Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Gear Friday: Living with Windows 10

Windows 10 is a very different beast compared to what Microsoft's done in the past. Screenshot / Juha Saarinen
Windows 10 is a very different beast compared to what Microsoft's done in the past. Screenshot / Juha Saarinen

Windows 10 was meant to be Microsoft's mea culpa, an apology to a vast number of users who thought the jump to the radically different Windows 8 from the earlier Windows XP and 7 was too painful and difficult.

Microsoft has fixed most of the Windows 8 going-in-two-directions misfire of having a touch interface for tablets and a Windows desktop on the same computer, with a jarring transition between the two, on Windows 10.

Now you have a smaller Start Menu that pops up when you press the Windows button on the keyboard that gives access to programs and configurations options on your computer. Not too alien for Windows 7 or XP users in other words, and you've got a desktop with a taskbar as well in view.

If you got used to the full-screen Start Screen in Windows 8/8.1, you can have that too in Windows 10 with a setting. The interface is very customisable, and it's easy to enable and disable features to make it behave the way you want.

To look at and to use, Windows 10 is more conservative and familiar and that strategy seems to have worked for Microsoft, which now says the operating system is running on over 400 million machines, which is a huge number.

Under the bonnet though, Windows 10 is a very different beast compared to what Microsoft's done in the past. The OS has been in general release just over a year, and Microsoft's shown that it's not afraid to make some drastic changes to Windows 10.

You can trial some of those changes by joining the Windows Insider preview programme, which gives two levels of being on the bleeding edge for receiving new features. Enterprise customers would never accept that of course, and it's possible to lock down Windows 10 so that it receives security and other important updates, but no new features.

I've been on the Insider Fast "ring" since Windows 10 came out just over a year ago, mainly because many of the promised cool features in the operating system were not ready when the operating system was released.

With Insider, you get to try them out while Microsoft hacks away at them. The Insider preview programme isn't for everybody: it's been mostly a smooth run for me, and I've only lost the Windows 10 installation on my test machine once.

Others haven't been as lucky with the Windows 10 updates, with or without Insider previews. Some reluctant and forced upgraders from Windows report data loss and other problems - and the Anniversary Update to celebrate the first year of Windows embarrassingly enough killed PC webcams for some users.

It looks like Microsoft didn't fully take into account the vast amount of different hardware and software that Windows users have on and in their systems - some of it can break during upgrades, and Windows 10 is all about frequent updates.

Windows 10 is a very different beast compared to what Microsoft's done in the past.

Mostly though, Windows 10 is now a smooth experience as long as you play along with Microsoft, which wants the OS to be delivered "as a service". That'd normally mean you pay a subscription fee per week or month, like with Office 365, but Microsoft hasn't pulled that pin with Windows 10 yet. Instead, there's less emphasis on version numbers and more on sending out fixes and adding features, and Windows 10 is starting to settle down.

There are still some hugely irritating bugs left, even after the Anniversary Update has been applied. Cortana, Microsoft's equivalent to Apple's Siri personal digital assistant can do heaps more nowadays compared to a year ago, like set reminders, provide navigation, search your computer, and much more.

But, Microsoft decided to tie up the choice of English for Cortana with the region you're in.

You guessed right: there is no New Zealand English for Cortana, and selecting Australian (argh, but it's the nearest to us) pops up a warning about certain features not being available because that language isn't the same as your region.

Another nuisance is that Microsoft's still to clean out old code from within Windows 10. Sometimes you use the new control panel with its flat interface, other times it's Ye Olde Windows look tool that harks back to the decade after the new millennium. Often that's for related tasks too like configuring network settings.

That's not to say there aren't some really cool features in Windows 10. For the more techie users, paying for the Pro version of Win10 provides some very cool stuff like the ability to run Linux code (a little bit at least, that's work in progress still) and the supposedly next big thing for delivering apps from the cloud, Docker containers, a very lightweight open source virtualisation feature. If you know what this means, you'll be curious to try it out; if not,

When Windows 10 launched, the new Edge web browser was quick but very Spartan indeed. Not having add-ons meant better safety and performance, but if you have to switch to Internet Explorer or Chrome to get stuff done on the web, well, Edge ain't gonna go anywhere.

Life without hardware would be infinitely easier for Microsoft, but that would mean dumping Windows for desktops and laptops.

Now Edge has extensions, and apart from a few pages on Microsoft's site that ironically enough demanded that I use Internet Explorer, it's a capable enough browser. Business users will like an upcoming feature in the Windows 10 Enterprise edition that'll let admins set Edge to run in a virtual machine, fully isolated from the rest of the operating system.

That should mean far fewer drive-by malware attacks but we'll see if worker bees running Edge will go along with their browser not having access to Windows 10 to save files and other common tasks that they're accustomed to now.

Overall, my clean install of Windows 10 on a sacrificial system for testing, which is backed up in case of data loss, performs really nicely. That's my experience though, and yours could be very different.

I think if Microsoft wants to do Windows 10 (and future versions) this way, it needs to gain control over the hardware it runs on just like Apple does, to avoid weird problems and user unhappiness. That could be very difficult for Microsoft though, because it depends on the vast army of third-party computer makers designing and marketing PCs.

Microsoft has also become ambivalent towards designing its own gear after being forced to give up on Windows Phone which frankly was a fiasco. Users of the Surface Pro 3 have been complaining about the "BatteryGate" problem that meant the tablet's power storage empties really fast despite being charged, and Microsoft's Band wearable looks like it won't be made anymore after multiple quality problems.

Ultimately, life without hardware would be infinitely easier for Microsoft, but that would mean dumping Windows for desktops and laptops as well. This is actually possible, as you can deliver Microsoft apps on a subscription basis to Apple iOS and macOS, and Google's Android quite easily either from public or private cloud services.

While corporate customers still run Windows on desktops and laptops that won't happen. Nevertheless, part of me wonders how many more versions of Windows we'll see over the next few years.

- NZ Herald

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Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen is a technology journalist and writer living in Auckland. Apart from contributing to the New Zealand Herald over the years, he has written for the Guardian, Wired, PC World, Computerworld and ITnews Australia, covering networking, hardware, software, enterprise IT as well as the business and social aspects of computing. A firm believer in the principle that trying stuff out makes you understand things better, he spends way too much time wondering why things just don’t work.

Read more by Juha Saarinen

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