Looking back at Windows 8, it’s easy to see where Microsoft went wrong. It was a giant bet on touch-based computing, but it made using a PC with a keyboard and mouse awkward, frustrating, and outright confusing.
Developers didn’t flock toward Windows 8, and regular users did their very best to avoid it. While the tablet interface was a great experience, the rest annoyed everybody who just wanted a laptop that worked the way they were used to. Microsoft is trying to fix all that with Windows 10.
Windows has a cycle. Windows XP saved us from Windows ME, Windows 7 saved us from the Windows Vista mess, now Windows 10 is here to save save us from Windows 8.
It’s nice to be on the good part of the cycle.
If you’re upgrading to Windows 10 on a desktop or laptop PC, then prepare to be delightfully surprised: the Start menu you know and love is back. It feels slightly odd to celebrate its return, as it should never have gone away. It’s probably the biggest change, aside from the dark theme, that you’ll notice after Windows 8. But Microsoft hasn’t simply just reinstated the old version from Windows 7. Instead, it’s completely redesigned it in a way that combines the best aspects of the last two versions of Windows.
Instead of booting you a completely different screen, the Start menu lives in the lower-lefthand corner — just like it did in Windows 7. Microsoft is keeping the Live Tiles it introduced in Windows 8, but it’s put them inside the Start menu. That means that they won’t take up your entire monitor anymore (unless you really want them to). You can pin both modern and traditional apps to the Start menu, and there’s easy access to settings, shutdown or restart, and a list of most-used apps complete with handy jump lists for apps like Word that handle files. This mix of features feels like the best approach for bringing the Start menu back, and you can resize it freely to customize it further.
It seems like every version of Windows brings a different theme, and Windows 10 is no different. It’s more restrained than Windows 8 or Vista were — but not as boring as Windows 7. A black theme sets the stage for Windows 10, but if you’re not a fan of the darkness, then there are options to pick an accent color that can be shown on the Start menu, task bar, and the new Action Center. Across all three, you’ll notice subtle transparency effects have returned to Windows 10 from their roots in Windows Vista and Windows 7. Microsoft hasn’t added any transparency to built-in apps like File Explorer, so the effect isn’t overplayed or irritating. It feels utilitarian, but in a modern way.
Navigating around Windows 10 is also greatly improved. The annoying hot corners in Windows 8 that made you pull your hair out just trying to access settings or even the Start screen have been removed — thank god. A new Action Center works as a notification center to collect alerts from apps and provide quick access to settings.
Microsoft has focused a lot on multitasking with Windows 10. The Snap feature has seen the biggest improvements here. You can drag any window to a screen edge to snap it to half of your screen, and then the OS helpfully displays all of your other windows in an array for the other half. If you use a touchscreen, you can swipe from the left to bring up a list of all open apps and snap two of them alongside each other.
Alongside the snapping improvements is a new feature called Task View, which is a lot like Mission Control on the Mac. It displays all your open windows on a single screen so you can find what you’re looking for quickly. Microsoft has added a dedicated button to the task bar to try and get Windows 10 users to activate Task View and start using it. Microsoft claims the vast majority of its users have never used Alt+Tab to switch apps (one of those “weird but true” things about computers), so the idea is to help those users get better at multitasking.
That little button is also the gateway to a great new feature: virtual desktops. Yes, Microsoft has finally added this to Windows after years of having to use third-party alternatives. It’s a true power user option, allowing you to create separate virtual desktops with different apps. There’s no quick way to switch between virtual desktops using a trackpad or mouse, but Windows key + Ctrl + left / right is a handy shortcut. You’ll find the quickest way to access Task View (and virtual desktops) is simply by swiping up with three fingers on a trackpad.
Microsoft has also built a virtual assistant like Siri right into Windows 10. It’s called Cortana, and it’s designed to look and feel like an extension of the Start menu, and just like the Windows Phone equivalent, you can also use your voice to search. There’s also an option to enable a “hey Cortana” feature that lets you simply holler questions at your laptop. It’s useful for simple things like the weather, but you’ll find myself mostly using it to demonstrate Cortana to friends and family.
Cortana keeps everything it knows about you in a virtual notebook, which you can edit to trim out information you don’t want it to remember. It’s also cloud powered, meaning you can download Cortana for Android (or iOS in the future) and get the same features there, all synced up with your laptop. So if you ask Cortana to remind you to buy some milk from a local grocery store, that reminder will sync to your phone and activate as soon as you’re near the grocery store.
