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

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A Vision of the Future
lumia950_continuum2.jpgWhere Continuum sits today reminds me a lot of the situation with Microsoft’s now defunct Windows RT platform. Both experiences operate on ARM architecture processors, and both experiences rely on the browser and on Universal apps.

In this interpretation, it’s curious to see where Microsoft takes Windows 10 Mobile and Continuum in the future. As it stands, Continuum feels like an unfinished vision of something that could be great. If Microsoft could port Windows 10 Mobile to run on a low-powered Intel Atom X3 processor, for example, then Continuum could be drastically more useful.

This would enable Microsoft to run a similar phone-centric experience, like Windows 10 Mobile, on an x86-powered Lumia. And when you dock your phone, Continuum will get even more powerful. With “Intel inside,” future Lumias would have expanded multitasking capabilities as well as the ability to run any Windows app. This includes Universal apps as well as traditional Win32 programs, like Photoshop.

Imagine being able to snap a portrait, using the Lumia’s excellent PureView camera, doing some light retouching using the FaceTune app on your phone. When you’re back at your desk, you can plug in your phone, open up Photoshop or a similar desktop-class image editor, and make heavier edits.

Sadly, with ARM, Microsoft’s vision falls short. Windows 10 Mobile lacks Universal apps and Continuum feels too limited to be truly useful as a PC alternative.

lumia950_camera.jpgLumia faithfuls will not be disappointed with the camera on the 950 XL. The camera combines a 20-megapixel sensor, Zeiss optics for the lens, a bright triple-tone LED flash for even more natural skin tones and optical image stabilization.

The camera interface is simple and easy to use, and autofocus is generally fast, but isn’t quite as fast as newer Android devices, like the Samsung Galaxy S7 or the LG V10, especially in low light. For more advanced users, Microsoft gives you robust control over different exposure settings, including the ability to capture detailed RAW images using the DNG file format. The only thing you can’t control is the fixed f/1.9 aperture.

Where the Lumia 950 XL’s camera shines is with Rich Capture technology. You can either set Rich Capture to off or auto, but you can’t force it to always on at this time. The technology is Microsoft’s answer to HDR, and it allows the camera to capture multiple images using different exposure settings. Unlike HDR, Rich Capture also works when the flash is on.

lumia950_samplephoto1.jpgAfter the image is taken, you’ll be able to scroll through your images or continue operating the camera, but Rich Capture takes a few seconds to properly stitch your photo in the background. Once the adjustments to the image has been made, you can go into the image and adjust how much HDR you want and you can also tell the camera how much flash you want in your image after the photo’s been captured. This allows you to create more natural looking photos—too much flash and your photos look washed out, while too little flash can mean dark, fuzzy images with a lot of noise.

It’s a great feature, and I found the flash adjustments through Rich Capture to be most useful for taking pictures of people. Rich Capture’s HDR adjustments are more suited for landscapes and scenes with harsh lighting. Too much HDR, like on the Samsung Galaxy S6, for example, can lead to images that look cartoonish, un-natural and fake. The ability to control highlights and shadows through Rich Capture is just amazing.

If you’re migrating from an older Lumia, like the Lumia 930 or 1020, you’ll also appreciate that Microsoft has made significant improvements to its implementation of the Zeiss optics. Whereas older phones often exhibited lens flare when shot in harsh or bright lighting conditions, the Lumia 950 XL does a much better job at controlling flare. On older images, if I shot out on a bright day and didn’t use my free hand as a lens hood by cupping the top of my phone, I’d get a bright streak of light. On the Lumia 950 XL, I haven’t noticed this behavior at all.

lumia950_samplephoto2.jpgEven videographers will find a lot to appreciate with Microsoft’s camera implementation. In addition to optical image stabilization for shake-free videos, the Lumia 950 XL has four microphones for precise sound isolation and to cancel unwanted background noise. Even though I am not a videographer, I appreciated the quad-microphone setup on the Lumia 950 XL for recording audio notes, which delivered clear clips that are nearly free of background noise.

Video can be recorded in up to 25 frames per second for 4K footage, and 1080p full HD videos can be captured at up to 60 frames per second.

lumia950_verdict.jpgRight now, it’s hard to recommend the Lumia 950 XL to anyone outside of mobile photographers, Lumia faithfuls and die-hard Windows users. The camera innovations that Microsoft implemented are extremely useful and largely unmatched by others in the smartphone space. However, this still won’t matter to the general consumer when most smartphones deliver good enough camera experiences. Where the Lumia 950 XL differentiates from other mobile experiences is Continuum, a feature that tries to turn your phone into a PC when connected to a dock at your desk.

In its first implementation, Continuum shows a lot of promise. It allows Universal app to give a mobile-first experience when its shown on your phone, and transforms into a desktop experience when connected to Continuum. In this interpretation, the Lumia 950 XL is the ultimate mobile PC.

But like Windows Phones before it, Continuum is still hampered by the same shortcomings. The app gap is getting wider, and Google’s spat with Microsoft means that important Google experiences are left out of Windows 10 Mobile, limiting the Lumia 950 XL’s appeal to users who are already deeply entrenched in Microsoft’s ecosystem.

And sadly, Microsoft’s flagship phone’s appeal doesn’t even get a boost from its utilitarian hardware design, eschewing its predecessors bright and colorful shells for business-centric black or white tones. And the unapologetic use of plastic suggests that Microsoft may not grasp consumer tastes.

What the Lumia 950 XL represents is Microsoft’s vision of the future of computing—the ability to take your PC with you in your pocket. We’ll have to wait and see how this vision evolves and gets perfected in the future.

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