Introduction and design
Microsoft’s new Windows 10 operating system for PCs was one of the biggest technology releases of 2015 – and it split opinion down the middle, with some Windows fans loving the new look and features, and others complaining about such issues as the absence of OneDrive support, floppy drive support, and various games and desktop gadgets.
Here in mobile phone world we sat idly by in the weeks following the July release of Windows 10, waiting for Windows 10 Mobile. It finally appeared just in time to sneak in as a 2015 release, and its availability is still fairly limited – as are some features.
Microsoft first launched the mobile OS on the Lumia 550, before rolling out two new flagship phones in the form of the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL. Microsoft has said it will update the Lumia 430, 435, 532, 535, 540, 640, 640 XL, 735, 830 and 930, and we expect that update to be free.
We hope that as Windows 10 Mobile lands on more devices in the coming months Microsoft will keep the software updates coming to improve the user experience. Right now, though, we don’t know when it’s coming to more devices – Microsoft still hasn’t announced a schedule for the roll-out.
Windows 10 Mobile is make or break time for Microsoft in terms of its aspirations in the mobile phone market – it’s a matter of succeeding with the new OS or dropping out of the phone game altogether.
Windows Phone has been slipping further and further behind iOS and Android as more people jumped ship from the flailing platform. Microsoft badly needs to stop the rot, keeping what users it still has and trying to hook a few million more in the process.
Microsoft sees the key to success as creating a consistent and cohesive software experience across your devices – it wants you to have one OS running across your PC, your phone, your games console and maybe even wearable tech like the Hololens, when it finally comes out.
So does the Windows 10 Mobile software live up to the hype? We’ve been playing around with it on different devices to pick out the highlights and lowlights, and to see how it compares to the previous version of Microsoft’s mobile OS, Windows Phone 8.1.
If Windows 10 Mobile has got anything right, it’s the design element. The mobile operating system has finally fully embraced the tiled design by enabling it to be fully customisable.
The last Windows Phone update enabled you to change the size of the tiles, but Windows 10 Mobile brings with it even more personalisation.
You can now add a photo as the background on your device, or add photos to the tiles themselves. You can even adjust the transparency of the tiles, enabling you to choose how prominent you want the tiles, and your photos, to be.
I particularly like setting a photo as the background and then setting the transparency on about 75%, so that I can just about see the tiles. There’s plenty of flexibility here, and you can also choose the colours to really make your home screen your own.
Changing the colour of particular tiles will also change related icons elsewhere in the OS, such as the key software apps in the Start menu.
Compared to the previous version of Windows Phone, this new update is very good at the personalisation elements. It offers just as much as Android does in terms of customisation, and much, much more than iOS offers.
I really like playing around with the various options to create my own designs, in a way that I don’t with other phone operating systems.
Widgets are still missing though – and that’s one of the reasons Windows can’t compete with Android. The tiles do offer more information than before, but you can’t customise what information they show.
The Outlook app, for example, will show you a little preview of your unread messages, but you can’t decide how much it shows, or when it shows it – it’s just on a loop. You’d be able to customise an email widget on Android so that it showed, say, four emails.
But it’s pretty hard to go wrong here – you’re always going to have an easy to use homepage. Some of the menus are still difficult to navigate, but that’s made up for to a degree by the handy search facility, which you’ll find at the top of the Start menu.
Everything in Windows 10 Mobile feels more aligned now. The OS follows a simple design philosophy, with those welcome levels of customisation thrown into the mix. There’s no escaping tiles, but their design is greatly improved over what came before.
However, if you weren’t a fan of Windows Phone 8, you’re unlikely to like the design here.
Windows 10 Mobile sees the introduction of a bunch of new features. Cortana was present on Windows Phone 8.1, but improvements have been made to Microsoft’s personal assistant feature, and the Edge browser, which appeared for PCs and laptops last year, has found its way into your pocket.
Action Center is one of the most-demanded features that Microsoft has added. Swiping down from the top of the display will now open the Settings menu.
At the top of the menu are the key options such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Rotation Lock and Settings, but you can customise the menu to change which settings appear here.
When you tap the Expand button you’ll see another selection of apps that are great to have in easy reach – it’s a fast way to boot up the camera, set up a mobile hotspot or turn on the flashlight.
