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Microsoft Lumia 950 review

Making the case for Windows on a phone

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It’s probably been a long time since a Microsoft smartphone has crossed your mind. The last time Microsoft had a high-end Windows smartphone in the US, it was nearly two years ago and the phone came wearing a Nokia logo and ran Windows Phone 8.

Now the company is releasing two new phones that it hopes will change all that. The new Lumia 950 (and its larger sibling, the 950XL) is going head on against the best Androids and iPhones with a modern processor, high-resolution screen, capable camera, and many other features found on popular smartphones. It’s also the first phone to run Windows 10, Microsoft’s answer to not only desktop platforms, but also mobile operating systems like Android and iOS.

Windows 10 is Microsoft’s latest Hail Mary for its mobile efforts — it’s the thing the company hopes will finally get developers to pay attention to its platform and enables some truly unique things that Apple’s and Google’s options don’t provide. The new Lumias aren’t likely to be massive sellers, but they are the messengers that carry the idea of Windows on a phone to the people. If Microsoft doesn’t succeed in getting people to understand why they might want that, the future of its phone business may well be in jeopardy.

Of course, whether or not anyone will care about Windows on a phone and those unique things it provides depends heavily on how well Microsoft executes them. After using the Lumia 950 this past week, I’m not convinced.

Microsoft Lumia 950
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

The Lumia 950’s hardware is clearly not the main story here, but since this is a review of a phone that you hold in your hand and use to do a lot of phone things, let’s talk about the hardware. The Lumia 950 is not an inspired phone — it’s bland, plasticky, and feels tacky. It lacks any defining design characteristics, making it a generic-looking rectangular slab. Worse, it’s virtually indistinguishable from the low-price Lumias Microsoft has been selling for the past couple of years in both feel and appearance1. At best, it looks like a reference design; at worst it just looks cheap. But the 950 isn’t cheap: at roughly $600 (and exclusive to AT&T here in the US), it’s more expensive than Google’s much nicer Nexus 6P and within spitting distance of Apple’s impeccable iPhone 6S. Up against those devices, the 950 is the clear odd one out.

If anything, the Lumia 950 makes clear to me that Nokia’s lauded design team Microsoft acquired has left the building, if not physically, certainly in spirit.

Things are better on the spec sheet: the 950 has a modern processor (Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 808); lots of RAM (3GB); plenty of storage (32GB) along with a microSD slot if you want to expand it; a big battery (3,000mAh) that can be swapped; and wireless and quick charging features. The 5.2-inch display has lots of pixels (Quad HD resolution) and is plenty sharp, though it can look a bit washed out. All of this adds up to a well-performing device that gets me through an average day of use without any major performance issues. Basically, it’s what you’d expect from a mid-to-high-end phone in late 2015.

Performance and battery life are what you’d expect from a 2015 smartphone

The Lumia 950’s camera has a dense 20 megapixels of resolution and takes fine photos. They aren’t breathtaking, but there aren’t any glaring issues with them, either. Most people will be perfectly happy with the images captured by the 950, though it can be a bit slow to take a photo and display it, which left me frustrated on more than one occasion. The one thing that the 950’s camera isn’t is groundbreaking: unlike the Lumia phones of the past, there’s no breakthrough technology or jaw dropping features here that make its images better than what you can get with an iPhone or Samsung. That’s fine — again, the camera takes pictures that are perfectly acceptable — but it doesn’t make the 950 stand out in any way. Likewise, the 5-megapixel wide-angle front camera is fine for taking the occasional selfie, but like its rear counterpart, won’t blow anyone away.

Microsoft Lumia 950

So if the hardware isn’t interesting, it’s obvious that Microsoft’s success or failure rests entirely on the software. Windows 10 is the culmination of Microsoft’s years-long effort to bridge the gaps between smartphones, tablets, and PCs, and it lets the company run the same underlying code on a phone as it does on a $1,500 Surface Book2.

It’s also something that we’re seeing Apple and Google explore in different ways, such as with the iPad Pro and Google’s rumored plan to bridge Chrome OS and Android together.

Microsoft Lumia 950
Microsoft Lumia 950
Microsoft Lumia 950

But while Windows 10 might have the same code base on the Lumia 950 as it does everywhere else, the interface is tailored to the phone, and it really isn’t much different than Windows Phone 8.1. There are a few tweaks and minor interface changes (such as the hamburger-style menus popular in Android), but it’s far from a complete overhaul. The Live Tile grid is present, the alphabetical list of apps is still here, and the fun, but often tedious animations remain. If you didn’t like Windows Phone 8.1’s aesthetic, you’re probably not going to like Windows 10’s.

Windows 10 on the phone still feels like a work in progress

Like Windows 10 on the desktop, Windows 10 on the phone still feels like a work in progress, and there’s an overall lack of polish that I don’t get from more mature mobile operating systems. Don’t get me wrong, it all “works,” but I get the feeling that everything’s going to fall apart as I use it. (It hasn’t, yet, but that’s still not a fun feeling to have.)

A lot of the Windows 10 things you might enjoy on the desktop are here, however. There’s Microsoft’s fun and personable virtual assistant Cortana, the new Edge browser, and mobile versions of Windows 10’s Mail and Calendar apps (though oddly, they are called Outlook on the phone, even though they are indeed the same apps). It’s meant to appeal to people that are big fans of Windows on a desktop and might want that exact same experience on their phone.

