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Microsoft Windows 10 review:

Microsoft gets it right

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Chatting with Cortana

Microsoft's virtual assistant Cortana isn't exactly a new feature, as she's been on Windows Phone for just over a year. But the company's answer to Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Google Now has made the transition to the desktop with Windows 10, taking over the OS' search functionality, while also handling quite a few housekeeping duties. You can have Cortana trawl through your email and calendar, and keep you notified of any upcoming flights you're taking, or packages you're expecting. She can set reminders and track stocks, and you can even dictate email messages for her to send to your contacts. Cortana can also be set to listen for you to say "Hey, Cortana," and can be trained to recognize several different voices. If you want to learn more about Cortana, head over to my preview on Microsoft's virtual assistant .

Cortana will help you get things done. James Martin/CNET

I'm torn. I love Google Now's proactive stream of useful information, served to me whenever I need it. But my primary mobile device is an Android phone and not a Windows Phone, which keeps my interactions with Cortana sequestered to my desktop.

She's not especially useful here. Windows 10's Voice recognition is rather accurate, but if I have to send an email message and I'm at my desk, I'm just going to use my email client. She'll offer recommendations for places to eat or things to see, but that'd be a lot more useful when I'm out and about than at my desk. The same goes for reminders, which are decidedly less useful if I can't access them anywhere.

Cortana will be making her way to Android and iOS devices later this year, which should clear up most of these issues -- provided most of her functionality crosses platforms without issue. I'll still turn to Cortana for the occasional joke, but until it's available on a phone I use regularly, I'll be sticking to Google for Now.

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Microsoft Edge rethinks the browser

Microsoft has added a brand-new browser into Windows 10, and it's called Microsoft Edge. Introducing a new browser in a world that already has Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Apple's Safari is a pretty bold move. Doubly so when your previous effort was Internet Explorer -- once a juggernaut in the space, now the Internet's favorite punchline.

Annotate webpages with Microsoft's Edge browser. James Martin/CNET

Edge is a fast, modern browser that offers quite a few commendable features. Cortana is integrated right into the browser, and she'll offer detailed information on things like the weather or flight statuses while you're typing into the browser's address bar. Navigate over to a bar or restaurant's website, and Cortana can pull up a little sidebar full of useful information, like reviews or directions. The webnote feature lets you scribble on webpages and share your annotations to OneNote or via email, and you can use the Reading view option to strip a website down to its bare essentials. Edge has also been built with tighter security from the start, to hopefully circumvent some of the headaches that erupted from Internet Explorer.

But there are no extensions to tame overzealous advertisements, or enhance websites like Reddit, or simply organized my tabs -- I've been thoroughly spoiled by Google Chrome. There's no way to sync tabs or bookmarks across devices, and you currently can't import bookmarks from other browsers. All those features will be available eventually, with support for extensions coming sometime before the end of the year -- like Windows 10, Edge is a constantly evolving work in progress. But it's going to take a lot for someone like me, wholly enmeshed in Google's ecosystem, to ditch Chrome for something new. Internet Explorer also isn't going anywhere: it'll remain a part of Windows for the foreseeable future, as legacy apps are dependent on it. Head over to my Microsoft Edge preview to learn more about Microsoft Edge .

Getting your game on

Windows 10 adds and tweaks a few things in the entertainment department. The Xbox Video and Xbox Music apps have been renamed to Movies & TV and Groove Music, respectively. Their function is identical: any music and video files on your device can be found here, but it mostly serves as a means to convince you to buy or rent content from Microsoft's stores. You've got plenty of streaming services to choose from, for music and video.

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Xbox Live achievements for Solitaire? Brilliant. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

If you're a gamer, the Xbox app will prove far more interesting. It's a window into your Xbox Live feed, letting you see what your friends are up to and send them messages, browse recordings people have made, compare achievements, and all of the expected ways of interacting with the social network. But if you own an Xbox One, you can stream activity from your console to any device running Windows 10.

It's awesome. No, it's not a game changer, and certainly not a reason to run out and grab an Xbox One. But it's still awesome: if someone wants to use the television, I can just plug an Xbox One controller into one of my PCs and continue plugging away at the Xbox One version of The Witcher 3 . The quality of the experience is going to be dependent on your network, so I'd recommend making sure both your console and the PC you're streaming to are connect to your LAN. The console also can't be used by others when it's streaming so this won't enable cooperative gaming. But if you frequently find yourself sharing the TV and have a PC with Windows 10 on hand, it's a fun little addition that could come in handy.

Handy tools for shutterbugs

The new Photos app isn't going to replace something like Adobe Lightroom, but if you take a lot of photos and are looking for a simple tool to keep things organized, you'll do well here.

