Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Windows 10 review

Familiar is the name of the game

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Windows 10 is designed to be familiar and has been built with what users want — Microsoft has reiterated that they want to get Windows users to genuinely love the product that they are using rather than loving it because it's their only choice. That is a tall order to ask from all 1.5 billion Windows users out there but as ambitious as it sounds, Microsoft might have just struck the right cord with Windows 10.
We aspire to move people from needing Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows. Satya Nadella
The highlight feature on Windows 10 is the return of the Start Menu which was absent in Windows 8 but that's not the only thing to focus in this new version of Windows. From the minute you boot up into Windows 10, you can start marveling at the changes made. Sure, Microsoft did re-introduce back the Start Menu but through the taskbar, you can start to notice the changes made like the new search bar right next to the Start button and also several new icons on the task bar like the Task View button.

But, has Microsoft broken away from the poor design choices they made with Windows 8 and after nearly a year of public developmental builds through the Windows Insider program, is Microsoft giving what users what they need in Windows 10? The short answer is yes, but it depends.

The Name

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First and foremost, there is no such thing as Windows 9. Microsoft has opted to skip the number 9 and jump straight to Windows 10 and initially it might feel a little weird because everyone was expecting to see 9 and not 10. Nonetheless, Microsoft has been well known for their inconsistent naming. This however has sparked some revelations online about Microsoft's choice to go with Windows 10 and probably the most pun-licious one is because 7 8 9 (Windows 7 ate Windows 9). Did you get that, well it's a funny joke….apparently.

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Another revelation is that Microsoft skipped the number 9 because it would cause problems with existing code on programs which has references to Windows 95 and Windows 98 to act up as the number 9 is also in both those version of Windows and will somewhat end up being a big exception error on it's own.
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DVD
Alongside the newfound name, Windows 10 itself is not only a desktop operating system, it is a family of operating systems which will support a broad range of devices from a pocketable smartphone all the way to a holographic headset. For the normal desktop computer, there are actually 4 versions of Windows 10 which are Windows 10 Home, Windows 10 Pro, Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education. As a normal user, we'll just need to focus on the Home and Pro versions which are both upgradeable from Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 versions.
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Like before, Microsoft will be offering boxed copies of Windows 10 versions for PC builders which now also comes in a USB stick installation media alongside the DVD option. While, Microsoft is also selling Windows 10 through new desktops and laptops which come with pre-installed with the new operating system, the bulk of all Windows 10 users will come through the free upgrade program which is eligible for all Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 systems for the first year Windows 10 is released. This doesn't mean that your free upgrade to Windows 10 will only last one year, it just means that you will need to upgrade within that first year while the upgrade is free.

Start Menu (or Screen)

Start Menu evolution: Build
9841 vs Build 10240 (RTM)
This release of Windows is all about bringing back the familiarity from earlier version of Windows and that includes re-introducing the iconic Start Menu which was first included in Windows 95 and killed in Windows 8. However, Microsoft didn't just bring back the same old Start Menu from Windows 7, they spruced up the design by replacing the jump list on the right half of the Start Menu with modular columns of live tiles which works exactly like it does on Windows Phone and Windows 8. This means, you can move the tiles wherever you want it to be and each tile can be individually resized.

It is like the best of both worlds with the compact form factor of the Start Menu and the intuitive design of the Start Screen. You will be able to pin just about any application on side canvas which can be modified to be tall or wide depending on your needs, just hover over the side of the Start Menu to resize it. However, if you do prefer the old full screen Start Screen from Windows 8, there is an option in the Settings app which will help you do just that. The new Start Screen on Windows 10 is unlike the one found in Windows 8, the grouped tiles are now positioned vertically and the all apps list is on the right side. This specific mode can also be triggered through the "Tablet Mode" toggle in the Notification Center and is made to work alongside the Continuum feature on Windows 10 which is made specifically for devices like the Surface Pro 3 which can change between tablet mode and a normal laptop position.
Your theme color will be resonated through the Start Menu
On the serious side (left side) of the new Start Menu, the layout is similar to the Start Menu on Windows 7 with the pinned apps on the top alongside a picture of your account. Move a little down to the bottom and you can see a few system shortcuts which can be added or deleted through the settings application to suit your needs. Another thing that's new is the search bar has been moved down to the taskbar and you could still search for an application or a specific file like before but the search bar is also where Cortana lives (more on that later).

