Like your favorite jeans after a wash, Windows 10 feels fresh but familiar

The return of the Start menu is great, but this early build of Windows 10 has a long way to go before it blossoms into a swan. Right now, it’s an awkward duckling, but with promise.

With a revived and refreshed Start menu, the ability to run Metro apps from the desktop, and more long-requested features, Windows 10 promises to return PC users to the features they knew and loved before Windows 8.

But does it deliver? We just got our first taste to find out.

This morning, Microsoft pushed out its Windows 10 Technical Preview to let geeks poke, prod, and critique its fledgling operating system. We spent some quality time with the preview to find out if the golden days of Windows 7 are back, or whether hardcore users should prepare to sit the next upgrade out – again. Here’s what we discovered.

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This article was updated on Jan. 23 to reflect changes made to the latest Windows 10 Technical Preview.  

Start menu returns

As soon as we got Windows 10 up and running, we had to play around with the Start menu. Just click on the Windows icon in the bottom left corner of the desktop, and it will pop up like the old one did. It feels like a reunion between a boy and his lost dog. The experience is fresh, yet familiar at the same time.

RelatedHow to download the Windows 10 Technical Preview for free

Commonly used apps populate the Start screen’s initial menu, which you can remove by right-clicking on them, and hitting “Remove from this list.” To scroll through all your apps, click “All Apps” above the text-based search bar. As with Windows 8’s tiled Start screen, you can also pin stuff from the Start menu to the taskbar, and to the Start menu itself by clicking “Pin to Start” after right-clicking on whatever you want to pin. Once you pin something, it will appear to the right of the Start menu.

Windows 10 Start Menu
Digital Trends

To the right of the app list are tiles exactly like those on the Start screen. They can be moved and resized, but certain tiles (like those that correspond with Metro apps) have more sizing options than others. Like in Windows 8, certain Metro apps have Live Tiles, which scroll information related to the app across them. In other words, the right of the new Start menu is very reminiscent of the Windows 8 Start screen, but because it’s part of the Start menu, and doesn’t force you to switch between two UIs like Windows 8 does, the experience isn’t headache-inducing.

By default, the Start menu takes up small part of the lower left-hand corner. Microsoft has added a full-screen view, however, which is activated with the press of a menu button. This is primarily intended for small, hybrid devices like 2-in-1 notebooks. On these machines, the standard Start menu icons can be too small for easy touch use.

Cortana is here to help. Or will be.

Basic search works just like in Windows 7. By pressing the Windows key on your keyboard, you can pull up the Start menu, and just start typing away. Results will be pulled up from multiple places, including your PC, the Windows Store, and the Internet, much like the Windows 8 Start screen.

Cortana augments search by providing the option to interact with your PC through voice. Microsoft has grand plans for this feature and in demos has shown it scheduling appointments, finding directions and searching the web. Think of it as Siri for your PC, and then some.

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At this very moment, however, Cortana’s functionality is limited. It’s largely relegated to the role of voice-activated search function. Asking it to “find places to order pizza” merely opens Bing with a list of nearby restaurants. None of the cross-application features appear to be working, which makes sense, as many of the new Windows 10 apps intended to work alongside Cortana aren’t yet in the latest build. The text-based interaction shown by Microsoft also appears non-functional for the time being, so voice is the only way to make Cortana respond.

But respond it does. Cortana easily picks up the “Hey Cortana,” prompt. Speak loudly enough and you can interact with it from across your kitchen or living room. It’s fast. Perhaps too fast, as a few moments of hesitation can result in Cortana picking up only a portion of the desired input or shutting down in belief there was nothing to hear.

Another control panel alternative

Windows 8.1 confused many users by introducing a “settings” section of the Metro interface that was mostly redundant with the Control Panel, and could not be accessed as a window. To fix this Microsoft has introduced a new Settings app in Windows 10.

This too is redundant with Control Panel, which Microsoft says will continue for legacy applications, but unlike the old Settings view, this new option offers access to virtually all Windows features. The interface is also built to better accommodate desktop users without sacrificing touch usability. It’s a Metro application, which in Windows 10 means it can run in a window, but it’s also usable in full-screen mode with a small-screen tablet.

Windows 10 Action Center

Settings goes hand-in-hand with the new Action Center, which appears along the right side of the screen and replaces the previous, smaller interface known by the same name. The new Action Center design combines notifications and quick Settings access into one package. Desktop users may find it a bit wasteful in terms of space, but it’s a step in the right direction, and is certainly far less distracting then the Charms Bar in Windows 8.1.

The Connect pane, a new part of the Action Center, deserves particular mention. Microsoft intends it as an all-in-one manager for wireless video and audio devices that use Bluetooth or Miracast. As with both Settings and Action Center, the main benefit of this new interface is the way it better integrates with the desktop experience while maintaining touchscreen usability.

