Today, Lumia launched their Home Trials campaign, centered on the new Lumia 950, and I received a kit to test it out and let you know what I think!

Lumia 950

This blog post will be a bit different than most. I’ll be live-blogging on twitter, YouTube, and updating here over the next several weeks and covering a real-world look at this device. From now until we ring in the new year, I’ll be covering in-depth every aspect of this device, including my impressions in these areas (click to jump to each review as they’re added):

OOBE Part 1: Unboxing
Hardware Look
and Feel

OOBE Part 2:
Setup

Windows 10 on Mobile
Apps & Ecosystem
Continuum
Accessories
Connected Services

I’ll be updating and revising this post below as I experience each area in my daily workflow. But first, what is the Lumia 950? Lumia says it’s the phone that works like your PC, and in short it’s a showcase of what the consistency of Windows 10 across every device really means. As for the marketing focus, here’s a feature roll:

If you can’t watch the video, the big points are:

  • Windows Hello login with iris scanner
  • 20 MP PureView camera with Zeiss lenses
  • Vivid 564 pixels-per-inch display
  • USB-C with fast charging
  • Consistent Windows 10 experience
  • Power a second screen and use it like a PC

Lumia Home Trials Campaign

The Lumia Home Trials campaign is a three week campaign open to all Lumia owners, and those like myself whom received home trial kits. This event will feature challenges and events and is primarily ran from the @LumiaUS Twitter feed, and posts tagged with #LumiaVoices #LumiaTrials.  While I’ll be playing along with the review, this post will not follow quite the same format as such. Instead this post will be much longer form than simple tweets, allowing me to share rich feedback and post video and other media detailing my experience with the device.  So without further ado, let’s take a look.

OOBE Part 1: Unboxing

The Lumia 950 home trial kit arrived in a box about the size of a laptop, which opened up in like style to reveal nearly everything you need to get up and running with the device.  Inside the kit (links point to additional images online).

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That’s a lot of stuff, and a lot of connectors in particular. Every connection uses the modern, reversible (there is no ‘up’ when plugging it in) USB-C plug with the lone exception of the keyboard, which uses the current yet waning champion, micro USB.  USB-A would be the full-sized connection known to most users as the one on thumbdrives.

The only thing lacking is a cable to connect to your external display. Yes, the phone with a landmark feature of being able to power a second screen, does not come with the cable necessary to do so.  You’ll need to bring your own HDMI or Display Port cable to make use of the display dock, which I’ll cover in depth later in this review.

Hardware Look and Feel

Lumia 950 with back cover removed
Lumia with wireless charging cover removed, revealing the “typical” battery installed. Hmm.

As for the phone itself, the first impression is light!  The phone weighs just over 10% less than my previous lead brick, the Nokia Icon. However combined with the chamfered edges and balanced mass, it really feels much less in my hand. Granted I have been conditioned from picking up my Icon for years, but every time I pick this off the table I feel like I use more force than necessary.

The build quality is solid, but the snap-off polycarbonate back—while rock solid at the edges —gives just enough over the battery to betray itself as a plastic body. Overall though it does not feel cheap and there is no creaking or clicking that has been an issue with removable covers on many phones.

The polished raised metal around the Zeiss lens has a premium feel and the slight raise is unobtrusive. Unlike for instance the camera bulge on the old Nokia 1020, this model does not impact the ability to use tap the screen while laying flat on a table.

Lumia 950 camera lens
The Lumia 950 has a 20 MP camera surrounded by raised brushed metal, positioned between to a triple stage flash and loudspeaker.

I notice that the microphone is located on the front of the phone, a small pin-hole just right of center at the bottom of the display. At the top of the phone you have a plethora of sensors and emitters: camera, proximity sensor, iris scanner, speaker, another microphone, and light sensor.

Three buttons adorn the right edge of the device. The volume rocker, power, and two-stage dedicated camera button. Press lightly to either turn on the camera or set focus and lighting level, push deeper to snap your photo.

Lumia 950 hardware keys
Lumia 950 hardware keys. From left to right: camera, power, volume.

For ports, you have a standard 2.5mm audio jack at the top left, and a centered USB-C port at the bottom.

