It’s getting a little bit easy to predict how good a new version of Windows is going to be. If its predecessor was great then there’s a fair chance the new edition is going to be the opposite.
Windows 98 was succeeded by the terrible Windows ME, Windows XP was followed by Vista and Windows 7 was replaced by Windows 8 – an operating system designed for both PCs and tablets but which users of either didn’t want.
This trend continues with Windows 10, which refines and retains the good ideas of Windows 8 (yes, there were some), while restoring the sensibilities that characterised earlier versions of the software.
Read More: A brief history of Windows
If you have either of the two most recent versions of Windows, then Windows 10 is available as a free update. An icon in your taskbar should have invited you to ‘reserve’ a digital copy in advance and a notification should inform you when the upgrade is ready to install.
The process is painless, at least when upgrading from a Windows 8.1 machine, with installation and setup completed in rapid fashion. The majority of your settings are retained although the OS does attempt to change your default applications – most notably your browser to the Microsoft Edge – although you can stop this from happening.
You are also given the choice between ‘express’ and ‘custom’ privacy settings, but more on those later.
Once everything was up and running, there was no discernible difference loading up Windows 10 on a Microsoft Surface Pro 3, it actually sped up an aging Dell Vostro laptop previously running 8.1. Needless to say, there are a multitude of factors that influence how it behaves on your machine.
Aesthetically, Windows 10 retains many of the style elements of its predecessor, but new icons and a search/Cortana bar on the taskbar are now included. These are very handsome, but some of the icons take some getting used to. For example, the mute icon no longer has any red.
The most obvious, and pleasing, difference is the return of the Start Menu. The much-maligned Start Screen is a thing of the past and not only does 2015’s interpretation restore all previous functionality – it’s superior to the menu in Windows 7.
Keyboard and mouse users were infuriated by having to wave their cursor down the right hand screen just to shut down their PC or access settings, but both functions are back in their rightful place, alongside file explorer, most used apps and live tiles.
Just like the Start Screen, these tiles can be resized, deactivated or removed to suit your needs and they actually provide the ‘at-a-glance’ information that the Apple Watch is attempting to do or even iGoogle before it.
It’s very customisable and within no time at all, you can see emails, appointments, Twitter notifications and other information. It’s surprising Microsoft never considered doing this at the height of the Windows 8 backlash. The only downside is that you may find you no longer need all the tiles you needed in Windows 8, so be prepared to spend some time deleting redundant applications and reorganising and resizing.
The start menu also houses Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-activated personal assistant first featured in Windows Phone. Here, you can make text and voice searches and requests – in theory.
Getting Cortana to work was quite difficult, especially on the Vostro. Microphone issues, location settings and language settings all had to be tweaked repeatedly for Cortana to function and even when it did, answers were often unsatisfactory or were simply not given at all.
Of course, Cortana learns your likes and needs over time, but after a few weeks using the assistant, it didn’t behave the way it does on the adverts – even on Microsoft’s flagship Surface. It may be the systems we tested it on weren’t setup correctly, but even so, this highlights the pitfalls some users may have.
As a text search function, however, it dares much better, returning most requests for web or local content, and reminders are a far better solution than virtual sticky notes on a desktop
File Explorer now lets you ‘stick’ favourite locations, a significant improvement over the favourites feature in Windows 8, and has some fancy new icons of its own. Aero snap lets you, well, snap up to four Windows on your screen as opposed to just two, and you can have multiple desktops if you wish. Both take a little bit of getting used to, but if you use your PC for work and play, it’s a nice divider.
The action centre has been given a revamp and is a much cleaner, simplified affair. Key settings like Wi-Fi, VPN, Notes and Flight Mode can all be quickly accessed through ‘Quick Actions’, while notifications are much clearer to read and act like they would do, well, on a smartphone. Emails, calendar notices and Twitter alert all feel much more integrated than they did before.
This is partly because ‘new-style’ or ‘Metro’ apps, like the Start Screen, behaved like a layer on top of the traditional desktop interface on Windows 8 and meant many keyboard and mouse users ignored them and forfeited any advertised benefits.
Windows 10 is much less disjointed and Metro apps like Twitter, Facebook and Netflix now appear like traditional software. They can be moved around, resized and even full screened if desired. The ‘Charms’ control method is now gone and has been replaced by a new menu bar on the top left of the screen. Aesthetically, these apps are not unlike Adobe AIR apps such as iPlayer or the old TweetDeck.
New default apps like Photos, Mail, Calendar Edge and OneNote are designed in this way and feel as comfortable to use with traditional inputs as they do on a touchscreen. You might prefer to use third party software, but at least if you set up the default software, you can get notifications.