Entering the Continuum 

One of the most important features new to Windows 10 is Continuum, Microsoft’s attempt to make switching from desktop to tablet, or vice-versa, simple. This is enabled by the way Metro apps work in Windows 10: Any Metro app should be equally at home in full-screen view, or a tiny window consuming just a sliver of the desktop. One tap (or click) switches all open apps between windowed and full-screen view.

In fact, Continuum works with just about anything, including desktop apps. Filling a desktop full of open windows doesn’t seem to confuse the switch, nor does it make the process slower. The currently active window always takes priority when moving from one view to another.

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There are some rough edges. The screen flickers during the switch with certain applications or browser content, there’s no way to customize which applications switch when Continuum is triggered, and it’d be nice to see a different way to activate it besides through Action Center. Still, we can see where Microsoft is going with this.

A buffet of tasty new apps, with more on the way

Microsoft intends to revamp a number of its bundled applications in Windows 10, but only some are available in the preview. These include Photos, Maps and Xbox.

The new Photos app is completely unlike the one before it. It abandons touch-centric design and instead, like most of Windows 10, seeks a compromise. At this stage the design isn’t attractive, but it is functional, and the application does a great job of pulling in photos from OneDrive for easy sharing. Reportedly, this will be available on Windows 10 phones just as it is on the desktop, but we won’t know that until the preview for phones is available in February.

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Another major addition is the Xbox app. Though it too is an early edition, we were impressed by how polished it looks. The app can be used to view achievements, add or remove friends, communicate with buddies and even purchase games (for Windows, not Xbox – so far). Achievement hunters will adore this feature.

The Maps app has also been updated, we’re told. However, so far we’ve had trouble installing it on our test system, as the Store seems to think our test rig (a massively powerful system from Falcon Northwest) lacks the required hardware.

New Store, not like the old Store

The way you download and purchase apps has been updated, too, with a revised version of the Windows Store which is currently listed as Store (Beta) in Windows 10. It offers the same selection as the regular store, but it looks much different. Unlike the version in Windows 8.1, which relies on collections of tiles, the Beta update is formatted much like a web page. It actually offers less information on screen at once, but better distinguishes the various content on display.

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We must say, though, that a simple re-skin isn’t going to fix the problems with Microsoft’s storefront. From the beginning it has been plagued with junkware and has failed to provide a compelling reason to use it instead of downloading software the old fashioned way. A number of attempts have been made to improve overall app quality, with moderate success, but there remains a lack of exceptional Store-exclusive apps. The Windows Store still needs a lot of work.

Windowed Metro apps in Windows 8

As promised, Metro apps now run in windowed mode in Windows 10. Just open a Metro app and click the familiar window-pane icon in the upper right hand corner of the app, which will toggle between windowed and full screen modes. Clicking and dragging on any of the four edges lets you resize it, just like you would do with any classic desktop app.

Charms get baked into Metro apps, for the most part

One of the many reasons that millions of people refused to use Windows 8 was the Charms menu, which, like the Start screen, clashed with the classic desktop UI. The functions contained in the Charms menu, like Search, weren’t the problem themselves. The design and layout were just poorly executed, and helped to make Windows 8 a much more jarring user experience than it had to be.

Windows 10 still has a ways to go before it fully gets over its identity crisis.  

In Windows 10, Charms like Share, Settings, and Search, go directly to the top of each app, which you access by clicking on a button labeled with a trio of dots. But using any of these charms, like the Search charm in Microsoft’s Money app, pulls up a menu on the right, prompting a Windows 8 flashback. Why doesn’t the Search charm in these apps just appear as a simple, one-line bar in the middle of the screen, or directly below the top of the app when you hit it?

The Search function on the Start menu also ignores whatever app you’re in, which could have made searching easier. For instance, if the Money app is active, and I access the Start menu’s Search function by hitting the Windows key and typing immediately, it will still pull up general results from our PC, the Web, and the Windows Store rather than from the Money app. The same goes for the Search button that’s perched directly to the right of the Start menu button. If I want to search for something in Money, I have to use the search bar inside the app.

We like the fact that Charms now live within some Metro apps, but Windows 10 still has a ways to go before it fully gets over its identity crisis.

Task View and multiple desktops

Windows 10 can run multiple desktops simultaneously, which, Microsoft claims, allows for even greater multitasking than before. For instance, you might open all your personal apps in one desktop and all your work apps in another, and shift between them as you switch priorities.

We fired it up by clicking the Task View button on the taskbar, which is symbolized by a pair of white, rectangular cards stacked on top of one another. From here, you can switch to any app that’s currently running (which is something that Windows already allowed you to do previously), and also add new desktops by clicking the “Add a desktop” button at the bottom. We decided to start with a single new desktop.

