Robert Hampton

Another visitor! Stay a while… stay forever!

3rd November 2014

Windows 10, then

Thank you for downloading

Much like Star Trek films, the received wisdom has it that only every other version of Windows is good. If you look at the pattern, it’s a fairly compelling argument: 3.1, 95, 98, Me, XP, Vista, 7 – the experienced computer user will have no trouble identifying the clunkers in that list.

Windows 8 is filed away safely in the “terrible” category, so if Microsoft is sticking to the pattern, this means Windows 9 will be excellent, yes?

It’s slightly worrying, then, that Microsoft has chosen to skip 9 completely and jump straight to Windows 10. No official explanation, beyond the usual marketing guff, has been forthcoming, although some media outlets maintain that it’s to prevent badly written legacy code checking for “Windows 9*” and falling over.

Almost everyone now acknowledges that Windows 8 was something of a misstep for Microsoft. It was a fairly radical departure from the familiar Windows we know and “love”. Gone was the Start Menu that we had used to launch our apps for the best part of two decades. In came the Start Screen, with its assortment of animated tiles, designed for a new generation of touch screens. This was an interface designed to be poked, swiped and generally fondled. Keyboard and mouse navigation was still available, but seemed to be very much discouraged.

Windows Preview Feedback

The desktop was still there, but the future seemed to lie in “Metro” (or “the new UI”, as Microsoft clumsily renamed it). Apps no longer lived in windows, but instead ran full screen. You could, if you really wanted to, run two apps side by side – multitasking is for losers.

This seemed a massive step backward: users could have a 3 Ghz quad core CPU and 8 gigabytes of RAM, but if you wanted to run a calculator and e-mail program side-by-side, the OS would struggle.

The most important problem with Windows 8: users hated it. Really, really, despised it. It’s not just the lack of start menu – commonly used features are buried behind a mystifying set of “gestures” which are completely non-intuitive. The first time I used Windows 8, I had to Google how to turn the computer off (on a different machine, because I couldn’t figure out Internet Explorer either). Online news sites quickly filled up with complaints about the new OS.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to Windows by any means. Remember the howls of outrage when “new Twitter” was rolled out a few years ago? Can anyone now remember what “old Twitter” was like? That’s because, after a few weeks using the new interface, people got used to it and moved on. Perhaps Microsoft expected something similar to happen with Windows 8.

Windows 10 Alarms App

But Windows is not Twitter. Nobody is forced to upgrade to the new version, unless they get a new PC (even then, you can still find new Windows 7 machines out there). People voted with their feet and stuck with the familiar. Microsoft’s most important customers, in business, government and industry, refused to move away from Windows 7. Some even decided to stick with XP for a while longer.

Windows 8.1 addressed some of those criticisms: the Start button was reinstated (although it throws you straight back to the Start Screen) and Windows could now run four Metro apps at the same time, although overlapping the windows was still forbidden. A baby step in the right direction, but not enough to convince many people.

This probably explains why, two years after Windows 8 launched, it still has less than 17% market share, still lagging behind the 13-year-old (and, since April, obsolete) Windows XP.

So Windows 8 was a flop. It tried to unify Microsoft’s desktop, tablet and phone operating systems under a single UI, but failed miserably. Microsoft needs to win back its core audience, and it’s going to do it via the worst-kept secret in computing world – the return of the Start Menu.

Then, back in September, Microsoft announced the Windows technical preview, an early test version of what would become Windows 10. My curiosity got the better of me, so I headed on over to Microsoft’s web site and downloaded the ISO file.

Technical stuff: I’m running the preview release inside VirtualBox 4.3.16 on OS X 10.9.

Note: my comments are based on the original preview release; there’s been at least one release since then which I haven’t played with.

Installation is fairly standard – not much difference from installing Windows 7 or 8. You are offered “Express Settings” which protects your privacy by turning on Do Not Track, but also sends information to Microsoft in the background.

