With the release of Windows 10 drawing ever closer, it won’t be long now until you can try out the new Universal apps across all their devices. We've had a play with some early versions and here explain how to use Universal apps in Windows 10 and which apps you can expect to see in the near future.

What are Universal Windows Apps?

Universal apps (or Windows Apps as Microsoft recently renamed them) are ones that can work on any Windows 10 machine - be it a PC, tablet, phone, or even your Xbox One once the Windows 10 update arrives in the Autumn. Microsoft has made this possible by using a common Windows core across all the new devices, which makes it a lot easier for developers to create apps without needing to re-write them for each platform. This could quickly close up the perceived app gap on Windows Phone, and see a thriving eco-system evolve on Microsoft’s mobile platforms.

The principle behind Windows Apps is one of convenience. Say you’re out and about and you have a great idea on how to improve a document you were working on that morning. Simply pull out your Windows Phone, launch the new Word app and you can edit, create, or format the document there and then. When you get back to your PC all the changes should already be applied and you can carry on where you left off.

Of course this principle isn’t entirely new, as web services and cloud syncing have already made these kind of the features available in Google Docs, Apple’s Pages, and a variety of third party products. But if you have a combination of Windows 10 products you will now be able to take advantage of universal apps right out of the box as Music, Maps, Photos, Outlook Mail, and Calendar will all come preinstalled on new devices once Windows 10 is launched, with Word, Excel, and Powerpoint included on mobile devices. PC users will also have the simplified tablet versions of Office available to download for free from the now unified Windows App Store, although the fully featured Office suite will still be a paid for option, albeit one compatible with the mobile versions.

At the moment OneDrive seems to be the glue that holds many of these apps together, with the Office suite saving to the cloud service by default. Whether this remains true for non-Microsoft software remains to be seen, although Dropbox has already released its universal app and obviously that uses its own cloud storage service, so the indications are that it could be an open platform.

How to use universal apps: Experimenting with Word

To try out this new version of Office we visited the Windows Store on our PC and Phone, both of which have the Windows 10 previews installed. Downloading the Word preview we found that the layout was clean and similar on both devices. To test the syncing features we first opened the phone app, created a new document and began writing. Tapping the three dots at the bottom of the screen opened up the formatting menu and allowed us to easily highlight the sentence we had written.

How to use universal apps  

We then opened the Word preview app on our PC, looked in the recent documents section of OneDrive, and found the file we began on the phone. After loading it up we were presented with the same format and highlighted text - as you’d expect.

How to use universal apps

We then added another sentence while keeping the app open on our phone, and seconds later the changes appeared on the mobile app. It was all very simple, trouble free, and easy to use.

How to use universal apps

Universal apps: Haven’t we seen this all before?

In short, yes. Google Docs has long worked in this way, although it's a web service so as long as your device has a web browser and a live internet connection, it can access Google Docs. The brilliance of Google Docs is that it not only works across multiple devices, but multiple users can collaborate on one document in real-time with changes appearing on every user's screen instantly.

Apple also has a similar 'universal' system that it calls Continuity, and at the moment it seems to work a bit better than Universal Windows apps. This is because when you’re working on a document or an email on your iPad or iPhone, just bringing the device close to your Mac will give you a gentle prompt in the dock (OSX’s taskbar) to let you know that there is something synced.

Clicking on this prompt will open the relevant app and display the thing you were working on. It’s very clean and feels that bit more automated than the current Windows offering. You don’t even have to have saved the document you’re working on, as the operating system works out what you’re doing. That’s not to say it’s perfect, and we experienced a few apps not opening up while conducting this test.

Obviously Windows 10 is still being polished, but hopefully Microsoft will enable this kind of helpful compatibility when the full versions roll out at the end of July. For now though a single app store, with fully compatible offerings across all devices, is something that we’re looking forward to spending a lot more time with.

Which apps are available?

It can be a little difficult to work out which apps in the store are universal, as searching for the term only returns offerings with the word in their title. We’re hoping that Microsoft will create a section similar to the one Google uses in its Chrome Store to denote which apps can be used offline.

This would certainly make life easier for the user. In terms of apps we know about, as we’ve stated above, Microsoft has already outlined a wide range of its own apps, with the Office suite, Music, Outlook Mail, Photos, Calendar, and OneNote. Other big players are lining up their own with Adobe releasing Photoshop Express, and various notable creations from Dropbox, Foursquare, Autodesk Pixlr, Netflix, Twitter, and plenty more as the big day draws nearer.