[Most recent updates: January 18, 2016]
Windows 10 is available as a free upgrade to every qualified device running retail or OEM versions of Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. (Enterprise editions do not qualify.) The free upgrade offer began with the official release of Windows 10 on July 29, 2015, and lasts for one year from that date. Windows 10 is also available preinstalled on new hardware.
On November 12, 2015, Microsoft released a major update to Windows 10, simultaneously introducing a new versioning scheme. The November update is version 1511, with the version number indicating the year and month of release, in yymm format. This is what the Winver utility reports after installing the Windows 10 November update:
The original release of Windows 10 was identified only by build number, 10240. (Version 1511 is build 10586.) The new versioning scheme is simpler and presumably more comprehensible to nontechnical audiences.
In this post I cover what's in Windows 10, how you can get it, and how you can take control of the automatic upgrade process.
Here's what you need to know.
What is Windows 10?
Windows 10 is the successor to Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. (Yes, they skipped Windows 9.)
It was formally unveiled in fall of 2014, along with a broad public Technical Preview that was open to anyone who signed up with the Windows Insider program.
The first general release of Windows 10 was Build 10240, which was released to the general public beginning on July 29, 2015.
Microsoft released build 10586 to Windows Insiders the first week of November 2015, essentially as a release candidate. Beginning on November 12, Windows 10 version 1511 was available through Windows Update to all Windows 10 installations.
As of the beginning of 2016, Microsoft says 200 million devices have been activated with Windows 10.
How is the Windows 10 upgrade being delivered to devices running Windows 7 and 8.1?
Microsoft is currently rolling out the upgrade using the Get Windows 10 app, which is installed via Windows Updates and appears in the taskbar as a notification icon and in Windows Update. The Windows 10 upgrade is currently an Optional update. Microsoft has announced it intends to deliver the upgrade as a Recommended update beginning in early 2016. When that happens, anyone running Windows 7 or Windows 81 who has configured Windows Update to install Recommended updates automatically will see the upgrade offer appear on their systems.
The update (which uses roughly 3 GB of bandwidth and disk space) is downloaded as a background task on any system that qualifies for the upgrade. When it's ready for installation, you'll be prompted from Windows Update.
How long the upgrade process takes is primarily dependent on the performance of your system. Windows Setup uses hardlinks to migrate data files, so the amount of data you have shouldn't have a significant effect on install times.
Will Microsoft automatically update my system to Windows 10?
No. The Setup program may start automatically on qualifying systems, but you can cancel setup before it begins. You can also refuse to accept the license agreement, which also terminates the installation immediately.
Can the GWX upgrade notifications be blocked?
Yes, Microsoft has published details for IT pros that include Group Policy settings and registry changes that will block automatic upgrades and suppress the GWX notification icon. Details and hands-on instructions are in this article: How to block Windows 10 upgrades on your business network (and at home, too)
Can Windows 10 Home be upgraded to Windows 10 Pro?
Yes. In fact, you can apply that upgrade using a spare key from an earlier edition of Windows, including Windows 7 Pro or Ultimate, Windows 8 Pro, or Windows 8.1 Pro. Follow the instructions in this article carefully: "How to upgrade from Windows 10 Home to Pro without hassles." Note that you might need to use a generic product key first and then activate after the upgrade is complete.
My upgrade is complete. Can I delete the setup files?
I recommend that you leave them for now, unless disk space is so tight that you absolutely must remove them.
The Windows.old folder contains files needed to roll back to your previous version if necessary. It will delete itself automatically in 30 days. You can do it manually by running Disk Cleanup Manager in administrator mode and choosing the option to remove your old Windows version. But don't do this just because you like a tidy system.
To open Disk Cleanup Manager, click in the search box (next to the Start button) and type Cleanmgr. Right-click the Disk Cleanup entry at the top of the list and choose Run As Administrator.
