Windows 10 Review: one OS to rule them all

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Windows 10 is finally here!  While the Windows 8 interface was designed for the future of computing where software could recognize where your eyes were looking or understand your hand gestures in three dimensional space, people just aren’t ready for that. We want that same old start menu that we’ve known and loved ever since 1995.

Enter Windows 10, which brings a lot of backpedaling to the UI for those who just didn’t get Windows 8’s interface (of which there were many), but at the same time adds a “tablet mode” which retains many of the touch-friendly interface features of Windows 8. So where Windows 8 had a duality of metro apps running full screen versus desktop apps that had a completely separate environment, Windows 10 has a duality of tablet mode or non-tablet mode (we’ll call it desktop mode). The big advantage here is that you can choose the one you want to use now and all programs behave accordingly whether they’re modern universal apps you can get in the Windows Store or the regular Windows compatible programs that have been around for many decades.  You can even make it so your PC switches modes automatically if/when a keyboard is attached, but if you don’t want to learn the nice new touch-friendly UI, don’t bother… you can still work the way you’re used to.  And better yet, Windows 10 is a free upgrade for Windows 8.x and Windows 7 users starting July 29, 2015 through July 29, 2016.

Should I install it right now?

The free upgrade and the new interface sound great. Should you stop reading right now and install it?  Slow down!  Not so fast!  We’ve been testing the final build of Windows 10 for about a week before its release (and previous preview builds since they first became available) and there are still some driver problems with certain hardware… mainly graphics cards.  Our Surface Pro 2 didn’t support Open CL until an update was released July 27th and one of our desktop workstations has NVIDIA GPU driver blue-screen-of-death crashes every 15 minutes (though an NVIDIA driver update was released on July 28th, too).  So if you want to be on the safe side, give some of your hardware manufacturers a little extra time to update their drivers. Also, be warned that if you install Windows 10, you’ll lose the awesome Windows Media Center TV recording features as well as DVD/BR video playback capabilities. You’ll have to look for 3rd party software to replace that kind of functionality if it’s important to you. We highly recommend doing a full system image backup and at least creating a recovery disk before you move forward with the install.  Windows 8.1 removed the GUI for creating system image backups, but you can still do it using PowerShell and easily restore your PC using your recovery boot disk to its previous fully functional state should something go wrong.  Go ahead and start that backup right now and keep reading while it runs.

Desktop Mode

If you choose to keep Windows 10 in desktop mode, all programs have resizable overlapping windows just like the Windows operating system has had since the dawn of time. You can have that taskbar on the bottom, pin your programs to it, Alt-Tab to switch between them, and resize windows to your heart’s content. It’s very familiar and great for the desktop users.

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The start menu in desktop mode, by default only appears in the corner as a small rectangle just like you’ve been used to from Windows 95 through Windows 7.  It now shows a few “Most used” application icons in the upper left, and in the right column you can pin and arrange whatever custom live tiles you would like to be there and some of them can be very useful. It’s really great to be able to hit the Windows key on your keyboard and instantly see things like weather, new emails, twitter updates, news headlines, and stock updates.

Windows10Screenshots_0006_Layer 9Apps that show up in the left column also have the same awesome jump lists from Windows 7, which of course also show up in the task bar when right clicking the icons.  “All Apps” gets you an alphabetical listing of all of the programs installed. You can no longer sort these by date installed or category like you could in Windows 8.1, but you can click a letter to show an alphabet grid to help you quickly navigate to a different section of the grid. Recently added apps will usually show up at the top for some period of time as well.

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By default the taskbar has a couple of extra buttons to the right of the familiar Windows logo “Start” button. The first one is looks like a circle or magnifying glass depending on which icon you’ve got with a big “Ask me anything” search field and a microphone icon. That’s the Search or “Cortana” feature. We’ll get into that more below, but if that takes up too much taskbar space for you, you can right click an empty part of the task bar and choose to collapse it into just a single icon or remove it all together (since you can get the same thing by simply starting to type after hitting the Windows key on the keyboard).

