Microsoft Lumia 950 and 950XL review: Mini-PCs masquerading as smartphones?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 November, 2015, 9:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 November, 2015, 2:26pm

Microsoft adheres to a marketing ploy of persuading people buy its wares by creating brand new product categories, and with its newly introduced Lumia 950 and 950XL smartphones, it deviates from the script only a little.

Its Surface series of tablets featuring a desktop system and detachable keyboard are now starting to replace laptops among some consumers.

Perhaps inspired by this, its two latest smartphones come equipped with a modified version of Windows 10. In describing one of the new devices - but referring to both, Microsoft is billing it as “the phone that works like a PC”. But how legitimate is this bold claim?

The phones’ OS runs in a similar way to Windows Mobile. There is no star button or recycling bin on the screen, however, and they don’t run regular desktop software.

“You cannot just run an exe file on it,” said a Microsoft employee at its Hong Kong launch event on Thursday.

“You still need to download apps from the app store.”

One major gripe about Windows phones is the paucity of apps available for them. Many popular apps like Snapchat and Tinder don’t have versions that cross this digital divide. And many developers are still shying away until the number of users accumulates.

But with the addition of Windows 10 - the desktop version has already been installed or upgraded by over 110 million consumers globally - the new Lumia phones are likely to have a richer app ecosystem in the making.

“It is simpler for developers to develop apps for Windows system,” said Chester Wong at Microsoft Hong Kong.

It will also be easier to migrate among platforms. Wong said Microsoft has already released a tool called Bridge to translate iOS code into Windows code.

However there are already a number of apps worth crowing about.

Moreover, the new handsets can turn into de facto desktop workstations simply by connecting them to a wireless keyboard, mouse and monitor.

A new feature called Windows Continuum helps scale the phone up to a desktop-screen version. It can run software like Outlook, Word and Excel, but they all look like trimmed down, simplified versions of the respective desktop programme.

READ MORE: Laptops beware: Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 poses a legitimate threat, and it’s coming to Hong Kong next week

At present, Continuum only runs pre-installed programmes like the phone’s photo album, as well as a handful of software.

This new feature is also intended for entertainment. The phones can connect to smart TVs that support Miracast, a universal technology that connects mobile devices to a big screen via the internet.

Connecting one of the phones to an older TV requires forking out an extra HK$500 (US$64.50) or more on a dongle.

Even if connected to a larger monitor, the phone can still be used separately, and can still act as a touch pad to replace the mouse.

The Lumia 950 has a 5.2-inch screen while the 950XL offers an extra half an inch. They retain the series’ popular Pureview camera, with an optical anti-shake function, triple flash and 20MP sensor.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor and 3GB RAM make them among the fastest on the market. They have 32GB flash drives and support SD cards up to 200GB.

Their appearance seems a bit dull compared to other flagship phones with metal bodies or more colourful shells. Windows fans may consider them a great buy, as will consumers shopping for a mobile workstation.

Others may find they fail to excite, and hang on until Microsoft’s mobile ecosystem flourishes.

The Lumia 950XL will be available in Hong Kong from Friday, but local consumers will have to wait until December 11 for the smaller 950. They are expected to retail for HK$5,998 (US$774)and HK$5,388, respectively.

The dock that connects the phone with monitors can be purchased separately here for HK$888.