Microsoft Windows 10 review: Microsoft gets it right

The Good Windows 10 bridges the gap between PCs and tablets without alienating anyone. The new OS combines the best bits of old and new Windows features into a cohesive package, while correcting nearly all of the missteps of Windows 8. The upgrade process is mostly painless, and free for most Windows 7 and 8 users.

The Bad Many of the new features will be lost on those who don't care about touch. Automatic, forced updates could spell trouble later on. Cortana's features are better suited for smartphones.

The Bottom Line Windows 10 delivers a refined, vastly improved vision for the future of computing with an operating system that's equally at home on tablets and traditional PCs -- and it's a free upgrade for most users.

Late 2016 update

When Microsoft unveiled Windows 10 in 2015, it delivered an elegant operating system that could -- for the first time -- fulfill the potential of each modern computing form factor. Equally proficient on a touchscreen tablet, laptop, or conventional desktop PC, Windows 10 resuscitated the operating system's best features while setting the stage for Microsoft's ongoing innovation streak that includes idiosyncratic products like the Surface Pro 4, Surface Book and, more recently, the Surface Studio -- a desktop PC for artists and designers in need of high-end horsepower and display -- and the Surface Dial, a touch-friendly dial designed to facilitate fine contextual controls.

The next generation of the popular Surface tablet, the rumored Surface Pro 5, is expected to appear in the spring of 2017 -- timing that may coincide with the rollout of the next version of Windows, a free update scheduled for the first half of 2017. Windows "Creators Update" will introduce 4K video game streaming and support "augmented reality," bringing 3D capabilities to legacy applications such as Paint and PowerPoint. It will support 3D rendering for Microsoft's HoloLens technology, which will be incorporated into forthcoming devices from Acer, Lenovo, Dell, HP and Asus. And it will enable a virtual touchpad that lets you control external monitors from tablets, without need for a mouse.

It's worth mentioning that Apple delivered its own operating system overhaul in September 2016. MacOS Sierra added some new features inspired by its own mobile operating system. And though Apple clearly wishes to continue the integration of Macs and iOS products, providing additional incentives to keep your hardware inside Apple's walled garden, it's not always a perfect fit. In fact, the new MacBooks announced in early October 2016, equipped only with USB-C ports, can't connect to the new iPhone 7 and its Lightning Connector, without an adapter.

Now playing: Watch this: Windows 10 Creators Update takes 3D to the next level

Editors' note: The original Microsoft Windows 10 review, first published in July 2015, follows.

Windows 10 is the Goldilocks version of Microsoft's venerable PC operating system -- a "just right" compromise between the familiar dependability of Windows 7, and the forward-looking touchscreen vision of Windows 8.

This new Windows, available as a free upgrade for existing Windows 7 and Windows 8 noncorporate users, is built from the ground up to pursue Microsoft's vision of a unified OS that spans all devices without alienating any one platform. It's an attempt to safeguard Microsoft's crumbling software hegemony, assailed on all sides by Google and Apple. And it's a vision of the future as Microsoft sees it, where a single user experience spans every piece of technology we touch. Welcome to Windows as a service.

Yes, this new OS is chock-full of fresh features. To name just a few: a lean, fast Internet Explorer replacement called Edge; Microsoft's Siri-like voice-controlled virtual assistant, Cortana; and the ability to stream real-time games to your desktop from an Xbox One in another room. (And in case you're wondering: there is no "Windows 9" -- Microsoft skipped it, going straight from 8 to 10.)

Windows 10 bridges the gap between PC and tablet. Nate Ralph/CNET

But Windows 10 is also the end of a long, awkward road that began with the release of Windows 8 in 2012, when Microsoft tried to convince a world of keyboard and mouse wielders that touchscreens were the way to go -- or else. Ironically, in 2015, the PC hardware for that touchscreen future is now here -- everything from 2-in-1s such as the Lenovo Yoga line to convertible tablets with detachable keyboards, like Microsoft's own Surface. And Windows 10 smoothly lets users transition from "tablet" to "PC" mode on such devices like never before.

