Windows 10 Review: A Love Affair

To fall in love with something is to embrace it fully. You have to appreciate what it brings to the table and the unfamiliar things that it adds to your life. Being comfortable with its legacy is also important. Microsoft hopes that you’ll love Windows 10, and the operating system is equally parts legacy shopping and modern amenities.

Available free to anyone with a notebook, desktop or tablet running Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, Windows 10 restores the Start Menu and does neuter some of the tablet excesses of Windows 8. It also expands the Windows Store in logical directions and introduces the Cortana personal assistant to a wider audience. Packed into the upgrade are tons of new apps that better take advantage of Microsoft’s platform.

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Windows 10 Review (1)

Whether you’ll love Windows 10 isn’t something that can be safely predicted. What is clear is that at least everyone will find a feature – big or small – that makes the free Windows 10 upgrade worthwhile.

Read: How to Get the Free Windows 10 Upgrade

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New Features – Productivity

By now, we’re all used to what many in the industry define as “mature software.” Once an operating system matures we do expect new features, but we don’t expect the fundamentals to change. The developer of a mature piece of software will spend its time fine-tuning a limited number of features in every release.

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Windows 8, Windows 10’s direct predecessor, became notorious for bucking that trend. The Start Menu became a super-sized fullscreen affair complete with Live Tiles for apps. Every app you downloaded from the Windows Store took over your entire screen. Though intuitive for touch users, the Charms Bar that floated from the right edge of the screen rubbed some people entirely the wrong way.

Window 10’s feature set breaks down into three categories: productivity, entertainment and common sense changes. Microsoft is on an apology tour of sorts, rebalancing the needs of notebook and desktop users with what a modern touch operating system needs to survive against the iPad.

Continuum & The Start Menu

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The first stop on that apology tour is the Start Screen. Unless you’re in a dedicated Tablet Mode, the Start Menu is back in the bottom-left corner of your screen. Click on the Start Button in the Taskbar and it springs up, offering you a list of apps you’ve recently opened, a link to your settings and an area for pinning Live Tiles and plain icons for al your apps and programs. The new Start Menu is perfect for mouse and keyboard lovers. Microsoft needs a place to showcase its universal apps, users needed their Start Menu back when all they have is a mouse. It’s a perfect compromise. You can even chose to ignore his area if you want.

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Tablet Mode

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Have a tablet, connect a keyboard and Windows 10 morphs into a finger-friendly haven. All your old programs and new Windows Store apps supersize. You can resize them on the fly for multitasking and swipe downward on them from the top of the screen to close them. In Tablet Mode the Start Menu becomes the Start Screen, gaining more space for Live Tiles and hiding non-essential on-screen elements that could complicate the experience. Microsoft has wisely chosen to leave the Taskbar on the Start Screen so that users can still navigate with the same on-screen elements that they do outside of Tablet Mode.

This isn’t to say that edge gestures are gone. Swiping from the left edge of the screen to the right gets you an on-high look at every app you have open. Swiping from the right edge to the left on a touchscreen gets you into the new Action Center area for notifications and quickly changing settings. All of these work inside and outside of Tablet Mode, which was a smooth move for keeping up consistency.

If there’s a touch gesture for it, there’s also an icon for it in the Taskbar. In Tablet Mode, a back button slides in on the Taskbar, giving you one place to keep your finger. If you don’t like the edge gestures, keep tapping and clicking on icons. Microsoft leaves the choice up to you regardless of what mode you’re in. More importantly, doing things in the operating system is more obvious to novice users and doesn’t require an on-screen tutorial like Windows 8 did.

Visually, Microsoft has continued down the stark flat path that it started down in Windows 8. That being said, there’s some eye candy sprinkled in a few places. The Taskbar, Start Menu, Wi-Fi area and Action Center are colored black with some added transparency by default. Users can add a pop of color to all of these with a flip of a switch in the Personalization menu. You can add a background a background, lock screen slide show and more there too.

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Cortana

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Until this week, Cortana was only officially available on Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system. Ask her something in a conversational tone and she provides you with an answer.

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First, Cortana lives and works in the Taskbar, meaning she’s always present. Second, you can type commands and questions to Cortana too. A pop-up asks you to confirm the calendar event you just added or to provide more. Cortana will also fill you in on your day without you doing much of anything. She looks through your email, checks your appointments for the day and gives you the latest local news stories inside her pop-out window. Of course, you can turn off all of this if you want to.

I found Cortana most useful when I turned on the listening feature. With this on, Cortana uses the microphone on your Windows PC to always listen. Say, “Hey, Cortana” and she’s ready to do whatever you need her to or answer your question. There’s a toggle for making her respond only to your voice or to the voice of your entire family. Microsoft has Cortana apps for iPhone and Android coming so that the reminders you set and the information you share can travel with you away from your PC.

Yes, I can create reminders, set appointments and control settings manually, but Cortana lets me keep my hands on the keyboard. I like her.

