Windows 10 Mobile review
Windows 10 is here and Microsoft seems to have settled on calling it Windows 10 Mobile on smartphones, not Windows Phone 10 despite it seeming like the natural progression (there is no Windows 9). In this feature we're going to look into all aspects of the new mobile operating system from Microsoft including new features like Continuum, apps and user interface. Here's our full and in-depth Windows 10 Mobile review.
New features in Windows 10 for phones include full-size art for the Start screen, an improved Action Center, interactive notifications, better speech-to-text and an improved Photos app. Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for smartphones, tablets and PCs. See also: Not all Lumia smartphones will get an upgrade to Windows 10.
For this review, we've been using Windows 10 Mobile on a range of smartphones including the Lumia 950, Lumia 950 XL and Lumia 650 – plus some hands-on time with some newer models like the Alcatel OneTouch Fierce XL. See how to install Windows 10 on your phone or on other devices.
Windows 10 Mobile review: What happened to Windows Phone?
Windows 10 is built to run across all manner of devices and is the same core platform for PCs, tablets and phones. No matter what you're using, it's a shared codebase – 'one product family, one platform, one store' is Microsoft's tagline for the new OS.
That said, Windows 10 for phones is a very similar experience to Windows Phone 8 so it's not like Microsoft is introducing smartphone users to a whole new OS. As well as a common OS core, Microsoft has switched to using the same app platform across PCs and phones.
Don't be fooled into thinking that because it's the same OS as laptops and desktops you can run full x86 programs on it all of a sudden, though. Also see: Best Windows Phones 2015.
Although this isn't a completely new operating system, making the same Windows 10 OS you use on PC or laptop run on mobile phones is a big deal and wouldn't go without some new features to draw the attention of potential punters.
By a separate mobile version, the big unique selling point is being able to use the OS across all your devices. This means the same apps, notifications, synchronised files and more. It's what Microsoft should have done a long time ago. Also see: Best MiFi 2016.
Universal Apps is a part of this system and is a way of highlighting an app which will offer the same experience and feature whether you're using it on a phone or an all-in-one PC. The app will just display differently depending on the screen. The idea is that you can start writing an email on laptop but finish it off on your phone when you, for example, leave the office to jump on a train.
Windows Hello is a new way of logging onto your device, not just phones. Windows 10 Mobile users can now unlock their phone with just by looking at it. You still need to press the power button but then the front camera will verify that it's you and let you in. It works but more often than not, takes a bit of time with messages such as 'move closer' even in good light.
What's far more exciting is Contiuum, probably the best new feature of Windows 10 Mobile. In short, it means that you can carry on using your phone like a PC when you plug it into a screen with a mouse and keyboard. To do this you'll need the Microsoft Display Dock (above) which is £79 or sometimes bundled with a handset.
Everything is run off the phone so you've got all of your files etc even if you don't have a data connection. You get a full desktop user interface with the familiar start menu, just like you would on a PC.
Compared to a decent spec machine, things are a little slow at times but perfectly usable to do things like web browsing and be productive. The phone itself remains on and can be used as a sort of trackpad to navigate around the screen. That's necessary if you don't have a mouse but it's also annoying as the app you're using on the monitor also appear on the phone's screen which can be annoying at times.
Continuum is really cool and it's possible, but not really advisable, that your phone could replace your laptop and/or PC. There are drawbacks which is why we don't recommend it, though.
Aside from the phone's hardware being less powerful, you can't just run anything and everything while using Continuum. While Outlook, Word and many other apps are ready a raring to go, not all are supported. These are shown on screen but are greyed out so you can't launch them and even include Microsoft's own Skype.
We really like Continuum and although it's a good selling point, it's by no means the full package just yet.
Outlook is one of the first Universal Apps, meaning it runs across PC, laptop, phone and tablet with the same experience and synchronises everything seamlessly. As long as you're connected to the internet in one way or another it means all the information will be updated. You could, for example, start replying to an email on your laptop then finish it on your phone while you're on the go. In general this will be the same for any Universal App.
As you'd expect, Office is a part of Windows 10 on phones just like it was in Windows Phone 8. Word is also part of Outlook meaning you can format your emails nicely, even on a phone, and add things like tables. Swiping left and right on messages deletes or flags them. It's all pretty slick.
