What’s new with windows 10 (p.1)

Windows 1.0 could run applications in windows! That’s why it was named ‘Windows’ and yet a COOL NEW FEATURE in Windows 10 was the ability to run Modern UI applications in a window rather than just full screen.

Can you believe the absurdity of this? There is a lot that deserves praise in Windows 10, but the start menu isn’t one. Nor is the ability to run applications in a window. Windows has been running apps in windows for three decades and has had a start menu for two. This isn’t to say that interfaces should not evolve, it’s just that Windows 8 evolved in the wrong direction. The new Windows 8 apps were kind of an odd bargain for developers.

It was a new way for developers to write, package and distribute applications. In essence Microsoft’s proposition was: hey why don’t you use this new technology that lets you develop applications that are less capable, take up the whole screen, run only on the newest version of Windows, and can be sold only though this one store where we take a cut of your earnings.

Oh and this store only sells these new kinds of apps. The new Universal Windows Applications (UWA) that Windows 10 brings are based on the same Windows RT technology that Windows 8 introduced, however with many of its restrictions removed.

On Windows 10 such an app will just blend in, you don’t need to know or care whether an app is a new Windows 10 modern app or a traditional classic Win32 app because they only differ in the technology used to create them. Where Windows 8 apps felt restricted to one version of one OS, and one store and one kind of interface, UWA can run on everything form the Raspberry Pi to the Surface Hub.

Of course all this is great and will encourage new kinds of apps and experiences, but really, what do you get right now when you unwrap your 2500-floppy box set of Windows 10 and install it on your computer device? Let’s get right to that.

Window Management

Fun fact, Windows 1.0 could only tile windows, it did not support overlap- ping windows, but could show multiple windows side-by-side, or one above the other. In other words, it had better window-management support than Windows 8 did for its Modern UI applications. Thankfully Windows 10 makes up for a lot of Windows 8’s blunders by making great improvements to window-management, and finally beginning to live up to its name. In Windows 7 Microsoft introduced a new window management feature, windows snapping.

You could move any window to the left or right edge of the screen and the window would would maximise to that side of the screen. Move a window to the top-edge of the screen, and it would maximise. Move it to the bottom, and, well… nothing would happen other than the window being inaccessible behind the taskbar, so yeah, don’t do that. While Windows 8 didn’t add much to this, Windows 10 adds quite a whole lot.

Better Snapping

First of all, in Windows 10 if you move a window to an edge of the screen near a corner, it will take up that quarter of the screen. So for instance if you move a window to the top-left corner of the screen, it will take up a quarter of the screen space in that corner rather than snapping to the left-half like it would previously. It’s also possible to do this with shortcuts. Just like before, [Start + Left] and [Start + Right] will snap windows to the left or right side of the screen respectively. [Start + up] will maximise an unmaximised or unsnapped window.

What’s new now is that after snapping a window to the left or right, you can then snap them to a corner using [Start + up] or [Start + Down]. So to move a window to the top-left corner like in the above example, you would need to first press [Start + left] and then [Start + up]. For those using multiple monitors, you needed to get comfortable with keyboard shortcuts since it wasn’t possible to snap a window to right edge of the left monitor, or the left edge of the right monitor.

Basically if the mouse could move through the edge and go to another monitor, you could not snap a window there. Windows 10 fixes this by using the speed of mouse movement to decide whether you want to snap a window, or just move it to another monitor. If you move slowly towards the edge, Windows will snap the window to the edge or corner, while if you move the mouse quickly across the screen border, it will just move across.

Smarter Snapping

The window snapping is also a lot smarter now, and doesn’t force windows to take exactly half of the screen. Try this: snap a window to the left side of the screen, and then resize it horizontally so it takes more than its half of the screen.

Now when you try to snap a window next to it, it will take up the remaining empty portion of the screen. In previous Windows versions it would still snap to its half, overlapping the existing window. This works for corner snapping as well, and allows you to better make use of your screen space. This is only made better with the addition of another feature, snap assist.

Snap Assist

Snap assist is a useful new feature that tries to help you rearrange your windows to make best use of your screen space. When you snap a window to the left or right side of the screen, chances are it is so you can snap another window next to it so you can use them both at once. This is when snap assist kicks in, and shows you other application windows that you have opened that can be snapped in this space. This works even if you have one window (or two) snapped to one side of the screen, and another snapped in a corner. If this isn’t enough to organise your windows, you now also have virtual desktops in Windows 10.

Virtual desktops

The idea of virtual desktops has been around for decades. While desktop environments for Linux immediately warmed to the idea, and Mac OS X too added support for virtual desktops, Microsoft has waited till now to include it in Windows. Third party tools to add virtual desktops to Windows have been around since the Windows 95 era, and even Microsoft created an addon called the ‘Virtual Desktop PowerToy’ for Windows XP.

For later versions there is ‘Desktops’ which while great, does have some severe limitations. All this talk about Virtual Desktops, and we haven’t considered the pos- sibility that the concept itself is new to some readers. So here is what Virtual Desktops are in a nutshell: They are a way to organise the applications running on your computer, such that only one related set of applications are visible at any given time. A virtual desktop is a collection of related windows, and you can have multiple such virtual desktops for different tasks.

The task view makes it easy to get an overview
of open windows even if you’re only using a
single desktop.

For instance, you could have a virtual desktop with work stuff, a browser window with your work email open, Excel, maybe your documents folder. Another virtual desktop could have a game of chess that you dabble in occasionally, and a third one could be one where you have your personal email open in the browser, and your photos folder open to upload some of them to Facebook. Now, organising windows like this is not something that is mandated by the OS.

