March 28, 2013, 12:20 PM — Windows Blue, leaked last Sunday. And a few days later, Microsoft publicly acknowledged its existence (coincidentally or not) in the announcement for its BUILD conference.
The first reactions from brave reviewers who have installed the, still quite buggy, Build 9364, are mixed at best. Personally, I'm not concerned that the desktop is going to go away anytime soon. Nor am I upset that Blue focus mostly on the Modern UI. But do these early changes make me want to spend more time in the Modern UI environment? Not yet.
I've been using the build productively for a few days now and have dug up some intriguing, not previously unveiled hints about what's coming to the Windows ecosystem in late 2013. Using various folder and file comparison tools, I dug deep, I mean real deep (on a byte-by-byte level), into the Windows, %ProgramData% and hidden user account folders to get an understanding of what Microsoft has been working on in the 6 months since Windows 8 released to manufacturing.
Obviously, Windows Blue is a work in progress and while many features are currently checked into this build, there's no guarantee that they'll make it into the final product. With that caveat in mind, here's what I found:
Built-in 3G/4G tethering
Two new features called "TetheringStation" and "TetheringManager" were added to Windows Blue, which strongly suggest that some form of 3G/4G tethering will be included. The associated system files reveal that an incoming mobile connection can be shared either via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Unfortunately, there's no UI (yet) to enable tethering in this early build of Windows Blue, but it's more proof that Microsoft is in the process of merging the smartphone and the PC.
Windows Defender to get its own Modern app
Windows Defender, Windows's built-in antivirus, is about to get an update. There are dozens of internal references to a "Windows Defender Modern App" in Windows Blue, whereas Windows 8 only sports one folder named "Windows-Defender-Modern-App", which serves no apparent purpose. My guess is that Microsoft had to rush Windows 8 out the door and moved development of its Defender app into "Blue". There's no working app yet built in Blue, but the references clearly indicate that Microsoft is at least experimenting with it.
Barcode scanner support onboard
Windows Blue sports new DLLs, registry keys and language files that include strong hints at support for barcode scanners and even magnetic strip readers. From what I was able to decipher, Windows Blue puts both devices in the class of built-in devices, like proximity sensors, microphones, GPS and webcam.
My guess is that Microsoft is working with certain OEM vendors on built-in barcode scanners and magnetic strip readers for business solutions.
Extended battery life
Windows Blue contains a new power option dubbed "Latency sensitivity hint processor performance". While Blue offers no additional clues at this point, I assume that this setting defines that the CPU performance increases when the system demands low-latency applications (e.g., Metro apps, games). Under the "Power Saver" mode, the CPU will stay at 0% (lowest power state), even when low-latency applications demand it, whereas the "High Performance" mode stays at a constant 99%.
I used PCMark 7's productivity suite (in a constant loop) to run the battery dry under both Windows 8 and Windows Blue and averaged the times. In each and every test, Windows Blue fared just ever so slightly better. I assume that both the enhanced power options as well as newer and more power-efficient drivers are responsible for this increase.
Lower memory consumption
To improve overall performance on lower-end tablets, Microsoft reduced the default RAM usage of Windows Blue slightly. Again, I compared the total RAM usage ("committed" usage) of fresh Windows 8 install with Blue.
I saw an improvement of about 90 Megabytes on the same system after exactly 10 minutes post-boot (which is where most boot activity is done). Not a drastic improvement, but an improvement nonetheless.
The Retina MacBook Pro led the way and I'm sure a lot of Windows-based machines will follow. I found various graphics resources (embedded into DLLs as well as PNGs in the Windows folder) that are approximately 25-50% larger in size. Here's an example: The built-in Aero cursors in Windows 8 sport a maximum of 48x48 pixels and Windows Blue's largest cursors are 64x64 pixels now.
Obviously, all Modern apps scale to high-DPI displays, but the desktop side has been somewhat neglected. My guess is that Microsoft is slowly, but steadily, migrating their image resource files to a higher resolution.
BaseFS and Minkernel
As usual, when digging through roughly 56,000 Windows files (with roughly 5,000-10,000 changed as part of the "Blue" treatment), I stumbled across hints I just couldn't make a lot of sense of. The most intriguing references are to BaseFS and Minkernel.
I imagine that "BaseFS" stands for "Base/Basic File System", which is especially curious given that it's referenced with an also new term for the Windows world dubbed "MinKernel", none of which are present in Windows 8. Both a BaseFS and a MinKernel package are found in the "Windows\Servicing" folder which is used by Windows to either install features or roles (Windows Server).
I tried enabling these roles/features using the Dism.exe command, but to no avail. There is no public mention about BaseFS, other than a 10 year old Microsoft research document, that Stephen Chapman from www.msftkitchen.com pointed me to. The paper describes a more fault-tolerant network file system dubbed BaseFS and compares it to NTFS. It's unclear whether this MS research prototype has made it into "Blue" or whether it's something entirely new.
Any tipster out there know what BaseFS could be?