Propietary hardware will be required for now; price not announced; device support will be limited initially to new models

Continuum is arguably the most compelling Windows 10 feature in the smartphone space.  The premise is elegant and simple.  Connect a Windows 10 smartphone like a Lumia or compatible third party handset to a monitor and your phone behaves like a PC, outputting to the bigscreen the kind of interface you'd usually see on a Windows 10 laptop or desktop.

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) first teased at the feature late last year, demoed it in January, and officially announced it back in April at its BUILD conference, but details were a little on the light side.  At its press event today, which featured the launch of the new high end Microsoft Lumia 950 and 950 XL Windows 10 devices, the software giant filled in most of the blanks on precisely how this will work.

For now, to leverage Continuum you will need to buy a proprietary accessory from Microsoft dubbed the Display Dock adapter.  Based on the Microsoft Store listing, the hub also is known by a duller numeric name, the HD-500.
Display Dock
The HD-500, aka the Lumia Display Dock from Microsoft is the little box beside the keyboard to the left.

The HD-500 ensures 60 frames per second (FPS) at a maximum resolution of full high definition (FHD) (1,920 x 1,080 pixels).  The fine print reveal that WUXGA (Wide Ultra eXtended Graphics Array) (aka "1200p; 1,920 x 1,200 pixels) is also supported.

On the input side (the front of the box) is a single type-C (USB 3.1) connector, which both charges the attached smartphone and powers it.  The box will only be compatible with the new Lumia 950 and 950 XL devices, for now, by the sound of it, but more compatible Lumias and third party devices should crop up moving ahead.

Microsoft Display Dock

The rear of the hub features a pair of USB 2.0 ports that might typically be used to support a combo of keyboard and USB mouse (wired or wireless).  The rear also contains native DisplayPort and HDMI outputs.  Older monitors can be supported via a compatible adapter.

The display output requires that the monitor support either DisplayPort or HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface).  The monitor must also support either HDCP 1.3 or 1.4 security layer protocols (HDCP: High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection).  The box performs HDMI conversion (if necessary).

Microsoft display dock

Microsoft display dock

The charger pulls in 3 amps, and outputs to charge the device 2 amps and up to 5 volts.  That's enough to support basic quick charging (which reportedly has been licensed from Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) who made the chips in Microsoft's new devices) and basically twice the standard USB 3.0 charge of up to 5 V, 0.9 amps.

Microsoft display dock

Microsoft's box is easy to carry in hand, purse, pocket, etc. with at 64.1 x 64.1 x 25.6 mm (2.52 x 2.52 x 1.00 in.).  It weighs in at 230 g (8.11 oz.), or about as much as one-and-a-half smartphones.

Microsoft Display Dock spec

The Verge went hands on with a compatible Lumia 950 XL and offers some additional details of how the UI interaction plays out.  Basically you can launch apps via the standard Windows GUI and keyboard shortcuts are respected (e.g. Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V to copy and paste; Alt+Tab to switch windows) (the clipboard is shared by both the smartphone and on-screen UI).  You can text, call, or do other things on your phone even while it patiently pipes out video.  You can even run apps on the device and on the big screen simultaneously.  If you open an instance of the app already running on the external UI, it will minimize.

Microsoft Display Dock

Microsoft Display Dock
[Image Source: Microsoft]

The only major limitation found is that you can't run the same app in both places at once.

In action the UI will looks something like this:

Continuum UI
[Image Source: Mashable]

Note the interface is largely the same as for a standard PC, but cellular connectivity and battery charge icons appear in the upper left and upper right, respectively.

During its test The Verge reported that the device felt responsive and lag free.  It also notes that a number of apps should be compatible with Continuum.  Basically any app programmed to respect Microsoft's Universal Apps API will be compatible with this unique interface.

Some may be dissapointed by the lack of support for older devices, but there are some technical barriers to good performance that arguably locked Microsoft into its current approach.

What will be more interesting to see is whether third party adapters are allowed down the road.  Also interesting will be whether future Lumia devices will be capable of supporting wireless DisplayPort output.  In theory the digital rights management protocol most commonly used for wireless video -- DLNA -- is supported by the current batch of Lumias, so that should be possible in the not-too-distant future.

The box is expected to launch alongside the new Lumia devices in November.  A price has not been listed, but you can watch the listing in the Microsoft Store for updates (I'd expect a price in the $25-50 USD range).

Microsoft Continuum

It should also be interesting as well to see whether the hub supports external USB storage and whether Bluetooth mice/keyboard are supported (freeing up USB ports for potential external storage or other purposes).  I strongly suspect if such functionality isn't supported out the gate, firmware updates will bring it early next year.

Say what you will about the proprietary hardware, the unknowns, the limitations, and the price, but one thing still is clear -- Continuum is a cool feature (on paper, at least) that works fairly well in the real world.  And it's a unique selling point of the Windows Phone -- something that rivals Google Inc. (GOOG) and Apple, Inc. (AAPL) lack.  That makes it a crucial victory for Microsoft's embattled smartphone campaign.

Sources: Microsoft Store [listing], The Verge

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