With Windows 10 Mobile, your smart phone transforms into a tiny computer, with support for PC peripherals like mice, keyboards and external storage. And key among these capabilities is the support for “casting” or “beaming” to an external display like an HDTV.
Though some underestimate the utility of such features, there are many reasons you may wish to do this. And like multi-touch on portable computers, it’s possible—likely, even—that the ability to use a phone like a computer is something we’ll one day take for granted.
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For example, last night I used my Lumia 950 to watch “Jurassic World”—which I had rented for 10 cents from Movies & TV during a Microsoft promotion—on a 1080p HDTV. But I also used the same device to edit an Excel spreadsheet—using a keyboard, mouse, and external display—just as I would on any PC.
Here’s a quick rundown of some of your more obvious options.
Miracast lets you connect a compatible Windows 10-based PC or phone to an HDTV using wireless display technology. Since most HDTVs do not include built-in Miracast functionality, you’ll need a Miracast dongle. As I have so much this year, I recommend the Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter, which is inexpensive—it’s less than $40 right now at Amazon.com—and offers reliable connectivity. I have two of them: One I take with me when I travel, and one on the HDTV in the living room.
While you can use Miracast to add an external display to a Windows 10 Mobile-based smart phone, that usage technically falls under a new technology for Continuum, which is discussed below. But as it turns out, there are specific Windows 10 Mobile apps—like Movies & TV—that can cast directly to Miracast. (As they can in Windows 10 for PCs.)
To see this in action, launch Movies & TV and start playing a video. The leftmost icon in the onscreen playback toolbar—Cast to Device—lets you connect to any Miracast-compatible screen.
When you’ve made your selection, video playback moves to the HDTV (or other Miracast-connected display). But you can continue to control playback on your phone, using the same onscreen playback toolbar (now over a blank black screen) as before.
To disconnect, just tap Cast to Device again and choose Disconnect under the correct Miracast device.
Basic Miracast usage just requires a compatible app, like Movies & TV. But Windows 10 Mobile also a new technology called Continuum which, among other things, lets you connect your entire phone to a wireless display using Miracast behind the scenes. And this capability is quite sophisticated, though as with basic Miracast support, it only requires your phone and a Miracast dongle on the HDTV.
Wireless display with Continuum is set up and configured in Display settings (Settings, System, Display). If you scroll down to the bottom of this screen, you will see an option, “Connect to a wireless display.” As with basic Miracast usage, you select the Miracast device with which to connect. But the results are quite different.
Now, you see a Windows 10-like desktop environment on the HDTV, while the phone continues to display normally, albeit with a “Tap to control” banner at the top, which lets you use your phone like a mouse/remote control.
Here’s how it works: Any apps or screens that you open on the phone, using the phone’s display, will open on the phone. So even in this connected state, the phone works normally. But the goal, of course, is to project something—a movie or TV show, a photo slideshow, whatever—to the HDTV. To do that, you must control that new onscreen desktop using your phone.
To do so, tap the “Tap to control” banner at the top of the phone’s screen.
A Continuum touchpad control appears, letting you use your phone’s touchscreen like the touchpad on a laptop. That is, as you glide your finger on the screen, it actually controls a cursor on the PC-like desktop on the HDTV screen. Yes, just like a PC.
The desktop environment you see onscreen is a lot like that on a Windows 10 PC, but with a few small changes. Key among them is that the Start menu is a duplicate of your phone’s Start screen. And apps that can’t run full-screen via Continuum are grayed-out a bit, making it obvious which apps work and which don’t.
This capability lets you run any compatible app full-screen on the HDTV screen. So you could use Movies & TV of course, but also apps that don’t include their own “Cast to Device”option, like Audible, Groove, Photos, and others.
Note: If there’s a downside to this functionality, it’s that many key third party entertainment apps—including Netflix and Spotify—do not yet support Continuum. (Even Microsoft’s own Podcasts app doesn’t.) Hopefully they will be updated in the future to support this usage.
Again, apps you launch with the cursor using the HDTV run on the HDTV. But your phone continues to work like a phone: Apps you launch on the phone run on the phone and you can continue to do things like make phone calls, send and receive text messages, and so on, from the phone.
To make the final step into the “phone as PC” future, you can also connect peripherals like keyboards, mice and USB storage to your phone and then run productivity apps like Microsoft Word and Excel on an HDTV. You can do this completely wirelessly—using Miracast for the display and Bluetooth for mouse and keyboard—or via a more reliable wired Continuum dock.
While there are already a few solutions like this, I’ve been testing [the Microsoft Display Dock ($99)](Microsoft Display Dock) for the past month and have found that it works quite well.
This squat little powerhouse provides a wired connection to your phone (over a USB-C to USB-C cable) and enough ports to make a Surface Dock jealous: You get three USB 2.0 ports (including one that offers high current charging capabilities), one full-sized HDMI-out (for video), one full-sized DisplayPort port (also for video), and one USB-C port.
When you connect the Continuum dock to your phone over USB-C, the Continuum app runs so you can configure it for a wired or wireless display. And then you get the same Continuum touchpad experience, though of course with a real keyboard and mouse, this is no longer so necessary.
Used in this way, Continuum is PC-like, but it’s no PC. You can’t run desktop applications like iTunes and Chrome, of course, and as noted previously, many phone apps are still not compatible with this usage either. The apps that do work all run full-screen only, and you can’t snap them for side-by-side usage or use them in floating windows.
But you can see the PC influences everywhere. A File Manager application lets you access USB-based flash drives and hard drives. Apps like Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote Mobile let you get real work done using a real keyboard and mouse. And you can do things like figure out the best route for a trip using a spacious HDTV screen before embarking with just the phone.
Continuum is a big topic. But for the purposes of this article, I can say that I’ve found a wired experience, like that provided by the [the Microsoft Display Dock](Microsoft Display Dock) to be much more reliable than a wireless Miracast display. And while it comes with added cost and a bit of complexity around the required wires, I feel that it’s worth using just for the reliability.
But regardless of how you do it, the ability to cast your phone’s display to an HDTV is both useful and desirable, and with Continuum in particular, is a key differentiator for Windows 10 Mobile.