After the underwhelming Windows 8, Windows 10 is Microsoft's second attempt to build an operating system that's ready for the future while staying loyal to the past. The Start menu is back, Cortana makes the jump to the desktop, and Microsoft has put together an OS that it hopes is truly ready for computers, tablets, phones, games consoles and beyond.
Windows 10 dials back some of the drastic changes introduced with Windows 8 without abandoning Microsoft's original goal of an OS that can work on any screen. The Start menu returns, but keeps Live Tiles; universal apps (coded to run on anything from a phone to a laptop) are still here, but they can work like normal desktop programs; there is a tablet mode, but it only appears when you're actually on a tablet; and so on.
It's a long series of compromises between Windows past and Windows future and, on the whole, it works very well.
The Settings app in Windows 10 brings over more of the options in Control Panel, for example, and seems far more fully realized than it was in Windows 8. It's indicative of Windows 10 as a whole, a more polished and well-thought out version of what its predecessor started. You'll spend less time wondering where settings are, and more time in the new interface, rather than digging back through legacy screens.
If you're using Windows 10 on a laptop or desktop, it's a much more satisfying experience. The confusing "hot corners" of Windows 8 have gone, and the phone and tablet elements of the OS are well hidden in the background. If you're upgrading from Windows 8 you'll be pleasantly surprised, and if you're moving up from Windows 7 you'll feel right at home.
Cortana and the revamped Start menu
On mobile devices we've seen a shift towards a greater use of voice control and intelligent assistant apps like Siri and Google Now. Microsoft has its own horse in this race in the form of Cortana, and the app is now available on your computer too (assuming you're in a country where Cortana is supported).
If you're new to Cortana, it handles everything from web searches to reminders. You can ask for a weather forecast or the number of miles in a kilometer, launch apps and even toggle Windows settings – it feels very much like a voice-controlled, context-aware extension of the Start menu itself, and Microsoft has managed to integrate it in a way that feels intuitive.
And if you don't want to shout instructions at your computer, you don't have to. You can type queries into the search box on the taskbar just as easily, and we found ourselves using the box very often to find apps, files, settings, websites and more besides. It feels like a natural extension of the Start menu.
Customizing said Start menu is simple to do and it would appear Microsoft has finally come up with something to please the majority of its users. On tablets, the full-screen, tile-based Start screen we saw in Windows 8 comes back, as it's much more suitable for tapping at with your fingertips, but if you're on a laptop or desktop you'll never see it.
Elsewhere on the desktop we found two new features very useful indeed: the ability to snap windows to four quarters of the screen (as well as each side) and the virtual desktops, an official feature at last, enabling you to move application windows to several desktop spaces rather than one. Both make it easier to arrange a lot of windows and applications on screen and work particularly well on bigger displays.
The new Task View works well too, showing all of your open windows on one screen so you can jump between them more conveniently (it's similar to Mission Control on a Mac). The desktop improvements are exactly what they should have been in Windows 8 – clever, useful and not completely out of step with everything that has gone before.
Apps and applications
Microsoft's universal app store is still something of a wasteland, no doubt due in part to the woeful take-up of Windows Phone on mobile as well as the old ARM-based Surfaces that didn't run desktop apps. Having apps that jump seamlessly from desktop to mobile is a noble aim but if your Surface Pro 4 can run Photoshop why would you build a cut-down touchscreen version as well?
There are some big names here – official apps for Netflix, Spotify, Dropbox and Evernote, for example – but no compelling reason why you would pick them over the desktop or even web-based equivalents (at least on a desktop or laptop machine). As polished as Windows 10 feels in general, the universal app initiative is still very much a work-in-progress.
For Windows old-schoolers like us, we didn't have much need to delve into the world of universal apps, such as the ones Microsoft has provided for email, contacts, photos and maps. Perhaps these will be more relevant for users of Windows 10 Mobile, but right now Microsoft looks like it's less committed to that particular version of the OS than ever.
There's a new browser in the form of Microsoft Edge, which seems designed to challenge Google Chrome head-on. It's certainly an improvement on the creaking Internet Explorer in terms of speed and looks (IE is still present for legacy purposes), but it doesn't yet feel smooth enough to take on Chrome – there's no extension support here, for example, although it's currently available in Previews and expected soon in public builds.
Xbox integration has been improved and keeps on improving: being able to stream games to your laptop from the console is a real bonus for gamers, as is support for next-gen kit like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift (though older versions of Windows handle VR just as well) and eventually Microsoft's own HoloLens.
An OS for the future
Taken as a whole, it's difficult to find fault with Windows 10, at least in its desktop and laptop form. It's intuitive, robust and well-designed, reversing some of the mistakes made with Windows 8 and making sure the software is suitable for tablets, 2-in-1s and everything that comes afterwards.
With its shiny new browser, intelligent assistant app and modern-looking UI, not to mention links with kit like the HoloLens, it feels very much like an operating system for the future. After several months of use, it simply blends into the background like any good OS should, giving you instant access to your applications, the web, and any settings you might need to get at along the way.
Windows 7 users can at last upgrade with confidence and even Mac owners may find themselves looking across enviously at the range of third-party hardware the OS can work with (from VR headsets to Android devices). Windows 10 isn't without its minor frustrations, but it gives Microsoft and its users a strong foundation for the next generation of computing.