Cortana also handles local search, and it’s excellent. Hitting the “My Stuff” button within a Cortana search will search for files that are local to the machine and any data stored on OneDrive. Having a single interface for virtual assistant searches, web searches, and traditional computer searches is a super convenient and powerful thing, and Microsoft has done a really great job of integrating it here. It might be my favorite thing about Windows 10.
Cortana’s visual interface is a lot more useful. It’s an overview of your day mixed with the weather, news, local restaurants, and other interests you’ve selected. You tap on Cortana’s icon in the task bar occasionally to see this overview, and all the data is displayed in sections that resemble Google’s Now cards.
Windows 10 also includes a new browser, called Edge. It may be new, but it sadly sticks to the past in a number of ways. Edge’s task bar icon is barely different from that of Internet Explorer, in an effort to keep it familiar to the millions of diverse Windows users. It’s simplified, clean, and performs well in most cases — but it’s lacking features you might expect of a modern browser. Snapping tabs into new windows is messy and clunky, and downloads start automatically with no choice of where they’re being stored. This is basic stuff, and it’s surprising it’s missing. Microsoft really started from scratch with Edge, and it shows.
With most browsers, the one key thing you need to care about is performance, and Edge mostly delivers. Rendering most popular websites is smooth, and load times are usually good. It still feels like there’s some work to be done on occasions, and I’ve run into situations where pages just don’t render well at all or sites ask me to use Internet Explorer. Yes, Internet Explorer still exists in Windows 10, and you can access it through an “Open with Internet Explorer” option in Edge.
Edge does have some neat new features. You can draw all over webpages and send a copy to friends. It’s useful if you want to quickly share a screenshot of a site with some annotations. It’s cool for the first few times, and then you quickly forget it exists. One addition many did find very useful is Cortana. The digital assistant is integrated into Microsoft Edge, and it shows up in clever little ways. If you search for something in the address bar like “weather,” then it will immediately surface the weather nearby. The instances in which it’s really useful are when it gives me the information you need without having to load a full search page. If you search for “how tall is Tom Cruise” then it immediately returns the result before I’ve even had the chance to hit Enter.
Microsoft Edge still feels like a work in progress, much like Windows 10 itself. Changing the default search experience is stressful, with a requirement to visit Google itself and then access a feature buried so deep in the settings menus that it feels like Microsoft really doesn’t want you moving away from Bing. Equally, if you want Google Chrome as my default browser then you have to navigate deep into PC settings to change that behavior. That seems like a new security measure to stop apps hijacking the system, but it’s not user friendly at all. Microsoft actively blocks apps from setting themselves as default, so this isn’t even something Google can improve itself.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of Edge for me is the lack of extensions. Firefox and Chrome have both supported web extensions for years, and it feels like a miss not to have these available in Edge at launch. However, Microsoft has said these will arrive later this year. For now, I’m begrudgingly sticking with Google Chrome until Microsoft Edge is ready.
Microsoft’s Xbox app might be my favorite new feature, because it lets you stream Xbox One games to your laptop. It works surprisingly well, with no lag even over a Wi-Fi network. You simply plug in an Xbox One controller via USB and then connect to your Xbox One and start streaming over a local network. You can also create party chats straight from your laptop with Xbox friends. This is beta at launch, and I’ve found it’s a little hit and miss on successfully connecting you, but once it works the sound quality is great even if you use a built-in microphone on your PC.
One of the big additions to the Xbox app for PC gamers is game DVR. You can take screenshots and recordings, generating clips up to two hours in length. If you want to record a tutorial or just something to upload to YouTube, then you can also activate the feature, with options to change audio and video quality, and clips are just stored in MP4 format. It’s a nice secret feature and one less reason to purchase an expensive third-party screen-recording app.
Windows 10’s built-in apps are a great complement to the operating system. While Windows 8’s “Metro-style” apps were basic and lacking in features, Windows 10’s have mostly everything you’d want. Microsoft’s Maps app provides 3D images, directions, and streetside imagery. It’s all wrapped up in a simple interface with a hamburger menu to access settings and features. Most importantly, these built-in apps no longer run fullscreen by default. It was always irritating to run an app fullscreen on a 30-inch monitor, and you’re no longer forced to do that for any Windows 10 apps.
My favorite new app is Mail. Microsoft has taken a lot of the features from its acquisition of Acompli and applied them to this Mail client. There are swipe gestures for touch-based machines and a large reading pane to focus on messages. It all works a lot like Outlook.com, with the support of the Word engine for composing emails. That means writing messages is smooth, and they can be as simple (just text) or complex (tables and pictures) as you want. There are some things missing, like a unified inbox, and a lot of quirks. Occasionally, all the subject lines of my emails disappear randomly, or an account refuses to open. I’m hoping Microsoft can iron out these bugs with an update, because the app is great otherwise.
