If you work on a PC, don't hesitate to upgrade your operating system to Windows 10. The free update represents the most refined version of Windows yet, and it's jam-packed with productivity-boosting features that business users will really appreciate.
The follow-up to Windows 8 — there was no Windows 9 — reintroduces the classic Start menu, integrates a new voice-activated personal-assistant app, and adds handy organizational features like virtual desktops. Add in hundreds of small usability tweaks and you have the best desktop operating system yet.
Many PC users — and most offices — passed on Windows 8. That's because the operating system introduced huge and often confusing changes to the classic Windows interface, including a jarring full-screen Start menu, and touch-optimized "modern" apps that are good on tablets but not so useful on traditional computers.
Windows 10, in contrast, looks more like the Windows you remember. Perhaps most significantly, the old pop-up Start menu is back, letting you quickly open apps and access various locations on your PC without wading through a full-screen interface filled with colorful tiles, as in Windows 8.
The tiles aren't gone, though. Instead, they've been integrated into the Start menu's sidebar. Tiles can either be simple app shortcuts, or Live Tiles that update with real-time information. For example, the Live Tile for the Weather app updates to show you the current weather conditions and a glimpse at the forecast, which will save you the hassle of opening the full app most of the time.
Live Tiles are a great addition to Windows 10, representing a thoughtful evolution of the Windows interface that refines — but doesn't reinvent — the familiar layout that most users are familiar with. The left side of the Start menu, meanwhile, lets you browse through all your installed applications or jump to frequently accessed folders on your system, just like in older versions of Windows.
Reimagined Start menu aside, the rest of the Windows 10 interface will be pretty familiar to Windows veterans. The taskbar has received some nice cosmetic tweaks, but functions more or less like it has since Windows 7. There are a few new shortcuts on the taskbar, though, which give you quick access to the other two biggest additions to Windows 10: Cortana and virtual desktops.
Just to the right of the Start Button is a search box with a small icon that looks like a circle. But this isn't any old search box. Clicking on it opens Cortana, a virtual-assistant app that can quickly save notes and reminders, alert you to flight delays for upcoming trips, help you locate specific documents on your hard drive, track packages and a lot more.
Clicking the search box opens up the main Cortana view, which includes a tailored newsfeed in addition to a glimpse at your daily schedule. Tabs on the side give you quick access to things like your saved reminders. There's also the Notebook, which is where you can customize which information Cortana knows about you. For example, you can edit in your home and work addresses to help Cortana provide location-based alerts and suggestions, or tell the app which stocks you follow to get real-time updates.
Hands-free controls have been available on smartphones for years. Now Cortana is bringing voice commands to the desktop. Just say "Hey, Cortana" at any time to activate the voice-command prompt — the app is always listening, so there's no need to press any buttons if you don't want to — then state your request. For example, you can say, "What's my schedule?" to see a quick rundown of your agenda for the day.
I personally think that touchless controls are a big perk for business users, since they make certain tasks much quicker and more efficient. For instance, manually setting a reminder or saving a note on your smartphone is almost more trouble than it's worth. But performing the same task with a voice command is so easy that it can be done in seconds, as soon as you think of it, and even when your hands are full.
Remember that always-listening functionality is not enabled by default in Windows 10; you can turn it on via Cortana's Settings menu, located in the app's Notebook tab.
Multitasking with Cortana
If you've ever used voice commands on your smartphone, you know how it usually works: You activate the voice-command prompt, then wait for a tone that indicates when you can begin speaking. Talk too early, and part of your command will get cut off and you'll have to try again. When I use Siri or Google Now, it feels like I have to hold the app's hand through the whole process.
Not so with Cortana. My favorite thing about the app might be that it's ready to listen to your voice command instantly, so you can speak fluently and naturally, with no pauses. Just say "Hey, Cortana, remind me to call Jim tomorrow at 10 a.m." or "Hey, Cortana, what's the weather forecast for tomorrow?" and the app just works.
Plus, activating Cortana's voice-command prompt doesn't interrupt typing or mouse movement, so you can seamlessly integrate voice commands without disrupting your workflow. That means you can ask Cortana to perform a quick calculation ("Hey, Cortana, what's half of $137.67?") while you're typing up an email message, without missing a beat.
