After Aerogate, Vista’s Aero partially returns for Windows 10

Windows 10 build 10125, featuring touches of the dark Windows Vista Aero glass on the Start menu and the notification center.
Windows 10 build 10125, featuring touches of the dark Windows Vista Aero Glass on the Start menu and the notification center.

When Vista debuted, one of the first things people noticed was the beautiful user interface, assuming they had a graphics adapter capable of rendering it. Glass windows, a frosted glass Start menu and taskbar, insanely huge and detailed icons, Flip 3D, and several other enhancements. All of these made the move to Windows 7, sans the black Start menu and taskbar, which changed to a basic glass style.

However, Windows 8, which retained the technology behind this UI, dumped the glassy windows but kept the icons and taskbar, presenting a jarring mixture of 2006 and 2012. The UI was largely flattened, while retaining many Vista elements on the desktop. This was the beginning of what I call Aerogate, with users of the new OS upset that it didn’t look like Windows 7.

With Windows 10, beta testers and tech media have been clamoring for Aero Glass to fully return, with Windows 7 often cited as the prefered appearance, and Microsoft has taken note. But rather than looking to Windows 7, Microsoft has reached back to Windows Vista for the color of the taskbar, Start menu, and the notification center.

Several of the new icons which had originally been seen in early builds have now been replaced with updated Windows Vista icons, with a few notable exceptions. Ironically, the current Recycle Bin icon debuted on Earth Day to much fanfare. The faux outrage over the icons which arrived in early Windows 10 builds was what I refer to as Icongate, which has now been largely resolved.

Even with these concessions, I think it is safe to assume that Aero Glass will not resurrected in full, and I’d even argue that Aero Glass would look awful alongside the Metro Design Language. Kudos to Microsoft for finding the middle ground.

After Aerogate, Vista’s Aero partially returns for Windows 10

Spartan arrives in latest Windows 10 build, with Cortana hitching a ride.

Cortana leaps forth on Project Spartan.
Cortana leaps forth on Project Spartan.

A new Windows 10 build has landed for Windows Insiders who are in the Fast ring, keeping Microsoft’s promise of a much more rapid build release cycle. Not much has changed, but there have been bug fixes, a revamped Calculator, and a new browser.

A new Calculator app is included in the latest build, and it keeps a history of your calculations.
A new Calculator app is included in the latest build, and it keeps a history of your calculations.

The new browser is currently called Project Spartan, continuing Microsoft’s trend of using Halo codenames for new products, such as Threshold, and Cortana. An official name for the browser has not yet been decided, but it will have “Microsoft” somewhere in the name.

This version of Project Spartan is far from complete, with many features still missing or only partially implemented, but I took it for a spin anyway, on a tablet and on a desktop too.

The UI is minimalist, with the tabs residing on the application bar rather than below it, which provides a larger viewing area over existing browsers. The browser is a Windows App (e.g. Metro or Modern), enabling more flexibility for the UI than traditional Win32 apps. Windows Apps are being updated to support drag and drop and other more traditional features, so any awkwardness which was present in Windows 8 should be ironed out by RTM.

Cortana is present as well. Typing search phrases into the address bar invokes Cortana and she will provide an answer without needing to venture out to a search engine or another site.

Reading view in Project Spartan, with the Actions menu invoked.
Reading view in Project Spartan, with the Actions menu invoked.

Reading mode is a nice touch, something which Chrome lacks, and provides more options than Internet Explorer does on Windows 8.x. The Actions menu is to the point, with no confusing or pointless options crowding it.

Google Chrome and Microsoft's Project Spartan displaying results on the HTML5 test.
Google Chrome and Microsoft’s Project Spartan displaying results on the HTML5 test.

Performance of the app over all is a little sluggish, but that’s understandable, as this is more of an alpha than a beta. On touch, it lagged a lot, but such lag was not as noticeable with a mouse and keyboard.

I have not encountered any broken websites with Spartan, but rendering takes a little longer than on Chrome, likely because I have an ad blocker installed on Chrome, which helps with loading times.

On the HTML5 test, Chrome scores 523, while Spartan comes in with 375. Not show stopping, but definitely something Microsoft will continue to work on.

Over all, I feel it’s a solid start, and I look forward to seeing further builds of Project Spartan.

Spartan arrives in latest Windows 10 build, with Cortana hitching a ride.

Native NFC wallet arriving with Windows 10? A beta app exists, so maybe.

A slide showing how tap to pay will function on Windows 10 phones.
A slide showing how tap to pay will function on Windows 10 phones.

A recent story revealed that Windows 10 on phones will be receiving an overhaul for NFC transactions. The Secure Element in SIM cards from some carriers will continue to be supported, but users will no longer be forced to use such a SIM in order to use NFC payment terminals.

