Microsoft Lumia 950 XL Review by The Verge

[ The Verge ] Tom Warren:

The real star of Microsoft’s mobile show has always been its Lumia cameras. The Lumia 950 XL doesn’t disappoint here, but it’s not perfect. I’ve taken some great photos with it, but I’ve also taken some really bad ones. Microsoft still hasn’t perfected the software algorithms to comfortably take a photo with automatic processing to the point where I trust I can point and shoot.

Every smartphone camera sub-system is imperfect, including the iPhone 6S Plus, the Galaxy Note 5, and the Nexus 6P. This is a given. Based on this assumption, you now have to figure out to what level of imperfect you’re comfortable with.

But there’s also one more variable to consider: How good of a photographer are you? If you’re a decent photographer my guess is you can probably capture consistently great photographs with the Lumia 950 XL. Just keep in mind Warren thinks autofocus is a little slow. In a smartphone market filled with intense competition — some sporting laser-guided autofocus systems — Microsoft will need to up its game if the company wants to be taken seriously in the smartphone photography department.

Continuum is really the star of the show, however. It lets the phone transform into a low-powered PC, with a few catches. In addition to the phone, you’ll need Microsoft’s $99 Display Dock (or a Miracast adapter), a mouse and keyboard (Bluetooth or USB), and a monitor or TV. You plug the Lumia 950 XL into the dock or connect wirelessly, and the phone simply beams itself to the display. It looks very similar to a Windows 10 desktop PC, minus a few features like app snapping and full multitasking.

Microsoft designed this with universal apps in mind, but most of them don’t support Continuum yet. Microsoft’s own apps all work fine, but third-party ones need to be updated to support the feature, and the vast majority haven’t yet.

Continuum feels like a glimpse into the future, though. Every app developer is focusing their efforts on smartphones right now, not tablets or desktop PCs. If we arrive at a future where phones can be a single computing device, then Microsoft is well positioned to offer this. If Microsoft builds an Intel-powered phone with true desktop apps, Continuum could get very interesting. But that’s not where the 950 XL is at, and it’s little more than a parlor trick in its current state.

If I took the concept of responsive design — whether on the web or on device- and OS-dependent apps — and stretched it out to its theoretical limit, the beginnings would look something like Microsoft’s Continuum.

I don’t think Microsoft needs an Intel-powered smartphone to have “true desktop apps”. Mobile SoCs already have CPU and GPU power equal to desktop processors from only a couple of years ago. The bottleneck going forward will be less in hardware and more in software, especially in the area of user experience and user interface.

Do people need something like Continuum? Let’s think about this for a moment. I have a smartphone, a laptop, and a desktop. I work on all three. I carry my smartphone everywhere. The work I do on my smartphone is mostly communication, and mostly triaging communication: Is this important? Is this urgent? I don’t carry around my laptop as much as my smartphone, but when I do the type of work I do is more production-related work: responding to triaged emails — the important but not urgent ones (the important and urgent ones I’ve already dealt with on my smartphone), writing articles – because a physical keyboard that lets me use all ten fingers is much more comfortable to type on than on a screen that limits me to two fingers, and creating designs in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. My desktop stays put at home, and interestingly the work I do on my desktop is the same type of work I do on my laptop. Qualitatively though, it is different: everything is faster and I’m working on a much larger screen, which I believe helps me to be more productive.

I sometimes take my Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, which is inside my Incase Origami Workstation case, when I don’t want to lug my heavy but rugged Panasonic Toughbook. What I am doing is to do some of the work I do on my laptop on my smartphone: responding to emails and writing articles. But at the moment I don’t attempt to create designs on my smartphone. The apps — that make use of precise drawing tools like a mouse or digitizer — don’t exist. And even if the apps existed the small screen doesn’t make it easy. (An iPad Pro seems like an exciting potential solution.) For a smartphone to give me the experience I get on my desktop the hardware will need to catch up a bit, but software more so.

I think a lot of us want to simplify the tools we have. I’m pretty sure a lot of us want something like Continuum: a mobile experience on your smartphone, a desktop experience on your desktop. I’d love to see a laptop-sized screen, keyboard, battery combo that lets me wirelessly dock a smartphone. Imagine having to buy, update, carry just one computer, your smartphone. I’d like that. Though we’re not there yet, I like where Microsoft is going with Continuum.

Oh yes, the display. The Lumia 950 XL sports a 5.7-inch OLED display with a 16:9 2560×1440 pixel format. Gorilla Glass 4 is on protection duty. Just looking at the specs the display seems to be on par with the best Apple and Samsung has to offer. But if we want to know how good the display really is, we’ll have to wait until Raymond Soneira gets his hands on one and tests it.