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The Start Menu at double width

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The Start Menu in tablet mode

Microsoft Edge

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Booting up to a fresh new version of Windows always starts with opening up Internet Explorer and downloading a third party browser. But in Windows 10, Internet Explorer no longer comes pinned to your taskbar by default, it now lives deep in the accessories folder of your Start Menu. Instead, you will see a brand new icon which looks like the silhouette of the IE icon. That my friend is the new stock browser for Windows 10 called Microsoft Edge. No longer will you be making harsh jokes about Internet Explorer being slow and all because Microsoft Edge is a modern browser built with current generation web standards.
Internet Explorer still exists for legacy reasons
Formerly called Project Spartan, the new Edge browser looks nothing like IE other than a few similar design cues. It looks somewhat like Firefox with a Windows 10 theme put over it. Deep down, Microsoft made a lot of changes to the core runtime of Microsoft Edge to give it a performance edge (get it!) over the browser it is replacing (Internet Explorer) and also other third party browsers. Probably the most significant change is that Microsoft Edge does not support ActiveX and Browser Helper Objects which means you will never have to see those pesky toolbars.

Instead, developers can build extensions for Microsoft Edge to expand the browser's functionality and these extensions will work exactly like they do on popular third party browsers like Chrome and Firefox. Microsoft has also said that they are working hard to enable developers to reuse their code for extension on Google Chrome to work on Microsoft Edge with minimal changes. Sadly at this time, extensions are still not available yet.

The new Edge browser in Windows 10 is powered by the new EdgeHTML engine which is actually a forked version of the MSHTML engine which powered Internet Explorer. While, the underlying framework is forked, Microsoft has removed all legacy code used to run Internet Explorer and the result is a rendering engine which is on par with modern browsers like Chrome and Firefox. In terms of benchmarks, the new Edge browser managed to beat Chrome with Google's own Octane benchmark.

All this technical stuff about the new EdgeHTML engine just shows how remarkably different IE is to Edge. But the new Edge browser doesn't only perform well and consume far less resources than Chrome, it's also built with some features that we've yet to see on a desktop browser. One of those features is an annotation mode which will take a snap of the current page and you can annotate over the page with the built in colored markers and highlighters. There's also a reading mode which works surprisingly good by removing all the unwanted elements and just focus on the text and body images.

There is actually quite a lot to talk about Microsoft Edge itself and I will leave the bulk of that in my separate review of Microsoft Edge which you can read here.

Microsoft Edge also come with a built in dark theme, you can enable it in the settings menu

Cortana

Now this isn't something new for Windows Phone users but Microsoft is bringing Cortana from the Phone to your desktop. Basically Cortana will be act as a universal search engine powered by Bing and she will living on your taskbar in between the Start button and the task view button. Optionally, you can ring up Cortana by typing your query on the search bar or clicking on the mic button. But, if you want to look a little cooler, you can actually make Cortana respond to your voice when you say "Hey Cortana". Mind you that a little setup is required for that to work.

In terms of what Cortana can do, she will be able to help you to search for folders, files and applications locally and also queries through the internet. Some examples are that you can ask Cortana to look for the 'documents' folder or you could simply ask here to show you images of the iPhone. Those are just simple things, you could already do that with the Search app on Windows 8 but Cortana is all about being personal and you can technically ask her to do complex things like writing an email with a little voice dictation.

But Microsoft didn't just port Cortana to the PC, they also added some PC specific commands you can try out with Cortana like asking her to turn on Wi-Fi or open Photoshop or you could even ask her to shuffle your music. Another big thing about Cortana on the desktop is that with the support of the developer, Cortana will be able to help you intercept in app commands just by saying it out loud. Again, this requires the developer to include support for Cortana through a dedicated API. 
Just remember that you do need a microphone to actually speak to Cortana
To give Cortana that added personality, you can add items to Cortana's Notebook and she will personalize cards based on your interest and display it through the main window. But what makes Cortana better than other Personal Assistant's out there is that Cortana will sync all this data to other devices. In case you missed it (ICYMI), Microsoft will be bringing Cortana to both Android and iOS devices by the years' end and that's a big deal as you can have your reminders go wherever you are. So,whether you are on your Windows 10 PC or out an about with your iPhone, Cortana is always there with you. Now this is something you can't do with any other Personal Assistant out there.
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Cortana is also a Windows 10
 expert

In practice, all of this works pretty well and Cortana's speech recognition on the desktop is just as good as it is on Windows Phone. Surprisingly, the "Hey Cortana" command works like a charm but I would personally still use the Windows Key + C button to ring up Cortana. On a side note, the Notebook and Reminders syncing is a big plus for me as it does also syncs data through the leaked Cortana app on Android.