This is something that Android and iOS both struggle with, and Windows Phone seems to have nailed it with a simple button.
On the other hand, it does highlight how difficult it can be to find relevant apps in Windows Phone. I found myself using this feature much more than I would on an Android device, as it was much easier to access certain apps then going through the Start menu.
Transfer My Data is a new app that’s designed to make it easier to switch over to Windows 10 Mobile. Android has offered something similar for some time, and even Apple has its own Google Play Store app to help you switch from Android to iOS.
Microsoft’s version isn’t anywhere near extensive as those apps, though, and take-up of Windows 10 Mobile could suffer for it. Making the jump to Windows 10 Mobile is a big ask for customers, and I’d hoped this app would make the journey easier, but sadly it doesn’t.
All it will do is port over your messages and pictures, and that’s not enough in my opinion – you can’t even bring over your contacts. I’d even hoped the service might detect what apps you have and set them up for you, but you have to visit the Windows store and do it yourself.
Lack of apps
Perhaps the biggest criticism of Windows Phone has been the lack of apps on the platform, and it’s been an issue that Microsoft has been trying to address for some time.
Most developers plough time into creating iOS and Android versions of their software, and don’t have the time or the inclination to then work on a Windows Phone app.
Microsoft aims to change that by opening up the Windows platform across all devices, so apps that work on a PC should automatically scale down suit Windows 10 Mobile. But that doesn’t mean a slew of new mobile apps will be arriving anytime soon.
It gives developers more reason to work on Windows versions of the apps we know and love, but there needs to be a carrot to encourage them to put in the time and effort. And that carrot is users, of which there are at present too few.
But Windows 10 will only attract more users by offering more apps. It’s a catch-22 situation that Microsoft has faced for a long time now, and this feels like the last-ditch attempt at addressing it.
I took the Samsung Galaxy S6 I’ve been using for the past few weeks, and selected 10 apps to see if I could get them on the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL.
Seven out of the 10 apps were available for Windows 10 Mobile, which I found quite disappointing considering they weren’t particularly niche choices.
The Windows App store didn’t have Pocket Casts, Snapchat or Pocket. It did have Wunderlist, Messenger, WhatsApp, NatWest, QuizUp, Spotify and Twitter, but the availability or otherwise of an app as popular as Snapchat can make or break an OS.
You might not be a fan of Snapchat, but once you notice that such a widely-used app is missing you start to realise where the platform falls down. You may have all the essential apps there, but most people also want the latest that iOS and Android have to offer.
Then there’s Windows Hello, a new feature that enables you to unlock your phone using iris or fingerprint recognition on phones equipped with the relevant scanners.
Microsoft claims you can use the iris scanner to unlock your phone with “just a look”, but you actually have to touch as well. You need to tap the unlock button on the side of the phone to start the process, then hold the phone in a position from where it can scan your eyes.
The feature is difficult to set up – you need to go into Accounts (when I thought it would be under Security), and then you need to enter a PIN before you can begin the process.
When it is set up, though, it works very effectively – in fact I was surprised by just how well it worked, considering that iris scanners on other phones I’ve tested have been awful.
That said, indoors and in anything other than a well-lit room the scanner is going to struggle to recognise your iris, and you’ll need to enter your PIN.
Continuum and Microsoft Display Dock
One of the most exciting elements of Windows 10 Mobile, and perhaps the biggest USP for the platform, is Continuum – a feature that enables you to use your Windows 10 Mobile phone like a PC.
Or at least that’s the way Microsoft has been pitching it. Buy a little box that connects to your TV or PC monitor, plug your phone in and, hey presto, you’ve got a PC that fits in your pocket.
It makes a lot of sense. Why not have all your data in the same place, and be able to share it simply through the Microsoft ecosystem?
You can buy the Microsoft Display Dock for US$99 (£79.99, AU$149.95), but if you’re looking to get a Microsoft Lumia 950 XL it’s possible to find deals that throw in the dock for free.
Continuum was simple to set up. I took the dock out of the box, and after a quick search around for a HDMI port (or display port, which I finally settled on), I was able to get it ready to go.
