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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Windows 10 takes a second swing at the future of Microsoft's OS

Windows 10 is everything Windows 8 should have been. Now, it's still early: the technical preview is just a week old, and barely scratches the surface of what Microsoft has promised is coming down the pipe. It's also buggy, and definitely shouldn't be installed on your primary PC.
But this fledgling operating system is at once panacea and prescience, a remedy for Windows 8's identity-crisis that also rethinks and reworks the overly-bold approach to Microsoft's dream of unifying the desktop and mobile experience.

Fresh start

Boot up a PC running the Windows 10 Technical Preview, and you'll be dropped off at the oh so familiar desktop. A taskbar with familiar looking icons sits on the bottom, and the recycle bin sits in the upper left corner. A build number sitting on the right side of your desktop is the only indication that this isn't Windows 8 all over again.
And then you press the Start button, and are greeted by the return of the Start menu. It's a proper Start menu too, with your apps all stacked in that endless column of nested folders we've all been scrolling since Windows 95. And sitting alongside that column are Windows 8's lovely Live Tiles, with news-bites and social updates spinning ad infinitum.
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The revamped, customizable Start menu.Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET
Some blasphemy here: as someone weaned on DOS and then Windows 3.11, I've always found the Windows 95-and-beyond Start menu to be a bit daft. There are always far too many apps on my machines for a single, scrolling list, or even nested folders, to make any sense. So I turn to search, or shortcuts littering the desktop, or -- with Windows 7 -- a taskbar packed with colorful icons arranged in some arcane order that makes perfect sense to me.
And that's why the Windows 8 Start screen seemed like such a good idea: tiles that served up useful information, and you could arrange as many as you wanted into neat little groups. But that image falls apart once you actually get to using the thing. Add a lot of apps and you'll end up scrolling endlessly; a nightmare if you're on a keyboard and mouse. And most apps rip us back to the traditional desktop, while others dominate entire 27-inch displays, oblivious of our need to multitask.

Old is new again

With Windows 10, the familiar and the new are mashed together in a form that's only a little different, but suddenly more useful than ever before. You can have your Start menu, with familiar apps and services that you can pin to a list. And I can have my Live Tiles in a form that actually makes sense: informative nuggets of information feeding me calendar information, the status of my inbox, and social network updates, called up unobtrusively with the press of the Windows key. Press those Live Tile shortcuts, and the "Modern" apps open as classic windowed apps. You can drag them around, snap them to half of your display, or minimize and maximize them at will.
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Virtual desktops keep work and play separate.Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET
Windows 10 let's you work smarter, too. Click the search button to do exactly that -- search your files, the Windows Store or the entire Internet, right from the taskbar. Click the Task view button, and you'll get a quick glimpse of all of your open apps and can create virtual desktops with ease. That feature alone tempts me to install the preview on my primary machine, but it's far from perfect. You can press Ctrl + Windows key to jump between your desktops, and right click on apps when in task view to move them around, but I'd really like to be able to drag and drop those open apps to different desktops, or -- more importantly -- rearrange the virtual desktops I've created. Of course we've had virtual desktops on Linux and Mac machines for years (and on Windows, from third-party apps), but it's nice to see Microsoft catching up here.
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Modern apps no longer take up the whole screen.Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET
But Windows 10's real game-changing potential is still purely theoretical: this'll be one operating system to rule them all, serving up a device-specific interface that'll scale from desktops down to smartphones, and everywhere in between, with universal apps that will run everywhere too. These features haven't yet made their way to the technical preview, but you'll eventually be able to pop a 2-in-1 convertible device like the Surface Pro 3 onto its keyboard base, and watch the full-screen Start screen melt away, offering instead the new Start menu and the familiar desktop.
That could be a cure for the confusing mess that is the current Windows 8 PC ecosystem, chock full of laptops that bend over backward or split from keyboards, or simply graft touchscreens onto familiar designs. We should finally see an end to the jarring, generally unsatisfying experience that urges us to dance between the desktop and that weird, full-screen purgatory where Modern apps live.
And if you want to flirt with the Windows 8 experience you can do that too: just right click the taskbar and choose the option that disables or enables the Start menu. If Windows 8 had shipped with that option to begin with, we would probably have avoided this issue entirely.

Future-proofing

Windows 10 isn't going to fix everything, but a seemingly simple tweak to one of Windows 8's most divisive elements has made a world of difference to the OS. And that's crucial to Windows' future, as Microsoft is still looking at the big picture: PCs are old news.
Desktops and laptops still handle most of our work and play, but tablets and smartphones have long since stolen the limelight: future operating systems will need to work to bridge that gap. We've seen steps in this direction from Apple, with OS X Yosemite's ability to hand off files and things like emails and calls from your phone or tablet. And some Android apps are making their way to Google's Chrome OS, and interesting sign of where Google might be headed.
Microsoft's vision of tomorrow's ideal operating system is grander still. The goal is to offer a unified experience across devices of all shapes and sizes, and one that will morph to make sense: icons to tap and home screens when you're on a phone or tablet, but windowed apps and nested folders when you're armed with a keyboard and mouse.
Windows 8 dreamed of dragging us into that future, but we kicked and screamed at the inefficiency of its one-size-fits-all approach. With Windows 10, Microsoft seems to be getting it right.
I'll be running the Windows 10 Technical Preview and keeping tabs on major updates -- be sure to check back!
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