Microsoft Display Dock review: Is this the future of smartphones?

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Last month, we got to grips with Windows 10 Mobile and all its brand-new features, from its Universal Apps to Microsoft’s new eye-scanning security software, Microsoft Hello. Now, we’ve finally had a chance to test Microsoft’s official Display Dock, the optional £80 adapter you’ll need to use Windows 10 Mobile’s biggest and most exciting feature, Continuum, which effectively turns your smartphone into a portable desktop PC.

Microsoft Display Dock review: Is this the future of smartphones?

At the moment, Continuum only works on the Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL, since it requires a USB Type-C connection to connect it to the Display Dock. As a result, the Display Dock won’t be much use if you have an older Lumia phone, but it’s likely that future Lumia handsets will have the feature.

Microsoft Display Dock review:  What can it do?

Once you’ve connected the 950 or 950 XL to the Display Dock, you can then plug it into an external monitor via its HDMI or DisplayPort output and a keyboard and mouse to two of its three USB 2 ports to run a full PC-like desktop setup.

The Dock uses the hardware inside the smartphone while Continuum adapts the layout, allowing mobile apps such as Outlook, Office, Edge and Maps to run full screen – at resolutions up to 1,920 x 1,080.

It’s a flexible setup, too. Although it’s disappointing that none of the USB ports run at USB 3 speed, one of them is at least a powered USB port, promising fast charge rates of third-party devices such as tablets and battery packs while you work.

And you don’t have to use the USB ports at all if you don’t want the clutter of wires. You can either hook up a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to the phone or just the keyboard and use the screen on the phone as a touchpad. I’d recommend using a mouse where possible, as the lack of tactile feedback on the screen meant I wasn’t always sure I’d tapped it correctly. 

Microsoft Display Dock review: Design and performance

The Display Dock is surprisingly heavy, and despite its small dimensions (64 x 64 x 26mm), it weighs nearly a quarter of a kilogram (230g). This, combined with a grippy, rubber base, means you shouldn’t need to worry about it sliding around on your desk with every mouse movement.

The physical design is fantastic, but in use, I found even the Lumia 950 XL’s octa-core 2.0GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 chip and 3GB of RAM weren’t quite fast enough to run Windows 10 Mobile completely lag-free on the big screen.

Navigating around the desktop was absolutely fine, but trying to switch between multiple pages in the Edge browser quickly became irritating, as it often took a second for it to load and switch tabs. Scrolling down pages was rather jerky at times, particularly if there were videos present, and web browsing, in general, was very sluggish compared to your average laptop or PC.

Testing with the Peacekeeper revealed the reason why: Edge on Continuum runs significantly slower than Edge on the phone itself, with a score of 480 on the former and 750 on the latter when tested with the Lumia 950. 

Microsoft Display Dock review: Apps and software

Another of Continuum’s caveats is that it only works with Universal apps so there may be several apps you’ve downloaded on your phone that you can’t use through the Display Dock.

That means no Netflix, Skype, Spotify, Twitter or Xbox, at least until their respective developers make them truly universal. Admittedly, a lack of entertainment apps is less of a problem for office workers, and you can still access services such as Netflix through the Edge browser, but considering the Windows Store already has fairly limited app support compared with the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store, this only narrows down your selection of compatible software even further.

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Thankfully, key apps such as Word, Excel, OneNote, Outlook and OneDrive are supported, and it’s with these that Continuum shows its true worth. Unlike Edge, we had no performance issues while typing out Word documents or working with Excel spreadsheets. In many respects, it was just like working on a laptop.

You can also use the File Explorer app to open Full HD videos, pictures, documents, downloads and music files on your smartphone’s internal storage or any files you have stored on a USB stick. Video playback works a treat, too: I was able to play the Full HD version of Tears of Steel without any stutter or lag whatsoever.

Microsoft Display Dock review: Verdict

Web browsing issues aside, Microsoft’s Display Dock could potentially revolutionise mobile office working. When all your basic office apps can be run on your phone, the need to carry around a laptop all day becomes practically non-existent.

There’s a fair amount of infrastructure that needs to be put in place before we get to the stage of simply plugging in our phones and getting down to business, but provided your chosen workplace has the correct monitor, cables, and accessories, Continuum has huge possibilities.

“Provided your chosen workplace has the correct monitor, cables, and accessories, then Continuum has huge possibilities”

The big problem with the Display Dock, however, is that currently you have to own a Microsoft Lumia 950 or 950 XL to use it, and neither of these is a phone we’d list among our favourites right now.

Still, if Continuum appeals, and you’re prepared to spend another £80 for the privilege, there’s no other flagship or smartphone OS that does anything remotely as clever.

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