Windows 10 Mobile gives us a glimpse at Universal Office apps (hands-on)

The latest preview build of Windows 10 for phones offers new apps that bridge the gap between phone and desktop.

Nate Ralph Associate Editor
Associate Editor Nate Ralph is an aspiring wordsmith, covering mobile software and hardware for CNET Reviews. His hobbies include dismantling gadgets, waxing poetic about obscure ASCII games, and wandering through airports.
Nate Ralph
8 min read

Nate Ralph/CNET

Windows 10 is the culmination of Microsoft's effort to make a true "everywhere OS." It will ultimately be one platform that will run on all of the devices we own, with universal apps (ideally) coexisting on our phones, PCs and tablets. The Windows Phone name and branding is no more: the operating system's mobile incarnation is now " Windows 10 Mobile," but universal apps and a unified ecosystem should make for little distinction, no matter what sort of device you're using.

The Windows 10 Technical Preview we've had available to us for a few months has given us a solid idea of Microsoft's designs on PCs, laptops and tablets. And we've also had a few weeks to sample Windows 10 Mobile: the latest build ( Build 10080, as of this writing) paired a few bug fixes with our first taste of the upcoming Universal Office apps.

Microsoft Office, everywhere

Microsoft Word, running on a Nokia Lumia 1520. Nate Ralph/CNET

Word, Excel and PowerPoint aren't the sexiest apps around, but they're the lynchpin of many schools and workplaces. And as our mobile devices become more capable (and larger), it's only natural that we attempt to use them to get even more done. That's where the Universal Office Experience steps in. In the latest build, the Office apps many of us use every day are distilled into a smartphone- and tablet-friendly form.

Microsoft recognizes that a 5-inch touchscreen isn't the ideal environment for wrangling spreadsheets or updating your PowerPoint presentations, but with universal Office apps, you can. Consider Microsoft Word: you'll have access to most of the functionality you expect, including inserting tables, tweaking the formatting, and dropping in images. A new Reading mode causes all of your content to reflow into a form that'll be familiar to anyone who's browsed the Web on a smartphone: text becomes streamlined, and double-tapping on images allows you to zoom in.

I wouldn't recommend using Excel on a phone, but you can. Microsoft

As I noted when checking out the touch-friendly version of Excel on Windows 10 back in February , you'll still want to limit heavy-lifting in spreadsheets to a device equipped with a mouse and keyboard (and a large display). And most of Excel's most complex functionality remains off limits -- some of my more complex Excel spreadsheets rely on XML maps and pulling updates from the Web, two things the universal version can't handle just yet. But you'll still be able to create and edit spreadsheets and tweak formulas on the fly. And tools like formula suggestions make entering all of this data a bit more manageable.

I've never actually used PowerPoint, but it, too, has made the transition to mobile. The animated transitions look neat on a mobile device, and a few tools will help presenters make things a bit more dynamic: virtual laser pointer, pen, and highlighter tools will let you interact with your presentation on the fly, without actually editing anything.

It's plain to see that these universal Office apps are Microsoft's attempts to catch up to Google Drive and similar mobile Office-competitors. And unlike Google's wares, these aren't necessarily free: once Windows 10 is released later this year, the preview period will come to an end and much of this functionality will require an Office 365 subscription.

Music and Video

The new interface (right) looks largely unchanged. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

The new build also offers a taste of the upcoming universal Music and Video apps. The changes here are largely cosmetic: the Windows 8.1 design language that championed swiping across informative panes has been replaced by a streamlined approach.

In both Music and Video, extra content is tucked into a menu. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

The before-and-after images for both of these apps look decidedly similar, but there is one important difference: all of the extra options have been tucked into the menu. Instead of swiping over to different categories, you can just tap on the menu and pick the appropriate option.

Store beta

The new store interface (right) simplfies the app discovery experience. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

If you want to try the new Office apps, you'll need to pop into the new Windows 10 Mobile Store, available in the latest build. Much like the desktop version and the Music and Video apps, the Store has received a full makeover: swiping through panes have been replaced by an interface that's much faster and easier to scroll through. Everything is kept to a single page, allowing you to discover far more apps in far less time. And suggestions for featured apps and new things to try are listed, instead of hidden behind folders -- I, for one, am far more likely to try a new game when it's listed in front of me, as opposed to hidden behind a nondescript link.

Microsoft Edge

Reading mode strips out most of the elements of a Web page. Nate Ralph/CNET

Formerly known as Project Spartan, Microsoft Edge has made its Windows Phone debut. The browser uses the same rendering engine we saw in its PC-based counterpart . It was a nimble browser even in the preview builds, and in my admittedly unscientific tests it easily outpaced Internet Explorer on an identical Windows Phone device (the Lumia 925) running Windows Phone 8.1 .

