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

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Linux Mint 14 released: It’s like Windows 8, minus the bad bits


Linux Mint 14 Nadia Cinnamon Desktop

The developers behind the Ubuntu-based Linux Mint distribution have announced the immediate availability of Mint 14 (Nadia). The new release brings a number of incremental under-the-hood improvements and tweaks. It combines the Linux 3.5 kernel, Ubuntu 12.10 base, and the latest versions of the MATE 1.4 and Cinnamon 1.6 desktop environments. The edition of Linux Mint 14 with the Cinnamon desktop is particularly interesting as it has created a hybrid between Ubuntu’s HUD interface and the traditional Gnome UI that is as usable and fluid as ever.

As a result of Mint being based upon the Ubuntu distribution, many of the back-end features present in Ubuntu 12.10 Quantal Quetzal are carried over to the new Mint release. That includes the Linux 3.5.0-17 kernel, which in turn is based on the upstream 3.5.5 kernel. You will not find Unity or Gnome 3 in this Mint distribution, however. Instead, Mint offers MATE 1.4 — the continuation of Gnome 2 — and Cinnamon 1.6 along with Gnome Classic that are all selectable from the log-in screen.

The distro also includes the codecs necessary to play MP3 files and DVDs out of the box. GIMP 2.6, LibreOffice 2.6.2.2, Firefox 17, and VLC 2.0.4 also come pre-installed among other traditional Linux programs like the Banshee music application, Pidgin IM client, and Transmission BitTorrent client. The Software Manager has also been tweaked so that it runs as root, and does not require entering your password every time you choose to install each individual application. Further, according to the Linux Mint developers, it uses its own apt-get daemon that is fully supported by debconf meaning you will no longer have to use Synaptic to get certain packages (like Wine). You can stick with Mint’s own Software Manager.

Cinnamon 1.6 User Interface (notable improvements and tweaks)

The big changes to Mint 14 lie in the front-end GUIs that power the OS, and specifically the latest iteration of Cinnamon. The Cinnamon 1.6 desktop environment has been overhauled with more than 800 changes, according to the changelog. One of the main changes in the 1.6 release is the inclusion of a new GUI file browser called Nemo built specifically for Cinnamon. It is similar in layout to Microsoft’s Explorer (minus the ribbon) with shortcuts on the left panel and folder contents on the right. Out of the box, shortcuts include links to documents, music, downloads, videos, trash, individual (mounted) hard drives, and networked devices. Windows users will likely miss the inclusion of a My Computer equivalent shortcut on the left-hand side, but that can be added by navigating to Computer using the button (to the right of the refresh and home buttons) on the toolbar and then in the top menu bar clicking on Bookmarks > Add Bookmark.

Overall, it works well and has similar functionality to Windows Explorer or Nautilus in Ubuntu, and it our testing it was comparable speed-wise in navigating through heavily populated directories. Curiously, it does not support thumbnail images for JPEG photos by default but handles PNG files without issue (and if you take the file extension off all together it will generate a thumbnail).

Linux Mint 14 Nemo File Browser

Additionally, Mint has added an overlay called the Workspace On-Screen Display (OSD) that allows switching among different workspaces (think of them like virtual desktops). You can add as many workspaces as you want while giving each one a unique name. Best of all, you can drag windows between workspaces, and have your settings persist across reboots. Unfortunately, like Windows 8, Mint uses a hot corner to activate the Workspace OSD, and it is not made obvious to the user that the feature is available. By default, mousing over to the top-left corner of your main display will bring up the OSD where you can manage your different desktops/workspaces. Once you figure out how to access it, however, it works really well.

Unlike Modern UI/Metro, you can use Mint without ever seeing the OSD unless you want to use it, which is nice, but I would have liked to see it at least presented as an available option during installation — and to have been told how to access it. (I had to go to an online forum to figure out how to open it, which does not speak highly for the feature’s intuitiveness.)

Workspace OSD in Linux Mint 14 Nadia

The panel (Windows taskbar equivalent) along the bottom of the screen holds (from left to right) the Menu button, open windows in the current workspace, applets, the clock, and a Window Quick-List button to view all your open application windows (sorted by workspaces). The Menu button brings up a Windows Start menu equivalent that lets you search for applications, access important folders, and change system settings. Favorite shortcuts can be pinned to the left of the menu while the Lock, Logout, and Shutdown buttons occupy the bottom-left corner. If you have used the Start menu in Windows Vista or 7, you will be right at home using the Mint Menu. On the right of the panel are applets, which are small programs similar to Windows Gadgets except that they generally stay docked in the bar and open on mouse hover or click.

One of the updated applets that Mint is promoting is the Music applet, which allows you to control the Banshee music player. It shows album art, track data, and playback controls. The Notifications applet and alt-tab application switcher have also been updated.

Linux Mint Cinnamon Start Menu

With Mint 14 and Cinnamon 1.6 you have a graphical interface that keeps the traditional taskbar with a Start (Mint Menu) Button while introducing new UI features like the Workspace OSD. You get the best of both worlds, and if you are still not pleased, Mint makes it extremely easy to switch to MATE (Gnome 2 successor) or Gnome Classic. You are free to use either UI and customize to your heart’s content, and that freedom of choice is a welcome feature of the Mint distribution.

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