Microsoft Lumia 950 XL Review: Can a Phone Replace Your PC?

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Microsoft Lumia 950 XL Review: Can a Phone Replace Your PC?

Just what form factor should a personal computer take? In the last five years, we’ve seen the PC industry ask itself that very question, and we’ve also witnessed some novel designs as a result.

Steve Jobs heralded the next era of personal computing with the launch of the iPad in 2010 in what he called the post-PC revolution. Microsoft followed with the launch of the Surface in 2012, a tablet that its makers claim can replace both your laptop and, with the right docking station, your desktop at home. Not to be outdone, Intel, makers of the processor that powers Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablets, answered the very form factor debate with a radical take on mobile computing: the Intel Compute Stick. Not much larger than a pack of gum, the Compute Stick is an HDMI dongle that is portable for travel, can transform any display into a desktop PC and can run any Windows apps—just bring your own keyboard and mouse.

But can your phone replace your PC? With Ericsson reporting more than 2.6 billion smartphones in use globally today, Microsoft would like to think so. After all, if it could get Windows, the dominant desktop operating system by a significant margin, onto smartphones, this would give Microsoft ammunition in its mobile fight against Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.

And this is precisely the strategy Microsoft is using with the launch of the Lumia 950 XL. By bringing Windows 10—and all of its buzz and brand recognition—to mobile, the 950 XL, along with its smaller sibling the Lumia 950, showcases not only Microsoft’s vision for mobile, but also how a phone can radically transform into a PC with the right accessories. Once a display is connected to the Lumia 950 XL, the phone doesn’t just mirror its display onto the larger screen. A new Windows 10 Mobile feature called Continuum allows the Windows experience to scale up, giving you a full desktop Start menu so that you can use your phone, like a PC, on the big screen.

So how does Continuum work and can your Lumia 950 XL replace your desktop?

lumia950_design.jpgWhile Microsoft made claims in the past that Windows Phone delivers fast performance on conservative hardware, the Lumia 950 XL shows the company is ready to take on Android rivals in the specs game. Underneath the uninspiring white polycarbonate shell are features worthy of flagship phone status: fast octa-core Snapdragon 810 processor, liquid cooling (a first for a phone), 3GB of RAM for multitasking, a high resolution 5.7-inch QHD display and iris scanner for security.

Like the Windows Phone 8.1 that Windows 10 Mobile replaces, you’ll find the familiar Live Tiles interface, a second screen with all your installed apps and the promise of a growing ecosystem of Universal apps that will work across PC, tablet, Xbox and phone. Unfortunately, right now, it’s just a promise.

A common complaint with Windows Phone is limited third-party app support. If you’re a Google user, you won’t find familiar apps like Hangouts, Drive or Docs. Microsoft is still pitching its own services as alternatives. Additionally, many banks don’t support Windows 10 Mobile (yet), so you’ll have to use the new Microsoft Edge browser. Unfortunately, this means that some features, like mobile check deposit, don’t work.

lumia950_design2.jpgThe good news is that if you’re invested in Office and don’t mind some workarounds in lieu of official apps, you can get Windows 10 Mobile to work. I use IM+ Pro, for example, to access Google Hangouts for chat. Social apps like Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn do a decent job, but are nowhere near as robust as they are on rival platforms. The biggest apps that I miss coming from iOS and Android are home automation services, third-party VOIP services and specialty service and shopping apps.

As excellent as Microsoft Office, Skype and OneDrive are, I would still like more diversity in the Windows Store.

From Small Screen to Big Screen
lumia950_bigscreen.jpgThe real magic—and the star of the Lumia 950 XL’s show—happens when you look beyond the gorgeous 5.7-inch 1440 × 2560 AMOLED display, which coincidentally is the same size and resolution as of Samsung’s Android-powered Galaxy Note 5. Once you connect the optional Microsoft Display Dock (US$99) to the Lumia 950 XL via a USB Type-C cable, you’ll be able to connect a monitor and USB accessories to the Lumia, just like on a regular PC.

In addition to the USB-C port to connect the Lumia, the Display Dock also comes with three USB Type-A ports, an HDMI port, a DisplayPort and another USB-C port on the back to connect a power cable to charge your phone while it’s docked.

When you connect a display, a keyboard and mouse to the dock, and connect the dock to your phone, you’ll be able to activate a feature called Continuum. Unlike on iOS and Android, Continuum doesn’t just show a bigger version of your phone’s display on the monitor. Instead, it scales the interface to give you a proper desktop experience on the larger screen.

lumia950_bigscreen2.jpgIn my case, I’ve connected a 27-inch Acer 4K monitor to the dock over DisplayPort—I attempted the setup with HDMI and couldn’t get Continuum to work—along with a wired USB Apple keyboard and Apple mouse.

