Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform may effectively be dead at this point, but don’t despair: You can still get a fantastic Microsoft experience on your mobile device. You just have to look to an unlikely bedfellow.
With Windows Phone (a.k.a. Windows 10 Mobile) out of the picture, Microsoft is devoting an ever-increasing amount of energy to creating its own mini-platform within Google’s Android ecosystem. And given Android’s immense flexibility and customization potential, that opens the door to some pretty compelling possibilities.
With the right set of apps, in fact, you can basically create a Windows-centric environment on any Android device — with everything from the services you adore to the phone-to-PC harmony you crave.
Here are the ingredients and the steps to get started.
Home screen and basic Microsoft connections
The core of your Android setup is your home screen — and the app that’ll turn it into a hub for your Microsoft-Android experience is the aptly named Microsoft Launcher.
On the surface, Microsoft Launcher has the same sorts of features you’ll find in other Android launchers — the typical tools for customizing your home screen’s appearance, creating gesture-based shortcuts, and so on. But beyond that, it adds a hefty dose of Microsoft into the mix, with Bing-powered search (by default), one-tap access to Cortana, and prominent placement of recommended Microsoft apps.
And then there’s the most distinguishing element of all: To the left of the main home screen panel sits Microsoft’s take on the Google Feed — a card-based collection containing items such as news, weather, agenda info, and quick glances at your notes, tasks, and recent documents from the appropriate Microsoft services.
See that tab labeled “Timeline”? That lets you link your Windows 10 PC to your Android phone and then pull up recent computer-based activities — like documents you were working on or websites you had open. (The feature is presently available only with personal Microsoft accounts, unfortunately, though Microsoft says support for work and school accounts will arrive in a future update.) The Microsoft Launcher also empowers you to send documents, photos, and web pages directly from your phone to your PC.
We’ll get into more phone-to-PC connecting possibilities in a second, but first, an alternate home screen option for anyone who’s really missing the Windows Phone look: Try Square Home 3. The launcher — which isn’t actually developed by Microsoft — emulates the tile-centric “Metro UI” from the Windows Phone platform. You’ll sacrifice the tight integration with Microsoft services provided by the official Microsoft Launcher, but if your phone’s interface is a top priority, you might just be happy with the tradeoff (even if only for an occasional bit of weekend nostalgia).
All right — so your home screen is all set with a hearty helping of Microsoft magic. Now let’s get your PC fully connected with your phone for the full Microsoft-Android experience.
The first thing you’ll want to do is download and install the Microsoft Your Phone Companion app for Android. Open it and follow the steps it provides for establishing a link between your phone and your Windows 10 computer. It’ll make sure you’re signed into the same Microsoft account in both places and then prompt you to find or download the equivalent app for Windows and get everything squared away on the PC side of things.
Once you do all of that and authorize a handful of pertinent permissions, you’ll be able to access recent photos taken with your phone from your computer and also send and receive text messages via your PC. Eventually, the app will allow you to view and manage Android notifications from your computer and even mirror your phone’s screen within Windows in order to effectively use your mobile device on your desktop system. Both features are currently being tested with a limited range of users and devices.
Download Microsoft Edge. The cross-platform browser will give you a decidedly Microsoft-like framework for web browsing — one that’ll be relatively consistent from your mobile device to your desktop computer.
Like the launcher, Edge makes it easy to move content between your phone and PC. And beyond that, it automatically syncs your history, favorites and reading list — a built-in system for saving articles to read later — so you can seamlessly move between different devices.
Microsoft’s OneDrive is built into Windows 10 — and with a couple of taps, it can be built into your Android device, too. Grab the OneDrive app and have easy always-synced access to your files, no matter where you may roam.
Microsoft’s Office apps on Android have come a long way. These days, the Android versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are fully featured, polished and pleasant to use. Plus, if you’re already living in Microsoft’s universe, they’ll give you a completely consistent experience with your desktop-based software and let you work on your files from any device without the need for conversions or adjustments.
(Note that you’ll need an active Office 365 subscription in order to utilize all of the apps’ features — and to use them at all for editing on any large-screen mobile devices.)
Cortana is part of Microsoft’s Android launcher, but a launcher is relevant only when you’re on your actual home screen. With a quick visit to your device’s settings, you can set Cortana to serve as your device’s default assistant — and thus be accessible via the same systemwide commands typically occupied by Google Assistant (such as pressing and holding your Home key, on many Android devices).
Start by opening the Apps section of your system settings, then scrolling down until you see the line labeled “Default apps.” (You might first have to tap a line labeled “Advanced” to get that to appear.) Tap “Assist & voice input,” then tap “Assist app” and select “Microsoft Launcher” from the list.
And there you have it: Microsoft’s soft-voiced virtual assistant will be at your beck and call, wherever and whenever you need it.
Want to use Cortana by default without installing the Microsoft Launcher? No problem: Just install the standalone Microsoft Cortana app. Open the app, sign in, and follow the steps to get it up and running — then follow the same steps described above but select “Cortana” as your “Assist app” option.
Got a recent Samsung Galaxy phone? If you want to remap that silly Bixby button so it’ll pull up Cortana, make sure you’re running the latest version of the Bixby app (which, in typical Samsung fashion, can be updated only via the Samsung Galaxy Store — not the regular Play Store) and then open the Advanced Features section of your system settings. Find and select the option labeled “Bixby Key,” and you’ll be able to set the button to open the Cortana app whenever it’s pressed.
Make your life a little easier and let your phone serve as the key to your Windows 10 computer with the Microsoft Authenticator app. Authenticator can act as a regular two-factor authentication code generator, but it also has the ability to let you avoid entering your Microsoft password entirely and instead authorize access to your computer simply by unlocking your phone and approving a notification.
Other odds and ends
The apps and procedures above are the most significant pieces of the Microsoft-Android puzzle, but Microsoft has a handful of other noteworthy offerings that might be worth your while:
- If you find yourself needing to scan physical documents or whiteboards often, Microsoft’s Office Lens app is up to the task. It’ll crop and clean up such snapshots and save ’em as PDFs, Word files, or PowerPoint files — in OneNote or OneDrive or even just on your device’s own local storage.
- It’s not the best all-around to-do app on Android, but Microsoft To-Do has the unique advantage of syncing up with the rest of Microsoft’s ecosystem — including the same-named app on Windows 10.
- The long-popular SwiftKey Keyboard has been under Microsoft’s wing since 2016 — and little by little, Microsoft has been integrating its own services, such as Bing Search and Translator, into the app. Microsoft integration aside, SwiftKey remains one of the best Android keyboard apps for productivity, particularly when it comes to tap-based typing and predictive text.
- Want to translate languages without leaning on Google? Microsoft Translator is standing by and waiting to say bonjour.
- Last but not least, if you’re truly going all in with Microsoft, the Microsoft Bing Search app will make sure Microsoft’s take on search — complete with news, recipes, and even barcode lookup — is always just a tap away.
And a footnote, just for funsies: While I can’t recommend this for your own device (for obvious reasons), an unofficial Clippy app brings the original Microsoft assistant into the realm of Android — hovering on your screen and irritating you endlessly with its unwavering stare. Keep it in mind for the next time your co-worker accidentally leaves his phone unattended.
This article was originally published in March 2018 and updated in July 2018.