Head to head: Lumia 950 XL vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

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The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the pick of the last three years of Samsung flagships, I contend. Imaging, performance, this gets almost everything right... at a price, both financial and in size and weight. I haven't done a straight 'head to head' for a while on AAWP, but the time seems right to feature the S21 Ultra, alongside the usual big Lumia favourite.

950 XL and S21 Ultra

Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra

As usual, just for fun and curiosity, I've shaded in green an obvious 'win' for either device. Any row where a winner would be totally subjective is left uncoloured. Or, where all devices are utterly excellent but in different ways, I've given each a 'green'(!)

[By the way, if you're viewing this feature on a phone then the table may well cause you problems. Try viewing in landscape mode? Failing that, go view this on a laptop or tablet!]

  Microsoft Lumia 950 XL Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G
Date first available November 2015 February 2021 
Current price, availability No longer officially for sale, though it's often on clearance prices if you're lucky and at outrageous profiteering prices due to rarity (if you're not!) £1150 for basic spec, inc VAT in the UK (or £1200 for 256GB or £1330 for 512GB storage)
Dimensions, form factor, weight 152 x 78 x 8mm, plastic chassis and replaceable backs (plastic/leather/wood etc, from Mozo, as modelled here, though you'll have to look on the clearance market and eBay at this stage), 165g, bezels are comparatively small. It's not often the 950 XL looks small compared to another phone, but...! 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9 mm, 227g, quite a bit taller and significantly heavier
Durability No specific durability metrics, though the fact that the back comes off will help enormously for water damage, i.e. taking out battery and cards immediately, drying out the internals, even unscrewing the motherboard from the guts of the phone. I'm old-school here! All damage to the back or corners is trivial through replacement of the rear, but the screen's exposed, of course. The plastics used should absorb shock and, anecdotally, I've never bothered putting a case on any Lumia. Just saying. I think that fact is significant. IP68 certified for dust/water. With Gorilla Glass 'Victus' front and back. But a serious drop onto concrete will result in an expensive glass replacement. Mind you, the Lumia's parts aren't always available anymore, which also has to be taken into consideration. 
Operating system, interface Windows 10 Mobile, (dismissable) virtual controls, as needed, now officially updated to W10 Fall Creators Update (Redstone 3, Autumn 2017) with security to 'January 2020'.

Android 11, Samsung's One UI 3.1, January 2021 security, gesture controls available, or navigation buttons on-screen (optional, but recommended by me).

Display  5.7" AMOLED (1440p at 16:9 aspect ratio, matching most video media), Gorilla Glass 4, ClearBlack Display polarisers help with outdoor contrast, excellent viewing angles. Screen area is approximately 88 cm2

Glance screen available (in various colours) for always-on time, day and notification icons, plus some detailed info from a specified app.

6.8" 1440p 120Hz 'Dynamic AMOLED 2X' display, 20:9 ratio, Gorilla glass Victus, screen area is roughly 112cm2

Excellent colours and contrast, even better than the Lumias, gets even more of a win here for the high refresh rate - I can't see the difference but then I'm relatively old(!) Young eyes will immediately see smoother scrolling.

There's an 'Always on' 'Glance' display with time, date and battery status, though turned off by default to save power.

Connectivity LTE, NFC (all uses), Wi-Fi b/g/n/ac, integral wifi tethering, Bluetooth 4.2 (all uses).

Continuum connectivity to use a wide range of first and third party UWP apps on external displays as secondary screen, independent of the phone display. Includes the NexDock 2, transforming the Lumia into a Windows 10 S laptop, effectively. Though a workaround is needed for the newer NexDock Touch!

LTE, 5G, NFC (all uses), Wi-Fi b/g/n/ac/6e, integral wifi tethering, Bluetooth 5.2 (all uses). Plus the DeX Desktop, which is more than the equal of Continuum, including working with the NexDock Touch and all other lap docks
Processor, performance Snapdragon 810 chipset, 3GB RAM, faster than it's ever been now on the Fall Creators Update though still slower for almost everything than on the Android phone. Multi tasking and app resumption is excellent though, at least with all the modern UWP apps
Snapdragon 888 or Exynos 2100, 12/16GB RAM (depending on variant), lightning fast at everything
Capacity 32GB internal storage, expandable via (cheap) microSD to extra 256GB 128/256/512GB internal storage, no card expansion, but these sizes are large enough that microSD shouldn't be missed too much. If you need to save a lot of 4K or 8K video then you just buy the 512GB version!
Imaging (stills) 20MP PureView f/1.9 1/2.4" sensor. Phase Detection auto-focus, dedicated camera shutter button and launch key, 1.5x lossless digital zoom (in 8MP oversampled mode, and lossy digital after that), OIS. 'Rich Capture' produces customisable HDR shots and 'dynamic flash', with triple LED illumination. Outstanding shots in most light conditions, with just focussing issues in low light as an Achilles heel.

