First Look: Windows 10 (Technical Preview)

Update: Windows has now launched a new build (9926) of Windows 10. To find out more, head over to the Windows 10 review: Technical Preview (January 2015).

I’ve never really got on with Windows 8. It’s not that I don’t like change: on the contrary, I love playing with new gadgets and trying out new features. Unfortunately, the changes in Windows 8 made my desktop computing experience worse overall, not better. Frankly I’m not sure the OS worked particularly well on tablets either.

So when the Windows 10 Technical Preview appeared on Wednesday, I was eager indeed to take it for a spin – and the experience has been a very pleasant surprise.

I wouldn’t say the changes have exactly transformed the way I work. Yes, I was one of those clamouring for the return of the Start menu, but now it’s here I’ve already stopped noticing it. That’s a good thing, of course: never mind the old full-screen nonsense, the apparatus of a good operating system should be invisible.

It’s a similar story with the new Alt-Tab behaviour, which now shows bigger, clearer previews of your open windows, breaking them into multiple rows if need be. The first time I tried it, I thought ooh, this is nicer than the Windows 8 way of doing things. Since then I haven’t consciously registered it at all, and I’m very happy about that.

One other tasteful refinement that hasn’t received much attention is a subtly upgraded aesthetic. In Windows 10, the borders around desktop windows have been shrunk down to the thickness of a single pixel, while the shadow around them has grown larger and softer, creating a cleaner look that more effectively shows what’s on top of what. It may be my imagination, but windows seem to move around more smoothly when dragged too. Admittedly the overall effect is somewhat redolent of OS X, but I prefer that to the tediously flat look of Windows 8.

Not all of the new features have clicked for me just yet. When I heard that Windows 10 would introduce multiple desktops, I applauded the idea, but Alt-Tab and the new Snap Assist feature work so well I’ve yet to feel the need to actually open a second workspace. This might be something I have to force myself to play with before I get it – or, perhaps it will be one of those features that I only use once in a blue moon, but which I’m very glad of having when that time rolls around.

Windows 10 Technical Preview

Windows 10 Technical preview: apps and attitudes

What really excites me about Windows 10 isn’t the features, however. It’s more a question of attitude. Windows 8 was clearly the product of a company with its fingers in its ears, refusing to listen to criticism or acknowledge the realities of its user base. The interface wasn’t merely flawed, it was an insult to users like me — a declaration that our views and needs didn’t matter.

Windows 10, to my profound relief, turns that around entirely. Obviously the big climbdown is the return of the Start menu (although the Start screen is still there for those who want it); but there are other indications too that the company is ready to make amends. Those friendly little requesters that pop up and ask for feedback about various features were conspicuously missing from the consumer preview of Windows 8.

And then there’s subtle stuff, such as the way images, music and so forth once again open in desktop applications by default, rather than whisking you away into a full-screen tablet app, as was the case in the previous release. I was among those laughing when Joe Belfiore took time at the launch event to single out a seemingly mundane improvement to the command prompt, but the symbolism was significant and encouraging. It’s probably too neat to ascribe this change of focus to the change of personalities at the company’s helm, but whatever the reason it feels as if Windows is back on track.

Windows 10 Technical Preview

In fact, Windows 10 is doing more than re-establishing goodwill. To my surprise it actually has me starting to buy into Microsoft’s vision of Store apps and desktop applications coexisting. In Windows 8, I found full-screen tablet apps so disruptive and inconvenient that I did everything I could to avoid launching them. Now that those apps open in convenient floating windows on the desktop, that instinctive aversion is gone. And with the Live Tiles now moved into the Start menu, I’m starting to find them positively useful. I even find myself, for the first time, toying with the idea of opening up the Store to download some new apps to populate that little area – or even writing some myself.

Microsoft has played this particular ball impeccably by also announcing that businesses will be able to curate their own Store for rolling out internal applications. This idea I like very much: tight, sandboxed and rapid, the Modern framework is a great fit for in-house development – and the code you produce will run on everything from smartphones to servers, from now until Heaven knows when. Remember how long businesses clung to XP for (ostensible) reasons of application support? Problem solved.

Windows 10 Technical preview: Plus ça change

We’ve been told that Windows 10 won’t be commercially available until the middle of next year, but – if past previews are any guide – when it does arrive it will probably look and feel very similar to what we have before us right now. Microsoft isn’t in the habit of dropping major new features into the mix after testing has begun.

In a way, this is slightly unfulfilling, in as much as it doesn’t leave us with much to look forward to. But I can’t honestly say I’d have preferred Microsoft to sit on Windows 10 for any longer: I’m happily using it now as my everyday OS, and I’m struck by how stable and complete it seems. And of course getting it out there is a good PR move too: Windows 8 is suddenly yesterday’s news, and people have a reason to start talking positively about Windows again.

In fact, over the coming years, as the Windows Store and the Modern framework start to properly realise their potential, I suspect we may even be able to find something positive to say about Windows 8. Sure, we’ll agree, it was badly handled – but looking back, the company was, in the end, right to push hard in that direction at the time it did.

Is that too fanciful? Perhaps a full rehabilitation is too much to hope for, but if the next edition of Windows can get us to feel even a bit more warmly towards the current release then that might just make it Microsoft’s most impressive OS ever.

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