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Microsoft Windows 10 review: Microsoft gets it right

Microsoft has succeeded in building an operating system that's at home on PCs and mobile devices.

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Nate Ralph
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Nate Ralph

Associate Editor

Associate Editor Nate Ralph is an aspiring wordsmith, covering mobile software and hardware for CNET Reviews. His hobbies include dismantling gadgets, waxing poetic about obscure ASCII games, and wandering through airports.

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17 min read

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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 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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Related Links

  • Microsoft's Surface Studio: A desktop creation station with a magic dial
  • Microsoft's Surface Books get massive battery life boost

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.

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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.

8 Windows 10 settings you should change right away

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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.

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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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Watch this: Cortana is your new desktop digital assistant. Here's how she works

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.

Unwrap Cortana's Easter eggs

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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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Watch this: Microsoft's new browser is called Edge. Here's everything you need to know

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.