Microsoft Lumia 950XL review: So close, yet so far from being the Lumia phone you deserve



Have you ever felt so complete and yet so awfully incomplete at the same time? Or perhaps, encountered one of those defining moments where you have to decide whether the glass is half-full or half-empty?
Microsoft's Windows-based Lumia phones have been suffering from an existential crisis for a very long time now. So change was inevitable. Gone are the days when Microsoft (and Nokia) was lasciviously churning out one Lumia after another. It's going to be fewer phones, and fewer good phones -- hopefully -- from now on. The Lumia 950XL is among the first batch of phones to emphasise this change. Not to forget, it is also one of the first phones -- along with the Lumia 950 -- to run Microsoft's Windows 10 Mobile operating system.
The Lumia 950XL combines the latest and greatest of hardware and software. To emphasise that it is a high-end phone, it carries a hefty price tag of Rs.49,399. Yes, this is a premium high-end phone or so says Microsoft. And yet it feels so incomplete.

Design and build quality

 
The Lumia 950XL has quite an understated design, which is fine if you're a long-term Lumia fan. It's nice to see Microsoft holding on to the 'Lumia' design philosophy which was first introduced when Nokia was around and kicking. Brings back so many memories, doesn't it? But then the reality kicks in and you realise this is 2016. The Lumia 950XL was supposed to be the phone that would raise Windows phone back from the dead. You look back at it and ask yourself, is this really the phone that could do that? Not really, no. The Lumia 950XL isn't bad looking but it's so yesteryear that it makes you think, what the heck was Microsoft thinking?
Design and build quality make an all-important first impression on consumers. The Lumia 950XL doesn't care about that first impression. The fact that it's all-plastic and costs almostRs.50,000 may be a deal breaker for many. When you're paying that kind of money, you're looking for something more premium. Maybe some metal. Some glass. The Lumia 950XL is average at best, which is not what a high-end flagship should look (and feel) like.
There are a few positives take aways from here though. The Lumia 950XL offers excellent screen-to-body ratio thanks to minimum side and top/bottom bezels. This gives you access to more screen real estate. Only the Note 5 gives you better. The front is dominated by Corning's Gorilla Glass 4 while the back has a smooth matte finish to it. The phone is boxy, but not as boxy as Sony's top-end Xperias. Subtle curves along the sides and smooth plastic enhance grip.
The Lumia 950XL is the only high-end phone in the market right now (along with the aging LG G4) that comes with a removable battery. The Lumia 950XL is also among the few phones out there to have a dedicated camera shutter button. Sadly, the quality of plastic used here (as well as on the power button and volume rocker) is sub-standard and doesn't go well with the whole package.

Display

 
The Lumia 950XL comes with a 5.7-inch QuadHD display with a 1440 x 2560 pixels resolution. That's pretty hefty on paper. And it is every bit so in terms of actual usage. In fact, it's one of the nicest displays we've seen on a Lumia phone ever.
Colours are mostly accurate and viewing angles are spot on. Unlike other AMOLED and Super AMOLED screens, the Lumia 950XL doesn't go overboard with colour saturation and keeps things well under control. The result is soothing to the eyes. It's one of the finest displays (in terms of colour accuracy) in this price range, if not the best in terms of peak brightness. Phones like the Google Nexus 6P, Apple iPhone 6S Plus and the Note 5 are brighter.
Don't count the Lumia 950XL out though. It comes with Nokia's ClearBlack display technology, which helps reduce glare and improves legibility, especially outdoors. As the name suggests, this helps achieve deeper blacks thus boosting contrast and more than compensates for the screen's somewhat lower brightness levels. Additionally, the phone comes with a wide range of colour modes - and a manual mode - allowing you to tweak the display to your hearts' content.