Here is a little fun fact, Cortana is not only replacing the universal search feature on Windows 8, it is also taking over the F1 help command window. If you ever tried hitting F2 to rename a lot of files, chances are you would have accidentally hit the F1 key and a help window would appear. Instead of having that help index window, everything you would want to know is in built right into Cortana which is linked to the internet. Either Cortana will give you a direct solution or she'll show you applications or settings which you can toggle to complete the task.

Besides also living in the search bar on your taskbar, Cortana is also built right into the brand new Microsoft Edge browser and while she is not physically present, you can notice her presence through the address bar and also through the right click menu. However, all of this doesn't mean anything as Cortana is currently only available in the US, UK, and China as a Beta service. Microsoft plans to roll out alpha versions of Cortana to Germany, Italy, Spain, and France later this year through the Windows Insider program.

But in the meantime, you could always just change the locale of your computer to a country which supports it to take advantage of all the Cortana features on Windows 10.

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Cortana's advanced search feature will fine tune your results

User Interface

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The Windows 10 Hero image is made out of light
From the moment your start agreeing to all the terms during the initial setup, you can clearly see that Microsoft is bridging over what happened in Windows 8. No, there will not be a tutorial teaching you how to use the operating system when you first boot up Windows 10 but instead, you will be greeted with a fairly compact setup which includes agreeing to a couple of terms and optionally connect to the internet. Once that is done, you will be booted straight into the desktop with the new Windows 10 Hero image wallpaper.

Clicking through the various elements of the desktop, you will start to notice the subtle animations sliding in and out. If you focus a little, you will notice that the stock Windows tune has been altered to a subtle instrumental tone. Everything looks to be where it used to be and besides the Notification Center which slides in from the right, other menus on the taskbar popup vertically giving you that familiar look and feel. Beyond that, the AeroSnap feature introduced in Windows 7 has been given a big upgrade. With Windows 10, you could snap windows to either side like before but in Windows 10, the other half of the screen will be filled with a thumbnails of open applications.

Microsoft is calling this Snap Assist and I can tell you first hand, I just can't believe it took this long for someone to think of this. Besides snapping windows on both sides, in Windows 10 you can also snap windows to a particular quadrant of the screen. To do that, just drag the window to the specific corner you want it to be and viola, the window is on that corner. With the new snapping features, you would definitely want to learn some keyboard shortcuts to make life that easier. The keyboard shortcut for snapping windows is simply just the Windows Key + Arrow Keys.

Other than the improvements made to windows snapping, Windows 10 also comes with a brand new way "all apps view". Microsoft is calling this Task View and you can access it either through the button on the taskbar or through the Windows Key + Tab keyboard shortcut. Basically, Task View will show all the open apps in a systematic grid and this view is reminiscent of the Flip 3D view on Windows Vista (remember that cool 3D view of all your windows). From there, you can close applications, view open applications, close and open Virtual Desktops and move applications between Virtual Desktops. Additionally, Task View is not the same as the Alt + Tab window switching shortcut. They're essentially the same thing but Task View provides a clear view of all your open applications.
Snap Assist and Task View are more helpful than you think
That is not all as Task View is not only about showing all the open windows, it is also the place for you to manage all your Virtual Desktops. Like it's name already suggests, Virtual Desktops will enable you to have multiple desktops on a software level. The experience is a lot like having multiple desktops inside of one and if you have used Virtual Desktops on OSX, the experience here on Windows 10 is identical. You can access the Virtual Desktops through Task View and while each desktop is an empty canvas, you can move applications between the Virtual Desktops.

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Snap Assist in action, works with both Win32 and Windows Store applications

Task View gives you a live animated view of all your open applications

Moving and application into another Virtual Desktop is as simple as dragging it there

One thing to note is that while you could open as many virtual desktops as you like, you can only open one instance of some applications like Microsoft Edge at any given time. And to simplify things, you can also use the Ctrl + Windows Key + L/R Arrow Keys shortcut to quickly shift between the Virtual Desktops.

