Microsoft
By Lisa Eadicicco
November 20, 2015

 

The good: Easily connects to monitor, mouse, and keyboard; Excellent camera, Good battery life
The bad: Limited selection of apps; Fairly basic design
Who should buy it: Windows fans that primarily use their phone for productivity
The bottom line: The Lumia 950 is a nice phone that can act as a full PC when you need it to, but the app selection on Windows is still limited.

Today, we use our smartphones for nearly everything, from checking work emails to texting, playing games, and snapping photos. With Microsoft’s latest smartphone, the Lumia 950, the company is banking on the idea that a smartphone can be the only computer you need.

The Lumia 950’s new Continuum feature allows you to plug the phone into a dock to connect it to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, enabling an experience similar to what you’d get from a desktop computer. It’s also the first smartphone to run on Windows 10, Microsoft’s latest version of its operating system.

The Lumia 950 has many of the attributes you’d expect from a high-end smartphone: a sharp camera, a nice screen, plenty of power, and good battery life. There is one big problem, however. If you’re buying a new smartphone, chances are high you’re going to want to download plenty of apps. Microsoft’s app store is still playing catch up to iOS and Android in terms of selection, which can be a deal breaker for some buyers.

Here’s a closer look at what it’s like to use Microsoft’s latest smartphone, which launches Friday. It’s available through AT&T for $150 on a two-year contract, or for about $600 contract-free.

How it looks and feels

The Lumia 950 comes with a 5.2-inch screen, which makes it slightly larger than the iPhone 6s and about the same size as the Samsung Galaxy S6. There’s nothing particularly special about the phone’s design, but it feels well-built. The back of the phone is made of polycarbonate, which feels sturdy but isn’t quite as elegant as the aluminum on the iPhone or the glass back on Samsung’s newest Galaxy phones.

The phone’s 2,560 x 1,440 resolution screen is sharp and colorful, but it’s dimmer than the latest iPhone’s display.

Using it

Since the Lumia 950 runs on Windows 10, it arranges apps and shortcuts in a tiled interface on the home screen just like the desktop version. A quick swipe to the right will reveal all of the apps on your phone, which are arranged in a neat list in alphabetical order. It’s a departure from the app icon grid layout from Android and iOS, which is a refreshing change.

The biggest new feature to launch with the Lumia 950 is Continuum — the feature that allows you to use your phone as a PC. The feature worked almost instantly when I hooked up my phone to the tiny dock and paired it with a mouse and keyboard via Bluetooth. To be clear, the monitor won’t just mirror what’s on your phone’s screen. Rather, it knows to open your apps in desktop mode, since it can tell you’re using the device on a bigger screen. Continuum works just like a PC once it’s set up, and the Lumia packs enough processing power to handle running desktop apps like Microsoft Word, Excel, and the new Edge Internet browser with no lag.

It’s feature that sets the Lumia apart from its competitors, and it works well. One issue, though, is that some apps aren’t compatible with Continuum just yet. I was able to use Microsoft’s suite of Office programs, but I couldn’t launch the Facebook app on the 42-inch TV I had connected my phone to.

For a device that claims to be the only computer you need, strong battery life is essential. Thankfully, the Lumia 950 is well-equipped on that front — it lasted for about a full day’s worth of use after running Continuum and using the phone casually throughout a single workday. The back panel is also removable, which means you can pack in a backup battery if necessary.

Like many 2015 flagship phones, the Lumia 950 allows you to log into your device without typing in a passcode. The difference, however, is that Microsoft’s phone does this by looking into your eyes rather than requiring you to hold your finger over a sensor. The feature is called Windows Hello, and it feels accurate, fast, and futuristic. It uses the phone’s front-facing camera to quickly scan your eyes in order to verify your identity. It’s not perfect, however. The phone needs to be held directly in front of your face for it to correctly identify you. That means you have to press the button along the side of the phone to wake up the display and then make sure the front camera is at eye level for it to work. It’s a quick way to unlock your phone in most cases, but it doesn’t feel quite as seamless as unlocking your device with a single touch of the home button.

The Lumia 950 is an ample device in many ways, but there’s one hurdle stopping me from making the switch to a Windows smartphone. Because not many people are using Windows phones, app makers generally take longer to create versions of their software that runs on them. The situation has improved over the past several years, as popular apps like Facebook, Instagram, Uber and more now have a presence in the Windows Store. But many beloved apps, like Snapchat, Tinder and Seamless, are nowhere to be found.

The camera

The Lumia 950’s 20-megapixel camera captures images that are colorful, vibrant, and clear. When I tested it against the iPhone 6s and the Galaxy S6 Edge+, it produced the best photos of the bunch in most cases. In a dimly lit room, the 950 was able to capture more detail than its competitors. The trade-off is that the Lumia’s photos were less bright than those taken on the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ and the iPhone 6s. In a naturally lit setting, the Lumia yielded bolder colors that were true to the scene.

Take a look at the images below. You’ll notice the photo shot on Samsung’s phone is fairly well-lit considering it was shot in a dark room, but it’s not as detailed as the Lumia’s. The iPhone’s photo is also fuzzier than the other two images in the set.

Lumia 950

Lisa Eadicicco

iPhone 6s

Lisa Eadicicco

Galaxy S6 Edge+

Lisa Eadicicco

Now here’s an image taken outside. Take a look at the center of the photos where the Radio City Music Hall sign is located. You’ll notice the red is brighter and bolder in the Lumia’s photo versus the other two. That area in the photo looks a bit washed out in Samsung’s photo.

Lumia 950

Lisa Eadicicco

iPhone 6s

Lisa Eadicicco

Galaxy S6 Edge+

Lisa Eadicicco

Final thoughts

The Lumia 950 is an excellent phone that can also work as a PC when you need it. A big problem, however, is the lack of apps. And just because the Lumia 950 is capable of being the only computer I need doesn’t mean I want it to be yet. Despite how well the hardware works, there are still plenty of apps I enjoy using on my phone that simply aren’t available on Windows 10.

That being said, the Lumia 950 is a powerful machine, and the fact that it manages to work well as a smartphone and as a desktop computer is downright impressive. Indeed, it’s a testament to how powerful and useful smartphones have now become.

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