Microsoft's Windows 10 operating system should start hitting US computers on Wednesday, marking one of the biggest launches in the company's history. A few years after what could charitably be called a disastrous launch for Windows 8, Microsoft needs the new system to move forward while also making amends.
With Windows 8, Microsoft moved too fast into the future by introducing a lot of tablet-focused details and designs that alienated its core keyboard-and-mouse users. Windows 10 fixes many of those mistakes but still manages to incorporate enough new touches to plot a clear course to the more mobile, touchscreen-based future.
That makes the best of Microsoft's uniquely tricky position: It needs to design a system that appeases modern consumers who want changes and upgrades quickly, while still pleasing its business users who tend to be a bit more conservative when it comes to new systems.
The best illustration of this is the Start Menu. Microsoft took the bold — and ultimately wrong — step of wiping this familiar feature out of existence in Windows 8 in favor of a full-screen grid of apps designed to be touchscreen friendly. That drew the ire of millions of users who upgraded their systems only to find that a key way they navigated the system was completely gone.
In Windows 10, the Start Menu is back as a hybrid with the Windows 8 start screen. But users are able to look at all of their programs, access the settings menu and pin things to the Start Menu or task bar — just as they were able to in older versions of Windows.
Similarly, a major complaint I had about Windows 8 was that it had apps that were purpose-built for the new system that took up the whole screen, making it jarring to jump between newer programs and traditional ones. In Windows 10, even programs that have Microsoft's modern look and feel can be moved and managed like traditional ones. That makes multitasking much easier than in Windows 8 — a boon for productivity across the board.
Microsoft has also cleaned out the cobwebs from its browser, ditching the much-reviled Internet Explorer in favor of a new program called Microsoft Edge.
The browser is designed to be generally cleaner, smoother and more efficient than IE, and largely succeeds. I can say this: In the week or so I spent with the system on a Surface Pro 3 provided by Microsoft for review, I wasn't tempted to download other browsers. That's more than I could say for its predecessor.
Edge also has a neat feature that lets you annotate Web pages and share them, so you could highlight a part of a story or restaurant menu ("Look! They have great vegetarian options!") and share that with a friend. It's the type of feature that you may not have known you wanted, but could get very useful over time if you want to quickly draw someone's attention to a particular portion of a Web page.
That takes care of the mistakes of the past. But Microsoft also has to look to the future.
To that end, there are some nice mobile-focused features built into Windows 10. Microsoft has put its voice assistant, Cortana, into the core of Windows 10, offering a glimpse of what its more service-based release of Windows could look like in the future.
Cortana — if you use her — is constantly updating you on your schedule and serving up news and other information based on your own preferences and other Microsoft services you use. You can even opt to call her up by saying "Hey Cortana," though you probably won't want to do that in an office setting. The software can also let you know if there's traffic on the way to your next meeting or set reminders based on the time, your location or even specific people. So, for example, if you want to be reminded that you owe your friend Joe $5, you can ask Cortana to set up a reminder for you that will pop up the next time you get an e-mail from him.
Cortana has the potential to become very useful: Microsoft even talked to real-life personal assistants as it designed Cortana to figure out the best way to pull up relevant information. Yet the main drawback of the assistant is that you have to train her in order to get the greatest benefit out of her — and you may not have the time or feel totally comfortable feeding in a bunch of information into Microsoft's systems. For more traditional PC users, Cortana probably won't get much use apart from maybe an initial setup.
The same is true for other features optimized for the tablet and touchscreen. For example, on the Surface Pro 3, the system can automatically sense when you're in "tablet" mode and when you're using a keyboard. That's a great feature that's not going to be used by very many people. But these little mobile, modern touches give enough of a sense that Windows 10 is a system that can move into a more-connected and mobile future.
So, Windows users, should you upgrade?
The answer is yes, pretty much across the board. If you have Windows 8 and a case of buyer's remorse, the answer is definitely yes. If you've got Windows 7 and have been waiting to upgrade to a new system, this is the moment. There are enough new features to tempt you even if you aren't that into the fancy voice-controlled stuff, such as better search features and an overall better browser. If you want to wait a little while to see if new bugs pop up as Microsoft starts rolling the system out, you have some time — in most cases, Microsoft's giving customers a year from Wednesday's launch to take advantage of their free upgrade.
It's also likely the last Windows launch of its kind that we'll ever see. Microsoft has said that this is essentially the "last Windows," in the sense that from Windows 10 on, the tech giant will be releasing smaller upgrades more often — something Apple already does — to keep its system fresher for longer.
Overall, Windows 10 is a solid system. It's familiar enough so that most people will probably feel comfortable upgrading, with a sprinkling of new user-centric features that shows Microsoft's eyes are on the future. Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella has been clear that it's not enough for the company to get people using its products, it also wants them to enjoy using them. Windows 10 has clearly been designed with that thought in mind — whether it's enough to convince people to love their Windows PCs remains to be seen.
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