That doesn't mean the Neo will be released anytime soon, though, with rumours suggesting its release has been put back to 2022.
Here's everything you need to know about Windows 10X, and where it fits into the wider landscape.
What is Windows 10X?
Put simply, Windows 10X is a new version of Windows that's been specifically designed for dual-screen devices. It'll eventually end up there, but at release it'll run on regular laptops and Windows tablets.
It isn't Windows 10, even though it sounds - and looks - just like a new version of that operating system. It offers a stripped-back, web-first software experience that has led some to compare it to the experience offered by Chrome OS.
Windows 10 does already support dual screens, although the OS isn't really suitable for the sort of small-screened, portable devices we’re talking about here. They are the next-generation of mobile PCs, designed to be used alongside your existing desktop one.
In theory, that's where the simplified UI of Windows 10X can come into its own.
Windows 10X release date
Initially, Windows 10X was expected to debut on Microsoft's own Surface Neo towards the end of 2020, before making its way to third-party manufacturers soon after.
However, an official blog post in May 2020 a change of strategy, with Windows 10X coming to single-screen devices first. That looked set to push the Neo and other devices back to 2021, although we could be waiting even longer.
Windows Central's Zac Bowden recent hinted at a Spring 2021 release ago, and a subsequent tweet suggests that schedule is about right:
Trying to confirm, but I believe the final build of Windows 10X has been compiled at build 20279. MS will continue to fix bugs internally between now and when the first 10X devices start shipping.— Zac Bowden (@zacbowden) December 11, 2020
Mayank Parmar at Windows Latest says that Windows 10X is "ready to release to manufacturing (RTM)". This is the point at which software is made available to manufacturers to include on their devices. There's almost always a few months between this date and the release of the first hardware running it, so a Spring 2021 release is still looking likely.
However, a subsequent Windows Central article suggests that the Spring launch will be geared towards commercial markets, which include education and enterprise settings. The operating system is then expected to come to consumer devices in 2022.
Windows 10X devices
Talking of devices, a new category of PCs will emerge as a result of Microsoft's decision to bring Windows 10X to single-screen devices first. The OS isn't designed for power-hungry devices with top-of-the-range specs - instead we're expecting it to mainly run on budget laptops.
In terms of dual-screen devices, Microsoft's own Surface Neo will be joined by hardware from the likes of Asus, Dell, HP and Lenovo. These devices were all initially slated for a 'fall 2020' launch, but all have been pushed back until at least the date Windows 10X launches.
They won’t all be clones: there will be a variety of sizes and specifications. We’ve already had a good look at Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold, but this was running Windows 10 Pro and therefore lacked the usability that Windows 10X will bring to the device when it’s available in around eight months’ time.
Lenovo has several mockup images (such as the one above) which demonstrate what should be possible with the new OS.
What's new on Windows 10X?
Here's all the information that Microsoft officially revealed in an October 2019 blog post, as well as subsequent details from subsequent emulator releases:
A new user interface
The Surface Neo is one of the aforementioned new devices. It has two 9in screens, so it’s a bit like two tablets joined with a hinge. Except that it’s way more than that.
Along with a stylus, you can use a magnetic keyboard with the Neo. It can sit on top of one of the screens, leaving a strip that’s about a quarter of the display visible. Microsoft calls this the Wonder Bar, the reason being that it can show a mini version of an app, an emoji panel, as well as reserving an area that you can use as a trackpad to control a mouse pointer.
When both screens are visible, you can choose to run a different app on each one (a web browser and Word, say) or make a single app spread across both screens in an intelligent way that isn’t just zooming to fill the space.
Rotate it from landscape to portrait, flip it to tent mode for desk use (where the hinge is at the top and you can see just one screen or attach the keyboard and apps will automatically rearrange themselves to suit, and the interface adjusts itself for touch- or keyboard/pen input.
It also looks like there will be dynamic wallpapers, which automatically adjust over time similar to what you'll find in recent versions of macOS. These can take the form of a landscape darkening as you approach the evening or elements like clouds and birds changing during the day.
A new Start menu
Windows 10X also has a new Start menu which looks a bit like a search engine home page: a search bar at the top, links to apps below and your recently accessed documents and web pages below that. Here it is stretched across the two screens of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold:
There's also a new Action Center, with a greater focus on quick actions like controlling music and dismissing notifications. It will be optimised for touch input, with larger icons that your fingers will be able to hit. This is where you'll see the new music controller, which looks similar to what you'll find on Android and iOS.
Five different 'postures'
As you might imagine, developers need to optimise their apps so they play nicely in Windows 10X, and that’s one of the main reasons why Microsoft was so keen to show off the Neo 12 months before its launch.
Windows 10X devices can be used in five different modes, so apps need to work no matter which one the user has picked:
On 11 February 2020, developers got access to a Windows 10X emulator so they can see how their apps will behave in the OS, and optimise them without having an actual 10X device in their hands.
