We finally have the Lumia 950 XL on our testbed. We had to wait a long time for this one – it has been nearly two years since the last flagship-spec device from the Microsoft brand. Many people were hoping for a direct Lumia 1020 upgrade, which has yet to appear, but instead we have the Lumia 950 family.
I say family, as there are two variants: the Lumia 950 and 950 XL. Current pricing SIM free is £469.99 from the Carphone Warehouse.
Does the Lumia 950 XL fill the void?
Well, that’s what we’re here to find out.
Now, it has to be stated at the time of writing this review that the phone has had some very bad PR. Most retailers have ceased all sales of the phone pending a software update. I am very happy to say that after some initial issue, the bugs I experienced are no longer relevant – at least not for me. I will delve into these issues later in the review. For now though, let’s have a thorough look at the hardware.
The phone is beautifully designed, and you can see the traits from Lumias of old coming through in the design language. I have posted an unboxing video on the site and I would encourage you to read that post before going on, but in case you missed it here’s the unboxing video.
As you can see from the video above I have the non-retail box. The box you will get as a customer is distinctly different. All you get in the box is the phone itself and a mains charger with a plug and cable. You do also get an additional micro-USB type C double-ended cable through which can be used to connect up to the Display Dock, or an appropriate power supply. That micro-USB type C is something that we are starting to see more of on the latest breed of laptops as well, which is good news as it means you will be able to plug the phone in directly – no upside-down problems. If you have an older style plug, you can pick up these handy USB type C converters for a very cheap price via eBay or Amazon.
On the front of the phone, we find a Microsoft Logo emblazoned on the top, with the front facing 5mp camera on one side and the light for iris scanning on the other side of the logo. You will also find the proximity sensor up here as well.
Below these arrays are where you see the 2k screen powered by a ClearBlack AMOLED. This makes the new Windows 10 interface really pop, and with the amount of info you can now see on the start screen in Windows 10, it makes sense have such large screen. Text appears very crisp and the colours are vivid and vibrant. Below the screen you will find a microphone hole, and that is all for the front of the phone. Some of you may be wondering where the buttons for back, Windows Start and Cortana/search are. Well, these have now become software elements and will disappear when not needed. There is an option if required, to have them, visible most of the time. This can be found under the display settings. I have it turned off as I want to maximise screen real estate. The screen also supports “Glance” which I am very glad to see, but I think Microsoft has missed a trick by losing the double tap to wake option, which was present on other Lumia devices in the past. This was a great feature because of the way it allowed you just to tap into the OS relatively easily.
The screen is very bright and I have had no need to make it brighter yet. I normally run the screen at about 25% brightness to maximise the battery life.
Underneath the screen, we can see one of the pinhole mics which seems to be a real dust magnet and worries me that it seems to need to be cleaned regularly. I am sure it is fine and I’m just being paranoid.
The left-hand side of the phone is completely bare, with all the controls on the right-hand side.
Going from the top to the bottom we have volume up, power/wake and sleep, and volume down. Below that is the camera button. It’s a two-stage button, with the first press allowing you focus and then the second press taking the picture. The button will also allow you to quick launch the camera from anywhere in the phone, including when the phone is locked. I found the power key to be a bit awkward at first, however after a few times using it, this became natural. The volume buttons actually sit a little higher than the power key, which helps a lot.
On the rear of the phone, we find the camera module. I will talk about the camera later on in the review. As for the actual camera itself, it is a 20Mp sensor that will output images in a 16.9 aspect ratio at 16mp. The Lumia 950 XL has the Pureview technology built into to both the camera and screen, allowing you to get amazing pictures both on screen and when scaled up. The camera module does protrude slightly, however the plastic of the rear cover is raised higher than the camera module so it should be okay. Built into the module is a triple LED flash, which gives progressive levels of flash and which can be tweaked after the picture has been taken.
The back cover that I mentioned can also be removed to reveal a beast of a 3340mAh removable battery. You will also find the microSD card reader here below the battery at the base of the phone. Under the battery is where the nano sim slot lives.
The back plate of the phone is not just a simple piece of plastic as it also integrates a Qi charging coil to allow for wireless charging, which is a really nice touch and we Lumia fans have come to expect on their high-end devices.
Lastly, above the camera module is where we find the single mono speaker which is about as good as you would expect from a smartphone speaker with regard to quality. Volume-wise it is nice and loud, and would be suitable for handsfree calls but not much else.
