Late yesterday Microsoft finally let owners of its Windows phones try out Windows 10 for the very first time. Through the Windows Insider Program anyone with a supported device can download the operating system ahead of release and get a look at Microsoft’s vision.
And what a vision it is. The version of Windows 10 for Phones that users can download through the program today is nowhere near feature complete. A few of the broad strokes are already available though, and they’re pretty interesting. That’s especially true when you consider how far Windows 10 needs to go in turning around Microsoft’s mobile fortunes.
Here’s how the current Windows 10 for Phones preview compares with Windows Phone 8.1, the last major new mobile operating system from Microsoft that’s available today.
Live Tiles – Transparency & New Sizes
Despite its good looks, Windows Phone has always had a bit of a personality problem. Early on, Microsoft struggled to balance to 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.
Additionally, Microsoft Windows 10 for phones adds two new Live Tile sizes. One is a giant square and the other a rectangle, bringing the grand total to 5 different sizes for users to choose from. In the build available to users today, only two apps support the new Live Tiles – the People app and Cortana. This tells us that developers will have to add support for them on an app-per-app basis.
In certain situations Live Tiles become a little translucent. More on that in just a bit.
Start Screen – New Background & App List
Windows Phone 7 had color choices for different Live Tiles. Windows Phone 8 added even more Live Tile colors to choose from. It wasn’t until last year with Windows Phone 8.1 that users could choose a background, and that background only showed up inside the Live Tiles.
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.
When you swipe from right to left on the Start Screen in Windows Phone 8.1 you can a long list of apps that are installed on your device. For the most part, Microsoft hasn’t altered the list in any way for years. Supplementing the Search functionality on the Apps List now are sections for recently installed and recently updated apps. It sounds basic, but just that bit of small contextual information is enough to make the apps list in Windows 10 for Phones much more manageable. There’s a similar transformation happening on Start Screen and Start Menu for Windows 10 on notebooks and more.
Apps – Settings, File Explorer, Photos & Cortana
There’s not a lot to say about apps in Windows 10 for Phones. A lot of the apps Microsoft discussed at its Windows 10 Media Briefing are straight up missing in this release. This Windows 10 for Phones build has just three apps with significant updates.
The first is Photos, which is now a Universal App. A menu button now holds easy to find options for managing Albums, Folders and Settings for the app. Editing and sharing are built-into the app and so is OneDrive integration. This app isn’t anywhere near complete yet. If it looks familiar it’s because it’s the same app Microsoft is including with Windows 10 on notebooks and more.
The Settings app is another app that’ll look familiar here. Deep diving into each setting reveals Microsoft has done little to no cosmetic work on the individual settings. That being said, the first layer of the app has a title bar like the Photos app and finally divides settings into different screens based on their function. This is a god send, Windows Phone 8.1 still has giant lists that look like a bomb went off.
Microsoft says it’s in the process of rebuilding its Cortana personal assistant. For right now, on Windows 10 for Phones she too has a menu button containing all of her individual settings and options. A visual refresh makes this version match what’s available in other versions of Windows 10. Reminders and more now sync between all the different versions of Windows 10. There’s also some advanced text to speech recognition with better grammar.
Finally, there’s File Explorer, an upgraded version of the Files app from Windows Phone 8.1 that has a menu bar and navigation that makes sense.
Action Center — Notifications & Settings Shortcuts
There’s also some small tweaks. The Action Center hasn’t gotten much of a visual update but does have some improvements. Users can assign more settings to the Action Center itself, saving them a trip to the Settings app. They can swipe away individual notifications and expand specific notifications too.
I should mention that text to speech now works directly from the Windows phone keyboard. There’s also a digital control stick for navigating to different letters precisely.
All told, this first release of Windows 10 for Phones is a pretty dramatic upgrade. Microsoft says that it plans to upgrade and refresh the Windows 10 for Phones Technical Preview on the same schedule as the rest of Windows 10. It should arrive as a free update to some Windows Phone users later this year.