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Microsoft Lumia 950 XL & Windows 10 Mobile: The Shortest Daily Driver Challenge in History

[fa icon="calendar"] 17-Dec-2015 09:00:00 / by Eddie Vassallo

Eddie Vassallo

Amidst the fanfare and excitement of our iPad Pro Daily Driver Challenge Test the past few weeks, we actually set another 'daily driver challenge' in motion this past weekend that's worth discussing - this time on the mobile side of things.

This particular challenge began this past Saturday morning at around 9:45am when Amazon delivered the new Microsoft Lumia 950 XL Windows 10 Smartphone to my door, and ended precisely 8 hours later - with a partially bricked phone, a cracked screen, and a very annoyed Alpha-software tester.

But let me explain.

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As you have likely gleaned from my various posts here on the Entropy Chatter blog - I try to be pretty technology-agnostic. I find great things in iOS, Android, and yes - even Windows. I was a devoted user of a Surface Pro 3 last year, carried a Lumia 930 as my primary device for a month or two, and generally spent a good deal of time analyzing the impressive rebirth and evolution of Microsoft and the Windows platform.

And full disclosure - we develop apps not just for iOS and Android, but also Windows (including Universal PC & Phone apps across Windows 8.1 and Windows 10). 

And heck - I absolutely LOVE the Microsoft apps on my iPad Pro. They may be my favorite suite of apps on the entire device - Outlook (which is rock solid for an iPad email client by the way), Excel, Word, PowerPoint - all have pride of place on my home screen and are testament to the massive u-turn Microsoft has taken the past few years, in both User Experience and cross-device support.

But let's get this out of the way now - in its current form, Windows 10 Mobile is a total and complete joke.

There, I said it.

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First, the good.

The screen on Microsoft's latest flagship Lumia 950 XL (as well as its smaller brother the Lumia 950) is beyond wonderful. Simply put, it's an absolutely glorious 518 ppi AMOLED ClearBlack display - that 'pops' more than any Smartphone I've used this year - truly showcasing the absolute beauty and simplicity of the Windows interface. And although there is no fingerprint reader, Windows Hello (an iris-scanning biometric mechanism) is just SO DAMN COOL. I found myself locking and unlocking with my eyes over 200 times in the 8 hours I (attempted) to carry this phone. I probably did that more than anything else.

Right - so those are the good things. I feel I've at least helped my karma there...

The bad begins and ends with the software. And let me say, as a mobile and web development shop, we use a TON of Beta software (and heck, Alpha and even pre-Alpha software).

So it is rather important when I say - I have probably never experienced a more unfinished Mobile OS available to the general public than Windows 10 Mobile. 

I'm serious - this is MILES worse than early iOS or Android Betas you may tinker with or run on a backup handset to test out a new app or OS feature.

Put simply, Windows 10 Mobile is Alpha-bad. Heck, it's pre-Alpha bad.

Let me give you a few examples.

It took me three tries to turn the Lumia on and get it to STAY on. Battery was completely full, mind you. It simply wouldn't make it to the desktop in its boot cycle.

Another example - I (stupidly) attempted to update the software via the software settings (cause c'mon...this thing NEEDS a software update like nobody's business) and while it indeed found an available update, the phone completely froze on "Downloading updates 0%" for about 2 hours. Worse, something was downloading/communicating that entire time as the phone was extremely hot, the battery draining so fast I had to keep the phone plugged in, and I was constantly being barraged with 'device running out of space' warnings as rampant data (of some kind) was being downloaded via the update controller.

Soft reset and powering on/off did nothing to stop the frozen "Downloading updates 0%" fiasco, as the phone was completely unusable and effectively bricked when away from a power outlet.

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After some digging, this appears to be a known issue and something a number of Lumia 950 owners are experiencing.

Can you imagine the outcry if something like this happened to iPhone or even Android updates? Effectively I had a bricked phone, a knackered WiFi router, and absolutely no way to 'force quit' or stop this insane installer loop.

The only solution left was a full factory restore and tedious re-install of everything I had done for about 4 hours (on a nice Saturday as well, mind you). Ugh.

After the hard wipe and painful re-installation dance, the fanatical installer program stayed in check, although I was going nowhere near that section of settings to even check it - for fear it may suspect me coming and restart its update conniption fit.