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Use the Photos app to make quick, non-destructive edits to your pictures. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

The Photos app scans your devices and OneDrive account for photos, and automatically arranges them into albums. You can use the app as a way to keep track of your pictures, but it also offers some basic editing tools too. If you prefer a hands-off approach, Photos will automatically enhance all of the photos it finds, wrangling red eye and sorting out exposure levels -- it works on RAW files, too. But don't worry: the edits Photos makes are non-destructive, so you can undo any changes it makes, or prevent it from altering your photos altogether.

Windows, everywhere

Windows 10 has finally arrived, but this version of Windows is fundamentally different from any that have come before it. It will truly be an everywhere OS, a concept Microsoft will be pushing with Windows 10 Mobile , and Universal Apps. We've been here before: apps developed for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 could share much of their code, which was supposed to make it easy to create a single app that ran everywhere.

Microsoft's universal apps share an identical codebase: the Excel client on your desktop, for example, will be the exact same client as the one on your phone, with elements adjusted to make sense of the different display, and the lack of a keyboard or mouse. You can currently get a taste of this on the latest version of Windows 10 Mobile, and while I wouldn't recommend editing spreadsheets on your smartphone, it's possible.

Universal apps will lead to their own challenges, as developers will have to weigh creating rich, robust apps that can run on a mobile device, against developing apps that can make use of all of the power a full PC can bring to bear. Microsoft is already drafting a solution using Continuum. Microsoft has demonstrated Continuum for phones: plug a Windows Phone into a display, and the interface will one day morph to mimic the PC-based version of Windows. You'll see the desktop, desktop-versions of Windows Store apps, and get full mouse and keyboard support. There's no word on when Continuum for phones will be available, or what devices it'll run on, but it offers a tantalizing glimpse of what Microsoft has in store.

Getting ready for what's next

The Windows Update process will be key to getting everyone on board with Microsoft's vision of the future of Windows. It'll also prove to be one of the most contentious elements: if you're running the standard Home version of Windows 10, updates are automatic and can't be refused.

This is a great thing. Windows' Achilles' heel has long been its nigh-ubiquity, which makes it a prime target for malware and other digital nastiness. A computer that's kept up to date is a happy computer, as it will offer you the best chance of avoiding viruses and other unpleasant things.

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You can delay updates, but you can't avoid them. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

This is also a terrible thing. Many of us have encountered software updates that don't quite work out, occasionally breaking more than they fix. One of the last updates to the Windows 10 preview has been triggering software crashes, a recurring reminder that things occasionally don't work out as intended.

Microsoft has plans in place to mitigate these snafus: those of us who've signed up for the Windows Insider program can opt to continue serving as beta testers in perpetuity, and we'll be receiving every update first, for better or worse. But an army of five million testers could go a long way toward making sure these compulsory updates go as smoothly as possible. Insiders will also be able to continue driving the future of Windows by sharing feedback on features and functionality in Windows as they are developed.

I still worry that something will eventually slip through the cracks, and that will be the forced update that sours everyone's mood on the whole process. But I still favor Microsoft's approach: better to deal with the occasional botched update than have the legion of vulnerable or compromised devices that currently exists.

Conclusion

In an ideal world, we'd just call Microsoft's latest operating system "Windows," and sweep version numbers and codenames under the rug. That "10" gives the impression that something comes next, when in reality Windows is transitioning from something you buy (begrudgingly) once every few years, to a living document that's constantly being updated, and tweaked. For many Windows users expecting a predictable upgrade cadence, this is going to be a difficult transition.

Windows 10 will mean the end of grand, sweeping changes, with a marked increase in the sort of minute, quality-of-life tweaks we've grown accustomed to on our smartphones and tablets. Cortana will learn new tricks, and the interface will become flexible enough to support entirely new kinds of devices, like Microsoft's HoloLens . Should Windows Phone survive, we'll eventually see the world Microsoft envisioned back at the launch of Windows 8, when every device was supposed to feel right at home.

All of that comes later. What we have, at present, is a fast, functional OS that that is equally at home on a beefy gaming rig as it is on a Surface tablet. It does everything you expect it to, and bakes in all of the improvements Windows 8 brought to bear. Both Cortana and Edge have a long road ahead of them before they'll supplant Google's vicelike grip on my digital life, but the novelty of dictating emails and requests to my PC is not lost on me. And then there's the price: free, for those upgrading from Windows 7 or Windows 8.

If you're running Windows 7 or Windows 8 you've little to lose, and quite a bit to gain, by making the jump to Windows 10. If you're still on Windows XP, you've probably got your reasons. But Windows 10 marks the first steps in a transition from operating system to ecosystem, a wild dream that gets a little less crazy every time I ask my PC a question, or pop the keyboard of my laptop to get some reading done. This is Microsoft's second attempt at bringing us the future, and this time they're getting it right.

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