For the rest of the PC universe -- including those who still prefer good old-fashioned keyboard and mouse navigation -- Windows 10 is a welcome return to form. The Start menu, inexplicably yanked from 8, is back and working the way you expect it to. Those live tiles from the Windows 8 home screen still exist, but they've been attached to the Start menu, where they make a lot more sense. And the fiendishly hidden Charms bar has been morphed into the more straightforward (and easier to find) Action Center.

As always, there are some quibbles and gripes with the end product, but all-in-all -- after living with Windows 10 for months -- I can say it's a winner. It's flexible, adaptable and customizable. And it's been battle-tested by an army of beta testers for the better part of a year, making it one of the most robust operating system rollouts in recent memory.

A fresh Start

The Start menu is back; it's almost funny how relieving that is. That humble Start button has been a fixture on the lower left corner of the Windows desktop since the halcyon days of Windows 95, offering speedy access to apps and settings. Press it on Windows 10, and you'll see the latest step in a long conversation about the state of the PC industry.

I spend more time than I'd like to admit rearranging the Start Menu. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

The past sits on the left: a neat column with shortcuts to your most used apps. Press the "All Apps" button and you'll get an alphabetical list of all of the apps installed on your PC. There are folders in there too -- press them, and extra options will fly out, just like they always have.

The future -- or at least, the future as Microsoft envisions it -- sits on the right side of the Start menu. These are the colorful, animated live tiles that debuted in Windows 8, pulling double duty as app shortcuts and informative widgets. You can resize these live tiles, drag them about to arrange them into groups and pin as many apps as you'd like -- the entire Start menu can be shrunk or expanded to suit your liking. It's essentially a miniaturized version of the fullscreen Start menu we saw in Windows 8. Hate live tiles? Then unpin them to excise them from your computer, leaving you with the narrow column of frequently used apps we've known for so long.

Now playing: Watch this: Introducing the Windows 10 Start Menu and Continuum

One step back, two steps forward

The Start menu in Windows 10 is admission that Windows 8 maybe have been a bit too forward thinking. But Microsoft hasn't abandoned that vision of unifying all manner of devices under a single operating system: Continuum in Windows 10 is the latest attempt to bridge the gap between touch and non-touch devices, and this time it doesn't force us to relearn how to work with our PCs.

To start, there's no divide between the Windows 8-style "Modern" apps you get from the Windows app store, and those you install the old-fashioned way. Everything exists as a traditional windowed app, sharing space on the desktop. If you're on a two-in-one device like Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 , pop the keyboard off and Windows 10 will switch to tablet mode. The Start menu and your apps will stretch to take up the entire screen, and all of the miscellaneous apps and shortcuts on your taskbar will disappear, to give your finger fewer obstacles to hit.

Apps go fullscreen, and the taskbar gets a little less cluttered in tablet mode. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

Reattach the keyboard, and everything slots back into place. It's an instantaneous, seamless process (once you've shooed away the annoying confirmation window). It's also entirely optional: you can disable the feature and switch to tablet mode manually, or forget that this whole touch concept exists at all.

This is what Windows 8 always should've been: an operating system that bridges the divide between touch and non-touch, without alienating folks who fall into one camp or the other. Like it or not, the future belongs to devices with touchscreens. But Microsoft (finally) understands that we'll all get there at own pace, and Continuum makes the transition painless. And now that there are so many hybrid devices to choose from, making the switch to touch without abandoning the interface we know is more important than ever.

Learning new tricks

Microsoft hasn't stopped at making touch make sense on a Windows PC. With Windows 10, just about every facet of the OS has been tweaked and updated, and a few new features have been rolled in. In typical Microsoft fashion, there's a dizzying array of keyboard shortcuts and touch gestures for each of these features, giving you no fewer than three ways to access the things you're trying to get to. No need to memorize them all -- just use whatever suits you (or your device) best.

