Lumia 950 or 950 XL: the two month verdict!

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Away from worries over Windows 10 Mobile itself not being quite 'finished', there's still the fascinating choice of which Microsoft flagship (and remember that these are arguably the last ever 'Nokia' designs) to buy. Usually there would be a specs vs size set of compromises, but in the case of the Lumia 950 and 950 XL, the specifications are so close that it really comes down to form factor and other aspects. As someone whose SIM card has been in and out of each device roughly 20 times in the last two months, rather indecisively, I thought I'd prompt more discussion and deliver my own - eventual - verdict.

Lumia 950 and 950 XL

It all started when the two flagships were announced - obviously - with a companion piece to this one penned in mid-November before anyone had looked at either device for more than a few minutes. In it, I weighed up the specs of the 950 and 950 XL and decreed that for only a small increase in size you might as well go for the device with the highest specification and largest screen. Get the XL, I said:

You see, quite apart from other considerations, remarked on below, everyone who tries the two phones comments that there's not that much difference in size, in the hand - so why wouldn't you then go for the phone with the larger screen?

Making the benefit of a screen that's a full half inch bigger very relevant indeed. The 950's 5.2" display actually ends up as a 5" display, the same as on the now quite old Lumia 930 and 830, thanks to the virtual controls. Yes, these go away at times in the UI and especially when consuming media, so it's not a permanent downgrade, but that extra 0.2" is almost exactly the amount lost through the controls. In other words, a lot of the time on the Lumia 950 you'll have the same amount of content as on the older phones, i.e. it's not much of a bump 'up' from what you may have had before.

Although part of me sticks to the line that if you own a Lumia 930 then you probably don't need either the 950 or 950 XL unless you have the funds readily available, let's assume for the purposes of this feature that you don't own a 930 (or 1520) and that this is a jump into Windows 10 Mobile for the first time, or you have a lesser Windows Phone 8.1 device.

In the original feature, I'd handily listed a 950/950 XL specs comparison, so let's quote that again here, as it's instructive (the differences are in orange):

  Lumia 950 Lumia 950 XL
OS Windows 10 Mobile Windows 10 Mobile
Dimensions 145 x 73 x 8mm, 150g 152 x 78 x 8mm, 165g
Chipset 1.8GHz Snapdragon 808
64-bit hexacore
2.0GHz Snapdragon 810 v2.1
64-bit octacore
'Liquid cooling'
GPU Adreno 418 Adreno 430
Connectivity LTE up to 450Mbps
plus dual SIM option
LTE up to 450Mbps
plus dual SIM option
Display 5.2" AMOLED, QHD (1440p)
ClearBlack Display
Glance screen
Gorilla Glass 3 
5.7" AMOLED QHD (1440p)
ClearBlack Display
Glance screen
Gorilla Glass 4 
Storage 32GB, plus microSD 32GB, plus microSD
Rear camera 20MP, PureView with
oversampling down to 8MP
1/2.4", f/1.9
Fifth generation OIS
Triple LED flash
4K capture
Dedicated capture key 
20MP, PureView with
oversampling down to 8MP
1/2.4", f/1.9
Fifth generation OIS
Triple LED flash
4K capture
Dedicated capture key 
Front camera 5MP 5MP
Cabling/charging USB Type-C (up to 5Gb/s)
USB 3.1 standard
Quick Charge 2.0
Qi wireless
USB Type-C (up to 5Gb/s)
USB 3.1 standard
Quick Charge 2.0
Qi wireless
Battery 3000mAh replaceable   3300mAh replaceable 
Speaker Rear-mounted, mono Rear-mounted, mono
Other Infrared iris-scanner ('Hello Beta')
Infrared iris-scanner ('Hello Beta')

Here's my original verdict (having not used either phone!):

For the sake of that only very slightly larger form factor (and only about £50 more in initial outlay), you also get a significantly faster chipset, including faster GPU, and a battery that's 10% bigger. The latter is somewhat moot since there's a larger display to power, but you just know the former will come in handy when rendering video, web pages and playing high spec games in the future. And as an extra zinger, quite a few retail outlets are doing offers to bundle the Microsoft Display Dock (for Continuum) for anyone buying the Lumia 950 XL. Making the larger phone even better value.

