Note – we originally published this Windows 10 feature earlier this month, but it’s now revised and expanded with new information to coincide with today’s release.
Windows 10 [official site] is out today. No, don’t ask about Windows 9. I’ve been running Insider builds of Microsoft’s new, we’re-so-sorry-about-Windows-8 OS for around a month now, which updated to the release version last week, so I reckon I can help you to decide whether you should or shouldn’t upgrade to it. And, indeed, how you can upgrade to it.
Here is the tldr take-home for you: I’m now running Windows 10 as my main and in fact only operating system on both my desktop and my laptop, and I don’t regret it. It’s a little more complicated than that, though. Always is, isn’t it?
A big part of the reason I don’t regret it is that I was running Windows 8.1 on both PCs prior to that, and despite the unconvincing protestations of the deathlessly faithful, Windows 8.1 was a mess. It was two different operating systems mashed together like some monstrous Star Trek teleporter accident, with a bare minimum of evident effort to meaningfully integrate the desktop and touch facets. Microsoft wanted to drag us into a touch-focused future whether we wanted to or not, because that’s where they (at the time) believed PCs were universally headed.
The problem was not that longstanding aspects of desktop Windows usage had been abandoned, or that touch elements were in there, but that they did so even on an entirely mouse-driven system. Learning something new and something counter-intuitive are not one and the same. You’d either find ways to work around this stuff or install third-party hardware, but for all bar a few willing Kool-Aid fans, it felt like a clunky compromise. It wasn’t that things had been changed, but that the changes were inefficient. What we want from an OS is efficiency as we task-switch and organise, not something that jumps up and shouts ‘look at me, haha all these bold colours and animated squares, what fun!’ every time you go looking for an application or setting.
‘Modern’ Apps still have a faintly childish look to them, aesthetically seeming teleported in from a different operating system entirely, but now they behave a little more like traditional applications, and you get a more traditional Start menu with which to access them or anything else. Microsoft hasn’t backed down on its belief that we want animated widgets all over the place, and my preferring to use assorted Google things or simply my phone to keep tabs on calendars and weather and whatnot means the large chunk of screen space on the right of the Start menu is essentially redundant, but each to their own. If you want to have a Start screen as Windows 8, that option’s still there (and is the default in the Tablet mode I’ll mention shortly), but again, for me, it just means acres of screen estate squandered on Live Tile widgets I simply don’t use, when all I really want is a quick list of applications. Still, it’s a big stride towards an OS which once again lets me use how I want to use it, rather than how one guy somewhere one day decided I should use it.
The simple fact of all the touchy and full-screen app stuff being dialled down and made optional if one so wished would probably have been enough to make Windows 10 feel like a relief, and a tidier environment. What, for me, makes it a success rather than simply a reverting-to-type recovery is how a touch ethos and a desktop have been truly integrated this time, although most of that simply won’t be apparent on a desktop or traditional laptop. If you don’t have or currently intend to buy any manner of hybrid laptop/tablet PC (or perhaps one of those faintly misjudged touchscreen all-in-one desktops) you can skip this best and resume reading where it says GAMES in big black letters.
I’ve got a Surface Pro 3. It’s a mostly lovely thing, bar its lousy cooling and attendant speed-throttling when it gets too hot, which is almost always. But whether I had it in tablet mode or laptop mode (by attaching the keyboard-adorned Type Cover), Windows 8.1 was Windows 8.1, which meant that ‘Modern’ apps such as Windows’ own Calendar, Mail and Calculator functions or stuff from the Store such as eBay and Twitter both looked and behaved entirely differently to traditional applications. What worked for touch didn’t work well with a mouse, what worked with a mouse didn’t work well with touch, and because I use very few of the Modern apps, half my time with the Surface in Tablet mode was spent trying and often failing to activate the Maximise button.
What Windows 10 does is have discrete Touch and Desktop modes; switching to the latter means it’s a little more forgiving/predictive about where you touch, and also that traditional applications behave, to some degree, like Modern or other Tablet-orientated applications. Everything is maximised and/or made fullscreen, whether it’s a browser window, your FTP program or Task Manager, so task-switching means whatever you flip taking up the whole screen rather than being just one window amongst many, which you’d then need to awkwardly drag around and resize. It works like a tablet application even if it’s not a tablet application, in other words, but if you don’t like that you can always switch back to Desktop mode even on a touch PC.
On the Surface Pro 3 specifically, there’s also an option to have it automatically switch between desktop and touch modes when you remove the cover (or fold it behind the device), which is about the closest Windows has ever come to actual magic. It just works. It’s wonderful, it works even with the most archaic of applications, and it feels like the future of laptops – this one device which is a PC when I want it to be a PC and a tablet when I want it to be a tablet, and vitally I don’t have to do any faffing to make that happen. Clearly the SP3 is not a cheap device (I got super-lucky on eBay), but this was, for me, the final nail in the coffin of ‘needing’ both a laptop and tablet. One device is the future, and Windows 10 makes that a whole lot more plausible.
(And then we’ll look at some of the inevitable silly-billy stuff too.)