Windows 10: It may just be everything that Windows 8 should have been


A Verdict

Windows 10 is coming along very well – there are still some issues to be tackled, but this is shaping up to be one of Microsoft’s most popular releases yet.

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The revamped, customizable Start menu.Nate Ralph/CNET

Microsoft’s Windows 10 event gave us a deeper look at the next generation of its operating system. At once panacea and prescience, it’s a remedy for Windows 8’s identity-crisis that reworks Microsoft’s bold vision of creating a single, universal experience for all of our devices.

A new build of the Technical Preview arrived just a few days after Microsoft’s event, bringing with it a host of new features, including Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana. A Windows 10 build for Windows Phones is slated to arrive sometime in February. There was also some pretty good news for folks who are currently running Windows 7, Windows 8.1, and Windows Phone 8 — upgrades to Windows 10 will be free for a year. There’s no word on pricing after that (or for folks still running Windows XP), but if Microsoft has its way, we will have all made the switch by then anyway.

A fresh start

Windows 8 was a bold re-imagining of Microsoft’s operating system, but the Start screen proved 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 keyboards, mice, 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. The Windows 10 Start Menu gives us the best of both worlds.

Boot up a PC running the Windows 10, and you’ll be dropped off at the oh-so-familiar desktop. The taskbar and its icons sits on the bottom, and the recycle bin sits in the upper-left corner. It looks, at first blush, like Windows 8 all over again.

But press the Start button, and you’ll be greeted by the return of the Start menu. It’s a proper Start menu too, with your most frequently used apps are stacked in a column. Press the “All Apps” button and you’ll find the endless column of nested folders we’ve all been scrolling since Windows 95, though they’re now grouped alphabetically. Sitting alongside that column are Windows 8’s animated Live Tiles, endlessly serving up news-bites and social network updates.

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The Start Menu can be maximized to take up the entire screen.Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

The menu has evolved since the early builds. The Live Tiles can be arranged into separate groups, and those can be labeled (just like Windows 8). If you’ve got plenty of apps you’ll need to scroll to see them all: as of Build 9926 you can no longer drag and stretch the menu to different sizes. That’s rather disappointing, as I liked the flexibility of dragging my Start menu up to take up more of the screen — here’s hoping that’s a temporary change. You can also press the maximize button to get a full screen version of the Start menu.

What’s old is new again

Click or press the 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.

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 this technical 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.

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

In Windows 10, you can press Ctrl+Windows key to jump between desktops, triggering a slick little sliding animation that was added in an October update to 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-clicking all of the time. And being able to drag and drop to rearrange the virtual desktops I’ve created would be a huge boost to my productivity.

A step forward

We finally got a chance to see more of Windows 10’s real game-changing potential: this will be one operating system to rule them all. It’s all thanks to Contiuum, a feature that serves up a device-specific interface that’ll scale from desktops down to tablets. Consider a two-in-one convertible device like theSurface Pro 3: pop it off its keyboard base, and a little prompt will pop up asking if you’d like to switch to “tablet mode.” Press it, and the apps on your desktop will instantly transform into their full-screen, tablet incarnations — this includes traditional Windows desktop apps, too. You’ll be able to use all of the gestures you’re accustomed to on a Windows tablet, and can switch back to the desktop by popping the device back onto its keyboard, or by pressing the “tablet mode” toggle button in the Windows 10 Action Center.

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The Action Center, and the new Settings MenuScreenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

The Action Center showed up in the October update to the Windows Technical Preview, and it’s become a bit more useful. All of the notifications you receive are routed here, with the most recent events rising to the top. It can get a little cluttered — Dropbox is especially chatty — but you can turn off notifications with ease. There’s also a new Settings app, which attempts to corral all of the various things you can tweak into a single, searchable menu.

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Cortana is now available on Windows 10.Josh P. Miller/CNET

Speaking of search: you may have noticed the little search bar sitting next to the Start button. Click the search bar, or tap the microphone, or just say “Hey, Cortana” (once you’ve turned that feature on), and you’ll be greeted by Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant. She’s able to search for files on your PC, set reminders, and do more mundane things like tracking a flight or keeping an eye on the weather.

Cortana isn’t firing on all cylinders just yet — this is still an early preview — but the virtual assistant is an important part of Microsoft’s plan to bring Windows 10 to all devices, everywhere. As you use Cortana on your phone, and your tablet, and your PC, it’ll learn more about you and tuck relevant facts into a “Notebook.” You can duck into this list of preferences and tweak things to your liking (much like Google Now), while leaving some parameters off limits to preserve your privacy. As Cortana gets to know you, you’ll presumably find it more useful, and use it more often.

