Microsoft Lumia 950 XL full review

Microsoft has launched two smartphones running Windows 10 and this is the one for those looking for a big screen phone. Here's our full and in-depth Lumia 950 XL review. See also: Best phones 2015/2016.

Windows Phone as a mobile OS has been struggling in recent months and years but can the launch of Windows 10 on phones save it? It's a big task and part of the solution, from Microsoft's point of view, is the Lumia 950 XL which is one of its two new flagship handsets.

Read: The 10 best Windows Phones 2015.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review: Price and competition

With two phones to choose from in the Lumia 950 range, it's no surprise that the bigger XL model is the more expensive option. It's £529 if you buy from the Microsoft Store and it comes with a free Display Dock at the time of writing (valid with purchase and offer registration between 25/11/15, and 31/01/16 while supplies last).

That price is pretty good with the free accessory (we'll explain later why you'll probably want one), but you can get it cheaper elsewhere. You can save a chunk of money by getting it SIM-free at Carphone Warehouse and Amazon where the Lumia 950 XL price is £469.

The Lumia 950 is available from £419 if you're not taken by what the XL has to offer in addition. We'll explain the difference in the design and hardware sections below.

Microsoft has done well to undercut the price of rivals, at least what rival phones cost at launch. It's late in the year so big name phones have already dropped in price a large amount so you can get the Huawei Mate S for £369 from Amazon and the Nexus 6P is £449 so the Lumia 950 XL hasn't won us over on price alone.

Lumia 950 vs Lumia 950 XL

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review: Design and build

The Lumia 950 XL is pretty much just a bigger version of the regular Lumia 950 (see above). There are a couple of small changes like the camera module and placement of certain elements but in general its likeness is not really a good thing.

We appreciated the metal frame of the good-looking Lumia 930 with its glass front which curved so perfectly to meet the aluminium. It felt premium but the Lumia 950 XL doesn't give off this kind of vibe with its flat glass front which meets a small plastic ridge and the frankly budget style plastic rear cover. The front is Gorilla Glass 4 instead of Gorilla Glass 3, though.

Lumia 950 XL design

This comes off to give access to the battery and card slots but this isn't much of a reason for the low-grade build. We have seen a stylish leather back which Microsoft has teamed up with Mozo for but this isn't included and costs a hefty £34.99 from Mobile Fun.

For a big phone the Lumia 950 XL is pretty slender at 8.1mm and 165g, so it's the basic design and plastic build which bothers us the most. Microsoft has even decided against offering bright colours so the 950 XL is available in just black and white.

Navigation buttons have been moved on-screen and the physical buttons down the side are different to the Lumia 950. We don't like the way the volume buttons are either side of the power button making all three difficult to use without looking.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review: Hardware, specs and performance

If it's screen size you want, the Lumia 950 XL is the right choice for you. At 5.7in you get an extra half inch compared to the regular model. Other aspects remain the same so you get a Quad HD resolution (2560x1440) meaning the pixel density is slightly lower at 518ppi.

That's not a noticeable difference and it's up there with the top phablets around on the market. The AMOLED ClearBlack display provides amazing contrast, viewing angles and popping colours.

Lumia 950 XL screen

As well as a bigger screen, Microsoft has reserved the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 for the Lumia 950 XL (the 950 has the 808) so there is some more power on paper here with eight cores and a higher clock speed of 2GHz.

There's still 3GB of memory and although we haven't noticed a dramatic difference in performance compared to the Lumia 950, the XL does feel a little bit nipper and more responsive.

Like its smaller brother, there is 32GB of storage which is double what many rivals offer. That's the only option for the Lumia 950 XL but there is a Micro-SD card slot which means you can add up to 200GB more. Windows 10 takes up about 5.5GB of the internal storage.

A bigger phone means a bigger battery so the Lumia 950 XL has 3340mAh of capacity. Despite the extra 340mAh compared to the regular model, Microsoft quotes 11 hours of video playback – an extra hour on the 950 and a few more in other tests.

When it comes down to it, only light users will get more than a day of use from the Lumia 950 XL but it has a few features which will help you keep it topped up. First is a USB Type-C port which is reversible and supports Fast Charging, while the other is Qi wireless charging support. A removable battery means you can always carry a spare if you're going to be away from mains power for a long time.

Remaining hardware is identical to the Lumia 950 so it's really the larger screen and Snapdragon 810 you get in addition. This means you get 11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, GPS and 4G LTE support (Cat 6).

Lumia 950 XL camera

It also means you get the same 20Mp rear facing camera – don't be fooled by the different design around it on the back. This features a 1/2.4-inch sensor, f/1.9 aperture, 6-lens optics and a triple-LED 'natural flash'. We also like the fact Microsoft has kept the two-stage physical camera button on the side.

We love the zero shutter lag of offer with the camera app but the 950 XL struggles to focus sometime which is a real pain. Quality-wise the phone is decent and can take some really nice photos, but it's not the best on the market. The 5Mp front facing camera is average and about what you'd expect.

