Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL: The Definitive Review

Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL: The Definitive Review

Welcome to the definitive review of the Microsoft Lumia 950 and the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL. First, a little bit of a backstory.

Normally when I receive a new phone to review, it takes about two weeks before I can write a proper review. The Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL have been on the market for over two months now and I’ve been using them since day one.

In the past two months, I have gone through two Microsoft Lumia 950 phones and two Microsoft Lumia 950 XLs. In that time, I’ve written a ton of camera comparisons and a video review for each of the two devices.

So why a review now, two months after the release of the devices and after many have lost interest? There are a couple answers to that question.

One is that I really wanted to wait for Windows 10 Mobile to come into its own before making a final judgement on the devices. Another is because of the very famous firmware update, which the AT&T Lumia 950 has still not received and I haven’t been able to try until I received the most recent Lumia 950 XL.

Firmware and Software: What’s the Difference?

It’s fairly well known at this point that Windows 10 Mobile devices are to receive updates without carrier approval being necessary; however, firmware doesn’t apply to this new rule, so what’s the difference?

wp_ss_20160120_0001Software updates include but are not necessarily exclusive to the operating system, Windows 10 Mobile. The best way to think of a software update is anything that will get pushed to all devices. It’s what you got when you needed Windows Phone 8.1 and got it through the Preview for Developers program and it’s what you get through the Windows Insider program.

Firmware is what makes the hardware work the way it does. It’s what tells the software how to communicate with the hardware. It’s not soft. It’s not hard. It’s firm.

Firmware, in almost all cases, is device specific. That’s because it has to be tailored specifically to each device’s hardware configuration.

If you’ve been a Windows Phone user for some time, you remember Windows Phone 8 GDR2 as the software update and Lumia Amber as the firmware update, GDR3 as a software update and Lumia Black as firmware, Windows Phone 8.1 as software and Lumia Cyan as firmware, and Windows Phone 8.1.1 as software and Lumia Denim as firmware.

Lumias have historically added features through firmware updates, although in many cases, it simply serves to help the hardware to work better. A good example of a feature being added through firmware is Rich Capture, a feature that was not available through the Preview for Developers version of Windows Phone 8.1.1.

So how does this all relate to the Microsoft Lumia 950 and the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL? I’m glad you asked. We’re expecting monthly firmware updates for both of these two devices, much like Microsoft does with their Surface line.

It’s important to understand that if you purchase a carrier locked version of either of these phones, you may have to wait to receive those updates. That’s a hard truth to hear while these devices are still a bit immature. After all, the before and after difference with this firmware update is like night and day.

Here’s a speed test video from before the Lumia 950 XL received the firmware update:

Overview

I don’t always write an overview at the beginning of a review. Normally, I start off with the headlining features, but the reality is that the headlining features of the Lumia 950 and the Lumia 950 XL are terrible. If I had started the review like that, you’d get the impression that these are poor phones.

They’re not. In fact, these are the best Lumias to date by many factors.

Pros Cons
Best Lumia camera ever Windows Hello is impractical and doesn’t work well
First flagship Lumia with 5 MP front camera Continuum is poorly implemented
Windows 10 Mobile Windows 10 Mobile is still buggy
USB C, including two chargers USB C doesn’t fit your existing chargers
Removable back Many dislike the design (although I disagree)
Glance No double tap to wake
Wireless charging No sensitive touchscreen that works with gloves
Monthly firmware updates
All around great phone for Windows fans

Microsoft Lumia 950 vs Microsoft Lumia 950 XL

Above, we discussed the benefits of buying unlocked. Now, we must talk about the differences between the Microsoft Lumia 950 and the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL. After all, they are very similar phones and throughout the rest of the review, I’ll be treating them as one device.