That last part is key. Cortana’s ability to parse natural language will only improve as millions of people (Microsoft hopes) start chatting with Cortana on their PCs, thanks to their free Windows 10 upgrade. This will improve the virtual assistant’s functionality, allowing “her” to handle increasingly complicated conversational queries, such as “Who is the President?”, “What is his wife’s name?” and “How old is he?” without tripping up.

Apps that run everywhere

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The Photos app lets you tweak images — or have it done automatically.Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

Apps are going to be an instrumental part of getting Windows 10 working everywhere — including on smartphones and devices like gaming consoles. To that end, Microsoft is trumpeting universal apps that’ll exist on PCs and mobile devices. The new Photos app scans your devices and OneDrive account for photos and arranges them into a giant collection. It’ll work on mobile devices too, though we’ll have to wait to try that for ourselves.

The app will also automatically enhance all of the photos it finds, wrangling red eye and sorting out exposure levels. The process is completely optional, and works on RAW files too — if you don’t like a change, you can undo it without affecting the original file. You can also use the Photos app to make edits of your own — it’s not going to replace something like Adobe Lightroom, but if you’re looking for a simple tool to manage your shots, you’ll do well here.

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The Xbox app will make it easy to keep tabs on your achievements.Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

Microsoft has also added an Xbox app. It doesn’t do all that much, at present: you’re be able to see what your friends are doing and send them messages, check out achievements, and look at game clips people have pre-recorded. Microsoft ultimately aims to bring the full Xbox Live experience to Windows 10 PCs, including allowing you to stream games from your Xbox One console directly to your PC — we’ll have to wait quite some time for htat functionality to be implemented.

We still haven’t seen much of Windows 10 on Windows Phones, but we did get a glimpse of universal apps like Mail, Calendar, and the new Photos app running on both phones and PCs. There will need to be allowances based on particular devices — a desktop without a camera has little need for a Camera app, for example. But this unified, universal experience eases a lot of work for developers trying to spread their app across as many platforms as possible, as well as opening up new opportunities.

Future-proofing

Windows 10 isn’t going to fix everything, but these changes to 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.

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Windows 10 will morph to fit the device it’s running on.Nate Ralph/CNET

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. And then there’s Windows 10 on the Xbox One. We might not want to run Excel on our consoles (OK, I might), but the fact that Microsoft’s console and PCs will be able to share apps puts quite a bit of power in the hands of developers.

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.

Excerpt: cnet.com

How to test-drive Windows 8 for free in VirtualBox


Upgrading to a new operating system can be an intimidating undertaking that massively disrupts your daily workflow. And considering the dramatic interface changes introduced in Windows 8, you may not want to invest in Microsoft’s latest OS without first giving it a thorough shakedown.

Fortunately, there’s an easy, hassle-free way to test-drive Windows 8. Using a program called VirtualBox and the evaluation version of Windows 8 Enterprise, you can try out the new OS for free, without disturbing your current operating system. Read on—we’ll show you how.

Important considerations

For this project, you’ll need to use the evaluation version of Windows 8 Enterprise, which you can download directly from Microsoft at the MSDN Evaluation Center website. There are a few things you should know about the evaluation edition, but you might want to start the download now—at 3.4GB, it will take a while.

Wording on the download page identifies it as “Windows 8 evaluation for developers,” but anyone who has a Microsoft account (such as a free Hotmail or Live account) can download the software and try it out. The download link is at the very bottom of the page. Simply select the 32- or 64-bit version of the operating system, log in, and fill out a brief questionnaire. Just like that, you’re downloading Windows 8!

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The Windows 8 logo.

Of course, Microsoft doesn’t give away Windows for free, and this evaluation version has a couple of major limitations. First, the trial period expires in 90 days—at which point the OS will automatically shut down after every 60 minutes of use.

Second, you can’t upgrade from the evaluation version of Windows 8 Enterprise to a full version of Windows 8. Instead, you have to uninstall it completely and start over with a non-evaluation version of the OS. Every app you’ve installed, and every file you’ve tinkered with, will be obliterated when the trial ends and you install another operating system. So back up your data! The bottom line is that you shouldn’t use the evaluation version of Windows 8 Enterprise as your main operating system, which is why we recommend installing it in a virtual machine.

On the plus side, Windows 8 Enterprise packs some nifty features that you won’t find in the vanilla version of Windows 8, including BitLocker encryption, Hyper-V virtualization, and the intriguing Windows to Go, which allows the OS to boot from removable storage. You also get IT-friendly tools such as BranchCache and AppLocker support. Though some of those tools are come with with Windows 8 Pro, Windows 8 Enterprise users can’t download the Pro version’s $10 Windows Media Center pack (sorry, CableCard lovers). Wikipedia has a handy chart comparing the features available for the different editions of Windows 8, including Windows RT.