Windows 10 hands on

It opened like a blank slate, suggesting we could essentially use it to begin a new Windows 10 experience. But it doesn’t behave that way. For instance, clicking on the Firefox shortcut didn’t open a brand-new instance of the browser. Instead, it pulled up an instance of Firefox that was already open on our original desktop, instead of opening up a new window. We got around that by right-clicking on the Firefox shortcut, and clicking “Open new window.” Even so, while you should be able to carry over active apps and programs from one desktop to another, each desktop should be an entity unto itself. Otherwise, people, and especially non-power users, will just get confused.

Virtual desktops could be a really powerful tool in Windows 10, but it’s clear that it has some kinks that need to be worked out. However, that’s somewhat understandable considering that Windows 10 is far from a finished product.

The Windows 8 Start screen still lives!

Though the new Start menu takes the place of the gigantic old Start screen, you can enable it again by hitting Start, typing “taskbar,” and clicking “Taskbar and Navigation.” Then, click the Start Menu tab, and check off the option labeled “Use the Start menu instead of the Start screen.” Once you hit Apply, Windows 10 will ask you to restart. When you do, you’ll be greeted with the Windows 8 Start screen.

Using the new Start menu is kind of like a reunion between a boy and his lost dog.

It doesn’t really bother us that the Start screen still lives. We’re sure some folks out there have gotten used to it, and may want to lean on it for whatever reason. The important thing is that Microsoft is giving people the option to use the Start menu or the Start screen, which is what it should’ve done in the first place with Windows 8.

Curiously, there’s an option to enable the old Charms menu as well, but it didn’t work for us in the Technical Preview.

Giving feedback is easy

Microsoft noted during its Windows 10 presentation that it would allow Technical Preview users to offer the company their thoughts and feelings on the new additions to Windows 10. This would allow anyone to help shape the OS into something that everyone would want to use.

To chime in, just click the Windows Feedback app, which is affixed to the Start menu by default. You can pinpoint your query by choosing categories for the gripes you want to voice, and you can even see other entries that have already been submitted to see what other users want.

Windows 10 hands on

We do wish that it was easier to find specific categories in Windows Feedback, especially considering that it, like other Metro apps, now has the Search Charm built into it.

You can also type in your own entries by clicking “New feedback” at the bottom. Here, you can type in your own message to Microsoft, and send it off to them simply by clicking “Send.” Microsoft says that your feedback won’t be made public, but it looks like that popular complaints will be more visible than ones that aren’t voiced often, which is a good thing.

It will be interesting to see which complaints are most popular with users in the coming days and, depending on how severe those problems are, how long it will take for Microsoft to address them. We’ll be watching.

Initial thoughts, but there’s clearly (hopefully?) more to come

The Windows 10 Technical Preview shows Microsoft’s sincere desire to atone for the sins of Windows 8, and even in its earliest stages, it’s already a significant step ahead of that earlier misstep.

The new Start menu brings back one of Windows’ most useful features with a new twist, and we’re glad that you can swap out the shortcuts to Metro apps for buttons that point you to classic files and folders. We do wish that you could add links, though.

Microsoft describes the multiple desktops feature in Windows 10 as an easy way to “create and switch between distinct desktops for different purposes and projects — whether for work or personal use.” In its current form, multiple desktops in Windows 10 don’t work that. But this may simply be due to bugs at this early stage.

A number of apps flank the features, such as Photos and Xbox. These better tie together the Microsoft ecosystem, something Windows 8.1 was surprisingly inept at doing. At this point more apps remain unimplemented than implemented, but those that are included show a major leap forward in desktop usability.

The real wildcard, though, is Cortana. Microsoft’s voice-activated digital assistant is mostly a placeholder at this juncture, so it’s hard to say how well the feature will work once the retail version rolls out. It’s obvious that voice activation could be wonderful, but it’s also something that’s been tried many times before, it often doesn’t work as well in practice as in theory. It’ll be months before a real verdict can be reached here.

Remember that this is by no means a final product, so keep that in mind if and when you decide to give the Windows 10 Technical Preview a whirl. We expect new fixes, features, and patches to appear over time, and we can’t wait to hear and see what Microsoft has in store for Windows 10 between now and its release.

So far, Windows 10 looks so promising that we just wish that the full launch was happening a lot sooner than mid-2015.

Highs:

  • Start menu returns
  • Feedback app presumably lets you help Microsoft make Windows 10 better
  • Easy installation
  • Preserves existing apps and files
  • Free
  • Metro apps now run in windows

Lows:

  • Buggy
  • Integrated Search Charm doesn’t work in tandem with Metro apps
  • Virtual desktops don’t act as individual experiences

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