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Operating Systems

Windows 10 takes a second swing at the future of Microsoft's OS

We go hands-on with Microsoft's vision of the future.

Now playing: Watch this: Let's take a first look at the Windows 10 Technical Preview

We've had a few months to get familiar with the Windows 10 Technical Preview, but Microsoft is gearing up to provide us with quite a bit more info at an event on Wednesday, January 21. We'll be there live, and will update this story once we spend some time with the latest version. Until then, this is our deep dive into the technical preview of Windows 10 that was released in the fall.

Tune in to CNET's live blog of Microsoft's event -- Windows 10: The Next Chapter

The Windows 10 technical preview barely scratches the surface of what Microsoft has promised is coming down the pipe for it's latest OS. It's also buggy, and definitely shouldn't be installed on your primary PC. But this fledgling operating system is at once panacea and prescience, a remedy for Windows 8's identity-crisis that also rethinks and reworks the overly-bold approach to Microsoft's dream of unifying the desktop and mobile experience.

Fresh start

The revamped, customizable Start menu. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

Boot up a PC running the Windows 10 Technical Preview, and you'll be dropped off at the oh-so-familiar desktop. A taskbar with familiar-looking icons sits on the bottom, and the recycle bin sits in the upper-left corner. A build number sitting on the right side of your desktop is the only indication that this isn't Windows 8 all over again.

And then you press the Start button and are greeted by the return of the Start menu. It's a proper Start menu too, with your apps all stacked in that endless column of nested folders we've all been scrolling since Windows 95. And sitting alongside that column are Windows 8's lovely Live Tiles, with news-bites and social updates spinning ad infinitum.

Now playing: Watch this: Take a look at the Windows 10 Start menu

Windows 8 was a bold re-imagining of the operating system, but the Start screen has proven contentious. The colorful Live Tiles offer useful notifications and information, but they were designed with touchscreen devices in mind: much of the work we do in Windows involves a keyboard, a mouse, and large displays chock-full of windows and apps. Windows 8's Modern apps demand a full screen's attention, oblivious of our need to multitask. And many app developers have stuck to apps that rip us back to the desktop, creating a confusing experience for folks who want to make the most of Windows.

The Windows 10 Start Menu sidesteps those problems entirely, giving us the best of both worlds.

Old is new again

Virtual desktops keep work and play separate. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

With Windows 10, the familiar and the new are mashed together in a form that's only a little different, but suddenly more useful than ever before. The new Start menu behaves much like older versions of Windows, with frequently used apps and any folders you've pinned lined up in a neat little column. To the right of that column are the Live Tiles, which function much like they do in Windows 8 in a fraction of the space. You pin apps as new tiles on a whim, and also resize and rearrange tiles to your liking. You can also resize the entire start menu, making it tall and narrow, or short and wide. And if you'd rather not deal with the Live Tiles at all, just right-click them and remove them.

Press those Live Tile shortcuts, and the Modern apps introduced in Windows 8 open as classic windowed apps. This is a welcome change, allowing us to sample the new aesthetic Microsoft is pushing for the next generation of Windows without sacrificing our entire display. You can now drag these Modern apps around, snap them to half of your display, or minimize and maximize them at will.

Now playing: Watch this: Take a look at virtual desktops in Windows 10

Windows 10 lets you work smarter, too. Click the Task view button, and you'll get a quick glimpse of all of your open apps and windows. A black box running along the bottom of the display prompts to create a virtual desktop: that's a sort of private island that keeps everything you open there as an independent workspace. You can, for example, create one desktop for all of the applications you use for work, another to browse gaming forums or sites like Reddit, and yet another for games, or whatever you want.

The virtual desktop feature alone tempts me to install the preview on my primary machine. Of course we've had virtual desktops on Linux and Mac machines for years (and on Windows, from third-party apps), but it's nice to see Microsoft catching up here.

Modern apps no longer take up the whole screen. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

In Windows 10, You can press Ctrl + Windows key to jump between your desktops, triggering a slick little sliding animation that was added in the latest build of the Technical Preview. You can also right-click an app when you're in task view and select a specific desktop to move it to.

It's not completely there yet, however. I'd really like to be able to drag and drop open apps to different desktops instead of right click all of the time. And being able to rearrange the virtual desktops I've created would be a huge boost to my productivity.

A step forward

But Windows 10's real game-changing potential is still purely theoretical: this'll be one operating system to rule them all, serving up a device-specific interface that'll scale from desktops down to smartphones, and everywhere in between, with universal apps that will run everywhere, too. Microsoft has also offered a look at new trackpad gestures that are slated to make their way into the Technical Preview.

Some of these gestures will likely be familiar to folks who've used the trackpad on a Macbook: swipe down with three fingers for example, and you'll minimize all of the open windows on your desktop. Swipe up with three fingers to reopen them. You'll also be able to jump between open applications by swiping three fingers to the left or right, if you'd rather not use the Alt + Tab shortcuts, or are on a device without a keyboard.

These features haven't yet made their way to the technical preview, but you'll eventually be able to pop a 2-in-1 convertible device like the Surface Pro 3 onto its keyboard base, and watch the full-screen Start screen melt away, offering instead the new Start menu and the familiar desktop.

That could be a cure for the confusing mess that is the current Windows 8 PC ecosystem, chock-full of laptops that bend over backward or split from keyboards, or simply graft touchscreens onto familiar designs. We should finally see an end to the jarring, generally unsatisfying experience that urges us to dance between the desktop and that weird, full-screen purgatory where Modern apps live.

And if you want to flirt with the Windows 8 experience you can do that too: just right-click the taskbar and choose the option that disables or enables the Start menu. If Windows 8 had shipped with that option to begin with, we would probably have avoided this issue entirely.


Windows 10 isn't going to fix everything, but a seemingly simple tweak to one of Windows 8's most divisive elements has made a world of difference to the OS. And that's crucial to Windows' future, as Microsoft is still looking at the big picture: PCs are old news.

Desktops and laptops still handle most of our work and play, but tablets and smartphones have long since stolen the limelight: future operating systems will need to work to bridge that gap. We've seen steps in this direction from Apple, with OS X Yosemite's ability to hand off files and things like emails and calls from your phone or tablet. And some Android apps are making their way to Google's Chrome OS, an interesting sign of where Google might be headed.

Microsoft's vision of tomorrow's ideal operating system is grander still. The goal is to offer a unified experience across devices of all shapes and sizes, and one that will morph to make sense: icons to tap and home screens when you're on a phone or tablet, but windowed apps and nested folders when you're armed with a keyboard and mouse.

Windows 8 dreamed of dragging us into that future, but we kicked and screamed at the inefficiency of its one-size-fits-all approach. With Windows 10, Microsoft seems to be getting it right.

Check out CNET's one-stop shop for Windows 10 for more information on running the operating system, and be sure to check back here for more updates!

Editors' note: This article was originally published on September 30, 2014 and is regularly updated with new information.

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