(Yes this is a long post)
It's been a while, but the 4th officially available build, 9926, has now come out. The trial product is now branded 'Windows 10 Pro Technical Preview' - the first time Windows 10 has been officially used within the OS. Internally the NT version number has been knocked up to 10.0 too, it looks like 'Windows 10' will actually be version 10 and not version 6.3 after all. With this version, the licence expiry date is now set to October (the previous builds have all been April), so it looks like as long as you keep up to date with the trial builds, there is no risk of the OS expiring before the final version is released.
Microsoft shed a bit more light on the OS this week, including ending the speculation on whether or not it will be free. It will not be generally free, however there will be a free upgrade available for 1 year after launch to legitimate users of Windows 7, 8 and 8.1. Excluded are Enterprise and any volume licenced version, which will cut out most corporate use except small enterprises using consumer level kit with a non-enterprise version installed and very large ones who have Software Assurance and so already have the right to upgrade to any new version released. Other details about the offer, such as whether the upgrade version will support clean installs or if you'll have to install the original version first, and whether users of 32 bit builds of the existing OS will be able to get a 64 bit build of WIndows 10 have not been released.
Curiously, Microsoft also announced that users who take up the free upgrade will receive free updates 'for the lifetime of the device'. What exactly they mean by this isn't clear, as previously the availability of free WIndows updates are tied to the age of the operating system and it's place in the support lifecycle policy, not the age of the particular device Windows is installed on. I have wondered if free updates will run only up until the end of support date for the original operating system, potentially leaving those upgrading from Windows 7 - which will be 6 years old at the time 10 is released - out in the cold only 4 years after launch. Alternatively, it may have just been a throwaway line which meant nothing.
Moving on to the build, one word sums it up for me: disappointment. I have been very impressed with the first 3 builds, they felt almost feature complete and almost ready to release with just a bit of spit and polish needed. They were snappy and stable and although I've only been using it on a test netbook, I was beginning to consider upgrading my main PC up from Windows 7 too. After this, Windows 7 is going nowhere from my desktop for the time being. This new build is a bit of a mess.
So, what's changed this time:
The beautiful new start menu about which Microsoft hyped so much, and which was perfect as was as well as very snappy and responsive, is gone. Yep, gone. In it's place, the full screen start screen now has a button to toggle between running full screen, and running in a sort of 'start menu mode', which essentially just scales it down to start menu size and puts it in a start menu part of the screen (fortunately this is default behaviour however). It is as sluggish as hell, it has less functionality and the organisation of it is poor (in it's defence, they currently have not implemented any way of adjusting it). I've already found myself hitting Win+R and typing path names/program names in to launch things rather than use the 'start menu'. This change apparently was made to implement 'continuum', a way of changing automatically from desktop to tablet mode on hybrid devices. It's still better than Windows 8 (assuming they manage to make it run more smoothly), but as a purely desktop OS what they've done is a retrograde step from the dedicated (and perfectly implemented) start menu that was in the earlier builds.
Cortana is now in Windows, replacing the previous search functionality. It's added a lot more functionality from the previous search tool, but it is also very sluggish and unresponsive, although hopefully this will be sorted in time. How much the voice commands will be used on a desktop, which haven't come with microphones as standard kit for about the last 15 years, remains to be seen. One thing I found curious, when searching for things and executables are found, Cortana tells you if it's a cross platform modern app or a PC only classic app - except classic apps are called 'Windows Applications', an odd name indeed given that it means Microsoft will now be releasing versions of Windows which can't run Windows Applications!
The traditional calculator accessory is gone, only the huge modern app version is left. Whilst it has been a bit stupid for Windows to have two calculators, I wish they'd kept the traditional one, it's much quicker and takes up less screen real estate, which surely is what anyone using a calculator on a computer would want in a computer calculator program as presumably you'd be using the calculator as secondary to whatever else you're doing? But if you are someone who boots up windows just to use the calculator as a primary task, you'll be happy.
There is an xbox app, which I can't trial because I'm not an xbox user.
The PC Settings app has been completely overhauled, taking on more from Control Panel, I would say it's pretty much a given that Control Panel will be no more by the time of the final release. Curiously, the re-organisation looks strikingly similar to a re-implementation of Category View from the old Control Panel. Controls for things like Wifi and Bluetooth are also a bit smoother now (although they are still using a huge modern app for simple things like entering a Wifi password which in Windows 7 just appears as a small box in the bottom of the screen). Windows Update now has the option to schedule a convenient time to reboot after updates, rather than wanting to do so immediately and then bugging you continually until you do it.
As has become a tradition, yet more new Window animations, also some more new icons and some pretty new wallpapers.
The UI chrome has been modified a bit, until now it's just been the same as Windows 8. Title bar text is once again left-aligned a la Windows 95-Windows 7, rather than centred. The minimise/maximise/close buttons have been changed to quite hideous huge things, these are clearly designed to be better for touch screen use, but look very inelegant on a desktop PC. Modern apps have a 4th control button on the title bar itself to toggle between full screen and windowed modes when previously this was in a menu (this is very useful).
More work has been done on the notification centre, it now has tabs for different types of notifications.
The maps app now has the ability to download maps for use offline. This I can see as being very useful for mobile users - previous users of Symbian based phones may remember that it's map applications had the option to download an entire set of maps for the country for the device to use offline (which were periodically updated and until an update could be supplemented with more recent online data about changes to layouts and road closures etc), rather than pulling them all down in real time as Google Maps and (until now) Microsoft Maps does. This makes the device much more usable as a GPS since it doesn't rely on a working data connection (nor does it need to eat into your expensive and limited mobile data). For desktop users, well Microsoft is essentially now giving you a free version of AutoRoute - just as well since AutoRoute was discontinued at the end of 2014.
Curiously, despite the big launch event this week, Microsoft hasn't included everything demonstrated this week in this build. The most obvious absence is Spartan, Microsoft's new web browser which will be replacing Internet Explorer which was demonstrated this week. Instead, the variant of IE11 with 'a new rendering engine' (presumably Spartan's engine) from the previous build is still there, still with the Sad/Happy/Indifferent face to rate the abilities of the engine compared to standard Trident-powered IE. In terms of the engines, I have to say that I'm finding no appreciable difference between this Spartan-driven IE and the standard IE on my Windows 7 desktop machine.
Until this build, I was struggling to understand quite why it would take until late 2015 to get WIndows 10 out when the early builds didn't look too far off a release candidate version, and despite being pre-beta builds were perfectly viable operating systems for day to day use. After this one, there clearly is a lot of work to do.
Let's hope Microsoft doesn't wait over 2 months this time before bringing another build out.