A product as ambitious as Windows 10 comes with high expectations. Upon Windows 10's release on July 29, 2015, Microsoft declared that it wanted its flagship operating system on 1 billion devices within the next three years. As of January 4, 2016, Microsoft stated that Windows 10 was active on over 200 million devices. If these were all PCs, that would be a market share of about 10%, versus 55% for Windows 7, according to data collected by analytics firm NetMarketShare. Microsoft's numbers include the Xbox One game console and phones running Windows 10 Mobile, as well as the new Surface Pro 4 tablet and Surface Book hybrid. All of Microsoft's hardware is getting built for Windows 10, but is the OS ready for ubiquity?
Six months after initial release, and after several sizeable updates, Windows 10 gets the basics right. It's stable, it looks nice, users of the desktop interface don't have to wrestle with Windows 8's tile-based interface, and your PC's components should be compatible with it. In these areas, Windows gets an A on its report card. However, there are areas of concern that bring its average down to a B. Let's go over the major ones.
Privacy and privacy settings
Microsoft created a double-edged sword with privacy settings in Windows 10. On the one hand, Windows 10 has exhaustingly comprehensive choices you can make about what information Microsoft collects about your usage. On the other hand, it's unsettling that the company collects such comprehensive data -- and most of it is enabled by default. The company has also been accused of undoing user changes to default settings when a system update is installed, but I haven't been able to replicate this issue. In fact, there's no option to return your privacy settings to their defaults, which is a curious omission.
If you want to limit exposure of your usage habits to unknown parties, you could spend a good hour poring over Windows 10's privacy settings, researching terminology, and inspecting the fine print. You'd also experience tedium. For example, you can globally enable and disable app access to your device's camera and microphone, which is good. But the individual apps that may request this access have individual toggles that are set to On by default.
I counted 17 such toggles on one of our testing machines, which had been only lightly used, and a couple dozen toggles on a Windows 10 system that's been using the OS since it was in preview. Of course, app behavior may break if camera and microphone access is disabled by default. More privacy seems to mean less convenience, and vice versa. But an "ask me every time" option in between "always off" and "always on" would be a good middle ground.
System update security
While privacy is mostly about what goes out, security is mostly about who or what gets in. Microsoft made a major shift in Windows 10 by making sure that the OS gets updates by default, which helps patch security holes and keep your machine safer.
Previous versions of Windows allowed you to ignore system updates altogether. While that gave you more control, it could also lead to tech-support headaches. For example, if you ran into a problem and didn't have the most recent version of Windows 7 or 8, you might have had to try a half dozen sets of instructions before finding a solution. That's inconvenient for users and bad for system security.
But I'm not convinced that forcing the installation of updates is the answer, especially when a glitchy update can make the operating system unbootable without moderately technical workarounds, as I discovered on one occasion. If you're going to make something mandatory, it has to be highly reliable, and if it does fail, there must be a means to revert to a previous state.
A better process: If Windows 10 starts failing to boot, it could offer to remove the most recent update. Windows 8 introduced a comprehensive set of troubleshooting tools that you can access before the OS itself loads -- update removal would be right at home there.
The security of Wi-Fi Sense
Wi-Fi Sense helps you share your wireless network passwords with your contacts. It sends an encrypted key instead of your actual password, so some of the initial outrage about this feature was overblown. However, Wi-Fi Sense lacks filtering on a per-person basis. When you share one of these keys, you share it with all your contacts -- who can in turn share it with their contacts, potentially far beyond your intended group of people. The sharing function should be restricted to the original set of users, with an option to share on a person-by-person basis.
You can opt out of Wi-Fi Sense altogether, but this setting is buried under several layers of navigation. Moreover, to remove the network, you must rename it, adding "_optout" (without the quotes) to the end of the name. An operating system shouldn't require you to change your network name in order to suppress one of its behaviors.
The new old Start menu
It may sound like I'm down on Windows 10, but there are bright spots, like the Start menu. It may not be a perfect system for interacting with an operating system, but it's definitely an improvement over a blank space or Windows 8's tile-based interface.
Re-introducing the Start menu may not have been palatable for a company that wants to avoid a dated look -- we've had the function front and center for 20 years now. But the menu's absence in Windows 8 was clearly a problem, as was defaulting to the tile-based Start Screen instead of to a familiar desktop with icons, wallpaper, and detailed context menus.