Microsoft will be implementing something call Host Card Emulation with Windows 10 on phones. Google added support for HCE in Android 4.4, removing a carrier requirement that phones be equipped was a Secure Element or an Enhanced SIM. HEC supports credit, debit, loyalty cards, smart cards, and transit passes. Essentially any card which can be read via NFC can be emulated by software, without special SIM cards needing to be present in the device.

There are no details as to how this will be implemented however. The above slide indicates that the native Wallet will function on its own (as it was supposed to have done in 2012 with Windows Phone 8) while also supporting the non-existent third party payment apps, such as CurrentC (which uses a QR code system rather than NFC) or Apple Pay, should it ever expand from Apple devices.

Unless Microsoft fully implements their own solution, all of this means nothing, aside from the requirement that consumers are able to obtain a special SIM card which most carriers around the globe do not use, nor do they have any intention of adding it unless they have to in order to support a new iPhone. Microsoft will not hand just anyone the APIs for creating an NFC wallet, only select partners receive that access.

Further adding to my initial confusion is this video, which appears to show a third party app on a Lumia 1520 being used for tap to pay. At first glance at least.

Wait… Let us take a closer look.

An app called zNFCPayments is seen running on Windows 10 for phones.
An app called zNFCPayments is seen running on Windows 10 for phones.

zNFCPayments? What on Earth is this? If you have used Windows 10 Technical Preview, the first few builds had an app called zStore, which is now labeled as Store (beta). This means Microsoft is not only overhauling the APIs in the OS and adding HCE, it is also building an app, which may be included in a future Tech Preview build on the phone side.

However, it’s possible that carriers will derail this, making it an app that only some have access to, but not others, much like the Google Wallet debacle played out until Google bought SoftCard (and snatched away the only Windows Phone app for making NFC payments). We should know more about this soon.

Native NFC wallet arriving with Windows 10? A beta app exists, so maybe.

Windows 10 ROMs for Android handsets could be the perfect Trojan horse for Microsoft.

Microsoft and the world’s third largest smartphone manufacturer, Xiaomi, have announced an upcoming program which will allow current owners of the Mi 4, which runs Android KitKat, to try Windows 10 on their handsets via a ROM which will replace Android. Microsoft will be running this program independently of Xiaomi, which implies that other phones from other companies could be on Microsoft’s conversion list.

Microsoft did not announce that the ROM will be available to more than one specific phone, but it is impossible for me to imagine this ROM staying put for long. Hackers will get this ROM into any phone with similar hardware pretty quickly I imagine. Microsoft and OEMs can already drop the OS onto Android phones (HTC M8), so this move shouldn’t come as a real surprise.

But what if Microsoft itself releases a generic ROM for Android users to flash onto their handsets? The Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge are off the table due to the Samsung CPU, but the LG Flex 2 and HTC One M9 could run the ROM with ease, as could basically any other Qualcomm based handset. This opens up a whole new user base for Microsoft.

Releasing a ROM for most Android handsets has several implications, not the least of which being that anyone who flashes this onto their phones will be voiding their warranty and potentially losing support for custom hardware features, such as fingerprint scanners and heart rate monitors.

On the flipside, many modding enthusiasts would likely leap at the chance to put Windows on their Android phone, and people feeling disheartened with Android could leap to Microsoft’s OS while keeping their existing handset.

Microsoft could also buy flagships in bulk and flash Windows 10 onto them itself and sell the phones in its own stores, or offer free conversion services for select phones.

Cyanogenmod likely won’t be happy with this news, but I imagine Google is even more upset. Here is Microsoft, with its scrappy third place OS, already sneaking itself onto Android phones with Office, OneDrive and a host of other apps, soon including Cortana, making a play to grab the entire phone away from Google. It could go nowhere, or it could be a very clever move to steal more market share from Google.

Windows 10 ROMs for Android handsets could be the perfect Trojan horse for Microsoft.

Microsoft, for the love of all things holy, please add an NFC wallet to Windows 10!

NFC wallets on mobile devices can hold your credit cards, debit cards, transit passes, loyalty cards, and other items as well. They are pretty handy, assuming there is an NFC terminal present when you make a transaction, and of course have an NFC enabled phone.

The NFC wallet was unleashed to the masses with Google Wallet in 2011. Initially just an NFC wallet which contained debit and credit cards, it expanded into a payment service shortly after.

Apple appeared to be late to the game, making their own NFC wallet, Apple Pay, public in 2014. The Apple approach is more secure than Google’s, generating single use codes for transactions. Apple Pay debuted both as an NFC wallet and a payment service.

Microsoft on the other hand has left the implementation of an NFC wallet up to individual carriers. There has been an app called Wallet in the OS since Windows Phone 8, but it’s just that – a wallet used for Store and in app purchases. It also has some Apple Passbook compatibility, though I am unfamiliar with the full extent of this functionality.

Under the NFC settings on Windows Phone, there’s a toggle for turning NFC on or off, and another toggle for NFC payments, with a disclaimer that an Enhanced SIM is required to use this feature. A third party app, SoftCard, is required to act as an NFC wallet, further complicating and hobbling this feature.