Microsoft Lumia 950 Microsoft Lumia 950 XL
CPU Snapdragon 808, 1.82 GHz Dual Core ARM Cortex-A57, 1.44 GHz Quad Core ARM Cortex-A53 Snapdragon 810, 2 GHz Quad Core ARM Cortex-A57, 1.5 GHz Quad Core ARM Cortex-A53
GPU Adreno 418 Adreno 430
Display 5.2″, 1440p, AMOLED 5.7″, 1440p, AMOLED
Body 145 x 73.2 x 8.2 mm, 150 g 151.9 x 78.4 x 8.1 mm, 165 g
Battery 3000 mAh 3340 mAh
Storage 32 GB, expandable to 200 GB SAME
RAM 3 GB SAME
Camera 20 MP, 5 MP Front SAME
Video 4K – 30 fps, 1080p – 60 fps, Front 1242p – 30 fps SAME
Aperture f/1.9, Front f/2.4 SAME
Sensor Size 1/2.4″ SAME

As you can see, the big difference between the Microsoft Lumia 950 and the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL are their respective chipsets. Most people don’t understand how CPUs work (forget about SoCs). Even many technology enthusiasts believe that the main characteristics that make one chipset better than the other are cores and GHz. Some will admit that this isn’t necessarily true but can’t go so far as to believe that Apple’s 1.85 GHz dual core A9 is still more powerful than Qualcomm’s octa core Snapdragon 810.

I bring this up because I’ve spoken to many that believe that the Lumia 950 XL is more powerful simply because it has two more cores, although it shouldn’t be much more powerful as the Snapdragon 808 still has six cores. We’re going to get technical for a bit.

The latest trend in mobile systems on a chip (SoC) is called big.LITTLE. The idea is that there are some powerful cores dedicated to doing the heavy listing while there are less powerful but more efficient cores dedicated to more routine tasks.

In this case, the more powerful cores are the ARM Cortex-A57 and the less powerful being the ARM Cortex-A53. ARM Cortex-A53 is the architecture that’s used in all eight cores of the Snapdragon 615 and all four cores of the Snapdragon 410, if it helps to give some perspective. The third generation Moto G uses Snapdragon 410 with four ARM Cortex-A53 cores clocked at 1.4 GHz.

The ARM Cortex-A53 portions of the Snapdragon 808 and Snapdragon 810 are relatively similar. They’re both four cores with very similar clock speeds.

The big difference is the ARM Cortex-A57 cores. Snapdragon 810 has four ARM Cortex-A57 cores clocked at 2 GHz while Snapdragon 808 has two clocked at 1.82 GHz. As we can see, there’s much more of a difference between these two CPUs than “just two more cores”.

Except it’s not just about the CPU. Believe it or not, the GPU could be even more important.

20160125_144136496_iOSThe end of 2014 and all of 2015 saw an interesting trend in the so-called “specs war”: phones with 1440p displays. Apple defines Retina on a phone as 326 ppi, meaning that from an average viewing distance, the user cannot see the difference between that and anything more. I’ve always found that to be true. On the 4.7″ display of the iPhone 6S, that comes out to 750p. I can tell you that I can, in fact, tell the difference between a 720p phone at 4.7″ and the 750p iPhone 6S. This is why I correct people when they mock the iPhone 6S, saying that it’s “just 720p”. But I digress…

A 720p display is less than 1 megapixel, or less than one million pixels. A 1080p display is around 2.07 million pixels. A 1440p display is around 3.7 million pixels.

The difference between 2.07 MP and 3.7 MP is quite a bit. Remember, the GPU has to push every one of those pixels around the display. It’s a lot more pixels to push. Remember, while one has a weaker GPU than the other, they have the same resolution display and thus require the same amount of GPU power.

You may not think it’s a big deal. After all, if the Adreno 418 that’s paired with the Snapdragon 808 can’t handle 1440p, why would Microsoft use it? I tend to have a unique perspective on smart phones because I get to review just about everything that comes out. Even large tech web sites have different people assigned to different devices.

I’ve reviewed a ton of 1440p phones this year, but while most OEMs have settles on the Snapdragon 810 as their flagship SoC, LG has settled with Snapdragon 808 in their flagships. It’s extremely underpowered when it comes to playing games that have high definition graphics.

To be completely honest, I can’t really do the same test on the Microsoft Lumia 950 as I could on the LG G4 and LG V10. There just aren’t the same kinds of games available for Windows Phone as there are on Android. Of course, this could mean that the Adreno 418 GPU might not be a problem for you, but then again, a game could come out any day that you might want to play.

Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL Design

Microsoft Lumia 950 Mozo

Probably the most criticized characteristic of the new flagship Lumias is their design, although I really don’t think that’s fair.

If you ask me, these are beautiful phones. The metallic Microsoft logo on the back along with their respective camera designs give the phone character while the plastic body allows for wireless charging. If you don’t like it, there’s a ton of removable backs to choose from on the market that range from $3.50 to $49.99.

