A first look at Microsoft’s new Windows 10X operating system for dual screens

Microsoft released its first emulator for Windows 10X today, allowing developers to get a first look at the new operating system variant for dual-screen devices. Microsoft wants to give developers a head start on optimizing apps before devices launch later this year, so this basic emulator provides an early look at Windows 10X before it’s finalized.

My first thoughts? Windows 10X feels like a slightly more modern version of Windows 10 that has been cleaned up for future devices.

Windows 10X is designed exclusively for foldable and dual-screen hardware, and Microsoft has customized it as a result. One of the biggest noticeable changes is the new Windows 10X Start menu. It no longer includes the animated Live Tiles found on Windows 10, Windows 8, and Windows Phone, and it now includes a more simplified look.

The Windows 10X Start Menu includes apps you can pin in place, and a list of recent documents. It looks a lot more like a task launcher than what exists in Windows 10 at the moment. You can search for apps, documents, or even web content, and this also supports basic voice input. Cortana is nowhere to be found, though, not even in the settings section of Windows 10X.

Aside from a new Start menu, Windows 10X feels very similar to Windows 10. There are dark and light modes to choose from visually, but the biggest UX changes in Windows 10X can be found in the way you multitask with apps. Unlike Windows 10, you can’t simply have apps floating anywhere on a screen. Apps open by default on a single screen and you can drag them across the two displays with a mouse or touch to have them fully stretch and span across dual-screen devices.

Microsoft is also making use of gestures for multitasking, and some of them feel similar to what exists in Windows 10 and Windows 8. Except there are tiny minimize and close buttons that feel occasionally tricky to touch in 10X.

Speaking of gestures, you swipe up from the bottom of the display to access the Start menu or list of running apps on the task bar. You can also access an updated Action Center from the task bar that includes quick access to settings like volume, brightness, Bluetooth, rotation lock, and more.

Task View, which allows you to see apps running on Windows 10X, has also been updated and you can use it to summon apps onto a particular display. If you’re used to the old Windows desktop or File Explorer, both of these have disappeared in Windows 10X. If you right-click on the desktop in Windows 10X, you’re simply greeted with the ability to change a background in settings, and no app icons or documents are stored here.

Likewise, the traditional File Explorer has been replaced with a modern File Explorer that will guide Windows 10X users toward libraries of content, and will support external devices for file transfers.

The other new addition inside Windows 10X is the Wonder Bar. It’s designed to sit above or below a hardware keyboard, or appear as part of the software keyboard in the OS. It’s similar to Apple’s Touch Bar and provides rich input options like GIFs or emoji, or even a software trackpad.

In the emulator, it’s still fairly basic right now, and it’s difficult to test without apps that are optimized for it. Microsoft envisions ambient information appearing here from apps, or apps like Netflix taking advantage of picture-in-picture support to simply dock in the Wonder Bar. Even apps like Windows Calculator that have an always-on-top mode could dock here. I think this is the truly interesting part of Windows 10X, but it will rely on developers really plugging into it and making it useful.

Overall, Windows 10X in its current early state feels like a more refined and modern version of Windows 10. It also feels a little bit more locked down and tweaked, but still unmistakably Windows 10. This is only a very early copy of Windows 10X and it’s running in a basic emulator right now, and Microsoft doesn’t plan to ship the OS until later this year.

Microsoft is likely keeping some of its Windows 10X work away from public eyes with this emulator as it does feel rather bare-bones right now. A lot of the big changes are also under the hood, deep within the operating system. These include a separation of apps, the OS, and drivers to allow Windows 10X updates to be installed and completed in less than 90 seconds.

Microsoft is also including container technology to run win32 apps in a lightweight virtual machine. Microsoft’s container is used to ensure that older apps behave correctly on dual-screen devices, including the hit on battery life and the way apps are displayed on screens. This new approach does mean that there will be some app compatibility issues that some developers will need to work through, though.

As developers continue to dig into Windows 10X, we’re seeing new animations and design changes for the OS. That’s bound to continue in the coming days as developers discover more, but we’re also hoping to learn a lot more about Microsoft’s ambitions with Windows 10X at the company’s Build developer conference in May.

Either way, if we discover more secrets inside this Windows 10X emulator, we’ll be sure to share them.


Loknath Das