Following on from our LG G5 review, we are continuing (for now) with our somewhat experimental episodic review format - that is, we will be publishing new updates to the review in sections over the course of several days as we use and test the device; it's not quite real-time, but it's in that kind of vein!
As usual, I'll be starting with the exterior of the phone; the place where initial impressions are forged and which features the components you spend the most time interacting with: the display and the bodyshell. It's worth pointing out that the Lumia 950 XL (along with the Lumia 950) is the first Microsoft handset launched with Windows 10 aboard (as opposed to being a Windows Phone 8 device that was upgraded), and it's also the first Microsoft Windows smartphone device since Microsoft cleared the backlog of existing planned Lumia handsets built under the Nokia Lumia brand; that is to say, it is the first Lumia entirely designed and built from the drawing board up by Microsoft and Microsoft alone.
That also means that this is the first phone designed around Windows 10 and its cross-platform ways. Previous Windows-based smartphones used Windows Phone 7 and Windows Phone 8, which were entirely mobile-centric. Windows 10 has been built to span smartphones, wearables, PCs, hybrids, tablets and more besides; so the stakes are pretty high to prove that a smartphone using a mobile processor can run the platform just as well as a desktop PC.
Anyway, without further ado, let's get on to the review...
Microsoft Lumia 950 XL Review: Design & Display
On the design front the Lumia 950 XL is somewhat uninspiring; at first glance I rather liked it, but the more time I've spent with it the more I've noticed its flaws. I've previously been quite a fan of the Lumia brand's square-ish, angular shapes...but something's not quite right here, there's just something very bland about the overall look, it's about as non-descript a slab as you could possibly get.
We've seen angular, sharp Lumias before when Nokia was running things, but with rounded or tapered edges, or curved back panels; something to offer a bit of character and contrast, to literally take the 'edge' off things.
But here there is literally nothing, just a vast expanse of plain and largely flat plastic. Oh, and that plastic too, in the past the Lumia brand has stuck pretty firmly to plastic with no complaint from me, as it offered some very high-end feeling polycarbonates at least on flagship editions. In fact the Lumia brand was once my go-to for demonstrating that you don't need metal and glass to make a good premium-feel flagship device.
But alas, here this isn't the best finish by a long stretch; it's by no means the worst, but I'd say it feels a good deal too flimsy and cheap for a flagship - especially a Lumia - sitting more where I'd expect mid-range plastic to be (and even there it feels of lesser quality than the excellent Lumia 720 mid-ranger, which also looked much more stylish).
Having said that the plastic outer casing feels cheap, in a somewhat contradictory fashion the rest of the handset's build seems very robust and well put-together. The plastic shell pops off to allow for access to the removable battery, microSD and SIM card slots, and at this point it's clear that all the questionable build feeling comes from the removable shell rather than anything else.
The removable battery design is obviously great to have as it's increasingly rare in the smartphone space these days, particularly on flagships where unibodies are commonplace. I also rather like the Lumia 950 XL's button layout for the power and volume keys where the volume controls flank a larger central power key, and there's also a dedicated camera shutter button which is always a welcome bonus.
In terms of physical size and proportions, although the Lumia 950 XL falls into the phablet category it is by no means a bulky or unwieldy phone; it's lightweight, well-balanced, and despite the angular design is quite comfortable to hold. I didn't find it at all unmanageable and it is similar in size to the likes of the Huawei Mate S and LG G3.
Overall I am less than impressed with the exterior design and build, although I acknowledge that in practical terms this will be quite a durable handset and is easy enough to handle and operate. The fact remains that for a premium category flagship it leaves a lot to be desired and frankly, if I was paying flagship-level cash for it rather than reviewing a sample unit, I'd be wondering where much of that had gone. This is a real shame, and it brings me no joy to say it, because without wishing to sound like an old fart I remember when the Lumia brand had exterior build, plastic exterior build, no less, nailed down like no-one else.
God I miss those Finns!
Moving on to the display, the Lumia brand is one of the few outside of Samsung's stable to regularly employ AMOLED and the Lumia 950 XL is no exception. The Lumia 950 XL's panel is a 5.7in AMOLED at 2560x1440 pixels and 518 pixels-per-inch (ppi). It's pretty big and sharp - text is particularly clear and enjoyable to read - with decent colour and contrast thanks to the use of Microsoft's ClearBlack technology. Viewing angles are also rather good it must be said. In all honesty I rather enjoyed watching movies on this thing and it did feel very cinematic, which is great, however, in general use the cracks started to show.