The fact is that people were hoping for a metal body in the new Lumias, if not just a metal frame. After all, the last Lumia flagship, the Nokia Lumia 930, had a metal frame and it was absolutely beautiful. The Nokia Lumia 830 (the so-called “affordable flagship”) also had a metal frame.

The Microsoft Lumia 950 and the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL were the first flagship Lumias to be produced under the Microsoft brand, so I think people just expected more, given the recent history of phones with metal frames.

Something to note is that the only reason that Nokia started using a metal frame in the Nokia Lumia 925 was that Vodafone didn’t want to sell a plastic phone. As we know, the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL weren’t about making carriers happy. That’s why they don’t work on Verizon.

Another point to consider is that we really should view these devices objectively. Before Nokia started making plastic phones with metal frames, Nokia was widely regarded as being a company that had the ability to make a beautiful plastic phone. Plastic didn’t equal “cheap” when you were buying a Nokia.

I think that the question we must ask ourselves is, if there wasn’t a precedent set by the Nokia Lumia 930 and Lumia 830, would you still hate the design on the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL? If you would, is it really that big of a deal to get one of the Mozo backs?

My main criticism of the design is just the way that Microsoft went about it. Mozo was immediately announced to be the official third party accessory OEM for the new flagships. They even had these removable backs at the launch event. This being the case, it makes you ask, why didn’t they just make the phone that way?

My other criticism is that they don’t sell the removable backs in the United States. Microsoft is an American company, Mozo is the official third party accessory OEM, but you can’t get the Mozo covers in the U.S. by walking into a Microsoft Store?

But wait, there’s more! Nokia phones were known for coming in multiple colors. Microsoft has slimmed down the selection to black and white (another reason that some might not be happy with the design); however, I really thought that, despite not selling the Mozo covers in the U.S., that they would sell their own removable backs in the U.S.

A good example of this is the Microsoft Lumia 735, Verizon’s version of the Nokia Lumia 735. It only comes in black but Microsoft sells a number of colored removable backs for the device.

OK, so no Mozo removable backs in the U.S. and no colored removable backs from Microsoft. What about black and white removable backs? Seriously, if I bought the white but wish I bought the black, why can’t they at least sell that?

Here’s a better question: why don’t they both come with the phone? The Nokia Lumia 830 came with two removable backs, although the Nokia Lumia 830 was ridiculously overpriced at launch. Really though, would it have killed Microsoft to throw another slip of plastic in the box?

Windows Hello

Now that it’s time to take a look at the headlining features, this review is going to take a darker turn. If you’re looking for a cheerleader or an apologist, skip over this section and the Continuum section.

I can’t say enough bad things about Windows Hello. Well, that’s not entirely true. I can’t say enough bad things about the iris scanner.

You see, Windows Hello isn’t just the iris scanner that’s included with the new Lumias. Windows Hello can also mean facial recognition or fingerprint scanning. Unfortunately, Microsoft went with iris scanning on the Lumia 950 and the Lumia 950 XL.

So here’s the deal. With the iris scanner, you can generally unlock your phone in roughly three seconds, assuming that your phone is placed perfectly in front of your face. Note that it is faster after receiving the recent firmware update.

Another thing to note is that Windows Hello is in beta. I don’t think it really matters though. The fact is that it’s just not practical.

Biometric authentication is all about convenience without sacrificing security or a compromise between security and convenience; otherwise, we would simply type a PIN when we open our phones. Whether it’s providing convenience without sacrificing any security or if you’re making a compromise, the key is that it still has to be convenient.

Facial recognition is convenient on a laptop or a desktop because the user sits directly in front of it in order to use it. Fingerprint scanning is convenient on a phone because 1) you’re not necessarily looking directly at it and 2) you’re unlocking the device with your finger anyway.

Some say that the iris scanner is practical because it allows the user to unlock his phone while his hands may be covered, possibly wearing gloves. While this would only cover a small portion of the time in most parts of the world, the point is still nullified when we realize that the Microsoft Lumia 950 and the Lumia 950 XL do not have the sensitive touchscreen that allows the user to use the phone with gloves on.

Others have said that fingerprints aren’t secure enough and therefore it was a good idea to leave a fingerprint scanner off of the new Lumias. The idea is that when one is sleeping, someone could slide their finger onto their phone and security is breached.

