Windows 10 is coming later this year—and it brings some truly surprising changes with it, along with expected tweaks to relieve Windows 8 sufferers and lure more holdouts from prior versions. The OS is currently available as a preview, so it will continue to evolve in the coming months. Here are the highlights, plus links to more detailed coverage.
1. Windows 10 is coming out this year, maybe soon
After releasing a business-oriented major preview last October and a consumer-oriented major preview in late January, the official launch of Windows 10 is planned for sometime this year. A major prerelease version, or possibly even the final version, is expected to drop at the time of the company’s Build conference, April 29 - May 1.
2. You can try Windows 10 now
Microsoft will release Technical Preview (read: beta) builds sporadically, which you can try if you sign up for the free Windows Insider program. Just remember, it’s beta, so don’t expect everything to be fully functional or stable.
3. Windows 10 will be free to most users
You heard right: Nothing. Nada. Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for the first year, for users with Windows 7, Windows 8, or Windows 8.1. (XP users—we know you’re out there—no freebies for you or others running versions prior to Windows 7. Sorry!)
Once you upgrade, Microsoft promises free version upgrades for the life of the device. What we don’t know yet is whether Windows will cost something after that first year—such as a one-time upgrade charge, or a subscription model. You can sign up to be notified via Microsoft’s Windows 10 webpage.
4. Windows 10 will have hologram technology
You heard right again: At the January consumer preview event, Microsoft introduced Microsoft Holographic, a set of technologies that will enable 3D imaging and hologram projection for Windows 10 apps. A video and live demo showed people wearing Microsoft HoloLens projection goggles to interact with remote coworkers, play a 3D version of Minecraft, or explore a 3D projection of Mars. Developers will be able to use HoloStudio software to develop 3D applications.
No one expected Microsoft to unveil 3D capabilities—and it was fun to try HoloLens at the January event. Even if it appears first in niche applications, it certainly gives Windows a halo of innovation it hasn’t had in a while.
5. Windows 10 will include ‘universal’ Office apps
Microsoft is creating ‘universal’ Office apps that will be touch-friendly and run on all devices. Future Windows Phones and Windows tablets will come with Office apps preinstalled. This is all part of Microsoft's bid to take back territory it's lost to the free productivity applications, namely Google Drive. What’s not clear is how these universal apps will relate to Office 365 or the upcoming Office 2016 desktop software.
6. Windows 10 will include Cortana
Cortana, the female-voiced, somewhat sassy digital assistant that debuted in Windows Phone 8.1, will become part of Windows 10. Tied in closely with the Bing search and notifications features of the new OS, you’ll be able to type or talk to get information through your PC. We tried Cortana at the January consumer preview event, and also when it appeared in Build 9926 a few days later. It’s definitely still a work in progress, but it’s nice to see this highlight of Windows Phone arrive in Windows 10.
7. Windows 10 will have two browsers
Windows 10 will have it both ways, browser-wise: It will ship with both Internet Explorer 11 and ‘Spartan,’ the new, uncluttered browser that Microsoft is developing, apparently to replace IE. But perhaps keeping good ol’ Explorer is Microsoft’s way of avoiding wrenching changes that could alienate users (*cough* Windows 8).
8. Windows 10 will be great for gaming
Microsoft is bringing big changes to PC gaming with Windows 10. We’ll see the debut of the DirectX 12 API, which promises faster, “closer-to-the-metal” gaming performance and greater efficiency. Windows 10 will also include a "game DVR" mode to allow recordings of the last 30 seconds of play, all the better for social gaming.
In the most dramatic gaming move, the company said it would enable cross-platform, PC-Xbox play. Microsoft has attempted and failed to unite these platforms before, however, so we'll see how it works this time.
9. Windows 10 will embrace most Windows Phones
One Windows for all! At the January consumer preview, the company announced that Windows Phones would receive Windows 10 and work in concert with other Windows devices. Some confusion has ensued since then about possible exceptions, so we’ll continue to track any developments.
10. Windows RT may be on its last gasp
Microsoft hasn’t shut the door entirely on Windows RT devices like its own Surface 2. But with excitement building for Windows 10, the most Microsoft would promise is that such hardware would get its own version of Windows 10—likely limited in functionality, as Windows RT was compared to Windows 8.
Then news broke that Microsoft would stop manufacturing the Surface 2 entirely. The company is downplaying the significance of this move, but it could indicate that Microsoft's keeping existing RT devices on life support via upgrades, but halting further development.