These new Interfacing methods might sound useless but when you start using Windows 10, you will start to love them especially if you are using Windows 10 on a laptop. On a small screen, things can quickly become messy and Virtual Desktops will solve that problem and when paired with the keyboard shortcut to quickly shift between Virtual Desktops, you will grow into a new workflow. Although these are fairly new concepts to Windows users, I don't think there is a steep learning curve to them because they are built upon existing Windows features.

Design

In terms of design, Windows 10 takes up the flat and shadow-less look from Windows 8 and integrates it to more parts of the operating system. This new design approach also includes new set of icons for just about everything and while these icons might not radically different, they have been modified to represent a new design language Microsoft is trying to embrace. Microsoft also went the extra mile by tweaking how open windows look like. No longer will you have that transparent-ish look from Windows 7 or the mixed-color look from Windows 8 as Windows 10 features a clean white look to windows and the action buttons (minimize, maximize and close) now bear a new look and have also been somewhat enlarged.

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Colors make the difference

But, Microsoft didn't just take away the colors from Windows 10, there is still an option to choose a system wide theme color. That chosen color will be used as the default color for transparent live tiles on the Start Menu and if you notice closely, the theme color will also be used as an outline for active windows. By itself, the outlines for active windows will be quite apparent as you continue using Windows 10 and my personal favorites is the stock Windows blue color and also the dark orange option. For now, you can only choose from a list of predetermined colors but expect to see new colors being added as the time goes by.

Microsoft is calling all of this as "Microsoft Design Language 2.0", quite cleverly name if you ask me. The new design language is the evolution of the Modern (Metro) UI design language from Windows 8. You can clearly see that Microsoft is trying to evolve existing designs by updating the system elements with updated iconography and the layout of applications have also changed in the quest to unify Windows 10 devices. The Charms bar as you know have disappeared from sight and since that is gone, the new design spec includes a "Hamburger menu" which is basically just a sliding tab on the far left of the application. Beyond that, the new design language also recommends developers to use standard desktop menus which pop up.

Applications

The Windows Store officially arrived in Windows 8 with an agenda to bring applications to devices with touchscreens. That certainly didn't turn out well as the Windows Store merely provided a narrow selection of applications which are not that popular and the fact that these applications ran in full screen mode instantly made it unusable as it takes away the productivity factor of desktop applications. Sure, you could snap applications side by side but the working canvas will be restricted to that part of the screen. Microsoft is solving this problem in Windows 10 by giving every Windows Store application their very own window which is resizable and acts just like your usual Win32 application.
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Besides also pushing a brand new look with Windows Store applications with the new Microsoft Design Language 2.0 which includes new interfacing guidelines, Microsoft is also overhauling the Windows Store itself to show applications in a systematical way. That includes throwing away the horizontal scrolling design from Windows 8 and implementing a standardized vertical scrolling view view. All the categories and labels still exists in the new Store app in Windows 10, it's just that everything is now laid out better and the Store app also includes sections for Music and Movies & TV opposed to just featuring applications.

For the Windows Store applications, Microsoft is pushing forward with a new ecosystem of applications called the Universal Windows Platform. Applications made with the UWP standard will work across all Windows 10 devices whether it is a smartphone or an XBOX. Besides also increasing the reach of Windows Store applications, the new UWP will also enable applications to work on the desktop as the spec includes a reflow design which intelligently changes the application layout depending on the window size.

However, while the plan for new Windows Store apps sound good, unless developers update their applications, it'll still remind users about the history of Windows 8 as the application will still use legacy Windows 8 action menus. But when it works, the UWP applications do blend in with other Win32 applications. Just take a look at the Groove Music, XBOX and settings app, they paint a Windows 10 future where applications works well with both a touchscreen and also a keyboard and mouse setup.

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How a Windows 8 application works in Windows 10, the Charms bar still exits...apparently 

The Settings and Groove Music app are good examples of Microsoft's new design language

As is there is about 500,000 (maybe more) applications on both the Windows Store and Windows Phone Store and moving forward, developers will be converging their applications into a single one. While big titles are still making it's way to Windows, Microsoft is committed to help developers to port their existing applications from other platforms into the UWP. For that, they have created tools to help developers bring Web, .Net & Win32, Android, and iOS applications to the Windows Store. The Candy Crush application is a living example as it was ported from iOS to Windows as a Universal application with the new Visual Studio tools.

