- Chuck Gray
Windows 8 has been a commercial and critical flop. The improvements made in 8.1 brought it more in line with the expectations of long-time Windows users. Overall though, Microsoft did a poor job of transitioning its customers away from an interface that had gone unchanged for 17 years—and a terrible job communicating why they should want to. With the Windows 10 Technical Preview, it looks like Microsoft will be addressing those problems and bringing to the table new functionality that users will actually welcome.
First, let's address the big question: why Windows 10? What happened to Windows 9? There are a few theories floating around, but Microsoft hasn't given a serious answer, and ultimately it probably doesn't matter. Marketing—what can you do? The running and obvious joke is because "seven ate nine." Yes, a Microsoft rep really went there. Har, har, har.
Windows 10 Technical Preview is just that: a preview. It is an unfinished operating system lacking a large number of the features that will be included with the official release and has quite a few bugs yet to be worked out. But that's the point of the Windows Insider Program—those with the desire and time can download the preview for free from Microsoft and aid in its development by providing feedback from within the OS. The Technical Preview is free to download, but I wouldn't install it directly to your hard disk unless you've got a spare computer lying around or you feel like going to the trouble of partitioning your disk to install it alongside your current operating system. I've gone the route I always go when testing a new operating system: I've installed it inside a virtual machine using the free VirtualBox software from Oracle. You can also read instructions on how to download and set up VirtualBox with the Windows 10 Technical Preview yourself. Believe it or not, it doesn't require any kind of technical mastery to do!
The Technical Preview demonstrates just how far Microsoft is willing to go to admit that they botched Windows 8's release. Below are several screenshots that will outline the interface adjustments that have been made in Windows 10.
Below is the default screen you will be shown in the Windows 10 Technical Preview. As you can see, it's a return to the Windows 7-style desktop, Start Menu, and all. Mixed in you'll see is a bit of the Windows 8 aesthetic, such as a move away from the Aero Glass interface, the hallmark of Windows Vista and 7, to a flatter, sleeker design. This is what mouse and keyboard users can expect to see when they load Windows 10.
Yes, the Start Menu is back, not just the Start button from Windows 8.1 that only retuned you to the Welcome Screen/Metro interface known for its app tiles that didn't have much of a place in a mouse and keyboard world. You will notice, however, that the Windows 10 Start Menu is a hybrid of new and old. On the left side is Start Menu that you know and love. On the right, Microsoft has given users the ability to incorporate the app tiles inside of the start menu.
It's important to be aware of the difference between "apps" and desktop applications. "Apps" are optimized for mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. They feature a simplified interface designed to make them easy to use with just one finger. As such, they also lack many of the more powerful and nuanced features of desktop applications, which we'd all been using before the iPhone stepped in and shifted everyone's focus away from traditional computers to mobile devices. Lifelong mouse and keyboard users who met Windows 8's Welcome Screen for the first time were bewildered by the cavalcade of apps intended to make life easier, but in fact did exactly the opposite.
If you click on the Start Menu option for "All Apps," you will be presented with a list of both the desktop applications and the mobile apps. I think Microsoft needs to do a better job of distinguishing between the two in the Start Menu, but apps in general are represented by perfectly square dichromatic tiles, while desktop application icons are more complex and more colorful pictures, not just squares.
Fortunately, we can easily rid ourselves of the app tiles displayed on the right side of the Start Menu. Just right-click them and choose the option to either "Unpin from Start" to get them out of your sight, or "Uninstall" to remove them completely. I imaging when I inevitably upgrade to Windows 10, I'll be doing a lot of uninstalling.
Handling Apps on the Desktop
But wait! Apps are not the display-consuming monsters they were in Windows 8. When using a traditional mouse and keyboard setup, apps will open in regular Windows, as I've shown below with the Windows Store app. Apps can be maximized, just as any other window, but now, just as with any other window, you will have the option to easily minimize or close them using the icons in the upper-right corner.
Microsoft is doing its best to provide one operating system for both tablets and mouse and keyboard setups. With Windows 8, that meant a static display in the form of the Welcome Screen tiles that was shown regardless of whether you were using a traditional desktop/laptop PC or a touch-only tablet. That was a poor and lazy choice. Windows 10 has an upcoming feature known for now as Continuum that will make up for that.
In the video below (which has no sound), we see a Microsoft Surface Pro tablet that's paired with a combination keyboard and trackpad. With that setup, Windows 10 is running in the traditional desktop environment, including apps running inside regular windows. Take away that keyboard to use only the tablet's touch screen, and Windows will prompt the user to switch to a tablet-optimized layout. It's the sort of responsive design that makes me think Microsoft might actually be paying attention to their customers.
Windows 7 introduced its users to snapping—the ability to drag a window to the edge of the display so that it would then automatically fill the entire left or right half of the screen. This allowed users to easily display two windows side-by-side without the need for manual positioning and resizing. It was a welcome feature and Microsoft has taken it to the next level in Windows 10. Below you'll see I'm running LibreOffice in a standard window:
In Windows 10, I now have the option of snapping a window at the corner of the screen, letting it take up one quarter of the visible space. Below I have snapped LibreOffice writer to the bottom-left corner of the screen. I can then drag another window, such as Internet Explorer below, and snap it into the upper-right corner.
If I have multiple windows open and snap one of them to the left or right so that they take up half the screen space, Windows will display previews of other open programs, suggesting that I may want to choose one of them to snap to the other side of the screen. This is far easier than grabbing another window and manually snapping it to the other side of the screen:
Of course, when we start splitting our screens four ways, things may be getting a wee bit crowded. Computer users these days might have displays as large as 25 inches (what once would have been considered a decent-sized television!), but shrinking windows down that much, even on a larger display, may not always work.
Enter virtual desktops. This has been a hallmark feature of desktop Linux distributions for well over a decade, and Microsoft should have ripped it off long ago. Virtual desktops allow you to organize a large number of open windows into switchable screens. This saves on having to maximize and minimize many open programs. In the image below, I've got four programs running: Internet Explorer, the file explorer, LibreOffice, and Paint. I want to keep all these windows open, but snapping them into quarters really isn't going to work on my small display.
Enter virtual desktops. Click the task switcher icon to the right of the magnifying glass icon in the taskbar (more on that in a second) to display all the open windows in a thumbnail view. Towards the bottom of the screen you'll see an option labeled "Add a Desktop".
Clicking this option will create a second desktop with nothing on it. You can then right-click on the open programs and choose the option to move them to another desktop. If you're a big-time multi-tasker, virtual desktops are fantastic. You can dedicate one desktop to just work and, for example, another one to play with games, music, or movies. Then, rather than switching between your many open programs, all you'd have to do is switch between the desktops.
Finally, there is a new search feature built into the desktop. It's nothing revolutionary. Clicking on the magnifying lens icon next to the Start Menu icon will reveal a box that you can use to search both your computer's local files and programs, as well as perform Web searches via the Microsoft Bing search engine, which in terms of power and usefulness, is the next best thing to Google. I haven't tested to see if the default search engine can be changed, but if it can't be, some programmer out there will come up with a way around it.
So, that's the Windows 10 preview in a nutshell. I'm certain upcoming Release Candidate versions will have even more new features, which I will be excited to tell you about. From the way things are looking right now, Windows 10 will be an operating system you'll actually want to upgrade to. Windows XP hangers-on will have less to be intimidated by when they finally make the switch, while Windows 8 users will finally have the operating system they should have had two years ago!