With Windows 10 launching today, it’s a good time to look at what customers can get if they upgrade to the new OS, versus a new machine. Microsoft is positioning Windows 10 as an upgrade for Windows 7 and Windows 8, and users of either systems will see a number of enhancements and improvements, from a new Start menu and a new browser to the Cortana personal assistant and search tool.
Microsoft is offering Windows 10 as a free upgrade for consumers (with Home versions going to Home versions and Pro to Pro), so many people can begin the upgrade process now. But should you?
I’ve been using various pre-release or Insider versions for months, up through build 10240, which appears to be the release candidate, on a variety of machines, though most frequently on a Surface Pro 3. In general, I’ve been quite pleased: it’s a far more desktop-friendly operating system than Windows 8, and with a number of improvements to security and applications over either of its predecessors.
Look and Feel
The most visible and most obvious change in Windows 10 is the new Start menu. On a desktop or laptop, it pops up from the lower left-hand corner of the screen, just like it did in Windows 7, but with the addition of some of the tiles that are familiar to Windows 8 users. (On a tablet, pushing the Windows button gives you the same menu but full-screen, so it looks pretty close to what Windows 8 had all along.) While it looks different than Windows 7, it won’t have the same jarring effect that the Windows 8 Start menu had, and as a result should be much more acceptable to enterprise customers, who I thought were correct in their fear about retraining. In some respects, the new Start menu is even easier to use than in Windows 7—navigating to file explorer, settings, or your different power options (for shutting down or restarting) are all listed choices.
A nice feature the OS inherits from Windows 8 is the ability to have the task bar and Start menu button replicated on multiple monitors—which I’ve found quite convenient in a multi-monitor situation, a setup many desktop users have these days.
In general, I’ve found Windows 10 seems to boot faster than its predecessors, particularly Windows 7.
Another addition to the basic look is a virtual desktop—not a new idea, but nice to see this feature built into Windows itself (in the past this was solely a third-party option). Clicking a fixed icon on the taskbar displays the virtual desktops (starting with the primary one) and then enables users to easily add another. I find I don’t use this feature very much—I prefer to have multiple windows open on the desktop—but I find it useful as a single-monitor solution, where there is less space for multiple windows.
One big change is the Edge Browser (formerly known as “Project Spartan”), a new Web browser that seems faster and much more modern than Internet Explorer, with features such as a reading list, the ability to easily share a Web page (through Mail, or an installed application such as OneNote or Facebook), and the ability to mark up a page. Mark up is a great idea—on a machine with a touch screen or pen (like the Surface Pro), it’s particularly interesting, but it also works with a mouse on a keyboard-based machine. In practice, I found some pages where mark up works and others where it does not.
Overall, I found Edge to be quite fast, both in normal use and on benchmarks. I’ll leave it to others to post formal benchmarks, but I saw much faster times with Edge on the SunSpider benchmark than with Chrome or Firefox, though I did see different results on other benchmarks. In any case, though, it seems much faster than IE, a big improvement.
Note that Microsoft still needs to include Internet Explorer, in particular because there are some corporate applications and intranet sites that use older technology, such as Silverlight. Companies that have such sites or applications are encouraged to make IE the default browser, while consumers and most companies will be encouraged to use Edge. In practice, I have only run into a few sites that don’t work with Edge, such as ETNews, a Korean website. When you reach one of these sites, you will see a message that says, “This website uses technology that will work best in Internet Explorer,” and are then offered the option to open the website in IE. This works fine, but I can imagine it being complicated and confusing to some users. (I’ve also run Firefox and Chrome on Windows 10, and both seem to work just fine.)
A major change is the integration of the Cortana personal assistant into Windows. It appears in your taskbar with a space that allows users to type a question to search, or can be set up to answer to voice (“Hey Cortana,” assuming you have a microphone). In some ways, Cortana is similar to Siri or Google Now in its ability to answer questions, but with more of the feel of a personal assistant, with capabilities such as setting reminders. If you have multiple machines (or a Windows Phone), it can sync information across devices. I’ve been pretty impressed by how well Cortana responds to questions; it’s not perfect, but it’s a big step forward. I don’t find myself using it as much on a notebook or desktop as I use Cortana on a Windows Phone (or more commonly Siri on my iPhone or Google Now on an Android device). That’s probably because I have a keyboard handy, but there’s no question that it can be nice feature on a desktop or laptop as well. You may ask Cortana questions even if your hands aren’t on the keyboard.
It’s particularly interesting to see how developers have been able to integrate Cortana into other applications, though we’ll have to wait and see how this integration fares when more Windows 10 apps arrive.
