Windows 10 review: The best Windows OS yet

It took Microsoft 30 years, but the new Start menu, Edge browser, apps and Cortana make Windows 10 the best Windows yet. Windows 10 is free for most people and offers plenty of new features and apps. We explore the new features and explain why they're worth having in our Windows 10 review. See also: How to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 10.

You can also check out our How to upgrade to Windows 10 guide and quick fixes for common problems after upgrading.

Update 25 July 2016: On 29 July 2016, the free upgrade to Windows 10 from Windows 7 and 8 ends. Be sure to make your decision to upgrade or remain before the free upgrade runs out. Also see: How to upgrade to Windows 10.

Update 12 May 2016: On 11 May, Microsoft received two new updates to Windows 10, which change the user experience. One is linked to Wi-Fi Sense being axed, the other to Edge browser finally receiving its much needed extensions.

Update 25 April 2016: Microsoft released two Windows 10 updates KB3147461 and KB3147458 in April 2016, which caused issues for a large portion of people running on these patched updates. We would therefore be cautious before hitting that update button. Furthermore, on 22 April 2016, Microsoft released its Insider Preview Build 14328, which incorporates many new features and functionalities. The full details can be found on Microsoft's blog.

Update 30 March 2016: At the Build developer conference, Microsoft announced that it will release an Anniversary Update for Windows 10 this summer. It will be free (and mandatory - you'll probably get the update automatically as with previous updates) add quite a few improvements, particularly to Cortana, Ink, Windows Hello and a way of linking your Windows product key with your Microsoft account. The update has been confirmed for 2 August, after the 29 July cut-off date for free Windows 10 upgrades.

Cortana will get new capabilities and seem smarter. If you have a Surface tablet with a Surface Pen, you'll be able to do a whole lot more with it. As well as scribbling reminders in the sticky notes app, you'll be able to draw more easily thanks to a virtual ruler that's much like the one Apple recently added to its Notes app in iOS 9.

Windows 10 Anniversary Update

MIcrosoft also demonstrated the ability to pick two points on a map with the Pen and quickly see the distance between them, plus directions. You can also annotate maps, share them with friends. Your annotated route will also "stick" to the map when you change to a 3D view.

Windows 10 Anniversary Update

A new "ink workspace" offers a dedicated place on the desktop where you'll see a list of recent as well as suggested pen-enabled apps in the Windows Store.

And talking of the store, the update will also come to the Xbox One and there will be just one app store across PCs and the Xbox. This will also bring Windows desktop apps to the Xbox.

Conversely, this Universal Windows Platform also benefits PC users: Turn 10 has recently announced that a version of Forza - Forza 6: Apex - will come to Windows 10 this summer, and it will be free to play.

Windows Hello already lets you log into your PC with your face or your fingerprint. In the update, the Edge will gain Windows Hello support meaning that you'll be able to log into websites the same way: no more remembering which email address, username or password you need each site.

Update 17 March 2016: At the Games Developers Conference, Microsoft announced that later this summer the Xbox One will be able to run apps built on the UWP (Universal Windows Platform). So, after what seems like years, it's getting closer to the point where the app stores on Windows 10 and the Xbox One will merge. Windows 10 users should also gain the ability to run Xbox-exclusive games, which will be a boon for those who don't actually own the console, but want to play those games, such as Forza 6 and Halo, on their PC. Sceptics have said the UWP is simply to get developers to make their apps work on the woefully under-stocked store on Windows Phone, but it appears there's a lot more to it. For one thing, you'll be able to save game progress between your Windows 10 devices and Xbox One, and Microsoft also announced this week that it's going to open up the UWP to enable multiplayer games which not only work across Xbox One and Windows 10, but also PlayStation 4. That's great news for gamers.

Windows 10 review: what is Windows 10?