The actual build quality of the phone is on the whole good, however due to their being a removable back plate there is a slight movement on the lower third of the cover. I have seen this on two units and also on the Lumia 950 so it can only be down to the fact that you can remove that back cover. For those of you who want a slightly more premium feel there are alternate covers available, with Microsoft particularly pushing a brand called Mozo, which give a leatherette feel to the phone and marries this with aluminium effect edging strips. They also offer to flip covers if you are so inclined. This is as good a time as ever to throw in the specifications of the phone which are very good.
- Operating System: Windows 10 Phone
- Exterior Dimensions: 151.9 x 78.4 x 8.1 mm
- Weight: 165 g
- Casing: polycarbonate
- Colours: black, white
- Physical buttons: power, volume, camera
- Storage: 32 GB and up to 200 GB of expandable storage
- OneDrive storage
- Display Screen: 5.7-inch Quad HD AMOLED Corning Gorilla Glass 4 display
- Resolution: 2560×1440 (518 ppi)
- Aspect ratio: 16:9
- Touch: Multitouch
- CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor, featuring Octa-core CPUs and 64-bit capabilities
- Network Wi-Fi: MIMO, WLAN IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
- Bluetooth 4.1
- Cameras: Rear-facing PureView camera with a 20-megapixel sensor, Zeiss optics, OIS, triple LED natural flash, and 4K video recording
- 5MP wide-angle 1080p front-facing camera
- Battery: Removable 3340mAh battery, USB-C fast charging, wireless charging
- Battery life (hours): Standby 300,Wi-Fi browsing 25.0, 2G talk 19.0, 3G talk 75.0, MP3 playback 11.0, Video playback 1080p 11.0
- Ports: microSD slot, supports up to 200 GB of expandable storage
- USB-C charging port for data, AV connectivity and charging
- 3.5mm stereo headset
- Available in single-SIM and dual-SIM variants
- Sensors: Accelerometer, Ambient light sensor, Barometer, Gyroscope, Magnetometer, Proximity sensor
- Power supply: Microsoft USB-C Fast Charger (AC-100)
- Location (A-GLONASS/A-GPS), Barometer, Cellular, Wi-Fi network positioning, Gyroscope
The power behind this phone comes in the form of a Snapdragon 810 V2 chipset. This is supported by 3GB RAM, which gives the phone plenty of horsepower – way more than is really needed for Windows 10 Mobile, in fact. The reason that there is so much power onboard is due to the fact that this is one of the few Windows 10 mobile devices that will fully support Continuum. I am going to write a little bit more about Continuum in its own section, but rest assured it makes a big difference in how you to use the phone.
Also, on board, we have USB type C, which unlike what we have seen on the Nexus devices actually does support the full gamut of its capabilities. So we have DisplayPort, fast charging and enhanced data throughput. When combined with the Continuum focussed Display Dock, (optional extra) it becomes clear as to why USB type C is onboard. The other benefit of USB type C is fast charging, and boy is this quick. I will need to get myself a fast charger for my other devices. This is not, however, the only way to charge the phone as QI charging is on board as mentioned above. Unfortunately, given the nature of this charging method, it still takes a long time to reach a full charge. It’s handy nonetheless.
The phone feels very fluid in and around the OS, and it shows very minimal amount of lag. A lot has been written about the stability of the hardware on this device, including the fact that the phone had been pulled from sale in the UK. I had to have my initial review unit replaced, and I can say that I have had no issues with any stability on the new device at all. I have got it running on the full consumer release version of the software, and it hasn’t skipped a beat.
The phone is one of the few devices on the market to feature a heat pipe (Xperia Z5 has one too). The Lumia 950 XL takes this technology one step further, though. It borrows some of the tech from the Surface Pro 4 and the way that machine is cooled. We are, of course, talking about liquid cooling.
I know you’re probably thinking that I have made this up, but it’s true. The phone features a sealed heat pipe, through which flows a liquid to help with cooling the processor and other vital components. It is difficult to imagine that this has been done, especially when you realise that the phone has a removable battery unit as well.
You can see the heat pipe on the image above – it is the copper coloured strip going around the battery bay. This lines up with my usage experience of the phone, as on the few occasions it did get hot, the heat was concentrated on the bottom section of the phone. The only time I did notice heat building up was when I used the camera intensively for a prolonged period.
The phone’s battery faired well. I was able to get through most of the day when I was using it, and I didn’t need to throw it onto the fast charger until much later that night. Given the battery capacity, I would have liked to get a little more out of it, but I think this can be improved via software updates and optimization of the chipset. The fast charger was awesome and got me charged from dead to full in a little under an hour, so very happy with that.
