Windows 10: A new beginning

Say hello to Windows 10. Tomorrow's launch isn't the end of the road; rather, it's the first stop on a long journey as Microsoft's new operating system transitions from preview to a wide-scale global release. Here's what to expect.

Tomorrow, Microsoft releases Windows 10 to the general public as a free upgrade.

It's impossible not to draw parallels between today's launch and the hugely hyped release of Windows 95, which happened 20 summers ago.

At that Windows 95 launch party, with entertainment by Jay Leno and the accompaniment of the Rolling Stones, it felt like the end of a long journey. Windows 95 was shrink-wrapped, for heaven's sake, so it could sit on store shelves and bins at Costco. And you knew that it wasn't going to change much for another three years, which is how long it took for Windows 98 to arrive.

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Today's launch of Windows 10 feels nothing like that. It certainly isn't the end of any road. On the contrary, today's big launch feels like the beginning of a long road trip. And while road trips are often the stuff of hilarious comedies, in real life they can be tedious and frustrating.

Anyone who upgrades to Windows 10 this month gets to take that full ride, bumps and all. Make no mistake, there will be bumps, and perhaps a few roadside breakdowns, and even some crashes. And lots of updates.

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The process of delivering and servicing Windows 10 will operate at a massive scale, with the potential to run as a continually updated set of services on a billion devices in two or three years.

The only ecosystem that comes close to this scale is Apple's combined OS X and iOS installed base. The Android ecosystem is probably bigger, but Google only runs the Google Play store and its own set of services. It doesn't deliver continuous operating system updates to those billion-plus devices.

With software at this scale, I expect there will be hiccups with Windows 10. Some will be annoying and frustrating, and the law of large numbers says even a small percentage of unhappy early upgraders will be able to make a lot of noise.

The nine-month-long Windows Insider program has done a decent job at its primary mission of providing feedback to influence feature designs and telemetry to measure and improve reliability. It's also established that those bugs can be fixed fairly quickly.

But there's nothing like shipping to millions of devices for the first time to discover the handful issues you missed completely. (Just ask the first wave of iOS 8.1 adopters about Wi-Fi problems.)

The next two or three months should be interesting. We will read a lot of stories about bugs and problems in Windows 10's early days, you can be sure. I'll be monitoring forums and hearing from long-time correspondents (and even some new ones) via e-mail.

I've been documenting Windows 10's development through the Windows Insider program for the past nine months. Starting now, I get to monitor the public release of Windows 10 as well as what's coming up next.

Effective with the official launch, anyone who's been on the Insider program can bow and out and go back to the official release channels. You can also stay, and expect the next preview wave to start in a few weeks.

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This Windows 10 milestone is important. For consumers and owners of existing PCs, it starts the clock on Microsoft's free-upgrade offer (only 364 days left!), and it also represents the first Long Term Servicing Branch release, not that very many Enterprise edition customers are going to opt in except for pilot projects.

Today's release is primarily about consumer markets and consumer devices. There's an enterprise case to be made for Windows 10, eventually. Those features will take time (a year, at least) and a lot of testing before enterprise customers are ready to consider deploying Windows 10 in any significant numbers.

But it's not the end of the road by any stretch of the imagination. With that thought in mind, here's my review of the first release of Windows 10.

It looks great, it works well, and it's good enough to satisfy the Windows 8 haters.

Windows 10 is not a complete repudiation of Windows 8, but it certainly downplays several of the signature features of Windows 8. The Charms bar is completely gone. A Start menu is built in, combining the general layout of the Windows 7 Start menu with Windows 8-style live tiles, which are smaller and confined to a restricted space on the Start menu.

The Start screen is gone unless you have a tablet, and even then the menu parts of the Start menu are still accessible.

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I expect Microsoft to continue to improve the Windows 10 Start menu, which is functional but difficult to customize. In fact, improvements in the Start experience should be a key marker of how well Microsoft iterates and ships improvements over the next year. There's also plenty of room for improvement in the notification experience, although to be fair I don't think anyone, including Apple and Google, has figured that problem out yet.

