Yes, the Start menu is back. Yes, there are virtual desktops. No, the Charms bar hasn’t gone away. And no, we don’t know when Windows 10 will ship or what it will cost. But we’ve seen the technical preview of Windows 10 and the word to bear in mind for this release is productivity.
Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore repeatedly emphasised that this is a very early build without even all the features that have been announced, and that there might be rough spots. We didn’t see any problems in the time we had to try it out at Microsoft’s San Francisco event, but what’s clear is that there is plenty more to come.
This isn’t the place to look for changes in Explorer or the control panel, let alone desktop tools like Paint and Notepad or Store apps like Music and Video. The technical preview is about the core features that are supposed to prove Microsoft can balance touch, mouse and keyboard without making any users feel abandoned.
As expected, the Start menu is the default if you use Windows 10 with a keyboard and mouse, though you can keep the full-screen Start screen if you prefer it. Even on the Start menu, you can pin Live Tiles in multiple sizes on the right, but on the left you also get the familiar list of pinned and recent applications, complete with jump lists for files, the search box that you can also use to run commands and a power button for shutting down or restarting your PC.
The search box has all the Windows 8 features, including results from Bing and the Windows store, and a separate Search menu next to the Start button gives you trending topics directly from Bing, too.
You can resize the Start menu, although oddly you can only drag to change the height; changing the width means picking a setting rather than just dragging with the mouse. This is certainly more familiar for mouse and keyboard users, but it remains to be seen whether the Windows 8 users who actually like touch will find it a step backwards.
Snaps, apps and virtual desktops
Using Alt Tab to move between open windows is a keyboard shortcut that’s been around since 1990 and it still gives you a line of windows to choose from. As with Windows 8.1, those now include any modern apps you have running, and those now open as windows on the desktop like any other software you’re running, ready to be resized or snapped side by side. The new Task View button on the taskbar is there to introduce the idea of moving between windows to the vast majority of Windows users who’ve never tried Alt Tab.
Snapping does more than the ‘two desktop apps getting half the desktop’ layout that you get in Windows 8. If you have one narrow window, the second window can take up all the rest of the space, or you can snap four apps, one in each corner. Windows will even show thumbnails of open windows to help you pick the one you want to snap without rearranging everything.
But you can also get more complicated. The Windows-Tab keyboard shortcut introduced in Windows Vista for the 3D Flip Explorer and reused for the Windows 8 modern task switcher now gives you a view that’s almost exactly the same as Alt-Tab except for the button at the bottom for adding a virtual desktop – and the list of any virtual desktops you already have open. Those are live thumbnails and you can use your mouse to pick not just the set of windows you want to put on screen but even the window you want to start using.
Virtual desktops aren’t a new idea but they never graduated from utility to main Windows feature because they can be confusing to manage. There’s a subtle clue in the taskbar to help you; if an app is open but not in the current desktop, it shows up as underlined rather than outlined in the taskbar – and if you click on its icon you go straight to it, and the rest of that desktop. The question remains whether that’s enough to stop a feature designed only for power users from confusing everyone else, but it certainly signals to desktop power users that Windows 10 is supposed to be designed for them.
Despite rumours, the Charms bar that you get when you swipe the edge of a touchscreen hasn’t gone away in Windows 10, but you might not see it when you use the Windows-C keyboard shortcut. If you have a mouse and keyboard and the window that’s active is a modern app like the Windows Store, that keyboard shortcut brings up a mini Charms menu hanging off the top left corner of the app instead.
This has the three dots that give you any extra commands, now clearly labelled as App Commands, the Search, Share and Settings charms that are usually on the Charms bar, plus other useful commands like Play, Print and Project, plus the option of running the app Full Screen. If you can’t print from the app, the Print charm is on the menu but greyed out.
That makes the Charms less touch friendly but much more mouse friendly when you’re controlling an app; which is what you want when you’re using a mouse – all the way over to the side of the screen and all the way back isn’t efficient with a mouse. When you’re controlling Windows – which is what you get when you don’t have a modern app selected – having the Charms and settings bar at the side of the screen is fairly logical. And those Charms are staying around (although probably in a different arrangement with a more logical division of what shows up where) because when the Windows team took them out, users at Microsoft complained loudly. That big friendly sidebar for choosing and changing Wi-Fi turns out to be really handy.
This is the Windows 10 experience in microcosm. Microsoft is trying to keep the bits of the modern interface that people like and find useful, but not have them be annoying and intrusive when mouse users are getting things done.
At the other extreme from Charms is the command prompt, where you go to run scripts and batch files. In recent years the emphasis has been on the far more powerful PowerShell automation system, but in the spirit of “no feature left behind” the humble command line is getting the same harmonisation as the rest of Windows 10. You can finally use familiar keyboard shortcuts to select a line or a word at a time, and to copy and paste text.
Only a tiny fraction of Windows users may ever use the command line, but Microsoft wants them to be happy as well – and this is the kind of modernisation that’s a decade overdue.
Management and data containers
Some of the most interesting features for business aren’t actually visible in the technical preview of Windows 10. Being able to upgrade PCs using management tools, being able to manage PCs thought the same Mobile Device Management systems you use for smartphones and tablets, an enterprise app store that lets businesses manage volume licences for modern apps instead of making users sign in to a work PC with a personal Microsoft account, and separation of personal and business data using encrypted containers that doesn’t mean changing all your applications but persists even when you copy files onto a USB stick or cloud service will all appeal to businesses, but you can’t try them out until the previews of Windows Server and the necessary management tools come along.
There’s only one version of Internet Explorer in the preview of Windows 10 and it’s the full desktop version. It’s not a new version of IE, and the advances in IE are coming out on their own schedule (like the series of updates that delivered WebGL support). That doesn’t necessarily mean the immersive version of Internet Explorer is going away, but it doesn’t make sense to have a separate, full-screen browser when all the modern apps are now just windows on the desktop. We don’t know what changes there will be to the IE interface and the Windows team hasn’t yet decided how to handle the different modes of the browser – because having a plugin-free version of the browser is definitely a security advantage, but unless it’s immediately obvious how to switch between them people will get annoyed and confused. Getting challenges like this right without abandoning the benefits of Windows 8 is where Windows 10 will succeed or fail.
Windows 10 is all about balancing the demands of different users. It’s not just business users with desktop PCs and keyboards, versus tablet users. Windows is for sensors and data centres and Windows Phone and Xbox One as well as tablets and laptops and desktop PCs and giant wall screens and all the devices in between (at least in Microsoft’s ambitions). But what we’re seeing in this first technical preview release is very much about balancing the heritage of two decades on Windows with the new world of touch, and with making IT teams comfortable with the BYOD and consumerisation features introduced in Windows 8 by giving them more security options and more management.
At the preview event, there wasn’t a touch screen in sight and we only got to use Windows 10 with a mouse and keyboard on a big screen that takes full advantage of the new ways of arranging windows and swapping between virtual desktops. The technical preview is designed to make power users happy, not change the hey – the copy is done for the world.