The Top-10 Windows 10 Essentials

Wednesday Aug 12th 2015 by Joseph Moran
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How does Windows 10 differ from Win 7 and 8.1? Excellent question. We list the top-10 things you need to know about Windows 10.

After nearly a year of testing, the Windows 10 operating system is finally here. And now that's it's arrived, you may wonder whether or not you should upgrade. How is it better, worse, or different than the Windows 8.x or Windows 7 you currently use? We explain the 10 things you need to know about Windows 10.

10 Things About Windows 10

1. Windows 10 is a Free Upgrade

No, really. Windows 10 marks the first major upgrade to the operating system that doesn't have a price tag attached—at least for the first year. That ticking clock is the first stipulation: the free upgrade is off the table come July 29, 2016.

The second is that it's only available for systems with a licensed copy of Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. If you're still running Windows 8, you need to upgrade to Windows 8.1 first. Lastly, Enterprise editions of Windows aren't eligible (though if your company has those it also likely has Software Assurance licensing, which entitles you to an upgrade in any event).

As far as getting your hands on the upgrade, if you haven't already seen the Get Windows 10 app in the notification area of your system (at the lower right of your screen) you can download your own Windows 10 install media. Note: Windows 10 is a massive 3 GB download, so it pays to create the media if you plan to upgrade multiple systems or to just have it on hand to simplify future upgrades.

For more details on the Windows 10 upgrade, see this FAQ.

2. Return of the Start Menu

Microsoft jettisoned the Start menu in Windows 8, which caused much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. And adding a Start button with a handful of frequently-used settings in Windows 8.1 didn't really quell the gripes.

Windows 10 Start menu

The Start menu returns in Windows 10, offering convenient access to apps and settings.

Well, the Start menu really is back in Windows 10, and it works much like it did in Windows 7, offering familiar menus for apps and settings. Granted, it doesn't look quite the same—it's received a major facelift and now incorporates (much smaller) Live Tiles from Windows 8.x, but in the context of Windows 10 they're more of a compliment than an incongruity.

Still, if you don't find the Start menu tiles useful, they're easy enough to minimize or get rid of altogether—simply right-click or long tap a tile for resize/remove options.

3. Continuum Simplifies Using Hybrid Mobile Devices

Hybrid and convertible portables (touch screen-enabled laptops that work like tablets when you fold back or detach the keyboard) give you the best of both worlds. But in Windows 8.1, after you change from laptop to tablet mode (or vice-versa), you have to manually switch between the touch-friendly Start screen and the conventional, and decidedly touch-unfriendly, Desktop mode.

In contrast, Windows 10's Continuum feature will automatically jump between "tablet" and "desktop" modes when you change hardware modes (or you can also set it to ask before switching), formatting menus and apps properly for either touch or keyboard/mouse input.

Moreover, Windows 10 no longer locks tile-based apps to full-screen display. They now run in resizable windows when in desktop mode, which allows them to better coexist alongside conventional apps.   

You'll find the Windows 10 Tablet mode settings under Settings > System > Tablet mode.

4. Task View and Virtual Desktops Reduce Clutter

If you're the type that's always so hip-deep in open windows that you have trouble finding one in particular, Windows 10's Task View and Virtual Desktops should save you considerable time and aggravation.

Windows 10 task view

With Task View you can easily navigate between open windows and organize them into Virtual Desktops.

Jump into Task View via the button on the Taskbar (or press the Windows + Tab key combination) and you'll summon thumbnail views of all your open windows, which makes it easy to locate and switch to the one you want. Even better, organize them by dragging and dropping them into multiple Virtual Desktops (for example, keep documents in one desktop, Web browsing in another).

5. Goodbye to OneDrive "Online-only" Placeholders

Windows 8.1 introduced the notion of OneDrive "online-only" placeholder files. These files appear in File Explorer despite the fact that they're not synced to your PC (i.e. the files exist only in the cloud).

The idea was to let you easily browse, and search, OneDrive files without having to store all of them on your PC, and it was a boon to many people who appreciated being able to download online-only files on demand just by clicking on them. However, it was also a bane to others who didn't necessarily realize files weren't actually on their PC until they lacked an Internet connection with which to retrieve the files.