The next one is a square with two small rectangles next to it. That’s the “Task View” button and it’s got some especially nice new features in the desktop mode. Basically, pressing the task view button will show all of your open programs as small thumbnail images similar to how the Alt-Tab task switching shortcut has always worked. If you don’t have any programs open, the button is completely unresponsive and does nothing (not good.) The Windows key+Tab will also get you to the “Task View”.  Interestingly, if you activate the “Task View” with your finger using a touch screen, X shaped close buttons appear over each application thumbnail. If you use a mouse, the close buttons only show when you mouse-over them.

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In the bottom right area of the task view is a “New Desktop” button. This creates a new “Virtual Desktop” which is kind of like having a separate monitor where you can arrange all of your windows how you’d like and switch between multiple window layouts as you see fit. Once you’ve got multiple virtual desktops set up, the task view button shows their thumbnails in a separate row at the bottom. You can also drag application windows in the task view and drop them into different virtual desktops. This type of thing has been around on Windows for many decades as third party apps or graphics card features, but with Windows 10 it’s finally built into the operating system. Power users with tons of RAM and multiple projects will love this feature.

Somewhat unfortunately, the “four-corners” screen interface elements are no longer as useful as they were in Windows 8. Most people don’t realize that the 4 corners of the screen are the easiest places to click with your mouse. Windows 8 took advantage of that by adding interface elements in the corners or along the edges that made building motor memory for things like instantly switching between apps with a single click very efficient. For example, blindly throwing your mouse into the upper left corner and clicking would switch apps in Windows 8, but Microsoft has removed those kinds of innovations for the sake of making it more familiar.

Tablet Mode

If you’ve got Windows 10 on a tablet, you’ll probably see the tablet mode version right away. Or if you’ve got a tablet PC convertible, Windows 10 will ask you if you want to switch to tablet mode when you remove the keyboard. You can also choose to switch to tablet mode manually at any time by swiping the right edge of the screen and pressing the “Tablet Mode” quick action button there at the bottom of the action center.

windows10screenshots_0009_Screenshot (68).pngThe action center replaces Windows 8’s charms that were once behind the right edge swipe gesture and it isn’t nearly as ergonomic as the charms once were.  We really miss being able to flick my thumb on the side and have the start button right beneath the thumb.  In the middle to top area of the action center you’ve got a list of recent notifications. It’s very similar to the notifications center on Windows 10 Mobile except it’s accessed from the right edge of the screen instead of the top edge. Oh, those notifications should sync between both Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile as well.  Then at the bottom you’ve got some quick actions. Not all quick actions will be available depending on your hardware, but what’s strange is that on the Surface Pro 2 there are 13 buttons… 3 rows of 4 buttons and 1 row with 1 button. What’s with the blank spaces? Are more buttons going to be there someday? We don’t know!  You can collapse it down to just one row of 4 if you want, and you can choose those 4 in the “Notifications & Actions” section of the settings window.

The first thing you’ll notice when switching to tablet mode is that the start menu becomes full screen.  It’s a lot different than it was in Windows 8, but the general idea is the same.  Instead of scrolling through tiles horizontally, they scroll vertically now just like in Windows Phone. There’s a lot more space between groups of tiles now too.  Rearranging tiles is now the same as on Windows Phone; touch and hold until all the other tiles fade out a bit. That activates customization mode and you can then un-pin the tile, move it, or change its size. Selecting other tiles is a matter of tapping a different one, but you can’t organize tiles into folders like on Windows Phone and you can no longer select more than one at a time like you could with Windows 8.1. You can still organize them into groups however and those groups can be rearranged as well by dragging the two lined “grilled cheese” button that appears next to the group names in customization mode.

windows10screenshots2_0000_Screenshot (75).pngAlong the edges of the start screen are some new mystery meat buttons that you probably won’t understand. This is a major issue especially for tablet users since there’s no way of hovering your mouse pointer over the button for a few seconds to get a tool tip to appear that explains what the button does. I actually asked a friend if she could understand those buttons and she said, “Can’t I hover my finger over it to make a label appear?”  She tried that and nothing happened.

Anyway, in the top left is a hamburger button that shows “Most used” apps with their jump lists intact, your logged-in profile name, File Explorer, Settings, Power and “All Apps”.  The power and “All apps” icons also appear at the bottom left when the hamburger button is closed.

