Windows Phone has never had a proper champion. Not one that was on par with the big boys at Android. Much like Apple, it always banked on its “OS optimisations” to keep things running smooth despite the less than stellar specifications. This time, though, it seems Microsoft have come out swinging, pulling out all the stops for their latest device, the Lumia 950 XL.
Is it any good though?
Well, yes and no. It does have a fantastic camera that can definitely replace your average portable camera. I guess a proper PureView unit will be able to do that. Plus, it has a bunch of cool concepts like Continuum and Windows Hello. Unfortunately, that’s where the good news stops.
The one or two things that Microsoft gets right with this smartphone simply gets overwhelmed by everything they did wrong. It is almost painful to watch something that could have been a true contender for the best smartphone of 2015, fall so hard so fast.
If you’re looking for the next best smartphone, you won’t find it here. If you’re just looking for a decent smartphone, you might not find it here either. I simply can’t justify recommending this smartphone to any but the most stalwart of Windows fans.
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We all make mistakes. It’s the one inescapable fact in life that no matter how hard you try, how many routes you take, and however much you prepare, you will screw up somewhere. When it comes to tech, I can safely say I’ve only made one big mistake. It happened during my early years as a college student when I was young and foolish, a mistake that I’m still irked by even to this day — I bought a Windows Phone.
As with all mistakes, it didn’t feel like a mistake at the time. It felt great actually, like the first blossoming of true love when boy meets small-rectangular-brick-with-a-Nokia-logo. It was a lowly (and cheap, very important for a college student) Lumia 625 in a zesty green that had a Snapdragon S4 processor, half a gigabyte of RAM and 8GB of internal storage.
I loved it. It was sweeeet.
But oh how quickly the honeymoon period ended. Where I used to spend hours enjoying the cool flippy animations and the smooth transitions, I eventually got frustrated with the long loading times and the signature Windows “loading” and “resuming” screen. After two years of torture, I ditched it, hopped back to Android and life was good again.
Since then, Windows Phone has made a great big leap, launching Windows 10 (Mobile) with a host of promising features like Continuum and Windows Hello, plus two brand new top-of-the-line flagship devices with a flagship price to match.
The larger, more powerful Lumia 950 XL is a beast on paper, packing a 2.0GHz octa-core Snapdragon 810 processor with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of expandable storage. It’s even got a 20-megapixel PureView rear-facing camera with OIS, and a triple LED flash plus a 5MP front-facing snapper for selfies. For power, the device gets a 3,340 mAh battery with USB Type-C for charging and data transfer.
A lot of horses then, but if you pick up that sleek discreet body, the one feature you will undoubtedly notice is that massive camera hump. I love camera humps, a feeling that my colleagues don’t share for obvious practical reasons, but there is something about a sexy camera hump struggling to free itself from the bonds of its unworthy smartphone body that is so attractive. And for good reason — that’s one hell of a camera.
Lumia fans will be pleased to know that the Lumia 950 XL does not disappoint in the camera department. It takes phenomenal photos full of rich vivid and (perhaps most importantly) sharp details. Couple that with the dedicated two-stage shutter button (which by the way feels way better than that mushy nonsensical nub on the Xperia Z5) and you’ve got yourself a solid point and shoot camera.
In fact, I brought nothing but the Lumia 950 XL to all of the product launch events I attended these past few weeks, so if you want to know how well the device does in sketchy lighting, you can head on through my announcement and hands-on posts on the OPPO F1 and Samsung Galaxy A series.
The flash is great too, and the rich capture mode that lets you adjust how much flash you want to use in post-processing is awesome. Many photography enthusiasts will also be happy to know that the Lumia 950 XL retains the full manual controls (except aperture) and RAW shooting capability of Lumias past, in that nifty slider wheel UI.
If I had one complaint, it would be that the auto white balance (AWB) on the Lumia 950 XL was incredibly hit or miss. You could take two pictures of the exact same spot with the same lighting conditions and could end up with two images of a completely different colour temperature.
But, that’s not enough to pull focus from just how awesome this 20MP PureView snapper is. If you’d like to see more of the Lumia 950 XL’s camera, be sure to check out the gallery on the third page of this review.
Unfortunately, when you pick the device up, you will also notice the abysmal build quality. Plasticky would be one word I’d use to describe it. Cheap would be another. If this phone had cost 1/3 of the asking price for a Lumia 950 XL, I’d still gripe about the build, but it doesn’t and that makes everything so much worse.