TaskView & Virtual Desktops

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Click on the TaskView button or swipe right from the left side of your screen to look at every app you have open on your Windows 10 PC. Each window shows up as an individual square tile that you can select to open or close with just a button press. I think normal users and power users will both find themselves using TaskView a lot.

Strictly for power users are the Virtual Desktops that are also available in the TaskView. Virtual Desktops act like drawers, giving you an opportunity to organize your apps around specific tasks. For example, when using the feature I kept a Virtual Desktop open for work and another for play. When you move an app to another Desktop audio still plays, but you can’t see the app and the shortcut doesn’t surface in the Taskbar.

Action Center

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Why Microsoft ever introduced Windows Store apps without a central place to check notifications is beyond me. Certainly keeping track of all the things my apps were trying to tell me in Windows 8 was a chore because of this.

The Action Center is a centralized place for looking at your notifications. Eventually, Microsoft has plans to let users act on the notifications that their apps add there. For example, you’ll be able to respond to messages there. For now, you can browse your alerts and quickly change settings on you PC thanks to a series of customizable buttons at the bottom. This is a feature that Windows 10 borrows from Windows Phone and it just makes so much sense to have it here.

Snap Assist

Dragging an app to the side of your screen lets you quickly multitask in Windows 8. The same is true in Windows 10, but the operating system also gives you the chance to choose the app that you want snapped to the opposite side of your display. Simple, but very effective for productivity.

Battery Saver & Wi-Fi Sense

Battery Saver will turn on the moment it finds that your notebook, tablet or Windows 2-in-1 is below 20% in battery life. It slows down the rate at which it checks notifications. It also dims you screen. You can be triggered manually too.

I’m told that Wi-Fi Sense is should be very useful to people in some fashion, but I just haven’t seen that born out. By default the feature connects to open wireless networks when possible, letting users save on their data plan seamlessly. I turned off Wi-Fi Sense the fourth time it connected me to a wireless internet point I didn’t want it to. It’s one of the few small Windows 10 features that I don’t like and don’t think any normal person has a use for.

Word & Office

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Windows 10 turns the traditional Microsoft Office and Windows relationship on its head. Anyone can install Microsoft Office Mobile apps on their Windows 10 PC free of charge. Reading a document or browsing through a slideshow created in PowerPoint is free. Editing or creating a document is only free if you have a screen that is smaller than 10.1-inches. That cut-off point means that your Windows tablet or 2-in-1 could have free Microsoft Office after you download the free Windows 10 upgrade.

These apps are fast and built for OneDrive storage support. What’s more, they take up less space on your hard drive than the traditional versions of Microsoft Office. They alone count as a big Windows 10 feature, in my book.

Windows Hello

Microsoft is just one of the many companies trying to put an end to your use of passwords. Windows Hello lets users login with their fingerprint or a face scan, provided they have the right hardware. Notebooks, desktops and tablets with Intel RealSense cameras and fingerprint readers will work with this Windows Hello just fine. I’m still trying to figure out why Microsoft’s own Kinect sensors don’t.

Windows Store

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A newly redesigned Windows Store allows users to download desktop programs and apps. Microsoft has thrown music and video into the store too, with plans to add more as time progresses. Because Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile are a united platform the Store showcases them both in the same place. The apps that you purchase for one platform will unlock a companion app on the other platform. Microsoft says its giving game developers the option to do that too with Xbox One and PC games.

The Windows Store looks nice and performs as expected. It still boggles the mind that there’s no podcast store or book store. It’s also pretty strange that Microsoft has Windows Store apps updating in the background by default, but doesn’t offer a list of recently updated apps.

New Features – Entertainment

Windows 10 is so stuffed with productivity features that you sometimes feel there’s barely any room for entertainment upgrades. Microsoft hopes that Windows 10 sets a new benchmark for users that want to listen to music, watch television shows and play games. Respectfully, I think it only does one of those things well: PC Gaming.

Xbox Integration and Platform

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Microsoft largely abandoned the PC gaming ecosystem years ago. The company didn’t offer exclusives, couldn’t offer a better a social experience than others and generally didn’t bother to compete with services like Steam in the way it should have.

Windows 10 is a play for the heart of PC gamers, a play that Microsoft mostly nails. The Games hub is gone in Windows 10. It’s replacement is called simply, Xbox. The name fits because Microsoft stuffed the Xbox console experience into it.

New changes to the Windows Store allow developers to offer their PC games for sale. These games, plus any games you install on your own show-up as titles inside the Xbox app. Built-in video recording technology allows users to create video clips and take photos from inside any game – regardless of whether users purchased it in the Windows Store or not.

Xbox on Windows has the social networking features gamers want too. Xbox Live Achievements can be browsed and users can dive into the individual gamer profiles and gaming hubs that now populate the service. Game clips and photos taken from titles downloaded through the Windows Store can be uploaded back to Xbox Live from the Xbox app and shared with other people. Some early reviewers are calling the ability to stream games from your Xbox One over your wireless network the Xbox app’s breakout feature. They are mistaken.