I suppose it only goes to show that you shouldn't base anything on specifications alone. Having used both phones at length, the difference in performance between the two is miniscule - you really do have to get a stopwatch out over many operations to notice the different chipsets. Or play a game along enough, or shoot a video long enough, that the 950 XL's Snapdragon 810 starts to overheat and then throttles back. Which I don't think I've ever seen in real life.

Anyway, I've made up my mind - the Lumia 950 is the one for me. This was actually my gut reaction after using both in the very first week - you can sense overtones of the 950 being the more 'solid' in the conclusion to my full 950 XL review. Then, in my review of the Lumia 950, I said:

The smaller sister device to the Lumia 950 XL reviewed five days ago, the Lumia 950 is lower-specced (slightly) but feels more of a product that can be recommended to more friends and colleagues, being more solid (no creaks), more manageable in the hand... and quite a bit cheaper. In fact, taking into account its unique selling points, I'd say that the Lumia 950 is the most bang per buck at this 'sweet spot' form factor in the smartphone world right now. For Windows Phone (and W10M) fans, I'd go further - this is the Holy Grail, the one device with everything we've been asking for.

And, some bugs and issues in Windows 10 Mobile aside, I stand by this. There's very little I'd change about the specifications of the Lumia 950. If ever a standard-sized phone was created for Windows Phone 'fans' then the 950 is the one in terms of packing the absolute most in.

Of the two flagships then, the 950 is the one that I'd pick based purely on comfort and form factor. I know this is subjective, but if the aim of 'convergence' really is to get as much functionality in as possible while keeping the device size manageable then the 950 is the one that nails it.

We can discount any chipset and GPU performance differences then. What about battery life - there's the drop in battery capacity by 300mAh for the Lumia 950? In use, I honestly haven't noticed one device getting longer use on a charge - Windows 10 Mobile itself is very definitely not optimised yet in my opinion and both phones are out of power by tea-time with my normal use. Until the OS settles down, it'll be hard to draw many conclusions about the battery-efficiency of the two bits of hardware.

Although the cameras in the two devices are identical (and good), the 950 XL feels the more cumbersome when out and about snapping away, whereas the standard-sized body of the Lumia 950 feels comfortable and natural.

The use of Gorilla Glass 4 on the phablet and '3' on the phone doesn't make any difference in real life - in theory the 950 XL has glass which is less liable to break if dropped onto a hard surface, but then it's less protected (the 950 has a ridge around the display) and the larger form factor makes it easier to drop, so you could argue this point either way.

What about controls? The 950 XL's non-standard layout is initially annoying, but you get used to it very quickly and then you switch back to the 950 and keep turning the screen off instead of adjusting the volume because you've got used to the 950 XL button cluster. So I don't think either layout is intrinsically 'better'.

Finally, however, there's one extra aspect which isn't directly quantified above, but which is vital to me - speaker quality. I listen to a lot of podcasts during the day while doing chores and decent volume and quality is essential. Ditto for Maps navigation instructions while driving. Initially, in my reviews I'd rated the speakers here as identical and but in a direct comparison I found that the sound produced by the 950 has more 'body', a wider range of frequencies:

We're not talking earth-moving speakers in the same manner as the Google Nexus 6 or HTC One M7 or even that in the Lumia 1020 and 920. But the 950's speaker is good enough and loud enough, whereas the 950 XL's speaker has so little middle and bottom frequencies that it's harsh on the ear. See what you think in the video above, captured quickly on the Nokia 808 with its top notch microphones.

After a little investigation of the disassembly guides online, I found that the speaker components used in the two smartphones are, in fact, different. Here are the relevant frame grabs for the 950 and then for the 950 XL:


Note the 'F5L01' and 'F4BY1' part numbers. Anyway, empirical listening shows a clear difference.

Little things then:

  • easier to carry
  • more solid in the hand (fewer creaks)
  • a better sounding speaker
  • more standard button layout
  • screen not quite so exposed if dropped
  • cheaper

Add them all together though and, for me at least, the (smaller) Lumia 950 comes out as the winner above its larger sister device. Your comments welcome - do you disagree?

Lumia 950 and 950 XL

Resplendent in Mozo replacement backs, the Lumia 950 and 950 XL

PS. Thanks very much to Mobile Fun for loaning us the Lumia 950 pictured above, left. See the company's Lumia 950 accessories and, indeed, buy page for the Lumia 950 itself.