Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review: can run as a full PC but hard to recommend

Microsoft's new Lumia 950 XL is a high-end smartphone best suited for the business user. Just don't mention the lack of apps.

The Microsoft Lumia 950 XL smartphone. John Taggart / Bloomberg
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Microsoft's Lumia 950 XL is a high-end smartphone that is easy to like, but ultimately difficult to recommend. The Windows 10 device sports a display and camera that are right up there with the best on the market, at a competitive price. But it's let down by a lacklustre design and the relatively few apps available.

After a series of middling mid-range Lumia launches, the 950 XL pulls out the stops screen- wise; the 5.7-inch Amoled display sports the same high pixel density as the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+.

The result is stunning images and videos. The action-packed trailer for The Revenant is rendered smoothly, with impressively deep colours.

Lumia flagships have always sported some of the best cameras on the market, and the 950 XL is no exception. Its 20MP rear camera with a 1/24-inch sensor takes highly detailed, crisp images and performs well in low light. For the selfie-inclined, there’s a generous 5MP front-facing camera.

The premium specs of the display and camera do not extend to the 950 XL’s design, consisting of a flat glass screen offset by a plain plastic back. This is all very well on a mid-range device like last year’s 640 XL, but on a high-end device it just looks and feels cheap.

And then there’s the fact that the 950 XL is a Windows Phone. The tile based-interface looks great and works smoothly, and the Microsoft Office suite is present and correct.

But there’s no escaping the lack of apps; Instagram remains in beta, and a number of high-profile content providers have given up on Windows Phone altogether. This is a trend that sadly looks to continue, with the platform’s already small market share continuing to dwindle.

Microsoft is pitching the 950 XL at business users who like the Office suite and who don't mind so much about other apps. In this it succeeds, despite its uninspiring design. But for those who are looking to use their smartphone for more than just business, it's hard to recommend.

q&a look at it this way – or else

John Everington expands on Microsoft’s new Lumia 950 XL:

Microsoft are telling me my phone can run as a full PC. How does that work?

It’s called Continuum. Simply plug your 950 XL into Microsoft’s Display Dock (retailing for Dh99), then connect a monitor, keyboard and mouse and voila. You have a desktop PC experience running off your phone.

Wow. But does that mean that you can’t use your phone at the same time?

The clever part is that using your phone as a desktop doesn’t mean you can’t still take calls or send messages.

So I can ditch my PC then?

Hold your horses. Continuum is designed to work with universal apps that work across the desktop, mobile and tablet space. Microsoft apps like Office fall into this category, but others are few and far between at the moment. If and when that happens, things will get interesting, but until then

Continuum is more quirky add-on rather than must-have feature.

I’ve also heard that if you look at the phone in a funny way, it will do odd things.

That’s one way of putting it. The 950 XL comes installed with Microsoft Hello, which enables you to unlock your phone just by looking at it. Microsoft insists that this is more secure than unlocking your phone with a fingerprint reader, which may be true, but I found it awkward in practice.

The 5.7-inch display looks great, but my hands are small. What’s the alternative?

You could always try the Lumia 950, retailing for Dh2,099.

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