While the Windows Store might not have signature applications like Google Inbox or Apple Music at it's present state, that doesn’t mean that they will never come to Windows. It's just a matter of time as Microsoft is heavily brewing up developer interest by showing them the proposition that their code for a single application will be able to reach a broad range of devices through the Universal Windows Platform.

Is this the end?

Microsoft has already made it clear that Windows 10 will be the last version of Windows as the company moves towards Windows as a service. This means that future version of Windows will be called Windows 10 and only the underlying version number will be update each time. With this new Windows as a service scheme, Microsoft will constantly innovate on features and will push out new updates all year long. And there are already reports that Microsoft is planning to release a new Redstone update which will come early next year.

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Windows 10 Build 10240
Additionally, Microsoft has expressed their willingness to continue the Windows Insider program and through that, users who opt to live on the bleeding edge will continue to receive preview builds which contain unreleased features. But as the build number steadily increases in the coming years, we are still not sure if Microsoft plans to charge users for upgrades in the future. That's a story for another day.

Conclusion

For the first time ever Microsoft is opening up the development of Windows to the public by giving Windows users the opportunity to raise their voice on what they actually want in Windows 10. This itself is a totally different way of developing an operating system and given that Microsoft is trying to make users love Windows, the Windows Insider program is definitely the way to go. It's safe to say that (almost) anyone running Windows 7 and 8.1 will be upgrading to Windows 10 as it brings back a lot of familiarity and there's even some new features which make sense in a productive workflow like the task view button and also Cortana. Technically there's no reason to reject this free upgrade as Windows 10 does support legacy hardware and the minimum specifications remain unchanged from Windows 7.

There is a lot that I love about Windows 10 but there is some things which I just can't stand. I would've ranted about it if Microsoft wasn't committed to updating the OS based on what the users say but this problem have certainly bugged me. And that is Microsoft has stripped the old OneDrive sync engine introduced in Windows 8. Previously, OneDrive came with something called Smart Folders which just saves a thumbnail of your folder and until you wanted to access it only will it download the file locally. This feature is good if you want to save your hard drive space especially when laptops nowadays come with 128GB of storage. Instead, the new OneDrive on Windows 10 just downloads all the files into your local storage.

The new pre-installed Phone Companion app will help you establish a connection with your smartphones
While Microsoft's goal for Windows 10 is not to reinvent the computer, they are certainly changing the way we think about Windows as an operating system. Consumers are beginning to accept the idea of touchscreens on a laptop. With this, I can wholeheartedly say that if you are not pleased with a feature on Windows 10, chances are a fix is coming your way in the near future. You've just gotta love Microsoft's current mindset of living in harmony with other platforms, they are not restricting you to only use their own platform and instead Microsoft wants you to enjoy their services across multiple devices running various operating systems. This should be the future of technology, companies should partnerships and bonds with each other not to get financial advantages but to benefit us as a consumer. 

Bottom line, Windows 10 is an excellent operating system that you should totally upgrade to and things will only get better in the future. Microsoft is embracing change and they have decidedly move from a future decided by employees to a future determined by the people who are using it. Sure, there might be some bugs and some parts of the operating system is still undecidedly incomplete, but the future is still bright for Windows 10.

Insider Talk (out of topic)

Interesting article, I don't usually write reviews of software but it is a fun challenge to take on. I initially had a hard time thinking of what to write since I have already been talking about Windows 10 in previous articles since Windows 10 was announced late last year. I ended up doing some free writing and then did edits another day and viola, my ideas start flowing out.

You do not want to read the un-edited version of this article. It's virtually a mess with all the wrong words being used and some funny ways that I explain about some articles. It like I was stuttering with my words.

In total this review took about 2 weeks to complete, I actually started compiling screenshots the day Build 10240 came out and only until last week that I started to write out some notes and started writing the actual article.

Funny thing was that I was editing this article while the OnePlus 2 launch was happening and that was a flustering moment as new was flying in and out and at that time I just woke up from a short sleep. Overall, I am quite pleased with how the article ended up being. I could've written a few more sections about the Notification Center and also the new lockscreen but personally I didn't have the chance to test out Windows Hello myself and the fact that this article is already over the usual limit of words.

I will try to cover more of the Windows 10 features in the coming weeks if I have the time. Hope you enjoyed this article.

Funny story about the header image, it was taken just before I was going to upload this review. Totally forgot to take a picture earlier. Quality isn't as good as I would have wanted it to be but it does have what I want. 

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