This is why I say that biometrics are about convenience without sacrificing security or a compromise between security and convenience. There’s a compromise to be made with a fingerprint reader but if you’re confident that no one is going to unlock your phone while you’re sleeping (like most people), you’re probably in good shape.

The iris scanner is accurate and I’ve never been able to create a false positive, so there are no compromises being made here. The problem is that there is no convenience factor.

If the Lumia 950 and the Lumia 950 XL had the sensitive touchscreens that work with gloves, the iris scanner would at least have some of a convenience factor, but it doesn’t. Personally, I think the answer is to have both a fingerprint reader and an iris scanner, along with that sensitive touchscreen. When both are activated, either one can be used to unlock the device, but I digress. My opinion for what should have been is irrelevant.

Here’s the bottom line. I stopped using it. When I first received the devices, I turned it on and I used it. I continued to use it and never turned it off; however, at some point, it just became more natural to enter my PIN than to wait for the iris scanner to recognize me.

I didn’t consciously decide not to use Windows Hello anymore. It was just a habit that occurred over time with the devices. The convenience wasn’t there and it’s an impractical feature. Because of this, Windows Hello fails on the Microsoft Lumia 950 and the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL.

Continuum

Microsoft Lumia 950 Wireless Continuum

Aside from Windows Hello, Continuum is the other headlining feature of the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL. In fact, if there was only one headlining feature for the two devices, it would be Continuum.

It’s hard to imagine that Continuum isn’t the future of computing. We’ve known for some time that PC sales were on the decline and that more and more people are using their phone as their only PC. The ability to use a phone as a PC is the natural progression of that.

First, let’s talk about some of the limitation of Continuum that will clearly be changed at some point in the future. For example, Continuum does not open windowed apps. All apps are fullscreen. You could compare it to Windows 8, but then again, you could snap apps side by side in Windows 8. There’s none of that here. Of course, that will be changed in future updates.

Another thing is that it only opens Windows 10 universal apps. There’s a reason for this. Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps are built with responsive design using XAML, a markup language. Think of XAML like HTML and think of the responsive design like a web page. When the developer compiles the app, he gets three packages: x86, x64, and ARM. Because of this, the ARM package works on the phone and on the desktop, assuming that the desktop is powered by an ARM processor. If Microsoft decided to make an x86 phone, the x86 package would be used but it would still look like a phone app.

When the user opens the Start Menu in Continuum, he will see the Start screen exactly as it is on his phone. All apps that are not UWP apps are grayed out. Attempting to click one of those grayed out displays a message that Microsoft is working on supporting more apps, so while Windows Phone 8.1 apps don’t work on Continuum right now, they might work someday. Perhaps they will work when Continuum supports windowed apps, as Windows Phone 8.1 apps don’t have the responsive design elements that Windows 10 apps have.

Getting started with Continuum, I had one expectation: I assumed that it would work as well as a Chromebook, if not better. After all, Chromebooks are glorified browsers. While I will never have Visual Studio on my phone, I should be able to get all of my work done that can get done in a browser, right?

Wrong. In fact, Microsoft Edge ended up being one of the worst parts of the Continuum experience. At the end of the day, I decided that it was Edge that needed an update rather than the OS or the hardware. I think it will get better over time. I should note that Office works fine, as well as the best app in the universe, For the Love of Tech.

I did notice numerous issues with audio. When trying to watch videos from YouTube in the browser, the audio would come in completely scrambled. It didn’t seem to have the problem when I tried to pair a Bluetooth speaker.

Microsoft sets a dangerous precedent by having the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL’s headlining features in beta coming out of the gate (although Continuum isn’t officially in beta). If you’ll recall, the Nokia Lumia 930 launched alongside Windows Phone 8.1 and its headlining feature, Cortana, was also in beta. Here we are a year and a half later and Cortana is still in beta. Well, unless you decide to load your Lumia 930 with beta software.

There are so many features of the Microsoft Lumia 950 that many are willing to write off as “it will get better over time”. The question is, how much time? These are phones and despite some of their characteristics, they are not PCs. You’re not going to use a Microsoft Lumia 950 XL for five years. For most people, phones have a two-year lifespan.

That being said, how much better will these features be in two years? What about one year, when you’ve had it for half of its life?