The setup files themselves are in a hidden folder called C:\$Windows.~BT. These will be very handy if you need to do a Reset or if you continue in the Insider program and need to roll back a build. These too can be deleted from Disk Cleanup Manager, but I recommend that you leave these files alone. They can be very useful.
Are ISO files available for the most recent version of Windows 10?
Yes. Use the free media creation tool to download installation files as a single file, in ISO format. You can also specify that you want the installer files copied directly to a bootable USB flash drive. The resulting file can be mounted directly by double-clicking it File Explorer in Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 (Windows 7 requires third-party software to mount ISO files) and contains files for both Home and Pro editions. You can choose 32-bit or 64-bit installers or download a larger file that contains both.
Installation files are also available as part of the Windows 10 Tech Bench Upgrade Program, which includes links to extensive documentation.
For other editions, including the Enterprise edition and its Long Term Servicing Branch variant, you can download ISO files from MSDN (with a subscription) or from the Volume Licensing Service Center (with a Volume License agreement).
Do I need a product key to install Windows 10?
That depends. If you use the Media Creation Tool to upgrade a system running a properly activated copy of Windows 7 (Home or Professional) or Windows 8.1 (Core or Pro), you don't need to enter a product key. After the upgrade is complete you'll see the activation type listed as "digital entitlement," which means that the Microsoft servers recognize the specific hardware and will activate the corresponding edition automatically.
For details, see "Microsoft quietly rewrites its activation rules for Windows 10."
Beginning with Windows 10 version 1511, you can use a Windows 7, Windows 8, or Windows 8.1 product key to perform a clean install of the corresponding edition of Windows 10 or upgrade to a new edition. Residents of the United States who don't own a qualifying Windows license can skip entering a product key and purchase a license online from the Windows Store after setup is complete.
For details, see "Next big Windows 10 release will ease activation hassles."
What happens to the Windows Insider program?
It continues. If you want to leave the program, you can do so. If you remain enrolled, you will receive preview builds for the next major update of Windows 10, which should be ready for the public in the first half of 2016 based on Microsoft's announced plans.
If I upgrade using Windows Update, can I create an ISO disk image without downloading the files again?
Yes. I've posted step-by-step instructions here:
I have confirmed that this method still works with build 10586.
I've been told that Windows 10 spies on me. Is that true?
Like all modern operating systems, Windows 10 uses the internet to provide services, and it collects reports of crashes and installation failures to diagnose problems. It also uses an anonymized ID to track which applications you install and how often you use them. Collectively, this information is called telemetry. The company doesn't collect your personal information except for the purposes disclosed in its privacy statement, it doesn't scan the files on your hard disk except to index them so you can search locally, and it doesn't have a keylogger.
As part of the "Windows as a Service" model, Microsoft has designed Windows 10 to share information for product improvement. In addition, Windows 10 integrates online services, such as Cortana and OneDrive, to store and sync personal settings and to build personalized dictionaries using speech and keyboard input.
All of these options can be adjusted using privacy settings in Windows 10. For more details, see:
- Microsoft defends (and explains) its Windows 10 privacy settings
- Microsoft updates Privacy Statement, addressing concerns from critics
For background on the general issue, see the following series of posts:
- Is Windows 10 telemetry a threat to your personal privacy?
- No, Microsoft is not spying on you with Windows 10
- Revealed! The crucial detail that Windows 10 privacy critics are missing
If you're worried about Windows 10 telemetry, you can open the Privacy tab in Windows 10 Settings, choose Feedback & Diagnostics, and adjust the Diagnostic & Usage Data setting to Basic.
Will my Windows desktop programs work with Windows 10?
Virtually all desktop programs that run on Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 will work with Windows 10. Some types of low-level system utilities, including backup tools and antivirus software, will require updates from the developer. Check with the developer of your software if you're not certain whether they plan to support Windows 10.
The Windows 10 compatibility checker should flag known issues early in the upgrade process.
What's new in Windows 10?
See my review, Windows 10: A new beginning.
