Device Night Philadelphia: Hands on with the Lumia 950/950XL and Phone Continuum

As Microsoft gears up for the launch of all of its new devices, it is holding "Device Night" events to allow retail staff to get their hands on these new devices. Microsoft’s latest flagships, the 950 and 950XL were both present and accounted for at this event. These models in particular were all prototypes with functioning iris scanning hardware, unlike the models we saw at the retail stores. While they noted that hardware was still in beta, they clarified that the iris scanner will function even if the user is wearing reading glasses or shades.

In their demo, the phone seems to unlock in around a second, though they are confident that this will significantly improve over time. One of the complaints I noticed was regarding the Infrared LED used to facilitate the iris scanning functionality. Upon hitting the power button the led that turns on is quite bright, which some didn’t like. While this is an understandable annoyance, it does allow the phone to unlock even in a dark room. Perhaps the brightness of this LED will become tamer overtime as the software matures.

Another feature of the 950 series that Microsoft heavily pushed was Continuum and their new Display Dock accessory. The demo floor featured two continuum setups, one with a Microsoft representative demoing useful software features and another allowing guests a direct hands-on opportunity. You can see both of these areas in the video above. The highlight of Continuum was Microsoft’s Office applications, with the representative highlighting different use cases aimed at people traveling for business as well as students. On Office feature in particular called “Smart Lookup” impressed many of the guests. Smart Lookup is a feature that allows the user to highlight information and instantly fact check it in the form of a curated list of links. Many were also impressed with the versatility of Continuum as well as the speed, taking around 4-5 seconds after connecting it to the dock to transition from regular phone mode to Continuum mode.

Every Microsoft representative I saw at the event had a Lumia 950 or 950XL and used it throughout the night taking pictures with guests and showing off the features and letting them get hands on time. While many had concerns regarding weight and size, along with what one invitee called “pocketability”, many were impressed with the overall design. Many of the guests who own Windows Phones were curious about these phones to say the least, but I felt that the most curious people were the Android and iPhone users.

Many pulled out their own devices and compared both side-to-side. One guest pulled out his Lumia 930 and admitted at the 950 was lighter and more comfortable to hold, though wished the designed incorporated more metal. Though they didn’t have any third party cases on tap, the Microsoft staff did mention the ability to switch out the back covers as well as swap batteries, both of these features drew nods from the entire crowd.

Curiously the new Lumia 550 was nowhere to be seen at the event. Clearly Microsoft's agenda at this event was to push the premium experience, not sales volume. This might change in the future, and maybe it should. Both the Lumia 520 and 635 have seen success in the United States and abroad. I think they should consider having these devices present in the future so these retail professionals can get their hands on them as well as cheap, well built devices are good at spreading the word too.

As Ben mentioned in my interview with him, these phones might not be for everybody but that didn’t stop people from giving them a fair look, regardless of their platform loyalty. The AT&T representative that I spoke with at the event seemed confident that these devices would sell well. I unfortunately didn’t meet any T-Mobile or Verizon reps at the event, which doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t present, but was nonetheless not particularly reassuring either. Will these new phones sell well? We can’t be sure. And while the atmosphere was optimistic, Windows Phone sales are down 50% percent. It’s fair to say Microsoft has their work cut out for them.

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