The setup was pretty seamless. Once the Lumia 950 XL enters Continuum mode, you’ll see a virtual trackpad on your phone’s screen, which allows you to ditch the external mouse if you want to use your phone as a mouse. Unfortunately, you’ll still need either a USB, Bluetooth or wireless keyboard to use in Continuum, as the phone isn’t capable of displaying a virtual keyboard.

On my monitor, the desktop looks almost exactly as it does on a Windows 10 PC or on a Surface. A small Windows icon on the lower left of the screen can be activated to display Windows 10’s new Start menu, and next to the Windows icon is a small circle that can be used to call up Cortana. There’s a button for multitasking to see all my open windows, and a small Action Center icon on the lower right pulls up all my notifications and alerts.

At a cursory glance, the main difference between Continuum on mobile versus a native Windows 10 PC desktop experience is that you’ll see a small status bar on the top, like you would on a phone, that displays the wireless network connection, Wi-Fi status, battery level and time.

lumia950_docked.jpgContinuum only works with Universal apps at this time, so not all apps available to the Lumia 950 XL can be used on the big screen. Apps that won’t work in Continuum are greyed out in the Start menu.

The new Outlook Mail experience looks beautiful in desktop view, showing a nice three-pane view. The Messaging app, which integrates text message and Skype conversations into a single location, also is a joy to use with a two-pane interface, displaying your message list on the left and your conversation in the right pane. And if you’re an Office user, Office Mobile on Continuum feels like it does on a desktop, rather than made for the phone or mobile tablet.

While Continumm on mobile allows Universal apps to have the same appearance and experience as on a desktop PC, a big difference is that apps always run full-screen. Unlike your PC desktop, you can’t resize app windows, and even Snap multitasking isn’t available on Continuum.

Additionally, Continuum is also limited by the number of Universal apps, which isn’t many to start with, so you’ll find yourself living primarily inside Microsoft’s new Edge browser. In this sense, Continuum, to me, feels a lot more like Microsoft’s answer to Google’s Chromebook than a PC replacement. And similar to its competing cousin, the browser makes up for where there is a lack of app.

The Microsoft Edge browser, which replaces Internet Explorer, renders most pages quickly. Even though Facebook is a Universal app, there isn’t a Universal Facebook Messenger app yet. To remedy this, I logged on to Facebook on Edge in Continuum. The result is that Facebook loads fine, but there was significant lag when typing in Facebook chat windows.

Similarly, typing in Hangouts windows inside Gmail or working on Google Docs files exhibited similar lags, making the experience unusable. In Hangouts, after a message was sent, I would have to close and reopen the same chat conversation before I can type and send another message, and trying to type in Google Docs is just an experience in frustration.

lumia950_continuum.jpgAnother limitation of Edge that I discovered is that while you can share the page you are viewing with the share sheet on Windows 10 Mobile, similar to Android and iOS, you can only share to Universal apps in Continuum. While doing some Internet research, I tried to save a webpage to my Pock8 app, a third-party client that works with the Pocket service. However, since Pock8 isn’t a Universal app, I wasn’t able to do this directly. A workaround would be to bookmark all the pages I like on Continuum, disconnect from the dock, and then share the pages from Edge from my phone to Pock8.

Continuum did have its highlights. If you need to do productivity work, Office Mobile is a seamless experience, and Edge does a great job with casual browsing and video watching. Prosumers will be disappointed that Edge still doesn’t support browser extension, so you won’t be able to run ad-blockers or integrate with password managers like LastPass or 1Password, to name a few.

One of the neatest parts of Continuum is that you can continue to use your phone independently while it’s connected to a monitor. The Lumia 950 XL is capable of displaying two distinct experiences simultaneously.

Where Continuum really shines, if you’re willing to tote the dock and your phone along with a keyboard and mouse, is for travelling business executives. The combined package is smaller and weighs less than toting around a laptop. Sure, you can use a shared PC in your hotel’s business center if you decide to not carry your laptop, but getting Continuum setup on your hotel room’s HDTV is more convenient and probably safer for your data. If you’re working with sensitive files, they’ll be secured on your phone and you won’t have to enter your passwords and credentials when accessing different websites as you would on an unsecured guest PC in the hotel lobby.

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