by: Tom McNamara on July 29, 2015
Windows 10 is the latest version of Microsoft's operating system, released on July 29, 2015 and available as a free upgrade for many users until July 29, 2016.
Most home users of Windows 7 and 8.1 can upgrade to Windows 10 for free. The Start menu is finally back, and Continuum lets you use a Windows Phone or tablet like a desktop PC. The snappy new Edge Web browser promises to handle Chrome and Firefox add-ons. The Xbox Live app keeps you connected to console-gaming buddies.
You can't directly upgrade from Windows Vista, and you have reduced ability to block or hide unwanted system updates. There's no more Windows Media Center.
Aside from the absence of Windows Media Center, Windows 10 marries the best elements of versions 7 and 8.1 and introduces cool new features, especially for gamers.
Laying the groundwork
Windows 10 has the most ambitious goals in the company's 40-year history. Microsoft is laying a lot of groundwork toward two objectives: getting Windows 10 on 1 billion devices within the next few years, and making Windows 10 a long-term brand like OS X (so don't expect a Windows 11 any time soon).
Microsoft has made a lot of changes to its operating system in the past 25 years, but the desktop interface hasn't changed significantly in the last 20. Microsoft tried getting us into tiled interfaces with Windows 8, but that didn't really work for a mouse and keyboard. The standard desktop mode was still available, so it wasn't a total reinvention of the wheel. With Windows 10, desktop users don't have to deal with Windows 8's tiled Start screen at all if they don't want to. That's one of several concessions Microsoft is making -- but the company is also pushing forward elsewhere. Let's go through the new elements that Microsoft is introducing this time.
(Microsoft also released the Anniversary Update in August 2016, which brought a number of changes, including adding extension support to the Edge browser for things like password managers and ad blockers.)
A new desktop: Start, search, Cortana, and Continuum
If you're coming from Windows 7, you'll find that most things are in their familiar places in Windows 10. The Start menu removed in Windows 8 has returned, and although tiles are grafted to its right side, you can remove them by right-clicking and selecting Unpin From Start. You can also move and resize them.
When you hit the Windows key and start typing to search for something, you remain on the desktop instead of getting transported to Windows 8's Start screen. By default, this function performs a device search and an online search via Bing at the same time, but you can disable the Web search fairly easily. Press the Windows button, click the search box, click the gear icon near the upper left corner of the window to open search settings, and click the slider underneath "Search online and include web results." Now your searches will show you only files and applications on your device. System administrators can also disable Web searches through settings in the Local Group Policy Editor, which can help create a more secure work environment.
Windows 10 also invites you to use Cortana for search and other tasks. Cortana is basically like Siri or Google Now, an intelligent assistant that responds to typed or spoken commands, performing Web searches or certain system functions, such as dictating a text message. We enabled Cortana reluctantly, because it asks for a distressingly long list of permissions by default, ranging from scanning your email for keywords to analyzing everything you type or write with a stylus. You can choose the behaviors, but you have to dig around in system settings, instead of being shown a list when you enable Cortana.
In the system tray in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, you may notice a new icon that looks like a conversation bubble. Clicking this opens a notifications pane called the Action Center. It can list recent emails, if you've logged in to Windows with a Microsoft account, and it notifies you about system updates that are ready to install. It's like a personal assistant, but not at the level of Cortana.
Last but not least, Continuum lets you use a Windows 10 phone or tablet like a desktop. You can plug your device into a monitor and pair it with a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, and the monitor will seamlessly transition from a touch-based interface to a keyboard and mouse-optimized desktop -- then return to normal when you disconnect the device. The Windows Phone platform doesn't have much market share, but a meaningful number of people use tablets now, and Microsoft is working to make Android and iOS apps function in its Windows Phone OS, so this interface flexibility has a lot of potential. Just one week ago, Microsoft's Phil Spencer stated that the company is working on integrating mouse and keyboard support into the Xbox One game console, so the Xbox One may get Continuum as well.
A new login process: password or PIN
As with Windows 8 and 8.1, you have two ways to log in to Windows 10: you can use a local account or a Microsoft account. When you log in with a Microsoft account to a Windows 10 PC that you haven't used before, the device will talk to a Microsoft data center that stores your settings and wallpaper, so that you can re-create the look and feel of your "home" Windows 10 desktop in a flash. You may not want Microsoft to store personal info about how you use your PC, and that's understandable, but there is one other advantage: PINs.
You can of course skip setting a password and go straight to your desktop when your PC starts, but this leaves you wide open if an unauthorized person physically gets their hands on your device. You can use passwords, but they need to be moderately complex, so that they're difficult to guess, which can make them equally difficult to remember. Until now, there hasn't really been a middle ground. But with Windows 10, you can set a PIN specific to that device. So if someone does guess your PIN, they have access only to that device, whereas someone who cracks a password that you reuse may gain access to other places, like your bank account or encrypted files on your computer. (We strongly recommend setting up two-factor authentication for sensitive accounts.)
