On the 29th of July, Microsoft released to the world the latest iteration of its highly popular desktop operating system. Well, I say “popular” because in over 80% of all desktops and notebooks it is the desktop operating system of choice. However, “choice” may be too strong a word, as the OS comes with the hardware, so perhaps “Hobson’s Choice” would be a better phrase.
That said, Windows 8, and to a slightly lesser extent 8.1, were unmitigated disasters for Microsoft. Its attempt to be relevant in a post-PC mobile world seriously backfired on it in the enterprise. Trying to force users to a paradigm based on finger pointing and pen use rather than mouse and keyboard, when the vast majority of devices were not touch enabled, was a surefire way to drive a wedge the size of Jupiter between you and your users. It is akin to buying a new house and being told that windows were so last year and your way in is now via a door on the second floor, but there is no ladder to help you, so you need to get with the picture and use your Jedi levitation skills to get in—you have those, don’t you? What is ironic is that now that touch devices are almost everywhere, Microsoft is doing an about-face.
Windows 10 is Microsoft’s attempt at being a Goldilocks OS: not too awkward, not too basic, but just right.
One of the more interesting things surrounding this release is that it has the best price ever. This is not even a “bog off” offer (that’s British English for “buy one, get one free”); it goes one better, as it’s a free upgrade to all non-corporate Windows 7, 8, and 8.1 users. Windows is now effectively offered as a service. Updates are now mandatory: they can be deferred, but this is not recommended.
OK, so what’s new, what’s bad, and what is “meh”?
First things first: the Start menu is back, and the desktop is back front and center.
Those hated Tiles are still there, but now they make a little more sense. However, if you really despise them, you can just right click and select eject, and boom, they’re gone forever. Selecting “All Programs” will show them in alphabetical order. However, the search box from the menu has been moved to the taskbar, where it is more obviously accessible. You can run your traditional desktop programs from either side of the Start menu, from the taskbar, or from XP-style icons on the desktop. This means that if you really don’t want to change the way you work, Windows 10 won’t force you.
One thing that is of interest is that if you are using a surface, and you disconnect the keyboard, the Start menu will spread over the screen and become touch aware, and your taskbar items will be hidden from view to prevent a fat-finger mistake. Reattach your keyboard, and automagically everything returns to what I call “desktop mode.” Now, if Windows 8 had had that feature, there might not have been such a backlash.
There now seem to be three ways to do anything: mouse/click, keyboard shortcut, and touch. Not that worrying; you most likely only ever need to learn two.
Windows 10 has finally caught up with Linux and Apple desktops by introducing the concept of the virtual desktop. It is actually quite useable. Now, if you want to be pedantic, these have been available to Windows users previously via third-party additions, but it is gratifying to see that Microsoft is waking up to what users actually want, rather than what they think they want.
There are a few teething issues. For example, a “traditional” Win32 app is happy to open a new instance on any desktop; however, clicking the shortcut on an app from the Windows Store will yank you back to whatever desktop you used it on last.
Apps can move across virtual desktops: you just drag them, or right-click move them over. However, there’s no way to reorder the virtual desktops themselves, or to select a different wallpaper for every virtual desktop for visual identification purposes like you can in Apple’s OS X operating system.
Windows Snap—you know, the feature that was introduced in Windows 7 that allows you to move an application to the side of the screen, thereby filling 50% of your monitor—has received a bit of upgrade love. Drag an app to the left or right side of the screen, and it’ll “snap” to fill that space as before. However, the new Snap Assist feature will then chime in, showing you little thumbnails of any other apps that are currently open. Click on a thumbnail, and it will fill up the remaining space. If you have monitor real estate equivalent to Jupiter, you can also Snap an app into a corner of your display and fill your screen with up to four apps, divided equally across the screen.
The new Action Center replaces the “Charms” introduced in Windows 8, and reminds me of the swipe down on iOS. Clicking the Action Center icon on the taskbar brings up a panel that contains all of your app notifications. It also offers quick access to some important system settings, like toggling your Wi-Fi network or switching in and out of tablet mode. You can choose the options that turn up here in the Settings menu. So, if you’re coming from Windows 7 and have no idea where to find some of the settings you’re used to, there’s a good chance you’ll find them here.
“Meh” moments include Wi-Fi Sense. While technically, it’s not a new feature (it’s part of Windows Phone 8.1), its presence in Windows 10 should’ve been a welcome addition; Wi-Fi Sense connects your devices to trusted Wi-Fi hotspots. I like the thought of being able to automatically share my Wi-Fi credentials with my friends, as it would remove a lot of hassle when they come to visit. A few of my friends are technically challenged and just want to jump on my Wi-Fi network. This is what Wi-Fi Sense does, and it doesn’t share your actual password, so it theoretically eases a social transaction (the sharing of Wi-Fi connectivity) without necessarily compromising your network security.
So, it is a sound idea, but the implementation is…“interesting,” in the sense of the apocryphal “Chinese curse.” Do you really want to automatically share access with everyone in your Outlook address book, or with all your Skype contacts, or—even more worrying—with the random assortment of folks you have connected with on Facebook over the years? If I had the ability to choose who to share access with, even down to the level of an individual, it would be useful. Until that happens, it is my recommendation that you leave Wi-Fi Sense switched off.
With Windows 10, Microsoft is also beefing up security with Windows Hello. This feature will use your Windows 10 device’s camera or a fingerprint scanner to turn your body into a password. Once you’ve authenticated yourself with Windows Hello—think Xbox and Kinect facial recognition—Windows Passport will then give you access to a number of third-party sites and products, without forcing you to log in all over again. This should make it a bit more convenient to log in to your devices, so you don’t skimp on traditional measures, like having a robust password. The only catch is that Hello isn’t widely supported on a lot of existing hardware: you’ll need a device sporting Intel’s RealSense camera, or a fingerprint scanner.
Another “meh” moment is the Xbox integration. I am not a gamer, so the fact that I can synchronize all my Xbox games with my desktop device holds no interest for me; but if you are a gamer, I can see it having some use.
To be fair, there is nothing that I really hate in Windows 10, unless it is the feeling of its still being a work in progress; Edge, Microsoft’s IE replacement browser; it is just lacking some features; and the addition of Cortana. I have visions of Scotty from Star Trek standing there saying “Computer!” If it’s as “good” as the voice recognition on the Xbox, then it will be as much use as a chocolate fire guard.
So, to sum up:
The Good: Windows 10 bridges the gap between PCs and tablets without alienating anyone. The new OS combines the best bits of the old and a couple of new Windows features into a cohesive package, while almost correcting the missteps of Windows 8. The upgrade process is mostly painless, and the upgrade is free for most Windows 7 and 8 users.
The Bad: Many of the new features will be lost on those who don’t care about touch. Automatic, forced updates could spell trouble later on. Cortana’s features are better suited for smartphones.
The “Meh”: Xbox integration. Do I really want my Xbox games appearing on my desktop machine? I like a separation of tasks: desktop for work, Xbox for fun.
The Bottom Line: Windows 10 delivers a refined, vastly improved vision for the future of computing. This is especially so for those who have had to put up with the less-than-perfect environment of a non–touch aware Windows 8 machine. Windows 10 is an operating system that’s equally at home on tablets and traditional PCs. As a plus, it’s a free upgrade for most users. Finally, my new house now has its windows in the correct places, and the door is on the ground floor.