Brief Review: Windows 10
By now, I'm sure that you have all heard about Windows 10. There have been a lot of controversies around the release, with many praising the return to a focus on desktop users, and others fearing that Microsoft is overstepping boundaries by spying on users. Here, I want to talk about my experience with Windows 10 so far, and briefly discuss those controversies.
Being a tech geek at heart, I had "reserved" my copy of Windows 10 the day that they made the reservations available, and I upgraded the night that Windows 10 was formally released. (Normally I would have participated in the tech preview, but my work now requires that I use a stable OS and I can't afford to have software not work).
The upgrade was general pretty smooth. On the first attempt there was a failure, possibly because I may have forced the update before everything had been fully downloaded (oops!). Thankfully, it was able to recover and return me to my Windows 8.1 desktop, without any sign of anything having happened. After downloading the update files again, the installer was able to successfully upgrade my system within half an hour.
Altogether, not too bad!
Because I had watched videos of Windows 10 as it developed throughout the tech preview (thank you to Scott Hanselman for posting such great and consistent update videos), I knew what to expect going in. But what I wasn't fully prepared for was how natural Windows 10 would feel.
From watching videos and seeing pictures, my expectation going in was "everything will work, but the UI will be harsh and blunt." To some extent, this is true; the sharp lines and edges of the icons and art that are throughout Windows 10 lack the subtle and soft touches of alternative UIs like Material.
But, in practice, it's not nearly as bad as I had feared.
In the settings, the toggles work more fluidly than I expected, even if they do fit a little bit into that "harsh and blunt" aesthetic. The settings are easy to navigate, and there are a lot of transitions that make the experience more fluid (which isn't captured well on videos, and certainly not pictures).
The UI is also more consistent than I expected. There are times that I'll come across a menu that is in the style used in Windows 7, but overall the new UI is seen over 90% of the time. This makes the feel much more consistent than it was in Windows 8, and in some ways even more than in Windows 7 (since there were still a lot of legacy-style menus in that release).
An example of this consistent and nice UI is in the notification panel. The clock, wifi notification, sound, etc. have all been updated to have a very clean, consistent, and useful UI that was lacking before. It really makes the interaction feel more predictable, and the OS is more user-friendly.
In the short time that I've been using Windows 10, I've already noticed some nice changes to my workflow. Before, I used to auto-hide the task bar and primarily kept windows fullscreen (perhaps because Windows 8 and 8.1 really pushed for that fullscreen tablet experience). But on Windows 10, I now keep the taskbar visible because it is well animated, has more useful information (e.g., Cortana), and doesn't seem to take up as much screen real estate (though that may be me just thinking it's shorter).
The result is that I switch between applications much more fluidly, and I'm more comfortable keeping multiple things open at the same time. In some ways, you could argue that this can lead to distractions and decreased productivity, which is somewhat true. But so far it hasn't, and if anything has helped me to feel more productive. Really, I've taken some things I normally did in Chrome (e.g., Todoist) and have switched to using apps instead. The apps launch quickly, can be switched to easily, and result in a nicer experience than having everything in fullscreen tabs in Chrome. (Plus, Chrome is notorious for using up a lot of RAM, and having fewer tabs open certainly helps).
I haven't found a use yet for the virtual desktops. I feel like there must be a way to use them effectively, but it hasn't come to me yet. If I figure out a way to that works for my workflow, I may write a post in the future so others can consider using it for that purpose as well. (There seems to be limited tips on how to use it, other than separating work and personal things, but that isn't as needed for my workflow).
Cortana and Data
One of the most obvious additions to Windows 10 is Cortana, which is also one of the most controversial. Cortana works similar to Siri and Google Now, but also can search your computer and applications like Launchy. (In fact, Cortana has replaced Launchy for me). In order to get the full benefit of using Cortana though, you need to give Microsoft access to information like your schedule, your talking style, etc.
