Windows 10

Deep-dive review: Windows 10 -- worth the wait (video)

Microsoft makes up for Windows 8 by delivering a truly integrated operating system.

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Windows Apps on the desktop

One reason Windows 8.1 felt like two separate operating systems was the dramatically different behavior of the apps that were written for the touch interface (now called Windows apps, remember?) and those written for the non-touch desktop. Desktop apps could be run in resizable windows, but Windows apps ran either full-screen, "snapped" next to another Windows app (but not a desktop app), or minimized. So you couldn't have multiple Windows apps running in separate windows on the desktop alongside desktop apps.

That changes in Windows 10. Windows apps can now be resized, minimized and closed in the same familiar way as desktop apps. You can drag the edges of a Windows app to resize it and use the familiar desktop menu on the upper right for minimizing, maximizing and closing the app.

Windows 10 apps

The apps in the Windows touch interface can now be resized the same way that desktop apps can.

Windows apps have been redesigned in another way as well. On the left-hand side of the screen is a series of icons for accessing different features in an app. These icons change depending on the app. For example, the Weather app has icons for news, maps, historical weather and so on. And in the news app there are icons for local news and videos, and for customizing your news interests.

Another improvement: Windows apps in version 8 were low-powered and not particularly useful -- more like simple tablet apps than fully featured desktop apps. In Windows 10, that changes. Some are quite good. You may even find yourself wanting to run them.

Three apps in particular have been powered up: Maps, Mail and Calendar. Mail has been notably improved with a new interface and new features. Unlike the Mail app in Windows 8, it supports POP-based mail. It's also much simpler to manage your mail in it. When reading an email, icons across the top let you reply, forward, delete, archive and flag mail. You can click the menu at the upper right to get at more features, including moving mail, marking it as read, printing and zooming.

Text-formatting features are also better than in the Windows 8 version. When you compose mail, a large toolbar appears at the top of the screen, which lets you change text formatting; undo and redo text changes; insert tables, pictures and links; and attach files. You can also spell check your mail and change its language.

Windows 10 mail

The Mail app's text formatting features have been greatly improved.

Tablet users will be pleased to know that gestures work in the Mail app. Swipe an email to the right to archive it and swipe again from the right to unarchive it. Swipe to the left to flag a message.

The Calendar app is also much improved. I found the Windows 8 version so cluttered and confused-looking it felt unusable. If you wanted to do something simple like change the view (Day, Work Week or Month) it wasn't clear at first how to do it. You had to call up a menu, and then make your choice.

In the Windows 10 version, the Day, Work Week, Week, Month and Today views are all accessible by clicking an icon at the top of the page. I also appreciate that even when looking at a day's calendar, the month view is available on the right side of the screen.

Windows 10 calendar

The new Calendar apps has a much cleaner interface than the previous Windows 8 version.

As with Mail, improvements are more than skin deep. Notably, unlike in the Windows 8.1 version, the new Calendar supports Google Calendar. Just click Setting / Accounts / Add Account, click Google and follow the instructions on-screen. You can add an iCloud calendar in the same way.

Maps is also improved. Travelers who use tablets or laptops will appreciate that you can download maps and use them when you're not connected to the Internet. This is especially useful if you're travelling overseas and want to keep down your data use, or if you know you're going to be somewhere beyond the reach of an Internet connection.

Windows 10 maps

The new Maps app now rivals Google Maps in functionality.

The app is much better designed than previously. Icons down the left let you search for a location or for places such as hotels, restaurants and coffee shops; add a location to a favorites list; get directions for driving, walking or for public transportation; change your settings; and visit what Microsoft calls 3D cities. Go to one of these 3D cities and you'll see a view of it similar to Google Earth. I didn't find them particularly useful, but you can't beat the feature if you want to virtually visit Aix en Provence, Paris or Barcelona. (I passed on Brownsville, Tex. and Abington, Penn.)

On the right side of the Maps app you'll find buttons for zooming in and out, tilting the map, changing its orientation and adding overlays for traffic and other tools.

One piece of big news is that the app now has a Street View-like feature called Streetside, which works much like the Bing Maps Streetside feature. With the addition of Streetside, the Maps app could give Google Maps a run for its money. It has much the same features and integrates well with Cortana. For example, if I tell Cortana, "Give me directions to Ithaca, New York," the Map app launches, complete with directions. If I ask Cortana to see a map of a city, Maps launches to it.

One Settings app to rule them all

In Windows 8.1, if you wanted to change your settings, you had to go on a treasure hunt. Some settings were in the Windows Settings app, which was accessible via the Charms bar, while others were in Control Panel. It was difficult to remember where each setting was located.

