IT hears the siren call of free Windows 10 upgrades

29 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Windows 10 Review: A Welcome Upgrade, Perhaps Too Late.

Imagine you buy a new car, the same brand you’ve driven for years. The global launch of Windows 10 is a pivotal moment for Microsoft as a consumer business, because in recent years Windows has started to matter a lot less. But in this new model, the steering wheel is in the back seat. “That’s the future!” says the salesman, rattling off a list of reasons it’s better to steer from the rear. The rise of mobile devices has hit the PC market hard – and no more so than Microsoft, which has around 1.5 billion Windows customers, making it the market leader in that arena.

This, combined with Apple’s OS X and Mac computer line-up regularly bucking the trend and actually increasing sales, has left Microsoft and Windows adrift in the technology world, with Google’s Chrome and Android dominating. But a hint of change appeared at the beginning of the year when Windows 10 was first previewed, and it has hinted at a potential change in fortunes for the firm.

In a desperate plea for relevance in a smartphone and tablet world, Windows 8 presented radical ideas about operating computers with fingers and pens instead of mice and keyboards. The core features of the update – Microsoft Edge, Cortana on desktop, Continuum and the idea of the software working across all Windows devices – sparked interest arguably not seen in Windows since the pioneering days of Windows 95. These features now have to live up to their impressive stage demonstrations in the real world – Edge must be fast and easy to annotate as suggested, while Cortana must continue to be a seamless and intelligent assistant across a new range of devices. The promise of one version of an app that works across phone, tablet and computer with minimal work is an enticing one for coders, but developers are still curious about how much effort this will actually take. Having steadily gained on the iPad in the last year, the growth of the Surface business to almost a billion US dollars (£640 million) was one of the bright spots of the firm’s most recent financial results.

Not an area the tech giant is currently focussing on too heavily, but as high-end flagship smartphones continue to sell in their millions, Microsoft will have to return to them in earnest soon. The Lumia is performing OK in the lower and mid-range arenas, but a company the size of Microsoft really should be looking to take on Apple, Samsung and co in the premium market.

Windows 10 will be free for the “life time of the device”, which should mean free for as long as Microsoft supports the OS, with no surprise subscription costs down the line. If you’re not already running Windows (or an older version), you’ll need to buy the upgrade- which costs $119 for the Home edition, and $199 for the Pro edition. The only downside – and it’s a big one – is that you’re a guinea pig for future updates, which might not be stable and seriously affect your computer’s performance and Windows experience. The annoying hot corners in Windows 8 that made you pull your hair out just trying to access settings or even the Start screen have been removed — thank god. These days we’re spending more of our time on smartphones and Web browsers, and it’s Microsoft’s burden to keep evolving Windows to stay relevant to that reality.

I raised the concern that some people might be waiting weeks, or even months, and I was told that it’s “not going to be that kind of timeframe.” And that, “the goal with this [Windows 10], releasing earlier in the year, is because we want to get it out there fast. You can drag any window to a screen edge to snap it to half of your screen, and then the OS helpfully displays all of your other windows in an array for the other half. Microsoft claims the vast majority of its users have never used Alt+Tab to switch apps (one of those “weird but true” things about computers), so the idea is to help those users get better at multitasking.

It’s called Cortana, and it’s designed to look and feel like an extension of the Start menu, and just like the Windows Phone equivalent, you can also use your voice to search. I tap on Cortana’s icon in the task bar occasionally to see this overview, and all the data is displayed in sections that resemble Google’s Now cards. It’s also cloud powered, meaning you can download Cortana for Android (or iOS in the future) and get the same features there, all synced up with your laptop. So if you ask Cortana to remind you to buy some milk from a local grocery store, that reminder will sync to your phone and activate as soon as you’re near the grocery store.

With permission, Cortana learns about you based on what you search, plus information that passes through Windows 10’s Mail and Calendar applications. (You can edit some, but not all, of what Cortana knows about you in her Notebook.) When you tap on her circular icon next to the Start button, Cortana presents a digest of news and events she thinks you’d like to know about. She misread flight information in my email, leading me to worry I’d booked wrong. (I hadn’t.) And too often, Cortana defaults to Bing searches, even upon hearing commands such as “set a timer for five minutes.” For the past two weeks, I’ve used it on a Surface Pro 3 as my primary work computer without major complications. Having a single interface for virtual assistant searches, web searches, and traditional computer searches is a super convenient and powerful thing, and Microsoft has done a really great job of integrating it here. Microsoft says Windows 10 should run on most computers, programs and peripherals that were compatible with Windows 7, but it doesn’t promise everything will work. For the first time, every Windows PC will have Microsoft’s own antivirus called Windows Defender turned on. (On Windows 8, some manufacturers deactivated Defender.) And the new Edge browser screens for phishing sites that would steal your personal information.

It still feels like there’s some work to be done on occasions, and I’ve run into situations where pages just don’t render well at all or sites ask me to use Internet Explorer. The most impressive new protection, called Windows Hello, is straight out of “Mission: Impossible.” It replaces passwords with your face, your eyeball or your fingerprint.

You’ll need special hardware to make it work, but it means one less hassle when you log in to your computer—and, in the future, it’ll work on applications and websites, too. It’s useful if you want to quickly share a screenshot of a site with some annotations, but it’s something I haven’t found myself using regularly (it’s better if you use it with a pen-enabled device like the Surface).

Changing the default search experience is stressful, with a requirement to visit Google itself and then access a feature buried so deep in the settings menus that it feels like Microsoft really doesn’t want you moving away from Bing. And Cortana is not helpful enough to get me to ditch Google for Bing. (There are Android and iPhone Cortana apps coming.) Strangely, Windows 10 doesn’t even have a special relationship with Microsoft’s own Office suite, a core product for millions.

You’ll also need to add your Google accounts here to get the Cortana integration across Windows 10 to work, it won’t just fetch information over the web. I’m sure they’ll be enough for most people who don’t require the full power of Office desktop apps, and the best feature is that they’re free for devices with a 10.1-inch screen or smaller.

The goal, eventually, is that developers will write a single app and it will run on your Windows PC, tablet, phone, Xbox One, and the upcoming HoloLens headset. While Microsoft is focused on mouse and keyboard computing with Windows 10, it hasn’t forgot about all the good touch work that went into Windows 8. Windows 10 has some great additions over Windows 8 and Windows 7, and it really feels like a good blend of the familiarity of Windows 7 and some of the new features of Windows 8.

I don’t own every PC configuration out there, but as I look at others expressing frustration over these odd issues on Twitter, it’s clear I’m not alone.

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