With regards to other software, Microsoft said that if it worked in Windows 8, it would do so in Windows 10 and this has been our experience.
Various marketplaces can be used to obtain applications, but the revamped Windows Store is a far less daunting, confusing and frustrating place than it used to be. It’s Microsoft’s answer to Google Play or the App Store, housing apps, games, music and video content.
Time will tell whether Microsoft’s universal app vision helps it catch up with Apple and Google for mobile devices, but for PC users, the Metro-style apps are far more useful than Windows 8, but hardly essential. The Windows Store will eventually house desktop apps anyway, bulking up the catalogue significantly and enticing developers.
The major new piece of software included in Windows 10 – no, it’s not Xbox – is Microsoft Edge. The much improved but still widely hated Internet Explorer, a byword for complacency, has been replaced by a new modern browser, which is a vast improvement.
It boasts a clear, minimalist look that’s a far cry from the brash, clumsy IE of yore and has many of the features Chrome and Firefox users have been raving about for years along with unique functions of its own, like annotation and the ability to save a webpage directly to the Start Menu as a live tile.
There’s also close integration with Cortana as highlighting a piece of text and right clicking allows you to search the term from directly within the browser.
It’s quick and easy to use, but not infinitely better than the competition, users of which may have grown attached to their extensions and add-ons. What it does mean, though, is that creatures of habit finally have a decent default Microsoft browser to use the web with.
The absence of the Start Screen does mean Microsoft has needed to create a new tablet interface. This comes in the form of the Tablet Mode, formerly known as Continuum, which is used when Windows 10 detects it is on a tablet or if an all-in-one user switches to a touchscreen. For example, when a Surface keyboard is disconnected, Windows 10 switches from desktop to Tablet Mode, although this can be turned to manual if a user prefers and selected from the action centre.
Just like the Start Screen, your live tiles are displayed, with other applications shown on the left hand side of the screen. Here you can pick your touch-optimised apps like Edge and Microsoft Office as well as desktop software.
The action centre includes options for rotation lock and on-screen keyboard, allowing all in one owners to enjoy the best of both worlds. The addition of Cortana too, means Windows tablet owners have their own personal assistant to compete with Google Now and Siri.
To be honest, Windows 8 wasn’t too bad with a touchscreen, but a lack of software and some other quirks made it feel a bit watered down compared to the desktop. With Windows 10, it feels like you have a fully-optimised operating system, even if the app library of iOS and Android can’t be matched.
It’s also worth pointing out that tablets smaller than eight inches will run the mobile edition of Windows 10, which has still not been commercially launched.
But some of these new features come at a price – namely your personal information. The Express settings during installation share your speed, typing, contacts, calendar, location data and advertising information to Microsoft and its partners, while Cortana also necessitates the provision of personal data.
While some might consider this worth the cost, others might not be aware of just how much they are giving away. The feedback and diagnostic tools could send information if they’re not set to basic and the default sharing of Wi-Fi networks on Wi-Fi Sense poses all kinds of questions. This is before you consider the peer-to-peer WUDO update system which shares updates either inside or outside your network.
You could argue that Microsoft isn’t being up front with users, but then again, this data mining is something that mobile platforms like Android and iOS have been doing for years and smartphone users have become normalised to such practices in exchange for innovative services and greater personalisation.
After all, that’s what Windows 10 is trying to do – create a smartphone-style operating system for desktop users. But it doesn’t completely eliminate the identity crisis of Windows 10.
Many of the ‘gimmicky’ features of Windows 8 are now restricted to ‘tablet mode’ where they are far more useful, but not all have been eliminated from the desktop. What took two clicks in Windows 7, still might take three in Windows 10 – although such instances are much rarer than Windows 8.
This is especially true of the simplified settings menu, although you can easily search for the full control panel, and there are plenty of useless default applications that you’ll quickly want to uninstall – even if universal apps now feel like they serve a purpose.
But having said that, Windows 10 manages to balance the functionality of a desktop operating system with the bells and whistles of a tablet platform much more competently and delicately than its polarising predecessor.
The changes are much gentler and the ideas implemented more effectively. The vision of Windows 8 as an all-encompassing operating system behemoth has been refined and expanded to cover even smaller devices and Windows 10 is barely recognisable from Windows 7.
Whether this is enough to move businesses from the industry standard remains to be seen, but while Windows 8 was a relic of the ‘old’ static Microsoft, Windows 10 is a progressive statement by the new cloud-first, mobile-first Microsoft championed by Satya Nadella.