Windows 10: Good, but is it good enough?

Woody Leonhard

As even cave-dwelling monks probably know by now, Windows 10 is out for all the world to see — and it appears to be a qualified success.

Is downloading and installing the new OS a no-brainer? If you use Win8, the answer is almost assuredly yes; but if you’re a Win7 fan, some serious considerations await.

Build 10240: The first-final Windows 10

More than with any previous version of Windows, it’s difficult to talk about a “final” version of the OS. Build 10240 is the official July 29 release, but it’s hardly final; it’ll undoubtedly evolve over time.

When I talked about Win10 build 10122 in the May 28 Top Story, almost all “final” features were intact. They have, however, been tweaked a bit in the official Win10 release — and some will get further adjustments.

For example, we now know that the Universal (formerly “Metro”) Skype app doesn’t work worth beans. So Microsoft cut it loose, offering instead a link on the initial start menu to install the old desktop version of Skype. Even at that, desktop Skype is underwhelming, and there are many rumors at this point that Microsoft will finally come up with something simpler for texting, calling, and video-haranguing.

In a similar vein, Microsoft cut the Universal OneDrive app. Microsoft’s reworking it to bring back “smart files,” the ability to show thumbnails of files in Explorer on your machine while keeping the entire file in the cloud. The result is quite a mess. Win10 setup steps you through the task of specifying which files get stored locally and which are kept in the cloud.

Those files stored on your machine work just as you’d expect. Unfortunately, at this time, File Explorer isn’t smart enough to show you anything that’s cloud-only — you have to go into the browser to see everything.

As you’ll see below, there are many other Win10 features — many new to the OS — that are not completely baked.

It all starts with the return of Start

Through the various Win Preview builds, the start menu has had various incarnations. The final version, shown in Figure 1, is nearly identical to the one in build 10122, with text links on the left and live tiles on the right. But there are some worthwhile tweaks.

Win10 start menu

Figure 1. The final start menu combines a Win7-like list with Win8-like smart tiles; it also includes a few surprises.

The entries at the bottom-left of the start menu can be changed a bit, but everything else on the left is pretty much set in stone — unlike Windows 7, which gave you numerous display options. Still, something is better than nothing — as we had in Windows 8.

Right-clicking apps listed in the left column gives you many of the same choices found in Win7 — plus the option to uninstall the app.

The exhaustive All apps list (Figure 2) shows every program/app that’s installed on your computer. But here, too, you can’t do much to manage the way the list is displayed; for example, entries can’t be grouped or renamed. (Fortunately, you can still pin favorite apps to the taskbar.) Even the placement of the All apps icon seems a bit odd. If feels as if it should lead or follow the left column’s list of used or added apps, not be stuck below the Power icon.

Win10 All apps list

Figure 2. The All apps list lacks any organizational options.

Happily, entering the Windows key + X still pops up the handy power-users’ menu. On the other hand, the Power icon seems to have lost some of its smarts. For example, it no longer lets you assign “Lock” to the button itself and use a drop-down menu for other options. (If enabled, Lock shows up when you click your picture icon at the top of the start menu.)

As with Win10 Preview, the right side of the start menu holds live tiles. I think of them as Win7 gadgets that have finally become truly useful. But if they bug you, just right-click the offensive ones and choose Unpin from Start.

You can add or remove a tile for any installed application — not just Universal apps. You also have some control over height and width of the start menu. For example, simply drag the right edge of the start menu to make it wider or narrower. When you make the menu narrower, tiles on the right edge move automatically beneath those to the left.

Edge: The successor to Internet Explorer

The default browser for Windows 10 is the new Edge browser. You can still find IE, but you’ll have to dig for it. Given that Edge is completely new, it’s surprising that it still lags well behind Chrome and Firefox for both features and usability. For example, Edge doesn’t have any plugins; you’re stuck without, oh, AdBlocker or (crucial for me) LastPass. On the plus side, Microsoft has promised that Edge will run Chrome extensions with little or no modification — quite a trick, if Microsoft can pull it off.

You can have Edge open to a specific set of pages, but to do so you need to open settings and enter the URL for each page manually. The offline reader — Reading view — garbles too many pages. Dragging tabs doesn’t work right: as with other browsers, dragging a tab onto a blank part of the desktop will create a separate browser window. However, if you drag that new tab back to the original window, the tab will meld back in but the second window is left open to a generic page. You also can’t swipe to move back and forth between pages.

Changing or adding search engines is also not especially easy. You have to navigate to the search engine’s home page, then open Edge’s advanced setting. Next, in the Search section, click the down arrow in the box listing Bing as the default. You then get the options shown in Figure 3.

