Thursday, January 21, 2016

Microsoft Lumia 950 - The first Windows 10 Phone



The First Windows 10 Phone Is Promising But Bug-Laden

Microsoft did it—it finally crammed Windows into a phone. The Lumia 950’s Continuum mode is what we’ve been hoping for from Windows Phone for five years, and it could be a new beginning for Microsoft on mobile devices. But it’s only a beginning, and the 97 percent of existing U.S. smartphone owners who are considering coming over from Android or iOS will find that Windows Phone lacks too many of the experiences they’re used to—and that it’s buggy and has light third-party support.


PHYSICAL FEATURES AND HARDWARE

At 5.7 by 2.9 by 0.3 inches, the Lumia 950 fits securely within the middle size range for today’s flagship phones.

The phone is plastic, with a matte white back that can be peeled off to reveal nano SIM and microSD card slots, along with a removable battery. The front is mostly a 5.2-inch, 2,560-by- 1,440 organic light-emitting diode (OLED) touch screen. It shows rich colors and deep blacks, like all OLEDs, but seems a touch dim when compared with the Galaxy S6’s screen. On the bottom, there’s a USB Type-C port with fast charging enabled, and the phone also supports wireless charging via the PMA standard.

Although the Lumia 950 is only offered by AT&T, it’s compatible with both AT&T and T-Mobile. It has LTE bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/17/20/28/40, which includes both the primary AT&T and T-Mobile bands, but not AT&T’s new speed-enhancing Band 30. On the streets of New York, the phone showed decent AT&T LTE speeds, but strong 3G reception in a weak-signal area. The phone supports HD Voice and voice-over-LTE, but not Wi-Fi calling.

Call quality is good, but falls just short of excellent. The 950’s earpiece quality is tops—loud and clear, with no distortion. But my calls from noisy outdoor locations had some scratchiness to them, and the din of background traffic wasn’t entirely muted. The speakerphone also sounds a bit thin.

Beyond cellular performance, the Lumia 950 has dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1. Wi-Fi performance is on par with that of other current flagship phones. The same goes for battery life, at 5 hours, 58 minutes, of continuous video streaming over LTE on the 3,000mAh battery.

Inside the Lumia 950, there’s a 1.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor. Performance is less snappy than I wish it were, especially in Continuum mode. Some of that is due to Windows Mobile’s heavy use of animations, but graphics frame rates were low in the standard GFXBench benchmark tests. I got 13.5 frames per second (fps) on screen and 21.7fps off-screen in the T-Rex test, as compared with 59 and 80fps respectively on the iPhone 6s. That could explain why controls in the driving game Asphalt 8 were a little draggy.


WINDOWS 10 MOBILE

The Lumia 950 is the first official U.S. phone to run Windows 10 Mobile out of the box. On the surface, Windows 10 Mobile looks much like Windows Phone 8.1, and that’s good. With Live Tiles, Windows has always had the best home screen metaphor in the business, combining the design rigor of Apple’s grid with Android’s customizability and configurability. The People Hub puts Facebook and Twitter updates right in your contact list. The app list, to the right, now starts with the most frequently added apps and a search box, so you can quickly get to what you’re looking for.

Instead of a fingerprint scanner, the Lumia 950 offers Windows Hello, which scans your eyes to check your identity. I found it worked in eight out of ten tries, with and without glasses, in different lighting conditions. That’s about on par with the Samsung Galaxy S6 fingerprint scanner, but nowhere near as good as fingerprint scanner on the iPhone 6s or the HTC One A9, which have been completely accurate in my tests.

Windows 10’s Glance screen borrows one of my favorite features from Motorola phones: the ability to get quick notifications without unlocking the phone. They appear when you pick it up, and then you can decide whether to unlock or not. It’s also configurable, so what apps are shown is up to you.

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The most important new app in the system is the Microsoft Edge browser, which offers the most desktop-like viewing experience of any mobile browser I’ve seen (although it still can’t handle Flash or Java plug-ins). Complex embedded videos and ads are no problem, as long as they aren’t Flash. Unfortunately, like so much else on the platform, Edge is buggy; in Continuum mode, I found that my mouse’s scroll wheel only worked some of the time, and the browser simply froze on some multimedia-heavy pages.

Windows Phone fans hate it when I mention the app gap, but it’s still there. Maybe you rock out with Amazon Prime or Apple Music elsewhere? Bank with Citi, Chase, or TD Bank? Want to hop on the next bus using Citymapper or Transit App? Watch TV shows from your TiVo, DirecTV, or HBO GO subscriptions? In all these cases, you can on other platforms—but not here.