Working with Windows
For Windows 8 users on a desktop or notebook, one of the significant changes in the move to Windows 10 is that visually you no longer have two different ways of working: a tiled approach for new applications, and the traditional Windows desktop for legacy applications. In this respect, Windows 10 takes more of a “back to the future” approach, letting all applications—new and old—work in resizable windows that you can place wherever you would like on your desktop.
Windows 7 users may not notice this change: of course applications run in Windows, that’s the name of the operating system. Users will notice, however, that many of the older accessory applications, such as the calculator, have a cleaner look.
If you have a 2-in-1, you can switch to tablet mode with a feature called Continuum, which has a tablet-style interface, with applications that run full-screen or in tiles next to one another, as well as an on-screen keyboard. This feature makes the transition from a tablet to a notebook much easier than it was before.
All of these features favor the new “universal” apps—applications installed via the Windows Store that are designed to resize their screens and other properties depending on whether they are running on a notebook or desktop, tablet, or even Windows Phone. It’s a very interesting idea—one Microsoft must push to get developers back toward targeting its platform—but in practice, there aren’t so many “universal” apps today you’ll want to run. Yes, there are the built-in apps and Microsoft does have a stripped-down version of Office, but for applications like Facebook, the Web version is your best bet (with the exception of sharing content). Even Microsoft’s next full-featured version of Office is a “desktop” app, albeit one with more features to enable an improved experience in tablet mode.
The Continuum feature and universal apps eliminate many of the confusing duplications of apps in Windows 8; instead of two different apps—one for tablet mode and one for the desktop—there is now only one.
Many of the built-in applications have been enhanced, as Microsoft has created these new “universal” versions. Mail in particular seems to be an improvement over the Windows 8 equivalent, and Photos now features almost all of the basics, including a variety of editing tools (if not yet an obvious resize tool—for that you need still need to download another app, such as Windows Live Photo Gallery).
Another notable change is the addition of a new Action Center, which integrates notifications from a variety of applications within a single list accessible from a button on the task bar. This includes a single panel in which users are able to control the machine, change settings (such as turning Bluetooth or Wi-Fi on or off), connect to a Wi-Fi network, change the screen brightness, enter airplane mode, etc. Today’s phones typically have such screens; it’s good to see this in the desktop environment as well.
Gamers may appreciate the ability to stream games from Xbox One to Windows 10; it sounds neat, but not really applicable to how I use my PC. In the long run, more important may be the addition of DX12, which permits game designers to work closely with hardware, and should result in better-looking games, particularly on systems with discrete graphics.
Behind the Scenes
Many changes have taken place behind the scenes but are still important.
Microsoft has touted better security features in the operating system, part of its effort to make Windows 10 more attractive to enterprise customers. (Almost all of the larger companies I know stayed with Windows 7, rather than updating to Windows 8, and Microsoft hopes to convince them to move this time around. These improvements include: a virtualization-based security environment for credentials; a Device Guard feature that locks down devices so that only approved applications may run (this is designed to be set up by a corporate manager); a visual login system called Hello (which requires a sufficient camera system); and Passport, a system that allows a trusted device to sign into sites or apps (similar to a broader version of a single sign-on system designed for machines). Individually, these features (and some features introduced with Windows 8, such as Secure Boot) are nice security add-ons; together they may help convince companies that Windows 10 is a safer choice.
For more general security, Microsoft is turning on Windows Update by default, although there are tools for individuals and corporate managers who prefer to more finely control the update process. The concept makes a lot of sense—in general, unpatched security updates are a big source of vulnerabilities—but a lot of people may be wary of this, given compatibility concerns and Microsoft’s occasional tendency to release hardware drivers that aren’t as good as the latest third-party efforts. So far, I’ve been running Windows 10 with updates on, and without incident.
Overall, I have been quite happy with Windows 10. Compared to Windows 7, 10 is faster and more modern, provides better support for multiple monitors, and has some important new security features. Compared to Windows 8, 10 makes a lot more sense on a machine with a keyboard and a mouse or touch pad, and there are a number of new convenience features as well.
Are there downsides? Of course—just about any major upgrade has them. Some features that were part of Windows 7, such as desktop gadgets and Media Center, are gone, and any enterprise IT shop will want to test compatibility for some time before a mass rollout. I have noticed a few anomalies, such as occasionally not being able to see the log-in screen when resuming from sleep on a Surface Pro 3 connected to an external monitor. I typically recommend that most consumers and enterprises wait a couple of months before upgrading to a new OS, just because of issues like this.
If you’re buying a new consumer PC, I’d recommend purchasing a model with Windows 10 installed, rather than upgrading from Windows 8.1 on your own, mainly because new machines tend to come with the drivers and OS pre-tested to work together.
Overall, it seems to me that Windows 10 will make a solid foundation on Windows machines for both consumer and enterprise customers. Unlike Windows 8—which companies tended to shun—this feels like an OS that you can live with.