Updated: April 12, 2017
I'm a living paradox. I'm a Linux guy, and yet I love Windows Phone. I find the combo of its simple, square, OCD-friendly aesthetics, decent performance, and excellent offline software perfectly suited for my needs. Indeed, I began the journey with Nokia Lumia 520, which I still actively use, continued with Microsoft Lumia 535, and recently also tested the sweet value-for-money Lumia 640 model, which was a loan from a friend.
Now, with the 40% discount on the latest Lumia models, and the stock going out of stock fast, I thought it would be a good idea to put my hands on the flagship item and buy myself one. Hence, this almost impulsive holiday purchase, and this review.
Microsoft Lumia 950 is a very impressive piece of hardware. It does not have that Titanium feel of old Nokias, but it's sturdy and solid enough. The back piece is removable, which is always a nice thing, as you can replace the battery pack if you need to, plus is may detach when you drop the phone and reduce the impact damage. That's the one part that feels a little flimsy. The buttons have a nice, firm response.
From the purely hardware side of things, you get a handful of goodies. This 150g phone comes with a Snapdragon 808 processor, with six cores, 4 clocked at 1.4 GHz (A53) and two clocked at 1.8 GHz (A57). The graphics unit is Adreno 418, and there's 3 GB of RAM inside. The internal storage measures 32 GB, but you can also add an SD card up to 256 GB. This is a proper little laptop, if you think about. Except it's not.
The camera is very cool, f/1.9, 26mm PureView thingie with Carl Zeiss optics, but then, let's not spoil it, we will talk about it separately, later in the review. It's a lovely thing, and one of the chief reasons I selected this phone. You can record 4K video at 30 FPS, and the front camera is good for 5MP mugshots. Of course, you want to be able to appreciate some of what you just captured, so you get a nice, shiny 1440x2560px multi-touch screen, with 564ppi density, 5.2 inches across.
You get a load of sensors, too. There's dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, multiple GPS, NFC, barometer, proximity, compass, and even an Iris scanner. And yes, it has a 3.5mm jack, yay! Power comes through a reversible Type-C USB connector. Enough about specs for one review. Let's dive into some of the functionality. Let us capture the experience. Or something.
This was a very pleasant experience. Since I've already been using a Windows Phone and had an online backup, I was able to easily restore my account. Everything was in order, including my applications settings, new applications, contacts, and whatnot. Even the home screen layout was preserved in its Lumia 520 two-column setup better suited for a smaller device with a lower resolution. The system also configured my ring tone correctly, and that meant importing my silly collection of MP3 files. OneNote documents were also correctly carried over. A few pictures, Wireless access points, all of it. Neat.
The tool did not restore HERE Maps, but this is probably because the software has been discontinued on Windows 10, and I had to use the new Maps tool and download the offline maps fresh. Not a big deal, but it's interesting.
However, I do need to mention there's a bit of setup before you get to the account import step. You are asked all sorts of things, and if you go with the express settings, your device will be configured for max. exposure. You can instead go for the manual configuration, and disable a lot of online stuff. Fully customizable. Nice.
I let the phone do its share of downloads, and soon enough, I had some brand new firmware installed. You are asked to schedule a reboot. This makes perfect sense on a phone, which is a stateless device, or at the very least, your work is saved online. But this is such a stupid concept on the desktop. Just shows you should not try to marry alien concepts. Instead of a majestic hybrid beast that roams the universe, you get something with extra chromosomes for interstellar propulsion.
Store & Apps
This is an interesting one. Things worked just fine, but then you never quite forget that there's a significant shortage of apps in the Windows Store compared to its main rivals. Is this a big problem? Well, for some, yes. But if you are okay with a smaller selection, you should be okay. For me, offline navigation is an important piece, and maybe a few other apps. You can always use mobile sites, and Edge has better compatibility than Internet Explorer. Still.
This is, and will remain the weak side of the Windows Phone offering for the foreseeable future, at least until we get the new universal whatever thingie, or perhaps x86 support. For instance, you won't have turn-by-turn navigation in Google Maps, don't expect too many choices when it comes to music and media players, and if you want a little icon for pretty much any action out there, you won't find it. That said, the default grab of what Lumia 950 provides is reasonable.