People really like to make excuses for Continuum, saying “It’s new. Of course it’s going to have some problems in the beginning.” That doesn’t make it OK. This is the second flagship in a row whose headlining features weren’t completed upon launch.

I know everyone wants to believe that everything will be worked out when we finally see Redstone; however, it’s more likely that the current issues that we’re having will be worked out, but there will be new features that are not completed for people to make excuses for. If you ask me, that new feature will be desktop apps on Continuum on the x86 Surface Phone that people are dreaming about and is going to destroy the Windows Phone platform, but I digress…

Microsoft Lumia 950 and Microsoft Lumia 950 XL Rear Cameras

To be clear, both the Microsoft Lumia 950 and the Lumia 950 XL have the exact same sets of cameras. They’re both 20 MP, they’re both f/1.9 aperture, they both have 1/2.4″ sensors, and they both have triple LED flashes.

The Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL have the best Lumia cameras ever, possibly the best smart phone cameras ever.

To some, the above statement is blasphemy. There aren’t many people who are still using a two-and-a-half-year-old phone that’s quickly becoming crippled by its old dual core processor, but a large percentage of the people that are are using a Nokia Lumia 1020. If you ask them why, they’ll tell you that it’s for the camera and it’s a fair statement.

First, a bit of history. The first Pureview phone was the Nokia Pureview 808. It has a 41 MP camera with a 1/1.2″ sensor. The phone ran the Symbian OS, a now defunct mobile OS. At the time, Pureview was defined as optical image stabilization (OIS) and oversampling, the idea of taking a large image and oversampling it down to a smaller image. Both the small image and the large image would be saved. The user only sees the small image, but if he chooses to crop or resize the image, the large image is used for the purpose of lossless zoom.

UPDATE: The Nokia Pureview 808 did not have OIS, so to be more clear. Pureview would be defined as oversampling, OIS, or both.

Windows Phone 8 came along and with it the Nokia Lumia 920 and Pureview 2.0. The Nokia Lumia 920 had an 8 MP Pureview camera, so there was no oversampling happening. Pureview only meant OIS for the Nokia Lumia 920. The same goes for other phones that are Pureview but don’t oversample, such as the Lumia 925, Lumia 928, and Lumia 830.

In July 2013, Nokia announced the Nokia Lumia 1020, the first Windows Phone with that 41 MP Pureview camera; however, the Lumia 1020’s sensor was 1/1.5″, rather than 1/1.2″. While it took great pictures and still does, the issue with the Nokia Lumia 1020 is that it’s very slow. A smart phone camera needs to be fast. You need to be able to catch your kid’s first steps. If you can’t get the shot you want then the greatest camera in the world is useless.

The Nokia Lumia 1520, released in November, 2013, was the first of the 20 MP Pureview cameras. The Lumia 1520, followed by the Lumia Icon and the Lumia 930, used half the resolution and more powerful quad core processors, ending up with a much faster camera. In the Fall of 2014, Lumia Denim was announced, bringing Rich Capture to Lumia Camera, the ability to adjust exposure after taking a picture.

Since Microsoft effectively went a year and a half without releasing a flagship Windows Phone (two years without actual new hardware), the rest of the industry began to catch up. LG introduced their laser focus with the G3. This allowed for perfectly focused images to be taken quickly. Apple and Samsung began to use phase detection autofocus (PDAF), another technology that produces a similar result. Nokia had set a precedent. It was clear that users wanted great cameras and they were going to focus on it.

After a year and a half, the Lumia 930 and the Lumia 1020 could still stand on their own, but they needed to catch up. The Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL do exactly that. The two new devices implement PDAF, a long coveted feature that finally allows us to quickly focus. They have f/1.9 apertures with 1/2.4″ sensors. These cameras are everything you could have wanted from a Lumia camera without having a bulge on the back.

With Windows 10 Mobile, there are a couple features that are now missing. Oversampling is now gone. The user can choose between an 8 MP JPEG, a 19 MP JPEG, or getting an 8 MP JPEG and a 19 MP DNG (19 MP is 16 MP if aspect ratio is 16:9). There is no more 5 MP JPEG and 19 MP JPEG, only using the large photo to resize images. Honestly, it takes a lot of upkeep to do that. The phone has to know that if you choose an image to share, to share the small one, to pick the large one if you choose to zoom. It can be a pain to support. With Windows 10 Mobile, the Nokia Lumia 1020 will be the only phone to still use Lumia Camera for this reason.