The biggest change is the new Start menu, which completely replaces the Windows 8-style Start screen, as well as the ability to run so-called modern apps in windows on the desktop. Cortana, the voice-powered personal assistant, makes her debut here after an extended run on Windows Phone. Cortana takes over the search box to the right of the Start button after you complete a few quick setup steps.
An Action Center, with notifications and buttons for common system tasks, appears on the right side. It completely replaces the now-defunct Charms menu.
Windows 10 includes a new tablet mode designed to make operation easier on devices that lack a keyboard and mouse. As shown here, it expands the Start menu to a full screen, although the design is very different from the Windows 8.x Start screen. The hamburger menu (three vertical lines) in the upper left corner shows or hides the menu items on the left side.
The list of Windows 10 features also includes new biometric support (Windows Hello) and a collection of first-party apps: Photos, Mail, Calendar, Groove Music, Movies & TV, and MSN News, Sports, Money, and Weather apps.
All Windows 10 devices share a single Windows Store, which offers access to Universal Windows Apps capable of running on devices of many different sizes.
The Microsoft Edge browser is taking shape rapidly and has a number of important improvements in version 1511, including the ability to sync Favorites. However, it still lacks support for browser extensions, a feature that will not appear in the Current Branch until later this year and is not yet in preview builds.
Windows 10 version 1511 supports Windows Update for Business and the Windows Store for Business as well as several other features primarily of interest to IT professionals.
What happened to my OneDrive files?
Beginning with build 9879 in fall of 2014, there was an most important change in the way the OneDrive sync utility works. Microsoft has gotten rid of the placeholder files introduced in Windows 8.1, which allowed File Explorer to display cloud-based files folders even when they're not synced to local storage.
A new sync utility that integrates the OneDrive and OneDrive for Business services has been released that allows Office 365 Business and Enterprise customers to do selective sync of their files from the same sync engine as the consumer OneDrive. You can find a full report on the OneDrive changes and the roadmap for the next version in these two posts:
- Windows 10 and the cloud: Still hazy after all these years
- Testers protest abrupt changes in Windows 10's OneDrive sync
- Microsoft lays out year-long roadmap for unifying OneDrive sync engines
Will my PC and my existing apps and devices work with Windows 10?
Most PCs that will run Windows 8.1 will run Windows 10. The Get Windows 10 app includes a compatibility checker. Running Setup as an upgrade also checks for compatibility issues.
I heard that after a year Microsoft is going to start charging for subscriptions. True?
Not true. The Windows 10 upgrade will be free, as in beer, for the first year after it's released. And there won't be any surprise fees after that.
The basic licensing model for Windows has not changed with Windows 10. You get a perpetual license, with five years of mainstream support and five additional years of extended support. See "Microsoft commits to 10-year support lifecycle for Windows 10" for details.
All Windows 10 devices will continue to receive updates "for the supported lifetime of the device." What does that mean? At some point in the future, your hardware will no longer meet the specifications for a new release, and that will be the end of the line. But as long as your device can accept updates, it will get them.
Microsoft contributed to the confusion with some clumsy wording, but its intent is clear. The free upgrade offer is designed to get as many current devices as possible to move to a single platform with a single Windows Store. And the one-year deadline is intended to add some urgency to the decision so that Satya Nadella, Terry Myerson, and company meet their self-professed goal of seeing Windows 10 on one billion devices.
How many Windows 10 editions are there?
Microsoft announced its lineup of Windows 10 editions in May. All of the editions share common features, but are sold and distributed differently depending on the type of device for which they're intended.
There are two and only two editions of Windows 10 for installation on new PCs. Remember, the Windows 10 upgrade is free for consumers and small businesses who already have a Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 PC, but OEMs still pay Microsoft for Windows 10 licenses for installation on new PCs. Those costs are passed along to PC buyers.
- Windows 10 Home is the cheaper option. It includes the entire Windows 10 feature set, minus a handful of features reserved for the Pro edition. OEMs commonly install this edition on devices aimed at the price-conscious consumer and small business markets.
