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Week in Tech: Windows 10

It's a Start

Ignore the stupid branding. Embrace the uncharacteristically sane noises coming out of Microsoft. Windows 10 looks promising for old-school PC users. You know, like gamers with desktop PCs. Will I live to regret this sunny optimism? Maybe. Will Windows 10 stop the general Windows rot? Doubtful. Even now, Microsoft's technical ambitions for Windows seem feeble compared to the grand vision it once had back in the early 2000s. But most of what Microsoft revealed in its mercifully brief presentation covering the new Windows 10 Technical Preview release was positive for desktop dinosaurs and relatively little made me gag.

Anyway, what should we all make of Windows 10 as far as we now know it? Generally, Joe Belfiore's (the conspicuously friendly face of Windows development) presentation was pleasingly bullshit lite - under-promising in order to eventually over-deliver was my overriding sense. The central theme involved making sure the next version of Windows doesn't leave anyone out – desktop users, office drones, mobile device lovers, everyone is included.

Actually, what we saw and what was said was mostly about those wage-slave worker drones or more specifically making sure Windows 10 makes for such an easy transition from Windows 7, big corporates will be happy to foist it upon their minions and buy a load of new boxes or at least Windows licences.

But that's OK because it means Microsoft, it seems, is making damn sure that the desktop experience works much better in Windows 10. Of course, Microsoft has been steadily winding back from the ill-advised imposition of touch-optimised interface elements on mouse and keyboard users for a while.

The friendly going-on-medicated face of Windows...

Each and every major update of Windows 8 has been an incremental step towards reintroducing traditional mouse-and-keyboard UI cues. But the vibe before Windows 10 was reluctant going on downright bloody minded – OK, we'll give you the Start button back, but you can't have the Start menu. Ha!

With Windows 10, the recalcitrance seems to be gone. What do you want? Great, here you go, have it. What does that mean in practice? The return of the Start menu but with added live tiles in the style of the Modern touch UI from Windows 8 and Windows Phone.

Stick that in your mouse-and-keyboard interface and smoke it

Next up is a blurring of the borders between the touch-optimised Modern UI and the desktop. Modern UI apps can now pop out into traditional windows rather than requiring total domination of the screen.

That feeds into improved multitasking. There's a new “Task View” button in task bar (yes, it's a lot like Apple's Expose), the “Snap-to” feature has been tweaked and now supports up to four apps arranged in screen quarters and for the first time multiple desktops are supported and indeed included in Task View. Oh and dedicated search fields are back – both in the Start menu and on the Task bar.

Nothing dramatic or genuinely new? Nope. But here's a nice little touch that I think captures Microsoft's attitude with Windows 10. They've added full keyboard shortcut support to the command prompt for the first time. Yes, you can paste into the command prompt. Talk about technical innovation.

Four tasks (count 'em) snapped to!

My sense is that Windows 10 is going to be a pretty nice experience for mouse and keyboard users, that's for sure. But what about gamers specifically? We've touched on this previously, but Windows 10 will bring with it DirectX 12. And DirectX 12 might just be killer for gaming. Reducing game rendering overheads to game console levels of efficiency is the sales pitch and if it gets anywhere near delivering, it'll be bloody brilliant.

On that subject, I don't think it's clear as yet whether DX12 will be Windows 10 exclusive or also available for Windows 8. Microsoft is ultimately a corporation and not a charity, so I'm guessing it will be Win 10 exclusive.

As for the question of how what we've seen of Windows 10 jives with gaming, there are a few elements that could be interesting. The multitasking and multiple desktops element could offer new ways of balancing gaming with more general PC usage.

There's also the whole develop-once, roll-out-on-all-platforms idea that is supposed to finally deliver with Windows 10 and allow platform-agnostic app development across all kinds of Windows PCs as well as Windows Phone. It seems highly implausible at this stage that this would include sophisticated and demanding 3D games. One day, perhaps.

It's also worth noting that the new Technical Preview isn't about introducing new 'consumery' features like the rumoured inclusion in Windows 10 of Microsoft's Cortana voice controlled 'personal assistant' as seen in Windows Phone (basically, Microsoft's answer to Apple's Siri).

Oh my god, it's made of keyboard shortcuts

If you're looking for negatives, well, it does seem a little like Microsoft is throwing touch users under the bus. The touch-optimised task switcher appears to be toast, for instance. I suspect Microsoft may be swinging back too far towards the mouse and keyboard with Windows 10. What it still doesn't seem to grasp is that whatever input method you're using, the interface needs to be consistent. It's no good kicking mouse and keyboard users into a touch environment and vice versa.

My biggest objection, however, is the aforementioned lack of overall ambition. Symptomatic of this is support for multiple screen DPIs. This is becoming quite an acute issue, what with the new army of affordable 4K screens with their super-fine pixel pitches.

To date, Windows' support for high DPI screens has been piss poor. That will supposedly be improved with Windows 10. But from what I've seen, support will remain distinctly rudimentary compared with what Micrsoft was planning with the fully vectorised Avalon graphics engine for Windows Longhorn over a decade ago.

The brave new face of multitasking

Overall, then, I actually think most of us are going to be pretty happy with Windows 10 when it appears. It'll play nicely with mouse and keyboard and games might well run noticeably faster. For the foreseeable future and for the likely shelf life of Windows 10, that's probably plenty.

But it doesn't feel like an OS that will keep Windows relevant in the broader computing environment. Windows as a phone and tablet OS is dead in the water and so far there's nothing to indicate Microsoft can turn that around. If anything, Windows 10 seems to be retreating even further to the two safe havens of business machines and gaming boxes. In the short to medium term, that will probably make for better gaming boxes. For the long term, that's a bit worrisome.

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Jeremy Laird