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Operating Systems

Finally, Windows 10 looks ready for its big debut

Commentary: With less than two weeks to go before its July 29 launch, the latest version of the new software seems stable and to have moved beyond its testing quirks. Microsoft needs it to stay that way for the masses.

Windows 10 is looking good a couple of weeks before its official launch. screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

For the longest time, I could not get audio to work in the Windows 10 preview build. No sound. No microphone. No verbal access to Cortana, Microsoft's voice assistant.

Despite trying a number of fixes and workarounds, I couldn't resolve the issue. Other early Windows 10 users also were bumping into the same problem. We were all in the same boat: These were test versions of the upcoming high-stakes reworking of the Windows operating system.

Then with the release earlier this month of two new test versions (or "builds," as Microsoft refers to them), those problems disappeared. Now I have sound, and now I can converse with Cortana.

To be sure, a Windows 10 preview build -- available only to volunteers and enthusiasts who choose to download and install it -- is very much beta software. Problems for users are expected, and even part of the improvement process. Indeed, in my testing of Windows 10 over the last several weeks, I've found a more stable operating system. (And I've been working with the test builds since late last year, so I'd seen the initial bumpy versions.)

Since last October, Windows 10 has been slowly building to its broad public debut on July 29. Over that time, Microsoft has been issuing one release after another of its Technical Preview so that people outside the company (known as "Windows Insiders") could test the operating system and offer their feedback. Based on the latest build, Windows 10 looks to me to be in good shape.

But will it pass muster once it gets into the hands of millions of users?

Getting the wrinkles out

Microsoft desperately needs Windows 10 to be a hit. The company knows it dropped the ball with the now 3-year-old Windows 8, which turned off many people by dumping the Start menu for the Start screen, treating the familiar desktop as an afterthought and revamping the interface with a slew of confusing and hidden features. PC sales, which were already in a slump, certainly didn't bounce back with new Windows 8 computers on store shelves.

The software titan has also been hurting in the mobile market, and pushing Windows 10 as unifying software for both personal computers and mobile devices may be its last, best hope of winning over more smartphone users.

For testers like me, then, it's been encouraging to see things shaping up since the start of July, edging ever closer to rock-solid and ready for prime time.

The earlier builds certainly were rough around the edges. It felt as if Microsoft was trying to fashion a new operating system by cramming certain elements of the more popular Windows 7 into Windows 8. For example: The initial attempts at a Start menu combined features of the two versions in a way that seemed awkward and confusing. But with the latest builds, the Start menu feels right -- quick to navigate and easy to manage.

Along with the new fixes to the audio issues, the Windows 10 test versions have seen other problems go by the wayside. Not too long ago, for instance, I often got error messages when trying to shut down the software. Those messages no longer appear. Beyond that, and especially with the last few builds, just using different apps and features, such as Mail, Music and the Windows store, has gotten smoother and faster over time.

The work isn't finished just yet. Microsoft is intent on making sure that Windows 10 doesn't just work well by itself, but will also be fully compatible as an upgrade to the Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 users who have reserved it for free. The company hasn't revealed specific numbers, but Terry Myerson, Microsoft's executive vice president of operating systems, said in a blog post on July 2 that millions of upgrades have been reserved since the process kicked off in early June.

In those latest builds, Microsoft has focused more on bug-fixing and fine-tuning than on adding more features, which is as it should be at this stage of the game.

To get ready for July 29, Microsoft has halted the release of any new builds for the time being, Gabe Aul, head of the Windows Insider program, said in a blog post published on Monday. Further, Microsoft won't be delivering any further Windows 10 ISO files, which you can copy to a USB drive or burn to a disc in order to install the operating system from scratch. Instead, Microsoft wants Windows Insiders to focus on testing the Windows 10 upgrade process, so any new builds will be delivered as traditional Windows updates.

"We're suspending the availability of Windows 10 builds briefly while we prepare for that, and the next build that we flight to you will be delivered using the production channels," Aul said Monday. "Starting tomorrow, we will also not be delivering any additional ISOs at this point as we really need Insiders to be using, stressing and validating our distribution and upgrade processes."

Aul also reminded everyone that Windows 10 is very close to its public release, "and we're working very hard to get everything just right."

Who gets Windows 10 when?

The next step in the Windows 10 process is for Microsoft to release the product to PC and tablet makers so they can test and install the OS on their products. That process is expected to take place this week, which is why testing the current build is critical. But even after the product is released to manufacturers, testing will continue -- and it won't end anytime soon.

Though its official launch date is July 29, Windows 10 will actually be rolled out in a phased approach. Members of the Windows Insider Program will get it first, starting on launch day. On the same date, some PC makers will have new products in the stores and online with Windows 10 preinstalled, while others won't have them ready for a few weeks or months.

Next in line to receive their free Windows 10 upgrade will be Windows 7 and 8.1 users who have reserved the product. Pushing the upgrade to those who've reserved it beyond the launch date gives Microsoft more time to polish the software to make sure it's as compatible as possible with Windows 7 and 8.1. With Microsoft testing millions of systems, Myerson said that the company is already seeing "full compatibility today with the vast majority of Windows 8x and Windows 7x systems." But the work is far from over.

"Each day of the rollout, we will listen, learn and update the experience for all Windows 10 users," Myerson said his July 2 blog post. "If you reserved your copy of Windows 10, we will notify you once our compatibility work confirms you will have a great experience, and Windows 10 has been downloaded on your system."

And then even after the initial launch phase, the Windows Insider Program will continue. People who've signed up for the program can keep testing new builds and updates as Microsoft finds more items to fix or fine-tune.

Individual testers, like me, may find the current build of Windows 10 stable and ready to go. But once it's powering the devices of thousands of everyday users -- Windows, in all its versions, still runs on a majority of personal computers for individuals and businesses -- issues and concerns are bound to arise. Microsoft will need to respond to them quickly and seamlessly for Windows 10 to be the success that the company needs it to be.