- Windows 10 Pro is typically found on higher-quality, higher-spec business-class devices. It costs more and includes a group of features that enthusiasts, professionals, and anyone on a Windows business network will appreciate: Hyper-V virtualization, BitLocker encryption, the ability to set up a PC as a Remote Desktop server, and the ability to join a Windows domain or enroll with Azure Active Directory are the key ones.
How do I get my copy of Windows 10 activated?
When you upgrade over an existing, activated copy of Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, the Setup program checks the current activation status. If it determines the installation is properly activated, it contacts the Microsoft Store and generates a license certificate that is linked to that hardware. (A Microsoft Account is not required for this step.)
This automatic activation process is identical whether you use an ISO file to start the upgrade or do so from the downloaded upgrade files.
After that first activation is complete, you can perform a clean install on that same hardware using an ISO file, which has a product key embedded in it. As long as the hardware matches the previous installation ID, the installation is activated automatically. (Microsoft does not provide details of what goes into the hardware ID, except to confirm that it does not contain any personally identifiable information and is not used for tracking purposes.)
A watermark on the desktop reflects the build number of preview releases. Fully activated, non-Insider installations have no watermark.
If you perform a clean install using the same Windows 10 edition that was previously activated on a PC or device, you can skip entering the product key and you will be automatically activated after setup is complete.
For all other scenarios you can enter a product key for the corresponding edition of Windows 7, Windows 8 or 8.1, or Windows 10, and activate automatically after setup is complete.
Where's the Enterprise edition?
Windows Enterprise edition upgrades are available through the Volume Licensing Service Center. The Enterprise edition is also available in a time-limited evaluation edition and to anyone with a current MSDN subscription.
The MSDN Subscriptions download page is also where you'll find checked and debug versions for use by developers.
Can I uninstall Windows 10?
Upgrading a PC to Windows 10 creates recovery files that allow you to roll back to your previous operating system. Those files are removed automatically after 30 days.
Is it true that updates are automatically installed?
Yes, with Windows 10 Home there is no way to selectively block updates, although you can schedule when the installation and any accompanying restarts take place, up to six days in the future.
Note that security updates and new features are included in cumulative updates. If you restore Windows 10 from media, even using an older ISO file, you will only need to install the most recent cumulative update to get fully up to date.
Using Windows Update for Business, administrators of systems running Windows 10 Pro, Enterprise, and Education can defer upgrades for up to eight months, and Enterprise edition customers with Volume License contracts that include Software Assurance can deploy machines using the Long Term Servicing Branch, which accepts only security updates and no new features.
Does Windows 10 really include a keylogger?
Short answer: No. Longer answer here.
What are the keyboard shortcuts for working with Windows 10 virtual desktops?
- Create a new desktop: Windows key + Ctrl + D
- Switch to previous desktop: Windows key + Ctrl + Left arrow
- Switch to next desktop: Windows key + Ctrl + Right arrow
For this release, there's no way to save virtual desktop configurations.
Why is it called Windows 10 instead of Windows 9?
Microsoft's official responses to this question have been almost comically vague. It's reminiscent of the decision to abandon the Metro name, which was also never explained in a satisfactory way .
So we're left to speculate, and my best guess is that choosing the number 9 would imply that Windows 10 is just around the corner, followed by 11, 12, and so on. That's a recipe for delay, as customers play a "watch and wait" game.
One (unlikely) theory speculates that assigning 9 as a version number could wreak havoc with old versions hard-coded to search for Windows 95 or 98 version strings.
It's more likely, though, that the name is about branding. This really is the last big release of Windows, with future updates coming in incremental form. As a brand name to stick with for the long term, Windows 10 is numerologically satisfying, almost ... perfect.
Or, alternatively, there's the "dad humor" explanation: Seven ate nine.
More questions? Ask away in the comments below, or visit my bio page and use the comment form (the envelope icon) to send me a note via email.