The available Microsoft and Lumia applications are of very decent quality, simple to use, clear and practical. You will also find an odd gem or two, and most of the large airlines and transportation services have their presence in the Store. WhatsApp works fairly well, but then, this is like marveling at Linux for doing things that should be obvious, and the same rules apply here. You will be happy to find software you want rather than be unhappy for not finding all the rest. Not sure which approach is better.
Maps & offline navigation
The new navigation software is decent if not as perfect as HERE. It's the same engine underneath, but the implementation is ever so slightly different. The software works well in the offline mode, but it might not always be fully accurate, especially when the signal is shielded by buildings and you're on foot. Still, it does the job 90% of the way. The search functionality is good, saving favorites a bit odd, and you have tabs, so you can keep multiple routes open at the same time. Can be useful. Overall, sweet.
I am very pleased, especially if you consider the ordeal I had to suffer with the iPhone in trying to copy music and video files and never quite succeeding. Please do note I am telling you this as a Microsoft and Apple shareholder, so consider me entitled. To get the music onto the Lumia 950, just copy files through a file manager. Anyway, I did this on Fedora 25, and no problem whatsoever.
When I launched Groove, it automatically detected the new stuff, and I was able to play my songs without any problem. You can also continue streaming with the screen locked. The video playback was also good. I tried 1080p MP4, and it was splendid. Windows Phone has improved since the 8.X days, as I used to have some trouble with media in the past. But this seems to have been rectified, and the new Lumia + Windows 10 offers a seamless experience. Tiny visual niggles here and there, but nothing major.
One of the really cool things about Lumia 950 is the camera. While I do have my own gadgets for proper work when needed, the likes of car reviews and such, having a nice, high-quality camera on a phone can be quite handy when you're not in the mood to lug glass and heavy metal around. Recently, I have been using the iPhone 6 as my choice for portable opportunism, and it serves that mission quite well. But then, I have always liked what Lumias 1020 and 1520 could do. And 950 does come with a PureView camera and Carl Zeiss optics.
I'm not a pro photographer, so I will not bore you with the finer details about things like aperture, chromatic aberrations and such. For that, you can read this most detailed dpreview article. But let me tell you what I did test and find interesting.
The rear camera is fast, and it responds quickly to inputs. The photos all look sharp, even under direct sunlight, with little to no glare. The colors can look washed out sometimes, but overall, you do get a fairly natural feel. You can also record 1080p and 4K video if you are so inclined. There's also 720p/120FPS slow-mo for showing off. Video testing yet to come.
I also tested 8MP versus 16MP (19MP is available for 4:3 ratio) functionality, to see whether this makes any difference, not just in the final size but also the quality of the created images, including when fully zoomed in. It seems the only benefit of bigger pictures is more pixels, for what it's worth. On a 1:1 pixel level, 'tis the same.
When I started using the phone, there was no Panorama function, and the photos thumb preview was a round little thing in the top right corner. A new update now offers photos with a more WP-natural square thumb in the bottom left corner, and you do get the Panorama functionality. There are still a lot of old Nokia apps and filters missing, but then Microsoft may re-introduce them as new features, thus showcasing innovation and activity in the best fashion of the Ministry of Administrative Affairs, as given to us mere mortals through the divine TV show Yes, (Prime) Minister.
All nonsense aside, I do very, very much like the camera, and I think it's a suitable replacement, alternative and whatnot to my iPhone escapism. I actually compared the two, just to see what gives. Lumia 950 has a wider angle, so from the same distance, it captures more. It also seems to generate less halo and the background is more visible in bright light conditions, so this probably has to do with sensor saturation and possibly the whole multi-focal-point thingie, I have no idea what I'm talking about. But I like the Windows Phone results more.
So yes, I think Lumia 950 is a better choice for me, especially since I will mostly be using the camera outdoors, in decent light. All that said, iPhone 6 still has excellent optics, and its app is fairly pleasant to operate and use. It also feels more tactile, although the Windows camera is now more natural after the recent update, but it still responds too fast, so you might not be sure if you actually took the picture. Now, iPhone gives you more of a sense of drama that you're actually using the camera. Moreover, if you delete photos on the iPhone, they go into a dedicated folder, whereas they just vanish on the Windows Phone. In both cases, you can find all the deleted items if you hook the devices via USB and browse the folders using a regular file explorer.