MS Edge browser

Figure 3. Edge makes changing search engines somewhat convoluted.

Edge has some hooks into Cortana; you can right-click a selected phrase on a webpage and let Cortana have at it. Edge comes with a PDF reader and Flash built-in, and you can turn Flash off by simply flipping a switch in settings. Edge also lets you turn a webpage into a OneNote page and annotate it — something that looks good in demos, but I’m not sure how I’ll use it.

Cortana: The digital assistant on the desktop

Microsoft’s transplanted phone AI continues to improve, but seemingly in fits and starts. The biggest problem I’ve had, time and again, is getting Cortana to understand me. For example, “How cold is it in Antarctica?” typically turns into “How cold is it in America?” Yes, I’m using a good mike — a Blue Snowball — but Cortana isn’t impressed.

Far too often, my simple, factual questions just get tossed out to a Bing search in Edge. And yes, Cortana always uses Bing, not your default search engine. When you type something into Cortana’s search bar (next to the start button), the AI first searches your computer and then searches Bing. If you activate voice recognition, everything you ask about (using “Hey, Cortana!”) goes through Bing. In other words, Edge might let you use a different search engine, but everything else is Bing, Bing, Bing.

No wonder Microsoft’s predicting a 10 to 15 percent increase in Bing use by September. See this cached copy of an announcement from Bing GM of MS Search Advertising David Pann. (The original post doesn’t appear to be on Microsoft’s servers anymore.)

I’ve talked about Cortana and her data-gathering ways before. Suffice it to say that Cortana controls the gates to search on your computer and — unless you explicitly turn it off (inside Cortana, click the Notebook icon, then Settings, then the link “Manage what Cortana knows about me in the cloud”) — Cortana funnels a whole lotta stuff into Microsoft’s bit bucket.

To be fair, you have to agree to be snooped upon (the default in Win10’s express setup), and Cortana really does need that info to do her job. The fact that the data can be used to target ads shouldn’t upset you any more (or less!) than, say, using Google search and free Gmail, which are both milked for the purpose of serving up ads.

To keep on top of your privacy profile, see the Microsoft privacy choices site (sign-in required).

Other half-baked pieces that might trip you up

The new Mail app still has some gaping holes. You can’t combine inboxes, for example, to get all of your mail delivered in one place. Moreover, you can see messages only in conversation view, not chronologically. I’m seeing lots of reports of Mail crashing, particularly when it encounters complex messages with extensive formatting and multiple images.

Mail has much better editing capabilities than the 8.1-era Metro Mail app, but new-mail notifications rarely pop up in the Action area.

On the other hand, the new Windows Universal Calendar app continues to sync properly with my Gmail calendar. And the multiple desktop/task view capability works well, though it’s strangely hampered by two simple shortcomings: all desktops must have the same background, and there’s no way to easily tag or identify individual desktops — all you get is 1, 2, 3 for labels.

Many other native apps hardly work at all. Photos has rudimentary editing capabilities but no tagging or retrieval features; People looks as if it were thrown together by two interns over a weekend.

I’ve never liked Microsoft Music or Xbox Music, and now I like Win10’s Groove Music even less. It has cumbersome playlist handling, no tagging to speak of — basically nothing that would make it a music-management app. It’s good only as a player and as a funnel to buy more music from Microsoft. With Movies & TV, you have to go through the Windows Store to buy or rent a movie.

Windows Store is one of the low points of the Win10 experience. It’s not terribly stable and, even when you can keep it running, the junk in there is still appalling. Content’s been vetted a little bit, but on a scale from 1 to 10, the typical Windows Store app might rate a 2 — if I’m feeling charitable.

Microsoft has generally had a hard time getting its Universal apps in order for this release. We have robust — if stunted — Universal apps for the four core Office apps. But programming for the new WinRT API-based Universal platform is apparently so hard that Microsoft couldn’t get us new apps for such key tools as OneDrive or Skype. That speaks volumes.

Whether third-party developers will be lured to the tiled Windows side still remains a big point of conjecture. Once upon a time, Microsoft could dangle Windows Phone as a carrot for developers, as Universal apps are supposed to run equally well on Windows 10 and Win10 Mobile. But with the Windows Phone market still failing to gain much traction, Windows Phone isn’t much of a draw.

In other words, developers looking to write for the Win10 platform might just opt to stick with the older “classic” desktop and eschew the tiled side completely. It’ll be interesting to see whether Microsoft can lure any major app over to the Universal format.

Patching: The Windows 10 Achilles’ heel

By now, you probably know that Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro machines will get all updates from Microsoft, automatically — whether you want them or not. (Pro machines connected to an update server apparently won’t get force-fed updates quite so quickly.) Four months ago that fact would’ve (and did!) send me on an apoplectic bender. Now, though, the situation’s not quite so dire. At least, not yet.