The camera takes crisp, brilliant photos in giant 20 megapixel resolution. While the camera software is the professional Nokia-camera based interface, the Photos app really undermines the experience. If you take a photo then tap the preview to see what you captured, you wait to 10 seconds while staring at the message “adding the final touches…”, during which you cannot zoom or pan the photo.  Worse, if you exit the camera and launch the Photos app, the new photos you just got done taking do not appear for many seconds as well. They are local files on the phone, but it feels like the Photos app has to synchronize before you can see them.  Indeed if you take a picture, then switch to an app like Facebook or Twitter to use that picture too quickly, you won’t see the new picture available to use yet.

OOBE Part 2: Setup

After signing into my MSA account, this 950 became a literal clone of my existing Lumia Icon. Same apps, Start shortcut layout, wallpaper and colors. Even 3rd party apps that participate were already syncing with no extra login or configuration (NextGen reader among others).

This means there was no practically no time required to customize and tinker. With previous new phones, I’d have to spend hours resetting my preferences, and launching every app, authenticating it again, and more. There are some apps that still required a separate login, but they were the rare exception.

Customized Lumia 950 Start page
5 minutes after first boot, my Lumia 950 was a near perfect clone of my old phone.

Windows 10 Mobile

The Consistency is amazing. the Settings app really impresses me because I can navigate it just like the PC.  Even settings you might consider PC only, such as DPI scaling, are present and functional as well.

Effects of DPI scaling on the Lumia 950.
Effects of DPI scaling on the Lumia 950.

The Windows Hello Iris scan is impressive, although the “move closer” request when using it gets tedious. If I could just use it from a more natural holding distance I’d be more likely to use it. For now, a quick PIN entry seems nearly as fast and convenient.

OS Bugs

I haven’t managed to use a custom ringtone using the office documented steps. Some have suggested the Genre tag of the MP3 needs to be set as “ringtone” but even this hasn’t allowed me to use a custom track as a ringtone by following the Microsoft instructions. As a workaround you can use an app to set the custom ringtone.

Soft toolbar: I find it odd that I couldn’t dismiss the home toolbar when using some apps like messenger. I suppose the app can’t expand to be that tall on a screen this shape, but I really thought all these apps layouts were at least that fluid.

If you launch an app from the app list, and go back to the app list, the background shade is gone making the list difficult to read with a light wallpaper like mine.

Apps & Ecosystem

Universal apps are really coming along, but being truthful the apps are not as quick to load as Android for example. I understand this is because Android preloads apps to have them ready for a fast launch, but the fact remains that opening something like Facebook takes a lot longer on Windows phones.  Worse, you must also wait for the content to sync every time you open it. Likewise for the separate Facebook Messenger app. You’ll open the app, wait for the UI to initialize, then wait longer while it connects and re-syncs content. Facebook for example takes about 25 seconds to open and then show the red notification badge about new newsfeed items.  The only redemption is that the live tile keeps you informed without having to launch the app to check for new items. And even still, m.facebook.com in the Edge browser provides a far better experience than the app.

Skype is now built-into the Text SMS app. You know, like it was previously, before it got cut out and put into a separate app so it could be updated outside of full OS build releases. Is this repeating the mistakes of the past?

Apps that participate in MSA sync are great, I appreciate not having to re-login or configure apps on first use, they work automatically and seamlessly.

The app gap: I can’t completely agree with this notion. In my experience there aren’t many apps missing, and with modern Oauth security implementation and API access, the 3rd party apps to fill the gaps are more than capable – and in many cases provide an experience I find superior to the official app. Example: MetroTube. Google won’t allow a YouTube client, but MetroTube performs functions even the official client on other platforms can’t, like background playback when the app is in the background. Plus all the services and sites we use at work – Slack, Asana, and more – work great.  But others have issues…

Authenticator app unable to prepare the camera.
Those frustrating feeling when you have to resort to uninstalling and reinstalling an app to make it behave properly.

When I switched my cell phone number to yesterday, I encountered another in an unfortunate string of issues. The authenticator app—essential for a phone that will be used exclusively for day to day use—could not prepare the camera, something a reboot could not fix, but fortunately uninstalling and reinstalling the app cleared it up.

I’ve also seen more app crashes than I’m comfortable with. I’ve been typing into Mail, Tweetium, or other apps and just had it disappear without warning, and without saving the text I had typed. It’s been less frequent lately, so I’ll keep monitoring.

