With the rumors of Windows 10 Home Ultra quashed, there’s still no version of Windows specifically designed for the PC enthusiast. The introduction of Windows Sandbox suggests there finally could be: Windows 10 Pro.
Windows 10 Pro has historically filled a gap between Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Home, but it’s offered features prized far more by IT admins than home users. Among the very few reasons why an individual PC user would want to buy Windows 10 Pro, chief among them is its flexibility in accommodating Windows 10 feature and security updates. But BitLocker? Remote Desktop Connection? Even enthusiasts rarely take advantage of these.
We think Microsoft is leaving money on the table. The company could probably convince enthusiasts to pay the $199 it charges for a standalone copy of Windows 10 Pro, or the $99 upgrade fee from Windows 10 Home, if the OS had more features these pro-level users craved. And the first killer app may have finally appeared: Windows Sandbox, a virtual Windows-within-Windows that’s quietly receiving solid reviews.
As our Windows Sandbox tutorial demonstrates, Sandbox allows you to carve out a chunk of your PC’s OS environment for testing apps and websites, without any concerns about malware. Critically, both Sandbox and the WDAG browser within Windows 10 depend upon virtualization, a technology available only in Windows 10 Pro, not Home.
If Sandbox makes enthusiasts think seriously about Windows 10 Pro, what if Microsoft began contributing other virtualization-dependent technologies it already has? Here’s what we’d add: App-V app streaming, UE-V’s replication of your PC preferences onto a new machine, VPN-like services, and more.
We’ll explain what these additional features are and how they could be applied to Windows 10 Pro. These may be hypothetical additions, but they’re also opportunities to beef up Windows 10 Pro—as well as Microsoft’s bottom line.
Windows Sandbox: Almost worth the upgrade alone
Windows Sandbox offers the most compelling argument for enthusiasts to buy Windows 10 Pro. As we show in our Windows Sandbox tutorial, this feature creates a quick-and-dirty Windows desktop that lives within an app window on your screen. Inside it is a separate, pristine copy of Windows, completely isolated from the rest of your PC, in which you can do whatever you’d like: examine potential malware, visit a risky website, and so on.
If you end up on some site that begins blasting browser notifications, or floods your screen with pop-up ads, don’t worry: Close the application, and everything vanishes. That makes it extremely easy to avoid simple hacking attempts and low-level scammers, as I’ve seen some readers do in comments attached to our YouTube videos.
Both Sandbox and its predecessor, the Windows Device Application Guard (WDAG), are built upon virtualization. In WDAG’s case, a version of Edge is sandboxed away from the main operating system. With Sandbox, an entire OS is protected within a virtual environment.
Virtualization opens a door for enthusiasts
Why stop at Sandbox? Windows 10 Pro could attract even more enthusiasts if Microsoft let it absorb other virtualization-based features already launched in the Education and Enterprise editions. We’ll go through some of the best and most intriguing candidates, starting with something called User Experience Virtualization, or UE-V.
UE-V could become “Windows Quick Start”
Windows 10 Enterprise includes what’s known as User Experience Virtualization, or UE-V. Essentially, UE-V takes all of a user’s preferences and migrates them from one PC to another, so that you can set up a new device almost exactly the way in which your others are configured.
You may have noticed that both the Windows 10 Pro and Home editions of Windows do some of this already, as any Themes you may have run on your last PC seem to sync up, and more and more Edge data (favorites, passwords, and the like) reside in the cloud. Windows users also have the option to ”pick up where you left off” from another PC via Timeline, or copy data from one PC to another using the cloud version of Clipboard. None of these examples use virtualization to achieve its goals. What it does show, however, is that Microsoft is moving to a unified experience across all of your PCs, and UE-V could be an improved version of that.
Nobody really likes the “Hi, I’m Cortana!” OOBE setup process within Windows. A one-step configuration process—using your Microsoft account to automatically configure a new PC with all of your preferences, while downloading your preferred apps in the background—seems like a future that we’re moving to. Of course, it would need some catchy branding: may we suggest Windows Quick Start?