In Windows 10, you'll find almost all settings in the Settings app, accessible from the bottom of the Start menu. It's cleanly and logically organized, with nine sections: System, Devices, Network & Internet, Personalization, Accounts, Time & Language, Ease of Access, Privacy and Update & Security. Click on the icon for any section, drill down, and you'll easily navigate to what you need. There's also a search bar so that you can forgo browsing and search for a specific setting instead.

Windows 10 settings

Windows 10 now has all the most important settings in a single place: the Settings app.

People who do a great deal of customization and tinkering (including me) won't find everything they need in Settings. If you want to assign your PC a static IP address, have your system display files that are normally hidden, display file extensions for common files or access a host of other techie settings, you'll have to go to the old standby, Control Panel. On the other hand, having settings that you don't use much relegated to the Control Panel makes sense, because it makes the main Settings app easier to navigate.

Hello, Action Center

New in Windows 10 is the Action Center, which is accessible via an icon on the right side of the Taskbar. The Action Center performs two functions: It displays notifications for such things as new emails and security and maintenance messages, and it gives you access to a handful of common settings for such tasks as connecting to Wi-Fi networks, turning Bluetooth on and off, and changing brightness settings. The notifications for new email, security alerts and others first appear on their own on the lower right of the desktop and disappear after a few seconds. But they live on in the Action Center, so that you can attend to them there when you want.

For example, if you tap an email notification, the email opens in the Mail app. Tap a security notification, and you'll be taken to the appropriate tool. When I received a notification that I could speed up my PC because three unnecessary programs were launching on startup, I was sent to the Task Manager, which let me stop those programs from running.

Windows 10 action center

The Action Center displays notifications and offers access to commonly-used settings.

At the bottom of the Action Center are icons for making quick changes to common Windows settings. You can turn Bluetooth on and off, change your screen's brightness, and switch between tablet mode and non-tablet mode, among other settings.

Other changes

There have been a lot of other lesser changes in Windows 10. The Taskbar now runs on the Start screen when you're in tablet mode, which helps to unify the tablet and non-tablet interfaces. It's now black, which makes the icons on it stand out more clearly.

File Explorer has seen changes as well. Its icons are more colorful and brighter. You can pin and unpin folders to it on the Start menu. You also get to OneDrive from inside File Explorer; it appears as a folder with subfolders underneath it. And you can share files -- click a file and select Share from the top menu and you get a variety of ways for sharing, including via email and Twitter. You can compress a file and burn it to disc from the same menu.

The Windows Store has also gotten a makeover. The design is simpler, cleaner, even elegant. More important than that, though, is that you can now download and install desktop apps from it, something not previously possible. Microsoft is also making a push to get more apps into the store by introducing what it calls Universal apps that will be able to run on any Windows device, including desktops, laptops, tablets and phones.

Also new is Task View and the ability to create multiple desktops. Tap the small icon just to the right of the Cortana search bar and you'll see all of your currently running apps and applications as thumbnails on the desktop. Click the X on any of the thumbnails to close it.

More importantly, though, you can create multiple desktops, each with different apps and applications running on them. To do that, when you're in Task View, you click New desktop to create a second desktop; you can then run apps and applications inside it. In fact, you can create several desktops; to switch among them, click the Task View icon, and then click the desktop you want to switch to.

Windows 10 task view running

Task View shows all of your currently running apps.

If you've got the proper hardware, Windows 10 supports a biometric security feature that Microsoft calls Windows Hello, letting you log into Windows via a fingerprint scan, face scan or iris scan.

Not everything about Windows 10 is an improvement over Windows 8, though. Whether you like it or not, Windows 10 updates are always automatically installed. In Windows 8 you could pick and choose which updates to install. Not so with Windows 10. What Microsoft sends via Windows Updates gets installed. Case closed.

The bottom line

It's this simple: Windows 10 is a dramatic improvement over Windows 8. It works as single, unified operating system rather than a Rube Goldberg kludge of two operating systems poorly bolted together. It changes its interface depending on whether you're on a tablet or a traditional PC, and runs well on both.

Cortana, despite some shortcomings, is a very worthwhile addition, and the Edge browser gives Chrome a run for its money. Built-in apps are greatly improved.

Despite some bugs and annoyances (like being forced to accept Windows updates), it will be worthwhile to upgrade from Windows 8.1 before July 29, 2016, when Microsoft's one-year free upgrade offer runs out. Windows 7 users should consider upgrading as well, thanks to Cortana, Edge and the advent of useful Windows apps. (That said, you do have that full year to upgrade, and there are compelling reasons to wait a little while.)

As for me, I'm upgrading every Windows device I have to it.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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