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Windows 10 for Phones: First impressions from the Technical Preview

Windows 10 for phones is finally here as a technical preview and having explored the OS from front to back, I have compiled my first impressions of the new OS. It's important to know that these are my gut feelings and that this OS is a long way from RTM; little things like UI inconsistencies will be cleaned up and we can overlook a few crashes here and there.

The update procedure went smoothly, I ran the Windows Insider app, selected the 'fast' ring and instantly, the update began downloading. About 45 minutes later, my Lumia 830 was running Windows 10 for phones and the journey into Microsoft's next generation phone OS began.

The first thing I noticed upon the boot was that my Cortana tile was gone, while everything else looked nearly the same. Cortana still functions like she does in Windows Phone 8.1 by holding down the search key to launch her and there is a tile in the apps list; I re-pinned Cortana back to my start screen. However, as with Windows 10 for PCs, Cortana only works on Windows 10 for phones in the United States.

The next thing I wanted to do was try out the new background feature, after-all, Windows Phone Windows 10 for phones is said to be the most personal phone OS and I wanted to start tinkering with the customizations. To do this I opened up settings and...

Finally! The settings area has been cleaned up and it's now much easier to use and find the specific feature that you want to change. I know this seems stupid but trying to find a random setting in Windows Phone 8.1 was a big issue for me; I could never remember which categories had what settings and the long list that was not in alphabetical order left me scrolling up and down an excessive number of times.

Once I dug into the personalization settings, adding a background image was quite easy and resulted in the image you see off to the right. It is worth pointing out that you can use your current Windows Phone 8.1 style as when I loaded up the OS for the first time it retained the image on the tiles instead of having the image behind the tiles. But, once you change this layout to the new style, you cannot revert back to the Windows Phone 8.1 style of having the image on the tiles instead of behind at this time. But, Microsoft has said this functionality will return in a later build of the OS.

I'm a bit torn if I like the transparency look or if it's one of those things I will grow into. It's quite clear that this is the direction that Microsoft is taking as we can see this style with the Xbox One dashboard and strong similarities with the Start menu for the desktop version of Windows 10.

Once I got my new background setup, I started tweaking tiles; as of right now, only the Cortana tile can be configured as a large square, and only the People app can be configured to be a long tile. We expect this functionality to be expanded in the future. These new tile sizes are good additions and will likely be more useful on larger devices like the 1520, as well as small tablets, as they take up a lot of room on my 830.

The Action center has a few welcomed tweaks as well, and most important are the additional shortcuts to quick features. In Windows Phone 8.1, you had one row of quick notifications, in Windows 10, you have three rows. This is a great addition as you can now put nearly everything you would need in the Action Center and it reduces the need to launch the full settings app in most cases.

It is worth pointing out that right now you can only change four of the items in Action Center to new functions but that's likely a false limitation since this is an early preview, and we expect in the final release that you will be able to change all of the quick-action buttons.

There is a great update to the keyboard too that I call the nubbin - others may call it something else - but it's the little dot you see on the keyboard that lets you quickly move through text with the cursor.

Typically with a smartphone OS you have to tap the word to get the cursor to move back inside of a sentence, but that highlights the word instead of dropping the cursor in place. With the new nubbin, you can quickly jump back through the text without having to take your hand off of the keyboard.

The File Explorer UI has been overhauled as well and is not only more friendly to the eye, but is quite easy to use as well. This level of control over your files is what helps separate Windows 10 for phones over iOS.

Photos now looks and acts like the desktop app - no surprise there - but you can tell that there is work left to be done as icons do not align and some of the tap targets are a bit small too. But you can see the direction they are heading, and by the time RTM rolls around, this feature should be polished and much improved.

There are tons of features that I could write about but those are better left for a proper review when the OS is more complete. But how is it to use this build and is it stable?

Frankly, this build is a lot more stable than I was expecting it to be and based on the warnings given by Microsoft ahead of its release, my expectations were low. Nearly all of the crashing has been caused by two apps, Photos and File Explorer. I have had the email app crash as well but not as frequently when compared to the other apps.

A good rule of thumb - and this is not a shocker - is that any new feature or heavily updated app is far less stable than legacy functionality.

So far, Windows 10 for phones is turning out to be a good upgrade from Windows Phone 8 but it is certainly evolutionary and not revolutionary for the consumer. That's not a big surprise and we don't want to short-change the new functionality; it helps to make it a more cohesive package. But Microsoft would likely argue that this is revolutionary for developers since it now runs on the same core as the desktop OS, and more Universal apps are hopefully going to help fill out the store.

For consumers, this OS will look like a cosmetic and feature pack, for developers and Microsoft, this is an under-the-hood overhaul and a dramatically new way of thinking about how to build not only apps, but an OS as well. The idea of write once, run everywhere takes a huge step forward with this release and the dream that Microsoft laid out many years ago is finally coming to fruition.

There is no question that the new UI characteristics will cause some unrest among Windows Phone users who are accustomed to 'Metro 1.0' but this is the evolution and I would suggest waiting until the UI is completed before jumping to any major conclusions. I know this won't stop the complaining but remarking about UI inconsistences at this point is negligible as this is the first release.

It's quite clear that this OS is several revisions away from being ready for RTM and we would not recommend using it as your daily driver yet. With that being said, am I going to go back to Windows Phone 8.1 after using Windows 10 for a day? Not a chance.

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