There's full Gmail support as well as other webmail service across phones, tablets and PCs. In fact, there's much better support for all webmail services, so you don't have to be an Outlook user with an outlook address to benefit. You can link various accounts to one inbox.
Microsoft's Office team has built new features into new universal apps for Word, Excel and PowerPoint for Windows 10 Mobile.
They are optimised for touch-based input and will include the Office Ribbon which desktop users have become familiar with. Your recent documents list will also be available across all your Windows 10 devices.
Along with some others, Calendar is a Universal app as you might expect and it will be integrated into Outlook, too. As such, it will synchronise across all your Windows 10 devices so it doesn't matter which one you enter an event on, it will show up everywhere.
The updated Photos app is another Universal App and has been improved with better editing and management tools. It makes it easier to find the snap you're looking photo and give it a few tweaks before sharing. It can automatically enhance photos and remove duplicates too.
On the video side of things you can easily scrub through a clip if you're trying to find a particular bit without having to simply guess how far in it is.
Photos displays your shots in chronological order in the same tiled layout and you can choose whether or not to show photos and videos from your OneDrive meaning you don't need to head to it as a separate app to access that content. Folders is a handy feature and will let you view photos based on file location in desktop style.
Albums enables you to group photos into themes, edit them and easily share them with friends and family without using Facebook or photo sharing sites like Flickr.
The mapping situation for Windows Phone 8 was somewhat confusing with both Maps and HERE Maps (developed by Nokia) onboard. Things are a lot clearer in Windows 10 with a Maps Universal App.
The experience is consistent across all Windows 10 devices and Bing Maps is leveraged for its search results, Streetside views 3D imagery and navigation features. It's better but the experience is still much better on Google Maps. For example, the Streetside views are from 2011 so pretty out of date.
Messaging and Skype
There's a big change when it comes to messaging because Microsoft has decided to effectively combine phone calls, text messages and Skype (both messages and calls). There's a new dialer but Messages is the focus for Windows 10 on phones.
In a similar way to iMessage and Google Hangout, the Messages app will display all the content in one conversation thread view – whether it's a regular SMS message or from Skype. Users can also quickly exit the thread and call the person easily.
Furthermore, the related People app where you store all your contacts allows you to choose a preferred method of communications – whether that's email, text, or internet messaging.
Microsoft's digital assistant called Cortana isn't a new feature but has had a slight visual update and you can switch on "Hey Cortana" in the settings meaning it's always ready to go when you say those words - it does use more battery, though.
As with many features in Windows 10 the idea is to have consistency across devices. So if you set a reminder on your phone it will potentially pop up on your desktop at the right moment. The more you use Cortana, the better it gets to know you and can provide more helpful information like Google Now.
Microsoft Edge browser
Originally called 'Project Spartan', Edge is Microsoft's new web browser and has replaced Internet Explorer. The new browser is designed for the modern web and has a new look and feel.
New features include the ability to annotate articles before sharing them. There's also a customisable Reading View which supports PDFs and restructures a page minus ads for a better experience. However, it sometimes removes things you might want such as in-line images.
The Reading List which will show up on all your Windows devices sounds like an alternative to Pocket but doesn't save content to read offline which is a shame, instead it works like a bookmark. Last but not least is the Cortana integration which will help you find things on the web easier and faster.
Like other things in Windows 10 Mobile, some good ideas but not a nicely polished and complete execution.
Despite much of the above being positive change, there's still a fundamental problem with Windows 10 Mobile. The selection of apps available very much remains subpar.
If you think you're probably just going to use your Windows 10 phone for basics like email, web browsing and utilising built-in apps like Word then there isn't so much of a problem. However, if you want to be able to use the latest apps and play the best mobile games around then it's bad news.
Highlighting the issue nicely is the fact that Instagram, one of the most popular apps ever, is *still* in beta for the platform. Other big name apps missing from the Store include Snapchat, Pinterest, Tinder, Sky Go, BT Sport, Airbnb, Amazon Prime Video and more.
There are, of course, apps like Facebook, Twitter, BBC iPlayer and others but in general the experience isn't as good compared to their iOS and Android counterparts.
Aside from the lack of big name apps, what about when you've bought a device which comes with – or even requires - a companion app? These days there are countless including ones to fly drones, control speakers or schedule recordings on your set-top box.
