Microsoft's testing process for Windows 10 Mobile is admirably open. The mobile OS won't launch in a finished state until later this year, but anyone with a compatible handset and a Microsoft account can sign up to the Windows Insider programme and try out pre-release builds right now.
Naturally, there's a catch. Microsoft cheerfully admits on the Windows Insider site that even the most recent Insider Preview builds are "far from being finished", going on to list a variety of missing features and non-functioning functionalities. The firm is, right from the off, very clear that the Windows Insider programme is aimed at savvy users who genuinely want to take part in the system's ongoing development.
Nonetheless, we loaded up a Nokia Lumia 635 with Windows 10 Mobile Insider Preview Build 10166, later updating it to Windows 10 Mobile Insider Preview Build 10512, to find out how the OS is progressing.
Switching from Windows Phone 8.1 to Windows 10 Mobile is fairly straightforward. After downloading and installing the Windows Insider app, we had the choice of joining the Fast ring or the Slow ring. Fast ring users receive new version updates immediately, while Slow ring users must wait a while, although by the time updates arrive they're generally more stable, having already been tested by Fast ring users.
We opted for the Fast ring, and were instructed to manually check for updates via the Settings menu. After doing so, Windows 10 Mobile immediately started downloading. About an hour later, the download had finished and all that was left was to plug in the phone to the mains and restart. This final installation took an additional 20 minutes. All in all, still a considerably speedier process than upgrading to Windows 10 on a PC.
Speaking of Windows 10, Windows 10 Mobile doesn't overhaul the UI to nearly the same extent as the PC and tablet version. Currently, it simply looks like a more modern Windows Phone 8.1; the opacity of Live Tiles can be customised, so they won't entirely obscure the user's background photo. The apps menu, which is still accessible by swiping from the right of the screen, is also partly translucent. Both touches are, cosmetically, a considerable improvement on the boring blacks and solid colours of Windows Phone 8.1.
The apps menu has been updated with a Recently Added section. It's a small addition, but good one; we appreciated that we didn't need to scroll all the way through the main alphabetical list to try out a freshly installed app.
One of the main additions borrowed from Windows 10 is the Action Centre. It's an expandable drop-down menu that incorporates one-tap access to, among other things, the brightness settings, flight mode, camera app, battery saver mode, OneNote, VPN manager, Wi-Fi, rotation lock and the full settings menu. On top of all that, it's also where notifications are stored, making it a robust and convenient tool for tinkering and everyday use.
The Action Centre is one of our favourite features in Windows 10, so it's great that it appears in Windows 10 Mobile with almost all of its capabilities intact. It also seems to be in a pretty complete state; only the Mobile Hotspot icon doesn't work, as a result of the feature being intentionally disabled in the most recent Insider Preview builds.
That said, not everything about the UI is in fully working order. One interesting feature shared by Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile is synchronised notifications. For instance, we set a reminder for ourselves on a Windows 10 tablet, and the resulting alert appeared on the tablet and our smartphone, as they were both logged in on the same Microsoft account.
However, once we cleared the notification on the phone, it continued to show up on the tablet. This wouldn't normally be a big deal, but Microsoft has repeatedly stated that responding to a notification on one device should get rid of it on others. It appears this functionality isn't ready yet.
Software and apps
Microsoft has made a lot of noise about Universal Apps that share feature parity between Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile versions. To demonstrate this, Microsoft has pre-loaded Windows 10 Mobile with News, Maps, Money, Health & Fitness, Weather and other Universal Apps that come as standard on Windows 10.
These do indeed look and operate practically the same on a smartphone as they do on a laptop, which is encouraging. We're hoping to see more complex third-party apps offer this continuity as both versions of Windows 10 mature.
Less encouraging is Microsoft Edge, the replacement browser for Internet Explorer. This is also a Universal App, but the mobile version of Edge is lacking several features that made the desktop/tablet version such a clear upgrade over IE. There's no ability to add or share annotations to web pages, no integration with the Cortana digital assistant, and the UI isn't even particularly different to IE's on Windows Phone 8.1. Whether this is a limitation of the current Insider Preview build or Edge itself remains to be seen, but it seems that Universal Apps aren't quite yet fulfilling their promise of parity.
Edge on mobile does, at the very least, keep the Hub menu of the desktop version. This incorporates the Favourites, Reading List, History and Downloads menus but, while it's still handy to have all these in one place, we're not hugely fond of how it fills up the entire screen - distinctly unlike the desktop version.
What's worse, a lot of apps and features just outright don't work. Excel and the calculator app both refused to open, photos can't be deleted (although they are automatically synced from the camera roll of a Windows 10 machine, which is nice) and it can take dozens of repeated attempts to download a new app from the Windows Store. To give a particularly egregious example, we spent two hours manually restarting the download for Microsoft Word, which would consistently and inexplicably appear to stop halfway through, only to give up, go to the apps menu and find that it had actually finished downloading some time ago without notifying us.
We're giving Cortana its own section not only because it's a key feature in Windows 10 Phone, but because we need a dedicated space to explain how utterly unusable it is in the current build.
In theory, Cortana is a virtual assistant that can set reminders, search the web and make suggestions for restaurants to eat at or music to listen to based on the user's interests. We managed to get one of these - setting reminders - to work as intended, and even that was only an occasional success. Often, we'd instruct Cortana to set an alarm and it would use our command as a search term and bring up a Bing results page.
When we actually did try using Cortana to search, such as for directions, it would complete the search then immediately close itself before we could read the results. It also seems prone to hanging on the 'Thinking' loading screen, with no visible way to cancel or otherwise close the application.
The 10166 and 10512 builds were pretty slow by mobile OS standards. Even opening menus can take a few seconds, which isn't much to begin with, but eventually adds up to a lot of waiting around. The OS got even more sluggish when we ran multiple apps and, with no multitasking view to speak off, finding and closing them individually became a pain.
Admittedly, the Lumia 635 isn't the most powerful handset around, but even Windows Phone 8.1 felt swifter and more responsive before we replaced it with Windows 10 Mobile. Hopefully, Microsoft will find the time to add some performance optimisations in between squashing bugs.
For anyone interested in taking an active testing role, Microsoft's warning that Windows 10 Mobile is unfinished may be ignored at their peril. It's clear that the smartphone OS is still a long way from being a stable and usable product, and progress isn't exactly steaming ahead. The 10512 build added over 2,000 bug fixes to the 10166 build, but we honestly couldn't tell the difference.
iOS 9 and Android 6.0 Marshmallow are fast approaching, and Microsoft will need to split its focus between mending errors and further improving the features that enable Windows 10 Mobile to interlink with Windows 10.
This synergy between mobile and desktop operating systems currently feels like Windows 10 Mobile's biggest strength, the area where it has the most potential and its best chance of offering a compelling alternative to the Apple and Google platforms.
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