Software

 
Windows 10 represents the dawn of a new era at Microsoft, the one that would lead to unification of devices (phones, tablets, PCs). Windows 10 Mobile -- in a nutshell -- has been designed to provide a full-on desktop Windows 10 experience on a smartphone, in this case the Lumia 950XL. Sounds pretty amazing on paper. As it turns out, the smartphone world, heck even Microsoft, isn't quite ready for it yet. Windows 10 was supposed to be the Lumia 950XL's headlining feature. Instead, it ends up being its most frustrating aspect.
Windows 10 Mobile has some good but lots of bad. Let's take a look at some of the positives first. Windows phone's Live Tile interface -- that made its debut with Windows 7 in 2010 -- continues to be the show-stopper here. If anything, it's gotten only better with time. Microsoft's vision of a UI consisting of two home screens, one with live tiles (which update in real-time), static icons and folders and the other with a scrollable list of apps still looks as cool as ever. Tile transparency and 'show more tiles' features are worth mentioning. You know what's even cooler? Dark mode!
The Action Center is your drop down notification and customisable quick settings menu. It has an interesting way of arranging your notifications in a seemingly endless way, giving you an option to expand a particular email or text message and respond to it directly through a sub-menu.
 
The task manager (app switcher) has a card-based view much like in iOS. There's also a one-handed mode that works almost similar to iPhone 6 Plus's Reachability feature.
Glance Screen and an always on Cortana voice assistant are other notable features of Windows 10 Mobile on-board the Lumia 950XL. Note that Cortana comes with limited functionality in India. Things like predefined interests are not supported yet.
There's no doubt that Windows 10 is visually appealing and has some really cool features, but it is still a very early work in progress. Quite understandably then it is full of bugs, some of which get frustrating beyond a point. Non-responsive buttons, sluggish app installs followed by some of the apps not opening at all, some opening and then randomly freezing out of the blue, menus that won't properly load, a gallery app where zooming in and out of photos is a nightmare, Facebook app spamming our own posts, so on and so forth. That's quite a lot to handle. Needless to say, we prefer the Android or iOS experience to the one provided by Windows 10 at the moment.

Continuum

 
Continuum is the fabled  unicorn that's supposed to make everything right for Windows 10. And it does where it can. Sadly, there's not a lot that it can do right now. Continuum is essentially a feature that lets you connect your Windows 10 phone to a monitor -- and additionally to a keyboard and mouse -- and transform it into a full-blown PC, sort of. You will need to get either a Microsoft Display Dock or a Miracast dongle for the purpose. For a limited period, buyers will get the Dock for free with the Lumia 950XL, after which it can be bought separately for Rs.5,999.
Microsoft's core apps like the Edge browser, Word, Excel, Photos, Mail, Cortana and third-party apps like Facebook work with Continuum right now. Twitter and WhatsApp are not supported. All applications run in full-screen mode, although multi-tasking is supported and you can minimise an open app and move to another app. But the experience is limited and unless Microsoft comes up with more Universal Apps (apps designed to scale up and down for phone and PC) carrying around a Dock and monitor instead of an actual laptop doesn't seem like a very good idea.
Setting up Continuum is a walk in the park and using it is fun though: if this is the future, it sure is a pretty good one. The future just isn't right now.

Performance

The Lumia 950XL is powered by Qualcomm's top-of-the-line Snapdragon 810 processor (clocked at 2GHz) coupled with Adreno 430 GPU and 3GB of RAM. It comes with 32GB of inbuilt memory which is theoretically expandable by up to 200GB via microSD. Microsoft has played it safe by injecting the Lumia 950XL with liquid cooling. And while the results aren't exactly out of the ordinary, Microsoft's approach does manage to put a bell around the Snapdragon 810's overheating issues. The Lumia 950XL does run warm on occasions, but at no point do things go out of hand.
The Snapdragon 810 is powerful. Sadly, software in Lumia 950XL again plays spoilsport. Although powering up (and down), navigating between the two home screens (and sub-menus) and opening (and closing) of apps is generally fast and smooth, you don't know what to expect from it in the next instant. The phone is unpredictable. Everything would be running just fine and then boom! some app would freeze hampering the user experience. Overall, Windows 10 looks like a half-baked cookie that feels un-optimised for the task at hand. And it's not just about third-party apps, the problem persists even within core apps like Edge which makes it all the more frustrating.
The single speaker vent located on the back of the phone churns out excellent audio. The Lumia 950XL is easily among the loudest phones in terms of speaker output at its price point.
Phone calls made with the Lumia 950XL are of acceptable quality and we did not witness any odd call drops issues in our review unit. The earpiece volume could have been louder though. The phone supports 4G LTE on both SIMs.