A new system update method
In the past, you could permanently prevent Windows from installing specific system updates, or delay them if they were buggy. For users of the Home version of Windows, this is no longer the case. By default, Windows 10 will periodically check for updates, download them, schedule a time to install them, and restart your PC. On the one hand, this will make it easier for Microsoft tech support, because people having issues with Windows 10 will all be using more or less the same version of the operating system. Also, updates are good for system security -- blocking updates can leave your PC wide open to malware that an antivirus program may not always detect. Automated updates allow Microsoft to patch security holes very quickly. On the other hand, Microsoft sometimes releases buggy updates, though they're rarely serious enough to shut down the normal operation of your PC.
On July 27, Microsoft released update KB307930 to people testing Windows 10 in the Insider program. This update installs a tool that allows you to block or hide system and driver updates. We could not determine at press time if this tool would also be installed in the regular retail version of Windows, but you can download it from Microsoft. The twist: you can only block future updates for things you already uninstalled during troubleshooting. So the tool is not as flexible as the functions that we had before, but it's a start.
New gaming options
Since the launch of the original Xbox in 2001, it's fair to say that Microsoft's interest in PC gaming has been in steady decline, pockmarked by instances like Gaming for Windows Live, the shutdown of Ensemble Studios, messy video-card driver updates, and continual promises that Microsoft was going to improve how it handles PC gaming.
Now the company is integrating Xbox Live into Windows 10, and the results so far have been surprisingly promising. The app is basically like having the Xbox One dashboard on your PC, except optimized for a mouse and a keyboard. You can see your profile and your friends' activity feeds, chat with them over Xbox Live, and even stream your Xbox One over the local network to your PC.
You might wonder why would you want to do that last one, instead of playing Xbox One games on the couch or playing PC games at your desk. It doesn't seem like a feature that will take off. But if you have to compete with others for access to the TV that your Xbox One is plugged into, it's nice to have alternatives. And when you're streaming to the PC, you can even use an Xbox 360 controller, which some gamers still swear by in preference to the Xbox One controller. Regardless, we recommend using an Ethernet connection or at least a very strong 802.11ac Wi-Fi signal.
Windows 10 will also be the sole version of the OS to use DirectX 12. (The Xbox One is getting upgraded to Windows 10 as well, but how it handles DirectX 12, if at all, remains to be seen.) This programming code can use your PC much more efficiently than before, meaning you might squeeze extra performance from older hardware or higher performance from current hardware. However, the game has to be built for DirectX 12, so don't expect many of those games until next year.
There has been some confusion about DirectX 12 behavior with older PCs that we can clear up. Basically, there are two tiers: compatibility at the API level and compatibility at the feature level. Many older PCs can play games that use DirectX 12, a welcome change from previous versions of DirectX. That's API-level compatibility. But the trade-off is that the older hardware can't necessarily use all the features that come with DirectX 12. This new DirectX needs newer hardware to fully recognize what it's telling the hardware to do. It's like putting premium unleaded gasoline in a basic commuter car. Sure, it will combust like standard gas, but only high-performance car engines will take full advantage of the enhanced chemistry.
Finally, Solitaire and Minesweeper are returning through an app called the Microsoft Solitaire Collection, which is tightly integrated into the Xbox Live app. The collection also includes mahjong, jigsaw puzzles, bingo, and a couple other items. You don't need an Xbox for those, but you do need to log in to the app with a Microsoft account to get Xbox achievements.
A new Internet browser, Microsoft Edge
In Windows 10, Microsoft Edge replaces Internet Explorer 11. IE 11 will still be available, but the OS will no longer default to it. Edge is similar to IE but has a more streamlined interface and integrates Cortana. Microsoft says that Chrome and Firefox add-ons can be adapted to Edge with a small amount of code, though it isn't clear if this adaptation will be done by Microsoft or by the add-on's developers. Whatever the case, Microsoft showed the Reddit Enhancement Suite running on Edge in a live demo back on April 29. Since these add-ons weren't available at the time of Windows 10's release, we didn't spend a lot of time with Edge. But when we did, we found it snappy. If a bunch of popular apps get into the Edge ecosystem, it might make Microsoft a contender again in the browser wars.
New application behavior
In Windows 8.0, opening a PDF, image, MP3, or video launched a pre-installed application that took up the whole screen, and this app window had no buttons to close, minimize, or maximize it, which caused some aggravation among users. The answer was to press the Windows key to toggle back to desktop mode, but Windows neglected to mention that.
Microsoft introduced window buttons in Windows 8.1, and they're still here in Windows 10. But since such a small percentage of users stuck with version 8 after its initial frustrations, not a lot of people know that the file-handling protocol is better. The end result is a slight improvement, since Windows 7 did not have built-in support for reading PDFs. Still, we have a bunch of suggestions for free alternatives to Windows 10's stock apps.
Speaking of media, Microsoft has unfortunately pulled the plug on Windows Media Center. It's not in Windows 10, and upgrading from Windows 7 Media Center Edition to any version of Windows 10 will remove Media Center. Given its absence from the default installation of Windows 8, this is not a shock. But Windows Media Center is the only application with the cable industry's approval to decrypt its transmissions. Media Center lets you use a CableCard device instead of the cable company's set-top box, and you can buy CableCards outright, if you're persistent enough, instead of paying a monthly fee for your cable box. Now the industry has closed even this small gap. You can get Windows Media Center in Windows 8.1, but it costs $100 if you have the regular version of the operating system or $10 if you have Windows 8.1 Pro. Suffice to say, Microsoft is not eager to continue supporting Windows Media Center.
