The two Microsoft Lumia 950 flagships are finally here, after what seems like the longest wait in the history of niche mobile phone fandom ever. It’s been since early 2014 since the last Lumia flagship was released in the U.S., even if that was the ill-fated Verizon exclusive Icon. It’s been even longer if you’re on AT&T. Like many stupidly obsessed fans and many blog sites, I picked up my Lumia 950 XL on the day before Thanksgiving, as I’d pre-ordered mine at my local Microsoft mall kiosk.
What’s the first thing I did? Well, open it up of course.
So far, I’d say this is a very nice device. It’s not going to win any design awards, but it packs a ton of technology into a solid package that actually feels pretty nice in the hand. I was worried about the size of the phone, given that I’ve always opted for the >5 inch form factors, but it’s thin enough to fit nicely in my rather small hand and the one-handed mode (activated by a long press on the home key) makes this phone much more comfortable for a notoriously one-handed user.
OMG ITS PLASTIC
Yes, the back of the phone is made out of polycarbonate, which is a fancy way of saying plastic. As with anything design related, that sentence can elicit mild shrugs or vehement objections, but while I love the feel of an aluminum or glass sandwich as much as any smartphone geek, I’ve never been fully convinced that either is the end-all material for phone construction. All materials have to be used intelligently, and both metal and glass normally come with caveats like lessened durability, wireless interference, or a tendency to get hotter easier.
But while plastic can be the most practical material for a smartphone, not all plastics are created equal. I’ve always admired Nokia’s use of high-quality polycarbonates that give Lumias the benefit of plastic but still feel premium. Towards the end of Nokia’s devices group, they experimented with mixing aluminum and polycarbonate to some very interesting effect. Many Lumia fans who are used to a Lumia 925 or a Lumia 930 will lament the return to a full plastic design. But don’t worry, this is good quality plastic. It’s thick, hard, rigid, and yet has a balance matte texture that feels both smooth and slightly textured. It reminds me of a softer and obviously more plastic-like sandstone.
As I said in the unboxing, it does feel quite similar to the Lumia 635’s back, but after a few days in the hand, I have to say it feels a bit better. I do feel that the Lumia 635’s plastic gets a bad rap for being on such a cheap device, but that plastic did seem to wear over time and attract some dye bleeding from pants pockets. So this phone is showing no signs of that, despite being tightly bound within my jeans pockets. The Lumia 640 is a much different beast. The plastic on that phone is smoother, less textured, and feels less substantial than the 950 XL, and I’ve always felt that the Lumia 640 felt a bit cheaper than previous low cost Lumias. The Lumia 950 XL’s plastic back feels more premium and more substantial than both of them, and that is a very good thing.
But there is one other benefit to going to an all-plastic design. Expandability. You can remove the back cover, pop out and replace the battery and add a MicroSD card. Neither of these were possible with the polycarbonate/aluminum hybrid devices from the former Nokia team.
Microsoft took this a bit further by partnering with Mozo to create replaceable back covers for the Lumia 950 and 950 XL. This is not new in any sense of the phrase, as Nokia typically sold their own replacement covers on previous Lumia’s, and both Motorola and LG offer similar options as well. But what impressed me with Microsoft’s implementation is how very little of the look and feel of the phone is left when you take off the back cover.
And that was a lot of nothing. Even the darn buttons are replaceable. By replacing the back cover you can completely change the look and feel of the phone, which makes this one of the most endlessly customizable phones out there. The only problem I see is that this will absolutely be a niche phone, so it’s not clear that anyone other than Mozo will create backs, and that Mozo would even create anything other than the leather back / faux metal trim covers they sell now.
Yes, this is a niche device, geared towards Windows Phone fans who want the cutting edge and geared as an early recruitment tool to try to get businesses interested in Continuum. $650 is a pretty high price to pay for any non-apple device, but Microsoft’s strategy with this device is presumably to make money on each and every one so that they can justify building more of them. One of my strategies with the upcoming review is to assess whether the price is justified. So far, my initial impression is that it is, but we’ll see.
I don’t know why Microsoft decided to create two different button configurations for their flagships. The button layout should be (top to bottom) Volume Rocker, Power Button, Camera Button. That’s how it is on the Lumia 950. But on its bigger cousin, Microsoft decided to split up the volume rocker between the power button. Over the last few days, I’ve been getting used to it, but I also don’t find any benefit to this configuration.
If I need to fumble for a volume down button in my pocket, it seems to take me twice as long to feel the buttons out before I find it.
That said, the buttons themselves are great. They’re metal, are super clicky, and feel great. I’ve gotten used to squishy, mushy, shallow buttons, but coming back to great buttons like this is like coming home. Maybe I’m a button and keyboard nerd, but I love a good clicky button. I’m curious as to how the buttons on the Mozo backs are, because Microsoft nails these ones.
Windows Hello Works Quite Well
Once again, this is just an initial opinion, but I’ve been finding myself surprisingly okay with using Windows Hello. It’s fairly quick as long as you set it up right. You do want to have the phone scan your eyes in several positions and under several lighting conditions (the software allows this and suggests it), but once you do, sign ins are quick and painless.
If you happen to be in a position where it’s kinda hard for the phone to scan your iris, like if you have it on a desk or if you’re in your car, you can still swipe up and enter a pin code. No big deal.
That said, the giant red light and over-enthusiastic attempts to get you to stick your phone in your face whenever you hit the power button to check your lock screen settings can be a bit annoying. You can always disable Hello, but I’ll be curious to find out if I end up keeping it on or turning it off by the time the review hits.
Other Initial Thoughts
- Battery life is looking good so far. I recently got 16 hours of use with streaming podcasts for most of 8 hours, occasional bathroom gaming, reading new articles at breaks, and popping on the mobile hotspot for a couple of hours, and still had about 20%.
- Of course performance is great. The Snapdragon 810 + 3GB of RAM is more than Windows Mobile 10 needs, and so the interface and games all fly along with no problems.
- The 5.7″ 2K OLED screen is friggin gorgeous, and yes, I’ve drooled over the displays in the latest Galaxys’. Unlike Samsung’s devices, the default color profile appears to favor natural colors over highly saturated warm colors. I like the natural colors, but the “vivid” setting looks a bit too over-saturated for my tastes.
- Yes, it has wireless charging, fast charging, and it’s USB-C connector supports all the things like mice, keyboards, flash drive, external HDDs, etc.
- Yay, the return of the Glance Screen on a flagship device!
- Also, the camera is fast. Hitting the camera button will instantly pop up the camera app, and then hitting it again will instantly take a picture. Post-processing is done once you decide to pull up the image after taking it.
- It’s camera, so far, is great. Here are a few shots I’ve taken recently, but there will be a more thorough spread later.
It Almost Has All the Things
Double-tap to wake is not on this phone. Why? Why the heck? Nokia pioneered the feature and now that Android has picked it up, now Microsoft gets rid of it?
But there might be light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no indication yet that this feature is not supported by the hardware. I suspect that the feature’s lack is due to some sort of driver issue with Windows Mobile 10 that can be resolved in the future. We can only hope that Microsoft will add this feature later on.
But once again, this is only a brief look at my first impressions of the phone. I’m quite happy with the device so far, but this is the honeymoon stage, after all. I’m in no way ready offer any recommendations yet. But then again, the audience of this phone will know whether they are buying it or not. Yet for those who want to know a bit more, keep an eye out for my full review in a couple of weeks.