Microsoft still integrates tiles in the Start menu, but you can remove them by right-clicking one and selecting Unpin From Start. I had to repeat this process 20 times to get rid of them all, which feels like another example of Windows giving you lots of options but making them so tedious to use that you might give up. But at least desktop users can completely banish tiles from the current version of Windows without Registry hacks or third-party programs.
Performance and gaming
Microsoft proclaims that Windows 10 boots much faster than previous versions of Windows. But these days, sleep and hibernation modes are reliable and green enough that there isn't much incentive to completely shut the system down in the first place, even with laptops running on battery power.
Performance matters more for gaming, and DirectX 12 has the potential to get gamers a lot more bang for their buck, thanks to long-sought optimizations to how your CPU and gaming hardware talk to each other. But it takes years to make a game, so the real-world advantages of DirectX 12 have yet to be realized beyond a small handful of titles and benchmarking tools. DirectX 12 also requires support in your gaming hardware, and that picture is muddy because of manufacturers creating subcategories like "API-level support" and "feature-level support." Only the latter will get the most out of DirectX 12. Furthermore, there isn't any equipment on the market today that supports all of DirectX 12's features, though manufactures and game developers have figured out some workarounds to produce similar results. Basically, the appeal of gaming in Windows 10 has yet to fully arrive on both the hardware and software sides.
The company's HoloLens augmented-reality headset is also still on the horizon, and the complexity of this tech indicates that we should expect a prohibitive price tag -- for reference, the developer kit costs a cool $3,000. HoloLens runs its own version of Windows 10 -- it's not a pair of goggles plugged into a computer that does all the heavy lifting, like the Oculus Rift. The public demos for HoloLens have been technically impressive, but we've yet to experience a must-buy scenario, at least for gamers.
Microsoft Edge browser
I really don't mean to bash Windows 10. Like I said, most of its behavior is sensible and reliable. But after spending six months off and on with the Edge browser, it hasn't shown me behaviors that would compel me to replace Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer 11 (which is still included in Windows 10). Microsoft has been offering to make Chrome and Firefox add-ons work in Edge with minimal fiddling on the developer side, but the feature hasn't been released yet.
The things Edge can do that the others can't is relatively underwhelming. You can draw on the interface, take a screenshot, and send that to someone or save it. But you can only send to services that have an official Windows 10 app, and you can save your scrawl as an image file. You can also save it to OneNote, add it as a Favorite (what everyone else calls a bookmark), or add it to your Reading List. This last one is like Pocket but without a cross-platform cloud presence, limiting its appeal.
If you want to see your Reading List later, click the Hub button, identified by three horizontal stacked lines (sometimes called a hamburger menu). This image is customarily used by mobile apps and devices to show a menu of the app's main functions (such as creating, opening, or saving a document) and a link to settings. Instead of a hamburger, Edge has a button with three dots This is not a conventional symbol, and neither is the share button -- instead of three dots connected by two lines, it's three dots sitting on the edge of a circle.
This combination of unfamiliar signposts and familiar ones used in unfamiliar ways creates unnecessary friction between the user and what they want to do. It forces you to be mindful of two different design languages just to interact with a Web browser effectively. Without a compelling reason to take that leap every time they click the blue E, most users will simply stick to the language they know and use everywhere else. In short, if you're going to change the rules, you need to provide better results.
Should you upgrade to Windows 10?
You may be convinced that Windows 10 is terrible at this point, but it's definitely not. If you're on Windows 8.0 or 8.1, you should definitely upgrade -- things like the Start menu and a de-emphasis on tiles in desktop mode make the update worthwhile. You may also prefer Windows 10's flat aesthetic, which has become quite popular in iOS and Android. But if you're debating an upgrade from Windows 7, the decision's not as clear, unless you have a tablet or laptop with a touch screen that you use a lot.
Windows 7 is six years old now, which in the tech world gets multiplied like dog years. But you know it and it just works: Those two factors have kept some people clinging to Windows XP 15 years after its release. Since DirectX 12 has yet to fully materialize, we can't think of any use cases that would require Windows 10. But Windows 10 is inevitable, and most users of Windows 7 and 8.1 can upgrade to it for free for the next six months. You can make an argument for upgrading to Windows 10 now, so that you're prepared when it becomes necessary.