(Pocket-lint) - Windows Phone 7 launched with a flourish. A range of devices, all singing from the same song sheet, from many of the big manufacturers, like LG, HTC, Samsung. It was a uniform alliance of handsets marking the start of something new. Until it all fell by the wayside.
Along came Nokia and Windows Phone 8 wiped out WP7. A declining trickle of devices saw Windows Phone become a single manufacturer proposition, but one with heritage. The Nokia name then also fell by the wayside, assimilated into Microsoft Devices.
From the many to the one, we arrive at the Lumia 950 and its sibling, the Lumia 950 XL. Two new devices ushering in a new era of Windows computing.
In Microsoft's brave new world, there is one platform spanning differing devices. Windows 10, with universal apps, spans Microsoft's ecosystem, from the console in your home, to the tablet in your bag, the PC on your desk and the phone in your pocket. That's the idea, anyway.
Make no mistake, this isn't just the launch of a new phone, Microsoft sees this as the launch of a component piece in its omni-platform puzzle. To say there's a lot resting on the shoulders of these two devices would be an understatement.
But is the Lumia 950 the new flagship phone that Windows 10 Mobile needed, or is this just another step in the decline of this once great mobile platform?
Microsoft Lumia 950 review: Design
With Nokia a distant memory, we're looking at a new breed of Microsoft device. The Lumia 950 is the smaller of the new pair, but it's also the more conventional in terms of size, with a 5.2-inch display, sitting in a body that measures 145 x 73.2 x 8.2mm, at 150g. The XL expands to 5.7-inches for a bigger screen experience, and we've written about that device separately.
The Lumia 950 sticks to the sort of plastic body design we've seen on previous Lumia devices, but it's not exactly what you might expect. The message here isn't about premium metal finishes, instead the 950 feels like it's been pulled up from Lumia's mid-range devices of the past.
The elegance of the 930 (or Icon for US readers) has been lost. There's no 2.5D display, no fun vibrantly-coloured polycarbonate rear, leaving the Lumia 950 feeling a little dour, perhaps the least distinctive Lumia 900-series device we've seen so far. The Lumia 900 had a great polycarbonate design, the 920 an excellent camera, the 925 a beautiful mix of metal and plastic, on which the 930 refined further. The Lumia 950 comes in black or white and there's little that's exciting about the design.
When faced with devices like the Nexus 6P (coincidentally the same sort of price) or the Samsung Galaxy S6 edge (a lot more expensive) the Lumia 950, as a new Windows phone flagship, lacks design appeal. But there are some advantages: this is a Lumia that's practical, choosing to offer a removable back cover for access to the battery, and a microSD card slot for expansion - both features those aforementioned phones lack.
In a sense it's safely nondescript and that carries with it the feeling that this Lumia has been developed for business customers first, where a safe and practical design might take precedence over consumer flourish. The more we've used the Lumia 950, the less this matters: there's nothing inherently wrong, but it's not a showcase for a new breed of Windows 10 devices, sitting in contrast to the wonderful looks of the Surface devices.
Microsoft Lumia 950 review: Hardware & display
Moving on from design, it's the hardware where the Lumia 950 is likely to be judged. At the core is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 chipset - the same as the LG G4, Nexus 5X and others - so it's familiar territory to Android watchers. That's paired with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, expandable by microSD, making for a better story than the design.
There's USB Type-C on the base, for that super-convenient any-way-up charging, as well as Qi wireless charging and yes, the replaceable battery. That battery is good for just about a day of life. We've found ourselves having to charge towards the end of a day; power users will probably find they need to charge middle-of-day when extensively using the handset, especially if you're making a lot of calls, using navigation and so on. Simply put, battery life isn't anything to get excited about, so you might want that spare.
Windows 10 on this Lumia runs really fast. It's slicker and smoother than Windows 8 was, but this is also a more powerful handset than those devices that came before. That's not to say it always flies: we've found it to be a little unstable at times, although we suspect that's down to software rather than anything that the hardware is doing.
The display is a 5.2-inch Quad HD display, meaning it's packing in 2560 x 1440 pixels, for a cracking 564ppi. It's an AMOLED panel, something that appeared on a number of previous Lumia devices, but more commonly associated with companies like Samsung. The result is a display that's full of colour and nice deep blacks, meaning slick-looking visuals: your photos and videos will look great.
We've found the display to be bright enough in all conditions, with a benefit of Glance Screen to feed you information without powering it on. At times it's a little unresponsive though. You can access notifications and quick actions with a swipe down, but we found it often didn't respond, until you'd swiped it several times.
On paper the hardware specs are those of a sub-premium 2015 handset, so it's fairly current. The display visual quality is good and there's plenty of power, although this isn't the slickest performer at this level of spec, we suspect because Windows 10 needs refinement.
Microsoft Lumia 950 review: Windows Hello
One of Windows' hot new features is Windows Hello. This is a general term for biometric identification, designed to make your Windows device secure, but give you quick access. On the Lumia 950, this is via iris scanning.
