No software is perfect, as the old adage goes. But Windows 10 gets pretty damned close and, more important, Microsoft has a plan is to keep improving it over time. And really, you can’t ask for anything more than that.
The genesis for this astounding feat is of course the much-maligned Windows 8. And while you might argue that the team that has now delivered Windows 10 couldn’t have been dealt a worse hand with that predecessor, let’s be fair: Windows 8 had some great foundational work related to touch interfaces, a new apps platform and store, and even some desktop innovations few bothered to explore. With a clear understanding of what was done right and what was done so horribly wrong, Microsoft melded Windows 8 into something truly cohesive, usable and wonderful.
Impressive? Yes. But it gets better.
With Windows 8, Microsoft created a system that worked well with touch-first devices like tablets after a bit of training, but completely ignored—and infuriated—the 1.5 billion users who interacted with the system using “legacy” interfaces like mouse and keyboard. The software giant could have overreacted, again, and tilted Windows 10 too much in the opposite direction. In fact, it would have been understandable.
But Microsoft didn’t do that. Instead, Windows 10 is ideally suited for every PC form factor imaginable: traditional PCs, yes, but also touch-first devices and, most decisively, the 2-in-1 PCs that can move between these usage modes. Windows 10 will make any PC—desktops, laptops, 2-in-1s, tablets and mini-tablets, whatever—better, and that’s not something that could be said of Windows 8. I honestly didn’t think it was even possible.
Windows 10 also fixes some fundamental flaws in the design of Windows 8, which was wrongheadedly unilateral in requiring users to adopt user experiences that were not optimal for their hardware. Start was no longer a menu but a space-wasting full-screen interface that was as useless as it was baffling on large screens. The new apps platform—Metro, Modern, Windows Store, whatever the frick it was called—had advantages aplenty, but could at first only be run full-screen and never in a window on the desktop. There were dead-ends everywhere, non-discoverable UIs like Charms and Switcher that users would trigger by mistake and then never know how to repeat. Windows 8 was like a how-to guide in alienating your user base.
In Windows 10, these and other endemic problems have been fixed.
Start is again a menu on PCs, as it should be. But it’s a full-screen experience on tablets by default, which makes more sense for those devices. And you can pick the UI you prefer and the system can even be configured to switch modes automatically if you do things like add a keyboard to a tablet. Brilliant.
The new apps platform has been evolved into what Microsoft now calls universal apps and in addition to general updates, there are two major changes: these apps run in floating windows on the desktop as they should on PCs, and they can be tailored by developers to run on phones, tablets, PCs, Xbox One, the HoloLens augmented reality headset, Surface Hub, and other device types.
Non-discoverable UIs are gone, banished to the same tech dustbin where you’ll find Microsoft Bob, Clippy, Kin, and other Microsoft experiments gone wrong. In their place are common-sense edge gestures for touch systems and discoverable and obvious replacements for the rest of us. No more UI by mistake.
So where Windows 8 alienated users, Windows 10 embraces them, with Microsoft apologizing and saying we’re listening again. It feels good, sure. But it also works, which is more important. Like Windows phone before it, Windows 10 isn’t just different to be different, it’s just better. And it’s not mindlessly fulfilling all users’ wish lists. It does the right thing.
These are all generalities, of course. But Windows 10 has specific improvements that make it a superior experience to its predecessors, and an excellent upgrade. An upgrade that passes the ultimate test: when you go back and use Windows 7 or Windows 8.1—as I have done repeatedly over the past few months in testing Windows 10 upgrades—you miss features and improvements you’ve come to appreciate and expect. And just some of those include:
Familiar desktop environment. Windows 8 features two user interfaces that never integrated well together, the desktop from previous Windows versions and a new mobile environment that was originally called Metro. Metro was the home of the reviled Start screen and full-screen apps, as well as truly weird UIs like Charms and Switcher, which actually did appear on top of the desktop as well. In Windows 10, the familiar desktop environment is back, the weird Windows 8 UIs are gone, and everything works well together again, as it should be. And all the familiar desktop pieces—Start button and menu, taskbar, tray area, floating windows, File Explorer and so on—are back and have been improved. Some so much that I highlight them below. What’s neat about this change is that it’s really a step forward, not back. And if you’re using Windows 10 on a tablet, you can mostly hide the desktop while still using all of the features that have always made it so useful. That is, it’s not a compromise but rather something is generally better overall when compared to either Windows 7 or Windows 8.1.
