Things to do with the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL

Windows Phone/Windows 10 Mobile might be dead, but there’s a few interesting projects happening for the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL which you can experiment with to turn that big paperweight into something you can tinker with and possibly have some use out of again, if anything for a bit of fun.

I recently came across my Lumia 950 XL in a draw and wondered if there was anything that can be done with it, given it’s native OS Windows 10 Mobile is sadly no longer supported by Microsoft after it’s failed attempt at getting into the mobile market didn’t pay off. Turns out, there’s some interesting community projects out there!

Windows 10 on ARM

Windows 10 runs on ARM devices now (although still under Insider Preview builds currently). Arguably ARM is going to be the future of computing generally, pretty much the standard on the mobile landscape and now with Apple’s M1 MacBook products, we could see it general PCs in the future too. Did you know the Lumia 950 XL can run Windows 10X and even Windows 10?

There’s a dedicated project for Windows 10 on ARM specifically for the Lumia 950 and XL models: https://woa-project.github.io/LumiaWOA/.

Yes, you can run full Windows 10 on a mobile device that was manufactured in 2015 and was never designed for it (well the full ARM64 build). Crazy world! You can even dual boot Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile if you still want to retain the mobile OS. Should you? Probably not. What the developers have achieved with the WoA Lumia 950/XL project is quite impressive but this is completely unsupported and you can expect some functions to be somewhat broken to entirely absent. Arguably, so is the native mobile OS so what have you got to lose, if anything for a bit of fun?

Running Windows 10 or Windows 10X on a Lumia 950/XL does require a key prerequisite, unlocking the bootloader on your device. Without this you won’t be able to boot anything that’s not Windows 10 Mobile. This is can be done thanks to a bit of software called WP Internals, however more recently the website that hosted this returns NXDOMAIN (domain not found), but luckily you can get WP Internals 2.8 from here: https://www.softpedia.com/get/Mobile-Phone-Tools/Others/Windows-Phone-Internals.shtml or build it from source. Unlocking the bootloader is the stepping stone to doing anything Microsoft didn’t want anyone else doing other than running Windows 10 Mobile.

Android 12 in the future?

Recently developer Gustave Monce (@gus33000 on Twitter) who’s been heavily involved with various Lumia based projects including WoA announced that they got a build of Android S (12) running on the Lumia 950 XL and posted it on Twitter. Unfortunately the timing of it made many sceptical as it was 1st April, but the good news it has turned out to be a legitimate as a FFU file was provided to flash to the Lumia 950 XL. It is very early days of having any form of usable Android experience of the Lumia 950 XL however.

Tweet from Gustave Monce, showing Android booting on the Lumia 950 XL
Tweet from Gustave Monce, providing a Lumia 950 XL FFU file of the Android build for those who are brave!

Personally, despite the impressive efforts of the Windows 10 on ARM and Windows 10X projects, running Android is probably going to be the best chance of making the Lumia 950 XL truly functional for daily use again. There’s going to be various challenges which I will admit are beyond my knowledge but the main problem is going to be device drivers for the Lumia 950 XL to utilise the hardware fully on Android. Right now there’s a proof of concept that confirms that a build of Android can run natively and even functionality like touch works, this alone is an achievement but functionality wise, it’s not really something the typical user should be trying out now.

The GPU/Hardware acceleration and the camera are going to be major areas to get working with Android if at all. The camera is actually a problem with Windows 10 too, likely because it is proprietary from Nokia. Creating a driver from scratch without the original source code is going to be a major challenge, but it is something to keep an eye on. After all this is hardware that was manufactured in 2015 that was only designed to run a specific OS all of which was closed source and yet, there’s still community projects keeping it alive hacking away.

The question of any possibility of Android running on the Lumia 950 XL has been asked before, given it’s native OS is long dead and this might just be the beginning.

Linux distributions

If Windows 10 ARM isn’t to your fancy why not Linux? There’s been some work to get Ubuntu and other Linux distributions running on the Lumia 950 XL. One example is: https://empyreal96.github.io/LinuxOn950XL.html which shows you how to install Debian Stretch. Of course, much like Windows 10 ARM and Android while you can do this, don’t expect a fully functional device but again it’s pretty cool booting a Linux distribution and the Linux kernel at least being able to work at a basic level.

If venturing into the Linux world on your Lumia 950 XL you definitely need to be comfortable with ROM flashing and command line. Unlocking the bootloader gives you the power but you must use it responsibly! It is highly recommended to do a full disk image backup of your phone to avoid permanently bricking it.

Windows 10 Mobile

Yes, the Lumia 950 XL’s native OS is no longer actively developed by Microsoft or indeed supported at all i.e. no security updates (since early 2020), so using it as a daily device isn’t the best idea. It is still a functional device for the basics, calls, SMS and even some of the apps still work but it will be a bit of lottery given the lack of developer support (which is one of the many factors behind Microsoft’s mobile demise). Some of the key communication apps like WhatsApp, Telegram don’t work anymore so it does make it difficult beyond just a basic phone, however it could still be repurposed as a remote control device or a music player perhaps, it seems such a shame to waste good hardware, that ultimately had a software problem.

It was fun to boot up my Lumia 950 XL again to remember what the Windows 10 Mobile OS was like. I’m still convinced Microsoft had a really good mobile OS, the metro interface and live tiles concept was great, it was consistent across all devices (looking at you Android) and generally just worked. Various factors led to the failure of Windows Phone 7, 8 and its final form Windows 10 Mobile, but if Microsoft had managed to pull it off, it would of been good to have a third major player in the mobile OS space, they were just sadly too late to the game.

The Lumia 950 XL is becoming the modern HTC HD2

With all the community and unofficial stuff you can do with the Lumia 950/XL, it reminds me of the fan favourite HTC HD2 which originally ran Windows Mobile 6.5 (pre Windows Phone 7) but unofficially Windows Phone, Android, Windows RT, Firefox OS, MeeGo and Ubuntu because why not? With all the community projects and builds of various operating systems, it’s almost like the Lumia 950 XL is becoming the more modern HTC HD2 equivalent!

If you have a Lumia 950 XL sitting in a draw somewhere, you can definitely have some nostalgia booting Windows 10 Mobile again as well as potentially running Windows 10 on it if anything “because I can”. Even dual booting both and seeing the Windows Boot Manager on a 5.7" AMOLED screen rather than a more traditional PC monitor is something that has to been seen in your own hands! Happy hacking!

I'm a web developer, but also like writing about technical networking and security related topics, because I'm a massive nerd!