The one gripe that many people still have with the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL’s camera is that the user can’t turn Rich Capture on. It only allows for off and automatic. This feature should be coming, as it was available in Windows Phone 8.1.1.

Rich Capture is an amazing feature and if you use it, you know that there’s nothing else like it on the market. Let’s say that you are taking a picture in low light. You could use the flash, but the subject will be white as a ghost and the background will be super dark. If you don’t use the flash, everything will be more even but the whole scene will be a little dim. What Rich Capture does is it allows you to choose the picture with the flash, without the flash, or anywhere in between. It uses a simple slider to adjust exposure.

Another thing I want to point out before I show samples is how much better the viewfinder is. Yesterday, we had a blizzard. I went out to take pictures and I took my Nokia Lumia 1020, Nokia Lumia 930, Microsoft Lumia 950 XL, iPhone 6S Plus, and Samsung Galaxy Note 5. All five of them are amazing in low light scenarios, but with the Nokia Lumia 930, the viewfinder is really dark, a common characteristic in Lumias. The viewfinder is very dark but after the picture is taken it’s much brighter. It makes it much harder to see that picture you’re taking. The Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL doesn’t have that issue.

Front Cameras

Just like both devices have the same rear cameras, they also have the same front cameras. The front camera, while being 5 MP, is an area where Microsoft (and Nokia) haven’t exercised nearly as much innovation. There is no Rich Capture. There isn’t even a flash.

LG, Motorola, and Apple are all using software flashes now, using the screen to light up your face. I see no reason why Lumias shouldn’t do this.

That being said, these front cameras are phenomenal. There’s something that I hate about Android front cameras. They all have this beautify setting that they try to force on you. It attempts to smooth your skin and when you look at the photo, it almost looks out of focus or like the lens was dirty. That’s one thing that Apple and Microsoft don’t do and I like the fact that I don’t have to remember to turn a setting off.

This 5 MP front camera is the first 5 MP front camera that we’ve seen on a flagship Lumia. Prior to these devices, they all had 1.2 MP front sensors, which was fine for their time. We’ve really seen a movement over the last year or so toward higher resolution front cameras.

USB C (and Charging in General)

The Microsoft Lumia 950 and Microsoft Lumia 950 XL are among the first devices on the market to embrace the brand new USB standard, USC type C. USB C is completely new and if you’re not completely familiar to technology, it will look completely foreign to you. Most people, even those not familiar with technology will recognize (even if they can’t identify) USB A, micro-USB, mini-USB, and probably even USB B (if you used one of those old wired printers).

Unlike when USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 were introduced, USB C takes on an entirely new design. The connector is now much smaller, looking more like the size of micro-USB, or a little bigger than Apple’s lightning cable. It’s also completely reversible, so there’s no more worrying about plugging it in upside down.

USB C also transfers data at a much faster rate, which is why you’re seeing a lot of devices with few USB C ports but sold with hubs as accessories. For example, with Apple’s new MacBook, there is only one USB C port. A hub is then sold that includes a port for display, USB A ports, and more.

While the design of USB C is objectively better than the design of USB A, there’s one major problem: a different design means that the cable isn’t going to fit in your existing ports, your micro-USB cables won’t fit in your USB C phone, and you’re going to have to start buying adapters.

Luckily, Microsoft handled this problem in a fairly clever way. The Microsoft Lumia 950 and the Lumia 950 XL don’t just come with one charger. They actually come with two.

One of the chargers is your standard wall charger that you might find packaged with a lower end Lumia because you can’t disconnect the cable to be used as a data cable. I should note that this wall charger charges the phones remarkably fast. The other charger is a USB C to USB A adapter which can serve as a data cable or it can serve as a charger with any existing USB wall charger (or car charger) that you have.

It’s a fairly brilliant solution to the fact that for the first time, someone might be buying a Windows Phone for which they have no existing chargers in their house. Well, that’s not entirely true. The new Lumias also support Qi wireless charging, which really puts it over the top. Really, considering that USB C is so rare at the moment, Microsoft really did a great job in making the transition easy for consumers.

My issue is that while the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL now exclusively have USB C ports, the brand new Surface Pro 4 does not have a USB C port. In fact, when Panos Panay announced the Surface Pro 4, he talked about how thin they made it and said that he only reason that they didn’t go any thinner was so it would still have the full size USB port.

