At first glance, Microsoft’s choice to introduce both regular and XL-sized Windows 10 phones on Tuesday might look like a desperate attempt to keep up with Apple and Google. But a closer inspection of what these new phones actually can do, however, will tell you that Microsoft is in position to take the lead in next-generation handsets.
The reason: Windows 10 Continuum.
Continuum turns your Windows 10 smartphone into a full-on computer you carry around in your pocket. Plug your handset into the $99 Display Box — a hockey puck-sized hub with USB ports and an HDMI screen output — and all the apps and documents on your phone will scale up to PC-size, ready to be manipulated using a full-sized keyboard and mouse.
The caveats: Continuum will only be coming to Microsoft’s new Lumia phones (set to be released this November), not any current Windows phones. And this trick will only work with Windows 10 “universal apps” (more on those in a bit).
Call me whatever names you like, but after spending some time using Windows 10′s Continuum with the Lumia 950 XL phone, I’m convinced Microsoft’s vision for a ubiquitous, across-all-devices user experience is for real — and it’s probably not too far down the road, either.
The smartphone as a brain
With six- and eight-core processors, and 3GB of RAM each, the new Lumia 950 and 950 XL are about as powerful as most of their high-end 2015 smartphone contemporaries. When I plugged the XL and a keyboard and mouse into the Display Dock, I found out that it makes for a fairly competent computer brain, too.
For the most part, the Lumia’s Continuum-style desktop looked a lot like my Surface Pro 3′s. A click of the Start button in the bottom left corner brought up the Windows 10 Start Menu – also looking a lot like the one on my Surface PC.
What’s the apps?
This Start Menu, however, will only feature “universal Windows apps.” Microsoft hopes developers will build apps that can be installed and run on any Windows 10 device, whether it’s a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop, or even an Xbox. Universal apps will display one type of user interface when they operate on a phone, and another when they run on a PC: same app, same data, different look.
Bottom line: Any Windows Store smartphone apps not built to be “universal” (and, so far, most the vast majority are not) will not work in Continuum mode. Got it?
(Microsoft has told us that some kind of official list of “universal” apps will be coming soon.)
Surfing the Continuum
Naturally, Microsoft’s Office apps all loaded fine in Continuum mode, as did its new Edge browser. I was able to use File Explorer to browse through the contents of a USB drive that was plugged into Microsoft’s Display Dock. From there I pulled up and watched an HD trailer for Jurassic World. For a moment I forgot whether I was operating a smartphone or a PC. In fact, I forgot all about device categories and gadget ecosystems. I was feeling user experience euphoria.
Then I noticed the video was playing a little choppy. Gadget zen harshened!
To be fair, I probably shouldn’t let a performance hiccup color my opinion of Continuum. I was, after all, warned by Microsoft representatives that the version of Windows 10 for smartphones I was testing was not the final build that would ship with the phones. Fine.
All-in-all, though, opening and editing PowerPoint slides, alt-tabbing through apps, and scrolling through Web pages felt a little like working on a budget-conscious Intel Atom PC, not a smartphone – and that’s a good thing! Considering that this was simply a phone hooked into a computer monitor, I was tickled it ran well at all.
If that’s not a ringing endorsement for “The future is now, and it’s in your pocket!” then I don’t know what is.
A ticket into the full world of Windows 10
Microsoft and Apple are still the two big kahunas in personal computing, accounting for almost 95 percent of the market. But when it comes to smartphones, Windows phones account for a measly 3 percent of the field, versus Android’s 53 percent and Apple’s 41 percent.
With Continuum, however, Microsoft has a decent shot at increasing those numbers, thanks not only to a pair of powerful and attractive smartphones but also Windows 10. The Lumia 950 handsets come with Microsoft’s Edge browser – the full Windows 10 version. They come with Microsoft Office apps installed – the full Windows 10 versions. These devices aren’t simply phones, they’re Windows 10 PCs that fit inside your pocket.
There’s a lot more to the Lumia Continuum experience. For instance: If your display supports Miracast, which allows it to mirror your phone’s interface on the big screen, you can use Continuum without any need for Microsoft’s $99 Display Dock. And the phones can be used as a second screen; that means you can still send text messages and operate other apps on your phone while Continuum is running. But just seeing the basic concepts of Continuum in action has made me a believer in what Windows 10 can mean for a seamless, category-free gadget future.
Whether Apple or Google will follow Microsoft’s lead remains to be seen.
Bonus: Maybe we’ll finally be able to stop calling these things phones, too. I mean, we can all agree that no one is using them to make calls any more, right?
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