Introduction and performance boosts
Windows 10 PCs are going to run the usual gamut from the familiar – tablets, notebooks, 2-in-1s, desktop PCs and mini PCs you can mount behind a screen – to the unusual, like HoloLens and Internet of Things devices.
We got an advance glimpse of the hardware that's going to be built thanks to the agenda for WinHEC, the Windows Hardware Engineering Community. And it looks like lots of the new technologies we saw previewed at CES this year will make it into devices.
Some of the most interesting new features supported pertain to connectivity – plugging in devices, docking a tablet when you need more ports and a bigger screen, or sending content to a big screen.
Microsoft is promising "Miracast improvements in Windows 10" as part of the move to WDDM 2.0. You've needed WDDM 1.3 graphics drivers for Miracast in Windows 8.1, along with a Wi-Fi card that can set up the Wi-Fi Direct network between your PC and the screen you're sending to, plus a GPU that has Hybrid Graphics – both a low-power integrated graphics processor and a dedicated GPU that can drive the second screen.
Miracast is useful when you want to project your whole PC screen to another display without plugging in a cable, whether that's to watch a movie, or give a presentation or product demonstration, but it's been tricky to set up. The improvements may simplify that – we've been able to get Miracast adapters like the Roku 3 working on devices running the Windows 10 preview when we couldn't stream with the same hardware and Windows 8.1.
But Microsoft will also be talking about what sounds like a more generic version of Wi-Fi video streaming for Windows 10 – what it calls "Wi-Fi casting and hang detection with recovery".
Unlike AirPlay and Chromecast, Miracast doesn't use your main Wi-Fi network, it creates a separate Wi-Fi Direct network between the PC and the Miracast screen. Perhaps Wi-Fi casting will add an option to stream over a standard Wi-Fi network (today you can do that with Play To, but only from specific applications and only with specific video formats, not for everything on your screen).
Windows 10 gets support for the new reversible, either-way-up USB type-C ports and connectors that we've been expecting, so we should see those showing up on new phones, tablets and notebooks.
We saw motherboards with both USB 3.0 and type-C, and now that phones will run Windows 10, you'll be able to plug USB peripherals in to them as well as plugging your phone into your PC.
That's why Windows 10 will add support for USB Dual Role, where the same device can be either a host that other USB devices connect to, or a USB device that connects to another host – or it can be both at the same time. That also lets you plug a screen into your PC over USB.
USB type-C ports also carry more power than USB 2.0 and 3.0 – Windows 10 will support the full 100W power that USB type-C can handle, so you'll be able to charge your notebook over USB. That's ideal for docking stations; instead of a custom docking connector, a tablet or notebook can just plug in with USB and you'll get power and display connections.
That works because Windows 10 supports another new USB feature, Alternate Modes. Instead of using the usual USB protocol to transfer information over a USB connection, devices will be able to use different protocols like DisplayPort, Thunderbolt or MHL. So with the right cable, a tablet that only has a USB port could drive a monitor that needs a DisplayPort connection. That makes it much easier to design a nice, lightweight tablet that you can use like a full PC when you get to the office.
Microsoft is suggesting to OEMs that Miracast and USB type-C will be great for docking tablets and notebooks, and Windows 10 will also support the new 60GHz WiGig technology. That's a faster wireless connection than Wi-Fi – we've seen speeds between 7 and 12Gbps – but it goes over a much shorter distance. You could use it to send video from your phone or PC to a TV with a WiGig adapter in the HDMI port.
But where it gets really interesting is when you replace the USB or custom port you use to plug a keyboard into a tablet with a WiGig connection. Now you don't need a port that lets dust and water in, or special holes and guides to get the keyboard in exactly the right place to connect to the port. You can just put the keyboard next to the tablet and it will start working without all the fiddly bits of plugging it in.
Doing away with a port will make the dock and the device slightly cheaper and more reliable (often, it's the port that breaks rather than anything else in a dock). Supporting all these options should mean we see Windows 10 PCs with interesting connection and docking options.
It appears that Microsoft is also emphasising the importance of improving performance and battery life, with new tools like a Battery Estimation Engine that shows which apps, services and hardware on the PC are using power, and a new Battery Saver mode. It sounds like PC makers will have to make some changes to their drivers to make those work well.