Tip: Type WINKEY + X to bring up the power user menu. It debuted in Windows 8, but most Windows 7 users aren’t aware of that.
Cortana. Microsoft’s personal digital assistant debuted in Windows Phone 8.1 to great acclaim for two reasons: She is superior in many ways to both Siri and Google Now, and she has a fun attitude. With Windows 10, Cortana comes to the masses and gets some prime real estate on the taskbar, replacing the Start search feature from previous versions while working consistently with your expectations (you can tap WINKEY and just start typing as before) and greatly improving the functionality. Cortana keeps a notebook of your interests, provides your daily schedule at a glance, and even provides comedic relief. And you can configure Cortana to respond to your voice: just say “Hey, Cortana” and get busy. You won’t believe how neat this feature is.
Tip: If you do enable “Hey, Cortana,” you can use the keyboard shortcut WINKEY + C to initiate a search too.
Action Center and notifications. Windows 8 provided the underpinnings for the notification system in Windows 10, but that earlier OS could only display notifications, and if you missed one, it was gone forever. In Windows 10, the circle is complete with Action Center, which works like the notification centers in mobile platforms like Android and iOS. So if you miss a notification, just open Action Center—conveniently accessible from a new tray icon or via a right-edge swipe. Here, you will find all of your pending notifications collected, and you can deal with them one-by-one, by app, or clear them all out at once. For example, if you select an email message, that message will display in the Mail app. Action Center also provides handy Quick Action tiles for things like display and networking connections, screen brightness, airplane mode, and the like.
Windows Hello. While Windows Hello is only part of the broad set of security improvements in Windows 10, it makes for a great demo and, more important, truly redefines your relationship with your PC. Using a facial, iris, or fingerprint scanner—all special hardware that must come with a new PC or be purchased separately—you can now sign-in to your PC and do things like approve app and content purchases in speeds that range from “instantaneous” to “a mere second or two.” Windows Hello works great, and it makes something as simple as using a PIN sign-in seem tedious by comparison.
Start. Microsoft is right to proudly tout that the Start menu is back in Windows 10. After all, hundreds of millions of people skipped Windows 8 in part because it lacked this decade-old UI. But its more nuanced than that. Yes, Start is a menu, as it was in Windows 7, on traditional PCs, and yes, it’s been improved to include both the most-often-used features from that old menu and a section of live tiles. And yes, it will display in full-screen mode—a la Windows 8—on tablets and other touch screen devices. But Start is smarter than that, too. In menu mode, it can be shaped and sized as you prefer, a first. It can be configured to automatically switch between menu and full-screen modes on a 2-in-1-type device. And you can configure it for menu or full-screen mode, as you prefer, regardless of the device. In short, Start will work however you want it to. What a concept.
Task view. With the renewed emphasis on the desktop in Windows 10, Microsoft has improved a number of interactions that will be familiar to many users. Among them is multitasking: While the ALT + TAB keyboard combination is well understood by power users, it turns out that only 6 percent of Windows users ever use this feature. So Windows 10 includes a new Task View button that puts this functionality front-and-center via a new taskbar button, and lets you easily navigate between your open apps and other windows.
Tip: Even power users can appreciate Task view. You can enable it via the keyboard shortcut WINKEY + TAB. And if you’re using virtual desktops (see below), you can configure in Settings whether Task view shows the apps on all desktops or just the current desktop. Where is this interface, you ask? Settings, System, Multitasking.
Snap Assist. Windows 7 and Windows 8 both had their own variations on Snap, where you drag a window to a screen edge—or use a keyboard combo like WINKEY + LEFT ARROW or WINKEY + RIGHT ARROW—to “snap” that window to the edge. But with Windows 10, Snap goes the extra distance and provides a new feature called Snap Assist: when you snap a window to one side of the screen, Snap Assist will show you a Task view-like view of the remaining windows so you can choose another to snap to the other side. It’s retroactively obvious, and makes Snap truly useful.
Tip: Snap is not just about snapping two apps side-by-side, though that is its most frequent usage. You can actually snap up to four windows in a grid onscreen. To do so, drag the windows into the corners of the screen, instead of onto the screen edges.
