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.

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