With one OS to run them all, Microsoft is shrinking Windows 10

Tackling the problem of ever-larger updates, the company has designed a more efficient way to compress integral Windows files.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
3 min read

Microsoft says Windows 10 will run on screens of all sizes. CNET

Microsoft has promised its next operating system, Windows 10, will run across every device, from desktops with large hard drives all the way down to low-cost smartphones with barely a gigabyte to spare.

It's a lofty goal, but one fraught with the challenges of rolling out one piece of software to devices with vastly different capacities. Microsoft has a vested interest in making sure everyone is on a consistent experience, which the company believes will ensure consumers stick with Windows and encourage developers to support its platform. But to deliver on its promise, Microsoft had to shrink Windows down at its core.

The world's largest software maker is employing a number of technical tricks behind the scenes to make this happen. The company's Windows Storage and Deployment Teams -- the groups responsible for servicing and helping deliver system updates -- have designed a more efficient way to shrink down integral Windows files. That frees up more space for everything else, the company said in a blog post Monday.

The problems Microsoft is addressing plague the entire tech industry. As connection speeds have increased and smartphones with data plans have proliferated, the sheer amount of digital baggage we create is increasing faster than hardware makers' ability to expand a device's storage.

Microsoft's compression is employed on a case-by-case basis, meaning Windows will analyze your device and consider whether shrinking certain files will negatively affect performance. Microsoft has also designed a way for tablets, laptops and desktops to mimic the way a smartphone saves a shrunken mirror image of only the essential items in the event a backup is required, further freeing up storage.

An example of storage space saved when upgrading to Windows 10 on a 64-bit machine. Microsoft

The result is Windows 10 giving back approximately 1.5GB of storage for 32-bit and 2.6GB of storage for 64-bit Windows, according to Microsoft's Windows team. Smartphones will also be able to use the same efficient compression algorithm to free up space with Windows 10.

Microsoft is addressing the issues that many users run into: owning a device chock full of photos, music and other apps with little to no extra room for anything more. When an important update rolls out, like Microsoft's Windows 10 or Apple's iOS 8, some users don't have the space to install it over a wireless connection. Solutions vary, from deleting unused files to plugging in your device to install the software through your computer, but some users simply don't bother.

Even Apple, which historically has had record-high adoption rates of its mobile software across iPhones, saw a slowdown last fall in the number of users who install its updates within a month of release. It's not just storage constraints causing problems either. Bugs and other issues have begun weighing down such updates, making consumers wary to make the jump until a few weeks or even months into the software's life cycle.

Though Microsoft can't make any promises about bugs in its software updates, it is making the process of returning a device to a previous, more functional state smoother in the event of power loss or corruption of a device's system.

Because devices running Windows 10 no longer have to create an extra full copy of the most important files to run the software, Microsoft's tools can instead rebuild your system with more of its likeness intact, instead of wiping the slate clean. Using so-called runtime system files, Windows does away with the 4GB to 12GB of copied files by reconstructing your device in real time.

"Not only does this take up less disk space, it also means you will not have a lengthy list of operating system updates to reinstall after recovering your device," the Windows team said.