“Free at last, free at last…”
That’s right, folks. At their consumer-focused Windows 10 event, Microsoft OS head Terry Myerson announced on Tuesday that current users of Windows 7, 8, and 8.1 would be able to upgrade to Windows 10 for free for a full year after the new OS launches. Once upgraded, users will continue to receive free upgrades and support for the lifetime of their device.
For Microsoft, this kind of announcement is unprecedented. Historically, the Redmond giant has always charged users wishing to upgrade to a new version of Windows.
After the debacle that was Windows 8 (and, let’s face it, 8.1 only gave non-touch screen PC users a small amount of relief), and with the majority of Windows users clinging doggedly to the relatively benign Windows 7, Myerson came forward to say that: “We think of Windows 10 as a service.”
For some, this was a sign that Microsoft would be moving to a paid subscription service for Windows 10, leading to erroneous reports that the new OS would only be free for the first year, and would require subscription payments after that period. However, Microsoft has clarified that it is not the case. The move mirrors Apple’s back in October 2013, when it announced OS X Mavericks would be a free upgrade.
Cortana, too, will be making her way from Windows Phones to Windows 10, nestling herself comfortably near the Start button (thank God Microsoft learned from their massive Windows 8 flub). The return of the Start Menu will be seen as a godsend by many, who weren’t happy about how Windows 8 seemed designed with touch-screen users in mind, rather than traditional mouse-and-keyboard users. The new Start Menu is something of a halfway house between the traditional Start Menu and the Windows 8 Live Tile interface. On the left, it’s your Start Menu, just as you remember it. On the right, a series of customizable Live Tiles allow you to pin certain programs and features. Cortana will assume control of many of the OS’s search functions, either via voice of text just as she does on a Windows Phone. Cortana is, of course, Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri, responding to spoken questions and instructions.
Other features announced include streaming from Xbox One to PC (or, indeed, a Surface tablet running Windows 10) – handy if you have a partner or children who tend to hog the television. The ability to natively record and capture game footage could also be seen as acknowledgement by Microsoft of the growing importance of online broadcasting services like Twitch.
What if someone is already using the Xbox One, whether to watch TV, movies or other media? Well, the plan is for you to still be able to stream and play games on your PC, even if someone is using it for something else (though almost certainly not if they’re already playing a game, given the vast increase in system resources this would require). I say “plan”, because like much of what it announced at the Windows event, it’s still very much up in the air.
“Our intent is somebody could be watching television on the Xbox One, running any Windows application,” Phil Spencer was quoted as saying. “Our goal is that you’d be able to do both. We haven’t perfectly landed that yet, so I didn’t answer that question completely onstage. But I want to be transparent that our goal is to have it so that if my kids are watching TV and I want to go up and play Forza and there’s like this TV contention, I could go do that.”
In short: Microsoft would like it to happen, but still hasn’t worked out yet if it’s possible. Similarly, Spencer wasn’t able to confirm that you’ll be able to stream from PC to Xbox One, beyond saying it’s something that Microsoft is “heavily looking into”.
Some games – including the PC version of Lionhead’s upcoming Fable Legends, will feature cross-platform play (though after experiencing Shadowrun on the 360, which will also had this feature, it remains to be seen how worthwhile this will be). A new Xbox app on PC will allow you to keep track of your achievements and friends, too. [pullquote]Microsoft has said it is currently looking into the possibility of streaming from PC to Xbox One[/pullquote], too, which will be useful if you don’t have space in your living room for a desktop PC nestled against the television.
But as nice as these features are, many were hoping that previous comments from Microsoft indicated we’d see a return to the days when they were a giant in the PC gaming space. The reveals made at the event were instead seen by many that Microsoft is simply attempting to reinforce the importance of Xbox. It’s not surprising – the whole philosophy around Windows 10 is to bring Microsoft’s family of devices closer together in a shared ecosystem. But to take full advantage of that, it still means you’ll need a Windows PC, a Windows Phone, Xbox One and a Surface tablet. Admittedly, Apple takes much the same route these days – and Microsoft’s recent moves have been seen by many as a response to the success of iPad, iPhone and OSX.
Then, of course, there’s Direct X 12. Graphic card manufacturer Nvidia recently said that all GPUs featuring the company’s Maxwell, Kepwell and Fermi architecture will work just fine with DX12, although they did state that you’ll still need a new GPU if you want to advantage of all the features that DX12 is set to bring to the table.
