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Windows 10: Microsoft’s one OS to rule them all

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Microsoft today gave its most in-depth look yet at Windows 10, the company’s latest version of its all-conquering desktop operating system. Except, this time around, Windows isn’t restricting itself to the 1.5 billion computers, laptops and tablets that run the OS. Instead, Microsoft has taken a page from The Lord of the Rings, as Windows 10 will be one, unifying OS to bind all of the company’s products together.

Running on PCs, laptops, convertibles, tablets, the Xbox One, smartphones and more, Windows 10 is Microsoft’s attempt to simplify the company’s most important product. With one operating system, one store for apps and games, and one basic core to update and work with, Microsoft can become a leaner, more efficient company — well, as efficient as a multi-national, billion-dollar, utterly vast corporation can be. “Windows 10 will support the broadest device family ever,” Microsoft’s Executive Vice President of Operating Systems Terry Myerson told the small gathering of journalists at their Redmond headquarters.

What, then, can we expect from Windows 10? Quite a lot, actually. Microsoft has big aims for this version of Windows, after 8’s relatively lukewarm response from consumers and enterprise customers. “Windows has always been grounded in the idea that technology should help individuals and organizations do great things,” Myerson stated. “You are our customer, not our product.” As such, they’ve taken great steps to ensure that feedback from the Insider program, consisting of 1.7 million users, helps shape the new OS.

The biggest news for current Windows users? Microsoft is taking a page from Apple, and making Windows 10 a free upgrade. Yes, free (with some caveats). Those running Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 will have one year to upgrade to Windows 10 at no charge. Why the change of heart? Microsoft now thinks of Windows as a service, not a product, and want to get it to as many users and developers as possible. So, don’t worry about breaking out that old university email to knock 50 percent off the price of your upgrade — Microsoft is supplying it gratis. Windows Phone users, too, who are running version 8.1 of the OS, will received a free upgrade to Windows 10 when that version of the OS launches for smartphones (though past updates have always been free for Windows Phone devices).

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With Windows 10, Microsoft’s schizophrenic split OS, with a traditional desktop and modern start menu, has been abandoned in favour of Continuum. With this, the OS will automatically adapt to the device it’s running on. Have a desktop? You’ll see the normal Windows desktop. Have a Surface device? Get your work done on the desktop, but when you disconnect the keyboard, the OS will switch to a finger-friendly version. For Start Menu fans, rejoice: it’s back. Here’s where you’ll find Live Tiles, which have moved from their own screen to the desktop. Open modern apps in the desktop as individual windows, or ignore them altogether, the choice is yours. The taskbar has been streamlined to be more efficient at a glance, while the Action Center in the lower-right now shows notifications, including alarms, calender updates, Skype calls and app notifications from the Store. Settings and control panel options can also be found here, too, rather than split into disparate elements in Windows 8. To quote Joe Belfiore, Microsoft’s Corporate VP of Operating Systems, “[Windows 10] works as a tablet when you’re out and about, and it works like a PC when you dock it.” It’s more self aware and, Microsoft hopes, more useful as a result.

This is all fairly old news, of course. Microsoft announced a lot of this at its September event. What about new reveals? Well, after much rumor and speculation, Cortana — Microsoft’s voice assistant — is making the leap from Windows Phone to Windows 10. As well as new languages, responses and voices (Cortana has perhaps the most natural voice of any assistant, thanks to actress Jen Taylor and Microsoft’s impressive scripting), Cortana will use her cloud-based knowledge to bring all of her talents to PCs and tablets. Need to check on a flight, or the weather, or ask about any upcoming appointments? She’s waiting in the lower-left of the desktop. She’s now more self- and contextually-aware than before. Need to pull up a specific powerpoint? Cortana can do that. If you need to adjust a setting, she’ll do that, too.  Ask her to send an email while you’re working in a spreadsheet, get her to play music via the Xbox Music app, or tell her to shut up if she’s left media on and you need to work. Cortana will take it all in and respond as needed. She’ll also handle queries, thanks to her Bing integration, removing the need to open a browser and type your search. Enabling greater laziness is the pinnacle of modern software development.

Microsoft also touched on how Windows 10 will operate on devices 8-inches and smaller, tablets and Windows Phones. Joe Belfiore used a Lumia 1520 (a device from 2013, which proves that the OS will work on older devices — though it’s also a sign that Microsoft has failed to introduce any standout flagships in 2014) to demonstrate a number of improvements. The whole OS has been refreshed, with an updated homescreen — fullscreen wallpapers are now a thing! — including new Live Tiles and a revised app list. The Action Center now syncs with Windows 10 on PCs, and allows for the dismissal of single items as well as the expansion of notifications. There are deeper changes, too. If you have a larger phone, you can now move the keyboard to a position of your choosing. Cortana will now allow for more accurate voice dictation — with more advanced punctuation options. The core messaging app will now integrate other services, such as Skype, and Microsoft will open it up to third-party systems to allow users to send messages from a variety of services all from one place (for anyone who uses multiple chat services, this is a welcome inclusion). Oh, and Cortana will now access services similar to Google Now, such as remembering where you’ve parked your car, which is handy.