I think that when we’re in an age where Apple and Google have moved into the future by releasing flagship products that only have USB C ports, it might not be the best idea to brag about the USB A port in the Surface Pro 4. Also, a full size USB A port doesn’t do anything that a micro-USB port can’t do. You can get a micro-USB to USB A adapter on Amazon for under $1, but I digress…

Windows 10 Mobile

After I finish writing this, I’m going to write an article called “A Definitive Guide to Lumia Flagships”. The title is subject to change. I know a few Windows Phone enthusiasts. I have to say that more than one of them got the Microsoft Lumia 950 and after using it for a month, went out and bought a Nokia Lumia 930, mainly for the ability to roll back to Windows Phone 8.1.

While Windows 10 Mobile provides a ton of benefits, it also provides a ton of headaches. The fact is that twice today, I’ve picked up my Microsoft Lumia 950 and I had to type my PIN (instead of it looking for my face for Windows Hello) because the device had randomly rebooted.

We’ve seen five iterations of the Windows 10 Mobile RTM build, 10586. The first was 10586.0, which was the build that shipped with the Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL. In fact, these devices were getting into consumer hands before Insiders even had their first 10586 build, which would be 10586.11. Many users complained about still having problems, so the next build was 10586.29, a build that eventually got pushed as an OTA for non-Insiders.

Since 10586.29 was still not good enough, Microsoft then released 10586.36 to Insiders and while Windows 10 for PCs is now seeing Redstone builds, Windows 10 Mobile is still trying to get it right with 10586.63. In fact, there’s a rumor that 10586.72 is going to go out on Tuesday. God knows if that will fix our problems. Note that the most recent non-Insider release is 10586.29.

Microsoft is clearly still stuck on the PC market. This is an age where PCs are on the decline and mobile is clearly the future, but Microsoft would rather try to revitalize a dying PC market than focus on mobile. Everyone has their golden ticket idea as to the one thing that would fix Windows Phone and make it fly off the shelves. The truth is that all that’s necessary is for Microsoft to actually focus on mobile. Windows 10 for PCs was released to the public in July and they’re still working on getting mobile out of the gate. I predicted this back in January when I did my New Year predictions, as it was the same story with Windows Phone 8.1.

To be fair, these problems will be fixed. Putting the problems aside, Windows 10 Mobile is awesome.

Windows Mobile is beginning to lose its text based roots for a more modern looking OS. The ability to use a photo in the background of the Start screen and the app list makes the interface look beautiful.

Of course, the main feature of Windows 10 Mobile is the universal apps and the single core across all Windows 10 devices, including PCs, tablets, Xboxes, phones, HoloLens, and IoT. You can read more about those universal apps in the Continuum section above.

The point of this section is to point out that the core experience on the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL do have issues. They will get better in time, but it’s a waiting game.

I should also note that I’m not experiencing random reboots on the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL. I attribute this to the firmware update that I received as soon as I got the device. Once again, it’s another reason why you’re much better off with an unlocked model if you can afford it.

Microsoft Lumia 950 and Microsoft Lumia 950 XL Displays

The Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL both have 1440p AMOLEDs. The AMOLED on the Lumia 950 is 5.2″ and it’s 5.7″ on the Lumia 950 XL.

There are mainly two kinds of displays that you see on the market: LCD and OLED. An LCD panel is entirely backlit. This is why, when your TV goes dark but it’s still on, you can still tell that it’s on. Many advances have been made to get truer black colors on the LCD (ClearBlack), although nothing is as good as OLED.

OLED stands for organic LED. With an OLED, some pixels can be turned off, allowing for true black. This is why Glance works so well on OLED phones. The only pixels that are lit up when you’re using Glance are the ones you see in front of you, so it doesn’t use much battery. OLED displays also tend to have more vibrant colors than LCDs; however, a great LCD will look better than a poor OLED.

If you thought it was as simple as LCD and OLED, you’re wrong. There’s also two different kinds of OLED: P-OLED (or PMOLED) and AMOLED. These stand for passive and active matrix organic LED, respectively.

From what I described above, it sounds like OLED is the better choice than LCD; however, there are disadvantages to any technology. The main disadvantage to OLED is burn in. Screens can fall victim to burn in after quite a bit of use. Personally, I’ve never seen it, but you’ll hear stories of those who bought a store unit that was powered on and running demo software all day, every day for six months and has some issues.

