The next version of Windows is here! Well, kind of.
Earlier this month, Microsoft released a public preview build of its new operating system. The Windows 10 Technical Preview is available to anyone who wants it, and it offers a glimpse at the direction the Windows team is taking. The name of the game, it seems, is a revival of the desktop interface Windows 7 users know and love—and a scaling back of the Modern UI interface that was introduced with Windows 8.
In keeping with that aim, Microsoft has focused squarely on desktop improvements for this first preview build. While the final release of Windows 10 will support touch-enabled laptops and tablets, Microsoft says the touch functionality is "rough and unfinished" in the current build. The company is, instead, encouraging users to kick the tires on the new desktop goodness.
I've been using the Windows 10 Technical Preview on my own desktop PC for the past little while. Along the way, I've been jotting down my thoughts and impressions. I'm pretty pleased with what Microsoft has done, for the most part. There are more than a few rough edges still, but I get the sense the company has made a genuine effort to improve the experience for power users. And that's a big deal.
Over the next few pages, I'm going to take you through the main changes the Windows 10 Technical Preview introduces over Windows 8.1, and I'm going to share my thoughts about each one. Let's begin.
Fire up the Windows 10 Technical Preview, and the first thing you'll notice is probably the updated user interface. The cosmetic changes are subtle, but they're hard to miss:
Windows now have much thinner frames that sit almost flush with the title bar buttons. One would expect this change to make resizing windows more difficult, but I didn't really find that to be the case. The gripping area, where the mouse pointer turns into resizing arrows, is the same thickness as before; it's just an invisible twilight zone around the window instead of a visible frame. Things can get a little weird when resizing from a corner, since you're supposed to grab the empty space just outside the corner, but it makes sense once you get used to it. Mostly.
Drop shadows are also back in full force. The first time Windows, uh, windows started casting shadows was in Vista, and the feature lived on in Windows 7... before being largely eliminated in Windows 8 and 8.1. In Windows 10, the shadows are lighter than they used to be, but they're also considerably larger, especially for foreground windows.
This change actually mirrors one Apple made a few years back. In 2011, OS X Lion similarly increased the drop-shadow size for foreground windows. The change was a little jarring at first, but it did help establish a clearer sense of depth on busy desktops. The practically shadow-less look of Windows 8 and 8.1, by contrast, feels flatter and often messier.
Microsoft has replaced some of the Vista-era icons with flatter, Modern UI-styled versions, as well. You can see some of them above. Another little cosmetic change is that, when opened, windows slide down into place instead of appearing to zoom in from the back of the screen. This is a fraction-of-a-second animation we're talking about here, but it does contribute to Windows 10's new vibe.
Of course, it's still early days, and I fully expect Windows 10 to undergo further UI changes as the mid-2015 release time frame nears. I wouldn't be surprised if, for instance, Microsoft wound up replacing more of the old icons—or if the jumbo drop shadows got dialed back a notch. Microsoft is making a point to solicit feedback from Technical Preview testers, and I'm sure some of those testers are absolutely horrified at the size of those things.
The new Start menu
Beside the UI tweaks, the most obvious addition to Windows 10 is the new Start menu, which replaces the Start screen by default on desktop PCs.
Microsoft first demoed the revived Start menu at its Build conference in April. At the time, the company promised to release it as an update for "all Windows 8.1 users" at "some point in the future." Clearly, there's been a change of plan. An upgrade for Windows 10, it seems, will be required for this feature.
The Windows 10 Technical Preview's Start menu is pretty much exactly what we saw in April: a hierarchical app list with a search function on the left, mirroring the old-school design, plus a pane filled with live tiles on the right. The live-tile area can be resized and rearranged to the user's liking. The menu can be made taller and wider, too, and live tiles can be added or removed, so there's a fair amount of flexibility built in. It's even possible to pin non-Modern UI applications alongside the tiles.
Unfortunately, some of the functions of the old Start menu haven't been replaced. There's no Control Panel shortcut, for instance. Since Windows 10 disables the Charms bar on non-touch-enabled PCs, the only way to open the Control Panel right now seems to be via a text search or by right-clicking the Start button. Not the most convenient.
Overall, though, Windows 10's Start menu looks and feels much better than the Start screen. It's particularly nice when I have to browse the programs list. The Start screen's "All apps" section is pretty awful, since it takes up the entire screen and dumps app shortcuts in a completely flat list alongside help files and uninstallation shortcuts. Windows 10's Start menu uses the same hierarchical list design as Vista and Windows 7, and it's much, much easier to navigate.
Even searching for apps feels like an improvement. I often open programs by hitting the Start key, typing the first few letters of the program's name, and hitting enter. Windows 8.1 lets me do the same thing just as quickly, but it brings up a full-screen search that briefly hides everything else happening on the screen. The Start menu lets me search for and open new apps without taking my eyes off chat windows, YouTube clips, and the like.