Microsoft in late 2014 took the wraps off the Technical Preview of its next Windows operating system, and in doing so it took everyone by surprise. We expected the next generation of Windows: we just didn't expect it to be called Windows 10. None the less here is Windows 10: the next Windows OS for PCs and laptops, smartphones and tablets. And, indeed, an OS for servers and all points inbetween.

Microsoft said that Windows 10 is built from the ground up for a world in which mobile- and cloud computing are key. Execs from the company said it was committed to making Windows 10 friendly for the enterprise, ideal for keyboard and mouse users, but also optimised for touch. Oh, and Windows 10 will put the same interface on devices with displays ranging in size from 4in to 80in. 'One product family, one platform, one store,' said Microsoft. 

Given the lukewarm reaction to compromised Windows 8, these seem like bold claims. They are necessary, though.Also necessary is Microsoft's decision to make Windows 10 the most beta-tested product it has ever released. Windows 10 was tested by over 4 million people around the world before its launch.

That doesn't mean it's perfect - indeed some people won't like the privacy issues (see far below) or the forced updates. Others won't like the new Start menu or the fact that there's now both a Control Panel and separate Settings app. But these won't be issues for most people - minor gripes at worst - and the improvements, new apps and new features make it well worth upgrading. For more detail on this, see: Should I upgrade to Windows 10?

UPDATE 25 February 16: Microsoft has announced it will acquire Xamarin. You've probably never heard of that company, but it's important because it will allow developers to more easily produce apps which will run on Windows (and Windows 10 mobile) in addition to iOS and Android. Back in 2014, Microsoft boasted of the Universal Windows Platform which meant apps would run on everything from a phone to a full-size PC (and beyond - including the Xbox One). However, that's hardly universal if you're a developer writing apps for iOS and Android.

The death knell has been sounding for Windows phone for a while now, but several Windows 10 mobile devices were launched at MWC so the platform isn't dead just yet.

Windows 10 review: what's new

Critically the Start Menu is back. It contains standard Windows software and Windows apps. Modern UI apps, as they used to be called. Or Metro apps, if you want to go right back to the beginning.

But this time the Start menu is improved, and it may even make Windows apps useful. Look to the left and you'll see a list of your most-used apps, just as in Windows 7. At the bottom we see an 'All apps' shortcut, plus shortcuts to File Explorer, Settings and – conveniently – shut down and standby.

Windows 10 review

And Microsoft has retained the functionality of the Windows 8 Start screen over on the right, with resizable Live Tiles so that you can immediately check unread mail or Calendar appointments. The Start Menu is customisable - you can resize it, and rearrange the tiles, create groups of tiles, and you can also revert to the Windows 8 Start Screen, should you wish to.

The full-screen start menu is really meant for tablet use, where it makes most sense, but you can choose to use it on a PC or laptop without a touchscreen if you like.

We're fans of the tile concept, if not the inelegance with which they're currently presented. As with Windows Phone, it's what you can pin that matters. Instead of merely adding shortcuts to apps, you can pin tiles which are shortcuts to specific functions or features within apps.

This makes life a lot more convenient when you begin pinning the right stuff. For example, you could pin a particular email or conversation thread from Mail or Facebook, or pin a certain journey (your commute, typically) in a travel app. It saves a lot of time, believe us.

Windows 10 review: search and Cortana

Instead of placing a search box in the Start menu, or hiding it completely as is the case in Windows 8, Windows 10 sticks it front and centre on the Taskbar. This is a smart move, as it’s always there ready to serve up whatever you need to find or what to know.

The first time you click on the box, you’ll see a prompt to enable Cortana. That’s because Cortana and search are pretty much one and the same in Windows 10. In fact, search is just part of the virtual assistant’s remit.

If you’ve ever used a phone running Windows Phone 8, you’ll probably know Cortana already. The beauty is that you can type or talk to her and it’s the same in Windows 10. It’s much faster to tap the microphone button (or even say, “Hey Cortana”) and reel off your request than to type it.

Windows 10 review

Sticking with search for a minute, you can type in a single word and Windows 10 will return a list of matching apps, settings and files, plus apps in the Windows store. It will also show a list of web results.

