The future is bright
Instead of booting you a completely different screen, the Start menu lives in the lower-lefthand corner — just like it did in Windows 7. Microsoft is keeping the Live Tiles it introduced in Windows 8, but it’s put them inside the Start menu. That means that they won’t take up your entire monitor anymore (unless you really want them to). You can pin both modern and traditional apps to the Start menu, and there’s easy access to settings, shutdown or restart, and a list of most-used apps complete with handy jump lists for apps like Word that handle files. This mix of features feels like the best approach for bringing the Start menu back, and you can resize it freely to customize it further.
It seems like every version of Windows brings a different theme, and Windows 10 is no different. It’s more restrained than Windows 8 or Vista were — but not as boring as Windows 7. A black theme sets the stage for Windows 10, but if you’re not a fan of the darkness, then there are options to pick an accent color that can be shown on the Start menu, task bar, and the new Action Center. Across all three, you’ll notice subtle transparency effects have returned to Windows 10 from their roots in Windows Vista and Windows 7. Microsoft hasn’t added any transparency to built-in apps like File Explorer, so the effect isn’t overplayed or irritating. It feels utilitarian, but in a modern way.
Microsoft has focused a lot on multitasking with Windows 10. The Snap feature has seen the biggest improvements here. You can drag any window to a screen edge to snap it to half of your screen, and then the OS helpfully displays all of your other windows in an array for the other half. If you use a touchscreen, you can swipe from the left to bring up a list of all open apps and snap two of them alongside each other.
Alongside the snapping improvements is a new feature called Task View, which is a lot like Mission Control on the Mac. It displays all your open windows on a single screen so you can find what you’re looking for quickly. Microsoft has added a dedicated button to the task bar to try and get Windows 10 users to activate Task View and start using it. Microsoft claims the vast majority of its users have never used Alt+Tab to switch apps (one of those “weird but true” things about computers), so the idea is to help those users get better at multitasking.
Microsoft has also built a virtual assistant like Siri right into Windows 10. It’s called Cortana, and it’s designed to look and feel like an extension of the Start menu, and just like the Windows Phone equivalent, you can also use your voice to search. There’s also an option to enable a “hey Cortana” feature that lets you simply holler questions at your laptop. It’s useful for simple things like the weather, but I found myself mostly using it to demonstrate Cortana to friends and family.
Cortana is designed to look and feel like an extension of the Start menuCortana’s visual interface is a lot more useful. It’s an overview of your day mixed with the weather, news, local restaurants, and other interests you’ve selected. I tap on Cortana’s icon in the task bar occasionally to see this overview, and all the data is displayed in sections that resemble Google’s Now cards.
Cortana keeps everything it knows about you in a virtual notebook, which you can edit to trim out information you don’t want it to remember. It’s also cloud powered, meaning you can download Cortana for Android (or iOS in the future) and get the same features there, all synced up with your laptop. So if you ask Cortana to remind you to buy some milk from a local grocery store, that reminder will sync to your phone and activate as soon as you’re near the grocery store. That’s a particularly useful and powerful feature of Cortana, and it’s one I find myself using regularly.
Cortana also handles local search, and it’s excellent. Hitting the “My Stuff” button within a Cortana search will search for files that are local to the machine and any data stored on OneDrive. Having a single interface for virtual assistant searches, web searches, and traditional computer searches is a super convenient and powerful thing, and Microsoft has done a really great job of integrating it here. It might be my favorite thing about Windows 10.
With most browsers, the one key thing I care about is performance, and Edge mostly delivers. Rendering most popular websites is smooth, and load times are usually good. It still feels like there’s some work to be done on occasions, and I’ve run into situations where pages just don’t render well at all or sites ask me to use Internet Explorer. Yes, Internet Explorer still exists in Windows 10, and you can access it through an “Open with Internet Explorer” option in Edge.
Edge does have some neat new features. You can draw all over webpages and send a copy to friends. It’s useful if you want to quickly share a screenshot of a site with some annotations, but it’s something I haven’t found myself using regularly (it’s better if you use it with a pen-enabled device like the Surface). It’s cool for the first few times, and then you quickly forget it exists. One addition I did find very useful is Cortana. The digital assistant is integrated into Microsoft Edge, and it shows up in clever little ways. If you search for something in the address bar like “weather,” then it will immediately surface the weather nearby. The instances in which it’s really useful are when it gives me the information I need without having to load a full search page. If I search for “how tall is Tom Cruise” then it immediately returns the result before I’ve even had the chance to hit Enter.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of Edge for me is the lack of extensions. Firefox and Chrome have both supported web extensions for years, and it feels like a miss not to have these available in Edge at launch. However, Microsoft has said these will arrive later this year. For now, I’m begrudgingly sticking with Google Chrome until Microsoft Edge is ready.
One of the big additions to the Xbox app for PC gamers is game DVR. You can take screenshots and recordings, generating clips up to two hours in length. If you want to record a tutorial or just something to upload to YouTube, then you can also activate the feature, with options to change audio and video quality, and clips are just stored in MP4 format. It’s a nice secret feature and one less reason to purchase an expensive third-party screen-recording app.
Windows 10’s built-in apps are a great complement to the operating system. While Windows 8’s “Metro-style” apps were basic and lacking in features, Windows 10’s have mostly everything you’d want. Microsoft’s Maps app provides 3D images, directions, and streetside imagery. It’s all wrapped up in a simple interface with a hamburger menu to access settings and features. Most importantly, these built-in apps no longer run fullscreen by default. It was always irritating to run an app fullscreen on a 30-inch monitor, and you’re no longer forced to do that for any Windows 10 apps.
The new calendar app is also great. Although I’d like to see some Cortana integration in the future, the uncluttered interface is exactly what you expect from your calendar. Best of all, Google Calendar is now supported so you can easily add your Gmail account and have it work just fine across email and calendar. You’ll also need to add your Google accounts here to get the Cortana integration across Windows 10 to work, it won’t just fetch information over the web.
Microsoft has also finally improved its Photos app to be a lot more useful. Images are automatically corrected, and it does some smart album creation on the fly. I use OneDrive to back up photos from my iPhone automatically, and when I open the Photos app on Windows 10, they’re all there. It’s just like having a Windows Phone, but Microsoft doesn’t care what phone I use.
But the most impressive additions are the new stripped-down, touch-based Office apps. Microsoft has labeled them Word, Excel, and PowerPoint Mobile, but they’ll work on any Windows 10 PC. I wrote this entire review using Word Mobile, and it’s just a delight to use. It has a clean UI, it’s super fast, and it has all the basic editing features I need. Likewise, the Excel and PowerPoint Mobile versions are enough for me. I’m sure they’ll be enough for most people who don’t require the full power of Office desktop apps, and the best feature is that they’re free for devices with a 10.1-inch screen or smaller.