Microsoft Lumia 950 XL Review
Interface and Functionality
Although rich in features, this isn't what Windows 10 should be if it wants more users flocking to it.
Technologically, Windows 10 represents a substantial update to the Windows Phone platform. Yet, even with the many new features and tweaks Microsoft has piled up on the platform, the "Windows on a smartphone" experience has barely changed. In fact, from the perspective of an everyday user that doesn't demand advanced settings, services, and device convergence, the change might as well have been for the worse. When it works, Windows 10 is smooth and straightforward, but when it doesn't, it gets ugly.
Unfortunately, our experience with the Lumia 950 XL was peppered with an unhealthy amount of frustration. It took us the better part of an afternoon to merely register a Microsoft account, as the burdensome and confusing procedure kept culminating in nonsensical error messages. More than a few times, we found ourselves tapping non-responsive buttons in vain, held back by menus that refuse to load, tolerating sluggish app installs, and cumbersomely browsing the web with the Edge browser. Initially, we couldn't even try out the fabled iris scanner security feature, as the system stubbornly refused to accept our freshly restored account password. It magically worked the next day, letting us tell you more about this totally cool piece of functionality in the paragraphs ahead.
As tech enthusiasts, we can show some understanding towards Windows 10's work-in-progress state, for Microsoft has set up some ambitious goals for its operating system, and the Lumia 950 XL is a first-generation Windows 10 smartphone. It will take a while before things glue together and rough edges are smoothed out, but even then, Windows 10 still suffers from a disheartening lack of quality applications. Although stock Microsoft services, such as Mobile Office and OneDrive are solid, both the choice and level of polish are low where third-party apps are concerned.
The Lumia 950 XL is one of the two big name smartphones to ship with iris scanner security in 2015. The other is its smaller counterpart, the Lumia 950. Called “Windows Hello”, the feature lets you unlock the smartphone and authorize payments by simply staring at it. The technology uses an IR light on the front panel to light up the unique patterns in your irises, and takes a photo with the front camera. We're pretty fond of the feature's quick and reliable operation, although the working distance is short, and the process takes maybe a second longer than it should. Should the iris scanner fail, you'll need to resort to using the pin code.
Continuum is one of Windows 10 Mobile's unique virtues. Put briefly, it lets you hook up a handset like the Lumia 950 XL to an external display and peripherals, obtaining an experience close to running a desktop version of Windows. There are two ways of using Continuum. The first requires the Display Dock accessory, a little box that lets you connect an external monitor, mouse, keyboard, and other USB peripherals to it. The second way lets you experience Continuum wirelessly with the aid of a Miracast dongle. Between the two, the Display Dock makes for a more responsive experience, as Miracast is prone to lag.
At this stage, Continuum lets you use native Windows apps (including MS Office) and not much else. You can't run two apps side-by-side for some reason, but you can comfortably switch between open ones. Even then, the Lumia 950 XL is no laptop replacement. Fast as it is, the chipset starts to pant as we keep opening tabs of web pages. We also don't think carrying a bunch of cables and accessories with you to a place with a computer screen or TV is more convenient than being on the move with a laptop. But Continuum definitely has its place and we hope Microsoft will attract more developers of Universal Windows apps that run alike on all sorts of smart devices (sans fitness bands and smart watches).
Windows 10 doesn't take full advantage of the Lumia 950 XL's competent spec sheet.
Windows Phone has always been a lightweight operating system, designed to perform swiftly on devices across all price tiers. Windows 10 carries on in the same spirit, but in the Lumia 950 XL's case, the code has a broad hardware dance floor to waltz on. The phablet features the octa-core Snapdragon 810 chipset, paired with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of eMMC flash storage in the base model.
Performance-wise, the Lumia 950 XL is a mixed bag. For example, the phone does a killer job handling PureView's complex photography, which involves lots of post-processing and dealing with large file sizes. But Windows 10 itself feels un-optimized as menus occasionally stutter, the Edge browser is slow to render web pages, and apps refresh unusually often. Moreover, gamers won't be able to give that premium hardware a good run, for the selection of visually intense titles present in the Windows Store pales in comparison with that of competing platforms.