Review: Microsoft Lumia 950 XL – well-priced, but a little rough around the edges

Microsoft's oversized flagship comes with some not-insignificant issues

The Lumia 950 XL, and its smaller sibling, the 950, are Microsoft’s first Windows 10 phones since it bought Nokia’s devices handset in April 2014 for some $7.9bn. That was widely considered to be a disaster for Microsoft, which earlier this year admitted it was writing down $7.6bn relating to its purchase of the Finnish business. It makes slightly more sense if you (generously) look at the deal as a strategy move: under its newish CEO, Satya Nadella, Microsoft has been bustling into the software-as-a-service space and doing things like making versions of Office available for every single platform (yep, even Blackberry and Amazon’s Android Fire devices).

So one way to look at the Lumia is as a showcase for its software and a reference device for other mobile phone makers. The latter strategy has worked well for Microsoft with its Surface tablet/hybrids, as other PC makers have come up with some great twists on that format.

But it’s the phone itself that counts, not the bigger strategy. Does it deliver? Here’s our Lumia 950 XL review.

The handset

  • Available in black and white with removable back panel
  • 151.9 x 74.8 x 8.1mm
  • 165g

To be honest, the XL’s looks are unexceptional, and it doesn’t feel like a high-end device. It comes with a standard plastic removable back, and it’s a bit lighter than the Nexus 6P and the iPhone 6 Plus. It feels like the Wileyfox Storm, the other 5.7in handset I’ve been using off and on for a few weeks. Neither of those feel big to me, but then my main phone is the 6in Lumia 1520, which is a beast at 209g.

The 950XL (left) next to the Wileyfox Storm (right)

It’s got four silver hardware buttons on the right-hand edge, and the camera bump doesn’t stick out too much. You can buy various removable backs for it – I saw one with a brown leather back that didn’t particularly float my boat, but YMMV. Mozo sells nine, five of which have a flip leaf to protect the camera. At up to €60 (about £44) a pop, they’re not must-haves.

There are three software function keys: back, Start and search, which pop up when you need them, or which you can invoke with a quick swipe up from the bottom.

One thing I really like about the 950 XL is that a long press on the camera button bounces the camera to life pretty much instantly: you don’t have to go through the faff of unlocking the phone and launching the app, which means you’re less likely to miss shots.

The charging port is on the bottom. It’s a new USB type-C port, which is good because it ends fumbling about when tired and emotional trying to get the charger the right way up, but annoying because – as with the OnePlus Two – it means all your previous mini-USB chargers are now redundant, and you’ll have to take your own charger out with you. No more relying on being able to plug it in at a friend’s house. On the upside, as well as a charger, Microsoft also includes a separate USB Type-C cable in the box.

The speakers

There’s a single speaker on the back, next to the camera bump. It’s fine, if a bit tinny, with tracks I’d ripped myself from CDs at a reasonable bitrate, but less good with streaming audio from my OneDrive account. My tracks weren’t loud enough to compete with noisy drunk friends, but it’s fine if you’re just pottering about at home. Note: this phone is too big to pull the nifty trick of sticking it in an empty glass to amplify the music. And don’t forget to lie it on its front: it sounds noticeably worse if you forget and play music while it’s on its back.

The screen

  • 5.7in AMOLED with Gorilla Glass 4
  • 2560 x 1440 (518 pixels per inch), 24-bit 16/M TrueColor

It’s a great screen – bright, vivid and razor-sharp. One of the things I really like about Windows on a mobile is that you can cram a lot of information on the home screen, thanks to the super-high resolution and the ability to set it to show more tiles in the Settings. You can also set it to be more visible in bright conditions, though that does hammer the battery. It’s a glossy screen, but no more so than other devices. You can also adjust the colour balance and saturation to your taste.

I had no issues with the touchscreen, either: it’s responsive and accurate. One neat trick if you find it too big to navigate comfortably is to hold down the Start button. That drops the display halfway down so you can reach the top of the window one-handed.

The hardware

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core (4x 1.5GHz & 4x 2GHz)
  • 3GB RAM
  • 32GB storage
  • Iris recognition
  • MicroSD slot

There’s only one version of the XL, which costs £529 unlocked, though if you order through the Microsoft Store before the end of February, they’ll throw in a free Display Dock (subject to availability) worth £79.99 (more on that later).

32GB is pretty standard for a smartphone these days, but one huge bonus is that you can stick a microSD card into the XL – it supports up to 200GB.

One neat trick if you use it with a Microsoft Band 2 it can tell if you’re walking uphill or even up stairs rather than flat, and adjust its records accordingly. I’m not a Quantified Self freak, and I don’t have a Band or any other device like that, so I can’t tell you if that’s any actual good, but it’s handy to know.

There’s also an iris-recognition sensor, which should in theory do away with the need to enter a PIN. That said, I found it rather flaky, especially in low light: I ended up entering my PIN rather more than I expected to. When it works, though, it’s great – it recognises me with or without glasses, and with or without makeup.

There’s one consequence of all that processing, though: this phone runs warm. Sometimes very warm – and the battery life falls far short of Microsoft’s promises. More on that shortly.

The software

  • Windows 10 with Cortana

Windows 10 on phones will eventually be very good. I’m a longtime Windows Phone user – I’ve been using it since it was Windows CE, so I’ve watched it evolve over more than a decade. I love the Live Tiles: you can pin any app to your homescreen, as well as individual contact cards, for quick access, and they deliver a lot of useful information at a glance. Swipe right from the home screen and all your apps are listed in alphabetical order, and you can search alphabetically from there, too.