Microsoft has quietly released a tool — KB 307930 — that makes it possible to turn off certain updates. But it works only if the update has already been applied and uninstalled, and it isn’t clear how long you’ll be able to hold off on the updates. Moreover, I’ve had problems getting it to work. (For more on this option, see my July 22 InfoWorld post.)

The availability of that tool, combined with the remarkable fact that Microsoft has had very few botched patches in the past four months, makes me want to give the Softies the benefit of the doubt. They might just be able to keep Windows 10 updated in a way that’s less disruptive than what we’ve seen over the past dozen years.

Or maybe not.

The decision: Whether and when to get Windows 10

Everybody wants to know whether I recommend upgrading to Windows 10. (Yes, even my barber and my son’s teachers have asked me that question this past week.) The answer is not simple; here’s the three-minute yes/no flow chart.

First, if you haven’t yet signed up for the queue, Microsoft has detailed instructions for how to do so.

If you haven’t received notification from Microsoft that your copy of the Windows 10 download is ready, cool your heels until it arrives — there’s a reason for the delay. Keep in mind that Microsoft is also fixing all sorts of things in record time. The company has started with simple configurations and is holding back on upgrades for configurations that have caused problems. Have patience.

That said, my general advice for Windows 8/8.1 users is to go ahead and install Win10. There are exceptions: If you’re a touch-first or touch-only Windows 8.1 user, you might have difficulty adapting to the new Tablet Mode. Charms is gone (yay!), but you have to cope with a taskbar that won’t go away and swiping doesn’t work the same. If you’re happy with Windows 8.1 in touch mode, get yourself to a retailer and try Windows 10 in Tablet Mode before you jump ship.

Also, if you use Windows 8.1 and you rely on OneDrive’s thumbnail approach to keeping your files sorted out, you’ll have to change your ways with Windows 10. (That feature doesn’t appear in Win7 or Win8, only in Win8.1.)

For Windows 7 users, the recommendation isn’t so clear-cut. While Windows 10 has a lot of fun, interesting, useful stuff (despite the shortcomings I’ve noted above), I can’t point to one killer feature that makes the upgrade a no-brainer — especially if you’re already using Chrome or Firefox for browsing. Windows 10’s going to get a lot of improvement and support in the near term, and Win7 is effectively a dead duck — it’ll get fixes in the future but few, if any, enhancements.

Win10 is undeniably more secure, and it’s faster on reboot. But then, how often do you reboot? For gamers, Win10’s DirectX 12 will make fancy games run much faster. Touch input’s nice but hardly a game changer, and it takes extra hardware.

All that said, the upgrade’s free for legitimate consumer systems — you don’t have to make up your mind until July 29, 2016. Those rumors about charging you a monthly fee sometime down the line are pure fantasy.

There are really no significant downsides for most Win7 users. Issues with some applications and drivers for older devices are probably your main concerns. You can take a fully updated Win7 or Win8.1 machine and upgrade it directly to Windows 10 without needing to install your apps or data (although you might want to consider starting with a clean installation of the OS). After it’s installed, Win10 will run much like Win7.

Keep in mind that if you upgrade (i.e., you don’t do a “clean” install), you can roll back to your previous version of Windows within 30 days. From what I’ve seen, the rollback works fine; your programs, settings, and data remain intact.

Typically, I tell Win7 users to wait a while. Let’s see what Microsoft brings out for the “TH2″ update reportedly scheduled for October or the “Redstone” update(s) due out next year. At least, many of the current holes will be plugged, and no doubt a big crop of bugs will get cut down as well.

That’s what I tell people whose job isn’t to review technology. I do cover tech, so I upgraded my Windows 8.1 production machine this past weekend. I received the offer to upgrade in my system tray, and I’m glad I did — the upgrade went flawlessly. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wants us to all love Win10. I won’t go there, but I feel a heck of a lot better about using Windows — now that the 8.1 noose is off.

The old saying goes that “Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer chances.” In this case, the “chances” are minimal for common Windows systems — and the money stays yours.

Get our unique weekly Newsletter with tips and techniques, how to's and critical updates on Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows XP, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Google, etc. Join our 480,000 subscribers!

The Windows 7, Vol 3 (Excerpt)

Subscribe and get our monthly bonuses - free!

The Windows 7 Guide, Volume 3: Advanced maintenance and troubleshooting provides advanced tools for keeping Microsoft's premier operating system up and running smoothly. Get this excerpt and other 4 bonuses if you subscribe FREE now!

= Paid content

All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2015-08-06:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.