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Windows 10: The big changes headed your way in 2017

A look at the most significant changes due to hit Microsoft's evolving OS in the coming year.

Video: Here are a few of the ways Windows 10 will transform in 2017

Microsoft has made many promises about what Windows 10 will do, and while some have materialized, others are still just ambitions.

As a perpetual work in progress, Windows 10 continues to accrue new features, as Windows catches up with Microsoft's vision of it being an OS that runs anywhere, syncs with the cloud, and has an intelligent assistant at its core.

During 2017 the OS will undergo significant changes and will appear on a variety of new hardware. Here's what to look out for.

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1. Windows 10 phones edge closer to replacing desktop PCs

Microsoft has long pushed the idea that Windows 10 on phones will be so powerful, it'll be akin to carrying a full PC in your pocket, courtesy of the OS' Continuum feature.

But while select Windows 10 phones, such as the Lumia 950, can be hooked up to a mouse, keyboard and monitor and used as a Windows desktop, there are significant limitations.

However, in addition to the possibility of legacy apps running on smartphones, see below, various improvements to Continuum are due to land in 2017.

These include support for more PC features, such as running multiple Windows side by side on the desktop, pinning apps to the Taskbar and hitting the Windows button to bring up the search box. Other improvements include the ability to keep your phone in your pocket and have it connect wirelessly to a docking station and to independently customize the Windows Start screen on the phone display and on a PC monitor.

2. Running classic Windows software on your phone

This year, Microsoft should be updating Windows to allow traditional desktops apps to run on mobile phone hardware, and not just a limited subset of Windows Store apps, as was the case with the failed ARM-based Surface tablets running Windows RT.

One of the supported smartphone chipsets will be the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, the same chip found in the US version of the Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone. Devices based on the Snapdragon 835 will run Win32 apps using emulation, necessary to run this x86 software on its ARM-based hardware. While emulation has a performance overhead, Microsoft has demoed Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Word and the game World of Tanks Blitz running smoothly on the emulator.

If Windows 10 phones were to support legacy line-of-business and other desktop Win32 applications used by many firms, the ability of Windows 10 handsets to run as a lightweight desktop PC would suddenly become a lot more useful.

3. Low-cost Windows 10 PCs with all-day battery life

The ability to run a full Windows 10 desktop on smartphone hardware should lead to more affordable Windows PCs that enjoy better battery life.

Windows 10 PCs based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset will be out this year. The chip consumes 25 percent less power than its predecessor, and offers a fast-charging technology called Quick Charge 4.0.

4. Return of OneDrive placeholders

Image: Microsoft

Since the launch of Windows 10, many users have been petitioning Microsoft to reintroduce placeholders to the OS' built-in OneDrive cloud storage service.

In Windows 8.1, placeholders, also called smart files, let users see all their files stored on OneDrive, whether those files were stored on the device or not.

This feature was removed from Windows 10 but is now due to be bought back in Windows 10 File Explorer when browsing OneDrive. The returning feature will work in a similar fashion to Windows 8.1's placeholders, showing users files stored both locally and on OneDrive, allowing them to download files and folders to the device and keep them in sync with OneDrive.

5. Windows 10 Cloud

With the Chromebook challenging Windows in the education market, Microsoft is reportedly poised to release Windows 10 Cloud, a stripped-back, easier-to-use version of Windows, which would emulate the simplicity of Chrome OS.

The OS will supposedly also only be able to run apps from the Windows Store, an option already available in the base version of Windows 10 by the Creators Update.

6. Windows 10 Cloudbook

Windows 10 Cloud is expected to run on a new range of low-cost PCs with minimal storage, similar to the Chromebook.

According to leaked information, these PCs would have a minimum of a quad-core Intel Celeron processor and 4GB of RAM and target 10-plus hours of battery life and a 20-second boot time.

7. Longer battery life

Microsoft is also attempting to extend the battery life of laptops and tablets not built around power-efficient smartphone tech.

The Power Throttling feature, due to roll out to most Windows 10 users in September this year, limits the performance of non-essential software to prevent it burning through the battery in new Intel-powered PCs.

8. Capture 3D scanning

Windows 10's Capture 3D Experience feature has been shown making it almost as simple to capture 3D scans of real-world objects as it is to take a photo. In a demo last year, a Microsoft employee used the feature running on a HP X3 handset to create a full-color, 3D scan of a real-world sandcastle, simply by pointing the camera at the castle and walking around it. Originally due out in spring, it is now expected to be released in September this year.

9. Project Neon

This September, Windows 10 is expected to get something of a facelift. The new-look design language, known as Project Neon, has only been glimpsed here and there, such as in this slide captured by Windows Central.

New animations, transparencies and other effects that echo those used in the Aero Glass design found in Windows Vista and Windows 7 are expected, alongside the Acrylic feature, which will blur the background, sidebar or nav for apps, depending on how a Universal Windows App is being used.