I am writing this review on a two-year-old Dell XPS 8700. This traditional desktop design has a Core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, a couple SSDs, and a decent video card and is about as mainstream as you can get. This PC has been running Windows 10 Enterprise edition continuously since early May and has been upgraded steadily since build 10074. It's been surprisingly solid, and I have been using it as my daily work PC for many months, with a Mac desktop alongside it for backup purposes.

The design language of Windows 10 is consistent and attractive. It's also responsive, so that things like the Settings app can adapt to the size of the current screen or a small window on a large display. The systemwide search capabilities are impressive: Note that these results include some settings from the old Control Panel. Those are moving over to the new Settings app at a rapid pace, which will continue over the coming months and years.

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In day-to-day operation, I enjoy using Windows 10. I can't think of a Windows desktop program that doesn't run well on Windows 10, and it works very well with a mouse and keyboard and no touchscreen. I long ago unlearned the Start screen conventions and the quirky corner navigation of Windows 8 and 8.1, and I do not miss them at all.

In operation, Windows 10 has several navigation improvements I use a lot. One is Task View, shown here, which builds on the classic Alt+Tab task switcher.

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The other is Snap Assist, shown below, which improves on the window snapping capability that has been part of Windows for years.

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What both features have in common is that they finally represent productivity-enhancing improvements in the core features of Windows for people still using PCs in their classic desktop mode. That cohort has felt a bit slighted in the three years since Windows 8 shipped.

Over the next week, I'll be upgrading a half-dozen other PCs here, mostly mid- to high-end Windows laptops, and testing out some clean installs. I'll report on those experiences later.

It's a good, but not mandatory upgrade for Windows 7

The market has spoken fairly loud and clear on Windows 7, with at least 500 million machines worldwide running that operating system.

Some of those PCs are still on Windows 7 because they're old, or they are running predictable, simple workflows that rarely vary. Windows 10 isn't an automatic sell in those scenarios. But it should be a major upgrade in usability for people who have chosen to stick with old hardware or avoid Windows 8.x because they hated the interface.

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Over the past few months, I've written a lot of words about how to use Windows 10. Those instructions were much easier than their Windows 8.x counterparts, and I expect frustration levels among Windows 10 upgraders to drop by an order of magnitude. There is still plenty of room for improvement in Windows 10, but the major pain points are finally gone.

Still, for task-oriented workers doing mostly repetitive tasks using non-Microsoft services, there's just enough "Who moved my cheese?" change involved in Windows 10 to make it not only possible but smart to resist the free upgrade.

Cortana is effective and getting more so by the day

Microsoft has been trying for years to add a personal assistant to its software, with mixed results: Bob. Clippy. Merlin. Remember this?

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Cortana is finally an effective, useful, occasionally amazing expression of that ideal. It helps when Microsoft can leverage its deep investments in search, voice recognition, and personal productivity. I've become quite used to starting the day with a morning briefing from Cortana, with my roster of appointments and reminders, flight tracking, sports scores, news headlines, and recommendations.

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And Cortana is not even close to being fully realized.

The old Microsoft would have shipped Cortana in a shrink-wrapped box and then moved on, allowing an exciting idea to turn into an increasingly dated app. Cortana will arrive on Android and iOS soon, albeit with a smaller feature set. But the real test will be how quickly and how well Cortana can evolve, on the back end and in its ability to respond to your input.

Products like Amazon's Echo and features like Apple's Siri capture pieces of what Cortana is capable of, but the potential in Cortana is so much greater. If there's one feature of Windows 10 that is good enough to win hearts and minds, this is it.

The tablet and app experience is much improved, but is it enough?

Windows tablets haven't exactly taken the world by storm, although there are a few on the market. I've tested Windows 10 here on a pair of 8-inch tablets and on every member of the Surface family.

When you switch into tablet mode, the experience becomes a bit like Windows 8, with every app running in full-screen mode and a full-screen Start menu. It's certainly more usable in portrait mode on something like the Dell Venue 8 Pro.

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I expect to see a fair number of cheap Windows 10 tablets this fall, to compete with the seemingly endless supply of cheap Android devices. What I hope to see as well are some high-end small tablets, with high-DPI (Retina-quality) displays and a pen. In fact, if someone could just go dig around in that Indiana Jones warehouse and find the crates of Surface Minis that never shipped, they'd be a great fit with Windows 10.

