It’s been a rough three years for Windows.
Windows 8, which launched in 2012 with the promise to revolutionise the way we use computers, didn’t even come close to that ideal. It was designed to run on devices that are primarily controlled by touch at a time when most people still needed to use a keyboard and mouse.
Users were forced into a touch-based interface called Modern UI for most tasks, and would have to switch back to a classic desktop mode for everything else. It was like running two very different operating systems on one machine, making Windows 8 frustrating at best. At worst, Windows 8 was an unmitigated disaster that kept people clinging to Windows 7, which is now six years old.
It’s time for Microsoft to start over again, and that’s just what Windows 10, the new operating system that launches Wednesday, does. It fixes everything.
Windows 10 isn’t just a refresh of Windows. It’s a big, ambitious product that will run as a universal operating system on an array of devices. It will power everything from phones to tablets to 80-inch touchscreens. It will power a new array of household appliances that connect to the internet. It will even power computers you strap to your face.
But at first, Windows 10 will be all about PCs, and it’s as close to a perfect PC operating system as you’ll ever get.
Yes, it’s that good.
I’ve spent the last week testing Windows 10 on a Surface Pro 3, and can say right off the bat that the new OS will be an essential upgrade for all Windows 8 users. (Seriously, get it ASAP.) Windows 7 users will want it too for its cleaner interface and new features. Plus, if you upgrade within the first year, you get it for free.
You have nothing to lose.
The most important feature in Windows 10 is the return of the classic Start menu we’ve been using since good old Windows 95. It’s sleeker and more modern-looking, but instantly familiar to anyone who has used Windows in the past 20 years. Its return is an admission by Microsoft that it tried too hard with Windows 8 to force a tablet-centric future on the world before it was ready.
Now we’re back to the basics, and Windows 8 users are going to love it when they upgrade to Windows 10. With the Start menu, desktop users never have to go to tablet mode if they don’t want to. Everything, including running the so-called modern touch apps from Windows 8, can be done on the desktop. And yes, almost all of your older apps from Windows 7 and earlier will work too.
But there are some relics from Windows 8 in the new Start menu. You can pin your favourite apps to the menu and get real-time snippets of information from them at a glance. Microsoft calls these Live Tiles, and they have been the standard icons in Microsoft products since the introduction of Windows Phone.
If you’re someone with a Windows tablet or a hybrid device like the Surface, Windows 10 has a new feature called Continuum that makes it a lot easier to bounce between desktop mode and the touch-friendly tablet mode.
For example, when you detach the keyboard on the Surface, Windows automatically asks if you’d like to go into Tablet Mode. (You can also set it to switch to Tablet Mode without a prompt.) In Tablet Mode, the Start menu extends into an iPad-like home screen for your apps, which will now run in full-screen.
Tablet Mode works great, and it’s especially useful if you have a Windows tablet or hybrid device. But because there aren’t many good tablet apps for Windows, even three years after Windows 8’s debut, there really isn’t much you can do in Tablet Mode besides stream video from apps like Netflix or Hulu.
The good news: Unlike in Windows 8, you never have to go into Tablet Mode in Windows 10 if you don’t want to. Perhaps one day tablets will replace traditional PCs. But for now, it’s all about the desktop. And Windows 10 does desktop computing really well.
A digital assistant
Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant, is the next major feature in Windows 10. It’s such a core part of the operating system that it’s embedded in the taskbar, staring you right in the face when you start your machine.
If you’ve used a Windows Phone, you’re already familiar with Cortana. Like Siri, Google Now, and the rest, Cortana acts as a hub for everything in your digital life. It can proactively give you information like sports scores, weather, news, and restaurant recommendations based on your personal information you share with it. In fact, there’s a virtual notebook that you use to share your personal tastes with Cortana, just like a human assistant would have for his boss.
On the desktop version of Windows 10, it’s more of the same. You can activate Cortana with the keywords “Hey Cortana…” before giving a command. From there, there’s not much you can do with Cortana that you couldn’t do before. But I did find it useful for searching for files and apps stored on my PC. Cortana uses what’s called natural language search, so you can ask it something as simple as “show me all the spreadsheets I worked on yesterday” and get exactly that. Pretty cool.
