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What Windows 10 means for Windows Phone? Less than you'd expect

Windows 10 on smartphones will look a little cleaner and behave a little better than before, but the biggest changes Microsoft made to its all-in-one OS come from the phone, not the other way around.

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The world's first glimpse of Windows 10 on a Windows phone. Nate Ralph/CNET

Microsoft's 2-hour Windows 10 launch event produced a flurry of details about what we can expect from the new operating system for phones. Overall, the OS update seems minimal. The biggest changes come with redesigned apps that will run across all platforms. Ready? Let's go.

'Windows Phone' no more?

Microsoft didn't mention "Windows Phone" once during the presentation of its new mobile OS. It's clear that the company wants people to think of Windows 10 as a single, cross-platform operating system that works on all sorts of devices. Still, we have to call it something, right? For now, get used to the clunky phrase "Windows 10 for phones." We'll keep you posted if this changes one way or another.

Start screen and navigation

The Windows 10 start screen on a phone, specifically on the 6-inch Nokia Lumia 1520 we saw during the demo, looks a lot like Windows Phone 8 . That means tiles. Lots and lots of tiles.

Presumably, you'll be able to organize tiles and change their sizes the same way. As it stands, your most recently downloaded apps pop up on the top of your screen. Any image you choose for the background now extends to the corners of the screen in a full-bleed layout.

The Action Center, where notifications live, gets a PC-like experience with expanding buttons and the power to dismiss items when you're done. Better yet, it syncs with PC tasks, so you don't have to clear notifications twice.

Other menus carry over the Windows 10 look and feel, like the Settings screen. The keyboard drags around the screen for optimal placement.

Skype and messaging

Hallelujah! The messaging app now integrates calling through Skype, Microsoft's voice over IP (VoIP) service, which for too long has remained a standalone app. Microsoft promises that on the front end at least, it'll work as seamlessly as making calls through your operator.

As for chats, different messaging services are marked by different colors, but the main point is that conversations are gathered into a single condensed stream. Others have tried this integrated inbox approach before (like BlackBerry). It has the potential to become a noisy jumble, so we'll have to see if the color-coded differentiation helps.

Universal apps

Universal apps are designed to run on all Windows 10 devices, from the phone to the Xbox, and are tailored to fit the screen size. Microsoft demoed a few of these on a Lumia 1520, including Microsoft Office apps such as Word and PowerPoint (we didn't get a demo of Excel, sadly.)

Microsoft has long emphasized that you can create and edit apps Word apps on a mobile device, to pick up again on the PC. These apps here reinforce that capability, with settings you call up with a one-handed swipe. Miracast support means you can present wirelessly. Wireless printing is also onboard.

A peek at Microsoft's all-new browser. Screenshot by CNET

Outlook is in the universal app bucket as well, and so are a colorful Calendar app and a Photos app that brings forth various ways to view and edit pictures, including a mode that automatically enhances photos and generates albums.

Project Spartan

Microsoft's new, clean-looking browser is a universal app that deserves its own breakout section here. Major points include the ability to make and share clippings from a Web page, and PDF support. There's a reading list. The minimalist Spartan browser also works with Cortana to anticipate information you may be looking up, like flight times for your upcoming trip.

Spartan on the phone will debut after it does on the PC.

Cortana

The biggest change to Microsoft's digital assistant is that the phone version has been adapted for the tablet and PC. New for Windows 10: Cortana can remember where you parked your car. Google Now has a version of this feature, too, which never worked too well in my tests.

Xbox streaming

An updated Xbox app is the new face of streaming games onto any Windows 10 device. It helps if you're an Xbox Live subscriber.

Now Playing: Watch this: Microsoft shows off Windows 10 on a Lumia smartphone
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Pricing and availability

When will you be able to get Windows 10 on your phone, and for how much? Only one of these two things is clear. Members of the Windows Insider program, a beta community, will see Windows 10 come to phones in February, Microsoft said.

There's no word on when it'll update on existing Windows 8 phones (for free) or ship on new ones, though keep an eye out during Mobile World Congress in early March to hear about the first Windows 10 phones.

Outlook: Small changes for phones

So what does Windows 10 mean for Microsoft's phones? Not much. It means a little more interoperability in terms of universal apps and a slightly spruced-up interface. It means that Cortana will do a bit more and that Skype will be better integrated into apps.

What Microsoft doesn't do is address some of the platform's other small-but-irritating issues, like sometimes-incomplete local search recommendations and a native video store for downloading shows and movies. Then there's the ongoing issue of better compatibility with the Google services, and thin versions of popular apps that are underdeveloped for the Windows OS compared with Android and iOS.

In terms of interoperability, Microsoft is a tinge less successful than Apple at looping together the phone and tablet/laptop experience. The Continuity feature in Mac OS X Yosemite syncs Apple documents between mobile and desktop, so you can pick up where you left off. Windows 10 does that for Microsoft Office apps through OneDrive. Apple's Handoff lets you field calls from your computer through a Bluetooth connection with your phone. Windows 10 doesn't. On the other hand, Microsoft is bringing Cortana to the PC, which is a huge win.

Is Windows 10 the update to help Microsoft strengthen its global reputation as a go-to phone-maker? Not even close. The one thing it has going for it is this: becoming more closely aligned with Windows on the PC may prime Windows users to become more familiar with the layout of Windows phones, and more open to one day owning one.