108 MP, f/1.8, 1/1.33", PDAF, Laser AF, OIS
10 MP, f/4.9, 240mm (10x periscope telephoto), 1/3.24", dual pixel AF, OIS
10 MP, f/2.4, 70mm (3x telephoto), 1/3.24", dual pixel AF, OIS
12 MP, f/2.2, ultrawide, 1/2.55", dual pixel AF, Super Steady video

An imaging shootout is coming up... A lot will depend on pixel purity - can the Samsung ultra-flagship somehow dial back its edge enhancement?

5MP front camera 40 MP, f/2.2, 1/2.8", PDAF front camera, way better than the Lumia's.
Imaging (video) Up to 4K, optically (and optionally digitally) stabilised, with 'Best photo' 8MP grabbing built-in, plus Rich Recording and HAAC microphones for high quality, gig-level stereo capture. Up to 8K/24fps stabilised video capture and high quality stereo audio capture. 
Music and Multimedia
A tinny mono speaker by modern standards, though as ever you can trade volume for fidelity in a simple tweak on Lumias. Terrific stereo speakers, imbalanced physically, but tuned pretty well and with Dolby Atmos enhancement if needed.
3.5mm headphone jack, A2DP+AptX, plus a decent internal DAC, so great wired and wireless headphone audio too.  A2DP, AptX via Bluetooth or plug in a Type C DAC for best results. I do miss the 3.5mm jack on modern hardware though!
Navigation  Windows 10 Maps is now pretty mature and impressive, especially once you've learned the live traffic routine trick! Offline maps save a lot of data bandwidth for those on tight contracts or anyone in a low signal (data) area. But it's all looking a little neglected in 2020 compared to the bells and whistles in Google Maps. And even live traffic is now becoming erratic.
Google Maps is now the gold standard in phone navigation, tied in with many other Google services and offering true real time navigation around traffic issues, even at local level, along with offline maps that auto-update.
Cortana/Voice Cortana was in theory now mature and well integrated, though functionality has been falling away and most attempts to rouse her end in failure in 2020. Google Assistant is available via voice or swipe, and works well, far superior to the dying Cortana in 2020, due to the investment that Google has put in over the last few years. There's also Samsung's Bixby, which is the default voice assistant, but happily this is easy to disable. 
Battery, life  Removable 3000mAh battery, and the ability to change cells are a positive here (and you CAN still buy decent spare batteries), plus USB Type C Power Delivery (up to 3A, so 15W) and 1A Qi wireless charging built-in also helps. However, a Lumia running Windows 10 Mobile will now discharge in 24 hours even if you don't use it much, so it's a win here with caveats!
Sealed 5000mAh battery, gets easily through a day, with charge to spare. Type C port supports 25W wired charging via Power Delivery standard. Plus 15W Qi charging and 4.5W reverse wireless charging (for accessories). So a sealed battery, but... everything else is top notch on this front.
Cloud aids Windows Photos syncs at full resolution and quality across all signed-in devices, subject to your OneDrive tariff (stingy, unless you have Office 365 - most of us do, hence the 'win' here), should you have thousands of images in the system. Plus Windows 10 backs all your media, application data and settings to a separate backup folder system, tariff-free on OneDrive, for easy restoration on a new or factory reset phone. Google Photos does a great job of organising photos and syncing them across all signed-in phones and tablets, albeit at 'reduced' quality (re-compression server-side). Plus there's a local Gallery application with its own editing facilities and with a link to OneDrive, in case you want to go all Microsoft and not use Google's services.
File compatibility As with all Windows phones, plugging into a Windows PC gives full drag and drop to the phone's user file system. Plugging into a Mac is more problematic, though seems to work under Catalina. Plugging into any PC gives immediate MTP file access, plus this works on a Mac on all OS versions, with Google's Android File Transfer utility, for drag and drop of all user files. Seamless and lightning fast.
Biometrics  Iris recognition ('Windows Hello') works well unless you wear varifocals(!), but takes a couple of seconds (including an animation!) in real world use. There's also no official way of paying in shops using this. The ultrasonic fingerprint sensor is now larger and more reliable (than in the S10 and the S20 ranges), but it still only works 50% of the time for me. Unlocking and working to authenticate transactions too, as you'd expect, with Google Pay or in the Play Store.
Applications and ecosystem  Windows 10 Mobile had most (though not all) mainstream apps and services covered, though some are dropping away now - see my guide! Often third party clients are involved, mind you, there are companies who hate Microsoft so much that they simply refuse to write for Windows, it seems. And 'long tail' niche/boutique apps are hard to find for real world companies and shops. The might of Google and Android's app ecosystem - everything is available and almost always in first party form. 


Upgrades and future Windows 10 Mobile is now effectively out of support. From now on, it will be useable but with more and more service caveats applying. Still, 'January 2020' was well over four years since the Lumia 950 XL was launched, so it's hard to complain in terms of longevity. Samsung has an excellent track record at supporting its phones, so let's assume that this will get good support through to 2024.

950 XL and S21 Ultra


Adding up the green 'wins' (for fun?!) gives a whopping 15-4 win to the much newer device, which is completely overwhelming - the S21 Ultra draws back on some retro features that you and I love (expansion, jack, etc.) but doubles down on modern tech everywhere else, with the icing on the cake being a very flexible camera system. I've shot test photos on each and an imaging shootout is next, don't worry!