Cortana is a great tool, and it outperforms Siri and Google Now in many respects. But I didn’t find it that handy on desktop. By now, I’m used to talking to my phone, but it feels strange shouting commands at my PC.
I imagine it will be much more useful once Microsoft brings Cortana to iPhone and Android later this year. Digital assistants work better on the go, and it will be nice to have one that syncs both with your desktop and whatever device you carry with you. I think a lot of Windows 10 users will be tempted to dive into Cortana instead of Siri or Google Now when it comes to other platforms. For now though, only Windows Phone users get that benefit.
Internet Explorer has been replaced
Remember Internet Explorer? You probably ditched it long ago in favour of Chrome or Firefox. But even though Explorer has gotten a lot better over the years, the damage to its brand has been done, and Microsoft decided to start over with a new browser called Edge.
Edge replaces Explorer as your default browser, but Explorer is still there if you want to use it. And of course you can always choose Chrome or something else if you prefer.
Edge has a simple, clean look, along with a few extras. Cortana is also baked into the browser, so you can highlight a word you see and right-click to get more information and context about it. It’s clever, and has the potential to reduce people’s reliance on Google, but it didn’t really feel natural to use. Maybe I’m just used to searching for stuff the old-fashioned way.
Other than that, there’s a new reading mode, which strips out a lot of the ads and other graphics from news sites, making articles easy to read. It’s nothing new, though — other browsers like Apple’s Safari have had a similar feature for years.
Finally, Edge lets you highlight text or scribble on web pages and save clips to Microsoft’s online file-storage service OneDrive. It works best with a touchscreen device and even better if you have a stylus like the one that comes with the Surface Pro 3.
I wish I had something else special to say about Edge, but it’s just a browser. It’s perfectly fine and capable of surfing the web, but it’s hardly a revolution in the way we browse. My only criticism is I think the annotation features are unnecessary for just about everyone. I don’t see many people highlighting and doodling over things they see on the web when they can just quickly share a link on Facebook or Twitter.
If anything, Edge is a way for Microsoft to fix the branding issue it had with Explorer. If you’ve been using Chrome or Firefox all this time, there’s no good reason to switch to Edge. But if you’ve been using Explorer, you might want to give Edge a shot now that it’s the default browser in Windows 10.
One big problem
With Windows 10, Microsoft has finally undone all the damage Windows 8 did to the desktop. It’s wonderful.
But it also ignores the same challenge Microsoft has had since the rise of the iPhone and Android devices: How can it compete in mobile?
Windows 10 will be coming to Windows Phones in a few months, but the platform still faces the same problem it’s had since the beginning: With such a tiny market share, there’s no incentive for developers to bring their best apps to Windows Phone. And with no good apps, there’s no reason for most people to buy a Windows Phone, no matter how good the operating system is. (And Windows 10 is really great on the phone. I’ve been testing an early version of it.)
Microsoft claims that since developers can write an app for Windows 10 and have it run on any device, there’s room for its app selection to grow once millions of people upgrade. But I don’t see that happening. Desktop apps are fundamentally different than phone apps, and I don’t see developers taking the time to reconfigure programs to work on a phone relatively no one uses.
I think Microsoft’s best bet in mobile is to do what it’s been doing for the last year or so: snapping up the best mobile productivity apps like Sunrise and Wunderlist, regardless of what platform they were designed for. That gives Microsoft a better chance at getting people hooked on Windows down the road.
Should you upgrade?
If you’re running Windows 8, Windows 10 is essential. Even if you’re running Windows 7 and love it, Windows 10 is still worth the upgrade, not just because it’s free, but also because you it will enhance everything that already makes Windows great.
And if you’re worried you’ll hate Windows 10 (you won’t), you can always go back to your previous version.
It took us three years to get here, but Windows 10 brings back everything people originally loved about Windows, but with a modern twist. You’ll love it.