10. CShell

Microsoft is rumored to be doubling down on the technology that will allow Windows to automatically adapt and scale how it looks to suit the device it's running on, whether that's a phone, PC or augmented-reality headset like HoloLens.

This technology underlying this is dubbed CShell or Composable Shell, and said to go beyond the limited adaptive interface offered by Windows 10's Continuum feature today and be on the cards for a bigger reveal in 2017/18.

11. Tabbed Shell

Fans of how tabs simplify browsing the web will be pleased to hear that Microsoft is reported to be adding support for tabs to File Explorer and many more Windows apps. In the meantime, Windows users have to use third-party tools such as Clover 3.

12. New Windows 10 wearables -- but for biz

The fitness-oriented Microsoft Band may be on hiatus, but there is a Windows 10-powered wearable on the way.

Trekstor is building a Windows 10 IoT Core-based smartwatch aimed at businesses, specifically industries such as retail, hospitality, manufacturing, and healthcare.

13. New augmented- and virtual-reality headsets

Low-cost, priced from $299, headsets from Acer, Lenovo and other computer makers running on the Windows Mixed Reality platform are expected to be released to consumers this year.

Mixed reality is Microsoft's name for headsets that can believably project digital objects into the wearer's view of the real world, for example, placing a 3D-rendered chessboard on a real-world table, as well as dropping users into a full 3D virtual environment.

One possible use for the headsets is enhancing online shopping, with a Microsoft demo showing a user dropping actual-sized 3D models of stools from the furniture site Houzz around the room, to see what they look like in real life.

14. Decent offline web apps come to Edge

Windows 10's Edge browser might still be lagging behind competitors when it comes to extensions, but Microsoft continues to add new features.

This year, Edge should catch up with Chrome when it comes to running web apps that work well offline, minimizing frustrations related to lost data or endless loading when a connection drops, thanks to forthcoming support for Service Workers and Cache API in Edge.

15. Desktop apps come to the web

In the near future, expect the sophistication of apps running in the Edge browser to approach that of those on your computer.

Edge will soon support WebAssembly, a low-level, assembly-like language designed to run alongside JavaScript. WebAssembly enables applications that have historically been too complex to run in browsers -- like 3D video games, computer-aided design, video and image editing, and scientific visualization -- to run as web apps, thanks to the language's near-native performance.

WebAssembly is already supported as an experimental feature in Edge, as well as in Chrome and Firefox.

16. Easy communication with friends and family

The major Redstone 3 update to Windows 10 in September will boost the OS' social credentials, with a series of changes to make it simpler to stay in touch and share content with friends and family.

The Windows MyPeople feature will allow users to pin their favorite contacts to the right-hand side of the Windows taskbar. Clicking on a pinned contact's face brings up email or Skype messages from only that person and files can be dragged to that person's face for quick sharing.

Informal check-ins also become easier, with the Shoulder Taps feature allowing pinned contacts to send friends animated emojis and other clipart, which pop up above that contact's face on the taskbar.

17. Better Gmail support

Gmail users running Windows 10 miss out on some of the more advanced features in the OS' Mail and Calendar apps.

However, Microsoft says Gmail users will soon no longer be second-class citizens, with plans to add support for syncing to Google email, calendar and contacts. The support, already available to those testing Windows 10 under the Insider program, will allow Gmail users to access Microsoft's Focused Inbox smart filter, provide the ability to track travel dates and shipping deliveries, Twitter-style @mentions to grab someone's attention in an email, and themed calendars to keep track of sporting events.

18. Home Hub

In an effort to broaden the ways users can interact with Windows, it seems as if Microsoft is working on transforming Windows 10 into what it calls a Home Hub.

Sources told Windows Central that Home Hub will turn Windows into a shared computing environment for the home, allowing family members to more easily share calendars, apps and services.

A future-gazing Microsoft video from 2013, dug out by ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley, shows how this system might eventually work. In it, family members share access to photos, apps and calendars on a screen attached to a wall and interact with computers around the home, for example scanning carrots to find appropriate recipes. Adding credence to the Home Hub rumor are references to Home Hub being a shared family account in Windows 10, as discovered by Twitter user WalkingCat.

ZDNet's Foley also references a recent Microsoft job posting for a software engineer in the Windows and Devices Group, which is seeking someone to expand Windows' "family" credentials.

19. Cortana challenges Amazon Echo

To support this vision of Windows being at the heart of the home, Microsoft is preparing Windows 10's virtual assistant to challenge the Amazon Echo smart speaker, with harman/kardon planning to release a Cortana-powered smart speaker in 2017.

20. Less troublesome virtual machines

The new Revert VM feature in Windows 10 will create automatic checkpoints when using virtual machines, allowing users to more easily roll systems running in VMs back.

[This article has been updated, expanded and republished. Latest update: April 26, 2017.]

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