The phone also includes surprisingly usable versions of Word, Powerpoint, Outlook and Excel – they’re certainly good enough to knock out a draft of something for work, though you can’t track changes. And be warned that from March, you’ll need a subscription to Office365 if you want to edit documents in Continuum.

Cortana, the virtual assistant, is lots of fun: not only is she great at finding contextual information (“supermarkets near me”, for example), she’s also got a sense of humour. Ask her if she’s got a boyfriend, or what she thinks of Siri, or ask her to set phasers to stun.

Continuum, which leverages the fact that Windows 10 on the phone is the same codebase as the desktop OS, is also in theory brilliant: plug the phone into the Display Dock (or an HDMI adapter), add a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and you can use as you would a desktop PC. That said, by the time you’ve added all the extra bits to your bag, you might consider that it’s actually easier just to take your laptop.

However, the caveat: it’s very rough around the edges. For instance, there are some weird keyboard bugs: swipe typing doesn’t work in some third-party apps, and, annoyingly, it doesn’t work in the Store for me. I also hit a weird bug the other day that shrank the keyboard in vertical mode; I haven’t been able to get it back since.

The main camera

  • 20MP
  • Optical image stabilisation
  • Triple-LED RGB flash

The included camera app is great – it gives you loads of control over exposure, focus, white balance and ISO, and it also shoots RAW should you wish to import your pics into something like Photoshop for editing.

The main camera is unequivocally brilliant. Microsoft has inherited the excellent PureView technology from Nokia, and that’s been delivering amazing cameras since Nokias were still running Symbian. I didn’t use the Natural Flash as, like all the Lumias, this performs particularly well in low light as it’s stabilised by the gyroscope, which corrects for wobbly (pissed) hands in low light, thus reducing camera shake.

Lumia 950 XL camera samples

The 950XL handles most challenging low-light situations very well: there’s no need for the flash

The selfie camera

  • 5MP

Selfies taken with the front camera are really surprisingly good, if a little soft when blown up:

The Lumia also captures Living Images, ie snaps with a tiny bit of movement in them (as Apple introduced on the iPhone 6S to inexplicable applause). Note, iPhone fans: Nokia was doing this way before Apple proclaimed their “innovation”. I think they’re a bit of a gimmick, and they’re hard to share, but it is quite fun to watch your friends double-take at them.

Battery life

  • 3340mAh
  • Removable (!)
  • Qi wireless charging, fast charging

Microsoft claims that the 3340mAh battery will last up to 12 days in standby, and up to 19 hours on 3G. It’s possible I had a dodgy device, but under pretty light use and on 4G, it was hopeless – and warm. More than once over the few weeks I had it, I took it out, fully charged, in the early evening, and it was on Battery Saver by the time I got home, or even dead if I’d been out for a big, long night. That was just using it to take pictures, and not even with the flash.

That’s a huge problem. On the upside, the battery is removable (yay!), and to be fair, I think it’s a problem with Windows 10 rather than the device: I upgraded my Lumia 1020 which had previously been pretty good with battery life, and found that it too had horrible battery life running Windows 10.

I’ve seen widely different reports of the battery life: many reviews said it was very respectable, but some forum posts from real, actual early adopters report the same issues as me. I really hope Microsoft fixes this soon.

UK pricing and availability

You can buy the 950 XL unlocked via the Microsoft Store for £529.99, and if you order soon, Microsoft will throw in a free three-month subscription to The Economist and a Display Dock, which otherwise costs £79.99. It’s also available from suppliers including Carphone Warehouse and Clove.

Gadgette’s verdict

Would we recommend the Lumia 950 XL? Yes, with caveats: the OS feels rough at times, and if you’re wrapped in the warm embrace of Google’s services, this isn’t the phone for you: the Google apps simply aren’t there.

There’s no YouTube, Drive or Google Maps. You can set up a Gmail account in the bundled Outlook, and the included Maps app is great, but a lot of websites rely on Google Maps, which barely work in Edge, Microsoft’s browser. That said, that’s because Google won’t develop for the WP platform, rather than Microsoft’s fault.

I haven’t found the “app gap” a particular problem – I don’t use Gmail or Drive, and most other apps are there now, as well as good third-party apps for Instagram and Tinder. Windows unified apps – all built on the same codebase as the desktop and Xbox – should help close that, and Microsoft has an on-again, off-again project for developers to make porting iOS and Android apps straightforward, which should also help.

If you’re coming from iOS or Android, there’s a bit of a learning curve, though I don’t think that’s insurmountable. That said, I use all three OSs regularly and I’m used to switching between them. It is a great phone for work, thanks to Word, PowerPoint and Excel, and if your work is based on Microsoft enterprise offerings, your IT department will love you.

There’s no equivalent of Apple Pay or Android Pay, though the phone does have NFC. This isn’t a dealbreaker for me, but it might be for others.

The hardware inside the slightly disappointing case is great, especially the camera, but I’ve found the battery life a problem. It’s fast and smooth in operation – there’s no lag anywhere. I like it a lot; I’ll like it even more when the OS has been polished.

Overall, the Lumia 950 XL is definitely worth considering if you’re in the market for a decently priced, high-spec smartphone.

Main image and press images – Microsoft. All other images – Kate Bevan.