Combine that kind of fluid responsiveness with excellent voice-recognition capabilities and you have the best voice-assistant app I've ever used.
Of course, if you'd rather keep quiet, the same commands that you'd issue with your voice can also be typed into Cortana's search box, located just to the left of the Start Button in Windows 10. When you want to issue a typed command, simply click the Cortana button — the circular icon located just to the left of the search box — or press the Windows key on your keyboard, and start typing.
Commands such as "Make an appointment to meet with Tim next Tuesday at noon" will work to update your calendar whether your type them or state them aloud.
Natural file search
The File Explorer in previous versions of Windows let you search for files by name, but the system was too clunky and limited to be very useful. Now you can simply ask Cortana to hunt down files for you, using natural language (either typed or spoken). For example, you can ask, "Show me files that I worked on this week," and Cortana will quickly return a list of documents that have been edited in the past seven days. Or say, "Show me files containing the word 'budget,'" and Cortana will do it. The app can even sift through files and documents stored in the cloud via your OneDrive account.
Your new personal assistant
In other ways, Cortana is more like a digital version of a traditional office assistant. I especially love the app's ability to manage my schedule. It automatically tracks events that I add to my Outlook calendar, then alerts me when it's almost time. I also like having the ability to view upcoming appointments at a glance just by clicking the Cortana icon on my taskbar.
Cortana's ability to save reminders is another key feature. For example, you can just say or type, "Remind me to call Sam tomorrow at 2 p.m." and you'll be automatically alerted to the task when the time comes. If you happen to use a Windows Phone device, Cortana can even use your device's GPS capabilities for commands like, "Remind me to stop at the post office when I leave work."
Dictation is another traditional task of an office assistant, and Cortana can do that, too. After you set up your email account in Windows 10, you can use Cortana to fire off quick email messages by dictating them aloud. Cortana will ask you to confirm the recipient and content of your message before sending it off. It's not the most useful feature in the world, but it could come in handy for sending short replies when you're in a hurry, or when your hands are full.
If you're anything like me, your desktop probably tends to get cluttered as you juggle tasks throughout the workday. A new feature called Task View in Windows 10 does a decent job of trying to tackle this problem by adding native support for "virtual desktops," but it's not perfect.
Task View lets you create as many desktops as you want, each with different apps open on them. For instance, you might have one desktop open with your favorite tax software, the calculator app and an Excel spreadsheet — all of which will help you crunch numbers at the drop of a hat. Then you can switch to a less cluttered desktop and continue your workday with a clean taskbar, while keeping all of your finance apps open in the background.
To activate Task View, hold down the Windows Key and press Tab. You'll see an overview of all your currently opened windows, as well as an Add Desktop button that creates a new virtual desktop. You can switch between desktops by clicking on one, or by pressing Ctrl+Win and using the left- and right-arrow keys. You can also drag apps between virtual desktops within the Task View menu.
It all works pretty well, but my biggest issue is that there's no on-screen signifier to let you know which desktop you're currently using. For that reason, I wish I could customize desktops with different color schemes and desktop wallpaper. It's also pretty easy to forget that you have multiple desktops open in the first place.
The ability to drag Windows apps to either side of your desktop for a quick split-screen view — originally added in Windows 7 — has long been one of my favorite features of the operating system. Windows 10 improves this functionality in unexpected ways, making multitasking even easier.
For starters, you can now snap windows into all four corners (instead of just each side) for easy multitasking between three or four apps. And when you manually resize apps to make them bigger or smaller, snapping another window will cause it to fill in all available space. I love using this feature to quickly divvy up space on my computer monitor.
Microsoft designed Windows 8 to work with touch-screen tablets, but the result was an operating system that didn't really work very well on desktop work machines. That's why I'm so glad to see Microsoft implement a more elegant solution for Windows 10, dubbed Continuum. Instead of trying to design one interface that works equally well on all types of Windows machines, the new OS actually has separate Tablet and Desktop modes, a crucial step toward making 2-in-1 hybrid devices like the Surface Pro 3 feel viable in the workplace.