Privacy advocates are concerned about how Microsoft will handle this data. After all, it is a LOT of data that they can potentially gather. But, as scary as this may be for some, it's no more than other big tech companies collect about users. Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. all track users and use that information to improve user experiences. It may not be as obvious, but it happens. Even Apple, who supposedly champions user privacy, almost certainly collects a lot of data from their users.
The reason we have become comfortable with such data collection is that it allows these companies to make our experiences with their products much better. Sure, if we saw all of the aggregated data they have it would probably make many people feel uncomfortable. But if that data is safe, and if it's only being examined by algorithms, that (to me) makes it easier to accept.
Microsoft has suggested that they take a lot of precautions to protect the information that they collect, and I'm inclined to believe them. There are a few settings I've tweaked (which, thankfully, Microsoft gives you a lot of control over what data they do collect). But on the whole, I've embraced tech companies knowing about me.
With the data I've given Microsoft access to (thankfully an easy process, as they can pull information from Google Calendar properly now), Cortana is able to do some useful things. She's able to provide information about local weather, my upcoming appointments...and that's about it, in terms of Google Now-esque predictive information providing. It's limited, sure, but I'm sure it will improve.
What I use Cortana more for is some commands (e.g., "Remind me to switch the laundry in 30 minutes"), and to search my computer by typing in the names of folders and files. Oddly, I didn't find a way to open a folder or file by voice, but I'm sure that's on its way.
It's limited now, but Cortana is still relatively new. Sure, competition like Google Now is capable of doing a little bit more at the moment, but there's something I've come to like about Cortana: integration with my computer OS. Along with searching my computer files locally for me, Cortana feels much more available than Google Now and voice search. Yes, I can say "OK Moto X" with my phone and have voice search, but right now I need to unlock my phone for it to actually perform the task (my phone is locked down because of the sensitive work I do). I keep my phone locked most of the time it is with me, but my laptop is unlocked and I'm actively using it most of the time, which makes Cortana easier to use.
In addition, Cortana is more visible. By being in the taskbar, I remember that Cortana is there, whereas it is easy to forget about Google's voice search.
And, in a sense, that gets into a little bit of a debate I keep going back and forth on: having a "personal assistant" with a personality, versus not. Cortana and Siri are different from Google Now in that they try to act somewhat human. In a way, I like this because it makes it clear that you can interact with them differently than the rest of the software. (Admittedly the differences are limited now, but are likely to become more pronounced over time). This removes the fixed mindset that people are likely to have with software. When using Google Now, for example, my first instinct is to use it for something I would search for, because it's clear that I'm basically talking to Google. When I ask Cortana something, it's a very different feeling from saying "Hey Microsoft."
Some people may see this as a problem. By removing the personal assistants from the company name a bit, it could theoretically make it easier to give more access to personal information, which some people are against. Some people also feel creepy when using Cortana or Siri because it's more like a person knows a lot of information about you rather than a computer algorithm. It could also be argued that Cortana and Siri are too limited currently, and by subtly pushing users to interact with them in a more human way it is setting the user up for disappointment (e.g., when asking Cortana "Open my comps folder" and it pulls up a web search for the phrase).
Again, I'm mixed on how to feel. I do think Motorola is moving in a good direction by allowing the customization of what to say to activate the voice commands on phones, and I hope that trend get's picked up. It may be a little harder to do with fixed voices and personalities like Cortana and Siri, but those may be more customizable in the future.
Overall, I'm very happy with Windows 10. It isn't perfect, and there are a few small bugs that still need to be ironed out (I have an annoying audio bug that comes up every few days), but for a major release that was done in a relatively short period of time it is impressively stable and well done. As new features become available, which will hopefully happen more frequently now that Microsoft will focus on updating them separate from major OS upgrades, I will continue to do reviews as it feels appropriate.
I also downloaded the Office 2016 update and am pleased so far, so I may write more about that if I find any major usability differences beyond the aesthetics. (I know what some of them are, but it's unclear to me how they will impact day-to-day use of the applications).
Have you upgraded to Windows 10? What has your impression been so far? Let me know in the comments!