Trending: Microsoft AI chief Harry Shum to depart in February after 23 years at the tech giant
My Windows 10 desktop, with Start Menu!

The last time I used Windows with any regularity was two years ago, working for a market research company. As part of the job, I used a lot of Microsoft’s core products, tracking changes in Word, updating database entries with Internet Explorer and of course using Outlook to email colleagues.

But by that time, I was already moving away from Windows. It started with the iPod, and when it came time to get a computer of my own, I picked the company that made that device I’d grown to love. From there, I slowly fell deeper into the Apple ecosystem, adding bits from Google and Dropbox when Apple fell short.

After hearing horror stories about Windows 8, I stayed away when buying a computer for graduate school. But as Microsoft opens up, I’ve become a fan of many of their apps and services, from OneNote and Cortana to Sunrise and Wunderlist. With Windows 10 seeming like part of the new Microsoft that I was already starting to love, I went in with high hopes but a cautious heart.

Windows 10Setting up Windows 10

I’ve been testing Windows 10 on a very basic machine, an ASUS desktop computer with 4GB of memory, a 1.3GHz AMD Sempron processor and a 500GB hard drive. The computer had come with Windows 8.1 pre-installed, and I upgraded it to Windows 10 using a copy of the operating system provided by Microsoft to GeekWire for purposes of review.

Microsoft’s system requirements for Windows 10 include a minimum of 1GB of memory for a 32-bit processor, and 2GB for a 64-bit processor, with a 1GHz or faster processor.

On GeekWire’s machine, the Windows 10 installation took more than 45 minutes, with multiple restarts. However, the process was smooth, without any hangups, and with messages along the way that made it very clear when it was still updating and when it was done. When moving from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, the new operating system is an in-place upgrade, preserving all your apps, files, wallpaper, and settings.

That said, when I get a new computer, I like to start from scratch. When I need a file, I bring it over. If I need an app, I download it. With so much stuff living in the cloud now, it’s only getting easier to keep things off your hard drive, and that makes diving into a new operating system a breeze.

Downloading Chrome was the first big step toward making the computer my own. Even though I was going to test out the new Edge browser, Microsoft’s replacement for Internet Explorer, I needed to get access to all my bookmarks to settle in. Then I went searching for other apps.

No Slack in the Store
No Slack in the Store.

I started with the Store app. But it turned out that many apps I was hoping to use aren’t listed there. And the ones that are listed might not be the version you’d expect. For example, Evernote Touch seems like it’d be great on a Surface tablet, but the huge buttons and oversimplified UI didn’t fit my workflow on a standard desktop setup.

No worries, though: I found my most-used apps like Slack, 1Password and the standard Evernote available to download through their respective websites. But installing apps on Windows 10 hasn’t improved since my last time using Windows. You’re still stuck waiting for an installer to run, unlike Mac which just lets you drag an app into your Applications folder where it’s almost instantly ready to launch.

Once I got everything installed, I set out to explore the new Windows, and was pleasantly surprised to find that Microsoft had come a long way in bringing Windows into today’s computing environment.

A modern OS

Task View may be better than Exposé on Mac
Task View may be better than Exposé on Mac.

Using Windows 7 back in 2013 felt like I was being held back. There were all kinds of workflows that I used on my aging MacBook that I just couldn’t replicate at work. But just two days into my test of Window 10, I was zipping around my desktop, diving deep into folders and switching between open windows like a pro.

Even running on GeekWire’s bare-bones computer, there was minimal lag, and Windows 10 for the most part was fast and responsive when opening apps and files.

The thing I was most happy to see was Windows Task View. Just hit Win+Tab and you’re presented with an overview of all the open windows on your desktop. If you use Exposé on the Mac, you’ll know how useful this is for finding a missing window buried on a crowded desktop.

There’s also the return of the Start menu, which captures the benefits of both Windows 7 and 8. You no longer bring up a full-screen tiled interface every time you hit the Start button, but those sometimes-useful live tiles are still there to show you pertinent information. I know the Start screen drove Windows 8 users crazy, but I was always jealous of all that info available at a glance.

Another bonus: The return of jump lists to the Start menu, allowing you to quickly access recent files and common commands for a particular app when you click the arrow next to its icon. The UI for activating the jump lists wasn’t very intuitive for someone new to the concept, at first, but once I figured it out, the jump lists were a handy tool.

Cortana

Cortana pulls apart your query to figure out exactly what you're asking
Cortana pulls apart your query to figure out exactly what you’re asking.

Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant also comes with Windows 10, expanding beyond Windows Phone to find a home on desktop and tablet computers.

For users running systems that don’t have a microphone, the voice-activated AI assistant might seem like a waste of time. But users can also type out queries to Cortana, asking about the weather, setting reminders and searching the web. Cortana also has a lot of the functionality of Spotlight on OS X; you can quickly find apps and files on your system with a simple search.

Cortana has a lot of potential. But as mentioned, our computer isn’t exactly a top-of-the-line machine. At times, Cortana slowed the computer to a halt when I started typing my query.

Things got a little faster with each subsequent request, but never quite at the speed of Spotlight on my 2-year-old MacBook. If you’re on an aging Windows 7 machine, you might not want to count on Cortana to be there for you in Windows 10.