Continuum

Continuum is amazing, and to my surprise does not actually require the dock connector. The dock is great if you need to hard-wire a display with HDMI or DisplayPort, or if you have USB peripherals to attach. However, with a bluetooth mouse and keyboard, you can drive a desktop-class display completely sans-wires using a miracast receiver. I’ve tried it out both with the ActionTec receiver and Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter, as well as directly Xbox Wireless Display app (currently in preview). With the Xbox as the receiver, latency is a bit of a factor.  It is usable and you could probably use it to present just fine, but the approximate 400ms lag is difficult to overcome with fine mouse movements.

During this wireless session, I did have quite a few snags. The most blocking was difficulty summoning the keyboard to show locally on phone when tapping into textbox on TV, in this case the Facebook app login username field. Eventually I stopped trying to click in the text fields and switched back to phone control, then back to TV, and then clicking in the text field gave a keyboard on the phone screen… finally.

Once logged in, I tried to click the Messenger button (again this on the TV), and it gave me a popup modal dialog that messenger isn’t available in Continuum. I tried to move my cursor to click OK, but my cursor won’t move. I think my connection died, but in reality it had launched messenger and returned control to my phone. This may be intentional behavior, but it was jarring to be unable to dismiss the model that just appeared (I was using the phone as a touchpad with my thumb, and the message didn’t tell me I had lost control of the screen).

For personalization, the Continuum desktop display shows the Windows 10 hero (glass, smoke and lasers) wallpaper, but my phone is set as a picture of my motorcycle. In the app I went to personalize and it just took me to the same settings already showing the right wallpaper. Not sure why it doesn’t make it to the other screen, or if it’s even expected to–one would assume yes if the Continuum app provides a link to personalize your display.  It turns out, when the Personalize link takes you to the wallpaper settings, more options were silently added – just scroll down to set the wallpaper for the secondary attached screen.  Without any indication that you can scroll down or that this settings page has expanded beyond the typical wallpaper options at the top, a user would be forgiven for not discovering the setting.

Using a hard-wire HDMI connection really cuts out the input latency, but you can still feel a lag when opening large apps or at times even bringing up the Start menu. Another bug I noticed was in Edge and being unable to zoom in and out. Oddly, clicking the – zoom out button increased the zoom of the page, and I found myself unable to do anything that didn’t cause a further increase until it bumped the max of 1000% and would not let me zoom back out from the Edge ••• menu.  Fortunately with my bluetooth connected keyboard, the Ctrl-0 hotkey returned to normal zoom.

With those nontrivial issues aside, the rest of my Continuum connected display experience was positive, in particular the Office experience. I could see travelling and using this to turn a hotel TV into a desktop class computer for a few hours, but then I’d have a laptop with me anyway. Still, driving a second screen as an extended desktop is far superior to just mirroring the phone on the TV.

Many of us have been mirroring our phone screens to another display for years, and it comes in handy when you want to project a video on a larger display. But what we’ve lacked until now is the second screen functionality, to use it like a second desktop.

The second display can run apps updated for the resolution and size, which so far includes Office, the Edge browser, Facebook, Tweetium, nearly all the bundled apps like Messaging and Mail, and more.  PowerPoint perhaps demonstrates the utility of a true second display best: when you launch a slideshow, your phone shows a slide preview, what comes next, slide notes, and even allows you to draw on the thumbnail to markup what the audience sees on the second display.  I hope to see entertainment apps like Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube take advantage of the second screen capability as well soon.

Accessories

Managing accessories gets easier with the new Gadgets app, which also drives a function that feels like AutoPlay for phones. Plugin a head phones, and you get suggestions of media apps to launch, or set a default. Now when I connect my headphones, Groove fires up.

The Gadgets app also provides a device location tracking service that extends even to simple accessories like my cheap analog headphones. The app provides the location of my phone when that device was last connected.

All the accessories I’ve tried have worked well so far, including wireless display adapters, bluetooth speakers and headsets, including the headset/phone built into my motorcycle helmet, keyboards, mice, and more have connected easily and reliably.  However, broad compatibility is still difficult to find.  For example, the Walmart kiosk for printing photos can receive files from USB or bluetooth/wireless devices, but only those that run iOS or Android. I understand Windows has a low market share on phones, but receiving files over bluetooth is based on a set fixed standard that is compatible, so there’s truly no reason for this exclusion.

Connected Services

 

Closing Thoughts

[ This live post will be continuously appended, edited, and updated throughout new year’s. For now, enjoy the partial thoughts and takes on the Lumia 950. More to come, soonish. ]