Two Weeks with Lumia 950 XL

If you know me well, you know I have been waiting for this phone for a long time. My old Lumia 920 stopped working at a time when there were no high end replacements running my operating system of choice. I decided to buy a Lumia 630 to keep me going until there was something I really wanted.

The 630 was good value, but it was underpowered for what I wanted to do with it (skipping the Windows Insider Program wasn’t an option!). Because of this, I took less photographs, listened to less music, and generally found ways to avoid doing anything complicated on my phone. Not cool.

I stuck with it and waited until a new flagship arrived, and boy did it take a while.

The Lumia 950 XL is just what I needed: the operating system I wanted, the same ecosystem I was invested in – but the whole experience is much better.

With that in mind, this isn’t so much of a review of the 950 XL, or even of Windows 10. It’s more about how having this new phone has changed what I can do when compared to the previous handset.

Lumia 950 XL

The 5.7 inch and 518 PPI screen is large, crisp, and bright. It supports the same Lumia settings as other devices, so I can set it to have my preferred warm and vivid colour profile – similar to what can be achieved by using F.lux on a PC.

Lumia 950 XL Screen Comparison

The above picture has a screenshot of OneNote running on the 630 (left) compared to the same page on the 950 XL (right). You can easily see that the information density is higher, as well as the overall size of the display.

Lumia 950 XL Screen Comparison

In this cropped 100% zoomed screenshot, you can see here that the text itself is much larger on the 950 XL (right), making it seem a lot crisper to the eyes. It’s very difficult to make out individual pixels with the naked eye.

The 950 XL also uses AMOLED technology, which is by far my preferred choice of screen for a device like this. Black is black, and each pixel has its own light source. As an astronomer, this is important as 100% red is 100% red, which is great for using Astrolight.

Like most of the other Lumia devices, it supports micro SD expansion. I’m using 64 GB for photos, music, maps and all those things that take up lots of space on a phone. I have set the built in 32 GB of storage to be used by apps only. This means if I need to change the card at any point, I won’t need to reinstall everything.

Lumia 950 XL

The phone itself has a bit of a strange feel to it. You can’t really call it premium. It’s crazy light, has a removable plastic back, and the side buttons feel just a little bit too sharp around the edges for my tastes. It’s not bad, it just doesn’t give the same kind of premium feel of an iPhone.

I do like the understated branding, and I find that the silvered Microsoft logo on the back looks great.

Lumia 950 XL

It’s significantly larger than my 630 and I can feel it in my pocket, but it’s not too large. I’m already thinking that the 5.7 inch mark is probably the sweet spot for me moving forward.

It also has all of the hardware features I sorely missed on the 630 – a front facing camera, ambient light sensor, dedicated camera button and glance mode support. Crucially, it also includes a powerful new camera and flash.

Lumia 950 XL

I absolutely adore photography and, as many photographers know, the best camera is the one that you have with you. With the 630, taking a photograph was a slow process, or impossible with some builds of the Windows 10 preview. The app would simply crash and not let me take the photograph.

The 950 XL’s camera is significantly faster than the 630. With the dedicated camera button on the side, this means that I can pull the phone out of my pocket and take a photograph in seconds.

On the back you can see the tri-colour flash. I’ve not experimented with the flash enough to say for sure that a tri-colour one is superior, but I can say that it’s bright and fast.

Lumia 950 XL Flash Adjustment

Field Notes DDC Dead Print

The built-in Lumia Creative Studio software allows you to change the intensity of the flash after the photo has been taken. This is a really nice feature, but I would say that the post-processing of these images is a little sluggish compared to the usual high speeds of the device.

Overall, the camera is fantastic. I’ll probably end up posting more pictures taken with it over the coming months, as the weather hasn’t been too ideal.

Windows 10 Audio Apps

Audio is also great with the 950 XL. I regularly use Groove Music, Pocket Casts and Audible to listen to music and spoken audio. Unfortunately he device itself didn’t come with any earphones, but I have a couple of pairs already so I didn’t mind too much.

I have a Nokia Purity Headset for listening to music. They are still the best earphones you can get for Windows phones, and I would really love to see Microsoft release a successor.

I also Microsoft Comfort Headset which I use for listening to spoken audio and making phone calls. The Purity Headset has much better noise reduction and sounds really great with the music I listen to, but the bass can be a bit much when listening to audiobooks. The Comfort Headset is also a bit safer to use when walking in the street, as the sound of traffic comes through without being blocked.

Lumia 950 XL

For charging and connectivity the 950 XL uses USB Type-C connector and comes with two cables – a standard USB cable for the computer and a fast charge cable for plugging into the wall. I have found that the fast charging really is quick when compared to my 630, it’s a great feature to have.

The cable is too short though, and at time of writing it’s super complicated to find acceptable USB Type-C cables: Microsoft don’t list the official ones in the UK store, and the world of third party cables is complex. One of the adapters I purchased doesn’t meet the specs, so I am not going to use it.