“While we are not yet ready to detail everything related to DirectX12, we can share that we are working closely with all of our hardware partners to help ensure that most modern PC gaming hardware will work well with DirectX12, including; NVIDIA’s Maxwell, Kepler and Fermi-based GPUs, Intel’s 4th generation (and newer) Core processors and AMD’s Graphics Core Next (GCN) based GPUs. We’ll have more to share about DirectX12 at GDC in March,” read a statement from Microsoft.
That’s the PC side of things, then – but what about Xbox One? [pullquote]It’s no secret that the Xbox One OS is based heavily on Windows 8, and Microsoft has confirmed that it will rolling out a new version of the Xbox OS based on Windows 10. [/pullquote] The (potentially) biggest impact will be the confirmed inclusion of DX12, instead of the console’s existing DX10 API. Microsoft has been making a lot of noise in recent months about how DX12 is far more efficient when it comes to managing system resources. That means less demand on CPU, GPU, and RAM. So that could mean developers will be able to take advantage of those improvements to make their games run at higher resolutions and higher framerates, as well as including effects not possible on the machine at the moment. Existing games would almost certainly require a patch to take advantage of these improvements, but it could mean that new Xbox One games show the console gradually narrowing the performance gap between XBO and PS4. That’s a big “maybe”, though.
Other planned changes to Xbox One will include an overhaul of the system’s divisive user interface. Speaking at the event, Xbox boss Phil Spencer said people shouldn’t go away thinking that the Windows 10 mockups seen on stage (in the image below, on the far right) should be taken as an indication of what that might mean for the console. A shame, because it actually looks quite nice and easy to navigate. But they’re almost certainly thinking about an overhaul to the UI, which many gamers still aren’t pleased with, even if they’re not ready to go into specifics. The 360 saw a number of major revisions to its UI over the years – the NXE being perhaps the most drastic – and it seems highly unlikely that XBO interface we know now will still exist in its current form a year or so down the road. But we hope it comes sooner than that, and the system update to Windows 10 seems like the perfect time to roll out a fresh layout, free from the clutter that dominates the current design.
The announcement of a free upgrade to Windows 10 has given a boost to software developers, while possibly hampering hardware manufacturers and sellers. Typically, a new OS is what sells a new machine, but if Windows 10 is going to stick around a bit longer than the usual 3 year wait in-between a new Windows OS, then it could hit sales of pre-built PCs pretty hard. Also, the news that most existing mid-to-top range GPUs are already compatible with DX12 may see the market for graphics cards slowing somewhat. DX11 still isn’t widely-adopted, despite being around 5 years old – so it’s uncertain when games will become available which make full use of the new features in DX12.
You have to wonder why, after so many years, Microsoft still appears to think that there isn’t any inherent value in PC-exclusive gaming, outside of tying it into the console space. They’ve attempted that before for Games for Windows Live, and that completely backfired on them. Sure, they have Xbox to worry about, and seem to be stepping up their commitment to PC ports of Xbox exclusives; but not all genres are suited to gamepad control. Sadly, there was no announcement of a new Age of Empires or Flight Simulator, nor indeed any indication that Microsoft is planning any PC-exclusive titles. There was mention made of “other” PC games being in the works, but again, this was said in relation to cross-platform play. Halo 5, perhaps? We can hope.
Then again, if Windows 10 actually turns out to be good, then it may not matter. [pullquote]History has shown that a popular new version of Windows can drive hardware sales[/pullquote], particularly those of pre-built PCs which typically come with an OEM version of the latest operating system installed by default. Software developers, on the other hand, will now not have to worry as much about spreading their design capabilities across 2-3 different OS versions for those individuals who have yet to convert to the latest and greatest, as the free upgrade is likely to see a swift increase in adoption of Windows 10 and a smaller percentage of people still hanging on to trusty old Windows 7 or – shudder – Windows 8.
So is Windows 10 going to be a good thing for gamers, or another flop? Time will tell. But for now at least, Windows 10 feels like a step in the right direction after the disaster of Windows 8 – even if it isn’t likely to be the revolution that many were hoping for. Many of the new features are nice to have, if not essential, and the potential benefits for Xbox One owners are exciting. But Microsoft’s seeming reluctance to embrace PC gaming again and develop new games in the strategy and sim genre is disappointing. And it’s not the first time that the company has talked up the “revolutionary” advances made to a new OS, or the first time it has claimed to be focused on PC as a gaming platform. On the face of it, it seems that Xbox gamers currently have more to look forward to than dedicated PC gamers.
That could change – and we’ll know more at GDC in March and a further event in April. We’ll just have to wait and see. But still, the Start Menu is coming back!