Premium Windows 10 Phones: Luxury or Disappointment? A Thorough Evaluation

In anticipation of the impending Windows 10 operating system release, speculation surrounding the next flagship phone to feature Windows 10 grew among avid Windows Phone fans. In recent conferences, Microsoft hasn’t wasted much time before declaring the company’s commitment to mobile software, but has refrained from providing specific details. Some things, however, can be predicted with reasonable accuracy. The HTC One M9 and the LG G4 are likely candidates to run the new operating system (see more about the LG G4 below). Whether the phone model names will be changed for their Windows 10 versions is anyone’s guess. The real game changer  for Windows Phone would be a well-received Nokia Lumia- a phone produced specifically with the guidance of Windows’ developers. Based on the language Microsoft has been using for its promotion, a “premium” Nokia Lumia phone will probably be priced higher than competitors in the field. The question is, should anyone be interested in a new Nokia Lumia? Given recent developments, it might not be too early to make that judgement.

Cortana Overshadowed

Microsoft has placed an emphasis on marketing its new “digital assistant” named Cortana in hopes of earning the public’s interest. But Cortana is off to an earlier than expected start due to a leaked Cortana application for Google Android. Some experimenting with the Android application was attempted by ProvideFree, but bugs in the software prevent extensive testing. Nonetheless, it does look like the interface lacks any features that differentiates Cortana from Apple’s Siri, or the more powerful “Google Now” software. Cortana faces competition from more than just smartphone competitors. The Amazon Echo, a standalone device with potential digital assistant-like capabilities, was just recently released. Regardless of Cortana’s functionality, Microsoft is already late at gaining traction in the proposed market for digital assistants in a similar way to being a latecomer in the smartphone market. The presentiment is enough to squash high expectations. And fundamentally, even if society is ready for digital assistants, devices such as the Amazon Echo will be better equipped to target the niche. It’s also worth mentioning that Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa, is no longer limited to the Echo device. Amazon boasts Alexa is “straight-forward and free” for developers to use. In essence, Amazon may have created the most competitive development environment for digital assistants, paving the way for future innovations on voice-based technology.

A Powerful Nokia Lumia 950/XL (or 940/XL)?

The greatest hope for Windows 10 Mobile as of now would be the Nokia Lumia 950 and 950 XL. Originally rumored to be named Lumia 940 and Lumia 950XL, a Chinese media company released technical specifications suggesting the phone will feature some of the latest parts. Yet the latest is not always the greatest. The Nokia Lumia 950XL is the high-end version of the device, and it features an eight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810. Busting a common misconception, many earlier eight-core CPUs weren’t able to utilize all its cores at once. The Snapdragon 810 is different from octa-core predecessors in its ability to break this barrier by using all eight cores at any single moment. Qualcomm owe’s this advance to using the heterogeneous multi-processing mode of  ARM’s computing architecture. The ARM “big.LITTLE” architecture used for the processors consists of a high-performance quad-core processor and a quad-core power-efficient processor. (This does not necessarily have to be a quad-core, as will be explained later.) The combination of these two processing packages make up the “big” and “LITTLE” of the ARM architecture’s name. The cluster mode of big.LITTLE, as the name suggests, works by handling clusters of the CPUs. The mode mentioned earlier, heterogeneous multi-processing (HMP), allows each core to be initiated and terminated independently, making it the most efficient and most powerful mode of the ARM big.LITTLE architecture. Unfortunately for the prospects of the Nokia 950XL, there is one catch. Research by arstechnica has shown that the Snapdragon 810 overheats considerably within a short period of time, which is enough to reduce performance (a processor throttles down its frequency when the heat is too high to prevent overheating). On the other hand, a processor on the lower-end of the Snapdragon 800 series was found to perform more consistently without heat suppressing its performance. The Snapdragon 808 achieves this success by using a dual-core ARM A-57 (big) in conjunction with the power-efficient A-53 processor (LITTLE), instead of using the Snapdragon 810’s configuration of a quad-core A-57 with the A-53. The reduction of two cores isn’t going to weigh much on comparable performance of the Snapdragon 808, but it also uses the Adreno 418 GPU for graphics, which is inferior to Snapdragon 810’s Adreno 430 GPU. Nevertheless, the Snapdragon 808 features more durable performance over the long-run, and is the CPU of choice for the Nokia 950. It wouldn’t be a far fetched statement to say that the Nokia 950 could be better suited for gaming than the XL model, unless Nokia develops a fantastic cooling technique for the Snapdragon 810. Not much can be determined from the other specifications. Both phones feature 3GB RAM, 32GB storage, and USB-C port, but this is something expected from the upcoming generation of smartphones. The Lumia 950 will feature a large 5.2 inch screen, while the Lumia 950XL stretches it by half an inch. The only other notable feature for both phones is a 20 megapixel camera. Though promising, megapixels are meaningless without an evaluation of the cameras sensors. As one would observe, many factors may affect the future of the new Lumia devices. Moreover, these specifications are not set in stone nor officially confirmed by either Microsoft or Nokia.

Facing the Competition

For all the bells and whistles a future Nokia Lumia 950 and 950XL may boast, Nokia must contend with competition that has a head-start. The LG G4 was released in April of 2015 for the Android OS, and has features almost identical to the rumored Lumia 950/XL specifications. The Snapdragon 808 is already being utilized by LG. The device also features a 2K resolution screen (1440×2560), 3GB RAM, 32GB storage, and even a high quality 16 mega-pixel camera. Will the lack of the newer USB-C port sway buyers? That is yet to be seen, but it is safe to say that pricing will be a bigger factor given all the similarities between these devices. The full specifications of the Lumia 950 is compared with the G4 below.

Nokia Lumia 950 LG G4
 5.2-inch Display  5.5-inch Display
 2K Resolution (Quad HD?)  2K/Quad HD Resolution
 Qualcomm Snapdragon 808  Qualcomm Snapdragon 808
 32GB Storage  32GB Storage
 20.0MP Back-Camera  16.0MP Back-Camera
 5.0MP Front-Camera  8.0MP Front-Camera
 3,000mAh battery   3,000mAh battery
 USB-C  USB 2.0


Worth The Excitement?

The limited insight into the future of Windows 10 Mobile doesn’t give much content for the purpose of drawing conclusions. With that in mind, it’s best to conclude by re-visiting key points. First and foremost, a Nokia Lumia leading the smartphone market would be the most impressive way for Windows 10 to be noticed. Yet, challenges persist. Cortana and USB-C aren’t usually deciding factors, but price has always been one. The LG G4 will most likely be priced more attractively than the Noka Lumia. Even if the Lumia manages to release within the first quarter of 2016, it’ll be 8 months after the G4 release. That’s a long time for the tech world, and enough time for another processor to start overshadowing the Snapdragon 808. Suppose, the Nokia Lumia 950XL manages to use the Snapdragon 810 without throttling down performance. It would still face stiff competition from newer smartphones with potentially lower prices. Overall, the Nokia Lumia 950/XL isn’t promising at all. But if there’s hope, it should be placed in the smaller Lumia 950.

Update: One of our team members has noted that there could be confusion about Microsoft’s relationship with Nokia. Nokia is not part of Microsoft, but Microsoft continues to hint at Windows 10 Mobile phones with the Nokia Lumia series. Not much (if anything) has been said about phones directly manufactured by Microsoft.

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