Big companies don’t usually listen to the little guys.
For the past few years, customers and tech pundits (those not on the Microsoft payroll or in a “consulting” role) have complained about Microsoft Windows 8 features that seem almost intentionally obscure. New users couldn’t figure out how to change simple settings like the direction of the mouse scroll wheel or even how to turn the computer off. While every new Windows 8 laptop explains a few of the screen basics like swiping from the side of the screen, it was almost as though Microsoft didn’t realize people never pay attention to those tips and just want to start surfing on Buzzfeed and load up World of Warcraft as soon as possible.
Then, something changed.
I’m not sure if it had anything to do with Windows 8 head Steven Sinofsky leaving in 2012 or Steve Ballmer leaving in 2013, but Microsoft seems to have listened closely to the Windows 8 complaints. My guess is that Satya Nadella, the current CEO who seems to have a knack for appealing to customer needs, wanted a Windows that just works.
After spending the last month with Windows 10 since the launch on July 29 -- which included connecting up a few peripherals like a printer and random smartphones, testing out the new Start menu, surfing on Microsoft Edge, and just getting into a normal workflow again -- I can tell you that it does, in fact, work. In fact, it works wonders. The OS is the best release we’ve seen, follows some sound usability best practices, and hasn’t crashed on me once. There are a few minor issues and one major software disappointment, but otherwise it’s a big step forward.
Ironically, one of the reasons I like Windows 10 is because it brings back a few familiar options. The Start menu works just like the Start button. You can drag and drop icons easily from the Start menu and store them in the taskbar. You can re-size the Start menu so it takes up a quarter of the screen or almost all of the screen. The workflow makes sense. I tested Windows 10 on multiple laptops, including the Dell XPS 15 and a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, but my favorite test machine was the HP Elite X2 1011, which is small, well-designed two-in-one.
Microsoft nailed the user experience for two-in-ones, which -- based on a recent trip to a Best Buy store -- are selling like hotcakes. Windows 10 uses something called Continuum to switch automatically between laptop and tablet mode. I like that the full-screen tablet interface, what used to be called Metro, mostly stats out of the way unless you use the x2 like a tablet.
I also really like the new Action Center. It’s a quick way to disable Bluetooth, find a Wi-Fi network, or even configure a VPN connection. There’s a button for adding a new in OneNote. It's a nice touch that you can disable notifications using the Quiet Hours button.
My overall impression is that Microsoft heavily tested this OS in a usability lab. They made sure, if you want to find an app or power down the computer, that the options were within one or two clicks (or finger swipes). Commonly used functions follow a more streamlined approach along the bottom, including a virtual assistant called Cortana (available in a search field next to the Start menu), apps on the taskbar, icons for battery power and Wi-Fi, and the Action Center. I haven’t run into the typical “gotcha” of workflow yet where you think the OS needs to be tweaked again because it makes daily computing more cumbersome or confusing or the icons are not where you want them.
That said, I do think Microsoft Edge needs some work. I already wrote about my initial impressions, and I’ve essentially gone back to Google Chrome for now, but I wish the default search bar for Bing wasn’t located in the middle of the screen, that it wasn’t so buggy, and that there weren’t so many pauses and slowdowns when I create multiple tabs. For me, since I test so many laptops and tablet, it’s a pain to have to install and configure Chrome constantly, so I will probably make the switch to Edge once they resolve some issues.
Cortana is only partially helpful. I’ve used the search bar many times, especially since I’ve been trained on Android and iPhone to use search to find and launch apps. I like that you can click and see the current weather and a few tips. However, Cortana is no Siri or Google Now. Searches are not context sensitive, and -- really -- this is not a virtual assistant at all. I can’t ask about the news and then do a follow up question and have Cortana understand what I mean. I can’t say something like “change my schedule” -- for some reason, Cortana just shows me flight info.
Voice detection is also weak. Half the time, what I said wasn’t quite what Cortana heard, even though I’m in a quiet room and spoke clearly and slowly. It just seems like a 1.0 feature for now that will likely get many face-lifts.
Overall, I’m impressed with how Windows 10 helps me focus on my work -- it doesn't get in the way. The new OS uses a fresh, flat-color design. It's super-fast so far. I haven’t had a single major crash (what used to be called the Blue Screen of Death and is now the Blue Screen of Cheerful Optimism). I like how the OS knows if I am in tablet or desktop mode. I have high hopes for the Edge browser eventually giving Chrome some competition. And, you can’t complain about the price.
I haven’t run into any of the widely reported issues about ads popping up or hidden pricing schemes. And, while I know about the privacy issues, I’m not ready to switch over to Linux quite yet. It’s a sound, usable, reliable OS that I can heartily recommend.