Windows 10 Installation Express Settings

Microsoft are really, really keen for you to set up a Microsoft account. You can still create a local user account on the PC if you don’t want to do this, but the option is tucked away and has the dreaded “(not recommended)” advisory next to it. I was also asked to verify my identity by responding to a confirmation email, but it never arrived.

Microsoft Account

A few more options to set (pretty similar to what you’re asked when installing Windows 8) and you’ll find yourself on the desktop. This is what we’re all waiting for, of course. The Start button is tantalisingly placed at the bottom-left corner of the screen. Click it and…

Windows preview Start Menu

…there it is. The “new” Start Menu, in all its glory. The left-hand side of the menu behaves very much like the Windows 7 Start Menu: programs can be pinned to the menu, and a list of frequently-used apps is maintained. You can use “All Apps” to drill down through the Start Menu folders, as on Windows 7 and earlier.

On the right-hand side are Windows 8-style live tiles. You can add more by dragging apps from the “All Apps” menu onto the live tiles area, or remove them entirely, to make the Start Menu look more like previous Windows versions.

Start Menu with tiles "Classic" Start Menu

The Start Menu contains both “new UI” and traditional apps, with no easy way to distinguish them apart from the icon style. I tried launching the Calculator app, which turned out to be a “new” app. It launched full screen, which seemed to be a bit over the top for a simple utility like this. Note, though, the standard Minimise, Restore and Maximise buttons in the title bar.

Calculator app

This brings us neatly on to Windows 10’s boldest new feature: the “new UI” apps can now run in a window on the desktop and appear as icons on the Taskbar alongside desktop applications. You can resize and position the windows exactly where you want them! It’s an amazing new facility which brings us up to… where Windows was prior to 2012. Oh well.

The old Windows 7 calculator app is still there as well. Yes, Windows now offers two calculators for the price of one. This isn’t the only duplicated feature – there is a new-style Photos app and the old desktop Photo Viewer, and I’m sure there are others. This can only lead to confusion in the long run, I fear.

Calculator Calculator and Calculator, together at last!

Opening up the Windows store, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my Microsoft account had remembered the apps I’d installed when I tried Windows 8.1 preview last year. So the Twitter app was waiting for me and I could start it up. It looked a bit strange running in a window, but of course it hasn’t been updated for Windows 10 yet.

Twitter app

Internet Explorer is present of course. As far as I could tell, the “new UI” Internet Explorer which was part as Windows 8 is nowhere to be seen – only the normal desktop version appears.

Internet Explorer

If you want to bring back the Start Screen (WHY? WHYYYY? OH GOOD LORD WHY?!) you can do so by right-clicking on the Taskbar and choosing “Properties”. There is an option “Use the Start menu instead of the Start screen” (replacing the “boot to desktop” option from Windows 8.1). Strangely, you have to sign right out of your session and log back in for this setting to take effect.

Start Menu options Start reboot

Once you’ve done the sign out and back in, the Start Screen is there, ready for you. It behaves just as it does in Windows 8 – whether that’s a good thing or not is down to individual taste. I suspect not many people will be altering this setting.

Windows 10 Start Screen

Finally, it’s time to shutdown Windows 10. For the first time since Windows 7, there is an obvious button right there on the Start Menu to click. This being Windows, there were a load of security updates to install before turning off.

Shutdown Windows 10

So, that’s the results of an hour or so playing around with the preview. Based on this early versions, it seems that Windows 10 will be to Windows 8 what 7 was to Vista – this is what the earlier OS should have been. The return of the Start Menu will be enough to encourage some refuseniks to upgrade from earlier versions. The changes to Windows store apps mean that there’s potential for them to be actually useful rather than just toys. The integration between new and old is still not quite seamless – why are there two calculator apps? – but there’s still a year left to iron out those kinks.

Overall I’m prepared to give a cautious welcome to Windows 10. I doubt I’ll be going back to Windows full time from my Mac though. 🙂

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.