directly to the phone, then plug the phone into the Display Dock using a USB Type C cable. The monitor flickers to life, and suddenly you’re looking at … Windows. Not just a blown-up version of your phone interface, but real live, honest-to-God Windows 10.

Lumia 950 Windows Continuum

 

Of course that’s significantly overstating the case, but the illusion is remarkably complete. Click the Start button in the corner and you get a replication of your phone’s Start screen; click any available app and its “full” version will open on the monitor. In the case of Outlook email, that means the screen will fill with a three-pane program with email accounts on the left, a message list in the middle, and the currently-selected email on the right – just like the full version of the app. Outlook’s Calendar app spreads out just as well, a month of dates and appointments taking up every pixel of screen space. Photos gives you instant access to your picture and video library, and the entire Office suite is available for building everything from a Word document to a Power Point presentation (in fact, almost every script for the videos embedded in this review was written using OneNote inside Continuum). Fire up Microsoft Edge and you’ve got a full-screen web browser, capable of handling everything from a text-only message board to a full-on Netflix session in a pinch. And shuffling between running programs will be second nature if you’ve ever used a Windows PC: the Alt+F4 keyboard shortcut closes a running app, while Alt+Tab switches to the last-used program and the Start Key opens the Start menu. Clipboard shortcuts (Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V, Ctrl-X) also function as they should. If you’re using a mouse, right-click usually works the way you expect it to. If you get a notification in the middle of your browsing session, you need only to click the little message icon in the lower right to pop out the Action Center, with all of its waiting messages and system toggles intact. Or if you’re, say, watching a movie on the big screen and don’t want to pause it just to answer an SMS message, that’s no problem: the phone operates completely independent of whatever’s happening on the monitor, so you can text your heart out while letting Netflix play on the big screen.

For all its wonders, we quickly discovered that the key to enjoying Continuum lies in understanding its limitations. As convincing as it is on the big screen, the fact remains that the Lumia 950 is still just a smartphone. That means it lacks the power to run full apps side-by-side, and due to the way Continuum is designed, you can’t even run programs in individual windows: it’s full-screen or nothing. At this stage, not many Windows 10 apps are designed to run in Continuum either, so be prepared to be shunted back to the phone in order to run many titles. You’re also in for a big disappointment if you succumb to the temptation to try to download “full” Windows programs, most of which are built for x86 processors. The Snapdragon 808 in the Lumia 950 is ARM-based, so it can only run a smaller subset of apps designed for that architecture. You can forget your dreams of downloading and running Steam, for example; it just won’t work.

Windows Continuum Error

The same lack of desktop-class hardware means that Continuum, while giving the impression of boundless possibility, is actually pretty laggy on the 950. Just loading Gmail.com in Microsoft Edge was enough to crash Spotify, which we’d been using to play music in the background. Thereafter, Edge hung in for exactly one Google Hangouts message exchange before the browser ground to a halt, presumably starved for memory. Annoyances like pop-up ads, which would be mere speed bumps on a proper PC, are major impediments on Continuum as the 950 struggles to keep up. Using the Ctrl+I keyboard shortcut in OneNote to italicize text results in a ten-second freezeout before the system recovers. And clicking between open tabs in the browser is an exercise in frustration, as the browser needs to reload each page almost every time. It’s possible the Lumia 950XL, with its beefier Snapdragon 810, might edge out the 950 in a few of these metrics, but we doubt we’ll see much difference.

So rather than an escape from the limitations of the smartphone, Continuum is best enjoyed for what it is: a larger canvas for your smartphone for occasional email and office work, or for making presentations via Miracast. Microsoft’s vision for the future of Continuum is compelling: in addition to the simple case of the business traveler using it to stream a movie to a hotel TV, the company sees Continuum as a good fit for shared office spaces like Workbar, which could provide monitor/keyboard/Display Dock workstations in lieu of computers. Future smartphones running Windows 10 may also be powered by x86 processors that could take full advantage of the larger screen space by running “real” Windows programs. The possibilities are nearly limitless. Until those developments come to pass, though, Continuum will remain more curiosity than compelling feature for most.