Iris scanning is fairly rare on smartphones, although it sounds like an exciting futuristic feature, thanks to Hollywood's obsession with it - films like Goldeneye and Mission: Impossible push eye scanning as a security device, but the reality is slightly less glamorous.
Like face unlock on Android, or using a fingerprint scanner, Window Hello has to learn your eye. Once you've spent some time looking at it, it will know you, unlocking when it recognises you. It's slick, fast and reliable enough: we found it unlocked in a variety of conditions, although it's often faster to type in a PIN instead.
However, when using the iris scanner, it shines a red light into your eye. After we'd used this for a bit, we found it got too dazzling. It might be a fancy way to unlock your phone, but you'll be forever blinking away the bright spots in your eyes.
We're frequent phone users, accessing a phone many times a day, and this simply isn't compatible with something that's going to dazzle you with each unlock. If you barely use your phone you might get on with it, but we would much prefer a fingerprint scanner.
Microsoft Lumia 950 review: Windows 10 software
As one of the debut devices for Windows 10 Mobile, the Lumia 950 has got off to something of a rocky start. Windows 10 on a PC, and on the Surface and other tablets, is a great step forward that we really like. The software goes some way to fuse desktop and mobile worlds together in a way that Windows 8 tried and failed.
Microsoft is gunning for a single platform across all its hardware portfolio - desktop, tablet, Xbox and smartphone - so there's a lot of design consistency across these platforms. For Windows (phone) that means plenty of change, visually speaking. This addresses some pain points from WP8.1, such as putting the settings into better defined headings, where previously it was a long-running list of some 60+ items. But at the same time, it feels as though the job is only half complete.
Take, for example, the settings here on the Lumia 950. You have sensibly top-line headings, like System, but when you get to the bottom of the list, there's still an Extras section. This is like a general waste bin of the forgotten, a collection of odds and ends that just dangle out of the bottom of the list.
We can see how this situation arose: when Nokia marched into Windows Phone, it brought with it options that were new and unique, and these had their own place at the end of the list. Now this is a Microsoft home-grown device, brand new, with brand new software, but it's still messy like it was before. Then you have things like the change of icons in the quick actions area. The icons are now so minimal they're almost meaningless. On a mobile device they seem to be unnecessarily small.
But Windows 10 Mobile isn't without charm. Live Tiles and the customisation options are still the star of the show, presenting a dynamic homepage experience that you don't get elsewhere. We really like it.
Cortana is smarter too, delivering a great experience, one to rival what Google Now and Siri offer on Android and iOS respectively. We like that Cortana will cut in when your phone is connected to a Bluetooth device - that means that when driving it will give you smart options, like offering to read your messages that arrive.
We don't think that Window 10 on a smartphone makes the best use of space though. The icon set that makes sense on desktop doesn't look good on mobile where everything is smaller, so in some ways, it feels like Microsoft shoehorning Windows 10's design ethics into the mobile space, which is a shame, as it's a lesser experience for it.
We've also found some instability as we've mentioned. There's been the occasional reboot, especially at times when you're chopping and changing between tasks, and we've also found ourselves having to pull the battery occasionally. Hopefully, these things can be addressed with updates, as we don't think Windows 10 is as good as it can be on the phone. Microsoft's keyboard is more flexible on Windows 10, but it's not as adept as Android rivals: the acquisition of SwiftKey could bring about a rapid change however.
Finally we have to address the "app gap" as it's often called. Windows 10 Mobile's best apps are often those from Microsoft: we love the Office experience and the shift over to Outlook is mostly for the better; the calendar is much stronger than it was; and email is now more convenient with one inbox for many accounts, even if it could handle email rendering better.
But there's definitely a gap in experience between Windows 10 and Android or iOS. Microsoft has spent a lot of time talking about universal apps for Windows 10, but we really don't see that having an impact yet. Where the app experience is likely to be measured is in the high volume apps, like social media ones. Just looking across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it's clear that Windows is a long way behind. It feels as though the developers have walked away: Facebook is slow, Twitter is pre-historic and Instagram has been in beta for an eternity. That's not to say there aren't good apps, but there's a huge disparity at present.
Microsoft Lumia 950 review: Continuum
One of the headline features for Windows 10 is Continuum. It's an addition that realises the old mobile working dream, letting you connect your smartphone to a monitor and have a system that's very much like a desktop. With Windows 10 offering universal apps, the idea is to give you everything in your pocket, no matter where you are.
Continuum is very clever. You need to hook-up your Lumia 950 to Microsoft's Display Dock (a £79 accessory) to get it to work, but then you have a desktop rendering of your smartphone on the big screen. It means that in many cases you can leave a laptop at home and basically dock your smartphone.
When you do so, you not only get a desktop that looks like Windows 10, but you still have access to most of your phone's features. The phone converts into a trackpad for navigation, and there's the option of using a keyboard or mouse too. For those who want to get productive, it means your phone is the one device you need. Oh, and the dock and a display to connect it to, perhaps a keyboard as well.
