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.)
Clearly there are any number of under-the-hood changes in Windows 10, but you don't have to look far to see strong evidence of a Windows 7 and 8 foundation, and that's also apparent in games' compatibility and performance. DirectX 12 is now part of the Insider builds (available to all Win 7 or 8 users), but without any DirectX 12 games there's nothing I can tell you. I can load up DXDIAG and see that it says DirectX 12 there and then feel vaguely pleased with myself, but that's it for now. As for performance, I haven't run benchmarks, primarily because 10 is now the only OS on my PC, but any DirectX 9/10/11 game I've tried runs to all intents and purposes at the same speed as it did on Windows 8. It may well be that a few frames are missing here and there, but if they are I can't notice a slowdown with the bare eye.
As for compatibility, I'm afraid you can shelve any hopes of restored native support for all DOS games, but attempts to run games of multiple ages were otherwise entirely successful. Quake III, Far Cry, Deus Ex, The Witcher 3, Her Story, Chaos Reborn, DOSbox-powered X-COM and Ultimate Doom - all these things and more ran without a hitch. The sole exception was Batman: Arkham Knight, which threw up a long list of frightening error messages whenever I try to launch it, and a reinstall didn't help. Eventually I established that its savegame folder had for some reason been rendered admin-access only as part of the Windows 10 upgrade process, which I suspect is more a Microsfot issue than a Warner one. In any event Arkham Knight is, of course, something of a special case, so I'm not going to worry about that too much right now, though given it was billed as being one of the first made-for-Windows-10 games, it's yet more egg on Bats' already albumen-drenched face. It's working now, anyway, though I wasted a bunch of time, and discovered that Windows' file/folder ownership settings haven't become any less opaque in this move to fancy whizzbang.
Also in there is the Xbox app. I don't have an Xbone to test the streaming-console-games-to-your-PC stuff, but in selected modern games - so far just Arkham Knight and Witcher 3 - it's popping up options to record footage and bother Xbox Live friends. I haven't gone deep into that stuff because I don't need it, but frankly having one more overlay on top of Steam's isn't ideal, and I suspect it's going to suffer for that.
I suspect Steam will introduce recording before too long too, rendering Windows' own stuff almost entirely redundant to non-Xboners. It doesn't help matters that it looks like a third operating system is in the mix now too, but it doesn't look ugly and it has a bunch of options, so don't fear that it's suddenly making Windows look all Xboxy, at least.
The much-vaunted Cortana search assistant - which can use words or voice - I've yet to find at all useful. It's clearly there just to try and reduce our reliance on Google for both search and notifications, but Cortana and Bing just aren't remarkable enough to interrupt my inertia there. Edge, the replacement for Internet Explorer, seems a whole lot neater and faster, but similarly doesn't do anything which makes me want to stop using Chrome - particularly because, at present, it doesn’t support plugins. Expect pop-up hell any time you try to ramble beyond the internet’s safest terrain. Given Edge has launched in such a bareboned state, I suspect ships have sailed by this point and I’m unlikely to relocate to it from Chrome. If I do want a change, though, Edge does mercifully seem to lack the fundamental Internet Exploreriness of Internet Explorer, and I wouldn't actually object to it. I also note that it taxes the CPU on my laptop less, so I have used it on occasion when notice battery life is getting short.
Now for a few bugbears. A new Windows wouldn't be a news Windows without at least a few hilariously counter-intuitive changes, and 10 is no exception. Take, for instance, that key controls for screen brightness, wifi and tablet mode are accessed under a button on the taskbar marked 'Notifications', which looks like a text message icon. Or that screen brightness (on a laptop or all-in-one) can only be changed in 25% increments, with the bedtime reading-essential 0% not an option from this 'quick' control, and the full slider not available unless you go Start - Settings - System - Display. Or that half your settings are in the Modern-styled Settings app and half of them in Control Panel, which still looks like Control Panel has forever. Or these two very similar icons on the Start Screen:
One brings up all your applications, the other Windows' own selection of them, plus Settings and Power icons. It's less of an issue on desktop unless you specifically choose to have the Start Screen instead of Start Menu, and admittedly I'm quite stupid, but on my Surface I keep forgetting which one's which and growling when I have to back out to find my applications or the settings icon or whatever. Why do the two icons have to be so damned similar? How did that get OKed? It's like the Notifications button containing things which are not, in fact, Notifications: it's like they just gave up on logical presentation at some point.
Additionally, even when you do hit All Apps (on either the Start Screen or Start Menu) it chokes them into this maddeningly tiny column on the left hand side of the screen, because it does not want you to stop looking at all those purposeless Live Tiles for even a moment. There are various small d'ohs like this scattered around, signs of the too many cooks mentality which seems to have handicapped Windows time and again, but it's less overt than in 8 or Vista.
