On paper the Microsoft Lumia 950 seems like a fantastic high end device—one which the Windows Phone community has needed for well over a year—with its 5.2 inch quad HD OLED display, Snapdragon 808 hexa-core processor, 3000mAh removable battery, 3GB of memory, and 20MP rear camera. It features a removable back cover and battery, Qi wireless charging (and PMA if bought on AT&T), NFC, and 32GB of storage with microSD expansion. This device is nothing short of the current high end, and in being a high end device it excels with one caveat: it’s premium hardware in an entry level shell.
I won’t mince words here: The Lumia 950 has cheap materials. Say what you want about the 920 and “premium polycarbonate”, this device by virtue of its removable cover, feels less than premium. For many that’s a major concern given its price of $600. At a similar price point, you can get aluminum unibody phones that have comparable specs with higher grade materials. Whether the plastic takes away from the overall experience of the phone is up to the individual to decide, but it must be said here that this phone wins no awards for design.
Microsoft has finally put the “finishing touches” on Windows 10 for phones in build 10586. I put finishing touches in quotes to reflect their new stance on Windows 10 builds where things are never really “finished”, they decided that what they had was solid enough to ship devices with and they decided to pull the trigger. Unfortunately, I have to disagree with Microsoft that Windows 10 mobile is in a mostly finished state for a few reasons. Right out of the box the inconsistency in performance on what should be more than capable hardware made me incredibly disappointed. I’ve found that the overall snappiness of apps and multitasking trails that of my 3-year-old Lumia 920, and while many default apps launch quickly and stay in memory longer, many more older apps take the same amount of time to launch and performance is inconsistent at best.
On the build that the AT&T Lumia 950 ships with (some earlier branch of 10586) the messaging app consistently fails to launch from the start screen, causing you to have to tap it again in order for it to actually bring up your messages. Battery life is also another concern, while it is certainly passable, I expected the battery life to be much better than Android devices with comparable hardware given the way the HTC One M8 on Windows phone 8.1 saw significant gains over its lollipop Android counterpart. This may suggest that Windows 10 has a lot more going on in the background given its shared kernel with the desktop version.
Performance hiccups aside, the other main software feature of this device is Windows Hello of which I can say the following: when it works it’s great and convenient, when it doesn’t, I wish it didn’t exist. Setting up this feature is simple enough and using it is just as easy as staring into your phone for a second, but the problem is that in its current “Beta” status it takes longer than I would hope for it to be useful, and has limitations that a fingerprint scanner would otherwise not have. I want to believe in this technology but perhaps Microsoft should have gone in the direction the industry is headed with fingerprint scanning, rather than making an attempt to differentiate with iris scanning. One thing I’ve found is that the more you try to “improve recognition” in the settings, the longer it takes to verify your face when unlocking. I’m not sure if this is because the phone creates individual hashes each time you improve the recognition and it checks your face against all of those to determine if the login is successful or not (which is the only way I can explain that behavior), but I know that when I tried configuring it a few dozen times in different lighting conditions and with glasses on/off it would consistently sit at the “Making sure it’s you…” indicator for a few seconds whereas with a single configure it tends to recognize and unlock in less than a second. It seems like it’s trading accuracy for speed and ease of use, and I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing just yet.
The camera on the Lumia 950 is nothing short of fantastic, but the problem is at this point most flagship devices have competitive cameras. Samsung’s Galaxy Note and S series have great cameras as does LG’s G4 and the iPhone 6s Plus. The Lumia takes great pictures in most lighting conditions (falling a bit short in the low light as many phones do), and captures significant detail compared to the lower resolution images of the iPhone 6 Plus for example. With rich capture on, the phone takes 3 shots at once and makes a composite with the various lighting conditions (when flash is enabled). Additionally, you can disable this for faster shot to shot speed, while reducing the options that are available to edit the images once processed. With 20MP there’s a lot of detail to work with, and you have the option of saving images as 16MP JPEGs, 8MP JPEGs, or 8MP JPEG + 16MP DNG. Living images are exactly what they’ve always been, with the improvement that they now only activate when the camera detects movement (a welcome improvement).
Microsoft needed a flagship desperately, and the Lumia 950 shows that fact. It seems uninspired and lacks the definitive quality of the Nokia devices of years past. Microsoft knew they screwed up, and this device had to meet certain standards to address the complaints fans have had for a while with their devices. In doing so they created a very high end phone, that no one will want. It lacks the “it” factor that makes people covet the new iPhone and drool after Google’s Nexus devices. As a longsuffering owner of a Lumia 920 the only reason I purchased this device was because I felt as though I had to. Such a relationship towards choosing a phone almost guarantees that the experience will be sub-par. Don’t get me wrong, the Lumia 950 is a great device, but a great device for the fans only. It’s a great device that needed to exist last year. It’s a great device that ultimately won’t be remembered as a great device, and for Microsoft that is a great mistake.