You need to perform a screen size calibration and watch a short introductory clip, and then you’re straight into working on your phone much as you would on a PC.
This section of the review was, in fact, written in Continuum using the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL phone and the Microsoft Word app. I plugged my keyboard and mouse into the Display Dock, and the display kept up with what I was typing.
I’d say it’s a little laggy compared to what my laptop of capable of, but it’s still an enjoyable experience.
One annoying thing is that the app you’re working in on your main display will appear on your phone screen as well.
While typing I was constantly seeing autocorrect prompts popping up on the phone in my peripheral vision, which became really annoying. I tried turning the screen off, but the whole system went into low power mode.
This means your phone screen needs to be always on, so that you can use it like a touchpad to navigate around the software.
If you’re using your phone for a few moments to set up a video clip that’s fine, but if you’re trying to be productive then you’re likely to plug in a mouse, so you won’t need your phone to be on as well.
That said, the touchpad functionality is responsive and simple to use, with a two-finger motion for dragging and a simple tap when you want to open an app.
It’s the easiest way to use Continuum without a mouse, but if you want to be any way productive you’ll want a keyboard and mouse to make the whole process easier.
Apps blow up to the size of the screen you’re using – this is how the mobile version of techradar.com looks when displayed on a screen via the Display Dock.
While writing this Continuum did crash once – by the time I had reconnected, all my apps were shut down and I was back to square one. Fortunately Microsoft Word saves your work automatically, but I lost all my open tabs and what apps I was using.
This is an issue that needs to be sorted out – Continuum is a feature that’s aimed at professionals who won’t be so tolerant of crashes in the middle of their hard work.
On the phone home screen that appears on your working display you’ll see all the apps available to you in Continuum. This looks much like your phone’s home screen does ordinarily, but a few apps are faded out as Continuum doesn’t support them yet.
And that’s the real problem with Continuum right now. A lot of the key Microsoft apps are here and ready to roll, including Word, Excel, Edge and Photos, but a lot of other apps aren’t supported yet.
Even Skype isn’t supported, and that’s a Microsoft-owned application. You’d think that the ability to pull up Skype on your home TV with the help of your phone would be a killer feature many users.
You’ll only want Continuum right now if you need word processing or spreadsheets to be as accessible on your phone as they are on your work computer – but that’s something OneDrive already offers.
As more and more apps are supported by the service Continuum will become more useful, but for now you’re often frustrated; I wanted to be able to play some games on my TV or monitor, but – surprise, surprise – they aren’t ready yet.
It’s always the same problem with Windows Phone.
When an app isn’t supported by Continuum you have the choice of opening it on your phone, but that’s largely useless if you want it on the big screen. If I wanted to use it on my phone I’d just disconnect it from the dock and get on with it.
Continuum and the Display Dock are great ideas. It’s taking the concept of AirPlay and Chromecast to a whole new level, and making it useful for those who want to work as well as play.
Being able to type using a keyboard and large screen and have that information saved to my phone is great. But right now it’s not enough to make it worth buying a Display Dock with your Windows 10 Mobile phone, and it’s certainly not a big enough selling point to justify buying a Lumia handset.
After two decades Microsoft has killed off Internet Explorer, replacing it with the new Edge web browser.
When Windows 10 Mobile lands on your phone Edge will be ready and waiting for you, and it has a number of new features that make this a better browser than its predecessor.
One of the new features is a Reading List, which enables you to save articles to read later – it’s handy if you want to save a bunch of long-read features and other material to catch up with at the weekend.
If you’ve ever used Pocket I was expecting a similar concept, and I’d anticipated being able to access saved material when I was offline.
Having that feature in my browser would be great, and would do away with the need for Pocket altogether, but actually Reading List is just a way of saving favourites and reminding you to keep up with them.
You won’t be able to read articles when you’re not connected to the internet – and that’s when you really want to have those articles available, otherwise you’d just bookmark them or search for them.
There’s also a Reading View option for when you want to catch up on saved articles, but don’t want the distraction of adverts.
Tap the book icon at the bottom right of the screen and it’ll boot up Reading View, removing all the ads and page furniture for an easier reading experience.