The announcement of the development kit also highlights that the new Edge browser – based on the same Chromium platform as Google’s Chrome – will be an integral part of Windows 10X and has been built with dual-screen support in mind.
All of the above is why a new, different version of Windows is required, and why Windows 10X isn’t going to be an upgrade for Windows 10 users.
You might know that there are already lots of different versions of Windows 10: it runs on laptops, PCs, tablets (such as the Surface Pro 7), the Xbox One, Internet of Things devices and the Hololens headset.
However, while all of those share some code between them (known as One Core), there is a new, stripped-down operating system on which Windows 10X is built.
Although Microsoft hasn’t said it officially, this is called Windows Core OS, and there’s still plenty unknown about it.
Easier to use?
Windows 10X has long been thought of as a more stripped-down and simple version of the main Windows 10 operating system. As well as making it more suitable for dual-screen devices with touch input, this should make it easier to use for beginners.
Microsoft looks set to double down on making Windows 10X accessible for all with a so-called 'Learning Hub'. As Windows Latest reports, this will be a rebranding of the Tips app in the regular version of Windows 10, providing tutorial and explanations that are easy to understand for everyone.
The same article also mentioned a number of apps that are likely to come pre-installed:
- To Do
- Alarms & Clock
- Movies & TV
- Media Plan
- Learning Hub
The likes of Spotify, Netflix and Weather may also be available out of the box, although you'll notice it excludes the Mail and Calendar apps. As Windows Central reports, these have been omitted from the final build as people will be encouraged to use web versions. The apps will still be downloadable from the Microsoft Store at any time.
What will Windows 10X look like?
Despite the above screenshots, until recently it's not been clear what everyday experiences will look like on Windows 10X. After all, not everybody will have their email open next to the photo gallery or use PowerPoint while in a meeting on Microsoft Teams.
However, in January 2021 a near-final build of Windows was leaked, and Windows Central's video shows just how it works:
More details come from an article on our sister site, PCWorld. Here are some of the things author Mark Hachman found from using the build through a Hyper-V virtual machine:
- No Cortana
- Simplified setup screens. Microsoft will tell you which data it will collect, and allow to disable optional permissions like tailored ads and recommendations based on your usage
- App downloads limited to the Microsoft Store, as is currently the case for Windows 10 in S mode
- Similar-looking Task View to Windows 10
- Large search bar at top of Start Menu shows results from the web, Microsoft Store and local files where appropriate
- More limited range of options in settings, but this is likely dependent on the device you're using
- Snap view for multitasking is here, but limited to only two apps (Windows 10 supports four) in this build
- Action Center simplified to include separate section for notifications and streamlined quick settings
- No option to upgrade to a 'full' version of Windows, as you can for Windows 10 S
Do you need antivirus on Windows 10X?
No, and that's one of the big things in its favour. The operating system is 'read-only' to apps, which means any malware cannot wreak havoc with system files.
If that sounds familiar, it's because that's how Windows 10S worked. But no-one liked it because you could only run apps installed from the Microsoft Store. And there wasn't a whole lot to choose between.
Windows 10X does things differently because it will allow you to install 'trusted' apps - by using signed code and apps with a good reputation - from any source, including a web browser, a USB stick or something else.
Can Windows 10X run older Windows apps?
Yes. Unlike Windows 10 S - and also the newer Surface Pro X, which uses an ARM-based processor - devices that run Windows 10X will have an Intel processor and use a ‘container’ to run legacy Windows programs.
A container is a bit like a fenced-off area (or sandbox) where apps only have access to the resources that the user has granted and, as mentioned, no write-access to the operating system. This may not arrive until 2022, so after Windows 10X is expected to officially launch.
Win32 apps - basically any apps that aren't from the Microsoft Store or an app that runs entirely in a web browser (like Gmail) - are run in a "guest" operating system, with access to the screens, keyboard and mouse via a high-performance remote-desktop protocol.
One of the apps in question is Microsoft Edge, with even the new Chromium-based version not expected to be able to run natively. However, as Windows Latest reports, a new feature known as 'SHIM' will allow Edge to run without any performance or technical issues. It's not clear whether this will be extended to support any other Win32 apps.
Until then, many apps will have to be run in a virtual 'Old Windows' operating system. And if you've ever used the built-in Windows remote desktop tool to control one computer from another, that's basically how you'll access Win32 apps on a device running Windows 10X. Hopefully, this workaround won't mean they run too slowly.
There are a couple of reasons why Win32 apps can't run natively. First, because Windows Core OS doesn't support them, and second because they’re not necessarily written to be efficient with battery power. Mobile, dual-screen devices such as the Neo are very thin, which doesn’t leave much room for a huge battery.
Updates will take 90 seconds
Unlike Windows 10, Windows 10X will work more like Android and Chrome OS (the operating system on Chromebooks). This allows it to download and install feature updates in under 90 seconds, Microsoft says.
That sort of time frame is much more in keeping with what everyone expects from modern mobile devices.
While there's almost no chance of it being the first hardware running Windows 10X, here's all you need to know about the Surface Neo.