But there’s lots more you can do, as all the features from Windows Phone are now in Windows 10. So you can type or ask, “What’s the weather going to be like this weekend?” and Cortana will display a forecast.

You can also say “Remind me to fill in my tax return tomorrow night” and you’ll get a reminder at the appropriate time. Reminders go even further, as Cortana can tie them to people and places. So you can also say “Remind me to ask James about that money he owes me” and Cortana will ask whether you want to be reminded at a specific time or place.

For places, you can say “Remind me to get milk and bread when I get to Tesco” or “Remind me to water the plants when I get home”.

Cortana will show the top news stories, identify music playing and has a ‘Daily Glance’ which displays a summary of your meetings, today’s weather, information about your daily commute, sports scores and more. If you allow it, Cortana can access information from emails, such as flight numbers and warn you if there’s a delay or if there’s heavy traffic on the way to the airport and you need to leave earlier than you might have.

If Cortana can’t answer a question directly, it will launch the new Edge browser and display search results.

Finally, Cortana can set alarms, record notes, play specific music, launch apps and give you directions on a map. We think Cortana is great, and one of Windows 10’s biggest draws. Learn how to use her capabilities, and you’ll sure to be more productive.

Returning to search and staying with the productivity theme, Windows 10 makes it easier to find your recently used files and frequently visited folders. This is because File Explorer replaces the Favourites section in the left-hand pane with Quick Access.

This makes finding files you've worked on faster and easier, without having to manually pin things to the Taskbar or add folders to the Favourites section manually. It also means you don't have to use the 'last modified' column to sort and find that file you just downloaded or edited yesterday.

Windows 10 review: Task View, virtual desktops, Alt-Tab

To the right of the search box you’ll notice an unfamiliar icon. Click it and Task View will open. It’s a lot like the view you get in Windows 7 or 8 when you press Alt+Tab. You can still use Alt+Tab in Windows 10 but the shortcut for Task View is Win+Tab.

Along the bottom of the screen, beneath the app thumbnails is a new bar showing virtual desktops. This is a feature many Windows users have hankered after, but been forced to resort to third-party software such as Dexpot in previous versions of the OS.

Now in Windows 10, you can create virtual desktops right out of the box. It’s a simple case of clicking the Add desktop button and you’ve got a new, blank desktop on which to launch apps.

Windows 10 review

Then you can quickly flip between desktops using Ctrl+Win+left cursor or Ctrl+Win+right cursor. This is much faster than using Alt+Tab and trying to find one Word document from 20 open windows.

What’s important to note is that unlike in Windows 8.1 you can use the new-style apps from within the Desktop area. This removes some of the pointless division in Windows on X86 systems. It also helps Microsoft make good on its claim that Windows 10 will feel familiar to Windows 7 users.

Windows 10 review: Snap Assist and windowed apps

Unlike in Windows 8 - where a snapped app takes up half the screen - with Windows 10 up to four apps can be snapped per screen, each occupying a quarter. When you’ve snapped an app, Snap Assist will display an Al+Tab view of some of the remaining open apps so you can quickly fill the entire screen.

You can still snap apps to fill the whole screen, or the left- or right-hand side, and the same shortcuts apply as with Windows 7 and 8.

Windows 10 review

(See also: Latest Windows 10 screenshots) 

Windows 10 review: Notifications

Although Windows 8 had pop-up notifications, things are much better in Windows 10. There’s the equivalent of Windows Phone 8’s Action Centre, complete with toggle buttons for common settings.

If you miss a pop-up notification – they appear in the bottom-right corner – you can swipe in from the right on a touchscreen to display the Notifications bar. Like most similar systems, it divides notifications by app and you can clear them individually or in one fell swoop, the latter being one feature frustratingly absent in iOS.

Buttons at the bottom of the bar include toggles for tablet and desktop mode, brightness, battery saver mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, rotation lock, location, flight mode and more. You can expand or collapse the menu depending on how much room you want it to occupy.