Index

Camera

Lumia 950 Camera

The Lumia name carries with it a legacy of excellent cameras, which have long been some of the best available on smartphones. The Lumia 1020’s camera was so good it ended up returning to our daily-driver mix several times over two years, and the software improvements introduced with the Lumia Denim update made even the dated Lumia 930 feel new again when we took it for another spin at CES 2015.

As mentioned above, the Lumia 950’s camera is a 20MP sensor with a six-element lens and fifth-generation optical image stabilization; the f/1.9 aperture matches that of Samsung’s Galaxy S6, while its triple-LED flash is subtle enough to avoid blowing out subjects. The whole arrangement is rounded out by a new 4K camcorder mode (complete with 4-microphone audio recording) and a 5MP front-facing shooter with a wide-angle lens.

Lumia 950 Camera Viewfinder

Shooting with the Lumia 950 is a lot of fun. Launching the camera is as simple as pressing the shutter button, and the software’s Automatic mode is very simple. There’s a detent halfway through the action of the shutter key for those who favor focusing with a button, and tap-to-focus is also supported for precision adjustments. Long-pressing the button can fire off a burst of photos or immediately start a video, depending on your preference. By default, the 950 will shoot in Automatic mode, which includes Rich Capture enhancements that optimize color and contrast immediately after the photo is taken. In some cases –as when correcting for the harsh yellows of street lighting at night– that optimization leads to a dramatically better photo, well worth the added four or five seconds of processing time. That’s especially true in the case of the flash: using the spotlight in concert with Rich Capture means you can adjust the flash level after you take the photo. (This feature has been around since Lumia Denim first rolled out, but it’s no less impressive today.) Longtime Windows Phone fans will be happy to hear that the software Lenses remain, allowing you to add specific functions like document scanners, barcode readers, or fun Doom-inspired filters on a shot-by-shot basis.

Lumia Doom Lens

And if you don’t want an algorithm or Lens messing with your photo quality, Microsoft has preserved the full suite of manual controls Nokia introduced back in 2013: ISO can be set to a maximum of 3200, exposure time goes all the way up to 4 seconds and focus can be adjusted on the fly. If you’re an experienced photographer accustomed to working with manual settings, you’ll feel right at home on the Lumia 950 and you’ll churn out some amazing photos with this very capable camera – photos which you can save in either JPG or DNG format.

If you’re more in the market for a fire-and-forget point-and-shoot, though, there are better choices out there. Despite the advanced optical stabilization, photos taken during our review period often featured a fair amount of motion blur (especially in low light). We may not have the steadiest hands around, but even stabilizing the phone against a tree or telephone pole didn’t always save us from a blurry shot. And while photos appear rich and vibrant on the Lumia’s OLED screen, they sometimes seem a bit lacking in saturation when viewed on other screens. As we’re now starting to stray into subjective interpretations, we’ll encourage you to draw your own conclusions from the gallery below.

Index

Performance

Lumia 950 Performance

You may notice a pronounced lack of camcorder samples in the section above, and there’s good reason for that: our Lumia 950 really doesn’t like shooting 4K video. To put it another way, the Lumia 950 is buggy. So much so that we requested a replacement demo device halfway through our 14-day review process, and while the new unit was much better, it didn’t fix all of the problems we ran into with Windows 10. The video bug is a particularly bad one – when trying to record video in 4K/30fps, we often get an error message that looks like this:

Lumia 950 error message

According to the lone result we found by Googling that error code, this would seem to be a camera driver error. We encountered it on both our Lumia 950 units when trying to record to local storage, so we’re pretty confident this is a Windows 10 error and not one specific to our devices or memory cards.

Leaving aside the awful user experience of having to manually transcribe and search for a 20-digit code to diagnose a problem, let’s run down some of the Lumia 950’s most prevalent bugs. The camera button will sometimes launch the viewfinder and sometimes it won’t. Outlook will often take more than a minute to load simple images from an email, and will sometimes time out while sending email even over a speedy connection. Windows Store downloads will frequently error out, requiring a restart to fix. The People Hub won’t always reliably sync with a Google Apps account, leading to address book problems. Live tiles for built-in apps like News will occasionally become “stuck” on the same image regardless of new updates. Windows Hello sometimes takes a vacation, skipping you directly to the PIN code without first looking for your eyes, for no apparent reason. And boy howdy, does this phone love to reboot. If you’re a fan of listening to the Podcasts app while also taking the occasional photo, get ready to see a lot of the boot screen. Sometimes it doesn’t even take multitasking to trigger it: we’ve seen this phone spontaneously restart when doing something as innocuous as checking Twitter mentions. Now, Windows 10 Mobile is brand-new and thus deserves a little slack … but it’s not a beta product; it’s in stores right now. And coming from the rock-solid Windows Phone 8, we’d be lying if we said those stability issues didn’t disappoint us.

