After many years of waiting, it seems that Microsoft now has a true answer for Chrome OS. A new and almost final version of Windows 10X has been leaked, and it gives a first look at the changes Microsoft has made in the upcoming operating system to make it ready for laptops. Windows 10X first started life as a variant of Windows 10 designed for dual-screen devices. It was to be launched with Microsoft’s Surface Neo, a tablet-like device with two separate nine-inch screens that can be unfolded to a full 13-inch workspace.
Microsoft revealed last year that Windows 10X is now being redesigned for “single-screen”
The latest version that has leaked is an almost final form of what will be sent on Chromebook-like devices later this year. Windows 10X is not an operating system you want to upgrade to, or an update that will appear for existing machines. It only comes with new hardware, and it’s a lightweight version of Windows designed for those who might be tempted to buy a Chromebook instead.
Windows 10X already looked a bit like Chrome OS on dual-screen devices, but it’s even clearer now that it’s designed for laptops with a single screen instead. Microsoft has simplified almost every area of Windows in Windows 10X, to the point where it feels like a portal to the web instead of a portal to Windows apps.
The Start button is now centered on the taskbar, with a Start menu acting as a launcher. It has not found Live Tiles on Windows 10; instead it is a list of apps and recent documents. You can also search for apps, documents or even content online through Microsoft’s Bing search engine.
The comparisons with Chrome OS are immediately obvious here, with a launch and focus on web apps. You can even install Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) from the built-in Chromium Edge browser and pin them to the taskbar.
This taskbar in Windows 10X is also an area of the operating system that has been massively simplified. You may be used to seeing many system tray icons from apps, but these do not exist in Windows 10X. Instead, it’s a simple Action Center that displays time and pops up to reveal quick settings like turning off the computer, activating a VPN, connecting monitors, or managing the volume. This also includes access to alerts and an updated widget to control media playback.
Windowing in Windows 10X has also been simplified compared to Windows 10. You can drag and drop apps to run them side by side, but there is no way to let apps resize freely. As a result, the middle button you are used to seeing at the top right of apps (which switch between full screen and window mode) has been removed in 10X. You can simply minimize apps or close them here. Laptops that come with Windows 10X will also have support on the trackpad for multitasking apps.
Microsoft has also been working on a modern version of File Explorer in Windows 10X. It is primarily designed as a way to access OneDrive cloud files, but you can also manage downloaded files here or files from USB storage. There is no way to access local files in this new File Explorer, as 10X is primarily designed for cloud storage.
It seems that Microsoft does not provide desktop app support in Windows 10X, at least in the first place. Microsoft has built a container technology to run traditional desktop apps in a lightweight virtual machine. This was originally designed to be used to ensure that older apps worked properly with dual-screen devices and did not affect battery life or interfere with the display of multiple-screen apps.
Microsoft is still working on this container technology, and it looks like a developer mode in this latest version of 10X. This may mean that end users will not be able to install standard desktop apps on Windows 10X when shipped. Regardless, it’s clear that Microsoft is focusing on a combination of apps from the Microsoft Store here, as well as web apps.
In some ways, Windows 10X feels like a preview of some of the UI and UX changes we’re likely to see in regular Windows 10 later this year. Microsoft is planning a “comprehensive visual rejuvenation of Windows”, which will include a modernized Start menu, File Explorer and built-in apps that make the overall Windows 10 user interface more consistent.
Microsoft has still not officially confirmed when Windows 10X will be shipped, or which laptop manufacturers will launch devices with this OS variant. Clearly this is a more direct attempt to challenge Chromebooks, after Microsoft’s years of trying to place Windows 10S awkwardly as an alternative. That project failed and became a simple S-mode. In contrast, Windows 10X feels like a much bigger effort to recreate the simplicity of Chrome OS with the added benefit of Microsoft services and apps.