When it’s finally unleashed on an expectant world this autumn, Windows 10 will have two epic jobs – and it cannot fail at either.
The first is to make you forget Windows 8, the OS that alienated even the hardest of Microsoft fundamentalists. That won’t be easy. Windows purists were horrified by the way that W8 surgically transformed the signature Start Menu into a touch interface.
The result was Dorian Gray: a single OS split by two faces – a shiny new tablet experience at awkward odds with an ageing desktop. The second little task for 10 is to be the one operating system that will run on every device. Easy to say, horrendously difficult to do (note that neither Google nor Apple have truly managed it yet). But as big as those challenges are, Microsoft’s going about things the right way. Windows 10 is being made in public.
In contrast to the secrecy and sales bluster of old, Microsoft’s pleading for feedback at every step. Their logic’s simple: reduce the chance of failure by having your users perfect the product. In fact you can help with the cause today. The Technical Preview becomes a Developer Preview in April, and is free to download and install. You’ll find that Microsoft has built automatically-triggered feedback forms into every element of the interface.
But the big question is… should you bother?
INSTALLATION: FUSS FREE, FOR AN ALPHA
Windows 10 Technical Preview is free. You can either download an ISO and create a clean install, or upgrade from Windows 8.1 (visit the Technical Preview site in Explorer, hit Install and the latest W10 build will appear in Windows Update).
Now, we know that past major Windows releases have caused pain – thanks largely to the myriad drivers that Microsoft needs to support – but we found W10 fuss free, either as a clean install or as an upgrade. And a quick check of the major Windows forums suggests that our experience isn’t unusual.
We’ve managed to run it on two laptops; as an upgrade from Windows 8.1 on a Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro 13in, and as a clean install into a virtual machine in Parallels Desktop on a Macbook Pro Retina 13in.
The clean installation and upgrade took 20 minutes or so each, from clicking the Install button to the final log in. And they resulted in working instances of Windows 10 – albeit both were buggy. The Yoga 2 Pro lost its keyboard functionality when flipping the screen to tablet configuration then back to laptop. No amount of re-installing Lenovo drivers fixed this, and the only, rather dramatic solution was to recover to Windows 8.1. (Fortunately, Lenovo’s OneKey makes this the work of minutes).
Now for the Macbook installation. The Windows 10 virtual machine through the Retina’s high resolution display is not a thing of beauty. But then, Windows has always been a step or three behind OS X in its handling of high DPI screens. We’re hoping Microsoft sorts this for good in the final release. But if you keep the Yoga in laptop mode and the virtual machine windowed, you can use Windows 10 to your heart’s content. And everything roughly works as it should. This is frankly a miracle.
This is a Technical Preview with health warnings spray-canned across the download site. So go ahead, but with the full knowledge that you should back up your data first, and be ready to lose a few hours to fixing and fiddling.
GOODBYE BIG FIXES, HELLO CONTINUAL IMPROVEMENTS
Once you have Windows 10 up and running, check for updates in the new Settings app. Microsoft’s releasing fixes and new features for the Technical Preview at a rapid lick by its standards. They may sort any niggles you have with your fresh install or update. And while you’re there, stay in that Updates screen. Hunt around, and you’ll find an option to change the Technical Preview update frequency.
You can switch it to ‘Fast’ if you want newer builds or updates earlier. Just be aware of the accompanying risk that you hit bigger bugs. This may seem no big deal in itself. But Microsoft wants to transform Windows from a big OS that goes slowly into a fast platform that constantly improves. This will bring it into line with the likes of Chrome OS. So expect this multi-lane approach to continue after the final release.
WHO GETS THE DESKTOP, AND WHO GETS TABLET?
You do not need a line-by-line account of the trials of Windows RT. Suffice to say it prevented users from installing third-party software, despite being a full OS. This, as history will now testify, did not go down a storm with users. RT contributed in no small way to the failure of the original Microsoft Surface and subsequent Surface 2 and while it has yet to be consigned to history by Microsoft, the hardware that runs it is being discontinued. Which, let’s face it, would suggest that the end’s nigh.
Windows 10 does not mark a return of RT. But there will be differences in how it works, according to which device you install it on. If your device is over 8 inches, you’ll get the full desktop Windows 10 OS, with the freedom to install any software you want. If it’s under 8 inches, there’s a version of Windows 10 where you’ll get an experience that’s closer to Windows Phone. This will have full-screen apps and no way to install desktop software.
THE RETURN OF THE START MENU
Yes. Yes, it is. It’s back. And this time, it’s… different.