Device Guard could become “Secure USB”
Today, Windows 10 Enterprise technologies like Device Guard and Credential Guard help protect the operating system from untrusted code by loading the Hyper-V hypervisor, though the focus is more on securing the boot sequence and running trusted apps than anything else.
If Sandbox presents a secure virtual space for downloading and testing files, it makes a great deal of sense that such protections could also be applied when a user inserts an unknown and untrusted USB stick or external hard drive into their PC. If you find a USB stick lying on the ground in the parking lot, you probably know never to insert it or any other untrusted storage device into your PC, because of the chance that it could automatically install and run malware.
With a Sandbox-like virtual environment for Windows 10’s File Explorer, however, you could breathe a bit easier. At the very least, you could check that your coworker hadn’t lost their stick with their favorite photos stored inside without potentially being hacked in the process. And because Sandbox allows files to be cut, copied, and pasted in and out of the virtual environment, you’d be able to interact with the files stored on the key, just like normal.
App-V could become “Windows Streamed Apps”
One of the ways in which virtualization protects your machine is though isolating code. Theoretically, no Trojan or other malware can break out of the virtualized sandbox of WDAG or Sandbox and infect your machine. But what happens if that code didn’t actually run on your PC in any capacity whatsoever? Application virtualization (App-V), a technology found within the Enterprise editions of Windows 10, might be the next step.
Instead of storing the application on your PC, App-V streams the app from the cloud, taking advantage of Azure’s inherent performance and security advantages. Just like Adobe Photoshop can be streamed to Chromebooks, streaming apps opens the door for more powerful software to be run on devices that aren’t graphics workstations. As consumers, we’ve figured out that a file doesn’t need to be stored locally on our PC—that’s the way the new OneDrive placeholder files work, for example.
If we use Microsoft’s App-V hardware requirements as a model, implementing streamed apps within Windows 10 might be a case where Microsoft technically wouldn’t need a Windows 10 Pro machine. It’s certainly possible that Microsoft might consider this to be a value-added feature, suitable for Windows 10 Pro. Otherwise, since Microsoft has made it a very public goal to push Windows to a billion devices, App-V could be an incentive for digital artists to consider a cheaper, secondary device like an ultrabook that could run apps from the cloud.
Other directions for Windows 10 Pro: VPN, gaming
Virtualization technologies might not be the only way that Microsoft could improve Windows 10 Pro. Another handy Windows 10 Enterprise technology is DirectAccess, which creates a VPN-that’s-not-a-VPN to allow secure access to internally stored data. Windows 10 Pro already allows remote users to connect to another PC via Remote Desktop Connection, but it’s possible that Microsoft could once again tap its Azure cloud, and its worldwide presence, to offer VPN services.
Microsoft could improve further in gaming, too. Though Microsoft’s Game Bar has evolved into becoming a sort of a Windows utility for game streaming and system monitoring, some gamers would probably prefer that Game Bar be turned off entirely, while others might prefer a more robust offering—the direction Microsoft seems to be going. It’s also not too far-fetched to begin thinking of the DirectX 13 API, too.
Then there’s whatever Microsoft chooses to do with its upcoming Project xCloud game streaming technology. PC gamers undoubtedly would like Microsoft to push more heavily toward improving the PC as a gaming platform, whether that entails an improved game store or simply more cross-platform play between the Xbox and other game consoles.
The advent of Project xCloud brings us to the question of whether Microsoft would somehow leverage its virtualization technologies for game streaming.
Microsoft seems like it could go in either of two directions: stream games directly to PCs and phones, or else virtualize the Xbox operating system within Windows. The first approach would theoretically allow xCloud to be accessed by both Windows 10 Home and Pro machines, while the latter approach would restrict xCloud to Pro PCs. It seems far more likely that Microsoft would somehow bring the virtualized xCloud technology to Windows 10 Home, rather than cut off Home users from gaming.
Microsoft isn’t commenting, so we have to leave that as an open question. It’s nevertheless clear that Sandbox is opening up new possibilities for Windows 10 Pro that could help with security, applications, game streaming and more. Combine that with the potential for upselling Windows 10 Home users to the pricier Windows 10 Pro, and it seems like the stars have aligned for Microsoft to begin evolving Windows 10 Pro as an OS for PC enthusiasts.