What Windows 10's new features mean for you

The arrival of Windows 10 is something you need to be aware of, and maybe even get excited about.

Everyone loves an Apple keynote, but a strange thing happened this week: there was a Microsoft presentation that whipped up almost as much online fervour.

It was the big reveal for Windows 10, and while there's plenty about it that you don't need to worry about – things like Cortana, Microsoft's answer to Siri and Google Now, and the ability to stream Xbox One games directly to your desktop, which we're sure some of you will be rather keen on – there are a few things that designers ought to be aware of. Here's what you need to know.

Whatever Microsoft might think, a new version of Windows is rarely a cause for great excitement. While a shiny new version of OS X or iOS is guaranteed to get the faithful hammering the Apple servers the second it goes live, PC owners – especially the ones who've been around the block a few times and know that a new version of Windows is rarely trouble-free – are generally a little more blasé, happy to hang on to their earlier version until the new offering's been patched a few times or, more likely, simply not bother until they buy a new PC.

Free and universal

This may all change with the release of Windows 10, and Microsoft's surprise announcement that this latest version will be – for a year at least – available as a free upgrade to users of Windows 7 and 8. Granted, as a designer you probably use a Mac and you might be wondering why we feel the need to tell you this.

Simple: if you're designing for Windows apps then you'll want them to be updated for Windows 10 on or around day one. We all know how frustrating it is when iOS gets updated and a favourite app doesn't work, leaving you waiting for the developer to issue a patch, right?

The need to update is even more pressing thanks to Windows 10's focus on multi-platform. Microsoft envisages it as a single operating system for your desktop, your laptop or tablet, and your phone, and at its conference this week it revealed a key cornerstone of this vision. Windows Universal apps, a little like universal apps on iOS, are apps that'll work on any platform and look good doing so.

The idea is that they'll look and feel the same whether you're on your desktop PC or your phone, but they'll be optimised to take advantage of whichever platform they're running on at the time. If you're making a universal app you'll need to take this into account and ensure everything's designed to fit various displays.

Ooh, augmented reality!

Perhaps the most exciting thing announced at the Windows 10 conference is its augmented reality feature, Windows Holographic. In conjunction with a special headset called the HoloLens, Window Holographic turns your immediate surroundings into a 3D desktop environment that you can interact with using voice and gesture commands.

It can make apps appear fixed to your walls or floating around you in mid-air, but the most exciting aspect for designers, especially anyone working in 3D, is the possibility of creating and editing 3D models by manipulating them directly.

Microsoft's HoloStudio is a new app that enables you to do just that; in a conference demonstration it was used to build and paint a simple model of a quadcopter, using a selection of ready-made 3D objects. While it's not going to trouble any of the serious 3D packages – it's MS Paint to 3DS Max's Photoshop – we're sure it won't be long until the serious 3D players start incorporating Windows Holographic functionality into their software.

And speaking of Photoshop, that's something we'd love to see running in Windows Holographic, with your work displayed on a 3D canvas that you can place at any angle and work on from any angle as well. It remains to be seen how well working with hand gestures and voice commands compares with a simple keyboard and mouse, or indeed with a graphics tablet; we suspect that at first it'll feel laggy and imprecise, but that's the sort of thing that can only improve in time.

Surface details

The other big hardware announcement from the conference is something that's less for the studio and more for the boardroom. The Surface Hub is the absolute daddy of the Microsoft Surface range, a whopping 84-inch tablet with attitude that's made for office collaboration; gone are the days when you could get away with a flipchart and a box of coloured pens.

Instead you get a 4K display with its own stylus, made for sketching out new ideas, annotating existing ones and talking the whole thing over using Skype. It's built for simplicity and designed to work as soon as it's switched on, but beyond the sketching and note-taking aspect it's a fully-fledged Windows 10 PC that can run universal apps if necessary.

Spartan browsing

Finally, if you're in web design or development then you should be aware of the new browser that will ship with Windows 10. Project Spartan, as its name suggests, is a stripped-back browser featuring a brand new rendering engine that, says Microsoft, is designed to work with the way the web is written today.

If you're worried about maintaining older sites that use legacy Internet Explorer features such as ActiveX controls, then there's some breathing space; Spartan will simply use the IE engine if it comes across legacy sites. You can find more technical details here.

Perhaps the most useful feature of Spartan from a web design point of view is its built-in annotation and commenting feature; not only can you add notes to a web page, but you can then share the web page with your comments included. It's perfect for when you're testing a design in-house; instead of sending around emails and screenshots you can simply mark up the page with your notes and then share that instead.

Want to know more about Windows 10? Head over to TechRadar where they have all the latest news and details. Could Windows 10 tempt you away from your Mac? Let us know in the comments!

Words: Jim McCauley