The affect is going to differ from user to user but to highlight some more missing apps: Sonos, YouView, Philips Hue, Virgin Atlantic and Starbucks. The situation is still less than ideal and when we speak to companies like Sonos about support the general vibe is that there's not enough users to warrant the development. So it's not only that apps are taking an age to arrive, some simply will never be made.
If you didn't like Windows Phone 8 then you're unlikely to be a fan of the Windows 10 Mobile interface. It uses the same philosophy but with some tweaks and improvements, some of which were much needed.
New tile art
Since smartphones are personal Microsoft has made various improvements to the Start Screen on phones to make it more customisable. With Windows 10 Mobile you can select an image which will appear full-screen behind the tiles and the apps menu or just over the tiles. Tiles which don't have a solid colour go semi-transparent so you can see the image behind.
We're glad Microsoft has gone all-in with the system and introduced more customisation. Where you could previously move tiles and change the size you can now do a lot more. You can change the transparency and changing the accent colour has an effect throughout the system.
Some tiles will give information such as Outlook previewing an email, but there's no way of controlling how much it shows or when. There's still more on offer in terms of customisation with Android but Windows 10 Mobile is much better than iOS in this respect.
Recently installed apps
The usual apps menu sits to the right of the Start Screen and still shows all of your apps in alphabetical order. However, a new section will appear at the top called 'Recently Installed' showing you recently installed apps which is a nice touch.
With the Start screen, we haven't found much need for the app menu since there is a lot of space for tiles so you can fit all your most used apps there, even if you do have to scroll down.
Improved Action Center and Interactive Notifications
We were glad of the arrival of the Action Center on Windows Phone 8 and Microsoft has made some nice improvements in Windows 10 for phones giving you more control over what's happening.
It was a little buggy in the Technical Preview but is now slick. There are more Quick Actions available so when you pull the bar down from the top of the screen you see the usual set of four (still customisable) but there's a new expand button which shows up to 12 additional ones when clicked.
Action Center is also where you pick up all your notifications and while they are displayed in the same manner, they are now interactive. This means you can do various things straight away. You can dismiss an alarm, seeing images for maps and when it comes to things like text messages so you can reply inline via the keyboard or voice.
You can control where you see notifications, alarms and reminders so they don't have to appear on the lockscreen if you don't want. Plus you can switch off notifications from certain apps which might be annoying like ones from Gadgets or Microsoft Edge.
The other thing to mention about notifications is that you won't need to dismiss them twice. If you get rid of one on your phone then you shouldn't have to deal with it again if you switch to Windows 10 on another device. That's a real boon and something which we've been wanting on iOS and Android.
New Settings menu
Long suffering Windows Phone users will be pleased to hear that the Settings menu has received a much needed overhaul. Previously it was split into 'system' and 'applications' – not a bad thing in itself but the massive list of options on the former was extremely difficult to navigate with no apparent order or method.
The new Settings menu is divided into ten sections for things like system, personalisation, accounts and privacy. It makes much more sense and under each heading you can see what type of things you'll find there. The final version of Windows 10 Mobile also has a search box in case you're struggling to find something and remains when you click into all the sections apart from 'Extras'.
New keyboard with joystick
The keyboard is largely the same in Windows 10 for phones compared to Windows Phone 8 but there's a new feature which you might not even spot at first.
If you remember the way old laptops (and some still) had a tiny joystick in the middle of the keyboard for moving the cursor – often called a nipple – well that's exactly what Microsoft had added to Windows 10 for phones in a virtual way.
Rather than sitting in the middle of the keyboard, it's on the left hand side between shift, z, the '&123' button and the emoji button. If you tap and hold it a little D-pad pops up and you can slide your finger around to move the cursor – it's pretty neat. Pressing and holding the space key also allows you to slide the keyboard up and down the screen in case you need to reposition it.
Windows 10 Mobile: Specs
Without a doubt you should upgrade an older Windows Phone to Windows 10 Mobile. However, in the wider market things are different. We like the improvements which Microsoft has made, especially Continuum, the new Action Center and smaller things like a better settings menu and more customisation. But, it's not the complete package just yet with some limited functionality and the ongoing lack of apps.