Edge Browser

Windows 10 comes with a host of apps, including Calendar, Mail, Xbox, a new Photos app and the new Edge browser. Microsoft’s replacement for Internet Explorer is a bit of a disappointment at launch. Right now, there are no extensions available for Edge. That means password managers, privacy blockers and other useful apps accessible on Chrome and Safari are nowhere to be found on the new browser.

The password manager part hits particularly hard, as it means you have to copy and paste all your passwords from the desktop version of an app like 1Password. However, one of my favorite extensions on Chrome, Evernote Web Clipper, is eclipsed by Edge’s neat Web Note feature. Web Note lets you scribble all over a web page, then send it to OneNote or a friend.

You can highlight, draw and annotate any web page
You can highlight, draw and annotate any web page.

Overall, Edge is a fine browser. But if you’re already using Chrome or Firefox, there’s no compelling reason to switch over right now. In fact, I found it to be a little buggy. Tabs would reload when I switched to them, sometimes jumping to new windows. Scrolling sometimes froze up, leaving me stuck looking at minutes-old tweets when hundreds of new ones were coming in. I even had trouble typing at times. Again, this may be due to a slow machine, but I didn’t have those problems in Chrome.

Xbox Streaming

You can jump off the same building as you do on your Xbox
Xbox games stream beautifully over WiFi.

Before this experience, my closest tie to Microsoft was my Xbox One. Despite an overwhelming “meh” from consumers, I love the Kinect, the UI and just about everything else it offers. So game streaming immediately stood out to me as a winning benefit of running Windows 10.

Loading up Grand Theft Auto V was a breeze. I was seriously surprised that all I had to do was turn on my Xbox and it just showed up in the Xbox app, ready to stream a game to me. Streaming was clear too. I was able to swerve around cars, blow up bad guys and jump out of planes with no real stuttering or lag.

However, game streaming takes over your entire Xbox, meaning it can’t be used by others while you’re playing. My Xbox is also the heart of my entertainment center, running HBO Go, Netflix and my cable box. The main reason I’d want to stream a game is because my girlfriend wants to watch something while I want to play video games. I’d have to give up that centralized control of my entertainment system that Microsoft used to initially help sell the Xbox if I wanted to use the streaming in any meaningful way.

Touch

In the tablet mode, you can easily put apps side by side and slightly changes icons along the bottom for easier touching
In the tablet mode, you can easily put apps side by side and icons are optimized for touch in many apps.

While Windows 8 was maligned for diving too deep into a touch-friendly UI, Windows 10 has mostly recovered from that misstep. There are still plenty of times where using a mouse made me feel like a second-rate customer, but for the most part I didn’t feel that I was navigating a tablet with a mouse.

It helps that a more finger-friendly mode is separated into another section and accessible only when you want it. It’s not forced on you every time you hit the Start button. But there’s still a preference for touchscreens, and the Store is littered with touch-focused apps. If you’re buying a new machine with Windows 10, I’d definitely recommend considering a touch screen, but touch isn’t the focus of Windows 10.

Should you upgrade?

RELATED POST: ‘One Windows to rule them all’: How Microsoft will try to reenergize its fanbase and reclaim its throne

Definitely. If you’re on Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, the upgrade to Windows 10 is free, so cost isn’t an issue. And the benefits of a modern system are huge. You’ll get faster access to the latest apps, better support from Microsoft and a more secure machine overall. If I were jumping back into the Windows world, I wouldn’t be upset using Windows 10 to get some serious work done. The worst parts of the new operating system or the ones that bog down slower machines are not critical to using Windows 10.

If you’re used to Windows 7, the upgrade isn’t too jarring and the updates will bring you into the second half of the decade with ease. If you’re on Windows 8 and sick of it, you’ll definitely want to get on the waitlist for this system. If you’re afraid of bugs bricking your system, wait a couple weeks for a really secure version, but you’ll definitely want to get it while it’s free.

While Microsoft is turning Windows 10 into a universal operating system for its tablets and phones in addition to computers, it’s also returning Windows to a really great operating system capable of everything you expect from a computer in 2015.

Should you switch?

Probably not. If you’re currently using a Chromebook or Mac and are happy with it, switching will cost you time and effort. There are different workflows, third-party apps can be slightly different, and Windows 10 isn’t necessarily better than the competition. If anything, OS X and Windows 10 are closer than ever in terms of quality, function and stability.

While Cortana is useful and the ability to switch between touch and a traditional mouse seems really futuristic, the best stuff from Microsoft isn’t limited to Windows anymore. Office for Mac 2016 may be the best version of Office available and is now dedicated to continual improvements. Recent acquisitions of popular mobile apps like Sunrise, Wunderlist and Accompli show how Microsoft is willing to come where users are to deliver the best apps. In fact, even Cortana is coming to iPhone and Android.

In short, you no longer need to run Windows to get the best Microsoft software. As users move toward phones and browsers for most of their needs, Microsoft is moving away from platform-specific services to bring you the best stuff wherever you are.

Windows 10 will be released on Wednesday for Windows Insider users, who have been testing the operating system in the runup to its public debut. Existing Windows 7 and 8.1 users can sign up to reserve a spot in upcoming waves of the rollout, with the free update rolling out to the millions of additional computers throughout the rest of the year.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to GeekWire's free newsletters to catch every headline

Comments

Job Listings on GeekWork

Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.