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What Is Windows 10X?

Image: Microsoft mockup
Windows 10X is launching in late 2020. It’s not an upgrade for your Windows 10 PC, but will run on a new category of dual-screen mobile devices including the Microsoft Surface Neo.

In October 2019, Microsoft held a launch event where it announced a new laptop, a new Surface Pro 7 and also – unexpectedly – a Surface Pro X with Microsoft’s own processor inside.

But there were more surprises: the firm unveiled two foldable, dual-screen devices which it wanted to introduce to the public a full year before they’ll be able to buy one. The Surface Duo is basically a folding phone which runs Android (arguably the biggest surprise announcement) but it’s the bigger Surface Neo which runs the new Windows 10X operating system.

Since October, when the event was held, Microsoft has remained tight-lipped about Windows 10X which means not much is known about it. But here’s what we do know, and what’s important.

So What Is Windows 10X Exactly?
It’s a new version of Windows designed specifically for dual-screen devices, though it will run on single-screen ones as well.

Windows 10 supports multiple screens already, but it isn’t really suitable for the sort of small-screened, portable devices we’re talking about here. They are the next-generation PCs, designed to be used alongside your existing one.

Microsoft’s Surface Neo is one of these new devices has two 9in screens, so it’s a bit smaller than a regular iPad. But the Neo isn’t simply two tablets joined with a hinge: it’s way more than that.

You get a magnetic keyboard which can sit on top of one of the screens, leaving a strip that’s about a quarter of the display visible. Microsoft calls this the Wonder Bar, the reason being that it can show a mini version of an app, an emoji panel, as well as reserving an area that you can use as a track pad to control a mouse pointer.

When both screens are visible, you can choose to run a different app on each one (a web browser and Word, say) or make a single app spread across both screens in an intelligent way that isn’t just zooming to fill the space.

Rotate it from landscape to portrait, flip it to tent mode for desk use (where the hinge is at the top and you can see just one screen or attach the keyboard and apps will automatically rearrange themselves to suit, and the interface adjusts itself for touch- or keyboard/pen input.
Windows 10X also has a new Start menu which looks a bit like a search engine home page: a search bar at the top, links to apps below and your recently accessed documents and web pages below that. Here it is stretched across the two screens of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold:

These are all reasons why a different version of Windows is required, and why Windows 10X isn’t going to be an upgrade for Windows 10 users.

In fact, there are already quite a few different versions of Windows 10: it runs on laptops, PCs, tablets (such as the Surface Pro 7), the Xbox One, Internet of Things devices and the Hololens headset.

What you probably aren’t aware of is that each of these distinct versions is based on the same ‘core’, and other ‘components’ are added as required. Although Microsoft hasn’t said it officially, that is called Core OS, and there’s still plenty of confusion over exactly what it is.

Can Windows 10X Run Older Windows Apps?
Yes. At least that’s what Microsoft has said so far. Unlike the Surface Pro X, which uses an ARM-based processor, devices that run Windows 10X will have an Intel processor and use a ‘container’ – whatever that means – to run legacy Windows programs.

And if you’re wondering what’s classed as a legacy program, it’s everything that isn’t either an app in the Microsoft Store or one that runs entirely in a web browser (web apps such as Gmail, for example).

The main problem with older apps is that they’re not necessarily written to be efficient with battery power and mobile, dual-screen devices such as the Neo are very thin, which doesn’t leave much room for a huge battery. So they have to use power-efficient components including the processor and screens, as well as ensure that the apps themselves aren’t draining lots of power because of inefficient coding.

As you might imagine, developers need to optimise their apps so they play nicely in Windows 10X, and that’s one of the main reasons why Microsoft was so keen to show off the Neo 12 months before its launch. These are the different 'patterns' which an app can support in Windows 10X:

On 11 February 2020, developers will get access to a Windows 10X emulator that they can use to see how their apps will behave in the OS, and optimise them without having an actual 10X device in their hands.

The announcement of the development kit also highlights that the new Edge browser – based on the some Chromium platform as Google’s Chrome – will be an integral part of Windows 10X and has been built with dual-screen support in mind.

Which Devices Will Run Windows 10X?
There’s the Surface Neo for one, but Microsoft also announced that Asus, Dell, HP and Lenovo would be producing hardware that will run Windows 10X and launch in ‘fall 2020’.
Image: Lenovo
They won’t all be clones: there will be a variety of sizes and specifications. We’ve already had a good look at Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold, but this was running Windows 10 Pro and therefore lacked the usability that Windows 10X will bring to the device when it’s available in around eight months’ time.

Lenovo has several mockup images (such as the one above) which demonstrate what should be possible with the new OS.

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