Windows 10 Mobile is Microsoft’s latest attempt to address the shortage of apps being developed for its smartphones and ignite consumer interest in its platform.
It aims to do this by unifying the desktop and mobile versions of Microsoft's OS – in theory, developers will then be able to use the same core code to create special “Universal Applications” that run on desktop and mobile. The unification process also adds a nifty new “Continuum” feature, which lets you turn Windows 10 smartphones into compute sticks via a special Display Dock.
The features sound great, but with most core Microsoft apps now on iOS and Android, some have justifiably questioned whether there's any reason to jump ship to Windows 10 Mobile. The answer for now is not really – although in a few months this could change.
Watch: 5 things you need to know about Windows 10 Mobile
Related: Android 6.0 Marshmallow review
I tested WIndows 10 on Microsoft’s latest Lumia 950XL phablet having played with each beta release on a Lumia 535.
At first glance, the user interface looks fairly similar to Windows 8.1. It retains the vibrant Live Tile homescreen of its predecessor, which in my mind is no bad thing. Live Tiles are a nifty alternative to iOS and Android’s widget and icon-heavy UIs.
They make it easier to keep on top of things by offering peek views to incoming messages and alerts. The native Outlook email tile will display the sender and subject line of the last message to enter your inbox, for example, while the Facebook app offers a peek view of your latest alert.
For those who prefer a more traditional mobile experience, the Action Centre offers similar quick notification shortcuts to Google’s Android OS. It's accessed by scrolling down from the top of the phone’s UI and features shortcuts to key options, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and screen brightness, as well as notifications from linked social media and email accounts. As an added perk it also lets you directly respond to alerts without launching the applications.
Cortana makes a welcome a reappearance too. Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri and Google’s Now voice command services, Cortana can be activated using a Live Tile on the phone’s menu screen, or directly from within certain applications. When launched you can either type or speak commands.
As well as enacting basic tasks, such as mounting web searches and opening applications, Cortana can contextually answer questions and take specific actions within apps. I regularly used her to get directions, estimate travel times and find good eateries in my area using Windows 10’s reworked Maps app. I also used her to take notes in OneNote, add entries to my calendar and draft emails while on the move.
On paper, Siri and Google Now offer similar services, but I found Cortana works better on almost every level. Her voice-recognition software is stronger and proved capable of understanding accents that have rendered Siri useless – tested with an Afrikaans-accented friend on the Lumia 950 XL.
To existing Windows Phone fans, this may sound a little too much like business as usual. But, when you dive into the phone’s submenus, you realise Microsoft has made some small, but positive changes to Windows 10 Mobile’s design.
The majority of the changes work to unify the look of Windows 10’s desktop and mobile versions.
The two menu screens are now identical. The Store has also been updated to resemble the desktop and Xbox Live versions. It adds a new vertical submenu with shortcuts to the app, games, music and film sections, and an enhanced spotlight feature for recommended content.
The changes may sound insignificant, but for me they’re a real positive. The move to make Windows 10 Mobile’s UI consistent with Microsoft’s desktop and Xbox software makes the OS one of the most intuitive to use on the market. However, the lack of significant change is a two-edged sword when you starting diving into most third-party applications – which haven’t benefited from the same spruce-up.
Related: iOS 9 review
Developers generally viewed Windows Phone 8.1 as being of secondary importance to iOS and Android, despite Microsoft’s best efforts. As a result, Windows Phone 8.1’s app offering never came close to matching that of iOS or Android.
During its shelf life, popular apps such as Instagram and Vine took months to even partially launch on the platform following their appearance on iOS and Android. Third-party apps on the Windows Phone also suffered woefully worse update cycles than their iOS and Android versions. Time and time again, Windows Phone users would miss out on cool new features even if the apps did appear.
Microsoft has aimed to fix this on Windows 10 using “Universal Apps”. Universal Apps are a big part of Microsoft’s promise to create a "truly cross-device" operating system. They refer to a new generation of applications that can run on multiple device types using a single common code.
Microsoft claims the ability to use a common core code will make it easier for developers to port or create Windows 10 Mobile applications and create a consistent, “touch-first” experience across phone, tablet and PC.
On paper this sounds great, and Microsoft has already begun to migrate core services, such as Office, to become Universal Apps. But I’m yet to see the Universal Application gamble pay off on Windows 10 Mobile with third-party developers.
Windows 10 Mobile’s application offering remains a little hit and miss. Key apps still aren’t there. Even Instagram is still in its beta form, and a number of the big apps that are on WIndows 10 Mobile feel a little archaic compared to their iOS and Android counterparts.
Facebook is one of a number of companies confirmed to be working on a Universal App. For the moment, however, users are stuck with the dedicated Windows Phone version. This is a problem, as the mobile version looks like it hasn’t had a significant update since the days Microsoft Devices was called Nokia. Icons are huge and the newsfeed looks overly blown up, giving it a slightly childish feel.
Windows 10 mobile (left), Android 6.0 Marshmallow (right)
The issue isn’t local to Facebook; the Twitter app has the same problem.
The BBC iPlayer app is a particularly bad offender, and is missing several of the service's newer features. The worst is the missing account login option, whose absence means regular users won’t be able to easily access their favorite content, or get tailored recommendations.
This isn’t a problem for business smartphone users – who are pretty much covered by Microsoft’s Office 365 suite and Windows 10’s advanced mobile device management and security services. But for now, the app offering isn’t up to scratch for most consumers. Hopefully this will change in the future and Microsoft’s Universal Apps gambit will pay off.
I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled over the coming months and will update this review as and when significant new apps appear on Windows 10 Mobile.