The best feature this app provides is something called Party Chat. Party Chat allows PC gamers – no matter where they purchased a title – to talk to each other and Xbox One users over Xbox Live. Right now Party Chat is in testing and needs some fixes and tuning, but it address a real issue. Decent gaming chat services on the PC are rare

The Xbox app proves that Microsoft understands the issues that face the PC gaming ecosystem. With a broad, freely available chat ecosystem and built-in video capture available, I hope Microsoft keeps delivering on this front. It’s video game studios are now treating Windows 10 PCs like a platform in its own right. Gears of War Ultimate Edition, Fable Legends and Gigantic are all coming to Windows 10 PCs. The latter two will let users play alongside Xbox One users over Xbox Live. A Minecraft beta is available today.

Microsoft Edge Browser

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Internet Explorer is still there when you need it, but Microsoft has given up on trying to get you to use it. It has no new features. Microsoft Edge is its replacement and it’s stuffed full of new options. More importantly, it gets Microsoft one step closer to having a single browser and not the two-browser approach it took for mouse and tablet users previously.

Microsoft Edge features a streamlined search bar with built-in support for Microsoft’s Cortana personal assistant. Right-click on anything and you can ask Cortana about it. There’s inking support so that you can mark up web pages with a stylus and send them along to friends with notes too. Though both are certainly commendable, I don’t think either are necessarily big switching points.

People switch browsers because the websites they frequent don’t work or they need more speed than their current browser can provide. Microsoft Edge is supposedly faster than Google and Firefox when loading pages. In the real world, I find that Microsoft Edge’s clean UI and faster rendering do make for a decent browsing experience. I also find that Microsoft Edge isn’t completely baked.

On a few sites I’m able to trigger consistent crashes. I’ve also found that some sites load, but perform horribly. GroupMe, for example, shudders when scrolling in Microsoft Edge. I can type and watch each character render in the textbox individually. Microsoft Edge will make a great browser once Microsoft cleans up some lingering issues. Right now, I’m not wiling to call it a complete win for the company. The browser needs work.

Groove Music, TV & Movies, Photos

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In Windows 10 Microsoft continues to struggle with entertainment apps in a way that only it can.

For its part Photos is terrific. OneDrive integration here helps make up for some pretty lackluster OneDrive syncing support overall. Built-in editing tools make it a serious improvement over Microsoft’s previous apps. There’s an automatic album creation tool in there that just rocks. I’ll never create albums on my own, but I’ll gladly let this Photos app handle it.

Music and Video are now called Groove Music and TV & Movies. Both of their stores are now available in the unified Windows Store. TV & Movies isn’t exciting, but it works. MKV file support, zooming and Miracast streaming are built-in. I like TVs & Movies.

My search for a single useful upgrade in Groove Music continues. The app looks better, but is still missing some pretty common sense features. You can’t edit metadata, you can’t assign an album cover, there’s no built-in internet radio and there are no curated playlists. Groove Music Pass is available through the app for $9.99 a month, but I’d steer clear until Microsoft can rediscover why it decided to go into the music business at all.

Performances & Bugs

Coming from Windows 7 and Windows 8, I think users will notice some their Windows Store apps opening faster. Starting your PC is certainly fast. With the right hardware Windows 10 absolutely sings. I’ve had no serious Wi-Fi issues, no performance slow downs – outside of Microsoft Edge. If your PC runs Windows 7 or Windows 8 well, it’ll run Windows 10 just fine. On my Surface Pro 3, battery left even improved.

Decent performance isn’t the same as bug free. Continuum, that system that changes Windows 10 from Tablet operating system and back again, sometimes has rendering issues. Apps in Windows 10 crash often enough too. Cortana can sometimes be unreliable for no particular reason. The new DirectX 12 gaming subsystem has some issues that’ll need to be worked out. One nasty bug with the Mail and Calendar apps breaks syncing, randomly. Microsoft will fix these in due to time and none except the Mail and Calendar issues are very serious. Still, Microsoft needs to get more fixes tout o address these issues.

Should You Download Windows 10?

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Yes, you absolutely should download Windows 10. It’s a new operating system that’s free and adds features you’ll like. New apps show how mature Windows apps have become. The Windows Store has a decent chance of attracting new developers now that its is mouse and keyboard friendly. Some say that Windows 10 isn’t as easy for users to navigate as Windows 8 was on tablets. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Whether you should install that download right now is the question. Personally, I’d hold off a couple of days until we get a more complete picture of the issues. There are bugs in every piece of software, it’s how serious they ae and how fast Microsoft fixes them that should get you excited or send you running. You can go back to your previous operating system if you want.

There are some things I don’t like. Messages require you to download a separate Skype app now. OneDrive no longer lets you see the things you have stored there without downloading the complete file. Both are a huge regression, but OneDrive adoption is in its infancy and now works just like Dropbox. Skype’s desktop app was always more popular than the Windows Store version.

Windows 10 adds a lot and fixes a lot. In most ways, it’s jilted ex-lover. It tries to win over your affection with new features and old things it know you loved. I’m already smitten.