This is AMOLED and certainly gives a lot (though by no means all) of rival LCD setups a run for their money, but it's not Super AMOLED of the finely tweaked kind Samsung runs on its devices and the difference is very apparent indeed. The brightness lacks the top-end punch I'd expect from a flagship of this kind, but more importantly the most glaring flaw for me is the white purity and colour gamut; the display has a yellowish tint which, as always, is particularly noticeable on white.
In fairness to Microsoft the Lumia 950 XL does feature a settings menu which allows you to pick from a number of colour presets or tune your own, however, to my eye they didn't really offer a satisfactory solution, with the other presets swinging too far in the other direction (blue, green, and purple tints), the "Vivid" setting was about the best of a bad bunch, and even though I got things a bit more pleasing with tuning it myself it still wasn't quite right and not a patch on the visual experience I've observed on contemporary rival handsets. For now Samsung remains the undisputed king of smartphone displays, and in particular the OLED variety.
Despite all that negative talk, as I said, I enjoyed watching films on the Lumia 950 XL. I reckon that although the criticism is justified the display is less of a let-down than the design and build, relatively speaking, and I actually think the Lumia 950 XL's display offers an acceptable smartphone viewing experience, simply with the caveat that it's not the best and you could find better screens elsewhere.
Microsoft Lumia 950 XL Review: Battery & Hardware
The Lumia 950 XL is fitted with a fairly hefty 3,300mAh removable battery cell taking full advantage of the added space inside a phablet bodyshell. As usual with battery performance, there is a big difference in what you can expect from a single charge depending on how you use the device. For video testing I ran the handset on full brightness, from 100% charge, and streamed a two-hour film (Mad Max: Fury Road) over Wi-Fi (mobile data was also switched on). At the end of the film's duration the battery level was down from 100% to 62%. Generally speaking this is not bad at all - considerably better than your typical standard sized smartphone with a much smaller battery - but it must be said this is a little lower than I was expecting for a phablet with an OLED display and a battery of this size; I've seen a lot of similarly equipped phablets hitting around the 70% mark at the end of similar tests.
Aside from this battery life seems to be fairly typical; you can set the display to automatic and there's a battery saver mode too - setting all this up from 100% charge the phone estimated there'd be about 21 hours of life on a single charge, although of course that doesn't specify what kind of activity level. From my testing I'd say it's accurate, but the caveat being that this is if the phone is on standby and not really doing anything other than background data and notifications. As always, you can expect intensive use with messaging, browsing, films and games to drain things quicker. It seems quite easy to get a day out of the Lumia 950 XL with a bit of care, but at the same time I can see people still being caught with their pants down thinking a massive 3,300mAh cell will last ages even with lots of activity. In short, the Lumia 950 XL's battery performance is reasonable - it's not bad, but it's not exceptional either, it's just ok, and there's really nothing wrong with that in a market saturated with phones with pretty abysmal battery performance.
On the hardware side the Lumia 950 XL packs Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 820 chipset, meaning it is using the same kit as the HTC 10 and LG G5, amongst others. This is a powerful quad-core setup with a 2GHz clockspeed and 3GB of RAM, as well as an Adreno 430 GPU. Elsewhere I had read complaints about jittery performance on the Lumia 950 XL and Windows 10, but I have to say from my own testing I'm not sure where this criticism is coming from. The handset seemed to flit around the interface quite happily with no noticable lag or slow-down, and was easily capable of an extended play session with Asphalt 8, a fairly graphically intensive mobile game. I didn't even find the back panel heating up, so Qualcomm's clearly nipped the overheating issues in the bud. It is dissapointing, and somewhat damning for the Windows 10 operating system in terms of applications support, that the majority of major benchmarking apps are still not present in the app store to help us test and compare the phone against its Android rivals.
In terms of other hardware, the Lumia 950 XL has the new Type-C USB port design, as well as wireless charging, fast charging, NFC, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. Of course it's also 4G capable and achieved some pretty snappy performance in this regard. The one let-down is the loudspeaker, which I found very tinny and sub-par in audio quality as well as volume; the phone does have an interface inside Windows 10 to allow you to configure your own audio profiles but realistically there's only so much it can do to off-set poor speaker quality.
Tune in again for the next chapter where we'll focus on camera and imaging capabilities and the Windows 10 software experience. I'll also be wrapping up with a conclusion...