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The Windows Taskbar also persists at the bottom edge of the screen in tablet mode, except by default it’s simplified a bit. Only 4 system tray icons appear in the bottom right (you can customize this), and on the left side is the Start button, back button, Cortana, and Task View buttons.  The back button sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t (just like in Android).  It’s supposed to navigate backwards within apps and between apps, but that’s not always the case and some apps have their own back buttons placed somewhere else.  The task view button does the same thing it does in desktop mode except the virtual desktops feature is not available. At first I wondered why that was, but then I realized that in tablet mode there is no desktop. There’s no reason for it.  The whole screen is occupied at all times by either apps or the start screen.  The rest of the taskbar between those system buttons on the left and the system tray icons on the right is completely empty. It’s kind of a waste of space, although the lack of distracting icons is kind of nice.  Luckily, should you want to make better use of that space, you can touch and hold on the empty area until a square appears beneath your finger. Then let go and a menu will appear that will let you turn on “Show app icons”. Then that taskbar will be filled with all the apps you’ve pinned to the taskbar as well as all the apps that are currently running.

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In tablet mode every app runs full screen when you launch it.  Universal apps have their title bars hidden while regular Win32 programs still show their title bars along with minimize, restore, and close buttons in the upper right corner.  The restore button doesn’t do anything in tablet mode, since you are forced to run these programs in full screen.  But… and this is pretty nice… Win32 programs now behave the same as “Modern” or “Universal” apps.  They no longer have to run in a separate “desktop” environment like in Windows 8.

I can load Photoshop CC 2015, then drag my finger down from the top edge of the screen… the Photoshop window will get smaller and then you can drag it to the left or right edges of the screen to snap it. You could also drag it to the bottom edge to close it.  After snapping any app to the left or right side, the empty side shows a small Task View with thumbnail graphics of all of your other open programs.  Tap the one you want to fill that space and you’ve got two programs running side by side.  It’s really nicely done.

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Launching a new program ignores any previous snapping and loads full screen. This is a lot better than the Windows 8.1 method which showed a blank colored rectangle straddling the snapping seam and tilting back and forth until you chose which side to let it load into. The seam between multiple snapped program windows in tablet mode is still nicely adjustable by the way.

Some have found it strange that the “desktop” does not exist in Tablet mode. You don’t have a Recycle Bin icon anywhere and you might not know how to find all those files and folders you might have placed there. Don’t worry, all of that is totally accessible from the File Explorer even in tablet mode.

Cortana

One awesome new feature that’s now in Windows 10 is the Cortana speech interface. First of all you can turn on an option that makes your Windows 10 PC, laptop or tablet always listen for the words “Hey Cortana” followed by whatever commands or questions you want to tell her.  You’ll go through a few training phrases to let the computer learn how you normally say “Hey Cortana” so that it will know what to look for. You might want to turn that feature off if you’re not plugged in, since it can reduce battery life significantly. I kind of wish it had a setting to stop always listening when on battery power, but if you’ve got a laptop or desktop that’s always sitting plugged into the wall, it’s a pretty amazing feature. If you’re more of the keyboard shortcut kind of person, a quick tap of the Windows key + C will start Cortana listening for commands, or Windows key + S will open the full search window.

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The Cortana window always appears in the bottom left corner in a similar way to the Start menu. If you’re in tablet mode, it appears over the left side of the screen. The window loads some information and interests related to what you may have specified in Cortana’s Notebook which is accessible from the Cortana hamburger button in the upper left corner.  These interests that the window displays can be things like how long it will take you to get home given the current “heavy traffic”… or the current weather, upcoming appointments, stock quotes, news, etc.

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It’s not immediately clear as to what types of voice commands Cortana is capable of understanding, but when you first run it there are a few tips.  You can say, “Hey Cortana, what am I doing this weekend?” to check your calendar.  You can say, “Hey Cortana, remind me to go grocery shopping when I leave work.”  You can say, “Hey Cortana, open Adobe AfterEffects.”  You can say “Hey Cortana, send an email” and she’ll ask you for more information that you can subsequently dictate in order to write an email to someone without touching the keyboard or looking at the screen. You can add appointments to your calendar that way too. What would be really great is if Windows 10’s Cortana had the same APIs that Windows 10 Mobile has for allowing 3rd party apps to add commands to Cortana’s speech interface. And of course, both Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile are in desperate need of Cortana being able to read notifications out loud when they arrive.