Going back to PMOLED vs AMOLED, the only thing you really need to know is that AMOLED is better and less susceptible to burn in than PMOLED. Then again, I think that an average person who uses their phone moderately to heavily and trades up for a new model every two years isn’t going to have a problem.

The Lumia line has traditionally used AMOLED in their flagship devices. Every phone in the 9xx line is AMOLED, some in the 8xx line are AMOLED, and the 1020 is AMOLED. The one Lumia flagship that was LCD was the Lumia 1520.

That being said, I have to say that I prefer the AMOLED on my Nokia Lumia 930 over the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL. The colors just look more vibrant to me. I’ve heard others say the same.

Of course, the Nokia Lumia 930 is 1080p while these devices are 1440p. I don’t think that makes a difference. I absolutely cannot tell the difference between a 1080p phone and a 1440p phone. In fact, above I talked about how much more 1440p taxes the GPU than 1080p (it taxes the battery much more as well). There’s many disadvantages to 1440p with little to no benefit.

Here’s something that I’m going to put out there. Windows 10 Mobile is not as fast as Windows Phone 8.1. Given the slightly slower operating system and the additional resources needed for a 1440p display, the performance of the Microsoft Lumia 950 is on par with the Nokia Lumia 930.

There’s one more thing that I want to note about the display. I’ve heard quite a bit of feedback complaining about the lack of double tap to wake functionality. I’ve reached out to Microsoft on the issue and they, as always, have nothing to share on the subject.

Microsoft Lumia 950 and Microsoft Lumia 950 XL Battery Life

Battery life really seems to be the Achilles Heel of these devices. It’s gotten better and it will continue to do so on the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL; however, with the lack of firmware updates on the Microsoft Lumia 950, it’s pretty rough.

Here’s an example. If I charge my Lumia 950 before I go to sleep to 100% and then take it off the charger, it’s at around 60% in the morning. This is with Glance always on but without a photo in the background for Glance. Putting a photo in the background will use more battery life but changing the Glance settings to “peek” or off will improve battery life. With Glance off, it’s more like 90% in the morning.

Like I said, the firmware update fixes a lot of things. Upon purchasing these phones back in November, there were a lot of things about them that really make you ask yourself, “What the hell is wrong with this phone?” Those are the things that got fixed in that firmware update.

As far as regular usage goes, the loss of battery life isn’t quite as noticeable; however, in playing a game such as Asphalt 8, there is a noticeable impact on battery life, especially with the Lumia 950, which has a 3000 mAh battery. In other words, don’t play games like Asphalt 8 unless you’re near a charger.

The Lumia 950 XL has a 3340 mAh battery, so obviously it’s in better shape for maintaining better battery life. The more powerful CPU taxes that battery a little more, but with better firmware and a bigger battery, it’s in better shape.

Microsoft Lumia 950 and Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: The Definitive Conclusion

When talking about Continuum or Windows Hello, I tend to be very critical. In fact, in my video reviews, I started off with that, as they are the headlining features. People started commenting “Hey, I don’t really need an iris scanner or Continuum, so I actually think it’s a pretty good phone”.

Let me make something clear. These are fantastic phones. If you love Lumias, you will love these phones. It’s the new features that aren’t great and the software that needs work. Put that aside and you have the best Lumias ever made.

You get what’s, in my opinion, the best smart phone camera on the market. You get Windows 10 Mobile at its best. You get monthly firmware updates. You get deals such as a free Display Dock and a year of Office 365 Personal.

I hear a lot of people saying, “I’m just going to wait for Surface Phone”. Let’s be clear about something. Surface is nothing more than a brand and there’s absolutely no reason to believe that this brand is coming to phones. Surface Phone might happen, it might not, it might happen in two years.

The Microsoft Lumia 950 and Microsoft Lumia 950 XL are here now, and they’re awesome.

About the author
Rich Woods

Being a computer programmer wasn't enough to fulfill his love of technology. In 2013, Rich founded For the Love of Tech and has been writing about his love of tech ever since.

  • Man, it’s a great review (literally). Awesome job!

    I’m eager to buy the 950 here in Brazil, but Microsoft Brasil talks nothing about launch the phone and it low my expectations.