Hands On with the Lumia 950 and 950 XL Smartphones

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Hands On with the Lumia 950 and 950 XL Smartphones

Windows is back—and in a big way. Windows 10 might not be the best version of Windows of all time, but it has the platform legs and support to grow into the Windows we all want. With the collapse of Windows Phone, however, we’re going to get a new batch of Windows smartphones, which have now been renamed under the Windows 10 Mobile platform.

The two smartphones out of the gate come directly from Microsoft, who acquired Nokia back in 2013: the Lumia 950 and the Lumia 950 XL. We got a chance to get some hands on time with the new devices, which are now available for purchase online and in Windows Stores around the country.

Microsoft has stuck with the Lumia brand name, which is a smart idea considering that they are really the only Windows Phone devices that ever caught on at all. In fact, as a whole, the new Lumia phones don’t feel all that different from the ones that were coming out in 2014. The 950 XL version even has the same large camera bump that the Lumia 1020 had.

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One substantial difference is that both the 950 and 950 XL don’t have the flashy, bright colors that were synonymous with the old Lumia phones. While you won’t mix this up with an Android phone anytime soon thanks to the Windows logo, Microsoft has definitely gone with a more generic black slab look this time around. Similar to a lot of Android phones, it has a plastic back and a metal frame, which is sort of the bare minimum for a phone that can be called a “flagship device.” In other words, these new phones just don’t have the premium design and quality materials that you’ll find on devices like the iPhone 6s, the Nexus 6P, or even the Galaxy S6.

That’s a bit disappointing, especially since Microsoft needs to do a lot of convincing if they want to pull people away from their beloved iPhones and Android phones. Of the two, I prefer the look of the 950 XL, but neither are going to surprise anyone.

The Lumia 950 is a 5.2-inch device with a QuadHD AMOLED display, similar to those in phones like the LG G4 or Galaxy S6. Outside of that, you’ll see a lot of other similar specs for a late 2015 / early 2016 flagship device—a Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor, a 3000 mAh battery, and a 20-megapixel camera.

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The 950 XL is the bigger, higher-spec’d version with a 5.7-inch QuadHD AMOLED display. Aside from the bigger display, the other difference with the internals here is the Snapdragon 810 processor. Both devices have 3GB of RAM, the 20-megapixel camera, and all of the same features.

One other exterior difference on the 950 XL is the button placement, which is really bizarre. The power button, which is usually separated from the volume buttons, is instead placed in between the volume up and volume down. I’m sure it’s something you could get used to, but in my short time with the phone I just couldn’t understand why Microsoft decided to do this—especially only on the XL version. On the positive side of things, the 950 XL does have a designated camera button, which is always helpful.

In terms of software, there is honestly not a lot to report on here. Windows 10 Mobile feels lot like the last version of Windows Phone. Most of the apps have been updated, many of which have been redesigned to look more like Android apps with hamburger menus galore. It’s weird because a lot of the design elements that set Windows Phone apart are mostly gone here, replaced with more familiar UI standards, but not fully implemented in a way that feels intuitive. I would have been fine with Microsoft taking the design in a new direction, but I really wish the software here felt more coherent and unique.

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The biggest feature that Microsoft is showing off is Continuum, which is the company’s attempt to combine the world of mobile and desktop. The idea of being able to plug your smartphone into a monitor and have it run as a full version of Windows 10 is really neat idea. It’s forward thinking and demonstrates the idea of a single version of Windows as a really attractive one.

Unfortunately, as of now the execution of Continuum is quite clunky. Many apps aren’t compatible yet and there are some missing features like snapping and multitasking. The worst part about Continuum is that you have to bring around an extra piece of hardware with you, the “Microsoft Display Dock,” which costs a whopping $99.

Someday, Microsoft might really dive into the smartphone game in a serious way and turn a feature like Continuum into an enterprise-savvy must-have. Unfortunately, with the Lumia 950 and 950 XL, it doesn’t really feel like it tried all that hard. In fact, seeing what the company has done with products like Surface Book and Surface Pro 4, it’s a bit jarring to see how little effort was put into these new Lumia phones. Until we get a Surface Phone, don’t expect the Lumia 950 to change anyone’s negative perception of Windows smartphones.

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