Virtual desktops. Most people don’t realize this, but Windows NT-based versions of Windows, including Windows XP and newer, have always supported virtual desktops, providing a way to organize running applications and open windows into discrete workspaces. But what’s been missing is a user interface to create and organize virtual desktops. So this interface is included in Windows 10. From Task view, you can add new virtual desktops, close them, and drag apps and windows from desktop to desktop. If there is a downside to virtual desktops, it’s that you can’t save virtual desktops and have them persist across reboots. But just putting this UI into Windows 10 is a big step forward.
Microsoft Edge. For years Microsoft talked big with Internet Explorer, promising to turn its aging browser into a modern product that could keep up with Chrome and Safari. With Windows 10, the firm finally admits that strategy wasn’t working and simply starts over with its new browser, Edge. The results are mixed. As promised, Edge is a faster, lighter, and safer web browser with some features from IE—SmartScreen protection, InPrivate browsing, Reading View, Favorites, and like, plus neat new features like the ability to annotate web pages, including with digital ink if you have a Surface or other pen-based PC. Edge also has truly useful Cortana integration, allowing you to ask questions from the address bar, select terms and find out more, and learn more about restaurants. Unfortunately, Edge is also unfinished. A promised Chrome-compatible add-on system won’t ship until this fall, so you can’t use ad blockers, password systems like LastPass, and the like. And many features you expect from IE—like the ability to pin web pages to the taskbar, or save a web page as a shortcut—are simply missing. It will only get better over time, but this is one of the few major new Windows 10 features that doesn’t seem fully baked yet.
Continuum. Windows 8’s weird mobile/desktop dichotomy did lead to one truly interesting advance in PC design in the rise of 2-in-1s like Microsoft Surface. But in Windows 10, Microsoft has finally made the software side of this equation—and thus the devices that can use it—make sense. That is, if you’re using a 2-in-1 (or tablet or whatever) with a keyboard attached, Windows will look at work much like any other PC. But if you detach the keyboard, it can be configured to automatically switch into Tablet mode, where all apps—including desktop applications—run full-screen and the system is otherwise optimized for touch. Reattach the keyboard and it can go back to normal mode. Like most Windows 10 advances, this behavior is fully configurable, and you can of course manually enter and exit tablet mode at any time, your choice. Continuum, as this functionality is called, isn’t just about keyboards—it works with foldable/transforming PCs like Lenovo Yoga and HP Spectre x360 too—but you get the idea. And it will soon transform a new generation of Windows phones—a story for a later day—into fully-functioning PCs when docked. This is a real innovation.
Universal apps platform. With its “One Windows” vision, Microsoft is offering one app store to rule them all, and consistency between multiple hardware platforms thanks to universal Windows apps—”universal apps” that can be designed to run across multiple device types including PCs all kinds, tablets, phones, Xbox One, HoloLens, Surface Hub, and more. Those in the know can tell you that universal apps are nothing more than an evolution of the app platform—Metro, Modern, Windows Store apps, whatever—that Microsoft first created for Windows 8, and that’s true enough. Remember, Microsoft didn’t get everything wrong in that platform.
Games. While Microsoft made a half-hearted attempt to (re)embrace PC gaming with Windows Vista, we’d have to go back to Windows 95 to find a time when the software giant was truly serious about this initiative. You can blame this on Xbox, Microsoft’s successful video game console lineup, but whatever: PC gaming is still huge, and with Windows 10 Microsoft has a chance to integrate Xbox consoles and PCs in ways that were never possible before. And it is doing so: with Windows 10, you can stream games from your Xbox One console to your PC, playing the game over the network using a USB-connected Xbox One controller. And it works, if a bit laggily if both devices are on Wi-Fi. The new Xbox app replaces the Games and Xbox SmartGlass apps from Windows 8 and provides a cohesive single interface for interacting with your friends and games across platforms. Windows 10 is the only place to play DirectX 12 games, which provide better performance and visual acuity, and we’ll soon be able to play some games across platforms. Finally, you can record Windows-based gameplay using the new Game Bar, just as you can on Xbox One. Awesome.
Tip: Type WINKEY + G to bring up the Game Bar at any time. And yes, you can use this recording feature to take screenshot or video of any Windows experience, not just games.