Display Dock and Continuum
The idea of being able to plug your phone into a display and it acting as a computer has been around for a while now. The first time we encountered it was back when the Motorola Atrix was unveiled, along with its Lapdock accessory. Things have moved along a little since then. It is now possible with the latest chipsets from the likes of Qualcomm, Huawei and Samsung, to power large displays and complex apps. All that is needed is a way of connecting the two devices together. This is where the joint strikeforce team of the Display Dock and USB Type C comes in. One of the inherent properties of USB Type C is that is can act as a DisplayPort connector. This allows you to run a display straight from the port. However, Microsoft wanted the Display Dock to be more than that; they used another of these wonder-connection features – data transfer – to make that possible. In addition to all of this, the Display Dock will also charge the phone at the same rate as the dedicated quick charger. You also have the ability to bump up the storage of the Phone/Computer via three dedicated USB ports on the rear of the dock.
Having a physical dock of such magnificence is one thing, but it is all for nothing if the software is rubbish. This is where Continuum comes in. Now, something I do want to say from the get go is that continuum does not actually need the dock to work. It will work just as well over a simple Miracast connection, so if you have a smart TV you are all set up. That being said, you can’t use any of the soon-to-arrive gaming titles over the Miracast connection. The frame rate will stutter, and it will give a poor experience due to the inherent latency that is part and parcel of the current solutions we have in place.
Getting back to the dock; as you will be able to see in the video below, you simply hook this up to your TV/monitor and the plug in the phone to your keyboard and mouse… and you’re ready to go.
The Windows Mobile platform has been moved on quite a lot since the previous iteration of the form of Windows 8.1 (Lumia Denim). The main changes that are here are present in the settings menu and the multitasking overview. You also have the added functions afforded by Continuum that are only really relevant in the instances of the Lumia 950, the Lumia 950 XL, and the newly announced Jade Primo from Acer. I have put together a video showcasing the biggest changes below.
What they do add is Reading Mode. This allows you to get rid of all the annoying ads that are becoming the big bugbear of browsing the ever more-intrusive web. However, this is not necessarily a good thing. Let me explain that rather pronounced opinion. I will warn you this is a very self-focused thing. We as a website do need the incoming revenue that is produced from adverts, and when they are taken away from the view of the reader then they become less effective. The good news is that adverts are not being ad-blocked so they are still visible until you engage Reading Mode. Therefore Reading Mode is not all bad but just slightly vexing from a platform perspective.
You can also add things to your reading list, which is a handy way of saving things to catch up on later. If they are shared with OneDrive, then they are also going to be available on any other Windows 10 system. This is also true of any favourites, passwords etc. More on that later, though.
I really like the cross-platform (i.e. my phone and computer) compatibility that is built into Edge, and as a mobile browser it works well. But I do miss some of the features afforded by the Chrome browser on my Android phone. I expect this to get better and I personally cannot wait to see extensions arrive on Edge. I just hope they allow them to be used on the mobile browser as well. I think like anything else, it is just going to take some time to adjust to the change for me.
I mentioned that your phone will share some information with your Windows 10 computer. This is a bit of understatement, as to a certain extent they are the same core OS. The phone is capable of knowing the Wi-Fi networks that you connect to, it will share your theme of tiles with the computer and a lot more. It also shares Cortana’s Notebook, which makes for a very fluid transition with your laptop/desktop. Another feature that is shared is messages and calls that come through via Skype, as this is now Microsoft’s take on Hangouts/iMessage. Whilst this is nice, it is not something I really played with during my time with the phone.
The last big feature of this phone’s software is coming from a security standpoint. It comes in the form of Windows Hello.
If you are using a recent Windows 10 laptop then this isn’t a new thing for you, but it is the first time we are seeing it on a phone. Instead of using a fingerprint reader like most other high-end phones on the market, Microsoft ported the system used on some laptops to identify you. On the front of the phone, you have an IR emitter that will essentially be used to light up your eyes, so that the front facing camera can then scan your iris to identify you. Slightly different from the Windows 10 desktop where it uses your whole face, and therein lies the problem at least for some of us. I wear glasses, and this throws up issues for the iris scan.
Unfortunately, in most intensive lighting conditions like those found in offices, shops, direct sunlight etc, glasses will reflect some of that light thereby creating a bright spot on the lens of the glasses.
This renders the scanner obsolete, meaning you have to resort to using your pin. That being said, it does work very well when I am not wearing my glasses. The real problem I have with this over a fingerprint reader is that it takes too long. I have used various fingerprint readers, and all of them, even the bad ones, are quicker than the Iris Scan on the 950 XL. Again I hope that this can be improved in the future, but I don’t have high hopes.