For better or worse, Windows 10 does away with this "have your cake and eat it too" approach to OneDrive.  Instead, it asks you which OneDrive files and folders you want to sync with your PC, and then it shows you only those files in File Explorer. The upshot is that the only way to view or access unsynchronized OneDrive items in Windows 10 is by syncing them first, or via a browser.  If you're going to miss this feature, take comfort as Microsoft has indicated that placeholder capabilities are due to return in a OneDrive update later this year. 

The Top-10 Windows 10 Essentials—Continued

6. Simpler Searching with Cortana

Windows 8.1's tile/desktop split personality often made searching your PC or the Web more cumbersome than it needed to be. Windows 10 addresses this by adding Cortana, the Siri-like "digital assistant" from Windows Phone.

Windows 10 Cortana

Cortana, Windows 10's "digital assistant" lets you search your PC or the Web by voice.

Cortana is within easy reach whether you're using Windows 10 in Tablet or Desktop mode, and it's equally adept at finding for files, apps, and settings as it is at searching the Web. Moreover, since Cortana understands spoken commands (surprisingly well) you can ask her to retrieve information or perform tasks such as setting an appointment or opening an app without lifting a finger. (If you type your commands instead of speaking them, Cortana will remain silent and simply display the results.)      

7. Quick Access to Notifications and Settings

Windows 10 takes another cue from smartphones with a revamped Action Center. Swipe in from the right edge of the screen (or click-tap the Action Center icon in the Windows tray, or press Windows + A), and you can quickly check app and system notifications (e.g. a new message or a maintenance alert) without having to open or switch to an app.

Windows 10: Action Center

The Action Center puts important notifications and settings within easy reach.

The Action Center keeps frequently-used system settings—Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Airplane mode, to name just a few—a swipe or keystroke away, which is a big improvement over Windows 8.1, which buried many important settings layers deep in menus.

8. Internet Explorer is History (Sort of)

The default Web Browser in Windows 10 isn't Internet Explorer—it's called Microsoft Edge. And this isn't just a name change, either; it's a completely different piece of software. Edge seems much quicker and more responsive than its predecessor, but it's also still something of a work in progress. Edge doesn't yet support browser extensions, for example, but Microsoft says that capability is coming later this year, and that many extensions written for the Chrome and Firefox browsers will work with Edge with few-to-no modifications.   

For now though, Windows 10 still includes IE (11) for use in the event of any site compatibility or rendering problems. (IE 11 is hidden from the Start menu, however, so do a search to find it.)

9. Mandatory Windows Updates

With previous versions of Windows you could choose whether or not to automatically download and/or install operating system updates. A fair number of people tend to choose "not," which results in lots of unpatched (and potentially exploitable) PCs.

In the interest of keeping the millions of systems uniformly up-to-date, Windows 10 significantly limits your control over the update process. Windows 10 Home Edition downloads and installs all updates—be they security patches or new/modified features—period, though you can still control when any necessary restart takes place. Also, to avoid sticking you with an unexpectedly high data usage bill, Windows 10 won't download updates over a connection you define as "metered."

Windows 10 Pro users (and the IT admins that support such systems) get a bit more leeway with a "Defer Upgrades" option that postpones the download and installation of non-security updates for a few months.

Notwithstanding the potential benefits of updating systems without user intervention, the other side of that coin was recently on display when a defective Windows 10 update issued barely a week after launch caught a number of users in a reboot loop.

10. Share Your Wi-Fi Login Info

Another new feature that Windows 10 takes from Windows Phone is Wi-Fi Sense, which lets you share login information about a Wi-Fi network with your Windows 10-using contacts. This in turn lets them connect to that network without having to know (or indeed, being able to see) the password. Conversely, Wi-Fi Sense also lets you connect to a network that one of your contacts has shared.

Windows 10: Wi-Fi Sense

If you allow it to, Wi-Fi Sense will share your Wi-Fi login info with contacts (and share theirs with you).

While certainly convenient, Wi-Fi sense (which is enabled by default) also has security implications if only for the indiscriminate way it shares Wi-Fi info—you can broadly choose whether or not to share with Facebook, Skype, and Outlook.com contacts, but not include or exclude individual contacts.

If you don't want to share Wi-Fi login info, be sure to leave the "Share network with my contacts" box unchecked when connecting to a Wi-Fi network. If you want to change other Wi-Fi Sense defaults, go to Settings Network & Internet > Wi-Fi > Manage Wi-Fi settings.

Joseph Moran is a technology writer and IT consultant who specializes in services for consumers and small businesses. He's written extensively for numerous print and online publications, and is the co-author of two previous books on Windows.

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