A couple of days ago, Microsoft formally announced that next version of its operating system would be Windows 10. And yesterday, it made the first public beta versions available for download – which naturally we did as soon as possible and tried it out on one of our office laptops.
It’s worth repeating that this is a work in progress, so at this point we’ve not done heavy benchmarking. But a lot of the features are in place already and it’s fair to start looking at what they add or take away from the OS. There’s a lot to still go in, and some things which may not work as intended, and a full year until we’re expecting a final release so between now and then everything could change.
With that out of the way, it’s on to Windows 10.
Anyone can download the 4GB ISO file from here and create a bootable USB installer to try out Windows 10. If you’ve got bandwidth to spare and are already running running Windows, there’s an online upgrade you can perform from the same site. Be warned, once you’ve installed Windows 10, going back to your original OS will require a near full reinstall from recovery discs. And there’s every chance that you won’t be able to upgrade from the beta to the full release next year – you’ll have to reinstall Windows 7 or Windows 8 and upgrade from there. So don’t install it over your current OS if you have any doubts at all.
The good news, however, is that if you do go ahead, the process is quick. I was able to upgrade an existing Windows 8.1 notebook to Windows 10 in just under an hour. And all the data from my 8.1 install was carried over successfully too.
There’s also a bit of good news about security. For the first run of Windows at least, Microsoft has implemented two-factor authentication, so after entering your Live login details you also need a one time PIN that will be emailed to you. There’s a couple of thoughts on this – a) don’t upgrade your PC if it’s the only thing you can access your email on, and b) while that’s great for the first run, obviously you won’t be asked for a one time PIN every time you log on, so don’t rely on it to protect your PC in future,.
On reaching the desktop I was greeted by what, at first glance, looked very much like my old Windows 8.1 desktop. Apart from two new additions – Search and Task View icons – and a redesigned icon for This PC, the Windows 10 desktop looks very much like Windows 8’s.
Welcome back, Start Menu
The big news about Windows 10 is that the Start Menu, familiar from every version from ’95 to 7, is back. It’s not exactly the same as before, though, and is now a hybrid of the old Start menu and the Windows 8 Start screen. It’s now split in two, with a list of programs as seen in Windows 7 on the left and space for Live Tiles on the right.
I was really, really happy to see that Microsoft has added a Power button to the top of the Start menu that lets me power down, restart my PC, log out or hibernate without having to do that stupid “Open Charms, Click Settings, Click Power then choose your option” rigmarole from Windows 8 if you didn’t know the alt-F4 shortcut.
An interesting new feature to the new Start menu is that you can now drag to resize it. The options to configure its size exactly as you want it aren’t massively flexible, but it’s a nice new addition.
Of course, you can also pin and unpin Live Tiles to it to your heart’s content. You can remove them if you don’t like ’em, add more if you do. One thing immediately noticeable, though, is that the Tiles still aren’t quite what we consider live: clicking on a headline in the news reader tile still just opens the news reader, rather than taking you to straight to the story you’re interested in like it does in an Android widget. But at least it’s a start (if you’ll pardon the pun).
The Start Screen lives
Conspicuously absent, though, is any sort of shortcut to reach the Windows 8 Start screen, which is still there under the hood. Microsoft believes people will want to use the Start screen, especially on tablets, and Windows 10’s ability to automatically configure itself depending on the type of screen it detects means that the full screen layout should be the default one for tablets, you can also set it to appear whenever you click the Windows icon on a standard desktop too (if you really want to). That’s done by accessing the settings menus, ticking a box and logging out and in again; it’s a huge schlep and something which should probably become a simple flag or shortcut in the final release, much like the way StarDock’s Start8 menu for Windows 8 does it.
Search and Task View
The two new icons, Search and Task View are the other immediately obvious new additions to Windows 10’s desktop. Clicking Search and typing something brings up a list of all items related to your query, from apps to documents to web pages, which at first I thought was a little silly as that’s pretty much what typing into the Start menu does. But on closer inspection, it turns out searching from the Start menu only returns results from installed apps and settings whereas the Search button also returns results from the web and all documents stored on the PC. It’s a subtle difference, feels a bit like the Microsoft of old: why have one unified features when two will do. I suspect that by dividing the two search functions like this one or both will be underused: Canonical has had a unified search for applications, files, folder and web history in Ubuntu for a long time, and that works fine.
Task View is a bit more interesting. When clicked, the Task View button opens an overlay showing all open apps, and lets you switch between them or close them with a click. It’s kind of like a slightly more useful version of alt-tabbing. Task View is also where you create and manage the “virtualised desktops” Microsoft spoke about on Monday, which are copies of your primary desktop configuration (icons, wallpaper), with the difference between each being the programs you have open. You can switch between them with Task View, but even when you’re on a desktop that doesn’t show your open programs, you still see their icons on the task bar, which seems a little pointless to me.
I quite like the ability to snap four screens onto my desktop:
But I don’t like Live Tiles. Never have, and until they get better, I don’t see that changing. My favourite pet peeve about them is they don’t take you to the information that caught your eye and caused you to click on them in the first place. Spotted a news story on your News tile that you’d like to read? Well don’t click the tile with the story showing on it expecting to be taken to that story, because all that does is load the app and take you to its main page. No thanks.
New Explorer layout
File Explorer – or just Explorer – has been tweaked with a new layout, with a Home button the most noticeable new addition. It gathers your favourites, your most frequently-accessed folders and the most recent files you’ve created or opened together in one place for easy access. Neat! I also noticed some cool-looking drop shadowing to many of the OS’s new interface elements, which looks mighty nice indeed.
More to come
We’ll be digging deeper into Windows in the coming year. It’ll be interesting to watch the OS evolve in the next 12 months as Microsoft responds to people’s feedback.