Review: Microsoft Lumia 950
Microsoft's first Windows 10 Mobile handset, the Lumia 950, is here at last. This device boasts a beautiful screen and powerful camera, and includes unique features such as iris recognition biometrics and the ability to act as a full, desktop computer. Learn more about the Lumia 950 in Phone Scoop's in-depth report.
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Is It Your Type?
The Lumia 950 is the first Windows 10 Mobile device to ship from a U.S. carrier. For Microsoft devotees, there's a lot to like, thanks to the wholly refreshed operating system and compatibility across the Microsoft ecosystem. What's more, optional accessories allow the 950 to behave as a full Windows desktop PC. The phone isn't quite on par with competing flagships, however, and the hardware is somewhat disappointing. The 950 should be reserved for early adopters and those invested in Microsoft's platform and services.
The 2013-era Lumia 1520 was the last true flagship to come from Microsoft's (nee, Nokia's) handset team. It was an over-sized phablet with excellent build quality, top-notch specs, and swift performance. Fast forward two years, and the Lumia 950 and its bigger brother, the 950 XL, don't quite fill the 1520's big shoes.
Microsoft scaled back the flashy colors and nixed the idea of a one-piece polycarbonate shell when approaching the Lumia 950. The phone is offered only in black or white, rather than yellow, cyan, or green, and it has a removable rear cover. It has a rather direct appearance; the slab shape is simple and free of busy design language. The 950 looks more professional and less party-goer, more buttoned-down and less bump-n-grind. It clearly stems from Nokia / Microsoft's older Lumia designs, but does so with less personality.
With a 5.2-inch screen, the 950 is a fairly big phone. It's thick, but thankfully not too heavy. The side edges are angled slightly, and the rear surface is mostly flat except where it curves slightly to meet the sides. Chrome accents give the matte surfaces a much-needed visual boost. A number of simple Lumia phones have hit store shelves in the past, but the 950 is severely lacking in sex appeal.
While no one likes carrying around a brick, the 950 borders on too light. The combination of light weight and these specific materials lends a cheap feeling to the hardware. I don't care for it very much, especially when you consider the phone's price point. The rear shell comes across as flimsy. Most people won't have trouble holding and using it, except for those with the smallest hands. I wish it were thinner. I can't think of a single Windows handset that was impressively thin, and the 950 does nothing to change that. The phone should fit into most pockets without issue, but I was often aware of its position in my pocket.
The 950's face is a plain, glossy affair. The chrome Microsoft logo is the only design element breaking up the stark, black panel. A slit in the top of the glass allows the earpiece speaker to project sound, and you'll notice a tiny, round hole in the glass below the screen that holds the microphone. The display's glass has its own frame that forms a protective rim. The rim feels rather sharp against your palm. There are no front buttons, physical or otherwise, as the 950 relies on software controls.
Microsoft carried over the side button configuration that graces many older Lumias. The 950 has dedicated camera button, screen lock button, and volume toggle all positioned on the right edge. All three buttons have sharp profiles that help them stand out from the side itself. The chrome coloring makes them easy to see. I think the buttons feel a bit cheap, but the action and feedback is quite good. I wish either the screen lock button or volume toggle — which are right next to one another — had some texture to make them easier to tell apart. I often turned the screen off by accident when I intended to lower the volume.
The 950 uses a Type-C USB port, which is located on the bottom edge. This is significant. The Type-C port is reversible, which makes it much easier to use; no more futzing about trying to figure out which way to insert it. It is fast, can send power in both directions, and represents the future of phone charging/data transfer. For now, however, accessories are limited. The phone comes with one Type-C cable. You may want to buy extra cables and/or adapters. The stereo headphone jack is on top. There are no controls on the left edge.
The camera module dominates the rear shell from a visual standpoint. It is encircled in a large, chrome rim that's about the size of a quarter. It's slightly raised, so the phone sits on a small angle when on a flat surface. The dual flash is positioned just off to the left of the lens and a small grille to the right protects the speakerphone. Chrome Windows and AT&T logos adorn the rear cover, as well.
