When traveling on business, ideally I’d carry just a phone, a credit card, and my ID. Reality dictates, though, that I’ll need something with a decent-sized screen if I’m going to do more than answer emails. I could swap the phone for a tablet and carry just one device. A 10-inch tablet with a Bluetooth keyboard makes a pretty good laptop replacement, but I need something that I can use to make voice calls without the costs and compromises imposed by VoIP and international data plans.
I know what you are thinking: go buy a phablet. A real phone, but with a screen that’s big enough to work on. Well, while that might work for some, but it’s not for me. I know; I tried it, and it was hell.
I tried the single-device approach for a couple of months last year using a Samsung Galaxy Note 4. There’s no doubt that it’s a seriously impressive device. It’s perhaps a little long in the tooth now, but it still delivers excellent performance. Compared to my previous phone, an iPhone 4S, its big screen made a huge difference to usability. Where the iPhone’s 3.5-inch screen was cramped and painful to use, the 5.7-inch Galaxy was a world apart. But good as it was, the Galaxy didn’t work for me as a single-device solution. While it was more than good enough for browsing, email, and taking notes in a meeting, it wasn’t a tablet replacement and certainly not a laptop replacement. Regardless of how good the display was, when it was propped up on the desk 18 inches away, I found it too small for serious work.
This year, I’m trying again with something new. I’ve ditched the phablet in favor of a Microsoft Lumia 950, Windows Phone 10, Continuum, and Display Dock. After four weeks on the road, I’m able to report that it seems to be working.
When Microsoft released Windows Phone 10, it was a key part of Microsoft’s single OS promise: a flagship feature, something that would really differentiate it from Android and iOS. It offered a way to make a smartphone take on the role of a standard Windows PC. Microsoft has made continuity of user experience a central pillar of Windows 10 and Office 365, seamlessly linking desktop, mobile, and cloud. You can start a new Office doc on your office PC, then pick up a tablet or log on to Office 365 in any browser, and your doc is already there, waiting for you to pick up where you left off. Just choose the device that best fits the situation and start work. Continuum extends this paradigm; you can now have a single device adapt to different situations just by connecting it to a different display. With Continuum, you can start taking notes on your phone’s 5-inch touch display, then connect your phone to a docking station and continue in Word on a desktop display with full mouse and keyboard support for a close-to-full-PC experience. Apple, of course, offers a similar capability via AirPlay Mirroring, which streams an iPhone’s screen to an Apple TV connected display, while Google offers Chromecast, which does more or less the same thing for Chrome. But Continuum does more than simply mirror the phone’s screen to the external display. Continuum works with compatible Windows apps to reconfigure the app to make better use of the bigger screen. Outlook Mail, for example, changes from a single screen/pane display, to a more productive three-pane view when connected to a second display. The external display acts as a true second monitor, just like it would if plugged into a laptop. This means you can run and access multiple apps at the same time—Word on the desktop display and Twitter on the phone—cutting and pasting from one to the other.
Microsoft offers a dedicated Continuum dock, the $99 Display Dock HD-500, which has the right assortment of USB 2.0, USB-C, DisplayPort, and HDMI ports needed to tie everything together and charge your phone at the same time. At $99 from the Microsoft Store, the HD-500 is a little overpriced for what it is, although I have seen it discounted down to a more palatable $65 elsewhere. It’s possible to use Continuum without a dedicated dock by using a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard and connecting to an external display via Miracast or a USB-C to DisplayPort cable. However, for all but the most occasional use, the dock is the best approach.
The one big weakness of Continuum is that it only works with Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps, and even then, it only works with some UWP apps. The core Microsoft Office apps—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and OneNote—are Continuum-ready, and Edge is also supported, but newer Office apps such as Sway and Delver are not yet Continuum ready. More importantly, Skype and Skype for Business (formerly Lync) are not yet on the list of apps with Continuum support, both of which would really benefit from access to a bigger display. More apps are coming, but it’s a frustratingly slow business.
If you absolutely must have a specific app up and working with Continuum today, don’t give up just yet. One app that already works with Continuum is the Microsoft Remote Desktop Preview app. Note: you must use the Preview release; the mainstream Remote Desktop release isn’t Continuum ready. Using the Remote Desktop Preview, you can connect back to a Windows RDS Server and run non-Continuum apps from there, displaying the app via the remote desktop client. Citrix customers have a similar capability using the Citrix Receiver for HTML5, which runs on the Continuum-ready Edge browser. Remoting apps to the phone this way isn’t an ideal solution, but it’s a mature technology that is in use in practically every enterprise environment today and will provide a serviceable solution for years to come.
Is Windows Phone + Continuum a viable single-device solution today? By itself, the Lumia 950 is big enough to use for note-taking on the go, but no more than that. However, once you connect it to a full-size screen, it really does take the place of a full PC, albeit one with only limited performance. I’m writing this right now in Word running on my Lumia 950 connected to a TV in my hotel room. It works. I can meet almost all of my mobile office app needs with just MS Office, Edge, and Skype. There are other apps—Waze, Uber, etc. —that I need when on the move, but once I’m settled, I need very few apps to get work done. Skype isn’t a Continuum app, but Skype for Web runs in Edge now, so while I prefer the native Windows app, I can get Skype to run on the big screen today. The only thing that has caused me any real pain is lack of support for LastPass in Edge. I need LastPass as much as I need oxygen, and while there is a LastPass app for Windows Phone, it’s not the same as having an extension inside the browser. As it happens, help is on its way. Edge support is coming; the Windows 10 anniversary update which starts shipping August 2, adds support for extensions in Edge, and with that, I’ll be able to do everything I want, the way I want it.
As far as aiming for the smallest viable hardware footprint goes, I’m using Microsoft’s excellent Bluetooth Universal Foldable Keyboard, a generic wireless mouse, and the HD-500 dock connected to the rather nice 42-inch 1080p LCD TV in my hotel room. If I re-purpose the HDMI cable from the room’s DVD player, it’s getting very close to being a truly pocketable solution, at least if I’m not concerned about the line of my suit.
I’ve been searching for a viable solution to the challenge of traveling light for over five years, and I think this might just be what I’ve been looking for. If you’re like me and either don’t need many apps or can remote those you can’t get to run locally, then you may well find that Windows Phone with Continuum is a viable single-device solution. However, I have to acknowledge that, unless Microsoft is successful in getting more developers to back Continuum, as a niche solution for an OS that in turn inhabits its own very small niche in the mobile OS market, Continuum isn’t going to set the world on fire.