Review : Windows 10

Microsoft's latest Windows iteration

MacNN Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Microsoft

Price: Full: $120 Home, $200 Pro. Upgrade: free

The Good

  • Start Menu used instead of Start Screen

  • - Cortana for desktops

  • - Streaming games from an Xbox One console

  • - Familiar appearance to earlier versions makes it seem unintimidating

The Bad

  • Confused settings menus

  • - Upgrade download issues

  • - Advertising and in-app purchases in previously free Windows games

Microsoft has been trying hard to get back into the good books of its users for some time now. After the relatively well accepted Windows 7, the following release of Windows 8 faced stiff criticism, mostly from the company's attempts to make unnecessary and unwanted modifications to the operating system, requiring users to change how they actually used the operating system for many years. Windows 8.1 made some slight changes, but critics continued to rail against the operating system and the software giant, believing it to have grossly misunderstood what its users wanted.

Windows 10 could easily be described as either a modernized version of Windows 7, or a scaling back of Windows 8's outlandish changes in order to appease an unhappy user base. While this is accurate to some degree, it is probably best viewed as a muted extension to the work Microsoft put into Windows 8.1, but with some additional features users will not have seen implemented in the operating system before.

Windows looks like Windows

At first glance, previous users of Windows will be at home, as the main functional areas of Windows 10 are the same as most earlier versions. A task bar with a Start button at the bottom, a large desktop area, and a clock with some extra icons at the bottom right. Running applications appear as icons in the task bar, though you can also pin icons to the bar to make loading them quicker next time they are needed.



The initial theming of Windows is much darker than in previous releases, with a plain task bar and flat iconography used throughout. Applications that are running have a small bar underneath their task bar icon, with the active window highlighted, and there is the option to bring up a preview pane of all windows associated with an app by hovering over the icon.

Much like Windows 8, an Action Center can be summoned on the right hand side of the desktop, giving the option to change various settings quickly as well as displaying any app or system notifications that may warrant attention. Touchscreen users can easily swipe this in from the right, but a new speech bubble icon in the task bar now illuminates if anything new has been added.

Starting up

The most major change users will see when they start up Windows 10 for the first time is the return of the Start Menu. In Windows 8, Microsoft switched it out for the Start Screen, a fullscreen menu that showed apps in Live Tile blocks, rather than in a compact list, summoned by either pressing the Windows key on a keyboard or moving the cursor into the bottom left corner, since Microsoft removed the button from the taskbar. In Windows 8.1, it brought back the taskbar button, though while it still summoned the Start Screen, users had a greater control when it came down to altering the size and placement of the Live Tiles themselves.



Windows 10's Start Menu takes users some way back to how Windows systems operated, but still keeps a modern twist. The menu has been split vertically, with the left side resembling a more traditional Start Menu, while the other half uses the Live Tiles from Windows 8. This second section can be extended horizontally to show more tiles, with individual tiles able to be resized, moved, and sorted into groups with ease, though at its most compact, the column does scroll the tiles up and down if users don't want to extend it. In a bid to appease those who liked the Start Screen, there is even an option to make the Start Menu open in full screen.



Some may find the split Start Menu to be too cluttered compared to the utilitarian minimalism that Windows 7 and previous iterations offered, but there is some method to the madness here. For a start, the Live Tiles can rotate their imagery, displaying notifications, icons, or related images that could easily allow a user to see their most important apps need some attention. Tablet and touch-enabled notebook users will find it to be easier to navigate the Live Tile section, slightly stretching their thumb over from the left-hand edge of the screen when holding the device, much like a smartphone.

Cortana

The second main change in Windows 10 is the upgraded Windows search, or more specifically, the addition of Cortana. Microsoft's attempt at a virtual assistant in a similar vein to Apple's Siri or Google Voice Search, previously available to Windows Phone users, has become the first of the major voice-based assistants to make the transition to desktop, and takes its place next to the Start button in the form of a circular icon.



Here, Cortana effectively takes over Windows search from before, with searches for files, settings, and web searches performed through a single interface in the bottom left. Searches throughout the review period were extremely quick, and a vast improvement over Windows 8 and Windows 8.1. While a user can initiate a search by clicking the icon and starting to type, or pressing the Windows key and also typing, just clicking the icon on its own will bing up a list of Google Now-style cards that the user may want to look at.

As with the mobile version, you can speak to Cortana queries or commands, which it will then either perform or search for you. Reminders to call people or for other tasks can be set to trigger at a later time, while requests involving locations, local businesses, and other interests will also be logged in Cortana's notebook for tuning later searches to the user's needs, though these can be trimmed out.



Admittedly, there is the feeling of Cortana's voice search being a bit of a novelty rather than being useful. Sitting at the screen barking orders preceded with "Hey Cortana" over the course of an evening can leave someone feeling foolish, even if they don't have an audience, especially considering it would be less embarrassing and possibly quicker to just type the searches. There are also issues with how Cortana deals with certain wording of queries, with "10 meters in feet" bringing up Bing search results, but "What is 10 meters in feet?" giving a verbal response and the data within Cortana's container.

