Review: Goodbye, Windows 8; hello, Windows 10

Here's my 'non-reviewer's review' of Windows 10 after using it for a week. Spoiler alert: My laptop has gone Windows 10 and isn't going back.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

It's official. I am (finally) now a Windows 10 user. And one that's happy to be no longer stuck with Windows 8 on my laptop.

I've been running Windows 10 on my Acer S7 laptop for just under one week. I wasn't among the five million Windows Insiders who have been clamoring for new builds and taking pains to install each and every one. After seeing the many nasty bugs (expected, mind you) that testers were encountering, I decided my time was better spent doing just about anything other than installing the new preview builds.

Consequently, when Microsoft provided me with the Windows 10 RTM bits (Build 10240) on a USB drive last week, I had a chance to run Windows 10 for the first time, not just watch demos and videos of it. As a result, my Windows 10 "review" is more of a "normal user's" first take than one with all the speeds and feeds that are available from many power users and professional reviewers who've been using the various preview builds for months.

I also should mention I'm using Windows 10 on a touch-screen laptop -- not a machine with a detachable keyboard that can double as a tablet -- and 99 percent of the time with a mouse. I've been running (rather unhappily) Windows 8 and then 8.1 on this Acer machine since I bought it just over a year ago. I was hoping Windows 10 might make me more productive on this device, as I felt Windows 8.X has hampered my ability to get things done, given it wasn't designed well for those using their PCs as PCs.

After one week, what's my verdict?

I like Windows 10 a lot more than I liked Windows 8 or 8.1. But I'm still not entirely sold on putting it on my main desktop PC -- a 22-inch Dell Optiplex that doesn't support touch.

First, here's what I'm (mostly) liking.

I'm surprised how happy I am that Microsoft brought a Start button and menu to Windows 10. I've come to grips with the fact that the Start button is my anchor. And as long as I think about the live tiles on the right as "gadgets" -- just something to see more information at a glance -- and/or to make available quick links, I am fine with them being there. It's easy to unpin any/all live tiles if you really find them confusing/distracting. (It's also possible to turn off any and every tile's "liveness" with a simple right click. I find the Windows Store live tile distracting and unhelpful, so I made it so it's static.)

I do wish I could customize the Start menu more, though. The list of apps listed as "Most Used" feels very random to me. (Example: How can Notepad not be in my most-used list? Me, the Queen of Notepad! C'mon guys!) Now that I have pinned my documents and photos to my live tile group, I am now able to use the new Start menu more like I'm accustomed to with Windows 7.

Microsoft has made search a lot more discoverable for average users by embedding a very visible Cortana bar right next to the Start button. Instead of expecting normal users to know they could just start typing anywhere on their home screens to search, Microsoft has provided Cortana as a visual cue. Using Cortana to search, users get a mix of local and Web search results. But by clicking on a "My Stuff" tab that pops up at the bottom of the Cortana pane once a user starts typing a query, users can refine their results to local or Web.

Also -- for those of you who, like me, have considered Cortana more of a fun gimmick than a useful tool -- try thinking of her/it as a way to send yourself reminders while you're in the middle of other tasks. Being able to type "Remind me to put those Heady Toppers on ice at 2 p.m. for later" when I remember while heads-down on writing new post (while dreaming of craft beer) is pretty darn handy.

The new Edge browser is more my style than Internet Explorer is/was. It's more minimalist. It starts up faster. It is relatively snappy in opening the sites I frequent. It has an easy to access "Read later" option. It desperately needs a working pop-up blocker, however. I have pop-up blocker turned on in my settings, and ads still are managing to pop up on many sites. Microsoft officials have said they will be making extensions for Edge available later this year. Until then, I'm probably going to keep using Chrome as my main browser. (IE 11 is also installed as part of Windows 8 on PCs and tablets, but I'm not a big fan, and none of the sites I visited triggered its opening in place of Edge for backward-compatibility reasons.)

I am ecstatic the dual Windows Desktop/Metro world is no more, as of Windows 10. Universal/modern apps can run in windows, as can desktop apps, on the unified Windows 10 desktop. A PC/laptop user not in tablet mode should never have been forced into "TileWorld," as happened with Windows 8. Those too-easily-triggered and confounding Windows 8 Charms are gone (huzzah!), but the contracts behind them, enabling users to do things like quickly share content via email or messaging, are still around.

Here's where I'm hoping to see more improvements.

Microsoft officials love to use the "making pizza for 1.5 billion users" analogy when talking about the many different ways users are able to configure and use their Windows machines. While it's good to have options, sometimes too many choices makes things confusing. There are many different ways users can access "Settings" on Windows 10. There are multiple ways to get to Power. And for some reason, on my machine, there are many different Document folders which are mostly, but not entirely in sync.

Speaking of sync, OneDrive is "in transition" at this point. Users who found the placeholders offered by OneDrive in Windows 8.x to be handy are likely to be disappointed with the removal of this feature in Windows 10. I didn't think I'd care, but then I realized I had gotten used to being able to easily access my documents and photos stored in OneDrive without having to jump through a bunch of extra hoops.

I configured Windows 10 to sync my cloud documents with my locally stored ones, but the syncing seems to happen at random times. (Sometimes fairly quickly; sometimes seemingly not for hours.) Microsoft is planning to bring a bunch of OneDrive's partially implemented and/or missing features back to Windows 10, but not until later this year (at best).

One of my biggest letdowns, while we're talking customization, is in the new Mail client that comes free with Windows 10. At first glance, it seemed so much better than the one that was bundled with Windows 8/8.1. But then I realized users have no way to opt out of Conversation view, the automatic grouping of email by threads. I know I am not the only Conversation view hater. I am used to seeing my mail arranged sequentially in my inbox. Conversation view, to me, is confusing. But there is no way to turn it off. So much for giving me the choice of how I want to work -- or pineapple slices on my pizza. As long as this option is missing, I will continue to use the Outlook Web app client and never touch the Mail client.

Microsoft is touting a number of features as key differentiators in Windows 10 that I personally don't care about, but your mileage may, and no doubt, will vary, given I'm just one of the 1.5 billion Windows users on the planet.

Being a non-gamer, I don't care that I can now stream games between my Windows 10 PC and Xbox One -- though plenty of folks will. I'm indifferent about using facial recognition to unlock my device, and don't have the right hardware to do so anyway. Because I am using Windows 10 on a PC, not a two-in-one or convertible, I don't require Continuum, the feature that makes moving between PCs and tablets more seamless.

So far, I'm not thinking I'll use Virtual Desktops much, if at all. And I admit, even though Microsoft has done work to make snapping apps easier and more intuitive, I just am not a snapper. But, again, it's good I don't have to be, now that windows run on Windows, as Bill Gates and the other Windows gods intended.

Don't forget: The servicing piece of Windows 10 is as big, if not bigger, than the set of features in the OS itself. Microsoft plans to continue to make regular feature updates, ongoing fixes and security patches to users of Windows 10 via various servicing branches. While users will be able to block and hide updates using a tool Microsoft made available this week, regular patching and updating isn't going to be optional, officials have said. ("For rare cases, Microsoft has provided a tool to delay an update as a temporary measure, but the tool is not intended for ongoing usage," a spokesperson told me today.)

Windows 10 begins rolling out on July 29. To me, this is a soft-launch, as the OS still is lacking some of the functionality and apps that are needed to make it feel "done." The "real" Windows 10 launch will come this fall when Microsoft delivers more Windows 10 features, and can tout new first-party and PC-partner-made Windows 10 machines.

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