Introduction and settings
Windows 10 was formally announced at the end of September 2014 and, as you'll probably know, the final version is now available to download for free if you're running Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 8.1.
We've had unparalleled access to the operating system throughout the whole of this time thanks to the Windows 10 Insider program – essentially a way for developers and early adopters to try Windows 10 as it moved through various early versions.
Throughout this whole process, Microsoft has talked about a new capability being introduced in Windows 10 called Continuum (also known as Tablet Mode). Both names give a clue as to what the new feature is actually designed to do – provide a seamless experience. With more 2 in 1 PCs-cum-tablets now being sold as well as more standard laptops with touchscreens, Microsoft wanted to find a way for Windows 10 to adapt to its surroundings.
And that's what we have with Continuum. In a sense, its Windows 10's answer to bridging the gap between touch and conventional keyboard and mouse use; something that didn't go so well with Windows 8.
The problem with Windows 8 is that it was all about touch. Keyboard and mouse users were treated as second-class citizens. The enhancements in Windows 8.1 went a long way to solving these issues, with touches like the taskbar appearing on top of the Start screen if you needed it to. The issues with Windows 8 ran deeper though, as it was a confused mess in other areas, such as the Charms. The Charms bar gets unceremoniously axed in Windows 10, but they actually had a role to play for pure tablets and in some ways it seems a retrograde step to take everything back to the Taskbar and Start menu.
But in other ways it doesn't, because this is exactly why Tablet Mode exists; it helps Windows 10 become touch friendly when you need it to, and non-touch friendly when you don't. It's also designed to bring a more consistent user interface across all Windows 10 devices rather than having a dual Desktop and Start screen modes as you had in Windows 8 and 8.1.
Automatic or manual
This process can be automatic. In simple terms, Tablet Mode detects whether or not a keyboard is attached to your PC. When it's detached, it becomes a tablet and this can automatically launch Tablet Mode.
It is a little more user configurable than this, though. Tablet Mode can be automatic when you detach a keyboard, but it doesn't have to be. Within the excellent new Settings app, go to System, then Tablet Mode. You'll see a toggle switch to switch Tablet Mode on or off, but it's the settings underneath that are more interesting.
You can choose what you want Tablet Mode to do when you first sign into your PC. You can tell it simply to remember to switch Tablet Mode on or off depending on what you used last. You can also select to always go to the Desktop or to automatically switch to Tablet Mode (so if your PC detects a keyboard it still won't switch). Then the option below this enables you to control how automatic Tablet Mode is. You can make it completely automatic when a keyboard is detached, or you can choose to be prompted via a pop-up on the desktop. And finally, you can choose not to be asked and for it not to be automatic (you can still manually invoke it).
As with most commonly-used settings, Tablet Mode can be launched via a button in the Action Centre. Action Centre in Windows 10 is designed to be the home for Notifications and doing anything that doesn't require launching the settings app. Click the Action Centre icon in the Notification area to launch it and then select Tablet Mode from the options at the bottom. It's alongside other buttons you can toggle on and off such as Flight Mode, Wi-Fi, Location and Bluetooth and underneath any Notifications you get from apps.
The main effects
There are several key usability adjustments that Windows 10 makes when you go into Tablet Mode. Your device automatically adjusts for touch input and your desktop and Start Menu change. Windows 10 doesn't go for a complete reintroduction of the Windows 8 Start screen, but it does something similar. The Start menu becomes full screen, just like it was in Windows 8 and is permanently open on your desktop, so it's more like an iPad-style home screen launcher in the background.
Now, if you've seen anything of the Start menu in Windows 10, you'll know how much it's changed from the version in Windows 7. The new Start menu has live tiles on the right-hand side. You can right-click any file, folder or app in Windows and select Pin to Start to include it here. On the other side you get a list of recently used programs, as well as shortcuts to other key destinations such as the Settings app and a shortcut to the File Explorer.
You can also Shut down, restart or put your PC to sleep from this menu, too; click Power and another menu pops up with these options. The live tiles work in the same way as they do in Windows 8 so you can drag any of them around the menu should you wish to re-order them.
Tablet Mode introduces a modified version of this Start menu. The left-hand side of the menu now has three icons. The top 'hamburger' icon (≡) enables you to access your most-used apps. This part is more like the desktop version of the Start menu and your User Account is shown at the top – you can lock the screen or sign out here just as you could in Windows 8 and 8.1. This menu is joined by a Power button (which enables you to Restart, Shut Down and Sleep) and another icon at the bottom so you can scroll down through a list of app your apps, not just the ones that are pinned to the Start menu.
In Tablet Mode, you can also swipe up on the left side to open your All Apps menu so you can browse your entire apps list. You can tap a letter on the All Apps list to go to a letter chooser so you can quickly jump to another section.
