Microsoft Lumia 950 review

Following the major launch of Windows 10, Microsoft's first smartphones running the operating system have arrived. Here's our full and in-depth Lumia 950 review. Updated with our video review and on 26 January 2016 with audio tests. See also: Best phones 2015/2016.

It's farewell to Windows Phone going forward as we say hello to the one OS to rule them all. It's simply Windows 10 now so it doesn't matter whether you're using it on a phone or not, this isn't Windows Phone 10. In this review we'll look at what has changed from Windows Phone 8 and what hardware is on offer with the firm's new handsets.

Read: The 10 best Windows Phones 2015.

Microsoft Lumia 950 review: Price and competition

The Lumia 950 is the new flagship smartphone for Windows and Microsoft has decided to undercut rivals with the price. A new phone from a big name normally costs at least £500 but the Lumia 950 is yours for £449 (now £419.99) from Microsoft's store but you can get it for £419 (now around £389.99) from the likes of Amazon and Carphone Warehouse.

This is partly down to the fact that there's a larger version called the Lumia 950 XL which costs £529 (now at £449.99), still a reasonable price considering you currently get a free Display Dock.

While the Lumia 950 undercuts the iPhone and there are few devices at this price, the HTC One A9 springs to mind, there is an issue. Launch prices of big name phones might have been higher than this but launching late in the year mean the Lumia 950's rivals have dropped in price.

It can often be a wise move to simply buy an older phone which is still offering the latest tech. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S6 can be purchased new for under £380 – that's a pretty hefty drop compared to the initial asking price of £599. Also see: Best MiFi 2016.

Microsoft Lumia 950 review

Microsoft Lumia 950 review: Design and build    

You might think that a design refresh is in order for the first Windows 10 phones, but that's not the case at all. In fact, it's far from it with a design which by and large follows on from previous Lumia devices.

The Lumia 950 can be summed up in a word, we think, and that word is plain. The front is almost entirely featureless with a Microsoft logo the main element. There are no navigation buttons below the display with a move to on-screen alternatives.

That move is fine but we're disappointed to find a lower build quality compared to the Lumia 930 which has a metal frame running round the edge and glass which is subtly rounded at the edges which sit perfectly flush with the metal.

Lumia 950 design

What the Lumia 950 provides is a plastic removable rear cover and completely flat glass. Microsoft has even stopped doing brightly coloured models. The overall feel is distinctly mid-range and very much unexciting. A weight of 150g and 8.2mm profile don't do much to help things leaving the one stand out feature as the metal ring around the camera.

Not only does it feel low-grade compared to its predecessor, the same is true of its competitors.

Microsoft Lumia 950 review: Hardware, specs and performance

The best Windows Phone devices could offer previously was Full HD in the screen department but Microsoft has stepped things up a notch with the Lumia 950 (and XL) to Quad HD. A resolution of 2560x1440on a 5.2in display means a pixel density of 564ppi.

That's slightly lower than the Galaxy S6, not that you'll be able to notice the difference. As with previous Lumias, the screen is high quality with great colour reproduction and excellent contrast thanks to the AMOLED ClearBlack panel.

Lumia 950 vs Lumia 950 XL

Inside the Lumia 950 is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor which is hexa-core and found in other phones such as the LG G4. With 3GB of RAM to go with it performance is generally smooth as we've found with most previous Lumias.

Screen transitions are silky and the camera loads quickly after the first time. However, occasional things do take a while presenting those circling dots, even loading elements of the Store and settings menu. We've also found numerous bugs in Windows 10 which we'll talk about in the software section below.

As standard there is 32GB of storage which is double a lot of rivals. That's the only option for the Lumia 950 but there is a Micro-SD card slot which means you can add up to 200GB more. Windows 10 takes up about 5GB of the internal storage.

The removable cover not only gives access to the card slot but also the battery which a lot of users will be pleased to hear is removable. It's 3000mAh in capacity and the Lumia 950 supports both Fast Charging and Qi wireless charging. Microsoft has opted for a Type-C USB port which is reversible and the phone charged from completely dead to 30 percent in 30 minutes.

Lumia 950 camera

Microsoft quotes 10 hours of video playback and we've found battery life to be fairly good. It depends on how you use the phone of course, and we can't compare with our usual figures since Geekbench 3 isn't available on the platform. Lighter users *may* get a couple of days from the Lumia 950 while most will have to charge every night. The combination of charging features means it's easy to keep the phone topped up and you can carry a spare battery around if you wish.

On the connectivity front, the Lumia 950 has a lot of modern features. It offers 11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, GPS and 4G LTE support (Cat 6).

