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What Is Windows 10X, and How Is It Different?

Microsoft's Surface Neo device.

Windows 10X is a new edition of Windows 10 designed for dual-screen devices like Microsoft’s upcoming Surface Neo, but it’s more than that. It’s a new Windows operating system that will likely come to all devices one day.

Update: Microsoft now plans to release Windows 10X for single-screen devices first and bring it to dual-screen devices later.

Windows 10X Runs Windows Software

At its Surface event in 2019, Microsoft said Windows 10X “supports the breadth of Windows applications.” Most traditional Windows desktop applications will work just like they would on Windows 10 Home or Professional.

This isn’t an entirely new operating system, and it doesn’t have an entirely new type of app. Windows 10X appears to be based on Windows Core OS.

Apps Run in Containers

At 2020’s Microsoft 365 Developer Day, Microsoft shared even more details. The core Windows operating system will be separated from the applications you run.

Windows 10X will run traditional Win32 desktop apps, but it will run them in a container. Windows 10X will also run Univeral Windows Apps (UWP) and Progressive Web Apps (PWA), and it will also run those in containers.

All classic Win32 desktop apps will run in a single, combined container. They remain isolated from your core Windows operating system and can’t cause crashes or security problems. App developers won’t have to make any changes—Win32 apps will “just work” with Windows 10X.

Containers on Windows 10X
Microsoft

There are some limitations that come along with this simplified environment. System tray icons, File Explorer add-ins, desktop startup programs, and “global hooks” for capturing mouse and keyboard actions when an application is in the background aren’t supported. Background tasks might be suspended by the operating system, too.

Some software that requires deep access to Windows—like anti-cheat and anti-piracy tools, especially in older PC games—won’t be supported. These tools frequently cause problems on Windows 10, anyway. Thurrott has more of the details Microsoft announced.

Faster Updates, More Battery Life, and Improved Security

Thanks to that read-only operating system, Windows will be able to download operating system updates and switch to the new system when you reboot. Microsoft says a reboot to install a big operating system update should take less than 90 seconds.

Isolating applications in containers will also improve battery life. Win32 applications will be isolated from the rest of the system and Microsoft can control what they can do, including better managing background tasks and preventing startup programs from slowing your PC.

Finally, security receives a big boost. Applications you install won’t be able to mess with your Windows system files. This should provide better protection from rootkit-like malware and even reduce crashes.

Optimized For Dual-Screen Devices—For Now

Windows 10X in Microsoft's new emulator
Microsoft

Windows 10X has an interface “designed and optimized for dual-screen devices just like Surface Neo,” according to Microsoft.

That’s what Microsoft is saying right now, but we expect Microsoft is just using foldable devices as the launch platform for Windows 10X. Windows 10X may come to traditional PCs in the future, too.

Microsoft’s Surface Neo is a dual-screen device with a hinge—like a laptop, but if the keyboard section was replaced by a screen. Alternatively, it’s like two tablets connected to each other by a hinge. If you remember Microsoft’s canceled Courier concept device, it’s very similar to that.

At CES 2020, Lenovo told us that its upcoming ThinkPad X1 Fold foldable device would launch with Windows 10 Pro and a Windows 10X version would launch later. Expect to see it on other manufacturer’s foldable devices, too.

No More Live Tiles

Part of optimizing the operating system for dual-screen devices seems to be the removal of Live Tiles. There’s a new Start menu with a simplified, icon-based application and website launcher. This appears to be the leaked Start menu from 2019.

Dual-Screen Interface Tweaks

Microsoft's Surface Neo device with its keyboard attached and the Wunderbar visible.

When you launch an app, it launches on one side of the device. It’s a bit like Windows 10’s Snap feature—apps will open on one screen (or one side of the device) rather than across both displays. You can drag an application’s window to the middle edge of the screen and release it to “span” the application across both displays. Microsoft says this doesn’t just extend the app across both screens—it also “optimizes” the app’s interface so the app can intelligently take advantage of both screens.

Microsoft also showed off Windows “recognizing the keyboard” placed on one side of the display and revealing the “Wonder Bar” or “Wunderbar,” sort of a super-charged version of Apple’s MacBook touchbar that offers buttons, a trackpad, and even a large section of screen you can play videos on. Microsoft said this is something “Neo” does, but it’s likely part of Windows 10X and one of the many new interface tricks being added for these devices.

Windows 10X and dual-screen devices are still a while off yet. Microsoft is announcing Windows 10X a year ahead of the release of the Surface Neo so developers will have time to try it and optimize their apps for the new software.

Microsoft originally published a blog post introducing Windows 10X on foldable devices, but didn’t share a lot of technical details. Now, Microsoft offers Windows 10X development tools—including a downloadable emulator—and a variety of videos about using them.

Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor in Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for nearly a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than 500 million times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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