The new calendar app is also great. Although I’d like to see some Cortana integration in the future, the uncluttered interface is exactly what you expect from your calendar. Best of all, Google Calendar is now supported so you can easily add your Gmail account and have it work just fine across email and calendar. You’ll also need to add your Google accounts here to get the Cortana integration across Windows 10 to work, it won’t just fetch information over the web.
Microsoft has also finally improved its Photos app to be a lot more useful. Images are automatically corrected, and it does some smart album creation on the fly.
But the most impressive additions are the new stripped-down, touch-based Office apps. Microsoft has labeled them Word, Excel, and PowerPoint Mobile, but they’ll work on any Windows 10 PC. Likewise, the Excel and PowerPoint Mobile versions are enough for me. I’m sure they’ll be enough for most people who don’t require the full power of Office desktop apps, and the best feature is that they’re free for devices with a 10.1-inch screen or smaller.
While we’re discussing apps, it would be remiss not to mention Microsoft’s new Windows Store. Apps, games, music, movies, and TV have all finally been combined into a single place. The goal, eventually, is that developers will write a single app and it will run on your Windows PC, tablet, phone, Xbox One, and the upcoming HoloLens headset. That’s all good news, but the bad news is that there’s still a lack of true quality apps. Microsoft’s built-in apps show what’s possible, and hope that Windows 10 will finally encourage developers to create better ones. Microsoft is offering Windows 10 free to Windows 7 and Windows 8 users with a view to create a huge install base to attract developers. It’s a wise move, but it might be years until we see the results.
While Microsoft is focused on mouse and keyboard computing with Windows 10, it hasn’t forgot about all the good touch work that went into Windows 8. A new tablet mode in Windows 10 aims to bridge the fullscreen world of Windows 8 with the traditional way you use a Windows PC. If you have a 2-in-1 convertible laptop, then you’ll be prompted to enable tablet mode when you physically switch modes from laptop to tablet. Windows 10’s tablet mode simplifies the task bar, makes everything touch-friendly, and brings back the fullscreen Start screen. Overall, it’s a good improvement over the hidden gestures in Windows 8, and it feels a lot easier to use if you’re enabling it for the first time. Microsoft still has some work to do to blend these two modes a little better, but this already feels less jarring than Windows 8.
It’s easy to recommend Windows 10 as an upgrade for anyone on Windows 7 and Windows 8, but maybe not just yet. “Wait for service pack 1” has always been the default advice for new versions and Windows, and it absolutely applies here. During my testing on a variety of hardware, I’ve run into a lot of bugs and issues — even with the version that will be released to consumers on launch day. Some range from basic problems like app icons on the task bar disappearing, all the way up to my audio randomly failing or blue screens. Even during Microsoft’s review demonstration of Windows 10, a PC rebooted due to a blue screen.
Everything about Windows 10 feels like a new approach for Microsoft, and I’m confident these early bugs and issues will be addressed fairly quickly. I’m hoping and expecting that as we approach the holiday season, we’ll see a more finished Windows 10. If you can deal with a few oddities here and there and you’re frustrated with Windows 8, then by all means upgrade now. But if you depend on your Windows computer on a daily basis and it’s working fine for you, you should hold off until everything is a little more polished. Microsoft is rolling out daily updates at the moment, so it might only be a matter of weeks until things are fixed. Windows 10 is a work in progress, and it’s at the early part of its life right now.
Windows 10’s development has been unique. If you wanted to, you could test public beta versions of the operating system over the past eight months and watch Windows 10 reach its final point. Windows 10 has some great additions over Windows 8 and Windows 7, and it really feels like a good blend of the familiarity of Windows 7 and some of the new features of Windows 8. It’s not irritating to use, and you don’t need a tutorial to find the Start menu. It just works like you’d expect.
That’s the nature of the Windows cycle: bad version, then a good version. Windows 10 is a great fix to the problems of Windows 8, and that’s exactly what we all expected. But what about the next version? Oddly, Microsoft says there won’t really be one. This is the “last Windows” and Microsoft will be iterating on it for the coming years. Assuming Microsoft can kill the bugs in this initial release, it’s going to make computers better for billions of people. The best part of Windows 10 is that it ends the cycle of good and bad in favor of something great.
Lead image and photos of Microsoft Edge, Cortana, and Xbox app by Chris Welch.