While the Windows 8 ISO downloads, you should also download the latest version of VirtualBox for Windows. Run the installer, and choose the default settings for all of the install options. If you already have VirtualBox installed on your system, you can make sure that it’s current by clicking the Help menu at the top of the screen and selecting Check for Updates. Older versions don’t offer native support for Windows 8, and VirtualBox’s latest releases have greatly improved system usability while running Windows 8 on a virtual machine.

Set up your virtual PC

You’ll need to create a new virtual PC for your Windows 8 installation. Start by clicking theMachine menu at the top of VirtualBox and selecting New. Next you’ll walk through a couple of simple configuration menus that will define your virtual PC’s “hardware.”

The first step down the road to a Windows 8-based virtual PC is to select ‘New’ in VirtualBox’s Machine dropdown menu.

The first menu will ask you to give your virtual PC a name, and to choose the operating system you’ll be installing. Choose Windows 8, either ’32-bit’ or ’64-bit’, depending on the ISO that you downloaded earlier.

Next you must specify how much RAM to allocate to the virtual machine. To get good performance in the 64-bit version of Windows 8, Microsoft recommends having at least 2GB dedicated to it; we advise you to allocate at least 4GB, if possible. Bear in mind that VirtualBox will consume that memory while it’s running. If devoting that much memory to the virtual setup would cripple your physical PC, you may not be able to run Windows 8 smoothly—or you might do better to run the 32-bit version of Windows 8, which requires only 1GB of RAM.

VirtualBox presents you with a slider bar for allocating RAM to your virtual machine.

Yes, VirtualBox will let you run a virtual 32-bit operating system even if your physical processor is 64-bit. Whichever version of the OS you use, it will run better with more RAM, though the 32-bit version of Windows can only handle no more than 4GB of memory maximum.

After you’ve allocated the RAM, clickCreate a virtual hard drive now. VirtualBox will ask you how much of your hard disk space it should use to create the virtual PC’s hard drive. For the file type to use, choose VDI. You must also decide whether to allocate your virtual hard drive dynamically or all at once. The latter is better for performance, but it will use up all of the space on your host drive at once. We recommend choosing the dynamic option.

Next, you must allocate enough storage space to install the operating system and have some room left over for applications. You can probably get away with allocating Microsoft’s 20GB minimum, but we’d opt for VirtualBox’s recommended 25GB, just to be safe. If you plan to try out a lot of apps or desktops programs, set aside even more space if you have it available.

One final way of improving your virtual machine’s performance is to give it additional virtual processor cores. You can do this only if your processor supports hardware virtualization, so check the specs on your model to see whether virtualization is listed as a feature. If it is, click first the Settings button, and then the System menu. Click the Processor tab, and drag the Processors slider to the right to increase the number of cores available for Windows 8. As with RAM, don’t allocate all of your CPU cores to the virtual machine unless you want your main desktop OS to chug when Windows 8 is up and running.

Install Windows 8

In the Storage settings, click the empty CD slot under the Controller: IDE entry in the Storage Tree, and then click the CD icon on the far right side of the screen.

Your virtual PC should now be set up. The next step is to put the install disc in the drive, figuratively speaking. Click the Settings button, and navigate to the Storage settings, using the left-side navigation panel. There, click the empty CD slot under the Controller: IDE entry in the Storage Tree, and then click the button marked with a CD icon on the far right side of the screen. A file browser window will pop up; in it, find and select the Windows 8 ISO that you downloaded. Don’t move the ISO once the virtual machine is configured—otherwise, Windows 8 won’t work.

At this point you’re ready to fire up the virtual PC for the first time. Select the virtual machine you just created, and click the green Start arrow. A new window will open, and soon you should see the Windows 8 install screen. If you see an error message instead, and you’ve chosen to allocate virtual CPU cores to the machine, enable your CPU’s virtualization option in the system BIOS; then try booting the virtual machine again.

Windows 8 installs in a jiffy (for a Microsoft operating system).

From here, you’ll work through the simple installer, agreeing to the terms of service, selecting an install location, and choosing whether to do an upgrade or a clean install. Choose the clean install option.

Windows will unpack and install the necessary files, and when it’s done your virtual PC will restart. At that point, Windows 8 proper will start up, and you’ll have to complete a brief configuration process. Select a name and color scheme for your computer, and enter your Microsoft account information. Now you’re ready to use Windows 8 for the low, low price of absolutely free.

…and we have virtual liftoff!

Apart from the two important limitations mentioned at the beginning of this article, the evaluation version of Windows 8 has all the same features as the full version, so you can install software and do anything else that you’d do in the final version of the OS. (Why not give Xbox Music a spin?) We found that the Windows Store frequently timed out in the virtual machine, but that didn’t prevent us from downloading and running apps; clicking ‘Try Again’ after a time out always loaded the desired screen in short order.

If you try Windows 8 and decide that you don’t like it, note that VirtualBox can run a ton of major Linux releases using the same basic setup procedure. Feel free to give the dork side a whirl at your leisure.