If you're connected to a second display – which you might be with a convertible PC or tablet such as the Surface Pro 3, the Start menu won't go full screen. Instead it'll be the same size it normally is but it will be constantly open.
The other key thing Tablet Mode changes is how the Taskbar looks. It basically becomes simpler in terms of features; though you can still get to everything you need. It spaces out the taskbar icons in the Notifications area and removes the ones you don't need (mostly unnecessary third-party icons). You just see Wi-Fi, battery, sound and the Action Centre icon left. Plus the ever-present clock, naturally.
The App icons are hidden by default to remove clutter, too. We're not sure what the reason for this is, but you can turn them back on. In fact, you can turn any Taskbar features back on that Tablet Mode removes by default – the app icons, notification icons, touch keyboard button and language switcher. The touch keyboard icon disappearance is a bit of a strange one, but we guess the reason is that the keyboard will still appear automatically if you tap into a text box, browser address bar or similar. So the button not being there isn't a huge issue.
On the other side of the Taskbar, the Start icon is now joined by a back button, so you can cycle back to previous apps. If you were in the Start menu and then launched an app, tapping the back button takes you back to the Start menu. It's designed to be a much more phone-like experience. There's also a Search icon as well as the Task View button. In Desktop mode search (incorporating the Cortana voice assistant) is a search bar. In Tablet Mode it is an icon by default – again, for a more simplistic look.
What happens to apps?
Apps are full screen in Tablet Mode, whether they're Windows Apps you download from the Windows Store or traditional desktop apps such as Microsoft Word. This isn't as ridiculous as it sounds – we're all used to using tablet apps on things like iPads, and Microsoft is trying to appeal to those sensibilities.
It does take a little getting used to at first, however. In Tablet Mode you're also able to quit both desktop and new Windows apps in the same way you could in Windows 8; by dragging them down to the bottom middle of the screen. Windows apps also have their X icon hidden for this reason (though if you happen to be using a mouse in Tablet Mode these will reappear).
Microsoft hopes you will use the new Windows 10 Task View feature to switch between apps. Using Task View is a lot more intuitive on a touchscreen device. On a laptop or desktop, Task View is rather secondary to just switching between open icons on the Taskbar or using Windows+Tab (Alt+Tab still works as well, as you'd expect). Task View is a fine new addition to Windows 10. You can't say it's a groundbreaking new feature, as it's mostly a repackaging of what has gone before.
But what is new is its addition to the Taskbar. This brings it to the attention of more users. Until now, many people who used Windows wouldn't have even realised that Windows+Tab could take them to an interface to flick between apps. Fewer still will have realised that there was a way in the touch version of Windows 8 (not 8.1) to switch between app screens – flicking in from the left of the screen brought up a switcher menu. Like the Charms menu on the other side, it was underused and is now long gone, so it's good to have an even better feature to replace it.
It's not true to say that Task View doesn't have any new features, since Task View also includes a Multiple Desktops feature (though it's only available in Desktop mode). While this is a new feature to Windows, it's not a new feature to computing in general; for example it's been featured in Apple's OS X operating system for several versions.
Multiple Desktops are intended primarily for work, where you might have your email open on one screen, a spreadsheet on another and so on. To prevent distraction, you can open different apps on different desktops, so you can move between the desktops using Task View and close the extra desktops when they're no longer needed.
Another change to app behaviour in Tablet Mode is the way you snap apps to the sides of the screen. As you could in Windows 8's Start screen, you can pin two apps side-by-side in Tablet mode. As in Windows 8.1 (but not original Windows 8) you can adjust the split. Simply drag the bar which runs down between the two apps. Aero Snap in Windows 10's desktop mode now enables you to do a four-way split, but you can't do this in Tablet Mode (we do really like the capability to do it in Desktop mode, though!).
If you used touch back in the Windows 7 days, you'll know that using a touchscreen with the desktop was a far from pleasant experience. It was really hard to hit the target you wanted with your finger and it just wasn't a very good experience. Things are really different in Windows 10. There's much less uncertainty in the touch – partly this is due to much better touchscreens being around than when Windows 7 was released – but Microsoft has worked hard to make the desktop an environment where touch can thrive rather than being a 'second best' to mouse and keyboard control.
Tablet and 2 in 1 devices (with a detachable keyboard) are still in the minority in terms of the number of Windows devices on the streets, and it's hard to see that changing in the short term. That's why Windows 8 was such a mistake for Microsoft; it went too far towards catering for touch-based PCs that are a small percentage of all the Windows devices sold.
And that's also why Tablet Mode is such a great addition for Windows 10. It's there when you want it and gone when you don't. And for those of us with hybrid tablet/laptop devices detaching the keyboard and transitioning to Tablet Mode is a seamless experience. No longer is it just a case of the hardware being touch-ready, now Windows is as well. With Windows 10 Microsoft has worked hard to bridge the gap between desktop use on traditional PCs and tablets and it has succeeded.