Can you still upgrade an old Windows Phone?

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Surface Duo: The wrong device at the wrong time for the wrong price?

With the Surface Duo launching, it’s perhaps an ironic time to be pulling out a Windows Phone: it’s a platform that even its fondest fans have to accept is a dead phone walking, but it hasn’t yet reached the vintage of classics like Commodore or BBC Micro models that warrant the techno-archaeology of being brought back to life.

But if you come across a Windows Phone handset, can you still get it set up? Having been given the shiny red version of the Lumia 1520 I still use regularly, I wanted to see if I could get it working.

The Windows Phone 8.1 Store has been turned off since December 2019, so if you have a Windows Phone that you could update to Windows 10 Mobile using the Upgrade Advisor app but didn’t get around to that in time, you can’t get it from the Store any more. (If you’re getting an 805a0190 error code on a Windows Phone, that’s why.)

SEE: 5G smartphones: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

But if you have a phone that’s capable of running Windows 10 Mobile (which includes models like the Lumia 1520 that were never officially supported, but not devices that have only 512MB of memory), there’s a little-known enterprise update tool that you can still use to do the update: the Over-the-cable updater. If you have a phone that’s already set up with your account and you just want the new OS, it’s straightforward.

If there’s a PIN on the phone, you need to turn it off before you start. If it’s an enterprise device and USB connectivity has been disabled using a policy setting or assigned access, enable USB again. If the phone was on an insider version of Windows, you’ll need to flash it back to a retail version using the Windows Device Recovery Tool.

If it’s a secondhand phone like mine or you don’t know the PIN, you can reset the phone to remove it – but you don’t need to do a reset otherwise.

(If you do need to reset, make sure it’s charged then unplug it and power it down; once it’s off, hold down the Volume Down key and plug it in (which makes it restart automatically) – keep holding down Volume Down until you see an exclamation mark on screen. Let go of the Volume Down key and then press each of these keys in order: Volume Up, Volume Down and then Power. That will restart the phone again and the spinning cogs will appear. Follow the instructions that appear for setting up the phone until you get to the step about signing into or creating a new Microsoft account. That won’t work, so don’t bother. Don’t bother enabling Wi-Fi or putting in a SIM at this stage, either; the phone needs to be in airplane mode for the update.)

Make sure the phone has at least 40% charge, and check Settings, Phone Update to make sure there isn’t an update in progress (Windows Phone 8 devices that you reset and turn on will get a Windows Phone 8.1 update and you need to let that run, but put the phone into airplane mode so you don’t waste time downloading any other updates).

Plug the phone into a PC running a supported version of Windows 10 (with .Net 4.0 installed and network connectivity). When you run the OtcUpdaterZip.exe file it unzips several files, including a ReadMe with full instructions. To update a phone, run OTCUpdater.exe. Once it’s retrieved the necessary files – the same ones an Over The Air update using the Upgrade Advisor would have downloaded – it sends them to the phone and you’ll see a message telling you to unplug the device. The upgrade will then proceed as usual (spinning cogs on screen for a while and then a progress bar). You can do any extra setup required and the phone will download subsequent updates over the air as usual.

If you only have one phone to update, or if all the phones you want to update are already plugged in, run OTCUpdater.exe /batch and the updater tool will exit automatically after updating the connected phones.

Why would you even try?

What you get after updating a Windows Phone to Windows 10 Mobile is still an old phone. Windows 10 Mobile went out of support in December 2019, which means no new fixes or support. At the moment, though, photos you take still get automatically uploaded to OneDrive and that should work until the end of 2020. Microsoft says that a Windows 10 Mobile you’re using now won’t create device backups that you can use to set up a new device with all the same apps and accounts, but we’re seeing backups with today’s date being created and they still restore. That means you can also still use existing device backups to set up a new phone: you can’t do that as part of the OTC update but once the phone is upgraded to Windows 10 Mobile you can use Settings, System, About to reset it and that lets you pick an older backup to restore from when you first sign in (again, that should work through the end of this year).

Some apps that can run on this OS have been removed from the Store and you’re going to be seeing messages from Microsoft web sites suggesting that you upgrade to the new version of Edge – which won’t be available.

But if you still want to use Windows Phone, it’s probably for a reason and you know that you aren’t getting new apps or security updates (although it’s probably safer than keeping a Windows XP system going). The Office apps still run; OneNote and Microsoft To Do are even still getting updates because they were built as true universal apps.

SEE: Inside the Microsoft Surface Duo (in pictures)

Maybe you need an emergency handset to get email and make phone calls with: we sent a failed Samsung phone that was in warranty off to the mobile operator it came from seven months ago and it still hasn’t been sent back or replaced. Maybe a simple drawing game would amuse a toddler for a few minutes and give a busy parent a quick break (and if they drop an old Windows Phone, it doesn’t matter as much). Maybe one more screen is just useful right now, and if you’re mostly at home, you can use it on Wi-Fi so you don’t even need to put a SIM in it.

However much you loved Windows Phone, you can’t keep these devices working forever, but you can keep them out of the e-waste system for a few more months. So if you need a spare device to try something out while you’re working from home and you find an old Windows Phone in the drawer, or you’re still plugging away with Windows Phone and someone offers you the old phone they found to replace yours because you managed to crack the screen, it’s nice to know that there’s a tool that still works for now. I use Android and iOS too, but I still find it faster to do the basics of email, calendar, phone calls, to do lists and OneNote on a Windows phone so I use one regularly still. Plus, I always wanted the bright red Lumia 1520, and now I have one.

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