The only other feature it carries over from Microsoft Edge on the PC is the Reading view, that strips webpages down to their base elements to give you an uncluttered, ad-free version to peruse. iOS users will recognize this feature from Safari. To reach it in Edge, just tap the open book icon in the corner of the address bar. You can also share items you want to read later to your Windows reading list.

There's still no way to set Project Spartan as the default browser, which can get annoying fast. Consider search: tapping a search query into the address bar, or even heading to Bing.com, firing up Bing search, which hands the query over to Cortana, who offers responses, which are then opened in Internet Explorer. Spoiled as I am by modern browsers, I generally do all of my searching right in the address bar, which means I was perpetually jumping between Project Spartan and Internet Explorer. This has paradoxically left me turning to Google whenever I want to conduct a search but stick to Project Spartan. Hopefully the next available version of Microsoft Edge will take care of these issues.

The Project Spartan browser is occasionally unresponsive, refusing to let me enter text in a field, or locking up as I scrolled Web pages with a lot of ads or video elements. The address bar is also located at the top of the phone's display, instead of down at the bottom. The change irked many folks who preferred their address bar on the bottom -- an admittedly more convenient location for it, especially as our phones get larger. Microsoft has pledged to continue to monitor user feedback before a final decision is made -- I should note that the menu options for all of the Office sit at the bottom of the display, a far more convenient location.

Outlook Mail and Outlook Calendar

The new Mail app (on the right) is far more compact. Nate Ralph/CNET

The Mail and Calendar apps bear Microsoft's Outlook branding, and are also sporting entirely new interfaces, when compared to Windows Phone 8.1. Outlook Mail looks and feels like a modern mobile email application, with a design that's more compact than its predecessor. This lets the app fit many more email conversations onto the same screen. In Windows Phone 8.1, swiping left to right on the mail app cycled through different email panes -- all emails, urgent emails, and unread emails. That concept is gone entirely: swipe in from the left to flag items, swipe in from the right to delete them. The new mail app also offers most of the formatting and text-wrangling options that are available in Word.

The Windows 10 calendar (right) is still a little bare-bones. Nate Ralph/CNET

The Calendar app has been similarly refreshed, and the agenda view that lists all of your upcoming events is now the default setting. You can also take a peek at the rest of the month and get a general idea of how many events you have lined up in the coming weeks, but the agenda view is still the dominant one. While I'm partial to agenda view in most cases, I actually rather liked Windows Phone 8.1's implementation: I can quickly swipe to the right to see events lined up for the next week -- and weeks in the future -- in the same compact week view.

Maps and phone

Maps (right) now serves up more info at a glance. Nate Ralph/CNET

The general theme of simplification we've seen throughout Windows 10 Mobile rears its head with the Maps app, too. In Windows Phone 8.1, nuggets of information are spread out across multiple panes. Windows 10 just dumps everything onto a single page, making it far easier to see everything you're looking for at a glance.

The new phone dialer, on the right, now with less swiping. Nate Ralph/CNET

And finally there's the phone app: the simplified aesthetic makes its way here, too. Just about everything you need is presented on one screen, and the end result is that it's far easier to dive into the particular settings you want, instead of being forced to swipe through multiple panes.

Windows Feedback

Tap the notification, and you'll be able to offer Microsoft some feedback. Nate Ralph/CNET

The Windows Feedback functionality in PC-versions of Windows 10 is present on the phone, too. A notification will fly in from time to time (notably when you're checking out some of the build's new features), prompting you to rate a feature and provide some commentary. A number of the changes we've seen in the Windows 10 Technical Preview have stemmed from the comments that testers have been making in the Windows Feedback app, so it would seem that Microsoft is in fact listening to what we've got to say.

First thoughts

The new, simpler interfaces in Windows 10 are going to be crucial in creating an ecosystem for apps that will scale well on tablets, phones and PCs, but it's still a little sad. These apps look like modern smartphone apps, which is great. But Windows Phone's multipaned persona was unique, and in some cases (like the calendar app) it offered a genuinely useful alternative. I hope Microsoft doesn't stray too far from the original Windows Phone vision. The Windows Feedback option should offer people who don't like it (or do) a chance to voice their concerns.

Technical previews like these are designed to get an early look into developers' hands, so they can get to work on dreaming up new experiences for the future of Windows. So much of the work in revamping Windows Phone as a platform is going to be up to developers. Microsoft has laid the groundwork, with apps that should make the transition from one platform to another without too much additional effort from their creators. Time will tell how successful Microsoft's latest endeavor will be.

As with the PC- and tablet-based version of the Technical Preview, Windows 10 for phones is not for the faint of heart: I strongly advise against installing any of the builds on a phone you depend on every day. For more information check out CNET's one-stop shop for all of your Windows 10 needs.