Microsoft’s Windows 10: Free upgrades, Xbox streaming, OS-level video capture
After weeks of speculation, Microsoft took the lid off its Windows 10 stewpot this afternoon, giving both tech press and industry enthusiasts a concrete demonstration of the features and capabilities its next-generation operating system will offer. To say that the unveil was important would be something of an understatement; MIcrosoft’s Windows 8 is arguably the least-successful OS Microsoft has launched in decades, with an adoption rate that has generally lagged even Windows Vista. Based on what Microsoft showed today, the company has a shot at winning back some unhappy users.
First up, the big news: Windows 10 will be a free upgrade to anyone currently running Windows 7 or Windows 8. Please note that caveats undoubtedly apply. It’s not clear yet if that upgrade guarantee applies to both Home and Pro users, or if Windows 8.1 users with the Media Center Pack will be properly taken care of this time (if you owned the MCP for Windows 8.0, the 8.1 upgrade was entertaining, to say the least). Presumably the upgrade offer will only allow you to download an upgrade ISO as opposed to a full reinstall or disc-based option, and Microsoft has said that the offer will only be good for a year. Whether the company intends to register all Windows 7 and 8 keys and then check them against a database of Windows 10 keys or not is unclear.
Even knowing that there will be caveats attached, Microsoft’s decision to give Windows 8 away to a large chunk of its market base is a significant development. Throw in the price cuts and free offers for OEMs that commit to shipping Windows devices in various form factors, and it’s clear that Microsoft is fundamentally rethinking its entire approach to OS monetization.
DirectX 12, Xbox streaming, video sharing
The biggest potential gaming feature that Microsoft unveiled is an option I’ve been personally hoping the company would add since it first announced the Xbox One — the ability to stream games to a Windows 10 device. Details on precisely how the streaming will work or what the hardware requirements will be are still sketchy, but the tech demo from stage showed Forza 3 streaming to a Surface Pro 3 tablet via the Xbox application.
This could be the killer feature that gives Microsoft a real leg up over Sony if it’s executed properly. While Sony and Nintendo both offer a form of game-shifting / streaming, both manufacturers lock the option to a specific piece of hardware — either the PlayStation Vita or the Nintendo Wii U. Microsoft, in contrast, has opened streaming options to millions of potential systems in the US alone. Even now, with tablet and smartphone adoption surging, the majority of US households own at least one PC, and the majority of those PCs are capable of running Windows 10. With new, universal apps simultaneously coming to the Xbox One, we could see intriguing cross-platform options. The Xbox One looks as though it’s going to gain some basic PC applications while PCs will soon be capable of streaming the Xbox One’s library of games. That’s a win-win.
Moving past that announcement, this event was also supposed to be the big unveil for DirectX 12, but Microsoft only barely demonstrated the feature. We saw a single, canned demonstration from Futuremark that looks as though it was lifted from the same DX12 example code we saw running at GDC last year. Microsoft predicts performance gains of up to 50% in certain titles, which is in the range of what AMD also predicted (and sometimes delivered) with Mantle. Microsoft is also claiming huge power efficiency increases — up to 50% improvements in performance per watt in some cases.
CPU performance in DirectX 12
The company’s comments on Xbox were more interesting. The Xbox application will now ship standard on every single Windows 10 device and will function as a comprehensive front-end application for managing a games library across multiple devices. With the heavy push Microsoft is putting on unifying the kernel and development code across the various versions of Windows, it’s likely that the company will roll Windows Phone games over to the Windows desktop platform at some point.
Microsoft indirectly confirmed that DirectX 12’s low latency API and performance-boosting capabilities are coming to the Xbox One and demonstrated a build of the latest Fable title running on its game console. Tellingly, it also illustrated an interface that let a PC player join a Fable multiplayer that was kicked off by an Xbox one player.
Xbox One and PC , playing side-by-side
The two players explored the area and killed multiple monsters without any lag spikes, visual degradation, or any other sorts of problems. The implication of this demo is that going forward, Xbox One and PC players will be able to compete against each other or play cooperatively in a wide array of titles.
As cool as it was to see this demoed, we’re dubious on whether or not games will actually take advantage of the feature. It’s been technically possible to combine PC and console players (or MS and Sony players) on the same networks for years now, yet few games (if any) have ever taken advantage of the capability. Subtle differences in draw distance, texturing, and control schemes suddenly become far more important when players are competing on vastly different hardware. Handheld controllers aren’t nearly as accurate as a keyboard and mouse, but the aim assist feature built into many console FPS games could leave PC players crying foul.
We’re not saying that no developers will ship games that are cross-compatible between Windows 10 and the Xbox One, but plenty of studios have promised this feature before, only to dump it before a game went gold.
Video sharing has been a huge feature of both the Xbox One and PS4, and Windows 10 is going to capitalize on that with native video sharing and recording capabilities, again managed through the Xbox application. You’ll be able to record, annotate, and share video across a variety of services on both touchscreen devices and traditional laptops. This functionality can be used by other services — one of Microsoft’s demos showed video being recorded from a Steam title before being shared through Xbox Live.
Whether this type of feature will provoke another temper tantrum and/or multi-year OS development from Gaben remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Valve was less-than thrilled about Microsoft’s continued encroachment into what it undoubtedly sees as its own turf. The more basic functionality Microsoft bakes into its Xbox and other gaming applications, the greater the chance that it can supplant Steam’s functionality in the long run.
Conclusion: DX12 for everyone and the first steps towards a unified gaming experience
The biggest difference between Windows 10’s release and all previous versions of Windows is that Microsoft is going to hand users a new version of DirectX that can deliver significant performance improvements without charging them for it. Whether or not you see those gains will depend on the game in question and the GPU you own, of course, but this is marked departure from previous eras, when Microsoft charged a premium for features like DirectX 10 — despite the fact that DX10 was much slower than DX9.
The streaming ability, video recording, and library management are all welcome capabilities and a concrete sign of Microsoft’s willingness to add features that users actually want. All in all, Windows 10 is shaping up to be a killer release.
- Thanks for reading Microsoft’s Windows 10: Free upgrades, Xbox streaming, OS-level video capture