What is the Lumia 950 XL?

Microsoft has been making big promises about Windows 10 Mobile for more than a year now. These have ranged from lofty claims about a new category of "Universal Apps", iris-scanning Windows Hello tech and, of course, the Lumia range's trademark PureView camera hardware.

The sheer number of promises have left many wondering if the company's flagship Windows 10 Mobile phablet can actually live up to the claims. Sadly, the answer is not really.

Watch: 5 things you need to know about Windows 10 Mobile

Lumia 950 XL – Design

Since Nokia, now Microsoft Devices, launched its first Windows _phone_ 7 smartphone – the Lumia 800 – many moons ago, the firm has rattled out a stream of unique-looking, brightly coloured handsets.

I’d hoped this trend would continue with the Lumia 950 XL, but sadly this isn't the case. The black Lumia 950 XL on review is one of the dullest-looking phones I’ve held in quite some time. The _phone_ lacks any obvious design features, save the shiny PureView camera sensor on its rear.

The polycarbonate casing doesn’t feel as robust as past Lumias; pressing on the phone’s removable backplate displayed more give than I’d like. Note that removing this rear shell isn’t for the faint-hearted either. Whenever I pried off the rear plate to get access to the phone's microSD and SIM slots, it felt as though it was on the verge of snapping.

Once setup, though, the phone does tick many boxes. There's a USB Type-C connector along its bottom edge, which in the coming months is forecast to replace micro-USB as the smartphone’s standard connector.

The power, volume and shutter buttons are well placed, so you can still reach them one-handed despite the phone’s plus-sized 152 x 78 x 8.1mm dimensions. The 165g weight means the 950 XL isn't too heavy; the phone never feels cumbersome to hold.

Lumia 950 XL

Related: Best smartphones 2015

Lumia 950 XL – Display

Microsoft has loaded the Lumia 950 XL with an impressive 5.7-inch quad-HD, AMOLED display.

On paper, this puts the Lumia on a level-pegging with most competing plus-sized handsets. Google’s awesome Nexus 6P and Samsung’s reigning Galaxy Note 5 both feature similarly specced 5.7-inch QHD displays.

In real-world use, the Lumia 950 XL’s display easily matches its competitors. The screen’s 518ppi density ensures Live Tiles and text look universally sharp. The AMOLED tech also results in blacks that are among the deepest I’ve seen on a smartphone, and help to make colours look vibrant and rich. Whites do look a little red when compared to the Nexus 6P, but are far from the worst I’ve seen.

Although brightness isn't the highest I’ve seen, it's good enough for general use. Direct sunlight can result in the screen becoming reflective and therefore difficult to use, but that’s a universal issue affecting most of the smartphones I test.

Lumia 950 XL – Windows 10 Mobile

The use of Microsoft’s newly released Windows 10 Mobile operating system is the Lumia 950 XL’s most interesting feature.

The OS is part of Microsoft’s ongoing bid to create an all-in-one OS that runs across all device categories. It shares the same core code as the desktop version of Windows 10 – which in theory makes it easier for developers to create a special type of Universal App that will run on both PCs and smartphones.

On paper, Windows 10 Mobile is a massive upgrade to Windows phone 8. It adds a number of cool new features that will radically help to improve Microsoft’s mobile application offering – which previously was a little lacking compared to that of iOS and Android.

Continuum and Windows Hello are two of the new OS’s most notable features. With Continuum users are able to turn the Lumia 950 XL into a functioning desktop PC through the use of Microsoft’s Display Dock.

The Display Dock isn’t available yet, but will cost £70 when it launches. It will let you connect the Lumia 950 XL to an external monitor, keyboard and mouse. When connected the phone will bring up a slightly simplified variant of the desktop version of Windows 10. From here you’ll be able access the desktop versions of Universal Apps, such as Microsoft Office, the Edge browser and Netflix.

Related: Best Android smartphones 2015

Windows 10 mobile

This sounds great and is definitely one of Windows 10 Mobile’s most interesting and potentially useful features. Sadly, my review unit didn’t come with the Display Dock, so I haven’t had the opportunity to put Continuum through its paces – I’ll be sure to update this review the moment I get my hands on one.

Windows Hello is a security-focused iris-scanning technology. It's unique to Windows 10 Mobile and is currently in beta. It works by creating a 3D map of your iris – which is apparently a more unique and secure biometric key than fingerprints. You stare into a special sensor on the front of the Lumia 950 XL whenever you want to unlock the phone or make purchases in the Microsoft Store.

You may think these features, combined with Universal Apps, mean that Windows 10 Mobile is finally ready to take on Apple and Google’s reigning iOS and Android operating systems, but sadly this isn’t the case.

As it stands, the benefits of Windows 10’s unifying core code are yet to take off and the OS mobile app offering is still lacking. So far, outside of the notable exception of Netflix, there aren’t many non-Microsoft Universal Apps currently available.

Lumia 950 XL

Office, Outlook and OneDrive receive a spruce up – and as a result look excellent – but there are still a number of key applications missing on Windows 10 Mobile. Even Instagram is still in its beta form on Windows 10 Mobile.

Many existing applications look a little neglected. Both Facebook and Twitter are in need of a significant update, sporting archaic-looking UIs from the days when Microsoft Devices went by the name Nokia.

This won’t be an issue for existing Windows phone fans, but it will prove a huge annoyance for Android and iOS users. It makes it slightly difficult to recommend the Lumia 950 XL to anyone but business-folks and Microsoft fans.

However, with big-name companies including Facebook confirmed to be working on Universal Apps, this could soon change.

Lumia 950 XL – Performance

The Lumia 950 XL is chock-full of impressive hardware. It’s powered by an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor, Adreno 430 GPU and 3GB of RAM. There are very few apps on the Windows Store that need this much horsepower – although I imagine Continuum will be a big drain on the phone's memory.

