In October 2019, Microsoft held a launch event where it announced a new laptop, a new Surface Pro 7 and – unexpectedly – a Surface Pro X with Microsoft’s own processor inside.
But there were even bigger 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 the smaller of the pair: a folding phone which runs Android, and a larger Surface Neo which runs Windows 10X.
Until a developer day in February 2020, Microsoft remained tight-lipped about Windows 10X. But now we know a lot more about it, including how it will support older so-called ‘Win32’ apps.
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.
It isn’t Windows 10, even though it sounds – and looks – just like a new version of that operating system.
It’s confusing because Windows 10 supports dual screens already, but as you’ll see, Windows 10 isn’t really suitable for the sort of small-screened, portable devices we’re talking about here. They are the next-generation of mobile PCs, designed to be used alongside your existing desktop one.
A new user interface
The Surface Neo is one of these new devices. It has two 9in screens, so it’s a bit like two tablets tablets joined with a hinge. Except that it’s way more than that.
Along with a stylus, you can use a magnetic keyboard with the Neo. It 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.
A new Start menu
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:
Five different ‘postures’
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.
Windows 10X devices can be used in five different modes, so apps need to work no matter which one the user has picked:
On 11 February 2020, developers got access to a Windows 10X emulator so they can 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.
All of the above is why a new, different version of Windows is required, and why Windows 10X isn’t going to be an upgrade for Windows 10 users.
You might know that there are already lots of 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.
However, while all of those share some code between them (known as One Core), there is a new, stripped-down operating system on which Windows 10X is built.
Although Microsoft hasn’t said it officially, this is called Windows Core OS, and there’s still plenty unknown about it.
You don’t need antivirus on Windows 10X
The operating system is ‘read-only’ to apps, which means any malware cannot wreak havoc with system files.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s how Windows 10S worked. But no-one liked it because you could only run apps installed from the Microsoft Store. And there weren’t a whole lot to choose between.
Windows 10X does things differently because it will allow you to install ‘trusted’ apps – by using signed code and apps with a good reputation – from any source, including a web browser, a USB stick or something else.
Can Windows 10X run older Windows apps?
Yes. Unlike Windows 10 S – and also the newer Surface Pro X, which uses an ARM-based processor – devices that run Windows 10X will have an Intel processor and use a ‘container’ to run legacy Windows programs.
A container is a bit like a fenced-off area (or sandbox) where apps only have access to the resources that the user has granted and, as mentioned, no write-access to the operating system.
In the case of Win32 apps, which is any app that isn’t from the Microsoft Store or an app that runs entirely in a web browser (web apps such as Gmail, for example), they are run in a “guest” operating system, and are given access to the screens, keyboard and mouse via a high-performance remote-desktop protocol.
In simpler terms, it means that older apps aren’t supported natively and have to be run in a virtual ‘Old Windows’ operating system. And if you’ve ever used the built-in Windows remote desktop tool to control one computer from another, that’s basically how you’ll access Win32 apps on a device running Windows 10X.
Let’s hope that this method doesn’t cause them to run too slowly.
There are a couple of reasons why Win32 apps can’t run natively. First, because Windows Core OS doesn’t support them, and second because they’re not necessarily written to be efficient with battery power. Mobile, dual-screen devices such as the Neo are very thin, which doesn’t leave much room for a huge battery.
This does mean that running a lot of virtualised Win32 apps could drain the battery faster…
Updates will take 90 seconds
Unlike Windows 10, Windows 10X will work more like Android and Chrome OS (the operating system on Chromebooks). This allows it to download and install feature updates in under 90 seconds, Microsoft says.
And that is much more in keeping with what everyone expects from modern mobile devices.
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’.
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.