I live in a rural area, and I use a regional carrier. An Enhanced SIM is impossible for me to obtain from my carrier, and the carrier only recently completed its upgrade to “4G” (enhanced 3G) and has no plans for LTE, let alone VoLTE which also requires an Enhanced SIM. I have a feeling that most of Microsoft’s target markets, developing nations, are in a boat not too different from my own, so only a small subset of Windows Phone users even have a chance to use SoftCard, or a similar app.

A good friend of mine is fortunate enough to have SoftCard and an Enhanced SIM too, in a Lumia 925. However, he has not been able to make it work properly for a single purchase. That experience, in addition to the extended wait for the Lumia Denim update, helped prod him over to iOS this month.

I have tweeted to a few Microsoft employees and the Lumia US handle as well for comment about the possibility of adding a native NFC wallet to Windows Phone or Windows 10 on phones, but have not received a response.

With Apple Pay now being okayed for National Park admission fees and the depositing of Social Security benefits, I hope Microsoft sits up and takes notice of the NFC wallet phenomena soon, or I too might be migrating to an iPhone.

Microsoft, for the love of all things holy, please add an NFC wallet to Windows 10!

Goodbye, Win32 Calculator. Windows 10 moves Modern apps to center stage.

Windows 10 CalculatorSo long, Windows 7 calculator. You were quite the upgrade over the version that shipped with Windows Vista and older operating systems. You had a scientific mode that most people have no use for. My college professors wouldn’t let me use you instead of a TI 83. You also looked gaudy and didn’t match Windows 8. In Windows 8, you had a successor lurking on the Start screen, so we knew your days were limited. That day has arrived.

When Microsoft released Windows 10 Technical Preview Build 9926, they began removing many redundant features and suppressing others. The old Win32 calculator was one of the casualties. With a Modern version present since Windows 8, it’s an obvious move now that these apps can reside in resizeable windows on the desktop.

Don’t fret however, all the functionality of the old Calculator appears to be present in the Modern version. The only real issue I have is that the Calculator button on my Sidewinder X4 keyboard is bipolar about launching the app, but I’m sure this will be fixed in a later build.

Goodbye, Win32 Calculator. Windows 10 moves Modern apps to center stage.

Existing phones may hamper DirectX 12 implementation in Windows 10 apps.

DirectX-12-1024x576-36056e06fec097ac

DirectX 12 is incoming. Microsoft didn’t name any hardware, but nVidia has said Fermi and newer GPUs will be able to run it, as will all AMD 79xx and newer GPUs. Intel has also said recent GPUs they made will also support DX12. That covers most recent PCs and x86 tablets.

Promised features of DirectX 12 include up to a 50% reduction in power usage and up to a 50% boost in CPU performance compared to DirectX 11.2 along with hardware access to the GPU and CPU by developers, enabling game console level performance. For example, if you tossed Windows 8.1 onto a PS4 or Xbox One, game performance would drop quite a bit due to overhead, but if you put Windows 10 on those devices, which is of course not possible, game performance might actually increase a little compared to the OS which ships on those devices.

Nice, but what about existing phones and ARM tablets? The Lumia 920? No. HTC 8X? Definitely not. In fact, many early Windows Phone 8 devices will be SOL when it comes to DirectX 12 games and apps, unless Microsoft has worked some magic. Why is this? It comes down to the SoC which was implemented in these devices.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 uses an Adreno 225 GPU, which only supports DirectX 9.0c. The Lumia 1020, 928, 925, 920, 810, 820, and 822 all use the Adreno 225 GPU. Newer Lumia phones use a SoC which has Adreno 3xx GPUs on die. The 920T, 2520, 1520, 1320, Icon, and the x3x series (devices which shipped with 8.1) may be able to support the new DirectX version, but these GPUs are restricted to a DirectX 9.3 feature level, which is basically a way to enable some features of DirectX 11.1 on 9.3 class chips. DirectX 12 may also be able to utilize some advanced features of these chips, but without further information I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Indeed, all existing Windows Phone devices, and RT tablets, even those made by Blu and HTC, use either Adreno 3xx or 2xx, which may lead to them either being left out when DirectX 12 games begin to arrive in the Windows Store, or holding back development which utilizes the newer DirectX 12, thus hobbling universal games out of the gate. I don’t think any sane developer would want to exclude such a large, existing pool of devices, nor would they want to take the time to develop two separate versions of their games, one using DirectX 12 and another using DirectX 9.

With all this in mind, be prepared to see a slow implementation of DirectX 12 in games which are “Modern” app as opposed to Win32. On the Win32 side, I’m sure we’ll see games and applications using DirectX 12 and DirectCompute begin to arrive within months of the new OS reaching RTM.

Existing phones may hamper DirectX 12 implementation in Windows 10 apps.