The Lumia 950 even has Windows 10’s new Hello feature, which lets me log into the phone by just looking at it, no PIN or password required. It’s cool, and definitely works, but it’s a bit slow and requires that I hold the phone awkwardly close to my face. I’m often faster at entering my PIN code than using Hello (and if the Lumia 950 had a fingerprint scanner, that’d be even faster yet).

Microsoft Lumia 950

What really sets the Lumia 950 and Windows 10 apart from the Androids and iPhones of the world is its Continuum feature, which is an attempt to turn your diminutive phone into a full-fledged PC. To do that, you need Microsoft’s $99 Display Dock (or a Miracast dongle), a mouse and keyboard (Bluetooth or USB), and an external display, such as a monitor or TV. Plug your phone into the dock, plug in or pair your peripherals, and plug in your display, and boom, all of your phone’s content is now on the big screen. And it’s not just a blown up version of your phone’s display: Continuum recognizes that the monitor has a different screen size and resolution from your phone and presents something like a desktop, complete with Start menu and Action Center. It really looks just like Windows 10 on a PC. You can use your phone as a trackpad if you don’t have a mouse handy, or you can use it completely independently of what you’re doing on the big screen. You could, for instance, play a movie on the big screen to entertain the kids and then go back to your phone to work on email.

Microsoft Lumia 950
Microsoft Lumia 950

Open an app in Continuum, such as Outlook Mail or the Edge Browser, and it will adjust itself to fit the larger screen. There’s no windowing here, but you can do basic multitasking and switch between apps with Alt-Tab. I enjoyed using it to blast through my inbox, compose Word documents, and even do some light web browsing. Most of the time it performs really well, though the web browser is where Continuum really shows its limits, as it’s now trying to load full desktop pages, complete with all of their ads and media, as opposed to mobile-optimized versions. Open up a couple of tabs and you’ll be in a world of hurt with slow scrolling, page reloads, and all of the other problems that were solved on the desktop years ago but are still very real on our mobile devices.

Continuum only works with a handful of apps

But the larger problem with Continuum is that it only works with a handful of apps, the vast majority of which are, unsurprisingly, made by Microsoft. Sure, it’s great for going through my email in Outlook or writing a document in Word, but I can’t put Slack on the big screen, seriously cramping my productivity. Nor can I blast Netflix up there when I want to sit back and watch Master of None for the thousandth time. Microsoft’s promise of Windows 10 was that it would enable “universal” apps that work across your phone and desktop, but that reality is still not here, and it’s the thing that keeps Continuum from fulfilling the dream of replacing your laptop with your phone.

Microsoft Lumia 950

I’m also not convinced that toting around all of the necessary accessories to make Continuum work is any better than just carrying around a small laptop, which is guaranteed to be far more powerful and capable. There might be some enterprises out there that see this as the perfect “thin client” solution, where a user only has to have a phone to get their work done, but the practical applications for the rest of us just aren’t here.

Continuum also magnifies Windows 10’s biggest issue, which is the same problem Microsoft has contended with for years. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone, but the platform still doesn’t have many of the apps that are hugely popular on Android and iOS. When I’m using the 950, I can’t manage my email with Gmail or Inbox, I can’t check in on my friend’s Snapchat accounts, I can’t pair any of the cool new smartwatches to it, and I can’t pay for my lunch with a tap of my phone. Worse yet, the apps that are here are woefully inferior to their iOS or Android counterparts. (I’m looking directly at you, Instagram and Twitter.) These might not be dealbreakers for someone that is buying a $150 smartphone, but the 950 is meant to be the best that Microsoft has to offer, and I guarantee these things will be problems for those looking for a high-end device.

Microsoft Lumia 950

In the mobile world, Microsoft is way behind Google and Apple, and has what many would say is an insurmountable deficit to make up. It could have pulled out all of the stops and produced a phone that was visually impactful, wildly innovative, and truly riveting compared to anything else to make up lost ground.

The Lumia 950 is, unfortunately, none of those things. Sure, Microsoft put some newer guts in it, and Windows 10 has some interesting features, but there’s nothing really here that would drive anyone but the most die hard Windows fan to buy it.

Microsoft also isn’t making a compelling pitch for why you’d want Windows 10 on a phone at all, whether it’s the Lumia 950 or some other future device. The unique features that set Windows 10 apart aren’t fully baked, and frankly, aren’t enough to make up for the deficiencies elsewhere. The best experiences available on the platform — the mail and calendar apps and Cortana — are also available on Android and iOS, giving you even less of a reason to consider a Windows 10 phone.

Microsoft isn’t making a compelling pitch for Windows 10 on a phone with the Lumia 950

Microsoft is certainly well aware of the challenges it faces getting traction with Windows 10 on phones, and based on the token attention given to the new phones at their announcement and the half-hearted attempt to make a competitive phone with the Lumia 950, it may very well see the writing on the wall already. That’s fine for Microsoft: it’s become overwhelmingly clear that the company run by Satya Nadella is largely concerned with getting people to use its services, and it doesn’t really care which mobile platform you use. Oftentimes, the best experience with Microsoft’s services is found on a competing platform.

If you’ve been holding out hope that Microsoft’s new phone would cast away the shackles that held back its earlier phones, you’re going to be disappointed by the Lumia 950 (and by extension, the 950 XL). The rest of us, well, we’ll be happy Microsoft customers managing our email with Outlook for iPhone.

Photography by Dan Seifert
Video by Mark Linsangan and Phil Esposito