Microsoft's new Windows 10 smartphone is no world beater

Published on December 2 2015

Microsoft boasted about how good Surface Book was when it unveiled the Windows 10 laptop in early October. I happen to agree. The company said much the same about another strong Windows 10 computer that has arrived this fall, the Surface Pro 4 tablet-notebook.

But no one at Microsoft appears to have gone out of his or her way to suggest that the Lumia 950 smartphone that recently went on sale is a world beater.

That’s because this new Windows 10 phone is anything but.

I’m not saying this latest Lumia is awful or even a hopeless cause. But it’s nothing special and in my tests was sometimes buggy. That can’t possibly bolster Microsoft’s standing as a distant also-ran in the phone business, way behind Android and the iPhone.

Still, I expect the Lumia 950 to appeal to the small but loyal segment of Windows Phone users who have been patiently waiting to upgrade. It’s interesting on other levels, with some genuinely promising, if half-baked, features that come with this first phone to run Windows 10, including the ability to stand in, sort of, for your PC.

You can buy this latest device unlocked for $549 from the Microsoft Store. AT&T is also selling the phone in the U.S. for $24.96 a month under two-year financing (with other financing options available).

Microsoft's new Windows 10 smartphone is no world beater

The Lumia 950 runs Windows 10. (Photo: Eli Blumenthal, USA TODAY)

But forget about Microsoft conquering market share here, and given truth serum Microsoft execs would probably be the first ones to admit that.

Back in July, Microsoft wrote down $7.6 billion on the Nokia business related to its ill-fated acquisition more than a year earlier of the once dominant Finnish phone-maker. But Microsoft is not giving up on the handset business entirely either, and the new Windows phones—the 950 won’t be the last--are meant to focus on the enterprise, cater to Windows fans, and reach the value segment of the market, not that this particular device comes cheap.

A closer look:

*The basics: The 950 has a polycarbonate casing that felt fine in my hand. It just doesn’t scream premium design like say the iPhone 6s, Nexus 6P or Galaxy S6.

The phone has robust specs: a Qualcomm Snapdragon “hexa-core” processor, 3GB RAM and 32GB of storage that you can expand with an optional memory card up to 200GB.

The crisp 5.2-inch Quad HD display holds its own. (I didn’t review the Lumia 950XL, which has a larger 5.7-inch display and mostly similar specs and features.)

Photography has been a traditional Nokia strength, and the 20-megapixel rear camera on the 950 lives up to its Lumia heritage. As on the new iPhones, you can capture “living” images that automatically add a brief moment of video to an otherwise still photo. You can shoot 4K video too.

The battery is removable, which is nice, and it can be quickly charged using the USB Type-C connector that is an emerging standard. Alas, older USB charger cables you may have lying around won’t work. Wireless charging is also an option.

*Interjecting Windows 10. The tile-faced interface will look familiar to Windows Phone or PC users dating back to Windows 8, and of course, all the usual Microsoft apps including Office are readily at hand. Then again, Microsoft now has excellent versions of these apps for iOS and Android.

Microsoft’s voice search assistant Cortana is a refreshing presence on the Lumia 950, as on earlier Windows phones and more recently on Windows 10 computers.

Microsoft’s Edge browser also debuts on the latest phones.

So does a feature called Windows Hello, which lets you unlock the device using your iris. It sounds cool in concept, but there’s a reason this biometric feature remains in beta because it proved unreliable in dim light or when I put on glasses (I trained it without wearing glasses.) Even when my eyes successfully unlocked the phone, the process was slower than typing a PIN code.

*Continuum. Continuum is the closest thing to a razzle dazzle feature here, the ability to connect the phone to a TV or external monitor and use it as a PC substitute. I tried it on LG TVs in my home and office, turning them into limited versions of Windows 10 PCs.

You’ll have to spring for the optional $99 Microsoft Display Dock, and connect a keyboard or mouse (wireless or otherwise), though when plugged into the dock, the phone itself can serve as a pretty good trackpad. Microsoft scales everything so it looks proper on the larger monitor, down to the Start menu at the lower left corner of the screen.

While Continuum is promising, it’s got a long way to go. Few apps can take advantage. The experience was buggy.

Some, but not all of, Microsoft’s own “universal” apps are among the early ones that do work. I was able to type in Word, display the Maps app and watch movie trailers through Microsoft’s Movies & TV app. I also was able to watch Netflix movies via the Edge browser—but not through the Netflix Windows 10 app.

Cortana also worked on the TV as did USA TODAY’s Windows app, but most of the other third party apps I tried aren’t yet compatible. Microsoft is pushing developers to buy in—the lure is that more than 110 million devices are already using Windows 10 either on PCs or the Xbox One.

But whether using Continuum or not, there are still far fewer available apps available here compared to Android and iOS.

Microsoft has done a bang up job in making the case for, and actually delivering first-rate hybrid devices like the Surface line. When it comes to phones however, it still has plenty of work to do.

Email: ebaig@usatoday.com; Follow USA TODAY personal tech columnist @edbaigon Twitter

The bottom line

Microsoft Lumia 950

www.microsoft.com

$550 (unlocked)

Pro. Windows 10 phone has good camera, nice display, fast charging, removable battery, potential through Continuum.

Con. Buggy. Still relatively few apps. Windows Hello and Continuum aren’t fully baked, the latter requires an accessory.

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