In the past Lumia phones have had some insane cameras such as the 41Mp shooter on the Lumia 1020. The Lumia 950 has a more modest 20Mp camera which is more what we're used to seeing and doesn't require a huge lump on the back to fit it in, just a small one.

We're pleased that Microsoft has kept the physical camera button on the side with only really Sony also offering this extremely handy feature. The camera also features a 1/2.4-inch sensor, f/1.9 aperture and a triple-LED flash. There's also 6-lens optics and optical image stabilisation so there's a lot going for it on the spec sheet.

The camera is by no means the quickest to focus and can take a second or two to get fully locked, however, there's zero shutter lag. You can shoot with Rich Capture on auto which now uses HDR and we like the way shots aren't processed straight away meaning you can keep snapping. There are also optional controls over settings like white balance, ISO, brightness and even shutter speed if you fancy it.

The shots are taken in 16Mp, 16:9 by default and photos are generally quite good. We're not blown away with the results though with rivals including the Galaxy S6 model and Nexus 6P providing better quality across the board. The front facing 5Mp front camera offers a good but hardly above average amount of quality.

Lumia 950 test photo

Video is crisp and clear in terms of detail and the optical image stabilisation means things keep nice a smooth too. The focus, like with stills, can struggle which can ruin a video. You can shoot in up to 4K with 30fps but the default setting is 1080p. An odd problem we encountered with our sample was a weird line across the middle of video during playback on the device which isn't there when viewed on PC. The footage also appears a lot smoother on the phone itself.

Microsoft Lumia 950 review: Audio

Speaker Quality

We found the Lumia 950’s speaker to be decent, where the sound quality was good in its mids and highs reproduction, but was let down by its bass presence. The single backward-firing speaker has a reasonably loud output that scored an 8/10 loudness rating, which produced a louder output than the dual front-facing stereo speakers found on the HTC One M9 that only scored 7.5/10. Also see: Best Sounding Phones of 2016

Despite its phone's speaker placement, we did not find it to hinder its overall volume, as the phone’s rear camera design prevents the speaker from being covered.

Regarding its sound quality we found the speaker’s bass to be a little weak, where the mid-bass lacked impact and control, whilst the sub-bass had no extension. This meant the speaker’s sound had an absence of bass quantity and quality.

On the other hand, its mids and highs are both impressive and well presented. The mids were very clear and weren’t V-shaped, as the mid-bass impact is very subdued. The highs extend well and provide a nice sparkle to the overall speaker’s output.

Finally its soundstage was well reproduced where the Lumia 950 was able to deliver a good tonality and instrument separation.

Internal Sound Quality

The Lumia 950 utilises a SoC (system on chip) design, where the Qualcomm MSM8992 Snapdragon 808 processor has the presumed Qualcomm WCD9330 Audio Codec. The phone was able to deliver a reasonably loud output, where the phone was tested at 75-80 percent, which is the same level we used to test the iPhone 6s. For our in-depth sound comparison article see: Best Sounding Phones of 2016.

Unfortunately, we found the Lumia 950 suffers from crackling issues and small pulse sounds when being used alongside an amplifier (such as one found in a car’s stereo system).

Regarding its sound quality, we found the phone's bass to be good in the mid-bass region, where the phone has a good controlled bass slam. However, we were a little disappointed by its sub-bass capabilities, where the low-end would simply cut-off.

The overall representation of the mids is realistic and accurate sounding, which really complemented the overall sound signature of the phone. Its highs are also well presented with a good extension in the high frequencies and also provide a great sparkle. Despite having good mids and highs, we were a little disappointed by its soundstage, which felt a little closed and thus hindered the phone’s internal audio sound quality. On the plus side we found its instrument separation and decay really impressive.

Microsoft Lumia 950 review: Software and apps

Although this isn't called Window Phone anymore, anyone existing or previous users won't be struggling to get to grips with the user interface.

In fact, it's essentially the same as it was before so you've still got the Start Screen with its rearrangeable tiles, drop down notification bar with quick settings, the vertical app menu and recent apps view (hold back).  

What Windows 10 is all about is Continuum, Windows Hello and Universal Apps.

Continuum is one of the main features here and it sounds odd but is basically the way that Windows 10 makes the most of what ever display it is on. Microsoft is pushing the ability of the Lumia 950 to be used with a monitor.

Lumia 960 Display Dock

This can be done wirelessly but the Microsoft Display Dock is an easier and more reliable method. The little box plugs into the phone with a USB-C cable and has various ports including three USB ports, HDMI and DisplayPort. This means you can easily hook the phone up to a display with a keyboard and mouse and carry on using the phone while it's plugged in.