The in-box apps are better than ever … but can still be improved. As with Windows 8, Windows 10 ships with a ton of built-in apps that provide basic functionality for email, calendaring, and contact management, photos, music and videos, mapping, and more. Plus, there are great MSN content apps like News, Weather, Sports and Money. For the most part, these apps are quite improved over their predecessors, and feature common UI elements that work well on desktop PCs and tiny tablets. And of course they’re universal apps now, so they also run on Windows phones too. But there are individual issues with each, as you might expect. Mail, for example, is now a stunner, but it lacks linked inbox capabilities and you can’t turn off conversation view. Broken record time: these apps can only get better over time, and I do expect them to be updated regularly going forward.
Tip: Many built-in apps include a so-called “hamburger” menu button that lets you expand and contract a side-mounted menu of options you only need sometimes.
Backwards compatibility. There’s so much new in Windows 10 that many readers have asked me about backwards compatibility. I’ve never run into an application or device that didn’t just work in Windows 10, and my own arsenal of software and hardware isn’t exactly all modern products. But according to Microsoft, it takes backwards compatibility as seriously as ever, and the firm says it is compatible with the top 500 Windows applications, with test passes completed on roughly 4000 applications overall. Microsoft has partnered with the top 7 PC makers to ensure that all of the PCs and peripherals they’ve sold over the past few years work seamlessly with Windows 10. And while device driver compatibility is excellent—if it works with Windows 7 or newer, it will work with Windows 10—Microsoft has also strived to provide Windows 10-level drivers for devices still in market so users have the best possible experience. Yes, you may of course be using some random legacy device that coughs up a hairball in Windows 10. But that’s not typical, nor have I ever seen such a thing. This is not area of concern.
Onscreen tips. Not only are Windows 8’s non-discoverable UIs gone, but so is the unilateral, wrong-headed thinking that required users to just know how certain new things work. So in Windows 10, Microsoft makes no assumptions, and it actually provides help. So you’ll see neat little pop-up tips from time to time to help get you started. It’s a small thing, I guess. But it’s also quite welcome.
More reliable upgrades. Since Windows 7, Microsoft has been working to make upgrades—where you take one version of Windows and convert it into a new version, typically retaining a user’s documents, custom settings, and installs apps and applications—a more reliable process. With Windows 10, the process is so reliable, Microsoft has taken control of it from PC makers and is shouldering the support costs itself. (Not to mention providing it for free with Windows 10 for the first year, a savings of $120 to $200, depending on which Windows version you’re currently using.) Now, Microsoft is in fact taking the safe approach here and is metering out the first upgrades in waves so it can monitor how things are going and make course corrections if necessary. But if the thought of upgrading to a new Windows ever gave you pause, think again: with Windows 10, offers a better way. And you can even revert—a bit too easily, in some ways—to your previous version of Windows if things don’t go well or you just don’t like the new version for some reason. (That said, my original advice on upgrades stands: as you do have a full year to perform this upgrade, just wait a month or so and see how it goes for the guinea pigs. Then, you can jump in with both feet, assured that the process has been adequately tested by more than just Windows Insiders.)
That’s a lot of stuff, most glossed over in order to keep this review under book length. No worries, I’ll expand on all of this as I write about these and other new features in the weeks and months ahead, both here on Thurrott.com and in the coming Windows 10 Field Guide. But that’s the point. Windows 10 is a big upgrade, a big improvement over its predecessors. There’s a lot going on here. And this is a review, not a comprehensive how-to.
More to the point, Windows 10 is superior to both Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, and its user experience works as well or better on the different Windows device types—traditional PC form factors for Windows 7 and “touch-first” devices like tablets and 2-in-1s for Windows 8.1—than do its predecessors. But Windows 10 also exceeds Windows 7 and 8.1 in other ways, with an evolved universal apps platform that all users (and developers) can embrace, cross-platform chops that are unparalleled on other mobile and desktop computing systems, and an adaptable, user-focused user interface that can be customized to your liking at every step of the way. And it respects the way you work, whether that’s keyboard and mouse, touch, pen/stylus, or any combination of those things.
I am ecstatic to see the Windows team finally listening to its customers, and it has delivered a wonderful gift here, especially to those who felt that Windows 8 did not meet their needs. In combining the best of Windows 7 with the best of Windows 8.1, Microsoft has turned the page on a disappointment and done right by all of us.
Windows 10 is highly recommended to all Windows users.