However, Reading List can sometimes screw up the formatting – if you take a look at the Far Cry Primal article above you can see that it’s removed the spacing between the author name, posting date and category.
It’s another good idea from Microsoft, and sometimes it works well – but not always, and ‘some of the time’ isn’t good enough.
Popular Bing search terms now appear in a drop-down menu below the search bar as you type. It’s a good little feature, but it’s something Chrome and Safari have been doing for a long time – it’s what Internet Explorer should have had at least three years ago.
Personally, I still don’t understand why Microsoft thought we needed a whole new browser.
All these updates could have been rolled out to Internet Explorer, and we would have appreciated them just as much (where they worked properly at least); but I guess Microsoft wanted a clean slate to work with for the release of Windows 10.
Windows 10 Mobile has taken a lot of what makes the Windows 10 software great and packed it into a phone-sized package, but there are still some glaring issues.
The real question is why you’d choose this platform over the ease of Android or iOS.
Microsoft has brought in a plethora of new features and enhancements to existing ones, but there’s no killer feature to make up for its numerous imperfections.
The highlight of Windows 10 Mobile is the new design. The introduction of new customisation elements means you can really make your Windows phone your own.
While the ability to resize tiles isn’t new, I still love being able to move apps around apps easily, and change the functionality of my home screen.
The new colour scheme, photo and transparency options enable you create a look and feel that’s genuinely different to what you get from Android or iOS.
Action Center is another highlight. It’s long been an irritation that on Windows Phone you could spend 10 minutes trying to change settings that should be adjustable in a matter of moments.
Being able to swipe down and have the Settings menu at your fingertips is a welcome addition, and makes the platform much more usable than previous iterations.
While Continuum isn’t without its faults, it’s a worthy attempt at a USP for the software, and I hope it continues to improve with the addition of support for more apps in the coming months.
Once you’re able to play games and use more popular apps on your bigger screen, this will be a genuinely attractive feature.
Transfer My Data and Reading List promise a lot more than they deliver. Both features have been implemented on Android and iOS without fault, so it’s disappointing that Microsoft hasn’t managed to get either of them right.
The ability to migrate to Windows 10 Mobile easily would have made jumping ship to Microsoft’s OS a much more attractive proposition.
Microsoft Edge doesn’t feel like enough of an update to justify a change of name for the browser. A lot of the added features have been done already – and better – elsewhere, and it feels like Microsoft is playing catch-up on its mobile browser rather than moving ahead of the pack.
And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the lack of apps is the biggest let-down on Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile alike.
Microsoft is right to say things are getting better – look what was missing from the platform this time last year and look at it now, and you notice how much Windows 10 Mobile has improved.
But Redmond still isn’t getting it right – Microsoft needs to give developers a greater incentive to build for the platform and bring in those must-have apps.
Windows 10 Mobile is far from perfect – it does feel like we’re encountering the same old Windows Phone issues, especially with the lack of some big-hitting apps – but this update is the biggest improvement we’ve seen to the platform for quite some time.
Microsoft has its work cut out for it in trying to bring people back to Windows Mobile, and retain existing users, with its Android and iOS competition offering an experience that’s nigh-on perfect.
Those platforms still offer so much that Windows doesn’t. But this update has at least seen Microsoft take a step in a different direction, with Continuum and the extensive customisation features offering something distinct from its rivals.
And if you’re invested in the Microsoft ecosystem at home or at work it makes perfect sense to add in a Windows 10 Mobile handset on top. Consistency and connectivity are big selling points, and the new Windows platform as a whole offers much more than the sum of its parts.
If, however, you don’t have a Windows laptop, Xbox One or other Windows device, I find it very difficult to recommend Windows 10 Mobile. There’s no good reason why you wouldn’t choose a handset running the more ubiquitous and accomplished iOS or Android systems.
Plus, with Microsoft’s roll-out of Windows 10 Mobile being so painfully slow, it’s going to be a long time before big app developers even take notice of the platform. At the moment there are only three phones running the software, with no official word on when it will be more widely available.
That’s a poor showing from a technology giant – and if Microsoft doesn’t get its act together very soon it may have to kiss goodbye to any hopes of ever becoming a serious player in the mobile world.
First reviewed January 2016.