My only potential concern about the specs is the 810’s well-documented tendency to heat up to thigh-burning levels. However, outside of a few inexplicable, randomly timed hot flashes, the Lumia 950 XL generally ran cool during my time with it.

Benchmarked on Basemark OS II, the Lumia 950 XL performed slightly worse than expected, with an overall score of 1,481. The cheaper Google Nexus 6P achieved a 1,595 overall score on the same test, by comparison.

Lumia 950 XL

I noticed a few performance issues during my time with the Lumia 950 XL, however. On occasion, software bugs caused my review sample to chug and stutter when navigating between menus. Games of Halo: Spartan Assault suffered the same issue.

The stutters are far from deal-breaking, but they do make the Lumia 950 XL feel a little buggy for my liking.

Lumia 950 XL – Camera

The Lumia range's PureView camera tech has always been a unique selling point for the Windows phones.

As a result, I had high hopes for the Lumia 950 XL’s 20-megapixel rear camera. Following a week with the device, I'm happy to say that I in general, I was happy with the camera's performance.

Shooting in regular light the camera proved capable of taking wonderfully sharp and vibrant shots in its automatic setting. Photos were crisp, displaying decent contrast and white balance=. I also didn’t notice any lag between the time I clicked the shutter button and the camera snapping a photo in regular light.

Moving into lower light, the camera again performed admirably. Thanks to the inclusion of optical image stabilisation technology (OIS), combined with Carl Zeiss optics, the Lumia 950 XL produced decent images with the flash off. Pictures displayed reasonable amounts of detail, with fairly realistic colours – with no sign of any pixellation.

However, there was one issue: at points, the autofocus would become a little finicky and take a millisecond longer than I’d like to lock on to my intended target. Note that this is an issue that affect most smartphone cameras in low light.

Lumia 950 XL
The Lumia 950 XL's camera works pretty well in low light

Lumia 950 XL
Photos are suitably sharp

Lumia 950 XL
The triple LED flash doesn't overdo it

Lumia 950 XL
Colours are vibrant

The triple LED flash tech also performed well, but continued to make people or objects in the foreground of shots look overly bright and slightly luminous. The phone’s Rich Capture mode helped to partially mitigate this issue, but failed to entirely fix it.

Rich Capture is a shot option that lets you manually adjust the colour saturation of specific sections of photos after they’ve been taken.

The Lumia 950 XL’s reworked camera app aids its impressive photographic performance. Although it may have been renamed “Camera”, the app is actually an updated version of the Lumia Camera app that appeared on past top-end Microsoft phones. It’s a marked step up from Windows phone 8.1’s previous home-brewed camera app, but it houses a wealth of manual controls for the camera’s ISO, white balance and exposure.

4K video capture is another positive – although I didn’t have a 4K monitor to hand during my review so can’t comment accurately on its quality yet.

Lumia 950 XL – Battery

The Lumia 950 XL is powered by a 3,340mAh battery, which Microsoft claims will survive 9.5 hours of web browsing and 10 hours of video playback off a single charge.

I found this quoted life to be a little optimistic. I generally managed to get a full day out of the Lumia 950 XL with moderate use, but in heavy use saw the battery deplete fairly quickly.

The phone also loses significant power in sleep mode. Whenever I retired to bed with both the Lumia 950 XL and Nexus 5X charged at 100%, by the following morning the Microsoft phone would have lost 10%-plus of its charge. The Android would have lost a meagre 2-3% by comparison.

Moderate use entailed using the Lumia 950 XL as my primary work and personal smartphone. This involved sporadically listening to music, regularly checking my email and social media feeds, making and taking a few calls, and watching an episode of Adventure Time on my commute home from work.

Lumia 950 XL

Video streaming on Netflix hit the Lumia 950 XL fairly hard. On average I found that the phone would lose between 14-20% of its charge per hour of video streaming. This is well above the 10-15% rate I’ve seen delivered by other top-end phablets.

Gaming resulted in a similar loss. Playing Halo: Spartan Assault, the Lumia 950 XL lost between 18-25% of its charge every hour – again, not great if you plan to use the Lumia to entertain you on long-haul flights.

The use of USB Type-C and fast-charge technology does partially make up for this, with it quicker and easier to sporadically top up the phone’s battery throughout the day. I found a solid 15 minutes at the mains got me at least an hour of juice from the phone.

Lumia 950 XL – Sound

I’m yet to find a smartphone with truly excellent speakers – and the Lumia 950 XL doesn’t change this. The speakers suffer a poor low-end, even by smartphone standards. Cranked to its maximum volume, I also noticed some signs of distortion, particularly with guitars and drums.

That said, the speakers aren’t the worst I’ve experienced. At moderate volumes they don’t sound overly tinny and are more than good enough for watching videos.

Call quality is also very good. Taking calls on a busy London street I never once struggled to hear what the person on the other end of the line was saying.

Lumia 950 XL

Should I buy a Lumia 950 XL?

If you liked Windows phone then you’ll feel right at home with the Lumia 950 XL. It doesn’t offer the best design, but for Windows fans it will tick all the right boxes.

However, for Android and iOS users it’ll be of little appeal. Microsoft is working hard to fix Windows 10 Mobile’s app shortage but, in its current state, the iOS and Android stores offer more variety and better quality services.

The Lumia 950 XL also isn’t the best value phablet out there. Google’s competing Nexus 6P serves up equivalent specs, a nicer design and a more developed app ecosystem while costing close to £100 less. For most people, I'd recommend opting for the Google phone.

Verdict

The Lumia 950 XL will work for existing Windows phone users – but iOS and Android fans will remain disappointed.

Share your thoughts on the Lumia 950 XL in the comments below.

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