Review: Microsoft HD-500 Display Dock and Continuum
There's something you should know about the Display Dock and Continuum. The hardware component itself is beautifully made (think Apple Mac build quality) and the concept really, really cool. Truly your smartphone could be your entire computing experience. Except that the software that ties everything together and that should make Continuum a reality is currently (December 2015) only in early beta, at best. So what follows contains a lot of disappointment, albeit mingled with glimpses of genuine utility and hope. Appropriately, for Christmas!
The Display Dock itself is a machined metal cuboid, with embossed logo on top and a grippy rubber bottom, for staying put when on a desk or table. On the front is USB Type C, for input from your Lumia 950 or 950 XL (future models will come along in due course that are also compatible).
On the back are three USB Type A ports, one with power (see here for full specs), for hooking up a wired mouse, keyboard and (for example) a USB or hard disk (these appear in File Manager, as you'd expect). I did try random other USB accessories, such as cameras, but you just get a message 'This USB device might not work, please try using it with a PC'!
You also get USB Type C (again) for power and HDMI and Display Port output to a large monitor. It's a flexible arrangement, though in practice not all these inputs and outputs will be used at once, of course, not least because the keyboard and mouse that you might want to use with Continuum may well be Bluetooth/wireless, saving more space in your briefcase. In which case you could use the spare ports for USB disks or anything else you can find that's compatible.
When a Lumia is connected, there's a status light on the front, handily (it goes from red to white), and it's worth highlighting that the two-way nature of USB Type C power means that the phone is being charged all the while it's connected. Getting going isn't necessarily straightforward - hooking in a Lumia 950 resulted in nothing happening at all. I went into the Continuum application and tried connecting while in that - still nothing. I restarted the phone. Still nothing. In desperation, I connected up the Lumia 950 XL and it all worked immediately - so clearly there are still teething troubles here, gremlins for Microsoft to sort out while they attend to the rest of Windows 10 Mobile.
Seeing my HDMI-connected 1080p monitor light up with the Windows 10 Start background and my normal Start screen over on the bottom left was still quite exciting though. Any tiles and applications which aren't compatible with Continuum are greyed out in the on-screen version, though all still available on the phone screen, of course. Effectively, the Lumia is driving the monitor, through the Display Dock, as an additional, second screen. I'd previously paired up a Bluetooth mouse with the Lumias and also had both wired and Bluetooth keyboards to try as well.
There was palpable excitement as I moved the cursor around my 23" monitor using my mouse, knowing that the Windows 10 'experience' was all coming from the phone and not some big plastic box under the desk. However, it becomes evident very quickly indeed that this isn't 'all' of a traditional Windows 10 PC, as the Microsoft adverts would have you believe. Calling it 'lobotomised' is unfair, so perhaps somewhere in between the two extremes. Essentially it's an instance of Windows 10 in which select universal applications can be run, but everything else is either missing or only on the phone. For example, issue no. 1, how to speed up my mouse cursor. The default is very slow and multiple sweeps across my mouse pad to move the cursor right across the display - you guessed it, there's no way to alter this tracking speed - go into Settings and it's a cut down version of that which you'd see on the desktop. And, along similar lines, my American Bluetooth keyboard has dollars instead of pounds and the "@" in the wrong place(!) and, again, there's no way to change this for Continuum use - heading into the Settings hierarchy only pops up a 'Can't open that here' message and then it only lets you change the on-screen phone keyboard. Ah well, early days.
Once you start up (or switch to) some universal applications then you're off and motoring, though. Office, Outlook Mail and Edge are the three most obvious to try and work well, using all the display just as if you were running them on a bone fide Windows 10 PC. I say 'using all' because in fact, under Continuum, there's no traditional windowing - everything's full-screen all the time. You do get the phone's status (top) bar and you do get a Windows-like bottom strip for switching between 'running' applications, but it's not really 'Windows' in the sense of a workspace.
The lack of proper windowing isn't a huge issue, and Alt-tab works brilliantly to switch between 'running' applications - though I use quotes because, of course, all this is Windows 10 Mobile and when not in the foreground, applications are very limited in what they can do (unlike on an Intel-powered full Windows 10 desktop). What's more of an issue is that, having set up a workspace with say:
- Edge, with half a dozen tabs open
- Outlook Mail
- Excel, editing a work spreadsheet
- Films & TV
...you're called away for a few minutes (e.g. a toilet break or to talk to someone on the other side of the office, whatever) and so you pull out the Type C cable from your Lumia, so that you'll have your phone with you. When you get back, 10 minutes later, you plug the cable in again and expect to have the Continuum session exactly as you left it. In fact, it's effectively reset, with nothing in the Alt-tab carousel and nothing shown in the strip at the bottom of the screen. So you go looking for the live tiles and application names all over again.
To be fair, each application does a good job, as we now expect on Windows 10 Mobile, at remembering what it was doing and 'fast resuming' so it's very rare that you'd lose any data (e.g. Edge remembers all its tabs, Excel remembers where your cursor was, etc.), but it's a pain setting up the workspace again - I don't see why the Continuum application on the phone can't remember the state your workspace was in when you pulled the cable out and then bring it all back for the next session. Above everything else in this review, this is my biggest gripe.