Windows Hello

The 950 XL also includes a couple of new features which I don’t think I have had enough time with. Windows Hello allows biometric authentication using the built in iris scanner, and the Display Dock allows you to connect your phone to a monitor, keyboard and mouse to get a full screen experience. I have tried both, but only in limited ways so I am not sure how good they are yet.

Lumia 950 XL

Overall I am really pleased with the Lumia 950 XL. It gives me with the Windows experience I want on a large and powerful device. I appreciate that this is not a device for every consumer, but it feels like it was made for me.

I would like to see an even more premium Windows device come in the future though, and hopefully a Surface Phone will be around in a couple of years when I replace this one.

Highlights from Build 2015

The Build 2015 conference has just taken place in San Francisco.

Like last year, this has been another huge event for Microsoft, and a big deal for the people who build solutions using their technologies.

There have been way more interesting things happening than I can possibly cover in one article, but I have decided to cover the three most important to me:

.NET, Windows and Azure.

An exciting future for .NET and Open Source

The future of .NET is the continued push to an open source .NET Core, which is at the centre of both the latest ASP.NET runtime and the Universal Windows app platform. In the future, this will expand and include other application types. In my opinion, they’ve picked the right place to start.

Applications running on the CoreCLR can be developed and deployed on cloud and server-based infrastructures running different operating systems including Windows, Linux and OS X. I have been watching the development efforts on GitHub for a while now, and I’ve set it up on my own machines running both Windows and Linux. It sure is a sight to see.

As well as the core runtime itself going open source, other technologies like Roslyn have enabled products that many wouldn’t have guessed would see the light of day. Having an open source compiler platform has enabled Visual Studio Code – a new cross platform text editor with Intellisense – to be built.

I was lucky enough to see Visual Studio Code before it was announced, and it changed the way I thought about collaboration with Mac users instantly. I’ll have more on this new text editor soon.

Visual Studio Code

With the RC of Visual Studio 2015 there have been some big improvements in the languages supported including both the more traditional C# and Visual Basic, and (my personal favourite) F#.

The Visual F# improvements in ‘every day’ activities are dramatic for anyone who has been using the language. This is all thanks to the new open source attitude, and the amazing community around F# who have helped to develop the Visual F# tools on GitHub.

This new world of cross-platform and open source .NET technology is going to enable some amazing scenarios for .NET developers like myself.

Windows 10’s application platform takes shape

The aforementioned Universal Windows app platform is really taking shape now. Gone are the days of very prescriptive (and maybe too forward-looking) design patterns of Windows 8, and in is the ‘do what’s right for your applications‘ model that has been working well for some for a while.

Universal Windows apps scale from the smallest phones and Internet of Things devices up to the large screens of the Xbox One and the Surface Hub. The most ‘universal’ of these apps are built with just one binary which includes a scalable UI. This allows you to even have the ‘desktop’ app experience when used on a landscape 5.7 inch phone, or when plugged into an external screen using an amazing new Continuum for Phones feature.

For app developers there are some interesting (and controversial) new ways for software venders to build for Windows. The biggest of which are the bridges from Android and iOS. These two are extremely important for the phone and work especially well for iOS games which don’t rely too heavily on the operating specific UI elements. Combined with the bridges for ‘classic windows’ apps and websites using Microsoft Edge, the Store should get a lot more apps on this Windows 10 wave of releases.

From a user’s view, Windows 10 has really rounded out, with the latest Insider Preview feeling a lot more polished than any of the previous builds. Seeing HoloLens run standard Windows Universal apps was a big deal too.

I’ll have more thoughts on these in the future as the Insider Preview continues, and more information for HoloLoens is released at E3.

<

h3>Microsoft <3 Docker and other Azure improvements

Azure, and the Microsoft Cloud in general, continue to amaze me. Microsoft has managed to embrace this new way of building (and selling) software in at breakneck speed. Additional services were added throughout the platform all the way from storage and networking, to analytics and machine learning. Way too many for this article.

Two of the biggest highlights were the ability to run the complete Azure Stack locally, and Azure’s new Data Lake features too, something which Amazon has had a lot of success with.

Microsoft <3 Docker

For me though, the most interesting changes were around Docker support across Windows and Azure. Docker has been on my radar for a while, but I have yet to use it in production. I have plans to do so in the not too distant future.

Lumia 630

Sometimes technology fails at a bad time, and in my case – my Lumia 920 died when there are no true flagship Lumia phones on the market.
 
I decided to get the exceptionally good value Lumia 630 phone without contract and I’m now using it as my main phone.

Lumia 630

There are a number of things I miss from my Lumia 920 – the high resolution screen, the dedicated camera button, the automatic brightness adjustment and lots more. But where the Lumia 630 excels is in everyday use.
 
The core experiences of the Windows phone are exactly the same on this cheap device when compared to my old higher-powered device. This is a testament to how well the Windows Phone 8.1 operating system performs on the limited hardware. Very impressive really.
 
I’m also impressed with the battery life and the overall size, weight, and simplicity of the design. It’s a great little phone and will serve as my backup device as soon as I get another flagship device.
 
Fingers crossed that a Lumia 1030 isn’t too far away.