Microsoft has spent a long time demonstrating Continuum and it stole headlines at the launch of these devices. But it might be a feature that doesn't really see much consumer use. Firstly, you need a setup with a Display Dock waiting for you, or an empty display to connect your dock to, but it won't fully replace your desktop, because power applications won't be available - like Photoshop, for example.
But secondly, Continuum sort of runs opposed to Microsoft's other big software theme, and that's cloud synchronisation. With Office apps across all major platforms offering an excellent experience, you don't need your phone to be the one device at the centre of things. You can hop from platform to platform, accessing your content on OneDrive without a problem.
Continuum might be very smart, but it lacks the immediate simplistic appeal of something like Google Cast for getting content to the big screen. It also attempts to turn your smartphone back into a PC, and we're not sure that was the aim of the post-PC era, for the consumer at least. In a big business deployment, we can see how Continuum could let people switch from a mobile to a desk role without duplicating hardware.
Microsoft Lumia 950 review: Cracking cameras
One of the areas where Nokia did remarkably well in its Lumia line was in cameras. Much of that seems to have flowed into Microsoft Devices, but things have been stripped down from WP8, with support for many of those Lenses (additional camera apps) being ditched. The same principle exists, however, with home-grown Lenses like Lumia Cinemagraph still existing, alongside third-party ones like Vine, all of which virtually plug into the camera app.
Microsoft is one of the few companies hanging on to a physical camera button (Sony is the other on the Xperia handsets) and that makes accessing the camera easy, as it will launch with a long press.
The standard camera app is what was once the "pro" app, so there are plenty of options for control. You get manual controls for focus, ISO, and shutter speed if you really want to work that exposure.
There's a 20-megapixel sensor with optical image stabilisation sitting under the six-element Zeiss lens on the rear of the Lumia 950. It's a 1/2.4in sensor, offering f/1.9 aperture, and comes with a triple LED flash in support.
The performance of this camera is good, offering some excellent results in good conditions. It's pretty fast to focus and delivers images with natural colour balance. It offers reasonable dynamic range, avoiding those blown-out highlights and mushy shadows, with Rich Capture aiming to make the most of scenes, and often letting you tweak the exposure afterwards.
Performance drops off as the light does, but the manual controls give you some potential to take control, keeping the ISO sensitivity low, for example. You can then see the impact on the shutter speed so you can decide whether you'll have to support the phone to eliminate handshake. If you do, you'll get some good low-light results.
There's a 5-megapixel f/2.4 camera on the front of the 950 for all those selfies. This is pretty good in bright conditions, but results get grainy pretty quickly as the light drops and the ISO rises. You can also apply those manual settings to the front camera too, so if you want to take a lower-light selfie but keep the ISO down for a better result you can. You might also want to try some of the fun options in the Lumia Selfie app.
There are also plenty of video capture options. Resolutions run up to Ultra HD levels, with 2160p at 30fps the top setting - but there's also a 1080p at 60fps for those wanting to capture faster motion smoothly. There's also a slow-motion option for the rear camera. The front camera also doesn't miss out on these options and here the Lumia 950 steps above some rivals: there's a 2208 x 1242/30p option for the front camera, if you want to squeeze out a little more resolution.
Overall, the Lumia 950 runs a well considered compliment of cameras, with lots of functionality offered by the app, and good results offered across a range of conditions. This continues Lumia's heritage of offering a good camera experience and it's certainly one of the highlights of this handset.
The Microsoft Lumia 950 perhaps isn't the flagship handset that many were expecting. Sitting in that convenient size at 5.2-inches, it may be a more natural choice over the 950 XL's 5.7-inch size. There's a good display on this phone, paired with hardware that offers plenty of power and a camera experience that's competitive.
But the design doesn't shout flagship, it shouts perfunctory. There's little of interest, there's no colour choices, there's little to turn heads. In a line-up of current flagships, the Lumia 950 succeeds in being the least noteworthy when it comes to design. For someone given this as a work phone that might not matter, as it sits in the hand well enough, and maintains the advantage of offering a removable battery.
At the same time, Windows 10 Mobile doesn't really feel like a reinvention and it doesn't feel like it's going to propel Windows Phone back into a premium position. The Lumia 950 offers the same software charms as its predecessors in Live Tiles, Glance Screen and a few others, but the software is littered with inconsistencies and odd design choices. The vaulted Continuum might be a clever addition, but we can't really see how it fits in the real consumer world in contrast with Microsoft's connected OneDrive strategy, and the iris scanner employed by Windows Hello is dazzling to the point of being uncomfortable.
The Microsoft Lumia 950 doesn't feel like a glittering showcase of the future of Microsoft mobile devices. It's a poor cousin to the Surface, something that seems adequately conceived rather than brilliantly executed. Its strengths are that camera and the £419 asking price, but Windows needs to go Surface-style pro in the phone market to take on the burgeoning competition.