Microsoft Lumia 950 XL Review: The Windows 10 Mobile Flagship

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The Software And Experience

The Lumia 950 XL's software and OS is perhaps more important than the hardware to some people. Many companies offer smartphones built around Qualcomm hardware that feature high-quality screens and premium materials, but they vast majority of them do not run Windows 10 Mobile. The mobile edition of Windows 10 is much like the desktop edition, with similar live tiles, the same control panel menus, and a nearly identical design language throughout. All of the usual niceties of a smartphone are also represented here, like a notification shade, simple status icons, and quick access to the camera, but despite the mobile-first configuration of the OS there is clear continuity between Windows 10 on Microsoft's latest Lumia devices and desktops.

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Windows 10 Mobile should also feel familiar to the few Windows 8.1 Mobile users, because the Windows 10 Mobile user experience is somewhat similar. The Start and Lock screens are virtually identical, though Microsoft did tweak numerous things to better take advantage of high resolution and high DPI displays like the one in the 950 XL. There is much more information density with Windows 10 Mobile, especially if you enable the feature that allows additional live tiles to be present on the start screen. And logging in with Windows Hello is also available. Windows Hello uses the device's camera and infrared sensors to detect your face / eyes and log you in biometrically. Windows Hello is a pretty fantastic feature that's highly reliable, accurate, and fast.

The back, home, and search button functionality is similar to previous versions of Windows on mobile devices, and all of the things that make the platform different from iOS and Android – Live tiles, sliding app menu, etc. are accounted for. One big change over previous-gen devices is that there are no physical Windows, back-arrow, and search buttons. On the Lumia 950 XL, those buttons appear on-screen, at the bottom, and slide down when not in use (much in the same way you can hide the taskbar in Windows on desktop systems). Swiping up from the bottom will bring the buttons back on-screen.

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The consequences of the move to Windows 10 Mobile and Microsoft’s new Universal App vision are still playing out in the Windows 10 app store. It’s common knowledge that there is a huge “app gap” between Windows 10 Mobile and iOS and Android. But recently many apps that used to be in the store have been removed, either because they’ve been abandoned or because they haven’t been updated for properly compatibility with Windows 10. With that said, the situation is improving daily – one of my go-to apps (TeamViewer) originally wasn’t available on Windows 10 Mobile, but has since arrived, for example. We've found that many apps that have been updated, however, are still in need of major fixes. The Facebook app in particular is absolutely horrible. The latest updates make it aesthetically much more pleasing, but it's botches posts, doesn't always show notifications, and it consistently shows old and outdated posts. It is also slow as molasses.

However, with hundreds of millions of devices capable of running universal apps for Windows 10, we expect many more applications will come to the platform over time. As it stands today, most of the most common multimedia and social networking apps are available – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, are all here. And it’s the same for Netflix, Hulu, and the like. If an app isn't available, we've found that the Edge mobile browser is a perfectly serviceable alternative. Going back to the Facebook example, ditching the app for the mobile site has been pretty eye-opening -- we actually prefer the mobile site.

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Users who look to their phones for productivity will probably be most interested in the Office integration on the Lumia 950 XL. Outlook is an excellent mobile email client in our opinion, that handles multiple in-boxes with aplomb. And all of the Office applications many of you likely use daily will be immediately familiar. Excel, Word, and PowerPoint function exactly as you’d expect them to. Connect a keyboard, mouse and monitor to the phone and use Continuum – which essentially mimics a desktop Windows 10 experience – and you’ll be hard pressed to tell mobile Office apart from its desktop counterparts if you're not using some of desktop edition's more advanced functions.

windows phone edge 1 windows phone apps 1

Browsing on the Lumia 950 XL is excellent too. The Edge browser is fast and responsive, and has consistently improved as Microsoft has rolled out updates. Between the faster hardware in the XL (versus the 950), its large screen and updates to the Windows 10 Mobile and Edge that have enhanced compatibility and performance, browsing on the XL is quite a pleasurable experience versus other mobile devices.

Generally speaking, fans of Windows Mobile will mostly likely appreciate the Lumia 950 XL. Everything you expect from the platform is represented, backed by plenty of RAM and powerful smartphone hardware. Users coming from iOS and Android, however, will find the experience jarring. As a former Android user, I can personally attest that the switch can be worthwhile, but there will undoubtedly be a significant learning curve.

continuum desktop
The Windows 10 Mobile Desktop Using Continuum

If you’re looking to Windows 10 Mobile for productivity purposes, Continuum will probably be of interest as well. With Continuum, the Lumia 950 XL can be connected to a display dock, and then to standard desktop displays and input devices to mimic Windows 10 on desktops. In our experience, Continuum is pretty powerful. Check out this video to see it in action...

When the Lumia 950 XL is connected to its companion (optional) display dock, the OS snaps into a different mode and behaves like Windows 10 on desktops. The phone can be used as it normally would while leveraging Continuum, though – the technology uses the secondary display output capabilities of the Snapdragon SoC – or alternatively the phone’s screen can be used as a touch-pad. If you use OneDrive to save your files to the cloud, and your workday consists of using Office and Outlook most of the time, a Lumia 950 XL and a display dock could conceivably replace a desktop system / tablet for some folks. You won’t have the horsepower of an actual computer for more demanding tasks, but typical office-type productivity work is absolutely possible.

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