I’ve also been experiencing enormous problems with OneDrive, Microsoft’s rival to Google Drive and iCloud. Now entirely integrated into the OS, it grants you a small chunk of cloud storage which you can access from any device. Windows takes any opportunity it can find to try and save files into OneDrive by default, which is an irritation - but more than that, I don’t trust OneDrive. I’ve had it fail to sync any number of times, and on my main PC there’s some issue where folder ownership of both my OneDrive directory and My Documents keeps being taken away from me.
This, in hindsight, is almost certainly what caused the aforementioned Arkham Knight issue - I’ve had other games throw a wobbly because they can’t save, as a result of Windows locking up My Documents. For a time I’d have to manually click on My Documents (and My Pictures too) every time the PC started, which popped up a little prompt offering access and leading to a short wait as Windows rewrote permissions.
OneDrive, meanwhile, needed reconfiguring and a full resync every boot because it couldn’t get into its own folders. Useless. It was only when I gave up on OneDrive entirely, leaving it permanently signed out, did I notice that there were no more problems with My Documents. I’ve seen others report similar issues and missing files, so I’m staying the hell away until I hear news of a major fix. Truth be told I don’t need OneDrive though, so it’s annoyance rather than loss at this stage.
The controversial WiFi Sense feature, which shares your wifi passwords with Skype, Facebook and Outlook contacts and can lead to said passwords being passed onto the PCs of folk you don't know if you don't keep tabs on it, also strikes me as Windows 10 getting a bit of ahead itself. We'll see how that shakes out over time, however.
Next page: Conclusions, and how to update to Windows 10
All told though, I'm much happier. Windows 10 exists in the background a little more than 8, and bar niggles it's so much more coherent. I don't have any real sense as yet that it'll affect my gaming in any way, though the Xbox app does suggest more than just lip service to games support, even though it seems as though it might be redundant from day one. The most overtly visual aspects of the UI - i.e. the taskbar and Windows Explorer look fresh but subtle, and while the 'flat' icon style is very much keeping up with Apple and Android Joneses', it doesn't feel as though it wants to be OSX rather than Windows.
As an upgrade from Windows 8, it's a no-brainer: it's neater and it doesn't require any unlearning. As an upgrade from Windows 7, it's fresher-feeling but far less essential for traditional desktop use. It's probably worth upgrading for the sake of it, as bar a confusing split between the modern Settings and olde worlde Control Panel, there aren't any enormous or bewildering trade-offs now and stuff like improved window arrangement and Virtual Desktops may be useful if, like me, you have a bazillion applications running at any one time.
If, however, you're running some manner of touchscreen PC, this is the best Windows has ever been for that stuff. It's transformed my Surface, and I'm very much down with that being the future of laptops.
Famously, you're entitled to a free upgrade to Windows 10 so long as you're running Windows 7 or 8 and do it before the end of next July. The OS launches today, and in my experience of the Insider builds, the upgrade no longer removes most of your applications during the process. After a 30 minute wait or so you should be presented with all your stuff stuff as-was. It may be that you aren’t given the option to upgrade for a few days - Microsoft is rolling it out in stages, which though perhaps understandable given server loads, does strike me as undermining their own launch day. Look out for an icon on your taskbar alerting you that the upgrade’s available though. You may be able to hurry things along by ‘reserving’ your update here or alternatively you can force the issue by manually downloading the OS and writing it to a flash drive.
There's an easier and quicker method than that, but it doesn’t appear to work for everyone. Reportedly you can trigger the update process within Windows 7 or 8 by opening a command prompt with admin access (type ‘cmd’ into your start menu/screen, right click on Command Prompt and select ‘run as admin’) then typing wuauclt.exe /updatenow and hitting enter. Wait a couple of minutes and things might just start happening. You can also try going to Windows Update and manually checking for updates after doing this.
I’ve been running the Insider builds for several weeks ahead of launch, and even before it updated to the Release To Manufacture version last week, these builds recently proved stable enough that I erased my fallback Windows 8 partition without regret. There's no going back now, and nor do I wish to go back. Yes, if you're not using a hybrid tablet/laptop Windows 10 is more about fixing what was broken than pushing things forwards, and yes Modern and traditional applications still look and feel a little at odds with each other, but it's a worthwhile update, a clear admission that Microsoft got it wrong last time, and the touchy stuff is still available if you want it. Gaming - specifically DirectX 12 - is still very much TBC until DX12 titles are released (or DX11 titles blessed with a major update) but importantly I can't see any signs of trouble right now. So far launch day hasn’t brought any new updates, but there have been a few security fixes over the past couple of weeks. Fingers crossed, MS seem pretty on the ball with that stuff so far.
So: should you upgrade to Windows 10? Yes, basically. There are a few unknowns still, especially in terms of gaming, but I haven’t so much as entertained the idea of going back to Windows 8 or 7. Don't expect to be especially excited, but do expect to feel far more comfortable.