You could keep all your browser windows in one desktop and all your explorer windows in another. Or whatever organisation scheme tickles your fancy, or none at all if that’s what you prefer. When you are using the “work” virtual desktop, then the only visible windows are the ones in that virtual desktop, while the others continue running invisibly. On the task bar you only see windows from the current desktop, and when you use Alt-tab, only windows from the current virtual desktop show up. In Windows 10, this is somewhat configurable though.

You can have all windows regardless of which desktop they are on show up in Alt-tab and on the taskbar if you want. All of this is accessed and managed through a new button on the taskbar that toggles the ‘Task View’. You’ll find that Task View quite similar to the Alt-Tab UI except that it stays open till dismissed. It’s also accessible via [Start+Tab]. Even if you don’t care for virtual desktops, this view lays out all open windows in a grid, so you have a better look at all your running applications. You can switch to a window by clicking it or close it by clicking on the ‘X’ that appears above each window when you hover over it.

This is a great way to quickly dock multiple windows without needing to switch to each individually. In this view you will also see a button called `New desktop` that does what you’d expect. On clicking this button, a new bar with all open desktops will appear below the grid of windows.

From here you can switch between different desktops.  Moving windows between desktops as a matter of dragging a window and dropping it on the grid. By hovering over a desktop, you can switch to that desktop and see its windows in the grid without dismissing the Task View. This way you can quickly organise windows between desktops. You can move a window to the ‘New desktop’ button to move it to a newly created desktop. Virtual desktops in Windows 10 are ephemeral, and so is their num- bering.

There is no fixed set of virtual desktops, you create them dynamically and then discard them when no longer needed. For this purpose you have new shortcuts: Ctrl+Start+D creates a new blank desktop Ctrl+Start+Right moves to the next desktop Ctrl+Start+Left moves to the previous desktop Ctrl+Start+F4 closes the current desktop There are currently no shortcuts to move windows between desktops. When you close a virtual desktop, the windows in it are not closed, they just move to the active desktop to their left.

This also renumbers the desktops. So if you have ‘Desktop 1’, ‘Desktop 2’, and ‘Desktop 3’ open, and then you close ‘Desktop 2’, ‘Desktop 3’ will be renamed to ‘Desktop 2’. Virtual desktops are a powerful feature once you get used to them. Combined with the improved window management features we just discussed they make for a much better experience when handling a large number of open windows.

Continuum

Continuum is where Microsoft has applied a lot of the lessons that it learnt from Windows 8. In Windows 8 there was a hard boundary between tablet mode and desktop mode, and they rarely spoke to each other. Desktop apps didn’t show up when in tablet mode, and tablet apps didn’t show up in desktop mode. They both had different ways to switch between tasks, Alt-Tab for the desktop and Start+Tab for the modern UI apps. Of course they fixed a lot in Windows 8.1 but the experience was still jarring. Windows 10 features a new mode cleverly named ‘Tablet mode’ that is accessible via a button in the notifications sidebar.

Clicking on this button switches you to this ‘Tablet mode’ an experience that is optimised for being operated via touch. When put in tablet mode Windows will automatically make a few changes.

First, the currently active window is put to full screen mode. The taskbar will now stop displaying open window icons, and the system tray will only show important icons and remove the rest – although this can be configured. If you were using multiple desk- tops, that feature is now disabled, and all your windows are in one desktop. The Task View button is still accessible though, since that is a great touch-friendly way to switch between applications.

The start menu, if you click on it in this mode, will now display in full screen rather than as a menu. If you have two windows snapped next to each other they will remain snapped. You will now see a divider between the windows that can be moved to change the ratio in which the screen is divided. Windows can only be maximised, minimised or snapped to a side of the screen in this mode. There is no support for over- lapping windows, or more complex layouts. It’s supposed to be used on a touch screen after all. It does support some gestures for window management.

For instance, you can move a window to the left or right edge of the screen to snap it there, or swipe it down to close it. Best of all, this feature is not restricted to Modern UI apps, or new Windows 10 apps, it works with all Windows apps! If you are using a Windows 10 application, it’s titlebar will disappear in this mode, giving preference to the content area, and it might adapt better to the new situation, but traditional apps will remain completely usable.

Over time developers can add support for this feature and make adjust- ment to their UIs to better function in this mode. For people using convertibles, or devices with detachable keyboard, such as Microsoft Surface, Windows can detect when the keyboard is removed / attached, or when the device itself switches between laptop and tablet modes and it can notify the user to swtich to the more appropriate mode. Note that you can play around with Tablet mode even if you don’t have a tablet, however if you have multiple monitors this mode might will not be accessible, you will need to turn off all but one of your screens to enable this feature.

Behind this smooth switching between different modes is a new technology by Microsoft called Continuum – a name you might have heard before. Continuum adapts the interface of Windows to suit different ways of working. It isn’t just limited to adapting between a tablet UI and a desktop UI as we’ve looked at above. Microsoft has demonstrated Continuum for mobile phones running Windows 10. Connect such a phone to a large monitor using an HDMI cable, and what you will see on the monitor isn’t just a mobile UI displayed on a large screen, but a Windows desktop-like interface. Applications that are Continuum-aware, such as Microsoft’s own apps, can adapt their UI to the desktop form factor.

For instance, you will be able to run applications in windows, and use the task bar etc. The idea of an adaptable interface that changes based on the device you use, is something that is being actively worked on in the open source world as well. The KDE community introduced a netbook-specific UI for their desktop environment many years back and have since then created tablet and mobile editions as well – although the netbook edition is no longer available.

Likewise, Canonical has also been working on, and has even demonstrated, the ability to power an entire Unity desktop experience from a phone. With the performance gap between laptops, tablets and phones steadily decreasing, this simply seems to be an idea whose time has arrived.