Some popular apps on other platforms get replaced on Windows Phone by rip-off clones, and many Windows Phone implementations of popular services are missing features that have existed for years on other platforms (such as threaded discussions on Facebook). Microsoft says it’s improving developer tools by offering easy ways to port iOS (and soon Android) apps to Windows, but Microsoft has been saying this for five years now. It just adds insult to injury that, at this stage of the game, Windows 10 Mobile is so buggy; apps crashed on me constantly. Microsoft has had a good track record for maintenance releases—this is, after all, the company of Patch Tuesday—but c’mon, folks.


CONTINUUM

Ever since the Motorola Atrix in 2011, phone makers have been trying to combine the portability of a mobile phone with the productive ergonomics of a desktop PC. Continuum is the best attempt yet—and the best argument for coming to this party.

Continuum turns the Lumia 950 into a desktop, not a laptop. The key is the $99 Display Dock accessory, which has two USB Type-C ports (one on the front, one on the back), and three traditional USB, DisplayPort, and HDMI ports (all on the back). Hook up a keyboard, mouse, and monitor, and you have a full desktop setup without the wobbly unreliability of Bluetooth peripherals.

Microsoft gets the desktop interface really right, too. There’s a Start menu in the lower left, along with icons that show all of your currently active apps so you can flip between them. The Office apps open in full-screen mode, and the mouse support is perfect. It’s really like editing on a desktop, at least interface-wise. The only missing piece is that you can’t have multiple windows on the screen— not even two, as you can on the iPad Pro.

Continuum’s major flaw right now is limited app support. It works with Microsoft’s own Office apps and Facebook, but not, say, with Slack or Adobe’s PDF viewer. That will change if the Windows 10 platform becomes popular, but with only one phone coming out on only one carrier in the U.S., there’s not much of a pull for developers to support this mode. That’s a pity.


STORAGE AND MULTIMEDIA

You get the storage you pay for with Windows 10. My 32GB phone had 29.1GB available, and using a microSD card will give you a lot of additional flexibility.

Groove is the new name for Microsoft’s music player, and it has a few neat tricks, such as automatically finding artist and album art for your MP3s. If you want to buy music on this phone, you’re going through Microsoft, of course: Apple, Google Play, and Amazon’s music stores are not available on this platform. You have better choices for streaming, though, with Spotify, Pandora, and Slacker available.

The same goes for video. The only real option other than Microsoft’s store is Netflix; Amazon Prime, HBO GO, MGo, Vudu, and other services just aren’t offered for Windows Mobile.

Audio through headphones defaults to a flat, treble-heavy sound, but a built-in equalizer can give you some bass boost. To watch videos on a big screen, you can toss them wirelessly using Qualcomm’s Miracast technology, or hook up the Display Dock to get an HDMI out.



The Lumia 950 has all the ingredients it needs for killer camera performance. It has a 20-megapixel rear-facing camera with a fixed f/1.9 aperture, Zeiss optics, optical image stabilization, a triple LED natural flash, and a hardware shutter key. Unfortunately, as elsewhere, buggy software mars the experience. When it worked correctly, we took spectacular photos, even when zoomed in—but that was only about half the time. The problem: The 950’s autoexposure kept getting confused and messing up the shots. The 5MP selfie camera on the front doesn’t have an LED flash, but it still performs well, capturing detail free from grain and maintaining natural colors. It’s as good as the front-facing cameras on the iPhone 6s and the Nexus 6P.

When it comes to video, the Lumia 950 is capable of crisp 2160p (4K) recording at 30fps, but unfortunately, the experience proved as variable as photos—again due to changes in exposure. The optical stabilization system, however, did its job; there was no evidence of jitter when hand-holding the phone, and although there was certainly some movement noticeable when walking, the stabilization system smoothed that motion.


Conclusion

Using the Lumia 950 in Continuum mode with a big monitor, wired keyboard, and mouse is smoother and easier than even on the iPad Pro, because Microsoft understands—ironically—that when you’re in desktop mode, you don’t want to have to poke at the screen. But disconnect the phone from your desktop display, and you’re stuck as a second-class citizen of the smartphone world. Microsoft Edge and the People Hub set the bar for mobile browsing and for an integrated social contact book. But almost every first- and third-party experience is simply better on an Android or iOS device, even down to Microsoft’s own Office apps.

I want to have high hopes for Windows 10 Mobile. It’s full of good ideas, Live Tiles and Continuum foremost among them. But there are too many downsides for me to recommend the Lumia 950 to anyone other than die-hard Windows loyalists, who have no better choice at the moment (and, as Microsoft has delayed pushing out updates for at least a couple of months, won’t anytime soon). Most smartphone owners will end up turning to more established platforms, and phones like the Samsung Galaxy S6 and the Apple iPhone 6s.


By Sascha Segan

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