Lumia 950 Performance Bugs

When the phone’s working properly, performance is usually solid. Each of our test units is an AT&T-branded, single-SIM model which we’ve used in the Greater Boston area over two weeks; while about 200MB of AT&T bloatware came preinstalled, all of it was easily deleted (kudos, Microsoft!). Voice calls are straightforward and plenty loud via the built-in earpiece, and callers had no complaints about our audio quality. Aside from a few dropped frames here and there, the graphically demanding Asphalt 8 runs well, as did less-intensive titles like Six Guns, Smash Hit Collision and Angry Birds Star Wars. The only game that gave the phone pause was Modern Combat 5, but even that remained mostly playable. Audio quality over the rear-firing speaker was on the tinny side but quite loud, and there’s a dedicated equalizer featuring many custom options and virtual surround sound for headphone listening. Adjusting those settings makes a big enough impact for even non-audiophiles to tell the difference, and we were happy to have it.

Battery life was one of our biggest concerns with our initial review device, but we’re happy to report that the problem corrected itself with our replacement unit. The Lumia 950 is unlikely to last more than a day without recharging, but it makes up for that average endurance with a variety of charging options. The included USB Type C charger is pretty zippy, and if you don’t have one of those on-hand the embedded Qi/PMA charger ensures you’ll be able to top up on either your own wireless charging plate or at your local Starbucks. And if all else fails, you’ll be able to buy additional batteries (3000 mAh / 11.6Wh / model BV-T5E) to swap in on the fly – though at press time those batteries have yet to hit store shelves.

Lumia 950 Charge Time

 

Index

Pros

+ Fresh software design
+ Capable camera with excellent manual controls
+ Continuum is unlike anything we’ve used before
+ Removable storage, expandable memory

Cons

 Uninspired industrial design
 Buggy software
 Ecosystem challenges remain
Too pricey

Index

Pricing and Availability

Lumia 950 Avail

In the United States, the Lumia 950 is currently available directly from Microsoft and its launch partner AT&T. The phone’s full retail price tops out at $598.98, but a two-year contract with AT&T drops that price to $149.99. Additionally, the device is available via AT&T’s Next installment program for 30 monthly payments of $19.97.

Index

Conclusion

Lumia 950 Conclusion

The headline of this review isn’t meant to be pejorative. In an interview shortly after we received our Lumia 950 review device, Microsoft told us it built the phone first and foremost for the Windows Phone fan. “We wanted to provide this audience with something that went toe-to-toe [with the competition] for specs,” said the company’s Lucas Westcott, “something they were proud to take from their pockets.”

That’s savvy positioning on the part of Microsoft, because those fans are the only people to whom we can truly recommend the Lumia 950. That’s not to say that these buyers are getting a bad deal: Windows 10 Mobile does an awful lot of cool stuff, and does it with a sense of style that its iOS and Android competitors lack. Speaking as longtime Windows Phone fans, we’re pretty excited by the potential the Lumia 950 and Continuum showcase and some of us are seriously considering buying one.

Outside that context, though, the Lumia 950 does very little to earn its $600 price tag. It bears some of the least aspirational industrial design we’ve seen this year, and it struggles with the very fundamentals of the smartphone experience, like shooting video and checking email (email!). When you realize you can get a Nexus 6P or last year’s iPhone for less, those shortcomings really start to stand out. As the Windows 10 ecosystem grows, we may eventually see a day where a Windows-powered smartphone has a place in pockets other than Microsoft’s devoted following. But today is not that day. The Lumia 950 is a smartphone for the fans. All others –for now– need not apply.

Index

Addendum: Lumia 950 XL Review

Lumia 950 Lumia 950 XL

In retrospect, we probably expected too much from the Lumia 950 XL.