The back panel creaks and flexes when pressure is applied, giving you the impression that it isn’t properly fitted. Sure, you could make the argument that it’s a removable back, but the LG G4 has a removable back too and you don’t see that creaking or flexing. And the buttons, they’re sharp — nick-your-finger sharp. I can’t even come up with a way to justify this particular flaw.
But, all of this pales in comparison to the experience you get actually using the Lumia 950 XL. If you’ve ever used an older Windows Phone as your daily driver for any significant amount of time, you’re bound to have run into the infamous “loading” and “resuming” screens (which shall henceforth be known as the plague) that affects almost all Windows Phone devices. It took my little Lumia 625 two months before the first signs of the plague reared its ugly head. The question then, with all that extra horsepower and Windows 10, is: Is the Lumia 950 XL finally free of the plague?
My second day in, switching from Instagram to WhatsApp and boom: Resuming. And it wasn’t a one-off occurrence. It kept happening again and again and again. And don’t even get me started on the apps. If you can ignore the fact that the app store is more barren than a store after Black Friday, and by some miracle manage to find the apps you want, odds are they’re terribly incomplete or still in beta.
Yes, 2 years after I first installed the Instagram app, it’s still in beta. WhatsApp still maintains its terribly space-consuming UI which makes reading group chats a nightmare. Facebook has more bugs in it than a Disney movie. Twitter takes forever to launch and did I mention the Windows Phone Waze doesn’t keep the screen on when you’re using it for navigation? Imagine having the screen switch off at a complicated junction then have to unlock the phone with either a password or Windows Hello (which requires you to stare at the little red light) while on the road.
And the worst part is that this is only the tip of the iceberg. I have been fortunate not to have my games crash on me randomly during testing but even then FPS and performance during gaming is hardly impressive. Plus, the device gets really hot, under any load. Take a bunch of photos and you can start to feel the warmth radiating from the back of the device. Charge it and the phone’s bottom starts heating up. In fact, I left it idle in my bag one day and it randomly started heating up — to the point that I could feel it through my sling pack.
Painful, would be a word I’d use to describe my daily experience with a Windows Phone. So painful that I had to lug around a second Android device just so I wouldn’t miss anything important. While on old devices, the deliberately slow animations didn’t feel like a hindrance, on this one it does. It felt choppy and unresponsive. To make matters worse, the charge speed of this device is abysmal. From dead to 22% charged on the Lumia’s 3,340 mAh battery took a whopping 30 minutes and after an hour on the plug, it was still only at 53%. To contrast, 30 minutes on the plug for the Nexus 6P brings it to 44% and the Nexus has a bigger 3,450 mAh. Both have USB Type-C ports and are running a Snapdragon 810, so what gives?
Despite all the problems with the OS and how much of a nightmare it is to use, there is hope for the Windows Phone platform — Continuum and Windows Hello. We really liked Continuum, when it works that is. We loved the idea of just hooking up your phone to a monitor and keyboard, but when you did that, your app selection was very limited and the phone got ridiculously hot after awhile (charging + usage). Plus the lag when I was writing my story on WordPress, was almost unbearable.
Windows Hello is a cool little alternative to the fingerprint scanner, but even that has its massive oversights. For one, if you were receiving banner notifications — from let’s say WhatsApp — Hello wouldn’t trigger and you would have to wait for all the banners to be done before you can unlock your device. It is fairly accurate, though, as it recognised me at least 7/10 times.
I want to like this phone, I really do, but like many of Microsoft’s products lately, it feels terribly incomplete. The software is just too buggy and we can’t keep giving excuses that it is still in beta or the platform is still new. It isn’t anymore and Microsoft certainly doesn’t market it as a beta product — definitely not with that price tag of RM2,999.
It’s a shame then, that all that good hardware is held back from reaching its full potential because of an OS that seems to be in its infancy despite years and years of development by one of the biggest software companies in the world. It’s sort of like that Lindsey Lohan movie, Freaky Friday, because no matter how much I think about this phone, it feels exactly like a kid trapped in an adult’s body — only this time, there is no happy ending.
Here are some extra shots I took with the Lumia 950 XL. You can click on each image to view the full picture.
Here a bonus selfie to let you get a gauge of how the front 5MP shooter does.
If you’d like to see even more pictures of the device itself, do check out our Lumia 950 XL gallery on Facebook.