With just a few days to go until the launch of Windows 10, we now have the near-full picture of what it will look like and how it will work, including some features that should help students.

Windows 10 is launching soon.
Windows 10 is launching soon, bringing with it a number of changes, photo: Wikimedia, Winbeta

If you don’t already know, you can get an upgrade to Windows 10 completely free if you’re running a copy of Windows 7 or 8. If you have noticed a Windows logo icon on the bottom right of your screen lately, it’s the upgrade assistant asking you to ‘reserve’ an upgrade – this lets you pre-download the files needed to install it on launch day.

Visually, Windows 10 looks more like a refined Windows 8 than a reversal back to Windows 7. The square tiled ‘metro’ interface is still here, as is the block colour scheme. But now, if you’re on a desktop or laptop PC, the home screen defaults to the desktop and the start menu makes a full return, allowing you to view programs and files and shut down. You can also create a mini-home screen of tiles in the start menu if you’re used to it from Windows 8. On a tablet PC, it looks more like the standard Windows 8 home screen, hardly surprising as this was originally designed for touch devices. Microsoft has made our lives a bit easier, however, by automatically detecting an attached keyboard and mouse, thus switching between ‘desktop and ‘tablet’ mode automatically. This is especially cool if you have one of their ‘Surface’ devices – detaching the keyboard to use it as a tablet is now a much more seamless affair.

Unfortunately, Microsoft has not quite done enough to shake off the horror of Windows 8. Icons are still mixed between new and old styles, and their freshly designed icons for the folder explorer and internet browser (once codenamed ‘Spartan’ but now rather disappointingly named ‘Edge’) have a cartoon like look to them. Window titles are still a terrible colour mismatch of dark text on dark backgrounds, but window borders have received a reduction in thickness making them much less garish. Users who avoided Windows 8 for visual reasons may also be sceptical of Windows 10.

Disappointing visual modifications aside, there are some welcome improvements to the operating system’s functionality, some of which will definitely help students. Firstly, window management has been greatly improved. Microsoft has introduced multiple desktops, a feature that Apple’s OS X has had for some time, allowing you to separate a bunch of work-related apps from games and social apps. You can also snap applications to a quadrant on the screen rather than the older left or right snapping. After snapping one window, Windows will suggest other applications to fill the remaining space, which is easier than manually clicking and dragging them. This makes it possible to write an essay and have up to three separate sources open all on the same screen.

Secondly, Microsoft has also invested some time to improve gaming performance with the new DirectX 12 software that some of the latest graphics cards are already able to support. PC Gamers should see frame rate improvements from anywhere between 50 to 100% according to Microsoft, nearly doubling performance with compatible games and hardware. With PC gaming becoming more common, DirectX 12 should enable students to have some down time on a budget.

Finally, Windows 10 brings further improvements to security and performance. Just as in Windows 8, the operating system comes with built-in anti-virus software – good to know if you’re ever being stung to pay for unnecessary protection at a PC retailer. It will also start up, shut down, and resume faster than before, working especially well with the increasingly popular use of solid state drives in PCs.

There is one more feature that Microsoft is keen to shout about in Windows 10 – Cortana. Originally the name of an AI character in the Halo series on XBox, she is a ‘virtual assistant’ and can currently be found on many Windows Phone devices. Microsoft has added her right next to the start menu and you can ask her to remind you about tasks, search the internet, perform calculations and generally ask questions. Most of the technology giants have some kind of virtual assistant, such as Apple’s ‘Siri’ or Google’s ‘Now’, but Cortana is the first to be fully incorporated into a desktop operating system. A virtual assistant is either loved or hated. Power users may be unimpressed by Cortana’s voice-powered input and will look to disable her right away while other users may welcome the ability to ask quick questions in a conversational way.

With the free upgrade offer, it’s likely that many people will make the upgrade to Windows 10. Whether they will enjoy using it is another matter, but Microsoft has promised to constantly address feedback and release frequent updates.

Windows 10 will launch on the 29th July.