It’s easy to do when two products debut side-by-side, especially when the first one you hit is the lower-specced one. Maybe the bugs you’ve run into are due to the lesser hardware, the logic goes. Maybe on a bigger screen, with better silicon and a beefier battery, the problems are less pronounced. Maybe the 950 XL will be the one to buy.

Sadly, the 950 XL is no savior.

Everything that needed saying has been laid out in the video above, so we won’t belabor those points too much. But the 950 XL brings an experience that’s remarkably close to that of the 950 in some ways, and substantially worse in others.

To briefly touch on the sameness: it starts with the hardware, which is just a broadened version of the 950’s matte polycarbonate mediocrity, creaky casing and all. The screen is larger at 5.7 inches but the display technology is the same and so is the resolution; technically that means the pixel density is lower but not so much that you’d notice. The Start Screen layout is identical with the exception of the added row of available Live Tiles (which you can force-enable on the 950 anyway, by changing the dpi settings). The rear-firing speaker is just as loud but also just as tinny; the Type C USB port is just as futuristic; the camera is just as impressive.

Interestingly, some aspects of the experience are the same despite our expectations for improvement. Battery life is tough to measure due to the inherent instability of Windows 10 Mobile (sometimes it’s excellent and sometimes it’s really not) but we didn’t notice much of a boost despite the 11% increase in size over the 950. The Snapdragon 810 didn’t seem to have any effect on the system’s responsiveness, despite the two additional cores versus the 950’s Snapdragon 808. This was especially odd in Continuum, where we expected at least some kind of improvement in browsing – but Microsoft Edge was just as pokey to switch between active tabs, and Google’s Gmail webpages seemed just as likely to crash the browser.

But there must be some differences in execution between the 950 and 950 XL, because running the same software (version .29, the latest widely-available release outside of the Insider program), our XL performed substantially worse in almost every sense. Again, the problems are more fully demonstrated in the video above, but the biggest issues we faced were with the Windows Store. Given Microsoft’s historic problems keeping pace with the competition in terms of app selection and support, you’d think the Store would rank pretty high on the company’s list of priorities … but accessing it on our 950 XL has been nothing short of a nightmare. Some apps refuse to run even though the phone says they’re installed; there are incompatibility errors when trying to download or update many titles in the Store, such as NPR One and TuneIn Radio; other apps like Sniper Fury sometimes crash on startup; and if you clear one of the omnipresent error messages the wrong way, you can make your Start Screen completely vanish. Speaking of error messages: we hope you like incomprehensible hex codes, because the 4K recording bug is back on the XL (despite the fact that we record to local storage and not MicroSD). These issues have persisted despite the jump from .0 to .29 and a dedicate Store app update, and while we initially thought our retail unit was to blame, a quick visit to the Windows Feedback app confirmed that many other users are experiencing similar problems.

Lumia 950 XL

Again, we’re not sure why the 950 XL seems to do so much worse than the 950 running the same software. Maybe it’s a function of the different silicon, or maybe there are server-side issues that didn’t exist two weeks ago when we were reviewing the 950. Maybe we really do have a bad unit, and quality-control issues are so bad with the XL that scores of other users out there also have lemons for smartphones. But it’s more likely that the 950 XL is capable hardware hobbled by a half-baked OS. It seems very clear at this point that Windows 10 Mobile was released under pressure to hit a pre-holiday deadline, with the thinking that positioning it as a release “for the fans” would take some of the edge off the resulting rough experience. Sadly, it doesn’t.

Our conclusion above stands: some Windows smartphone fans –the ones who enjoy the feeling of being part of a troubleshooting community– will still appreciate this device. And it’s almost guaranteed to improve over time (at press time, there’s already a .36 update on the way that’s said to fix some of these problems). But at some point, you’ve got to stop cutting Microsoft slack as the company that’s forever promising a fix “tomorrow.” Today is what’s important – and today, the 950 XL isn’t a phone we can recommend.

(If you want one anyway, do what we did: hit up our friends at Clove and tell ’em Pocketnow sent you.)

Interested in going even further in-depth with our thoughts on the Lumia 950? Check out the three most recent episodes of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast for (literally) hours of analysis, Q&As, and off-the-cuff observations – then dive into our full Windows 10 Mobile review for more Windows than you ever thought possible!

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!