Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Windows 10 Technical Preview

Windows 10 is the next version of Microsoft's operating system for PC, laptop, tablet, smartphone and all points in between. Here is Windows 10 review, based on time spent with the Windows 10 Technical Preview.

Windows 10 Preview: The Start Menu Returns

The most obvious thing about Windows 10 is that, yes, the Start Menu is back, and it’s just as welcome as you might expect. The Start Screen was a UI design fail of epic proportions and being able to go back to the familiar pop-up menu is so much more efficient. 

Of course, it isn’t just that the Start Menu is back. It has also changed. Now the Live Tiles of the Start Screen are embedded within the Start Menu, providing yet another area for shortcuts (along with the taskbar, normal menu items and desktop) to opening your apps. Those Tiles that are actually Live will also show previews of app information, such as a message notification or the day’s weather. 

It’s quite a nice addition both visually and because there is the potential there to provide a useful snapshot of your other apps. We’re not quite at the stage of finding it useful yet, but we can see the possibilities. 

Windows 10                            Yeah finally Start Menu is backy.. 

Things we’re not so keen on are that by default there is both a search button and a search function in the Start Menu right next to each other; that the Control Panel is removed from the list of apps by default; and that the power options are at the top of the menu, tucked away between the Live Tiles and user profile button. 

But the search is at least quite powerful now, with results from Bing included along with Windows Store matches and local file matches, and this is a preview so there's plenty of time for Microsoft to tweak and complete the design.

Windows 10: Virtual Desktops

If the Start Menu didn't already, it’s the inclusion of virtual desktops that really marks out how directly Microsoft is trying to please the desktop power users with this release of Windows. It isn't as slick as the virtual desktop integration in Mac OS, but it's a really useful addition.

New desktops can be added by either pressing Windows Tab or clicking the new Task View button. These bring up a new live app-switching interface below which is the option to add new desktops. 

Once you’ve added a new desktop you can, from the same interface, move apps between them and rearrange them. Apps that are open in other desktops are underlined in the taskbar where if you click them it’ll switch to that desktop, which can actually be a little annoying if you just want to open another instance of that app and don’t know the keyboard shortcut. 

Virtual desktops are perhaps the second biggest new addition to Windows 10. The implementation could do with a little work though.

It’s a neat enough implementation that will certainly suffice for those power users that simply need virtual desktops. However, it doesn’t reinvent them in a way that makes them immediately useful for the rest of us. 

Again comparing to Apple’s implementation, in Mac OS apps automatically open to a new virtual desktop when made fullscreen, returning to a normal desktop when windowed. You can also swipe between desktops using the multi-finger gestures available on its trackpads. The result is an interface that revolutionises the way you work. Here, though, it’s a lot of clicking to get the same result. 

Microsoft’s app management improvements aren’t limited to virtual desktops, though, as it has also tweaked how Snap works. Previously you could snap apps to fill one half of the screen and that was it. Now, though, you can snap four apps and when you snap an app it will show suggested other apps to fill the left over space. 

Like virtual desktops, Snap is most useful for laptops, where the smaller screens make having multiple windows open at one time less practical. This is still true even with the new four-way snapping as most apps just don’t end up in a usable shape when snapped into the shape they would when taking up a quarter of the screen. 

We wonder whether a customisable snap interface would actually work best – there are still up to four spaces (one for each corner for the snap gesture) but each corner/side will snap apps to a pre-defined shape. Or maybe a quicksnap tool that snaps a set layut of apps to the front of the screen – great for quickly switching between a document you’re working on and a layout of apps that includes your music player, web browser and IM, for instance. Anyway, we digress.

Windows 10
The new Snap interface can snap to four corners and suggests alternative windows to fill the rest of the space.

Windows 10 Preview: Charms

Alhough the existing Charms menu – the one you swipe in from the right – of Windows 8 remains, for keyboard and mouse users there’s a new way to access some its features. 

You can still press the Windows C shortcut to bring up the Charms menu but most apps also now have a Charms buttons in their top left. Tap this and it brings up the standard set of options, with App Commands, Search, Share, Play, Print, Project, Settings and Fullscreen available.

It’s not really a feature set we’ve yet found useful but it’s good to see Microsoft backwards engineering some of the apparently well-liked features introduced with the Windows 8 modern UI and making them easy to use for non-touch users too. 

The existing Charms menu itself is also set to be changed before the final release of Windows 10, but for now it remains the same. 