A sub-gripe(!), and related, is that you can't create shortcuts on your Continuum desktop, since it's not really a desktop. So you're reliant on the phone's virtual Start screen and app list. The chances are that the applications you'll want to use in Continuum are a very small subset of everything on your phone, so I don't see why it shouldn't be possible to drag and drop apps onto the vast expanse that is the Continuum wallpaper, and use these as shortcuts in the time-honoured Windows tradition. Microsoft, this would save a lot of time too, please make it happen.
The vast majority of Windows Phone/Windows 10 Mobile applications aren't universal, though because of the workspace loss for every session you probably wouldn't want to go 'deeper' than a handful of apps each time anyway. Of particular note is that most games won't work with Continuum, though Microsoft's own Xbox Solitaire does and I had a happy hour or two reliving some of these titles.
Speed is an issue, at least from the point of view of someone genuinely trying to use Continuum, the Display Dock and a Lumia 950 series device as a replacement for a genuine Windows 10 laptop or hybrid. Get going, perhaps in a hotel room or guest desk, with the application set and workspace example above and I promise that after 15 minutes you'll be bitterly regretting taking this solution and wishing you'd brought along a Surface Pro 3 or full laptop instead. From the point of view of a 'geek', I can't emphasise enough how cool Continuum is - from the point of view of Joe (or Joanne) Professional, I can't emphasise enough how this is going to be immensely frustrating, at least in the early months until Microsoft sorts out the software and speeds things up.
As it is, Edge browsing is a much slower experience than on a 'proper' computer. Partly because of the relative lack of power in the phone's processor (despite using a Snapdragon 808 or 810), and partly because there's no extension support (yet), meaning no ad-blocking or other optimisations, which have served us all so well on the desktop. It's disappointing really, I'd have thought that the 950 XL's chipset was up to the task. That lots more optimisation (perhaps to use all the processor cores better) is needed is also exemplified by applications like Groove Music, which stutters a bit (over the HDMI audio link) while playing tracks in the background. The 3GB of RAM in the two Lumia 950s seems enough for the single-window use case, but I'd still like to see 4GB on a future Lumia 960.
I loved the 'control' implementation, wherein by default the Lumia screen turns into a true multi-touch trackpad to control the Continuum pointer. Being able to two-finger drag content/panes up and down is really very neat indeed. And there's a permanent toast to tap on in order to get back to this trackpad from anywhere else in Windows 10 Mobile while the Dock is connected.
Ultimately though, there are too many glitches. Just a few, to give you an idea:
- Continuum doesn't always 'work' and you have to hook up in a particular order.
- Gadgets doesn't find the Display Dock on my 950 XL in order that I can update its firmware.
- I got Netflix working, finally, by using it in Edge, but alt-tabbing away from this then blue-screened Continuum.
- Audio playing in an Edge tab stops when the tab isn't in the foreground.
- Videos in Films & TV can't be selected at all.
- Far more keyboard shortcuts are needed, for the common use case where a keyboard is connected.
I could go on.
All of this will be fixed... in time. Don't get me wrong, I was an early Motorola Atrix user - an attempt at hybrid solution like this in the Android world. In that case you docked your phone and it originally hosted a Linux environment, in which Firefox and a few other utilities ran on an integral laptop screen. It was a horribly compromised, inelegant solution and it quickly drove me up the wall. Microsoft's Continuum, as reviewed here, is a far more elegant and potentially more future-proof solution. To complain that the software isn't ready for the mass market is valid, but rather missing the point. For a start, the mass market won't be interested in Continuum in the first place. In addition, the system is a work in progress, as is Windows 10 itself, being added to and patched and tweaked from now until who knows when.
The biggest issue of all, of course, is who's going to use Continuum in daily life? The promo use cases are all a little contrived. For example, playing videos on a big monitor while on a family holiday while you check your email on the phone screen. Or rolling up to a hotel as a road warrior and plugging into the hotel room TV to use it as a computer screen for Continuum. See here for my previous rants on this subject.
I do wish Continuum well. It needs decent sales and visibility of the Lumia 950 and 950 XL. It needs at least another couple of months of development of the Continuum code and applications designed to work with it. It needs to be bundled with more devices, too, or at least at a special offer price that's too good to pass up ("Oh, heck, I can get the dock for another £20, so throw it in" etc.)
Microsoft is betting the farm on Windows 10 everywhere and I do think it has a real chance. It's possible that the smartphone 'arm' of this vision has swung too far down the Android path now, but Continuum is certainly interesting enough that Windows 10 Mobile isn't going to disappear anytime soon, however niche it gets.
PS. I know someone's going to ask if I had the latest Display Dock firmware. Version 4.0 for this is rolling out. And I'd love to install it. Except that yet another glitch means that the Gadgets application on my Lumia 950 XL refuses to acknowledge the Dock. At all. At the top of the screen I have 'Tap to control' and Continuum is up and working properly. And on the main screen of Gadgets the app is imploring me to 'plug in a wired accessory'. Hmm..... Yet more teething troubles, Microsoft, methinks!
PPS. On the plus side, I got the Lumia 950 to work with Continuum after a couple of days and device restarts. But that doesn't show the dock in Gadgets either. Gah. I'll return to the Display Dock in 2016 when all these wrinkles have been ironed out, I think....