The rear shell, which also forms the side edges, peels off quite easily. Underneath you'll find a removeable battery, memory card slot, and SIM card slot. Memory cards can be swapped without pulling the battery, but you have to take out the battery to change SIM cards.
The Lumia 950 is a fine handset, but it's far from the quality I want in a flagship phone. It suffices from a hardware perspective, but that's not saying much.
The 950's display measures 5.2 inches across the diagonal and boasts quad HD (2560 by 1440) resolution. You can't ask for a more pixel-rich handset in today's market. The pixel density is simply off the charts. The resolution will knock your socks off. You need a microscope to find individual pixels. It is an OLED panel, so brightness, contrast, and color are boosted quite a bit. Viewing angles are impressive. It's a great screen.
The Lumia 950 is sold by AT&T and runs on that LTE network. I tested the phone in and around New York City and found it to perform on par with other AT&T handsets. The phone was always able to make calls, even in poor coverage areas, and it never dropped or missed any calls while I tested it. Data speeds were generally good, but not the fastest I've seen. When surfing via LTE, web pages load quickly, but apps felt a bit slow to download to me. Even so, the Lumia 950 performed well enough.
Phone calls placed via the 950 sounded average to my ears. Clarity was generally good, and it suffered from only occasional bouts of distortion. When cranked up all the way, the 950 produces enough sound through the earpiece to overcome moderate background noise. You can hear conversations when walking around the mall or sipping a latte in a busy coffee shop, but noisy city streets tended to drown it out. The speakerphone sounded fairly muddy. It produces plenty of volume, but clarity suffers. I had a hard time understanding callers when using the speakerphone in the car. It will suffice for use in quiet spaces, but not loud ones. Everyone I called via the 950 said I sounded very good to them.
The ringers and alerts can be set loud enough to get your attention most of the time, but I didn't hear the phone several times when I was in my basement and the phone was upstairs in the front hall. The vibrate alert is barely adequate.
Battery life was inconsistent, which I can only blame on buggy software. The phone typically lasted from breakfast to mid-evening. It often petered out a bit before bedtime, which means you might need to carry a charger or battery pack when you'll be out of the house for the entire day. Several times the 950 lost a 50% charge overnight and was dead in the morning, which shouldn't happen. On the other hand, it sometimes ended the day with plenty of power to spare. The 3,000 mAh should be enough to get through a day, and the 950 showed me that it could do just that on a few occasions. Your mileage will probably vary a bit until Microsoft is done optimizing the Windows 10 code.
The device has a modest battery saver tool, and it can help coax more life from the battery if needed. It does the basics, such as turn down the screen's brightness, reduce alerts, and dial back the processor. If you get nervous about your battery mid-afternoon, putting the 950 in battery saver mode will ensure you get through the rest of the day.
The 950 supports rapid charging, which is helpful. The phone could go from 0% charge to 100% in just over two hours with a QuickCharge 2.0 charger. Alternately, you can drop the phone on a wireless charging pad to power it up.
Bluetooth, GPS, NFC, WiFi
The 950's radios mostly performed as they should. The Bluetooth radio, in particular, is easy to manage thanks to the Gadgets application, which seeks out accessories and makes for easy pairing. The NFC radio does its part, too, and can assist in making the connection with Bluetooth devices.
Calls made via Bluetooth headsets were acceptable, but just barely. Calls sounded pretty rough when passed through my car's hands-free system. I was pleased with the quality of music streamed to my favorite pair of headphones.
WiFi worked wonderfully.
The Maps app, which is excellent, interacted with the GPS radio without issue. The 950 located me in under 5 seconds most of the time, and was accurate to within about 20 feet. The app easily lets you navigate between points via car, transit, or foot, and real-time traffic reports can dynamically re-route you to avoid pesky delays.
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