Windows Hello (Beta)

 
The Lumia 950XL negates the need of a fingerprint scanner by giving you an iris scanner, aka Windows Hello. It's still in Beta and is subject to improvement in future iterations. Right now it's a one-of-its-kind method to unlock the Lumia 950XL. It's fun but it certainly isn't as fast as fingerprint sensing. You can train it to improve recognition in varying light conditions. But, since it takes a tad longer to recognise you -- and repetitively moving forward and back to optimise distance is rather odd while you're in public -- we preferred the good old-fashioned PIN to unlock on most occasions.  

Camera

 
The Lumia 950XL sports a 20-megapixel PureView camera with Carl Zeiss optics, optical image stabilisation, autofocus and industry's first triple-LED RGB flash. There's also a 5-megapixel camera on the front. The Lumia 950XL does the Lumia family proud taking things to the next level in terms of smartphone photography. Yes, it's that good.
Images taken in outdoor ambient light situations come out with good amount of detail, colours which are true to source and excellent dynamic range. The image processing is good and that leads to natural-looking photos. We did not encounter any metering issues in such instances as the sensor on-board does a fine job in differentiating between light and shadow areas.
The PureView camera gives you something called as Rich Capture by default which helps boost exposure levels and colour saturation in good lighting.
Meanwhile, a combination of OIS and triple-LED flash helps bring out some excellent photos in tricky and low light environments. Although there's little noise associated with shadows in such cases, the level of detail in some of these photos is simply outstanding. The sensor does a good job in keeping details intact. It is however advisable that you turn off Rich Capture in such instances to avoid over-exposure.
Most of the camera phones are pretty good while taking day-light shots. It is therefore quality of low-light photography that determines whether or not a phone is worth it. Suffice to say that the Lumia 950XL doesn't disappoint. Overall, it's a great camera phone, if not out rightly the best one in the market right now. Phones like the Note 5 and iPhone 6S Plus still hold an edge though, especially at macro photography.
On the positive side, the Lumia 950XL is more fun in the dark. It's triple-LED flash helps you snap a photo and light it up later. You can therefore manually control the level of exposure selectively (via a slider mechanism) to come out with the best result. At the same time, much like most Lumia phones, the 950XL also gives you lots of granular control while taking photos. That's a plus for someone who is looking for pro-level photography.
The front-facing camera takes excellent selfies with good detail and mostly accurate colours.
The Lumia 950 XL shoots excellent 4K videos @30 fps. OIS helps achieve steady shot in most situations, but the star of the show has to be the phone's Rich Audio Recording technology that captures good audio even in noisy environments.
You can check out the camera samples here: Sample 1 , Sample 2 , Sample 3 , Sample 4 , Sample 5 , Sample 6 , Sample 7 , Sample 8 , Sample 9 , Sample 10 . 

Battery

The Lumia 950XL uses a 3,340 mAh battery which is swappable. Battery life is average at best. A lot of this has to do with the tight app integration within the OS - an always on Cortana for instance - as well as that power hungry AMOLED screen.
Mixed usage which included an hour and a half of video playback, half an hour of graphical gaming, 45 minutes of basic games, phone calls (to the tune of one hour), some music streaming and YouTube playback along with some web browsing gave us close to 12 hours on the device. The Lumia 950XL supports fast charging via its dedicated USB Type-C port and charges like a bullet.   

Should you buy it?

 
Microsoft's Lumia 950XL offers all the bells and whistles on paper. Sadly, it doesn't feel that way in actual usage. The limitations (and frustrations) of Windows 10 are too much to handle. 
Yes, you can have some fun with the Lumia 950XL. Features like Continuum, Windows Hello and Cortana are all well and good. Both cameras in the phone are simply fantastic. The screen's pretty good too. But all this at what cost? At the end of the day, it's all about the user experience. While the Lumia 950XL may have the best of hardware, its software leaves you disappointed.
Windows 10 is a whole new ball game. It's more than just an OS. It's a vision to unite all devices (phones, laptops and PCs) under one roof. Who knows, it may even get there in the days to come. But right now, the Lumia 950XL -- at Rs.50,000 -- feels all but a novelty statement from Microsoft to give us a sneak peek into the future. Call it a teaser trailer if you may. Hopefully the film would be better.

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