Windows 10's official birthday is July 29, but we couldn't wait that long to unwrap the present. Build 10240, released Wednesday, is just a few buffs and polishes away from the final version, according to Microsoft. While we work on our full review, we can already provide you with the highlights.
It's worth noting that this preview, and our upcoming review, cover a pivotal moment in time for a Windows 10 that will technically never be done. Microsoft's new Windows-as-a-service model means the software will continually improve and evolve.
This moment shows an operating system that blends some of the best of Windows 7 and Windows 8, while new features like Cortana and Windows Hello point to a very intriguing future. But I have very mixed feelings about one key component--let's call it a rough Edge.
1. The Start menu and the Windows 10 experience
Because the Start menu is an important part of the initial Windows 10 experience, Microsoft needed to get this right. In large part, it has.
Microsoft treats the new Start menu as a dashboard, rather than a launching pad, and that's a perspective I can get behind. I personally think that the Start menu works best when the Live Tiles are set up to deliver snippets of useful information: your calendar, photos, the top headlines, and more.
I'm a little less certain how users will respond to the layout, though. I haven't seen anything that jumps in front of users and introduces them to the Windows 10 experience, or even tells you what "Microsoft Edge" is. You scoff, but Microsoft says only six percent of users use ALT-TAB to bounce from one app to another. There are numerous unskilled Windows users out there, and they're going to need some handholding.
However much we resisted Windows 8, it taught Windows 10 a thing or two. Using the "Task View" or virtual desktops on a laptop feels very natural at this point, and I have to remember that snapping four apps to a large monitor (by dragging the windows into the four corners) hasn't always been part of Windows.
2. Cortana, the Windows 10 assistant
I love the notion of digital assistants. I feel like we're on the cusp of another culture-changing technology, and Cortana, Google Now, and Siri could evolve into something truly useful. Cortana has an enormous advantage here, as Windows 10 will be in front of your eyes for eight hours or so at the office.
Right now, I really like the ability to tap Cortana's search bar and see a summary of useful information--a slightly different take on the Start menu's Live Tiles. I still see room for improvement, though. Rather than create a "notebook" of likes and dislikes, for instance, I'd like Cortana to learn through some quick thumbs-up/thumbs-down responses what interests me. And while I like asking questions of Cortana, there isn't a good way of telling what she'll respond to, and that's a problem.
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