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Microsoft hasn't turned a phone into a PC just yet

Microsoft hasn't turned a phone into a PC just yet

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When Microsoft first revealed its plans to turn Windows phones into a PC it really felt like the future. Others, like Motorola and Asus, have tried and failed to market phones that attach to laptops and turn into a PC, and it seemed like Microsoft had a good grasp of what was required to make this a reality.

Nearly two years after that announcement, I’ve had the chance to try the latest version of Windows 10’s Continuum extensively with a HP Elite x3 smartphone. It’s arguably the best Windows phones available right now (which is admittedly a low bar to hit among such a small field), and HP is really pushing Microsoft’s Continuum feature with a separate Lapdock accessory that lets you connect the phone to what looks like an ultrabook and use apps just like you would on a Windows 10 laptop. As much as this all sounds like the future, it’s a future that isn’t ready and has frustrated me much more than a regular laptop would.

HP’s Lapdock, priced at $599 individually, though it can be purchased in bundle packages with the phone, looks and feels just like a small ultrabook, thanks to its sleek matte finish. The 12.5-inch display and 2.3 pound weight hide the fact that this is just a dumb shell with a trackpad, keyboard, and battery. There’s no processor, graphics card, or RAM inside the Lapdock — all of that stuff is inside the Elite x3 phone that’s required to make this work. You can connect the Elite x3 to the Lapdock wirelessly or through a USB-C connection on the base, and there are also two additional USB-C ports to connect accessories.

Using the Lapdock wired to the X3 charges the phone and provides the most reliable connection for Continuum. I found the wireless connection made things a little unreliable and choppy on some more graphically intense things like full-screen video playback. Connecting the phone is as simple as just plugging it in and watching a Windows 10 desktop burst to life on the Lapdock.

While the Windows 10 desktop looks familiar, this is exactly when I realized just how limited Continuum really is. There’s a Start Menu that’s basically the home screen of a Windows phone, and access to Cortana, but there’s a lot missing. Things like putting apps side by side simply don’t exist in this Continuum world, nor do a lot of the typical places you’d right-click on apps or use keyboard shortcuts to get to the desktop. If you’re a Windows power user like me, or even if you’re just used to a standard window management system, it’s immediately frustrating.

Most third-party apps don't work with Continuum

Moving past these basic frustrations, I was eager to see how many apps I could run and whether I could get my daily work done using this. I installed WhatsApp, NextGen RSS reader, and Slack, which are all essential apps I’d need on a daily basis, but none of them work in Continuum. They’re grayed-out and you get an error message saying “Sorry can’t run this app here.” Developers have to add special instructions to let apps run in Continuum, and it’s apparent that most of them haven’t bothered to.

I can run Slack’s web app in the built-in Edge browser, and the Office Mobile apps are fantastic for writing or crunching numbers in, but I can’t get to the apps I usually use on Windows like Chrome, Photoshop, Tweeten, and lots of other utilities. HP has its own workaround for that, involving virtualized apps that you stream to the Elite x3. It includes desktop versions of Slack, Chrome, and Microsoft Office, and even the regular notepad found in the full version of Windows 10. Unless you really need the full versions of Office then it’s a bit of a compromised experience aside from Chrome. You have to stream these apps so you need a data connection at all times, and things are just far too laggy over LTE data. I'd prefer the real desktop apps that Microsoft is planning to bring to ARM-powered devices later this year. The fact that you have to pay $579 per year for 40 hours of access every month makes it even less appealing.

A lack of Windows phone app support is not a new story, but it’s particularly obvious when Microsoft is trying to convince you that a phone can turn into a PC with the click of a button. I gave up with Continuum after a few days of use, simply because I couldn’t really understand why you’d ever want this in its current state. HP’s Lapdock needs charging, and lasts for around four hours of average usage, during which time it will trickle charge the attached Elite x3. I found most of the time that at the end of my four hours of use that the phone had barely charged or had actually lost charge. I also experienced weird lag issues with apps responding, or even the Lapdock missing my mouse clicks on the trackpad.

Continuum feels like a proof of concept

What Microsoft has achieved here is neat, but it’s not usable day-to-day and not much different from the last time we tested Continuum on Microsoft’s own Lumia 950 nearly two years ago. In an emergency, sure I might use Continuum, but then I’d have to rely on the mobile experience of Windows, which is simply not competitive with iOS or Android due to a lack of apps and an operating system that is constantly being changed for the worse.

Microsoft has created a proof of concept here, but it’s still nothing more just yet. It reminds me of the issues that plagued Windows RT and the original Surface RT tablet: death by a thousand cuts. There are too many problems and issues to make the hassle of docking a phone into a laptop worthwhile. It would be slightly understandable if this was a cheap solution, but you’re spending $799 on the phone and then $599 on the Lapdock to make this work as a mobile solution.

Until Microsoft brings a full version of Windows 10 to this type of device, if it even can, it’s still little more than a technology demo and an unfulfilled dream.