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So then, round two (4 hours later) - and the Lumia actually sprung to life a bit faster the second time around. Problem was, once I finally landed on the desktop, I got caught in a loop of resetting and restarting that ended about an hour later when it finally decided to stay on.

On to Hour #5 then, and it was time to re-activate the tempting Windows Hello feature I had fell in love with some 4 hours earlier. This time, however, things went south - quickly. As before, I started the iris recognition steps - allowing Windows to stare at me for about a minute to complete its initial scan.

Two minutes went by. Then five. Then seven. The entire time the screen encouraging me to wait for a moment while the scan completes.

It was frozen.

Again.

Another hard reset then.

Hour #6 and the phone was finally (re)configured for Windows Hello. However, my success rate for unlocking the phone after it was set up was about 3 in 10. Even worse, when it would fail to recognise me I would be prompted to enter my passcode, but when trying to enter the code, the entry screen simply disappeared, landing me right on the desktop.

Super security there, Microsoft!

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At this point, things were looking bleak, very bleak.

About seven hours in at this point, and although every bone in my body wanted to run (screaming) back to my iPhone 6S Plus, I decided to at least try and give this Lumia a week.

I mean, I can do a week, right?

Hour #8 and total disaster quickly ended that plan as I innocently noticed a bit of pocket lint in the phone's (ear-level) speaker grill. What could possibly go wrong?

Understanding the delicate nature of a full glass screen (though this handset does tout Corning's Gorilla Glass 4), I approached carefully, using the corner of a piece of paper to try and jar the lint loose. No luck. Thanks to the ridiculously sharp corners that outline the speaker grill, that lint wasn't going anywhere.

The next move was totally my fault (I admit that here and now), but I decided I needed a bit more leverage. Out popped my iPhone SIM tool, and with the lightest of flicks, I managed to almost completely shatter the screen - from the speaker grill on down to the capacitive buttons. I'm not kidding, a crack about 6 inches long from the lightest of pressure to try and remove some lint. OK, the fault is all mine for using a small bit of metal to try and lightly scrape something away from the glass, but a 6-inch crack? Really?

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I'm willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt on the hardware side - but still, the build quality here is suspect at best. To be totally honest, no matter how much I tried to convince myself this handset was 'premium', it always felt cheap in the hand, had a very creaky thin plastic back cover and frankly *looks* and feels exactly like lower-end Lumia devices.

Seriously, this looks indiscernible from the sub-£100 Lumia 400 and 500 ranges.

But this sucker cost £530.

And although the hardware can be a matter of preference (I suppose), I simply cannot excuse the software. It's almost inoperable in its current form, and truly shocks me Microsoft would release this to the public - much less slapping the 'flagship' title on the marketing.

Without a doubt, this handset is a stopgap, a bridge to the inevitable Surface Phone which will no doubt emerge next year. But why Microsoft felt compelled to roll forward with the Lumia 950 range is beyond me.

And to try and be fair here, I'm not even going to approach the 'app gap' issue as I could pretty much find most of my 'critical apps' here like Dropbox, Slack, and even WhatsApp - albeit significantly weaker examples compared to their iOS and Android counterparts.

But this 8 hours shocked me. Simply the worst experience I have had with a mobile phone (or mobile OS) in years.

That said, I'm sure Microsoft will roll out updates to improve a lot of the issues I experienced (however, if I stuck with the the phone I would be scared to death to even attempt the update process!).

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Honestly, it's a bit unfair to judge Windows 10 Mobile on the first day of a new handset on a new platform.

But regardless, I still can't fathom the decision to launch this handset 'as is' to the wider public - many of whom would have much less patience (or determination) to make this work.

Ultimately though, I feel a bit 'dirty' for extricating myself from my latest 'daily driver challenge' just 8 hours after the kickoff. But my limit had simply been reached.

8 Hours.

Gotta be some kind of record.

Topics: Windows

Eddie Vassallo

Written by Eddie Vassallo

Eddie is Founder & CEO of Entropy, former Head of Mobile for Discovery Channel, regular Guest Contributor on GigaOm and has been featured on Daring Fireball, CNN, and Strategy Eye.