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Lumia 950 and 950 XL hands-on: Windows Phone is back

Hello, again, Lumia.

Microsoft is rebooting Windows Phone again. After years in purgatory and a Nokia acquisition that didn't exactly lead to anything major, we now have two Lumia phones that are trying it all again: the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL. Both were oft-leaked devices — so much so that we came into this event already knowing the big points. They're running a version of Windows 10, which Microsoft is betting will help jump-start their third-party app ecosystems. They have the same basic specs we've seen on a lot of phones lately: Qualcomm Snapdragon processors of varying strength depending on the phone size, plenty of RAM, 32GB of storage, USB Type-C, and your choice of two pretty large screens. Hell, Microsoft even says that they're liquid cooled, which is crazy.

But since this is actually an all-new phone platform (that, admittedly, looks really similar to Windows Phone 8 before it), digging into the internal specs is a little beside the point. You never know what those internals mean on a whole new OS until you try it — so we tried it. The result: Windows Phone is just as snappy and fluid as it was before. Even though it has something like the full power of Windows behind it (so much so that you can actually hook up a full-sized monitor and use it as a mini computer), it still feels like the stripped-down and fast UI we've seen before.

That's mainly a good thing. You don't have to wait around to do anything, you just have to get familiar with the platform and how it works. You also have to accept that you might not have all the apps you can get on the iPhone or Android — yet. Microsoft has secured promises from a few companies (notably, Facebook) to get universal apps working on Windows Phone.

Snapping a couple photos with the 20-megapixel sensor isn't enough to render full judgement, but I will say this: They didn't choke in very low lighting conditions. I'd say that Microsoft has leaned more towards Samsung's philosophy of trying to get a usable image rather than being precisely true to the scene the way Apple is. Either way, the fact that I was getting usable images at all in the space we're in was actually kind of impressive. So far, so good, but I definitely didn't get very far with it just yet.

As for looks, well, they're about as nondescript as we'e seen in recent memory. The 5.2-and 5.7-inch screens (950 and 950 XL, respectively) sit inside bezels that could stand to be a bit smaller — but they're still plenty acceptable when compared to an iPhone 6s or 6S Plus. The back is plastic (or polycarbonate, if you must), and comes in black, white, or cyan. Microsoft isn't doing anything whimsical or even especially daring with the basic slab design, but there's some kind of honor in simplicity.

In terms of features, the two big stories are Continuum and Windows Hello. I didn't get a chance to try out Hello, but I did play with Continuum for a bit. Against all expectations, I feel like it could actually be the real deal. I was super impressed.

Continuum is surprisingly good

You hook up to an external display using a heavy little dock that Microsoft is selling. You can have a different app running on the display than you do on your phone, which means it's slightly more powerful than what you'll get with Apple's AirPlay or Google's Chromecast features. Actually, you can have several apps running at once. Continuum can't do full windowing with those apps, but I had four of them open and could switch between them fast enough to know they weren't getting put to sleep in the background (Outlook, Edge, Groove Music, and Powerpoint, for the record).

There's also the Lumia 550, Microsoft's low end phone. For the past couple years, just about the only widespread success Windows Phone has seen has come from the low end. It makes sense: Windows Phone 7 and 8 both were phone operating systems that still felt fast even if the internals weren't great. So even though we now have two new Windows 10-based flagships, Microsoft needed to make sure it didn't give up on the bread-and-butter. It's only $139, and it has low-end specs to match. But even though it's small, thick, and has a measly 5-megapixel camera, at that price it should do well for Microsoft.

The big question is whether the Lumia 950 and 950 XL can do equally as well. Prices start at $549 and though Continuum is impressive, I don't know that it's impressive enough to make me want to give up the apps I know are available right now on other platforms. Microsoft made some good phones here — now it just has to find a way to sell them.

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