Windows 10 review: Apps

Microsoft Edge

Update 12 May 2016: On 11 May 2016, Microsoft announced it will be bringing Edge browser extensions via its release build 14342 - a feature that's long been needed. Now to install extensions you won't have to go through a tedious process to have it included in your browser. The update also brings web notifications to Windows 10, meaning you can now have Facebook notify you through the Action Center if you've received a new message.

There's a new web browser in Windows 10, and it offers some unique features. As well as the reading mode you may already be familiar with from other browsers, which strips away page furniture so you can focus on the content, there's a new annotation feature which lets you highlight things and add notes and crop to a certain area of the page before sending them to others.

Having these capabilities natively in the browser is a compelling reason to use it over Google Chrome or Firefox. It has also been a decent performer in our testing.

Edge has been designed to have a minimal interface, leaving as much screen real estate as possible for web pages: the whole reason you’re using a browser is to view them, of course.

Windows 10 preview review

Windows Media Centre - gone

Some may mourn the loss of Windows Media Centre in Windows 10, which was the built-in application for video, music and photos. It could handle built-in TV tuners and play DVDs, but these days few laptops (and no tablets) come with optical drives for playing video discs anyway.

If you have a media centre PC which relies on Media Centre for watching and recording TV, then you're probably best off sticking with Windows 7 or 8. This affects so few people, though, that it's not a major black mark for Windows 10

Music, Movies & TV

You do get media playback apps, of course. Instead of the Xbox branding which proved a little confusing in Windows 8, the apps are simply called Music and Movies & TV.

The Music app combines your local music with any stored online in your OneDrive Music folder. Plus, it also integrates Microsoft’s music streaming service called Groove – formerly Xbox Music - which you can access by buying a Music Pass. This (currently) costs £8.99 per month, or £89.90 for an annual subscription, making it a bit cheaper than Apple and Spotify’s alternatives.

Windows 10 review

The Movies & TV app lets you buy or rent videos from the new Microsoft Store but, like Apple, Microsoft currently lacks a streaming service to rival Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video. The app is split into three sections: Movies, TV and Videos, the latter of which monitors your Videos folder and shows them in the same easy-to-use interface.

Windows 10 review

Photos

Photos has been updated but will be familiar to Windows 8 users. The old Windows Photo Viewer is still there if you prefer, and you’re prompted to choose a default app the first time you open a JPEG. It’s worth using the Photos app, however, as in addition to a decent viewing interface, it also lets you edit photos and pulls in photos from your OneDrive.

Windows 10 review

Skype

It's a surprise that Skype isn't pre-installed, now that it’s owned by Microsoft. Instead there's a Skype advert in the start menu which takes you to the store where you can download it for free.

Mail + Calendar

While Office isn’t included – it was only ever bundled with Windows RT – you do get the Mail and Calendar apps.

Mail is a clean-looking email client which has the ability to handle multiple emails accounts including Outlook.com, Google, iCloud and Exchange (plus pretty much anything else, as long as you can configure the settings yourself).

Windows 10 review

OneNote

OneNote is also part of Windows 10. If you haven’t used it, you should certainly try it out. It’s a powerful Evernote-style app which lets you create notes that are a mixture of text, lists, images, maps and more. Again, OneDrive integration means that you can access your stuff from other devices – even if it’s an Android or iPhone.

Maps

Maps has been improved too. Microsoft has added Streetside – the equivalent of Google’s Street View – so you can take virtual tours of places, as well as getting directions and finding nearby places of interest. For directions, you can choose driving, walking or public transport.

Windows 10 review

Windows 10 review: The bad stuff

Settings / Control Panel

We like the new simplified Settings app, but we had hoped it would replace Control Panel. Confusingly, both are present in Windows 10 and it isn't always obvious which one you need to use to access or change a particular setting or feature. It would be far better if all of Control Panel's features could be migrated the Settings app.