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Of course, you can also type commands and searches into Cortana. She’ll even activate if you simply start typing something while the Start screen or Start menu is active.  One big problem with this new search interface compared to the Windows 8.1 search interface is that it doesn’t support multi-tasking. For example, if I type a search term into Cortana and it’s taking a little too long so I switch to another app while I wait… the searching stops completely and disappears.  There’s no way to get back to those search results without starting over. The same is true when trying to create a new appointment or email via Cortana… switching focus loses everything.

Universal Apps

Windows10Screenshots_0000_Layer 15Another big thing about Windows 10 is the new Universal Apps development structure and SDK.  The idea with Universal Apps is that they’re designed to run on a wide variety of devices.  They should all be fully functional whether you’re using a tablet, desktop PC, mobile phone, Xbox, HoloLens, etc.  Microsoft has attempted to make it very easy to develop Universal Apps and has even added support for Android and iOS code, as well as HTML websites that can be turned into Universal Apps. This should make developing apps for the Windows Store much easier and cost effective for all of the software developers out there.

Outlook Mail, Calendar, and People

There are new Mail, Calendar, and People apps in Windows 10. Mail and Calendar are labeled as Outlook Mail and Outlook Calendar for some reason even though People or contact lists should really be a part of Outlook. As should tasks!  Where are my Outlook tasks?  They’re nowhere to be found. You need to install the desktop version of Outlook to get your task management, notes, journals, public calendars, global address books, etc.

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The Mail app works pretty well and is a bit better than the Mail app on Windows 8.1. For some reason, about 60% of the app is covered by a picture of clouds when you launch it. When you select an email in the listing, it will appear in the area originally covered by a clouds photo. Why can’t the email app just go straight to displaying my email? Who knows?  In terms of accounts support, we had no trouble adding Gmail, IMAP, Exchange 2013, and Outlook.com accounts. Yahoo, iCloud, and POP are supported as well. The message list supports custom horizontal swiping actions if that’s your thing. You can set the left swipe to one action and the right swipe to another. There’s also a conversation view for the email listing, and it can no longer be turned off which is absolutely horrible. Grouping emails with the same subject line makes seeing and reading the emails so much more difficult. I want to see my emails in order and I don’t need to see sent emails in my inbox. That’s what the “Sent Items” folder is for.

If you expand the folder listing for an email account, you’ll see pin icons next to some folders. Tapping them doesn’t actually do anything though. You have to tap and hold to show the context sensitive menu, and then choose “Pin to Start” to show the folder on your start screen. The ability to pin subfolders is a great feature inherited from Windows Phone. Unfortunately, Outlook Mail has also inherited Windows Phone’s inability to sync Draft email folders with servers. So you’ll still be unable to pick up where you left off on that long email you may have started somewhere else.

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The calendar works well enough. It shows weather icons and offers color options for all of your different calendars. It even shows different shading for busy, tentative, and free appointment types. Gmail, Exchange, Outlook.com, and iCloud calendars are all supported, but public Exchange calendars are not. If you want to add a custom CalDAV server, you can do that by customizing a fake iCloud account. I kind of wish CalDAV was an option in the Advanced setup section instead.

windows10screenshots_0002_Screenshot (56).pngThe People app is a pretty major downgrade from the people app in Windows 8. It doesn’t have a live tile that shows Twitter mentions or social network updates from your favorite people. It doesn’t have a live tile at all. There is a button for adding Social network apps that would presumably add those contacts at least, but the button doesn’t do anything at this time. Yes, you can see and edit your contacts info, but that’s about it. No Skype integration, no contact groups, no categories, and you can’t even select more than one contact at a time.

Phone Companion app

windows10screenshots_0003_Screenshot (58).pngIf you thought the Windows Phone app for Windows 8 was lazy, wait until you see the Phone Companion app that comes with Windows 10. It basically gives you a link to File Explorer.  Gone are the days of syncing 3rd party content, auto-syncing media over WiFi when your phone was charging on the same network… there isn’t even an offline backup/restore option.  If you need something with way more control over syncing and encoding content for your phone, Windows Media Player 12 is still included in Windows 10 and that’s probably the best way to sync music to your phone in an organized manner with smart playlists or manual playlists.