As you'd expect from a Lumia following the likes of the 1020, the 950 XL offers a large amount of control over photography including white balance, ISO, brightness and shutter speed. Rich Capture now uses HDR to improve photos and does processing when you look back at photos to avoid getting in the way of your shoot.

Lumia 950 XL test photo

Optical image stabilisation is a great feature to have for stills and video, which can be shot in up to 4K resolution at 30fps – default is 1080p. Video is crisp and smooth from the OIS but the focussing is once again an issue.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL review: Software and apps

As you are likely aware of, Windows 10 is now the operating system across all devices including smartphones. There is no more Windows Phone but the interface is no huge departure from Windows Phone 8 so users will feel right at home.

Lumia 950 XL Windows 10

Since the experience on the Lumia 950 XL is the same as the regular model but on a larger screen the following is mostly extracts from our Lumia 950 review in which we focused on key new feature of Windows 10 like Continuum, Windows Hello and Universal Apps.

Continuum is one of the main features here and it sounds odd but is basically the way that Windows 10 makes the most of what ever display it is on. Microsoft is pushing the ability of the Lumia 950 to be used with a monitor.

This can be done wirelessly but the Microsoft Display Dock is an easier and more reliable method. The little box plugs into the phone with a USB-C cable and has various ports including three USB ports, HDMI and DisplayPort. This means you can easily hook the phone up to a display with a keyboard and mouse and carry on using the phone while it's plugged in.

But can you really use this as a proper PC? Well unfortunately we've not been given a Display Dock with our review sample but we have seen it in action during a briefing with Microsoft. We were impressed but it was a quick demo.

Universal Apps are essential to the system. The idea is that these apps are the same no matter whether you're using a laptop, PC, tablet or phone. What you see depends on the screen size but using Outlook with the Lumia 950 XL plugged into a screen looks exactly the same as it does on the Surface Pro 4. You get a proper desktop background, the Start menu and even a PC-like taskbar across the bottom.  A completely different experience to just mirroring your phone on a larger screen.

Lumia 950 Display Dock

Other Universal Apps include Maps, Messaging, Word, Excel, and Calendar and there are more coming but this is an issue when it comes to Continuum since only Universal Apps work. Try and open something else and it simply won't happen.

All of this is great, but only really for Windows users who are looking to be productive all the time and don't mind the extra cost of things like the Display Dock. It's all very business and productivity focused from Microsoft's point of view but you can play videos stored on the phone on a larger display and we're told Netflix runs well, too.

While Continuum is a great feature, we're reserving a final verdict on it until we get a Display Dock to try it out properly. This has got to be one of the main reasons to opt for the Lumia 950 XL so it's a shame it requires an accessory to be fully utilised. That's why buying it from the Microsoft Store might be a good idea as it's currently bundled with the XL.

Windows Hello is simply the ability to log into the device with your face, or more specifically your eyes. While most rivals are going for fingerprint scanners, Microsoft has decided to go down this route. We love using it on the Surface Pro 4 but on the Lumia 950 XL the feature is still beta and we have found it a little buggy. It's not a killer feature but it is really nice when it works.

In a similar way to Apple's 'reachability' feature, you can hold the Windows key at any point to bring the screen down to the bottom half. This one-handed mode is useful if you find yourself unable to stretch far enough to reach something at the top, especially on the larger screen of the XL. We used it mostly for bringing the notification bar down, although the navigation buttons disappear when you do this meaning you just have to wait for it to time out and return to normal.

A similar feature is being able to move the keyboard for one-handed use by long pressing the space key. Windows 10 also features Cortana and things like Glance Screen to get info without unlocking the device.

Lumia 950 XL apps

There is a lot to like about Windows 10 on the Lumia 950 XL, especially if you're a loyal desktop Windows user or are looking to upgrade from an older generation Lumia. At the moment it is still buggy in places with random exits out of apps and typing lag so we hope Microsoft can get that sorted soon.

Then there's the app situation. Microsoft's own apps work great but the fact is developers are still prioritising iOS and Android above Windows. If you just want to use what's already there then you'll have no problems but there are still key omissions from the Store here.

Of course, it depends what apps you use personally, but big names which are missing include Snapchat, Instagram (in Beta), YouView, Amazon Prime Video and plenty of games. Whether the 'app gap' is a problem is a personal thing. For example, if you have a Sonos system, then you won't be able to control it from the Lumia 950 XL. What we can say generally is that the quality is lower than iOS and Android.


Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: Specs

  • Windows 10
  • 5.7in AMOLED ClearBlack display (1440x2560, 518ppi)
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 10, octa-core (quad-core ARM Cortex A57 and quad-core A53 with 64-bit support)
  • Adreno 430 GPU
  • 3GB RAM
  • 32GB internal storage
  • microSD card slot (up to 200GB)
  • 20Mp rear camera with OIS, f/1.9 and triple LED-flash
  • 5Mp front camera
  • 11ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • NFC
  • 4G LTE
  • 3340mAh removable battery
  • 78 x 152 x 8.1 mm
  • 165g