Virtual desktops

If I had to pick my favorite new feature, I'd go with virtual desktops. Click the new Task View button on the taskbar and you'll get a bird's-eye view of all of the apps you've got open. Drag one of those apps onto the "new desktop" button, and it'll be moved to its own independent workspace. I can keep one workspace focused on work, a separate desktop for gaming forums, yet another workspace for the new camera lenses I'm checking out; there's no limit to the amount of virtual desktops you can create, and each one is treated as its own little private island.

Virtual desktops help you spread your apps across several workspaces. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

Virtual desktops are far from a new development, and they've been available in past versions of Windows thanks to third-party apps. But it's nice to see Microsoft catching up here. The feature could still use some work: desktops are numbered, but if you create a lot of them it can be hard to keep track of where everything is. The "traditional" Win32 apps you might download and install from a website are happy to open a new instance on any desktop, while clicking the shortcut on an app from the Windows store will yank you back to whatever desktop you used it on last.

You can move apps across virtual desktops -- just drag them, or right-click to shunt them over -- but there's no way to reorder the virtual desktops themselves, which would be really useful for staying organized. I'd also like to be able to set a different wallpaper for every virtual desktop -- I can do both of those things in Apple's OSX operating system, and have always found it really handy.

Windows Snap

The Snap feature introduced in Windows 7 has gotten a bit of an upgrade, too. Drag an app to the left or right side of the screen, and it'll "snap" to fill that space. The new Snap Assist feature will then chime in, showing you little thumbnails of any other apps that are currently open -- click a thumbnail, and it'll fill up the remaining space. You can also snap an app into a corner of your display and fill your screen with up to four apps, divided equally across the screen -- this could prove useful for folks with massive monitors.

Action Center

The new Action Center replaces the "Charms" introduced in Windows 8, and is another nod to mobile operating systems. Click the Action center icon on the taskbar to bring up a panel that houses all of your app notifications, and offers quick access to a few important system settings, like toggling your Wi-Fi network or switching in and out of tablet mode -- you can choose the options that turn up here in the settings menu. If you're coming from Windows 7 and have no idea where to find some of the settings you're used to, there's a good chance you'll find them here.

Wi-Fi Sense

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Wi-Fi Sense. While technically not a new feature (it's part of Windows Phone 8.1) its presence in Windows 10 should've been a welcome addition: Wi-Fi Sense connects your devices to trusted Wi-Fi hotspots.

I love the idea. Automatically sharing Wi-Fi credentials with my friends would remove much of the hassle of most social gatherings, when people just want to jump on my Wi-Fi network. And -- this part is key -- Wi-Fi Sense doesn't share your actual password, so it theoretically eases a social transaction (the sharing of Wi-Fi connectivity) without necessarily compromising my network security.

Until Wi-Fi sense offers granular control over sharing, I'd avoid it. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

But the implementation is, in a word, daft. I do want to automatically share my network with a select group of friends who are visiting, and have them return the favor. I don't want to automatically share access with everyone in my Outlook address book, or on Skype, or the random assortment of folks I've added on Facebook over the years. Give me the ability to choose who I share access with, down to the individual, and I'll give it a shot. Until then, I'll be leaving Wi-Fi Sense off -- I recommend you do too.

Windows Hello and Windows Passport

Microsoft is also beefing up security with Windows Hello. The feature will use your Windows 10 devices' camera or a fingerprint scanner to turn your body into a password. Once you've authenticated yourself with Windows Hello, Windows Passport will then give you access to a number of third-party sites and products, without forcing you to log in all over again. This should make it a bit more convenient to log in to your devices, so you don't skimp on traditional measures, like having a robust password. The only catch is that Hello isn't widely supported on a lot of existing hardware: you'll need a device sporting Intel's RealSense camera, or a fingerprint scanner.

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