Photos app

windows10screenshots_0011_Screenshot (70).pngIf you thought the Photos app on Windows 8.1 was a massive downgrade from Windows 8 which was a massive downgrade from the Windows Live Photo Gallery app on Windows 7, then you’ll probably see a pattern in the Photos app that comes with Windows 10. That’s right, it’s a massive downgrade. You can’t even navigate sub-folders!!  Seriously!  Instead of letting you browse sub-folders that you’ve already organized, the Windows 10 Photos app attempts to organize your photos libraries into “Albums”. Usually these are sorted by day, but often it doesn’t even see photos in my photo libraries.  Yes, we still miss Windows 8’s ability to show Facebook photo albums, Flickr photo albums, and even remote fetch photo albums from other OneDrive connected PCs. Those awesome features are not likely to return any time soon. Still if you want a photo management program that’s actually useful, Microsoft’s free Windows Live Photo Gallery that was made for Windows 7 still works beautifully on Windows 10.

Edge Browser

There’s a new web browser in town on Windows 10 and it’s called Edge. It’s a completely new browser from Microsoft with no ties to Internet Explorer of old. Unfortunately interface-wise it’s not as great as the “Modern” version of Internet Explorer 11 that came with Windows 8.1.  Edge is mostly designed for the desktop UI.  It has browser controls that stay visible all the time and tabs at the top for switching between web pages. After you have about 15 tabs open, they become ridiculously small and difficult to read or even switch between.  Internet Explorer’s tab UI was much better since you could hide it at any time and when you did choose to show it, you could pan through large thumbnail images of your open web pages no matter how many you had open. You could also use swipe gestures to navigate backwards and forwards between web pages in IE 11. For now, that feature is disappointingly gone in Edge 1.0 as are live tiles for websites that you pin to the start screen.

windows10screenshots_0010_Screenshot (69).pngOn the other hand, Edge has a couple new tricks. There’s a note-taking feature that lets you draw on web pages, add comments, and annotations then save that to OneNote or share it with others. Previously to do this, I would have to use OneNote’s clipping tool and then draw the comments on in OneNote, but this saves a step.

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Cortana has some integration in the Edge browser too. It’s not terribly discoverable though. Cortana is supposed to show up in the address bar when she has more information about particular websites. For example, if you visit http://cuoco-seattle.com/, a blue Cortana icon will appear and if you tap that, a sidebar will open up with more information related to that restaurant.  Optionally, you can select content within a web page, tap & hold to open the context sensitive menu and choose “Ask Cortana” in order to get Cortana to give you more information about the selected text.

Groove Music, TV & Movies, Xbox

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Xbox Music has been renamed to Groove Music. It’s nowhere near as good as Zune desktop 4.8 or even Windows Media Player when it comes to music management, but at least it supports the Groove Music pass (AKA Zune Pass AKA Xbox Music Pass). There’s still no “Picks for me” section that Zune had done so nicely, but the “Smart DJ” feature is still there with a new name of simply “Radio”.  The TV & Movies app is a re-brand of the Xbox Video app that was in Windows 8. It supports DRM protected videos from the Windows Store and loads Movies/TV Shows that you may have bought using your Microsoft Account via Xbox Video or Zune. Of course it also plays videos that you have stored on your hard drive.

Windows10_XboxappThe new Xbox app is pretty nice. It’s kind of a replacement to the “Games” app in previous versions of Windows, but it’s got a lot more features. You can even stream games from an Xbox One to a Windows 10 PC!

Office Mobile

There are new Word Mobile, Excel Mobile, PowerPoint Mobile, and OneNote Mobile apps available for Windows 10 and they have been rebuilt for feature parity with the iOS and Android versions of Office Mobile. They’re all free to download except if you use Word Mobile, Excel Mobile, and PowerPoint Mobile on a tablet with a 10″ screen or larger, the apps will run in “read only” mode until you sign in with an Office 365 subscription.  OneNote Mobile is still free for everything though, and if you have an Office 365 subscription, you’ll probably be better off installing the full version of Office 2016 since that has far more features and is still pretty touch friendly.  The Office Mobile apps will be fantastic on small inexpensive tablets with limited storage and limited RAM though.

