Why the Lumia 950 failed and what phone makers should learn from that

Some people stick to what they know. Once an iPhone, always an iPhone. Others like to try new things every once in a while. In doing so, there’s always the risk of picking a dud.

My first smartphone was a Sony Ericsson P1. Followed by an iPhone 2. Then a Samsung Galaxy S2. Then another iPhone (first 3, then 4s). So when the time came to update, I thought I’d get the Lumia 950 _ Microsoft’s attempt at establishing its Windows operating system in the smartphone market.

Why? I was tired of iPhones:

  • they are expensive;
  • the operating system is slick but restrictive (transferring files onto a PC is complicated);
  • and the poor battery was driving me crazy: I need a good 12 hours of heavy use out of a phone otherwise there’s a risk I’ll be left with a brick by the end of a long day’s reporting, just as I’m about to file. Not good.

I’d tried Android phones and various models looked interesting, but for security reasons my employer only allows Samsung phones and the Galaxy S6 didn’t appeal.

The Lumia 950 on the other hand looked like a good phone:

  • It has a large battery and USB-C, the next generation cable standard;
  • The camera is superb;
  • Microsoft promised all the necessary apps would be available for Windows 10;
  • It offered seamless integration with my desktop operating system

After six months I can say that the Lumia 950 was a poor choice. I’m clearly not the only one who thinks so. Sales have been weak and Microsoft recently announced it was scaling down its smartphone business. This indicates that the company has realized it can’t compete with Android and Apple.

Things could have been different. If Microsoft hadn’t rushed out the phone and made clear it wouldn’t maintain it, the Lumia line could have been the start of a genuine rival system to Android and iOS. Here’s what went wrong:

  • The big battery, a key reason why I bought the phone. It has 3,000 mAh, which in layman’s terms means it’s got more juice than most smartphones out there (the iPhone 6S has 1,750 mAh; the Galaxy S6 has 2,550 mAh). In practice, though, it drains quickly. Various updates have brought some improvement but it appears this was achieved by throttling the WiFi and phone signal. The biggest drain remains the screen. Why smartphone makers don’t just offer smaller screens (e.g. 4.5 inch instead of 5-5.5 inch) and thicker batteries (4,000 mAh seems a good size) is a mystery to me. What’s the use of a big screen if the battery is dead or you can’t get WiFi 5 meters away from the router?
  • The apps available for Windows 10 mobile are truly disappointing. Sure, Wunderlist, Slack and the New York Times are there. So are Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (BETA). But many of the apps seem to be nothing but interfaces for the website; others haven’t been maintained since Windows 8.1, and some are so full of bugs that they’re basically useless. Surprisingly, it’s not just the 3rd party apps. The latest update of Microsoft Maps has basically broken the app. It now sends me in the wrong direction, messes up public transport times and regularly ‘forgets’ all of my favorites by logging me out of my account when there’s no cell signal. Other apps that I’d like to be able to use simply aren’t available, including Bambuser (live video streaming), NewsRepublic (great news app) and for my online bank.
  • The overall system has a few nice touches but overall it suffers from horrendous glitches. One of them is that the phone likes to update at random, and this involves restarting. When it does that, various settings are restored to default, including language, temperature (I don’t use Fahrenheit!), location and quiet times. Most problematically, for a journalist, is the fact that the SIM PIN needs to be entered after every reboot (even though I’ve got PIN security off), meaning I risk not receiving calls for hours after the phone randomly updates in the middle of the night. Another problem that shows Microsoft engineers just haven’t used the phone in the real world is that not all phone calls appear in the call list. How can this happen? It’s absurd.

You might ask why I haven’t thrown the phone into a lake yet. Well, first of all it’s expensive and doesn’t belong to me. Secondly, the phone does have a few nice features. These include:

  • Built-in call recording at the touch of a button, which is very helpful;
  • Good cross-integration of Outlook and Gmail calendars (though again, why can’t items be moved between calendars after they’ve been created?);
  • The camera is really, really good (though I’m disappointed Microsoft dramatically cut space on Onedrive and videos sometimes have visible glitches when panning);
  • The phone charges quickly, provided you’ve got a USB-C cable and the right power adapter to hand;
  • Plug it into a PC and the phone immediately appears as another drive, just like it should (that’s where you lost me, Apple)

I expect smartphone makers are already using the Lumia 950 as a case study in how not to try to break into the Apple-Android duopoly. The question is, will anyone dare to try again and do better than Microsoft, or are we going to be left with those two systems forever more?

Update (July 29, 2016): Last week I received an email from Amazon that they are killing their app for Windows Phone. A few days later the map maker HERE, once Microsoft’s stablemate, announced a new app that won’t be available for Windows Phones. I think it’s pretty clear where this is heading…

Update (Oct. 3, 2016): It was inevitable. After one nighttime wake-up alert too many from a phone that simply can’t remember core settings I’ve ditched the Lumia 950 and gone back to Android. All the apps are there and they all work as designed. I miss the great camera on the Lumia, that’s for sure. I also notice that some of the annoying ‘tracking’ features of apps are back: Twitter, for example, seems to give me only selective tweets based on ones that I interacted with in the past. But otherwise it’s a relief to be back in the mainstream.

