The imminent release of the Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL means that Windows 10 Mobile will finally launch officially after months of Windows Insider Preview builds, a couple of which we tried out earlier this year and found to be light on features and heavy on bugs.
Of course, Microsoft's plans to turn the desktop and mobile editions of Windows 10 into 'Windows-as-a-service' mean that the build found on the new Lumias isn't so much a final version as it is the first build Microsoft has seen fit for wide-scale public deployment. As such, we've tested it on a Lumia 950 XL to see how far the OS has come.
It doesn't look too far removed from Windows Phone 8.1, but Windows 10 Mobile has been tweaked to more closely resemble Windows 10. The Start screen - in other words, the home screen - is the spitting image of Windows 10's tile-based Start menu, as is the Action Centre notifications tray and quick settings menu. Many apps, ranging from the Edge browser to the camera, will be instantly familiar to anyone who's used the Windows 10 equivalents, with identically placed icons and sub-menus.
One of our criticisms of the preview builds was that they looked boring, with plain black menus and backgrounds. Fortunately, the Start screen is now a lot more colourful by default, with quaint flipbook-style animations on certain tiles. These tiles can still be moved around, resized, removed or changed to be more or less translucent, all according to the user's tastes.
Sadly, the rest of the UI is still very dull indeed, dealing largely in gloomy dark greys with tiny flashes of blue. Such colour choices are fine on a desktop OS, where menus and such only form small windows, but the whole thing just ends up looking bleak when blown up to full-screen on a smartphone.
Still, improvements over Windows 8.1 Phone remain, including the Recently Added section of the main apps list and the extremely versatile Action Centre, so that's something to be happy about.
Again, a major aspect of Windows 10 Mobile is its synergy with Windows 10. The OS and Universal Apps, which mainly comprise Microsoft programmes like Maps, News, Cortana and the Edge browser but now also include third-party offerings from The Guardian and Audible, share the same underlying code.
In theory this allows Universal Apps to look the same and perform the same functions on smartphones and desktops. We found this mostly well-realised - the only difference between the Windows 10 Mobile and Windows 10 versions of, say, OneNote, was that we were controlling it with a touchscreen instead of a mouse and keyboard, and it's the same story with many others. Differences do exist, including some which were present in the preview builds we tried. It's still not possible use Cortana to search for highlighted text in the Edge browser, as we can in the Windows 10 versions, although we could at least copy the text and paste it into the Cortana app.
More recently added features, not counting those that were broken but now fixed, include Skype integration that extends beyond its own app. For instance, we could send IMs to our Skype contacts from within the Messaging app by swapping between Skype and SIM contacts with a single press. It's a small addition and far from a killer feature, but can save a lot of fiddly switching between Messaging and Skype when holding down a conversation in each. In addition, standard voice calls can be made from within the Skype app.
Another concerning point is the amount of choice available in the Microsoft Store. All the big names are there - Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Dropbox, Skype for Business and so on - so many light users will probably be fine, but we struggled to find several that we use regularly for work, such as the Geekbench and 3DMark benchmarks and Video Looper - all of which are fairly popular on Android. In general, Apple's App Store and Google Play have a much wider selection, which is bad news for Windows 10 Mobile regardless of how frequently it receives feature updates and bug fixes.
Much more encouraging is Continuum. In the PC version of Windows 10, this referred to how the UI could dynamically switch between desktop and tablet modes; here, it's the name given to Windows 10 Mobile's ability to turn its smartphone host into a pseudo-PC.
This requires the Display Dock, which is sold separately but adds HMDI, DisplayPort and full-size USB capabilities to a connected Windows 10 Mobile device. Once a TV or monitor is hooked up to the Display Dock as well, it will display a desktop-style UI running off the handset, complete with a Start menu in the style of Windows 10 proper. It can support up to FHD resolution and a mouse and keyboard, although the smartphone's touchscreen can also be used as a trackpad.
It's a genuinely clever feature that could save the purchase of an additional computer for those who don't need a full-on PC. However, there are limitations beyond the added £79.99 cost of the Display Dock; only Universal Apps are supported, so you won't be able to, say, install the Netflix mobile app and launch it on a big screen. However, it is possible to continue using the handset for other things while it's connected, so you could run a saved movie file on the TV while checking emails and calendars on the smartphone.
Windows 10 Mobile has a pretty decent collection of security measures. These include an Android-esque built-in encryption tool, plus Find My Phone, which can remotely lock a handset - while displaying a custom message on the screen - or wipe sensitive data, in addition to the less dramatic function of forcing a lost handset to ring.
The most interesting security feature has been borrowed, once again, from Windows 10: the biometric authentication of Windows Hello. Whereas on the desktop OS, this could unlock a PC or laptop by recognising the user's face through a camera, here it needs to recognise only irises. The result is more or less the same, and simply looking at the camera should be enough to unlock the device without the need to punch in a PIN.
The bad news is that, at least on the Lumia 950 XL, Windows Hello is a lot more finicky on mobile. We frequently had to hold it, utterly inelegantly, about seven inches away for several seconds before it recognised our eyes. It would be quicker and less weird-looking to just use a passcode. It also seriously struggled during setup to register irises through glasses, although they don't appear to have much of an effect during the actual authentication process. It's also worth remembering that Windows Hello will be available only on Windows 10 Mobile smartphones with a compatible front-facing camera.
Nonetheless, we can still see occasions where this would be a viable alternative to a PIN, such as when wearing thick gloves. It just won't be as quick.
Windows 10 Mobile's biggest improvements on the preview builds are in performance and reliability. It's far less buggy, as you'd hope, and we encountered none of the previous problems with apps failing to open or downloads getting inexplicably cancelled.
Cortana, in particular, is much more capable of recognising speech. In the preview builds we'd end up half shouting into the microphone with zero response, but in the release build it picks up spoken commands with impressive accuracy, even with the ambient sound of a bustling office.
That said, the OS can still run a little on the slow side, especially when opening apps. At one point it took the better part of a minute to launch Word, and it froze for a few seconds when we tried to play a small video file. The Lumia 950 XL we were using packs a beefy octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor with 3GB of RAM, so we're fairly convinced that this sluggishness can be pinned on the software rather than the hardware.
Windows 10 Mobile is much improved, but isn't entirely devoid of bugs. We repeatedly ran into a problem where the keyboard wouldn't show up in landscape view, and even when it does show, the Clipboard icon frequently falls halfway off the screen.
There's no question that Windows 10 Mobile has done enough to stand out from iOS and Android. Unifying mobile and desktop apps, along with the ability to sync data and files between them, could be a huge help to those who use their smartphone as a work device, and the Continuum feature offers far greater flexibility than other operating systems when hooked up to a screen.
Then again, being able to stand out isn't the same as being able to compete on quality, and right now Windows 10 Mobile comes with a few too many caveats to be a truly compelling alternative. This could change if it gains better app support and continues to receive some much-needed polish, but there aren't enough reasons to opt for this work in progress when more fully formed options are available.
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