If you've used any previous version of Windows, you'll be right at home with Windows 10. The desktop is once again front and center, rather than being shoved off to the side like it was in Windows 8. The Start menu replaces the blocky Start screen from Windows 8, which was one of the many reasons that kept users from upgrading. Even Windows 8's modern apps got something new: They can actually be used in their own windows! Before, they were either full-screen or took up a vertical slice of your display.
After spending the past few years with Windows 8, using Windows 10 felt like being thrown back into the past -- but in a good way. I never quite got used to the way the last OS treated keyboards and mice as an afterthought, and I've heard the same from plenty of other Windows power users. So you can imagine how satisfying it was to feel a return to Windows 7 levels of desktop productivity. For example, when you tap the Windows key on your keyboard, the Start menu pops up immediately. In Windows 8, it took a bit longer for the Start screen to appear. So now the simple task of hitting the Windows key and immediately typing to search for something -- one of the things I do most often -- feels significantly improved.
It wasn't long until I was back in my familiar Windows groove, with a desktop filled with multiple applications, browser tabs and random windows, all in a sort of ordered chaos. Being able to use modern apps in traditional windows is transformative. I used to avoid those apps entirely in Windows 8 since they were really meant for full-screen use, and they always felt like a huge waste of space on my 24-inch monitor. Full-screen apps make sense for tablets, but not so much for laptops and desktops. Now that I can actually move and resize modern apps on a whim, they suddenly feel more useful. Windows 10 also supports multiple desktops right out of the box, something that you had to download separately in earlier versions.
Design wise, Microsoft stuck with the sharp corners and tile-like look it's been using since the debut of the Zune HD and Windows Phone, but there's also much more flair than Windows 7 and 8. The Start menu and settings menu (accessible by swiping in from the right side of the screen, or the notifications button in the system tray) feature a hint of transparency, while applications like the File Explorer are built out of clean lines and plenty of white space. The default dark theme felt a bit more mature than Windows 8, and you can also flip on an option that automatically pulls an accent color from your current desktop wallpaper. Overall, Windows 10 looks and feels modern yet welcoming, which is exactly the right balance Microsoft needs if it wants to appeal to everyone.
Start menu, we missed you
Like most of Windows 10, the Start menu's return should appease longtime fans and newcomers who are more used to Windows 8. It features your most-used applications (something resurrected from several Windows versions ago), and you can click through to get to all of your applications. But the bulk of the Start menu is made up of Live Tiles, those blocky icons Microsoft can't seem to get enough of. I didn't care for them much on the Windows 8 Start screen, but on Windows 10 they're more functional, especially since you don't need to completely leave your desktop to see them. Both the Live Tiles and the Start menu itself are customizable, so you can make them as small or as big as you'd like. At its largest, the menu is practically indistinguishable from the Windows 8 Start screen, but don't tell that to Windows 7 holdouts.
While it's a bit more work to find applications in the Start menu, I've honestly given up on the whole hunting and pecking thing. You're better off just hitting the Start button (or even better, the Windows key on your keyboard) and typing to bring up a specific program.
And what if you're the rare Windows 8 user who actually liked that Start screen? You can just switch over to that instead. Really, though, I'd suggest giving the new Start menu a shot, as it's far more useful than the Start screen in desktop mode.
Continuum makes Windows more than meets the eye
One of the best things about Windows 10 is its ability to transform itself from a touch-focused platform to traditional desktop platform easily. Microsoft calls that feature "Continuum," because of the seamless transition between different work environments. It's really meant for multi-function computers like the Surface, which can be both a tablet and laptop depending on which accessories are connected. But it could also be useful if you want to connect a keyboard and mouse to your Windows 10 tablet. The tablet mode simplifies the taskbar, makes every application full-screen and enables a Windows 8-style Start screen. Windows 10 can automatically switch interfaces when it detects your keyboard has been removed, or you can choose to make the swap manually from the settings menu.
Looking ahead, Continuum has the potential to completely change the way we compute. In early demos, Microsoft showed off how a Windows 10 phone can be plugged into an external monitor -- either wirelessly or with an HDMI dongle -- and display a desktop-like interface. That could be a fun way to distract kids with videos when you're on vacation, but in the future when our phones get even more powerful, it could have an even bigger impact. It could mean the end of lugging around laptops for some people.
While testing Windows 10 on a Surface Pro 3 over the past few months -- first with the preview builds and finally with the complete release -- I grew to appreciate Continuum as I moved between typical work tasks and more fun things, like reading digital comics with Comixology. It's certainly better than how Windows 8 handled the difference between tablets and traditional computers.
Cortana brings virtual assistants to the desktop
Okay, virtual assistants are nothing new these days, but Cortana brings plenty of notable features to Windows 10. While setting it up, you can choose to have Cortana always listen for your commands (enabled by saying "Hey Cortana!"). You can ask her about basic things like the current weather or what's on your schedule, or you could have her search the web using Bing. Cortana can answer some queries without even launching a web browser (you wouldn't believe how old Tom Cruise really is). If you're not a fan of voice commands, you can also type in queries into the Cortana search box on the taskbar, and you can choose to have her only activate voice commands when you hit a button.
If you're worried about having Cortana always listening for your commands, perhaps over latent fears about AI taking over the world, I'd suggest getting over it. Cortana's true strength, much like Alex on Amazon's Echo, is her ability to handle voice commands at any moment. If you're in the middle of a work document, for example, you can tell Cortana to set a quick reminder or look something up without interrupting your workflow. Siri requires manual activation, unless your iOS device is plugged in, and while Google Now has become more widely available for voice commands on Android phones, it's still not as reliable as an always-on assistant.
Inspired by actual assistants, Microsoft also gave Cortana a notebook that contains all of your personal preferences. Many of them she learns over time, but you can also hop straight into the notebook and tell Cortana things like your food preferences, and what sort of restaurant you prefer. All of that will help her return more personalized answers for future queries. Cortana is also part of Microsoft's plan to bring its services to all of your devices: Microsoft is bringing it to Android soon and iOS eventually, and in each case the app will include Cortana's notebook of your preferences.
Cortana handles voice commands about as well as Siri and Google Now. It's pretty accurate when it comes to recognizing your voice input (although that also depends heavily on the quality of your microphone), and in many cases it even fetched more useful results than Siri. It's not nearly as preemptive with information as Google's offering, though. That assistant is smart enough to warn me when I should leave for my next meeting, or when my latest Amazon orders have arrived. Those are things we'll eventually see on every virtual assistant, but at the moment Google Now remains the smartest one overall, even if it's not much of a conversationalist. Cortana is the most human-sounding assistant; so there's that.
Edge: Sayonara, Internet Explorer
If you ever wanted Microsoft to just give up on Internet Explorer and create a web browser from scratch, Edge may be just what you're looking for. It forgoes all of the legacy protocols, like ActiveX, that turned Internet Explorer into a slow and insecure beast. And it takes a few lessons from Google's Chrome with a minimalist style and speedy browser engine. In fact, I ended up preferring Edge to Chrome in my testing, mainly because Google's browser has become a major memory hog over the years.
Edge may be the most elegant piece of software to come from Microsoft. Its interface is simple: tabs on the top; back, forward and refresh buttons below; and an address bar. The latter is smarter than other browsers as it also features Cortana (without the voice commands). You can type in questions and often get them answered right within Edge's location bar -- no need to hit Enter to complete your search. That's something Google has been dabbling with in Chrome, but Edge takes it to another level.