I’m sitting at my desk on a Monday afternoon, ready to smash something. I’ve spent the past four hours trying to finish a task that usually takes less than half that time. But this isn’t a typical day. It’s the first day in a week where I vowed to work exclusively in Windows 10 Mobile’s desktop Continuum mode via my Lumia 950 instead of on my proper PC. Goodbye AAA games, traditional desktop applications, and easy multi-tasking. Hello, mobile software and a struggling app ecosystem. Why did I sign up for this again?
Because Continuum offers an interesting premise: Instead of toting around a laptop, just plug a phone into an external mouse, keyboard, and monitor to switch to a desktop-like experience.
Imagine being able to leave the laptop at home, and just grab your phone and a few cords. Then, when you’re out and about, scrounge up your peripherals and boom! Instant desktop replacement.
I’m not the only one thinking this way. HP hopes its upcoming Elite x3 smartphone will convince IT departments to distribute the handset with accompanying laptop docks for corporate drones to use while away from the mother ship. Heck, in theory home users could even ditch a separate PC completely and use a Continuum-capable Windows 10 phone as the ultimate mobile computer.
After spending seven days inside Continuum, however, it’s clear to me that Microsoft’s desktop mode on phones just isn’t ready to meet my needs.
Really? I’m a truck driver?
How much computing power do I need to do my job anyway, I thought. Surely writers and reporters aren’t part of the specialized, truck-driving class of computer users, based on the analogy made famous by the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. All I do is put words in a text editor, load them into a website backend, crop an image or two, and then hand everything off to my editor. Sure, I’ve got online research on top of that, but what’s a few dozen browser tabs?
While a PC—even a Chromebook—can handle my daily needs without a stutter, my Lumia 950 just wasn’t up for the task.
The core of the problem might be the software. Continuum is still in its early days and lacks some key productivity tools. For example, Continuum doesn’t support the standard Windows snap mode, which allows you to view two programs simultaneously on a single screen. That means you have to use one full-screen app at a time. Hello, Metro Week experience from the bleak Windows 8 era.
Actually, that’s a little unfair. While the basic concept of using one app at a time remains, Continuum is nothing like Windows 8’s Metro mode. First off, there’s a complete desktop UI that is immediately more familiar than the Windows 8 Start screen ever was.
Second, even though the app ecosystem is struggling on Windows Phone, it’s far better than the Windows Store during the early days of Windows 8. Plus, in Continuum mode Windows 10’s Edge browser becomes surprisingly full-featured—so much so that it can run desktop Netflix without a hitch.
The mobile Office apps in Continuum mode also turn into replicas of their desktop counterparts. They don’t have feature parity, of course, but a casual user would be hard-pressed to see the difference between the two.
Many other Microsoft apps work fantastically well in Continuum, such as Mail and the Photos app. Third-party apps are where the problems start. Developers have to rebuild their apps as universal Windows apps and explicitly add Continuum support—and many haven’t done that yet.
Spotify for Windows Mobile, for example, fails to work as a Continuum desktop app. The Spotify web app requires Flash, which Edge on mobile doesn’t have. My only solution was to run the mobile app on the phone while using Continuum on the big screen. That let me get my music fix at work, but it wasn’t ideal.
Things got even more problematic when I wanted to use Slack’s collaboration tool for communicating with my editors. Slack doesn’t support Continuum either, which means I had to choose between the web app or the app on my small-screen phone—not a great choice, because Edge doesn’t support desktop notifications from websites. In the end, I was stuck between getting notifications on my phone and responding to my editor on the web app. Not a great solution, but it worked.
On top of all that I also had issues getting into PCWorld’s content management system (CMS) using Edge, which forced me to turn to my PC. Not willing to give up so easily, however, I used Cybele Software’s free-to-try Thinfinity Desktop client to access my PC from my Continuum-enabled phone. It was a little ridiculous using Continuum to log into a PC less than a foot away from me, but Continuum vows must be kept.
I also ran into problems when I wanted to do some basic image editing. My needs are not extensive: crop a few photos, maybe paste a smaller image onto a larger white background to keep the CMS happy, or cut out any personal information from my screenshots.
With meager needs I was determined not to pay for a photo editing suite, which led me to Fhotoroom—a free app that supports Continuum. But on my Lumia 950, the app slowed to an absolute crawl in Continuum mode. Even a simple cut-and-paste operation took minutes instead of seconds. Perhaps with a better GPU, Fhotoroom would’ve done a better job.
Speaking of graphics, gaming left a lot to be desired in Continuum. Two games I found that supported Continuum included Crossy Road and Age of Empires: Castle Siege. Both were fun, but I’d really hoped to play Lara Croft GO.
I assumed that because Croft is a Universal Windows Platform (UWP) app—or at least it appears to be, with cross-platform buy and cloud save support between Windows 10 PCs and phones—it would play nice with Continuum, but that’s not the case. In fact, you really have no way to know whether a Windows Store app supports Continuum unless it says so in the developer-supplied description on the Windows Store, or by simple trial and error.
The good stuff
I’ve spent a lot of time complaining about Continuum, but over time I grew to appreciate the feature. There’s something futuristic about working all day on your phone, then taking it out of the dock to read a book on the couch or snapping a few photos of your kids. Everything you need contained in one device. Magical.
Continuum also supports some of the niceties you’re used to on the desktop. Keyboard shortcuts like Windows Key + PrtScrn for screenshots works, as does Alt + F4 for closing programs. In fact, the latter is often the easiest way to close a program, because the traditional close button in the corner of a program window disappears (in favor of more screen space) until summoned by a hovering mouse.
A number of peripherals also worked with Continuum. My keyboard, mouse, and headphones had no trouble working. In fact, mouse response proved quite zippy—I expected the experience to be laggy. My Xbox 360 controller and Microsoft webcam, however, were both incompatible.
Overall, Continuum was a neat experience, but that’s really all it was. For now, I am a Jobsian truck driver despite my meager computing demands, and my little handheld coupe just can’t meet my needs. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend Continuum for anyone who needs to use two apps simultaneously.
For simple paper-to-digital data entry on a spreadsheet, firing off email, or typing your thoughts into a document, Continuum will work just fine. It might even be an ideal solution.
The minute you need to use two or more productivity apps at once, however, Continuum’s cracks start to show. Maybe one day Continuum will be ready for me, but not yet. In the meantime, I’ll have to keep lugging that trusty laptop around wherever my travels take me.