To be frank, at no point did I feel like I needed AI to help me out. I didn't even bother trying the functionality, because it's just not something intelligent people really need. Only when the collective cloud wisdom gets to a point where it can reliably predict my actions and needs, only then will this functionality become relevant. Or I'm home and lazy, and voice command lets me search for movies and such instead of typing. Yes. But on a phone I'm already holding in my hand? Nah.
Windows Phone 10 comes with a lot of options. Again, that thing what makes no sense on the desktop is ideally suited for touch devices. You get the granularity you need, and even though the effort may seem overwhelming at first, it's not that dire. You might be a little bored going through every options and tweak, but it's doable. And not scary at all.
Some of the settings are quite tame, others quite useful and beneficial, like encryption. You have a lot of room in disabling phone-home features, but that does mean crippling some of your apps. Still, the settings sub-menus are sensible and clear and easy to follow. Just so damn unnecessary on the desktop. Ah well.
There's a lot of good stuff without feeling overcrowded. One of the things I simply don't like with Android is that it is too busy, and there are too many features. On the far end, the iPhone is too restrictive. This is the sweet spot between OCD and fun.
Security wise, you can encrypt the device, there's the Iris scan for visual identification in addition to the PIN option, and you can also setup VPN, although there's no OpenVPN at this time. Quite nice. There's no need for anything else unless you try to molest your phone.
There were also some annoyances. It took me a little while to figure out the four quick-action buttons that I wanted shown in the collapsed drag-down notification screen. It turns out, you just need to put them at the bottom of the stack. Previously WP8.1 would let you actually manually select the four. Bah.
The phone is fast and snappy. The device responds quickly to touch, there are no delays or anything of that sort. The screen looks very clear. There's no heating after you use the phone for a while, and the big 3000mAh battery lasts about a solid 7-8 days if you don't push it. If you go aggressive with the camera and the Wireless, you will VERY easily shorten that.
There's a bug - or feature - if you connect the external charger, the phone will immediately chirp as though it's being charged, which will happen whether it's actually plugged into the wall socket or not. And once, I used the camera for a little while in the landscape mode, and when I switched out, my screen had icons all rotated 90 degrees, but not the whole interface. What. On the plus side, you can charge the entire battery cell in less than an hour. I guess this is called fast charge or something. However, this does require the wall socket. The phone is so powerful that I wasn't able to charge it via USB from my G50 machine. Honest. Haven't checked the Wireless charging option yet.
For some odd reason, Lumia Creator Studio referenced a photo that did not exist, but I was not able to figure out how to really get rid of it in the program, so it does not show and pollute my OCD fields.
Lastly, the system menu is too close to the space button, so you may accidentally minimize applications while
using them. This can be annoying, and you may want to hide the menu if you intend to be typing a lot. I
definitely prefer the solid hardware buttons that Lumia 520 has, as they do not intrude into the touch screen
space, and you are never confused. This might be a small niggle, but it's one that breeds expletives. I don't
recall many other weird things or bugs. Hmm, yeah.
Well, I think you may have guessed the conclusion before even reading the article. I'm a living paradox. I'm a Linux guy, and yet, I just love the Windows Phone. Microsoft Lumia 950 is no exception. It's a great, high-quality piece of hardware, with a splendid camera, a smartly realized interface, a good blend of functionality and aesthetics, fast performance, and an app store that is a decade behind the competitors, so choose wisely.
For me, this is less of an issue, but it is something you must keep at the forefront of your mind, if you ever decide to choose a Microsoft phone. Plus, you cannot disregard the rumors, the fact the Lumia line may be no more or that the Surface phone might never materialize. It is funny, because Windows Phone is a great concept, which should not be aped on the desktop, and it missed the magical opportunity to wedge a critical chunk of the mobile world. It's the Linux of the mobile world. Oh how have the roles reversed. It's quite funny. Linux has 1% on the desktop, Microsoft has 1% on the mobile. Hi hi.
That aside, if you want a non-expensive premium phone, this could be a top choice, if all other needs align. It is very snappy, it's easy to use, and the offline navigation and the camera combo are unbeatable. But then, that's just me. As far as I'm concerned, I'm not worried about any announcements, any end of life drama, or anything. It's a rare moment for me to use a smartphone with anything approaching enthusiasm, and therefore, such a moment must be cherished. 9.5/10. I've said my piece. Now I shall rest.