Forced updates

It's hard not to think of the release version of Windows 10 as the final and finished version. But it isn't. It's really the first version. Microsoft will issue regular updates just as it always has. Only this time it's different. You won't find an option in Windows 10 Home, for example, to turn off updates. That's right: updates are now mandatory.

Updates contain drivers as well as security (and non-security-related) patches, which worries some people. A broken Nvidia driver has already caused problems for some users running the Insider version of Windows prior to 29 July. No doubt Microsoft will figure out the best way to deal with this, as it won't want millions upon millions of Windows users complaining when an update breaks all their machines in one fell swoop.

There are benefits to forced updates, though. Vulnerabilities and security holes will be addressed and patched on all Windows 10 machines (aside from Enterprise versions) at the same time, and people won't be running vulnerable 6-year-old versions of Internet Explorer.

Privacy

Update 12 May 2016: Wi-Fi sense was a cool little feature which allowed you to share your Wi-Fi passwords with your contacts. The feature wasn't fully adopted by Windows 10 users and also caused some people to worry about their computer's security. Microsoft and thus cut-out the feature completely from its operating system as Microsoft said it wasn't used by many and cost quite a lot to maintain.

Much has been made of the 'spyware' and privacy issues in Windows 10, and rightly so. Windows 10 is the most connected, cloud-focused OS Microsoft has released and - for the most part - this is a good thing. Using a Microsoft account instead of a local account, for example, means your settings, wallpaper, start menu configuration and other things can be synced across all your devices - even to your Windows phone.

Cortana, one of the best new features, needs to access personal data - emails, location etc - if you want to use its full capabilities. Plus, OneDrive integration means your files are accessible from any computer, tablet or phone.

But negating these advantages is the issue of privacy. In Microsoft's 12,000-word EULA is the following:

"Finally, we will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary to: 1.comply with applicable law or respond to valid legal process, including from law enforcement or other government agencies; 2.protect our customers, for example to prevent spam or attempts to defraud users of the services, or to help prevent the loss of life or serious injury of anyone; 3.operate and maintain the security of our services, including to prevent or stop an attack on our computer systems or networks; or 4.protect the rights or property of Microsoft, including enforcing the terms governing the use of the services – however, if we receive information indicating that someone is using our services to traffic in stolen intellectual or physical property of Microsoft, we will not inspect a customer’s private content ourselves, but we may refer the matter to law enforcement."

That may sound worrying, but the good news is that you can opt out of most features and keep your privacy in Windows 10. To do this, fire up the Settings app and go to Privacy and trawl through all the settings, turning off anything you don't like. Disabling Cortana is a bit more extreme but is a quick way to boost privacy and you don't have to use OneDrive - decline the prompts to set it up when you see them.

You can choose to use a local account instead of a Microsoft account, and if you use Microsoft Edge, you can set privacy options online to disable personalised ads and ad tracking.

We'd prefer all these settings to be off by default, of course.

Windows 10: Specs

  • Windows capable PC and web connection
  • membership of Windows Insider Program
  • Windows capable PC and web connection
  • membership of Windows Insider Program

OUR VERDICT

For the majority of home users, Windows 10 is free and this means that there’s really no reason not to upgrade. Unless there’s a specific feature in Windows 7 or Windows 10 that you can’t live without then the new features combined with the familiarity of Windows 7 make the new OS very attractive. It’s even better if you have several devices which can run Windows 10 – particularly a phone – as the tight integration means you can set reminders on the go and pick them up on your PC, say, when you get home or into the office. That’s just one tiny example, of course. If you use OneDrive to store your music, photos, videos, notes and documents, you’ll be able to easily access them from anywhere: the online web app has improved a lot since the early days. The bottom line is that Windows 10 is a great operating system. Indeed it’s fair to say even at this early stage that it’s the best Windows yet. It’s not perfect, of course, and there will undoubtedly be bugs that need fixing, so expect patches and updates very soon.