It helps tremendously that some of the built-in Windows 10 apps are very good. The Groove Music app and its accompanying subscription service have been solid and dependable for me. I've watched the launch of Apple Music, for example, trying my best not to feel schadenfreude as I read the reports of music collections being decimated.

The new Music app is especially good at demonstrating responsive app design. Traditional desktop apps have all that window chrome and all those menus to deal with and work terribly on small screens. The new Universal Windows App platform lets an app show its full interface on a larger screen, adapting the user experience as the window size shrinks. Here's how the Music app changes as it gets smaller.

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The nice thing about that design is that it works on desktops, too, so I can shrink the Music app to a widget or restore the library to its full glory just by resizing its window.

The new Photos app is also likeable and has evolved quickly. The trouble with all those apps is that they need equally attractive apps for iOS and Android mobile devices. I'm sure they're coming, but for now anyone who lives in a cross-platform world still has to make compromises to choose some Microsoft services.

Unfinished business

It is almost too easy to look at the list of missing features and the inevitable wave of bug fixes that will come in the next month or two (or three) and snarkily assert that Microsoft shipped Windows 10 too early.

I think that criticism is mostly unfounded. As the wise software executive once said, "Shipping is a feature." Getting Windows out into the real world is the only way to get feedback from people who aren't dyed-in-the-wool beta testers.

And anyway, it makes no sense to delay an entire operating system for features that can be delivered and then updated through the Store rather than through Windows Update.

The Microsoft Edge browser, for example, is still short a few features, including a key requirement for many power users: the ability to accept extensions such as password managers. Those features are on the roadmap but will take time to arrive.

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Likewise, the OneDrive sync utility that exists in Windows 10 today is a functional placeholder. It works, but we know a new client is coming in the fall that should be significantly more capable. It's doubtful that it will appear in the first preview build after July 29, but we should have our first glimpse of it before fall.

And some features will only work with new hardware. If you want Windows 10 to sign you in when it recognizes your face, you need a new device with an Intel RealSense camera (or the equivalent). Only a handful of devices offer that capability today.

Me, I'm holding out for an iris scanner with a brilliant red glow, just like the HAL 9000, or maybe a one-touch fingerprint reader like the one on the iPhone 5S and 6 series that can do the same sort of biometric ID.

The bottom line

The best OS upgrade advice used to be, "Wait for Service Pack 1." That basic idea is still true. In the Windows 10 era, those who don't enjoy thrill rides might want to wait a few months, watch the experience of early Windows 10 adopters, and see how well and quickly Microsoft responds to issues from those pioneers.

I suspect that most of the kinks in this release will be worked out within three months, and that we'll see enough improvements by the end of this year to make the upgrade an easy recommendation, especially at the price.

Unlike two decades ago, you don't have to wait three years for a new version. The "Windows as a Service" model means new features that used to be bundled together in a new version will be able to appear when they're ready.

It's a grand goal, and Microsoft's insistence on delivering those updates to everyone could be the one stumbling block for truly wide adoption. I hope Microsoft works hard on its update mechanism in the next few months to make it more manageable for consumers. At a minimum, Windows Update should offer the ability to opt out of automatic hardware driver updates.

I'd also like to see a Fast and Slow ring for the Current Branch, where checking a box lets you get feature updates one month after the general population (but three months before the Current Branch for Business). That change should go a long way toward stopping the grumbling over automatic updates.

I'm sufficiently impressed with Windows 10 in its initial release that I'm willing to upgrade PCs for those who are nearest and dearest to me: my wife and my Mom. The usability improvements compared to Windows 8.1 are profound. That also means I'm confident enough in my ability to get them up to speed quickly and troubleshoot problems easily.

For the rest of the world, maybe the smart play is to watch and wait up to three months. By that time, we'll know if Microsoft has successfully tackled the first wave of reliability issues based on feedback and telemetry.

And if that seems too soon, well, then just keep waiting. If you don't want to upgrade, you don't have to.

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