Tested: Microsoft Windows 10 Pro

By Will Smith

Will's been using Windows 10 non-stop since Microsoft released the RTM candidate a few weeks ago. After using build 10240 on a pair of laptops, he's ready to share his thoughts.

Windows 10 is out today, and I've been using the new OS near-constantly over the last couple of weeks. I really like most of what Microsoft has done with the latest version if Windows, it's mostly fixes the mess that Microsoft made with Windows 8, while adding a handful of great new features. Windows 10 represents a big departure for the operating system.

Microsoft is calling Windows 10 the last version of Windows. Don't worry, Windows isn't going anywhere, but Microsoft is getting rid of the big annual releases. Instead of upgrades you need to shell out cash for, you can expect to see smaller, more regular, free updates to the OS. While Microsoft reps wouldn't commit to a specific timeline for updates, they said we could expect to see three to four updates annually.

The problem with Windows 8 was simply that the OS that Microsoft shipped was designed to be used with touch devices--that sounds great, except it didn't work well with the billion or so computers that didn't include touch and the touch-capable devices didn't really exist at launch. The result was an OS that was based around a decent first attempt at a touch-first operating system that was frustrating for anyone who used it with a mouse and keyboard.

With Windows 10, Microsoft is attempting to atone for its tablet-first error. The OS is smarter and more configurable than either of its direct predecessors. Windows 10 behaves like a tablet OS when the keyboard and mouse are missing and shifts to a traditional Windows desktop when you use it with a keyboard and mouse. With widespread support for touchscreens on laptops and a user interface that shifts seamlessly between touch and traditional controls based on the type of input you're using, I can finally see the promise of the convertible laptop.

What's changed? As usual, there's a laundry list of new features, but the big enhancements fit into a handful of buckets--integration of desktop and touch, Cortana, and behind the scenes stuff.

Two Worlds Collide

The most obvious change for the Windows faithful is the return of the Start Menu. Or depending on how you used the old Start Menu, it's the return of something that replicates most, but not quite all of the functionality that you've come to expect in the Start Menu.

The new Windows 10 Start Menu includes links to stuff that was buried or difficult to access in Windows 8. I'm talking about basic stuff, like power buttons, the Settings app, and a single link to File Explorer--gone are the deep links to folders I never touch, like My Music and My Videos. The revamped Start Menu also includes the complete contents of what would have been the Start Screen in Windows 8 (including live updating tiles, if you choose to leave them on) and a link to a complete alphabetized list of applications stored on your computer. Microsoft has also restored a couple of very useful menu items: the frequently used applications list and the most recently installed applications list. At least for me, flipping open the Start Menu to open an app is much less jarring way to launch an application than the Start screen was--the modal shift from the desktop, where I do the vast majority of my work, to the Start Menu in Windows 8 was always disconcerting.

The Start Menu is ultimately just the most visible aspect of the integration of touch and traditional interfaces. Now you can run Modern/Metro-style apps in a window, you know, on Windows. The Desktop is once again the center of the Windows universe, all your applications run there. Windows lets you snap any application to run either full screen, in a half screen, or in quarter-screen panes. The task switching interfaces, including the taskbar, the alt-tab menu, and the new winkey+tab task switcher all behave the the same, each one switches between all the currently open applications on the system. You don't have to deal with different task switchers for Modern/Metro apps and traditional desktop apps anymore.

If you happen to have a convertible laptop equipped with a touch screen, the default desktop interface seems more competent at dealing with touch, but there's also a tablet mode toggle that gives the desktop, the taskbar, and applications that use the appropriate APIs a bit more room to breathe and reduced the accidental mis-taps due to fat fingers. Most importantly, adding a touch-enabled device to Windows 10 feels like an improvement. It quickly becomes second nature to tap the screen for tasks that don't require a fine touch, rather than shift your hand to the trackpad or mouse.

I found the new Action Center to be much more useful than its counterpart on OSX, simply because it includes notifications from traditional desktop applications and modern-style apps along with shortcuts for commonly used tasks (rotation lock, airplane mode, brightness, and do not disturb modes are just a few). Like many of the other cosmetic changes, you can change which applications are allowed to send notifications on a per-app basis, as well as disable any shortcuts that aren't necessary for you. .

While I still encountered occasional floor wax or dessert topping moments using Windows 10, they're much less frequent than with Windows 8. My biggest complaint is the inconsistency between the right-click menu and the long-press on the touch screen in third-party apps. Usually a long-press on the touchscreen results in the same context menu that you see when you right-click with a mouse, but sometimes, for reasons that aren't at all clear, long-presses result in a cut/copy/paste style menu, instead of the expected context menu.

Most of the problems I've had involve programs that either don't respect Windows's DPI setting or use non-standard APIs for things like scrolling inside a window. While some applications, like Photoshop CC 2015, could be tweaked to work as I'd expect. The worst case for apps that aren't configurable, including Evernote, is that I use the mouse (or trackpad) and keyboard instead of touch. I still find the majority of the Modern-style applications that I've downloaded from the Windows Store to be less capable than comparable apps on other platforms, but it's possible that the current crop of disappointing apps will improve as more people start using them.

