This week, Microsoft launched a preview version of its Windows 10 operating system on selected Microsoft Lumia handsets through its Windows Insider Program.
The rollout comes ahead of a major keynote speech the company is preparing at the Mobile World Congress in March.
At this stage the rollout is intended solely for tech experts, IT professionals and developers rather than for everyday use. There are also some known issues with the preview release, meaning users will need to reset alarms and re-sync Microsoft Band wearables after updating.
So what sort of first impression does Windows 10 make on smartphones, and will it be enough to help Microsoft fight back against Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platforms? It’s time to find out.
Which phones can get it?
At this stage, the Windows 10 preview is only available on the company’s Lumia 630, 635, 636, 638, 730 and 830 smartphones. In other words, users of the company’s flagship 930 smartphone and 1520 phablet will have to wait.
According to Microsoft, this is because it is still working on a feature called “partition stitching” that will allow it to dynamically adjust the size of the operating system partition on these devices. The good news for 930 and 1520 owners is that more devices will be supported once this feature is ready.
Key features introduced with Windows 10 include the ability to set a full-size background image for the Start screen, along with up to three rows of quick actions in the action centre. Notifications in Windows 10 are now interactive, meaning users can, for example, reply to a text message directly from a notification.
The release also improves text-to-speech, and includes a new Photos app that aggregates all photos both on a user’s smartphone and on OneDrive.
For developers, it features universal apps and a unified app store allowing a single app to target all the devices that run any version of Windows 10, from smartphones to tablets, PCs and servers. On a PC, smartphone apps will default to running in a window.
Alongside the release, for business users, Microsoft recently added new functionality to its Office Lens that allows users to ‘scan’ business cards with their camera and automatically save the details to Outlook or OneNote.
What’s the consensus?
While TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington notes the release lacks polish at this stage, he was impressed by a feature Microsoft didn’t mention in its list of upgraded features:
The Preview is limited in terms of devices it can run on, and in terms of features it offers, but it’s a start, and a first look at the next generation of Microsoft’s mobile OS. I loaded it onto a Lumia 830 to see what it brings to the table, and limited though it may be, it already does a lot to improve the overall experience, once you get past the lack of polish that comes with any pre-release software.
The ability to set a photo as a full-size background is a very small but appreciated nod to user customization. And one final new tidbit that Microsoft didn’t mention in its official list of features is the revamped keyboard, which includes a virtual “nubbin,” not unlike the red one that is synonymous with the iconic ThinkPad. This lets you navigate back, forward, up and down in blocks of text, which makes it easier to get to the exact location you want to be at when working in text fields or documents, as compared to stabbing around with your imprecise, meaty fingertip.
At Gotta Be Mobile, Travis Pope says the updated background adds a little personality that was lacking in the past, when compared to iOS and Android smartphones:
Despite its good looks, Windows Phone has always had a bit of a personality problem. Early on, Microsoft struggled to balance competing priorities. On one hand, Windows Phone needed to look clean and unique to everyone who saw it. Meanwhile, smartphone owners wanted more personalization and options to make their phone their own.
Microsoft says it’s keeping the background option from Windows Phone 8.1, but in today’s version of Windows 10 for Phones you can also assign a background that works just like the backgrounds on iPhone and Android. Like the Xbox One, when a background is assigned the Live Tiles turn transparent and show you more of your picture.
In theory, every user’s phone running Windows 10 for Phones will feel more like their own and less like a minimalist art project. It’s a good idea, but in practice it’s sure to leave some people looking for a way to turn it off. When you do set a background, the Start Screen looks a live, but busy. With the wrong background some might even feel that it looks too confusing.
One man who was not impressed with the limited number of smartphones the preview is available for is Forbes’ resident Windows guru Marco Chiappetta, who was disappointed it wouldn’t work on his Lumia 1520:
For tech geeks like me, Windows 10 is interesting for a number of reasons, so I was particularly excited to give the technical preview a try. During its demo of Windows 10 for Phones, Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore showed a number of the new features coming to the OS using a Nokia Lumia 1520, which is the largest and one of the most powerful Windows Phone-based devices available. It is also the device that I carry around daily, and I happen to have a couple on hand for experimentation and testing purposes. After seeing the demo, I thought I’d be good to go once the technical preview became available. Unfortunately, Microsoft thought it was a good idea to show the technical preview on a device that doesn’t support it.
Should I get one?
At this stage, it’s very important to stress that this is just a preview release, and there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Certainly, it would be a good idea not to rely on Windows 10 on any smartphone you expect to receive critical phone calls on.
That being said, the Lumia 630 – one of the smartphones that can receive the upgrade at this stage – is at the low-end of the company’s product line. If your business relies on Windows, especially if you’re in an IT-related industry, it might be worth picking one up with a cheap prepaid SIM card just to get yourself familiar with the updated interface.