Microsoft's October launch event in New York delivered a fair few surprises for fans of the four-coloured flag. Whilst the fulcrum-flipping Surface Book somewhat stole the show, the unveiling of the Lumia 950 (and its XL sibling) wasn't short on juicy details.
Sure, Microsoft might have taken a page out of Samsung and Apple’s Guide to Leaks Before a Launch, with a good deal of the dirty details about the new Lumia flagships being spread far and wide across the web, but the real deal still delivered enough to get us talking.
What’s in a name?
Microsoft’s decision to drop the Nokia name on its Lumia lineup was big news a year ago, but it’s taken almost a full cycle for the first proper flagship without the Finnish company’s branding to actually appear.
Sure, we’ve had the Lumia 640 and its XL brother, but the 950 pair are the first true range-toppers to go full Microsoft.
How significant is this? In a world where branding makes your breakfast, the Washington tech giant has to be hoping that the 950 makes a real impact as its first own-brand flagship, not least given its ailing mobile efforts of late.
In reality, with a long line of Lumias (Nokia or otherwise) with decent specs but sub-par publicity in the last year, it’s hard to tell whether slashing the Nokia name from the front of the 950’s moniker will really matter.
A perfect 10
What will matter is the performance of Windows 10, which the 950 (and its larger sibling) will be the first handset to carry.
What happened to Windows 9, you might be wandering? Well, there are various theories for Microsoft’s decision to jump a number, ranging from the fact that 9 is considered unlucky in Japan to a desire to suggest a total OS upgrade away from the ill-fated 8.
Whatever the reason, a lot of weight will rest on the lowly 950’s shoulders: we reckon Windows 10 is a whopper of an interface, but, with the tech world having widely regarded Microsoft’s previous mobile efforts as mixed at best, the lasting life of Lumias rests to a very large extent on whether the 950 can deliver.
And, on paper, the 950 will certainly have the hardware kit to do just that.
Though the 950, like with the 640, has slightly shrunken specs next to the XL, it nevertheless looks like a perfectly capable powerhouse, particularly given how light Windows Mobile interfaces have been in the past, even on middling hardware.
Official specs show the 950 will indeed be running the same rumoured hexa-core Snapdragon 808 chip as the LG G4 – which was anything but a layabout.
Better still, 3GB of RAM alongside it should make for a nicely nippy Windows 10 experience – and with a spacious 3000mAh battery pack inside, you shouldn’t run short of juice too quickly.
We don’t yet know how battery-friendly any software upgrade will be, but a sideways glance at the Lumia 640 XL, which also packed a 3000mAh cell, suggests performance should be pretty good – and there’s always the Windows Battery Saver mode for when it’s not.
As for media-lugging capabilities, the 950 packs 32GB of internal storage with the option to expand via microSD up to 200GB - a refreshing break in the trend of tied-down device space.
Dressed to impress
In the screen smarts stakes, the Windows 10 interface looks sufficiently snazzy on the Lumia's 5.2in Quad HD (2560x1440) OLED display - that's 564ppi, pixel fans.
The 950XL’s 5.7in screen is the one to take the fight to the phablet pack, with the 950 being the more reasonable mobile in terms of size.
That said, Microsoft's press shots suggest that the 950, whilst slim, suffers from a case of heavy bezels that make the handset look larger than its screen size warrants – though previous Lumia devices have made up for this with the sturdy build quality for which Nokia was renowned.
Whether Microsoft will manage to maintain this polycarbonate robustness in a well-designed top-end device remains to be seen, particularly as the sneaky snaps show a potential drop-damage magnet in the form of the camera hump on the rear of the 950.
Shooting for glory
Still, that handset hump should be worth it: the 950 shoots with the same f/1.9 20MP camera as the 950XL, complete with the fabled PureView tech for which Nokia devices were known – making for beautiful low-light snapping.
Lumias have long been known for their photographic prowess and the presence of PureView suggests this is likely to continue.
What’s more, both the 950 and 950XL pack triple LED flash - meaning iPhone 6-like intelligent lighting and an end to blown-out portraits. Early reports reckoned only the bigger brother of the two new Lumias would get the triple, but Microsoft's gifted it to standard-sized smartphone fans, too.
In fact, with the 950 packing the souped-up flash option, it could well make the smaller handset the one to be reckoned with – not least given its 5MP front-facing lens for super-fine selfies.
Say Hello to Windows on Display
What else is coming with Microsoft’s latest mobile mission?
With it now apparently focussing more on mobile software than high-end hardware, this Lumia could be all-or-nothing for the manufacturer – and with the 950’s physical specs matching up pretty closely to those of the latest Android and Apple devices, a lot could come down to the usability facets unique to Windows Phone.
First blow, though, goes to the competition: despite offering Qi wireless charging smarts on the 950, Microsoft has no answer (yet) to Android, Apple or Samsung Pay.
Instead, Cortana will make a return, ready to do PA battle once more with Siri and Google’s upgraded Now offering, alongside an infrared Iris scanner which works with Windows Hello to deliver a Bond-like smartphone security system.
And, if that wasn’t cool enough, the 950 is also packing USB type-C functionality. That’s right: forget fancy eyeball scanners, this Lumia will be one of the first mainstream handsets on the market to pack the next generation of cross-platform ports, in all its reversible, fumble-proof glory. What's more, the new interface means ultra-fast charging - think 50% in 30 minutes. Juicy.
The true show-stopper, though, is Display Dock - a plug-in peripheral which allows Lumia lovers to hook their new 10-powered phablet up to TVs and monitors and use it like a desktop. Far from a half-baked blow-up of your device's display, this is as close to a fully-fledged OS in the pocket as you can get - from Office and Outlook to big-screen 1080p media. You can even pair up with a keyboard and mouse, and continue using your phone as you do so.
Can the 950 save Lumia?
The real question that Microsoft will be hoping to answer with the 950 is whether a good OS and some fancy physical features are enough for Lumia to compete with Android and iPhone.
Specs certainly point to a well-equipped handset that should see Windows 10 running fast and smooth. MicroSD and dual sim (in certain parts of the world), too, might do something to maintain the mobile as an upgrade possibility for wandering media lovers.
But, with Microsoft having already written-off a huge chunk of the acquisition deal with Nokia and its smartphone fortunes well and truly heading towards the proverbial dustbin, the 950 needs to do a lot more than simply shift units.
Instead, if the latest Lumia is not to be the last, it needs to re-capture the vibe that Nokia launched it with: a left-field offering that actually delivers, with an OS and UI that stand out and run well.
One way to do this would be a much clearer branding strategy. Is the 950XL a premium version of the 950, or just a bigger one? Are its specs sufficiently distinct to justify a price hike over its 5.2in namesake? On paper, that's questionable.
Apple might be able to pull off tenuous brand division, but for a manufacturer desperately in need of real renewed interest in its mobile offerings it might be a pretty hard sell. Due for release in November, more than a few breaths will be on hold at Microsoft.