I do like the changes made to Windows 10 Mobile, and as OS’ go it is one of the more simplistic to get used to. After some adjustment, I found that I was moving around the interface smoothly and quickly. That being said, there are just a few too many issues that should not be here. One example that sticks out for me is the way Facebook just plain doesn’t work when you get a notification. On an Android or iOS device, if you have a Facebook notification, .you tap it and are taken into the Facebook app. Simple and effective. On Windows 10 Mobile, this will happen sometimes, and other times it takes you into the Edge browser, which is just plain annoying. It irritated me so much that I stopped checking my notifications on the Lumia 950 XL altogether. Also, the live tiles still need to be improved massively if they are ever to compete with the functionality afforded by widgets on Android.
This is the biggy for this phone, as a lot of us here at Coolsmartphone have a soft spot for the Lumia 1020 and the camera that it packed onboard. Quite frankly, it was awesome. Now, I am aware that things have moved on significantly in the last 3 years with regard to Android phones and their optical powers to the point where the phone I actually use (when I am not reviewing other ones) has my sim card sitting in it, is not bad at all, and that’s backed up by an independent benchmark. I am of course, talking about the DXO Mark No1 smartphone camera, the Xperia Z5. To try and see how the phone rates against the Z5, I took a few shots with both phones in various light levels and the compared them against each other. It should be stated that I am not by any means a professional photographer, (which you’ll be well aware of at this point) but I do know what I like in an image. All the pictures were taken using the full Auto settings on the both phones. So let’s have a little look at what we have.
First up a, macro shot in sunny daylight, and the Lumia 950 XL creates what I think is a truer-to-life representation, with the colours of the leaf being a bit more muted. I give this one to the Lumia 950 XL.
Next, we have a medium distance shot where the sun is at an angle of about 30 degrees off-centre. This one is a bit more difficult to call as there is less obvious glare on the 950 XL, but the Z5 does seem to be more vibrant. This one goes to the Z5 despite the sunshine streak going through the image.
Another medium distance this time, with the sun at about 150 degrees to centre, and the Lumia 950 XL is the clear winner for me as it represents the colours much better.
Now onto the night shots.
In this instance, we are reasonably far from the subject and we have both a natural light source (the moon) and the artificial light from the streetlight. I prefer the 950 XL here, as it doesn’t give the church the yellowish tint that I get from the Z5. The Lumia 950XL also mutes the other light sources slightly better.
There is a clear-cut winner in this one for me and that is the Lumia 950 XL. The reason for this is that the wall is much better defined in that image than it is on the Z5. You can actually see the definition of the individual bricks in the wall.
So let’s tally up the score here then. The Lumia 950 XL gets 4 and the Z5 gets 1. I think that on the whole, the images taken on the Lumia 950 XL are much truer to the actual colours of the subject. Don’t get me wrong, the camera on the Z5 is admirable and I still rank it very highly for what it is capable of, but I think it may have met it match here. Another area where I found the Lumia 950 XL excelled is that the depth of detail that the phone captures. This is shown in the next two images. The first one is the full image, and the second is a crop.
The detail that you can still see on the rotors of the helicopter is amazing, and this is the main reason why I love this camera. Again, this image was taken in full auto mode and was handheld. What really impressed me is that you can actually make out the orange paint on the front of the first helicopter which cannot be seen from the original image.
It will be interesting to see what the boffins at DXO Mark get from this camera when they finally get to put it through their testing.
The front-facing camera is something that I don’t tend to bother with very much on a phone, but it does admirably here. Although you don’t have any of the fancy beautification modes that are found on Android phones, you can get the Lumia Selfie app if you want that function. What is nice is that the manual mode is still fully available on the front camera as well.
As you can see, once you start playing with the settings you can alter the results quite significantly, and it’s nice to have that control over your front-facing camera as well as the rear unit.
That time has come when I have to wrap up, and I am going to start by saying that this is a great phone. A great phone that has been let down by some mediocre software. If you are a fan of the Windows way of working then you will get on with this phone very well, especially if you have made the move to Windows 10 on your laptop/desktop.
If however, you are coming from another OS, you may want to skip this one and wait it out for the next model. That being said, if you can cope with a few oddities in the software, (which I am sure will be resolved very soon) and you need to have a stunning camera, then this may very well be what you need. For me, as much as I like the phone, I am going to have to stick to my guns and go with Android on my Z5. I am still on the fence with regards to Windows 10 Mobile, as I really want to like it but there are just too many things annoying me right now.
So there you have the Lumia 950 XL dissected in all it glory. If only it came with Android on it… however that is, as they say, for another time.