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Interface-wise, they all have a consistent ribbon at the top similar to the full version of Office except with a smaller toolbar and far less commands. Feature-wise they’re very stripped down and missing a lot of stuff that’s even available in the free Office Online. For example, Word supports listing custom styles but does not support modifying them (and if you’ve ever done any word processing, you need to know how to use styles). At least it doesn’t strip out custom styles completely like Google Docs does.

MSN Apps

windows10screenshots2_0003_Screenshot (78).pngSome of the cool MSN apps have been updated for Windows 10 while others have been discontinued. On Windows 10, you’ve got great new MSN News, MSN Weather, MSN Sports, and MSN Money apps while the MSN Food & Drink, MSN Health & Fitness, and MSN Travel apps are being discontinued.  It’s sad to see some of these apps go away, especially the Food & Drink one with it’s awesome hands-free page flipping feature.  The new MSN apps are Universal Apps and have a completely new layout. They adjust to multiple window sizes very nicely, but there are usually a column of cryptic icons along the left edge of the window. Nobody is going to be able to understand those, but pressing the hamburger button at the top will expand the left column and show labels for the weird icons.  Throughout Windows 10, the hamburger button is kind of a catch-all do-whatever button that often behaves differently from app to app. It’s inconsistent, confusing, and bad for usability.

Pros

  • + All of the great Windows 7 desktop interface features are back
  • + All apps and programs behave the same way depending on if you’re in desktop or tablet mode
  • + If you’re upgrading from Windows 7, you’ll notice a huge speed boost
  • + Universal Apps will be flexible enough to run on any kind of Windows 10 device from smartphones, tablets, traditional PCs, Xbox One, and HoloLens
  • + Cortana virtual assistant lets you speak commands to your PC for hands-free interaction
  • + System interface is VERY customizable; make it work and look the way you want
  • + Theme features can apply your chosen accent colors to 3rd party apps if the developers enable it
  • + Xbox integration and Direct X 12 make Windows 10 great for gaming
  • + Windows Hello biometric log-in features that can recognize your face and/or fingerprints

Cons

  • Cortana can’t control 3rd party apps like in Windows Phone (yet)
  •  Tablet mode may have a learning curve (but you don’t have to use it)
  • Some older programs designed for desktop Windows don’t work quite as well in Tablet mode
  • Many Universal apps are not on feature parity with older equivalents

Conclusion

Some are saying that Windows 10 will be the last version of Windows. I don’t really buy that though. Things need to grow and evolve.  Really, Windows 10 will simply receive new updates (aka new versions) more frequently as part of Windows Update.  We might not see a “Windows 11” any time soon or ever, but we will definitely see new versions of Windows as time goes by.

As for the current state of Windows 10, as long as your hardware manufacturers have released proper drivers (most of them should be ready by now), everything is quite nice. Having a tablet mode and a desktop mode might be confusing to some, but it’s necessary to modify the interface depending on what type of hardware you’re using. There will also be a smartphone mode, holographic mode, and Xbox/TV mode coming to those types of devices.  Having one operating system that flexes to accommodate everything really simplifies things both for Microsoft and for all of the 3rd party developers wanting to create software for the operating system.  The beauty of Windows 10 is that you don’t have to use the other interface elements if you don’t want to.  If you’ve got a desktop or a laptop and you want to use Windows the same way you’ve been using it since 1995, that’s totally possible. Ignore the new features, and you’ll do just fine.

If you’ve got a tablet or a 2-in-1 convertible, it’s certainly worth it to learn the new touch-friendly interface. The jarring contrast that everyone hated between running desktop programs and “metro” apps on Windows 8 is almost completely gone.  Sure, the tablet mode is a bit different, but it’s absolutely usable and totally an acceptable compromise for running all of your programs on smaller touch screen tablets.  We can’t wait to see what kind of UI modifications will appear when using Xbox or HoloLens hardware.

You’re definitely going to want to install that free Windows 10 upgrade this year.

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About The Author
Adam Z. Lein
Adam has had interests in combining technology with art since his first use of a Koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently has a day job as a graphic designer, photographer, systems administrator and web developer at a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology extends to software development companies who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for Pocketnow.com since they first appeared on the market in 2002.Read more about Adam Lein!