Windows 10
The command line can now use copy and paste 

Windows 10 Preview: Command Prompt

Another really, really obvious nod towards ingratiating power users is that Microsoft has finally updated the Command Shell, at least a little bit. 

Now users can use the familiar keyboard shortcuts of the rest of the Windows interface, with Copy and Paste and Ctrl/Shift cursor based character selection now available. 

The most obvious benefit of this is that you can copy and paste complicated command instructions from the web straight into the prompt, which you couldn’t do before. Sadly, you still can’t delete a highlighted selection but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Windows 10 Preview: First Impressions for Touchscreen Users

The final release of Windows 10 will no doubt incorporate plenty of tweaks to the existing Windows 8.1 touchscreen experience. However, for now, the Technical Preview is all about desktop additions so there’s very little to say here. 

As mentioned, we expect the Charms bar to be tweaked and there will no doubt be more crossover interface tweaks as we go along. For now, though, it’s meagre pickings. In particular, any of the fall-back interfaces – things like the control panel or device manager – are still the same as they were in Windows 7. 

One thing Microsoft will need to sort out is how users of hybrid touchscreen laptop/tablets will use the software. On detachable tablet type models will it auto detect that you’ve removed the keyboard and mouse and revert back to using the Start Screen rather than Start Menu? 

Will it generally still aim for a hodgepodge of touch and desktop elements or make users strictly choose one or the other? Microsoft really has made a rod for its own back by embracing touchscreen for laptops and desktops and it still has some distance to go before it has joined all the dots.

Windows 10 Preview: First Impressions for mouse and keyboard users

It really can’t be overstated how important the reintroduction of the Start Menu is to the overall feel of using Windows. It’s efficient, it’s intuitive, it’s familiar, it’s what never needed to be changed, and thank god it’s back. 

Likewise, the few little nods here and there towards better integrating the new Windows 8 touch-centric interface features -- plus, of course, virtual desktops -- are a nice addition. 

Overall, though, there’s still a long way to go before the interface is fully rid of the many bizarre touch-centric interface features that interrupt your workflow. Menus that suddenly fill up the whole vertical third of the screen, the main PC Settings menu with its massive buttons and no icons, the sideways scrolling interface of the Windows Store.

Windows 10 is clearly a step in the right direction but, just as with its need to more fully provide touch interfaces for advanced features, Microsoft still has a lot of work to do to get the day-to-day experience for mouse and keyboard users. It has the time to make these changes, but there's plenty of work to be done. 
Windows 10
The app store is a great way to safely access new apps, though we're no fans of the sideways scrolling interface!

Is it time to upgrade from Window 7 or earlier?

Perhaps the most important consideration for existing power desktop users is simply whether they will want to upgrade. Windows 7 still works very well thank you very much, so should you splash the cash? 

Well, of course one thing we don’t yet now is exactly how much Windows 10 will cost so in that regard it’s difficult to say, but otherwise things are definitely moving in the right direction. 

Windows 10, like Windows 8 before it, is noticeably faster than Windows 7, both at booting up and in general use – it really does feel snappy. This is particularly noticeable on mobile platforms – i.e. laptops – but is still nice for regular desktops too. It’s also better with its power management, so you’ll have a better chance of eking out that battery life just a few minutes more. 

The addition of virtual desktops may tip the scales for some users too, as could the command line tweaks. Integration of OneDrive is also a surprisingly useful feature, even for those used to using alternative cloud backup software. 

All that said, there isn’t perhaps that one killer feature that stands out as a reason to pay £100-odd for a full license when it becomes available. Indeed, ironically, the addition of the Start Menu now just highlights how under the hood there is very little that’s a tangible improvement over Windows 7 in particular (Windows XP users really should be looking to upgrade for all sorts of reasons). 

The collection of incremental improvements is perhaps enough, but then Microsoft really does need to make sure it gets the rest of the interface right between now and full release. 

Windows 10
There are still plenty of areas in the interface that completely don't match up such as the control panel and PC settings pages.

Final Thoughts:

Overall, Microsoft has clearly listened to at least the loudest criticisms of Windows 8 and has rightly embraced the core keyboard and mouse user base for Windows 10. The return of the Start Menu is as welcome as you might imagine and the addition of virtual desktops and an improved command line shell all add up to a big step in the right direction. 

However there is still a lot of work to be done before the software will feel like it has hit the right balance. Both the touchscreen and desktop interfaces still crash into each other on a regular basis, causing unnecessary confusion for the user and things like the virtual desktop integration still need a bit of tweaking. 

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