There are parts of the OS that I'm still unsure about. For example, the new unified modern-style Settings app solves a number of my complaints with Windows 8's disjointed approach, where settings were spread willy-nilly between the modern-style Settings app and the traditional Control Panel. While the legacy Control Panel is still accessible (you have to right click on the Start button), I haven't had to use it at all. The Settings app contains all the options I've needed for day-to-day computing, at least since I installed the RTM version of Windows 10 a few weeks ago. I typically spend less time mucking around in settings on a laptop than my desktop PC, so this may not remain the case when I install the final version of the OS on my desktop PC later this week.

The UI changes Microsoft made to Windows 10 make it a much friendlier operating system to use. I felt like the team behind Windows 8 expected me to shift my behavior to work with the operating system they built. Windows 10 feels like the opposite, an OS that's designed to work with me, no matter where or how I choose to work. This is as it should be.

Cortana

Cortana is Microsoft's attempt to make a digital assistant, like Siri or Google Now. She's deeply integrated with the operating system, and available anytime you say the key phrase "Hey Cortana". Cortana combines the kind of deep knowledge about your behavior and habits that a company like Microsoft or Google can collect over a long period of time with good voice recognition and spotty natural language parsing. Cortana has two basic modes.

The first mode lets you ask Cortana questions, similar to Siri or Google Now. When she understands the question, she'll read the appropriate answer to you. When she doesn't understand the question, she simply punts to a Bing results page for your query. If I had one complaint about the way Cortana works, it's that she requires very specific queries to trigger the smarter responses. For example, even using the exact language in the tips sheet "Hey Cortana, what's the score in the San Francisco Giants game right now?" I get dumped to Bing results. It's possible that this is pre-release jank, but it isn't particularly impressive. This wasn't limited to sports, it happened with queries about restaurants and other points of interest.

Voice search has proven to be very useful on phones, but I'm not sure it's as relevant on actual PCs. After all, I'm a much faster typer than talker. I'll continue using Cortana's voice search on my PCs and report back on This Is Only a Test.

Cortana also presents you with always-updated ambient information when you click into the Cortana area on the taskbar or press the Windows key and Q. The information that pops up changes throughout the day to be timely and relevant. In the morning, you'll see your first meeting of the day, the time it will take you to commute to work, and a couple of good places to stop and get breakfast on your route. In the evening, the same feed will show you your favorite team's schedule, the time it will take to get home, local and national news, and places to grab a bite or watch a movie. The end result is a bit like Google Now, but Microsoft gives you much more granular control over the information that Cortana presents, which is welcome.

That granular information is stored in Cortana's notebook. In addition to letting you see what Cortana thinks of you, you can make adjustments. For example, Google tells you when there are restaurants nearby. Cortana lets you set the types of cuisine, prices, and atmosphere you prefer, and then tells you when those types of restaurants are nearby, pulling data from Yelp and Foursquare.

When Cortana works, she's quite impressive. When she fails, less so. However, even on a bad day, Cortana is still more impressive than Siri most times.

And The Rest…

Now we're to the bonus round. Microsoft is rolling out its brand new, rebuilt-from-the-ground-up browser, Microsoft Edge with Windows 10. I haven't spent that much time with the browser, mainly because it isn't complete enough for me to use. Although Edge's performance is impressive, and it includes a handful of features (like annotations for webpages and reading mode) that seem moderately useful, but Edge lacks key features, like extensions. I can't imagine anyone who really uses the Internet will use Edge unless they don't have a better alternative.

Microsoft is also forcing automatic updates for users of the two consumer versions of the OS, Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro. While you can use a Microsoft provided tool to disable specific updates on a case-by-case basis, for the most part, the OS will download all new updates, install them, and reboot as necessary, without any input from the user. We discussed this new development at length in our Windows 10 video, but the benefits for neophyte users are huge, their machines will be more secure, it will be more difficult for malware to disable updates, and people can't inadvertently leave their computers open to attackers. That said, there are tons of valid reasons for power users to want to disable automatic updates, so I'll be interested to see what the user reaction is to Windows that always updates.

Windows 10 also marks the beginning of Microsoft new roll-out scheme for the operating system. As you probably already know, Windows 7 and 8 users will get a free upgrade to Windows 10. Windows users got an updates a couple of months ago that lets you reserve your place in the download line. What that update really does is check out the hardware in your system and compares it to the list of known-good systems that Windows Insiders (aka the participants in the Windows 10 public beta) have validated, often at great personal peril. If you don't get a the prompt to install Windows 10 first thing on Wednesday morning, don't sweat it. You probably have a piece of hardware with compatibility or driver issues. Your PC will get the upgrade as soon as the software is ready to make your update smooth, or at least, that's Microsoft's plan. If you upgrade to Windows 10 and don't like the new OS, you can (theoretically) roll back from within the OS for up to a month. I haven't been able to test that yet, so make sure you have a backup before you install any OS upgrade,

That's about it from my perspective. As a regular Windows 8 user, Windows 10 is a fabulous upgrade. Performance is good. Windows feels like a cohesive whole again, it follows an internal logic that I understand and can take advantage of. Most of all, it's an operating system that works the way I want to work. Nice job Microsoft.

As always, if you want to hear more raw, unfiltered feedback, tune into This Is Only a Test on Thursdays.