Windows 8 introduced Connected Standby mode, which lets PCs using low-power System on Chip CPUs like ARM, Atom and the latest Haswell Core processors (including Surface Pro 3) drop into a low power mode where the CPU and memory aren't using power, but Wi-Fi is still connected so email can arrive and a Skype call can wake the device up if you've allowed that.
Windows 10 also adds a new Modern Standby mode. We don't have any more details about this – perhaps it will work with a wider range of hardware than Connected Standby, or allow Bluetooth Low Energy devices to work with a PC in Modern Standby so you could wake it from an external keyboard or find it when it's turned off? Or it might be a version of Connected Standby for the way phones work.
Sensors and security
Now that Windows Phone won't be a separate OS any more, there are more phone-like features going into Windows 10. Windows 8.1 already supports Bluetooth LE for things like low power keyboards and even wearable devices like the Fitbit. That's still in Windows 10, but there's also an SMS router and "Host card emulation for NFC payments". That's the same technology that Google just bought Softcard for, letting you tap with your phone – or your tablet – to make a payment.
That session also covers "proximity features" – Microsoft has often talked about using NFC in a tablet or PC keyboard to make it easier to pair peripherals or to let you send content you're viewing on one device to another, like switching video from your phone to your TV when you get home.
Phones are also one of the reasons Windows 10 will support new sensors in addition to the usual accelerometers, ambient light sensors, compasses, gyroscopes and so on. These 'new' sensors are already used in phones and the OEMs need them.
At least one Windows Phone device (the Lumia 1020) has a barometer in – although Windows Phone 8 doesn't let developers use it – and several Samsung and Nexus handsets also have barometers in, and they're common in GPS devices. They're not for weather purposes, though – knowing the atmospheric pressure is a good way of checking the altitude and that speeds up getting your GPS location. That saves power because you can turn off the high power GPS radio more quickly, and it will work in Windows 10.
Similarly, supporting long range proximity sensors is key for phones – it's how the phone knows to turn off the screen when you're holding it up to your ear, so the side of your face doesn't activate the touchscreen and hang up your call. You could also use them to turn on an NFC sensor only when there was something near it to read, which might also save power.
Windows 10 also supports custom and composite sensors. In the past PC makers could build in any sensor if they wanted to write the driver for it themselves, but making that easier is important for Internet of Things devices that need a much wider range of sensors.
Low hardware requirements
Microsoft is also keen to attract OEMs who've previously made devices using Android or Chrome OS and other operating systems, promising them that "you can reuse many of your existing designs from other platforms on Windows". Supporting more sensors will help OEMs build Windows devices more quickly, and it suggests that the hardware requirements for Windows 10 PCs will be pretty low.
That fits with what OEMs have asked Microsoft for – to let them use the same systems they might otherwise put Android on, and it means the flood of cheap Windows tablets should continue. But that does also mean they might miss out on some Windows 10 security features.
We already know security is a major area for Windows 10, and it makes sense that Microsoft will be pushing OEMs to put TPMs in Windows 10 PCs because new features like FIDO-compliant next-generation credentials and enterprise lockdown won't work without them.
Back in 2013, Microsoft said that by January 2015 all PCs would have to have a Trusted Platform Module to get a Windows logo. But that requirement went away last year, probably as part of the 'Bing for Windows' licence deal – OEMs making cheap Windows tablets don't want to spend the few extra dollars to add a TPM, so some 8-inch Windows tablets have a TPM, but others don't.
The Windows Hardware Certification documents currently say "Systems that support Connected Standby must also have a TPM". Microsoft can't tell PC makers they can reuse the same hardware they bought to make Intel-based Android tablets (which don't use the TPM) and then make them have a TPM in every PC. But it can push the idea by pointing out that you need them for password replacements – especially on tablets people will take to work, for mobile payments using that NFC support, and for streaming copy-protected ultra-high definition content.
After all, what Microsoft wants – and will be pushing at WinHEC – is not just lots of PCs at low prices, but a wide range of PCs from cheap tablets to high-end systems with features you can't get in Macs or Chromebooks.