Microsoft’s big reason for integrating every device onto one OS with Windows 10 is universal apps. They’re exactly as they sound, apps that will run on every device using Windows 10, regardless of screen size. Office, for instance — one of Microsoft’s biggest products — will now scale across every device with full-touch capabilities. Microsoft demoed it on Windows Phone, with a UI similar to that on its iPad and Android apps, calling it a “nearly no-compromises experience,” with seamless productivity and hardware-accelerated animations. That same app is identical to what will be available on an 8-inch tablet or a 30-inch touchscreen PC, should you wish to use your fingers at that size. Microsoft also demoed a new Outlook app, which again scaled from phone to PC without trouble. Belfiore demoed touch actions, such as swiping individual emails to dismiss or flag them, with the same actions available on PC and phone. Microsoft is clearly aiming to make the transition between various Windows-powered devices as seamless as possible. Learn to navigate an app on a PC, and you can expect the same experience if you pick up a Surface or Windows Phone.

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Microsoft is taking cues from Google’s online storage solution Drive. With its new Photos app, Collection view will remove duplicates and alike photos to streamline your browsing, while there’s an auto-enhance option to beautify those selfies and holiday snaps — something Google uses in its Google+ Photos app. It’ll generate albums, too, based on time or location, and it’ll auto-pick a cover photo. OneDrive will also be updated to support music uploads and streaming, something Apple and Google have both taken tentative steps into with iTunes and Google Play Music.

Internet Explorer is the butt of countless jokes, though with every iteration Microsoft has worked hard to move away from the browser’s horrible reputation. Internet Explorer 11 is a very usable beast, but the Redmond team clearly thought a fresh start was needed to stop the bleed of users to Google’s Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox. As Belfiore said, “We think it’s time to build a new browser for the modern web.” Introducing, then, Spartan, a brand new browser from Microsoft. It has a minimalist look, a new rendering engine and dozens of new features. You can now mark items with a pen directly in the browser, or add comments to specific items. If you share these edits to web pages, the links will be saved so anyone you share with can continue to browse beyond where you’ve noted. Spartan will also make it easier to read content, with the ability to save pages and stories for later reading, even while offline — this also necessitated a built-in PDF reader, so users aren’t forced out of the browser should they wish to read through a proposal or document.

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Cortana joins Spartan, too (Halo fans will enjoy this unity), enabling smart searching and browsing. Start typing “weather” in the URL bar, and she’ll pop up with the current forecast for your location. Search for sports scores, and she’ll have those before you finish typing. If Cortana knows that you’re tracking a flight — Delta, say — she’ll bring up the data as soon as you type “Delta.” Looking at a restaurant? She’ll snap in to the side of the browser with Yelp reviews, directions, opening times and photos.

Finally, Microsoft also debuted Xbox integration, which is now a core part of Windows 10 —  a smart idea, given the Xbox One also runs on a Windows core. The Xbox app will display your activity feed for games across PC, phone and consoles, as well as anything shared by your Xbox Live friends. Achievements are now present for games supporting them, and the DVR-like recording feature from the Xbox One is now enabled in every game you play — even those that launched before Windows 10 will record. Sharing is as easy as a keyboard shortcut and tapping a button. You’re not limited to games from Microsoft’s own stores, either. If you have a vast library of Steam games, they’ll show up in your feed, too. Microsoft is also enabling game-streaming in Windows 10: load up Halo on your Xbox One, and you can play it through your Windows 10 PC or tablet, as long as you have a controller connected. Oh, and for Fable fans, the upcoming title Fable Legends will offer cross-platform support — PC gamers and and Xbox players can join sessions and play together, which is nice.

That’s a lot, but this isn’t everything Microsoft has waiting for the final release of Windows 10. As well as the new Surface Hub (read more here) for smarter meetings and a mightily impressive foray into virtual reality with Holographic (available here), Microsoft will release Insider builds of Windows 10 next week for those eager to test the new OS ahead of release (Windows Phone users will get a peek of Windows 10 in February). Microsoft heavily teased its Build conference in April, suggesting that there’s possibly even more left to reveal in Windows 10, which launches later this year. If you’re already a Windows user, and were left a little disenfranchised with 8, this could be the update you’ve been waiting for.

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Rhuaridh Marr is Metro Weekly's managing editor. He can be reached at rmarr@metroweekly.com.

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