When I remove the keyboard on my Surface Pro 3, a small window pops up asking me if I want to go into Tablet Mode. When I reconnect the keyboard, I'm prompted to go back to Desktop Mode. Even better, Windows 10 can automatically detect whether you're using a PC or tablet, and adjusts its layout accordingly.
Desktop Mode amounts to the traditional Windows interface, with a taskbar at the bottom of the screen, the Start menu in the lower left corner, and apps running in resizable Windows on your desktop. Tablet Mode, meanwhile, automatically forces apps and the Start Menu to run in full-screen mode to make them more touch friendly. Tablet Mode also adds swipe gestures for switching between applications.
While most business users will undoubtedly spend most of their time in Desktop Mode, the ability to switch between interfaces on the fly is a big bonus for anyone who owns a hybrid device.
Alerts and notifications
Mobile operating systems like Android and Apple's iOS make it easy to check incoming alerts, messages and calendar notifications by gathering them into a single location. Now Microsoft has introduced a similar feature in Windows 10 in the form of the new Action Center. You can access the sidebar by clicking the speech bubble icon in the lower right corner of the Windows 10 interface, or just by swiping in from the right side of a touch-screen device.
I really liked being able to browse incoming emails in the Action Center without opening up my Outlook app, for example. I also liked seeing appointment alerts, which helped remind me of upcoming meetings without the need to check my calendar directly. It's easy to dismiss all alerts at once by clicking the Clear All button at the top of the Action Center sidebar.
Below your alerts are Quick Settings icons, which make it easy to toggle specific device settings without digging around inside the Windows Control Panel. I liked using them to quickly tweak my display brightness and connect to Wi-Fi networks. There's even a shortcut to quickly access Microsoft's OneNote app, which is nice for jotting down an idea.
Another shortcut takes you to the new Settings menu inside Windows 10, which largely replaces the convoluted Control Center from previous versions of the operating system. The new menu makes common actions like changing your computer's display or battery settings a lot easier.
Don't expect any big performance gains after installing Windows 10; the operating system runs about as smoothly as Windows 8 before it. To make sure, we ran the Geekbench 3 benchmark test — designed to measure overall performance — on five Windows machines, testing each device after installing Windows 7, Windows 8.1 and Windows 10. They all performed about equally with each OS.
The one exception to this rule is that Windows 10 does actually wake up from sleep slightly quicker than earlier versions of Windows. While most devices running Windows 7 or 8.1 wake up in about 2 to 4 seconds, our Windows 10 machines consistently woke within 2 seconds, bringing Windows more in line with mobile operating systems in that regard.
A couple of new security features will help you keep your work machine locked down. For starters, Windows 10 now features a built-in fingerprint manager for devices with fingerprint scanners.
Additionally, Windows Hello is a new biometric login feature that lets you unlock your computer just by looking at it — but only if your system has the right hardware. Windows Hello only works on computers equipped with an Intel RealSense 3D camera. That's because it uses sophisticated 3D imaging capabilities to ensure that your computer can't be fooled by a photo of you. Only a handful of computers have a compatible camera, but we expect to see more hit the market very soon.
How to upgrade
Windows 10 is available for free on any computer running Windows 7 or 8, as long as it meets a couple of meager hardware requirements. Systems must have at least a 1-GHz processor, 1GB of RAM and a minimum of 16GB of free hard drive space. In other words, even budget systems should have no trouble running the operating system.
Upgrading to Windows 10 is dead simple, so you don't have to be a computer whiz to do it. The operating system is actually delivered through the standard Windows Update panel. You can manually prompt your system to check for updates, or just let Windows Update run automatically. When Windows 10 has been downloaded and is ready to be installed, you'll be automatically prompted to do so.
The only other thing you'll need to install Windows 10 is a bit of patience. Installation can take a bit of time depending on your hardware, so make sure to block out at least an hour of time.
Many business users abstained from Windows 8, and with good reason. But Windows 10 gets things back on track with an interface that's more conducive to productivity. You also get a slew of new work-friendly enhancements including a great new personal-assistant app and virtual desktop functionality. Plus, the operating system makes hybrid machines better for both work and play, thanks to Microsoft's innovative Continuum feature.
It all adds up to make my favorite desktop operating system ever. If your company currently runs on Windows 7 or 8, you shouldn't hesitate to make the leap to Windows 10.