A Raumfeld review

Over a year ago we decided it was time to invest in a proper hi-fi system. After some research we decided to buy one from Raumfeld, the streaming system made by Berlin-based company Teufel. Our reasoning was:

  • They get good reviews for sound and quality
  • They offer a long guarantee time and a no-questions-asked returns policy
  • It’s good to support local businesses

So I sent the folks at Raumfeld an email asking them what they would recommend to get decent sound in a large (60 square meter) room. They suggested getting:

  • Impaq 7000 speakers
  • a Raumfeld Connector (for the speakers)
  • a standalone Raumfeld One

We ordered that and the package duly arrived in three large boxes.

After setting up the system I noticed a problem: the Impaq 7000 speakers are very powerful. There was no way I was going to be able to turn them up beyond 20 percent without the neighbors upstairs and downstairs hearing, and possibly feeling, our music. It seemed a shame to pay money for speakers we’d never be able to fully enjoy, so taking advantage of the no-questions-asked returns policy I sent them back, along with the Raumfeld Connector, and instead ordered a set of Raumfeld Cubes, at a lower price.

Over the past year they’ve served our purposes fine. I would give the system 7/10. Here’s why:

  • The sound is decent, but the Raumfeld Cubes are too weak for the room. This is our fault. We should have stuck with the original Impaq 7000 order and accepted the fact that we were never going to enjoy them at full volume. A Ferrari is still a great car, even if you never go full throttle. My advice: listen to Raumfeld’s salespeople when it comes to technical questions.
  • Raumfeld seems to require systems to be set up using a master-slave principle: the master must be configured first, and unless it’s turned on the rest of the system won’t work. But why should I have to turn on the speakers in the living area if I only want to listen to the radio in the kitchen?
  • The app looks nice and has a load of good functions, but it’s slow to load and often ‘forgets’ our entire music library, necessitating an annoying wait while it restores the library
  • Streaming Internet radio (via TuneIn) is OK, but even with major stations we experience dropped connections. This is frustrating and I don’t think it’s due to our broadband. There seems to be a buffering issue that Raumfeld struggle to solve. One solution would have been to put a small DAB+ chip into the Raumfeld devices so we could at least pick up the local stations without intermittent lag.
  • TuneIn lacks several podcasts. This isn’t Raumfeld’s fault, but it would be good to be able to program specific streams as favorites. Surely it can’t be that hard to add this function.
  • The preset buttons on the Raumfeld One work about 50 percent of the time. It’s frustrating to turn on the radio in the morning, press a button to get my favorite radio station, and get an error sound. Fix it, Raumfeld.
  • The same goes for one very simple function that should be available in the app but isn’t: turning off the system*. Many times I’ve been lying in bed or running out the door and found that while I can stop the music, I can’t turn off the system. In order to stop it draining unnecessary electricity I have to get up and press a button on each component, which surely defeats the purpose of having such a fancy 21st century piece of gadgetry. Likewise, would it not be possible to set a timed shutdown, e.g. automatically after midnight if no music is playing, or after half an hour of no music**? Simple things like that would really make a difference.
  • This brings me to my final gripe, and it’s one I had with the Morphy Richards Internet Radio a few years ago: why not let users create little scripts for their device. This would be so easy to do through the app. Just an idea, Raumfeld…

I hope you found this review helpful. Everyone has different tastes and the purchase of a new hi-fi system needs to be carefully considered. I’m satisfied with our Raumfeld system for now, but if we decide to expand in a few years time (e.g. to put music in the bedrooms or up the power in the living area) then we’re stuck with Raumfeld. That’s usually the problem with streaming systems (they try to lock you in). If I were to do it over again I might get a ‘dumb’ system and stream via something simple like Chromecast Audio.

*UPDATE (July 12, 2016): The latest Raumfeld firmware now allows you to switch off the speakers using the app. Well done, Raumfeld!

**UPDATE (Feb 11, 2017): Thanks to the new firmware, you can now set a sleep timer so the speakers go into snooze mode automatically after a certain period of time. Another request fulfilled and an additional point out of ten.

Goodbye Ads

I’ve decided to remove Google Ads from my site. They were the only ads I ever really published, and over the course of a decade they hardly earned me €100.

I don’t think it’s worth defacing my site with ads and helping Google track my readers with them for a measly €10 a year, which is what this site costs me each month.

The best thing is that I can now safely claim that the only cookies you’ll get on this site are those that record whether you’re a member or not (necessary for the commenting function). No more annoying ‘cookie consent’ pop-ups.