Despite the feeling of idiocy conversing with a computer, as well as the occasional search foibles, Cortana may actually be more useful than one would think. Bear in mind that the desktop version synchronizes data with the Windows Phone original, and that iOS and Android versions of Cortana are on the way, potentially allowing enthusiastic users to have their search assistant wherever and whenever they need it.

Multitasking

Microsoft has added more opportunities to improve a user's multitasking capabilities than in earlier Windows releases. Unlike Windows 8, the more modern "Metro-style" apps now work within their own windows, instead of expanding to fill the screen, requiring you to "Snap" apps to the sides to multitask. There is still the ability to snap windows to the sides, but it does so without taking over the entire display, and still acting as a window afterwards.



New to Windows 10 is Task View, or a way for people to manage multiple windows more efficiently. Clicking the button on the task bar changes the view to something reminiscent of OS X's Mission Control feature, showing all of the open windows on the screen at the same time, and making it easier to find that one window buried on the desktop behind the rest.

Virtual desktops are also another major multitasking addition, letting users assign specific windows and apps to specific desktops to segregate their work. Switching between the desktops, or adding or removing virtual desktops, can be done within Task View, though switching between desktops can also be accomplished using keyboard commands.

Microsoft Edge

The new operating system brings with it a new attempt by Microsoft to fix its browsers. Edge, previously known as Project Spartan, is the software giant's attempt to start from scratch, with little in the way of baggage carried over from Internet Explorer, and it certainly makes a change.



Using a modern and minimal interface, Edge is a quick-to-load, quick-to-render browser that is an immense improvement over its stablemate. Only seven menu icons are available, with the traditional forward, back, and refresh icons on the top left, and a more general menu dropdown, sharing function, a "Hub" for favorites and other common tasks, and a web note icon on the right.

Web notes are Microsoft's way for users to keep track of specific things on a website and to share details with others. Clicking it brings up more options to write, type, highlight, and erase annotations on the page, with a clipping tool making a copy of a specific region of the page, complete with notes, that can be viewed and used elsewhere.



Despite Edge bringing a more modern approach to web browsing than Internet Explorer ever did, there are still a few issues. For a start, you cannot add extensions to Edge, something other popular browsers offer to their users. The size of the menu buttons and the top section may also be seen as a tiny bit too large, presumably to make it touchscreen-accessible, but there does not appear to be any way of changing the size of these elements if you are purely a desktop users.

Diehard Internet Explorer fans and those needing the previous browser for site accessibility reasons can still use it, via an "Open with Internet Explorer" option in the menu. Oddly, Internet Explorer isn't immediately available in the Start Menu, but a Cortana search does also bring it up.

Gaming and entertainment

The thoroughly modern aesthetic extends into the many apps that come preinstalled with Windows 10. The Film & TV app is simple to use and unobtrusive, while Groove can easily play songs imported from iTunes and other music sources. In some cases, Microsoft's focus on universal apps, namely software that works on mobile and desktop Windows 10, helps improve some items, such as the layout of Groove condensing when it is snapped to the side.

The Xbox app, Microsoft's play towards the gaming audience certainly does a lot to appeal to players. The app can be used to send and receive correspondence with other Xbox users, both in Windows 10 and on Xbox One. Achievements in games can also be viewed, along with the activity feeds and profiles of other players. The Game DVR, a video capture service on the Xbox One console, makes the transition to PC, allowing for recording of gameplay footage and sharing clips with friends.

Owners of an Xbox One will benefit from being able to stream games from their console to Windows 10 across a local network, allowing them to play without disturbing other living room users. This is a nice feature to have, especially benefiting those not owning a powerful-enough system for desktop gaming, such as notebook users, though some may still prefer to play their games locally instead of remotely.

Existing PC game collections can also be used with the Xbox app, with it in theory automatically detecting other games on the system and allowing users to launch it from within the app. Unfortunately, for the moment at least, it does not seem to be detecting many of the apps already installed on the test system via Steam, but some do. While Borderlands, League of Legends, and Starcraft II appeared as part of the initial detection, other major titles including Halo: Spartan Assault and Team Fortress 2, cannot be added to the list, not even through the "Add a game from your PC" option.



While on the subject of games, Microsoft has upgraded the appearance of all the mainstay toys it includes with Windows. Solitaire, Minesweeper, Hexic, and others are available, each with achievements visible in the Xbox app, though some users may balk at the subscription options in some titles that remove advertising and provide a few extra features. This may be seen a cash grab by Microsoft, but considering the world is conditioned into accepting advertising and in-app purchases in mobile games, it isn't a surprise to see the concepts here.