The new Windows Store
Microsoft is still pushing the store integrated into its operating system. The one in Windows 8/8.1 has never been a particularly popular space for software developers, and it basically never took off.
With the new Windows Store, Microsoft is introducing a universal app system: download an app on one device, and it'll be available on multiple other Windows 10 devices associated with your Microsoft account. That includes PCs, Windows Phones, the Xbox One (once that's updated to Windows 10), the Surface Hub, and devices connected to the Internet of Things. So a smart watch or a thermostat running a stripped-down version of Windows 10 could download Windows Store apps that you downloaded or bought on a tablet or Windows phone earlier that day.
A new upgrade process
In the run-up to the release of Windows 10, Microsoft made a surprising announcement: until July 29, 2016, home users of Windows 7 and 8.1 can upgrade to Windows 10 for free. After that date, late adopters will have to pay $100 to $200, depending on the OS version. Users of Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic, and Home Premium would get Windows 10 Home; and users of Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate would get Windows 10 Pro.
We haven't been able to get official word as to whether this Windows 10 upgrade will be treated like an OEM license or a retail license. OEM licenses are sold at a discount, usually to companies like Dell and HP, who install these copies on the PCs that they sell at retail. The trade-off for that discount is that the license can't be transferred to another device. Sometimes Microsoft will let individual users do it anyway, but it's not guaranteed. So if you're upgrading from a retail copy of Windows 7 or 8.1 and then you want to install your free Windows 10 upgrade on another computer in the future, but this version of Windows 10 has an OEM license, you might be prevented from doing so.
This is what we've been able to piece together so far from third parties: if you currently have an OEM version of a previous operating system that qualifies for the free upgrade to Windows 10, then you cannot use that OEM version to transfer the free upgrade version of Windows 10 to another device later on. However, if you have a retail version of a previous operating system that qualifies for the free upgrade to Windows 10, then you can transfer the free upgrade version to another PC later on. Basically, the free upgrade does not have an OEM license of its own, but installing this upgrade on another device in the future can happen only if the upgrade is used on a retail copy of Windows.
If you use an operating system older than Windows 7, you will not be able to upgrade directly to Windows 10, nor do you qualify for the free upgrade offer. Installing Windows 10 on these devices will wipe the drive, so be sure to make backups of your personal stuff first.
However, anyone can still qualify for a free copy of Windows, if you're willing to sign up for the Insider program [https://insider.windows.com/]. This gives you access to a beta version of Windows. The local account login is not an option, and you have to sign in with a Microsoft account. If you sign up for Windows Insider and decide to leave the program later, this preview version of Windows will expire after a few months. You must remain an Insider and log in with a Microsoft account to maintain access to new versions and updates of Windows 10.
Lastly, if you're running Windows 8.0, you must upgrade to Windows 8.1 before you can install Windows 10. This upgrade is available for free in the Windows Store app (rather than in the Windows Update tool itself, oddly).
If you decide to stick with an older version of Windows, Windows 7 is in "extended support" mode until 2020. That means that it will continue to get security patches but not new features. Windows 8.1 will be in "mainstream support" until 2018, with both security updates and new features, and it will have extended support until 2023. The free upgrade from Windows 7 or 8.1 to Windows 10 doesn't expire until July 29, 2016, so you have time to decide what you want to do.
Windows 10 is clearly different enough from Windows 8.1 to be considered a different operating system, which hasn't always been the case with Microsoft's version releases. For desktop users, Windows 10 has more in common with Windows 7 than 8. That shared DNA feels like an intentional result of listening to feedback, as Microsoft did when gamers nearly rebelled against the original design of the Xbox One. It just took longer with Windows.
On the flip side, Windows 10 doesn't feel like a must-have upgrade for the average desktop user (if there is such a person). If Windows 7 or 8.1 does everything you need, there's no killer app in Windows 10 that will change the picture for you, unless you're an Xbox One gamer or someone with recent gaming PC hardware. If you have one of those OSes, you have a year to decide whether to update to Windows 10 before the free offer expires.
Balancing new features against familiar design is no easy task, one that Microsoft arguably stumbled through with Windows 8. With Windows 10, Microsoft has managed to keep the OS fresh without introducing too many new things to learn and adapt to. In that sense, it's a triumph. Features like the Xbox Live app and Continuum feel like a natural evolution rather than a jarring shift, such as a tiled interface or missing Start menu. Unless you're running Windows Media Center, you should experience a substantial net gain in features, including the Edge browser and Cortana. And Microsoft is sweetening the deal pretty generously with its free upgrade.
We've been using the Insider version of Windows 10 for about a month now, and it has fewer issues than Windows 7 or 8.1, which have had a lot more time to mature. It's hard not to like Windows 10, and that isn't something you can usually say about an operating system on launch day. If you're ready to make the leap, Microsoft has done a good job of helping you stick the landing.