But can you really use this as a proper PC? Well unfortunately we've not been given a Display Dock with our review sample but we have seen it in action during a briefing with Microsoft. We were impressed but it was a quick demo.

Lumia 950 apps

Universal Apps are essential to the system. The idea is that these apps are the same no matter whether you're using a laptop, PC, tablet or phone. What you see depends on the screen size but using Outlook with the Lumia 950 plugged into a screen looks exactly the same as it does on the Surface Pro 4. You get a proper desktop background, the Start menu and even a PC-like taskbar across the bottom.  A completely different experience to just mirroring your phone on a larger screen.

Other Universal Apps include Maps, Messaging, Word, Excel, and Calendar and there are more coming but this is an issue when it comes to Continuum since only Universal Apps work. Try and open something else and it simply won't happen.

All of this is great, but only really for Windows users who are looking to be productive all the time and don't mind the extra cost of things like the Display Dock. It's all very business and productivity focused from Microsoft's point of view but you can play videos stored on the phone on a larger display and we're told Netflix runs well, too.

While Continuum is a great feature, we're reserving a final verdict on it until we get a Display Dock to try it out properly. This has got to be one of the main reasons to opt for the Lumia 950 so it's a shame it requires various accessories to be used to its full potential.

Windows Hello is simply the ability to log into the device with your face, or more specifically your eyes. While most rivals are going for fingerprint scanners, Microsoft has decided to go down this route. We love using it on the Surface Pro 4 but on the Lumia 950 the feature is still beta and we have found it a little buggy. It's not a killer feature but it is really nice when it works.

In a similar way to Apple's 'reachability' feature, you can hold the Windows key at any point to bring the screen down to the bottom half. This one-handed mode is useful if you find yourself unable to stretch far enough to reach something at the top. We used it mostly for bringing the notification bar down, although the navigation buttons disappear when you do this meaning you just have to wait for it to time out and return to normal.

A similar feature is being able to move the keyboard for one-handed use by long pressing the space key. Windows 10 also features Cortana and things like Glance Screen to get info without unlocking the device.

Lumia 950 Cortana

There is a lot to like about Windows 10 on the Lumia 950, especially if you're a loyal desktop Windows user or are looking to upgrade from an older generation Lumia. At the moment it is still buggy in places with random exits out of apps and typing lag so we hope Microsoft can get that sorted soon.

Then there's the app situation. Microsoft's own apps work great but the fact is developers are still prioritising iOS and Android above Windows. If you just want to use what's already there then you'll have no problems but there are still key omissions from the Store here.

Of course, it depends what apps you use personally, but big names which are missing include Snapchat, Instagram (in Beta), YouView, Amazon Prime Video and plenty of games. Whether the 'app gap' is a problem is a personal thing. For example, if you have a Sonos system, then you won't be able to control it from the Lumia 950. What we can say generally is that the quality is lower than iOS and Android.

Microsoft Lumia 950: Specs

  • Windows 10
  • 5.2in AMOLED ClearBlack display (1440x2560, 564ppi)
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 808, six-core (dual-core ARM Cortex A57 and quad-core A53 with 64-bit support
  • Adreno 418 GPU
  • 3GB RAM
  • 32GB internal storage
  • microSD card slot (up to 200GB)
  • 20Mp rear camera with OIS, f/1.9 and triple LED-flash
  • 5Mp front camera
  • 11ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • NFC
  • 4G LTE
  • 3000mAh removable battery
  • 72 x 145 x 8.2 mm
  • 150g
  • Windows 10
  • 5.2in AMOLED ClearBlack display (1440x2560, 564ppi)
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 808, six-core (dual-core ARM Cortex A57 and quad-core A53 with 64-bit support
  • Adreno 418 GPU
  • 3GB RAM
  • 32GB internal storage
  • microSD card slot (up to 200GB)
  • 20Mp rear camera with OIS, f/1.9 and triple LED-flash
  • 5Mp front camera
  • 11ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • NFC
  • 4G LTE
  • 3000mAh removable battery
  • 72 x 145 x 8.2 mm
  • 150g

OUR VERDICT

Windows 10 has arrived on smartphones and we're not exactly blown away. Loyal Windows and Windows Phone users will appreciate features like Universal Apps and while Continuum appears to be a real wow features, it requires a lot of extra equipment. The OS is buggy, too. The Lumia 950 itself offers some decent hardware, namely the screen, inside an uninspiring design. Unless you're set on the OS, there is a lot better on the market and for less money.

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