It's been a long time since we've seen a high end Lumia phone. More than a year, in fact. While Microsoft and Nokia focused on the low and midrange market, hoping for high volume in markets like India, halo smartphones (high end, aspirational devices) tended to capture mindshare and thus market share. Thus, Windows Phone didn't gain a lot of ground. So Microsoft, who bought Nokia's phone business, is back with the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL. The XL is the 5.7" model with the Snapdragon 810 CPU while the 950 is the 5.2" model with the slightly slower Snapdragon 808 CPU. The Microsoft Lumia 950 is available unlocked for GSM networks direct from Microsoft for $550 and from AT&T for $600. It has a colorful and outdoor viewable QHD 2560 x 1440 AMOLED display, a removable battery and an excellent 20MP rear camera plus 5MP front camera. The usual dual band Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth, NFC, GPS and 4G LTE are on board. Perhaps most interesting is that it's the first phone to ship with Windows 10 for phones.
Design and Ergonomics
The Lumia 950 looks like a less classy version of the likeable Nokia Lumia Icon (Lumia 930 overseas). While the Icon had metal sides and a polycarbonate back that felt like a quality piece, the 950 has a wrap-around plastic back not unlike the most affordable Lumia phones. The finish (available in your choice of matte black or matte white) doesn't have the same elegant look and feel as the Icon's or other higher end Lumia phones. It's also not available in the wildly playful selection of colors we've come to expect from the Lumia line. Since the back is removable, third party makers can sell backs--and in fact there are already a pair of really nice leather backs on the market. Who knows, maybe Microsoft will later sell back cover kits in colors. Looks aren't a deal breaker for everyone, but looks do count when folks are perusing offerings at the store and associating a phone's look with its price tag. And Lumia once set a high bar for design: nobody has done polycarbonate like Nokia with the Lumia line--complex curves, elegant designs and finishes that inspired Apple to copy them with the iPhone 5c.
Beyond aesthetics, the Lumia 950 is a close cousin to the Icon, with the same volume, power and camera button placement, though the Lumia 950's headphone jack has moved to the left side rather than the Icon's dead center arrangement. The 950 has a USB-C port, a forward-thinking new tech that allowed Microsoft to create the $99 Display Dock that helps turn the phone into a desktop PC stand-in, complete with 3 USB ports, HDMI and a DisplayPort. Nice! USB-C, also found on some new laptops like the Dell XPS 15, 12" MacBook and Lenovo Yoga 900, can handle multiple data streams simultaneously, including display, USB and networking (the Lumia dock doesn't have Ethernet though).
The back cover wraps around the sides but unfortunately it doesn't protect the edges of the Gorilla Glass 3 display. Pry it off and you're granted access to the removable 3,000 mAh battery, nano SIM card slot and microSD card slot.
Calling and Data
Nokia made excellent voice phones and that continues under the Microsoft brand. Our AT&T review unit had full and clear incoming and outgoing voice. The speaker is decent enough to carry on a call with the phone on a desk a few feet away, and the mics picked up our voice nicely from that distance. Data speeds were typical of AT&T's network in our area, which is to say good. Since LTE chipsets are standardized as are carrier requirements, we don't usually see significant speed variations between coeval phones.
Performance and Horsepower
The Microsoft Lumia 950 has the fastest Windows phone CPU to date. The 1.8 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 hexa-core CPU with Adreno 418 graphics is in many of today's phones, including the LG G4, LG V10 and Moto X Pure Edition. It's one step down from the top of the line 8 core Snapdragon 810 that's in the Lumia 950 XL. It's plenty powerful and the phone played games like Asphalt 8 nicely (3D games are more demanding than most apps). The Lumia 950 has 3 gigs of RAM and 32 gigs of internal storage. The microSD card slot is compatible with cards up to 200 gigs, and you can store programs, movies and music, among other things, on the card.
We tested the release AT&T model and found it performed smoothly and didn't lag. Windows phones are generally responsive since Microsoft works to optimize the OS for currently available and approved chipsets.
Windows 10 for Phones and Continuum
For those upgrading from Windows Phone 8 or 8.1, Windows 10 for phones will look comfortingly familiar. The Live Tile interface and straightforward list of all installed apps is still there, and Microsoft has simply refined graphics and features. As ever, if you have carrier bloatware preinstalled, removing it is as easy as pressing and holding the app in the list of all apps and selecting "uninstall". Magical. The People hub, PIM apps' ability to sync not just with Exchange but Google and other services is still here, as are updated mobile versions of Outlook, Word, OneNote, Excel and PowerPoint. The web browser is Microsoft Edge now, just as with Windows 10 desktops. This isn't the same exact browser as the desktop version (there's no Adobe Flash for example), but it does a much better job of formatting and presenting websites than the old IE mobile. It has a reading list feature for mobile-friendly reading too.
Skype now integrates with the messaging app, and the XBOX app allows you to connect to your XBOX One and watch game DVRs. The most interesting and brave feature is Continuum, which allows you to turn your phone into a portable desktop computer. Obviously the Lumia 950 isn't as powerful as Windows PCs, and it runs on the ARM architecture rather than Intel x86, so you won't be running programs made for PCs here. But you can use Microsoft's $99 Display Dock to plug in a monitor, keyboard, mouse and even a flash drive and turn your phone into PC-lite. The phone will connect (there's a Continuum app to get you started) to these USB, HDMI and DisplayPort peripherals, and show a desktop on the external monitor. You can continue to interact with your phone's screen and its apps independent of whatever you're doing on the big screen.
Ah, but there are a few caveats. Only Universal apps designed to run on the monitor and phone will work on the external display. Right now that means only the built-in Microsoft apps. We hope developers update their apps to be Universal, but given the slow progress of the Windows Store apps over the years, I wouldn't hold my breath. It's a real pleasure to start a document on the phone, then plug into the desktop peripherals to get real work done in Word and PowerPoint. But the mobile apps don't have all the features of the desktop MS Office suite. The core features are here, and I think most folks will find what they need to get work done. But it's a little disconcerting when you unplug the phone and boom--the apps close. Happily, your work is usually saved, but it's not comforting or elegant. Still, this is likely one paradigm for future computing, where your computer fits in your pocket, and you'll simply dock it at home or work. Clearly it's not meant to replace a laptop since most of us wouldn't want to carry a keyboard, mouse and monitor on the road or to Starbucks. It's interesting that Windows 10 for phones is trying to replace your desktop, not your laptop.
The Display Dock has 3 USB 3.0 ports, HDMI and a DisplayPort. You can also connect wirelessly to use Continuum (the dock isn't a requirement). If you have a Miracast wireless display dongle for your monitor or TV, a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard then you're good to go.
Deals and Shopping: