This is what I learned installing Windows 10 Mobile on a £25/$40 smartphone


Windows 10 Mobile installation

Microsoft is preparing for the grand launch of its Windows 10 operating system later this summer with a simultaneous desktop and mobile releases. The new platform promises to make the much talked about single ecosystem a reality, but we’re still a long way from the final product.

As part of a challenge to see how far Windows can be pushed (see my experiment with Windows 10 running on a 12-year-old computer that had 256MB of RAM), I ran Windows 10 Mobile (Build 10051) on the cheapest smartphone available.

Read on to discover the four major lessons I learned in this endeavour, including how well Windows 10 copes with running on very basic phone hardware.

Lesson 1: Microsoft may sacrifice profitability

Windows 10 Mobile confirmation

The smartphone I used for this experiment was the Lumia 435, currently available from £24.99 (plus £20 top-up) courtesy of the EE network in the UK. For that price, you get a phone that’s superior, in terms of hardware, to any Android smartphone within the same price bracket.

With 1GB of RAM, 8GB on-board storage and a dual-core CPU, Microsoft’s most basic smartphone is roughly comparable to the Galaxy Ace 3. The Lumia 435 has twice the on-board storage while Samsung’s entry-level handset has a better camera at nearly three times the price.

That goes to show how far Microsoft is ready to push in order to provide the market with ultra-affordable solutions. £25 (around $37, or AU$48) is roughly half of the smartphone’s suggested retail price (as published on Microsoft’s own website) and that cut happened almost as soon as the phone itself went on sale.

This leads me to believe that Microsoft is willing to make a tiny profit or even an insignificant loss on entry-level smartphones in order to increase its market share where it counts – at the very bottom of the barrel.

That goes to explain why Microsoft is so active in that tier with the likes of the Lumia 640 offering the sort of technology built into more expensive Android smartphones.

Lesson 2: Windows 10 runs well on basic hardware

Windows 10 Mobile device

Installing the technical preview of Windows 10 Mobile on the Lumia 435 was an easy task; one that took about an hour or so. Firing Windows 10 up after a fair few reboots proved to be a refreshing experience with the familiar tile-based user interface.

The operating system works quite well on the smartphone, and by “quite well”, I mean that there was no apparent stuttering, and although things were sometimes slow, that is likely to be more of a hardware issue than a fundamental software problem. Microsoft has tweaked Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile to run on the type of hardware that Google’s Android 5.0 (Lollipop) would struggle to perform with.

It makes us wonder whether Microsoft is not going to embrace the void left by Symbian and feature phones by pitching Windows as an alternative to Google’s platform. Some might wonder whether Android One, a back-to-basics platform announced by Google in June 2014, was not a reaction to the threat a nimbler Windows 10 Mobile might pose.

Lesson 3: Windows 10 Mobile isn’t ready for now

Windows 10 Mobile loading

But we’re not there yet. The truth is that Windows 10 Mobile is still a long way from completion. Its desktop counterpart is a more polished product as things stand right now. I experienced a lot of frustrating times with the Lumia 435, and the worst episodes ended with a cold reboot, one where I had to literally remove the battery out of the handset to kill the operating system.

At other times, apps would crash, refuse or simply take a long time to load, with Microsoft replacing the usual spinning wheel with a loading screen. A few fairly important features were left out completely – there’s no Cortana, Office apps don’t work and there’s a very long list of things that are not working or have been yanked despite their apparent popularity.

Don’t get me wrong, the current build brings a lot of new features into the mix like Project Spartan but there’s still plenty to do before it is ready to market. With a summer launch looming ahead, Microsoft will probably have to work double shifts in order to deliver something that can compete with the likes of Android and iOS.

My verdict for Windows 10 Mobile at this stage: it’s full of promise and likely to deliver if Microsoft can sort out the multitude of issues it has. One needs to bear in mind that the current iteration, as with its desktop counterpart, was never meant to be used in a live environment and shouldn’t by any means be the basis for a final purchase decision. This is a pre-beta/alpha-type build and should therefore be treated as such.

Lesson 4: Android/iOS conversions will be tricky

Windows 10 Mobile apps

Microsoft’s mobile offering, as smart as it looks, is unlikely to entice Android or iOS users en masse. The lack of true differentiators, fundamental differences in the UI, a rather steep learning curve as well as the gap in quality and quantity of applications on Windows Mobile compared to competitors are big challenges that Microsoft will have to somehow resolve.

The company has got the fundamental apps sorted out though, with Mix Radio, Office, Outlook, Here and OneDrive being best-of-breed in their respective categories.

The opportunity lies in the few billions of people that do not have a smartphone and/or are still using feature phones. That is why Microsoft is pushing for superior hardware at the entry-level, even if it means making zero profit – and that is why Microsoft has been so quiet on the high-end front.

The one-year-old Lumia 930 is still the company’s top dog and is two generations behind the entry-level models (Lumia 540, Lumia 640) but Microsoft is not in a position to recapture the top-end of the market regardless of how good the underlying hardware is. And that’s the sobering truth.