The media apps, and the Xbox app, all include links to the Windows Store, an upgraded version compared to Windows 8.1. Apps, games, music, and video content can be acquired through the relatively clean interface, with previously acquired apps and universal apps from Windows Phone able to be redownloaded through the menu. The selection available is relatively lacking when put next to the iTunes App Store or Google Play, though this may soon change if Microsoft's plan to encourage iOS developers to port their apps over works.



One week later

In just over a week of usage of Windows 10 on various systems, it appears to be a relatively stable release. All software preinstalled on systems upgraded to Windows 10 seem to be working fine, and the Windows Store is also offering up apps previously bought and installed by users without much trouble. Admittedly, in each of the five installations conducted over the last week, the only driver not installed was for video, with Windows 10 reverting to Microsoft's own basic video card drivers. A quick download swiftly rectified that problem.

There are some slight issues that Microsoft may need to address. The most obvious being the company's attempt to stagger the download and installation of the upgrade for Windows 7 and later systems causing random errors and other problems. Considering this is a scaling issue with an extremely large number of clients to manage, the download and installation process will most likely get better over time.

While Microsoft has applied its modernized look to many of the main components of the user interface, there are quite a few areas it has seemingly missed or decided to leave relatively untouched. File Explorer looks almost identical to Windows 8.1's version, save for slight interface tweaks, though since it is a primary tool that many Windows users are comfortable using, Microsoft is probably right to keep it from being transformed.

One extremely odd design choice revolves around the settings menus. Control Panel, the section that deals with the primary settings of Windows itself, reappears and seems to be the same as normal. Even the settings available from within Control Panel have a similar appearance to previous versions of the same menu.



Microsoft, however, has also included an extra way to change options, through the Settings option in the Start Menu. This modernized section offers a limited selection of items available in Control Panel, but with an updated interface. This unusual choice is exacerbated by some options in the Settings menu not being available from within the Control Panel, such as Windows Update, forcing users to check both to change one setting.



Windows Update itself also has its own problems. For a start, Microsoft is insistent on forcing consumers to install updates soon after they are available, prompting a potentially unhelpful reboot, with users of some Windows versions getting the option to defer upgrades to a later time. There is also the option of setting Windows Updates to download from other PCs on a network, which could help speed up download times and potentially save bandwidth if multiple Windows 10 systems in a home need to be updated at the same time. Enabling it also allows the PC to provide the same updates to others on the network, with the added option of supplying them to PCs on the Internet. This could end up consuming the upstream of a slow Internet connection, and is turned to this setting by default. Microsoft should have left this set so that only local network systems could get the updates, as depending on the user's Internet connection, this could be a painful prospect.



In summary

Microsoft had a lot of work to do to appease users of Windows 7 unwilling to upgrade to Windows 8, something it ultimately failed to do with Windows 8.1. It also had to make an upgrade from Windows 8.1 that didn't seem like a reversion or a concession it was completely wrong with some design elements, while also bringing something new to the table.

For the most part, Windows 10 appears to be a release that accomplishes what Microsoft needed to do for both camps. The Start Menu is back for the Windows 7 users afraid of change, and though it includes the Live Tiles Microsoft introduced to us in Windows 8, they are an optional part to the experience, if not removable. "Metro" apps are now windowed, instead of forcing users to deal with a space-wasting full screen layout. It's not as intimidating a change for Windows 7 users as an upgrade to Windows 8.

Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 users still get new toys to play with, such as Cortana, a new browser, and the Xbox app. They also benefit from the inherent extra security of prompt Windows Updates, a more refined interface compared to the garishness of Windows 8, and no longer have to spend time explaining to critics why they are using an operating system with a Start Screen.

Ultimately, Windows 10 is certainly worthwhile as an upgrade from Windows 7 or later, both on PC and on Mac's Boot Camp, especially considering it is free for the first year after its release. Users with older systems running Windows XP may not want to upgrade their aging system, as if they were not going to upgrade to Windows 7 at a bare minimum, they certainly won't want to pay for a three-generation jump, and could probably do better putting their money into a new system with Windows 10 preinstalled.

Is it enough to tempt Mac users across to the Windows side? Probably not. If a Mac user wasn't going to switch to Windows 7, Windows 10 is unlikely to be enough to force people to switch over, though those interested in exploring the other side won't be scared off by the Windows 8 Start Screen anymore.

That being said, Microsoft has been slowly trying to garner a Mac audience in various ways. Outside of Windows, it has launched Office and other apps on iOS as well as its own mobile platform and Android. In Windows itself, it even includes a Phone Companion app that makes it easier to install most of the iOS apps, though Cortana is not yet out for the iPhone or iPad.

Even if diehard Mac fans won't suddenly change allegiance after trying out Windows 10, they still have to give Microsoft some credit in trying to appease its detractors, to correct itself, and make itself more amenable for different platforms. It is a massive step in the right direction for Microsoft, but maybe not a big enough step to be welcomed by all.