Windows 10 is familiar, but different. The latest version of Microsoft's PC operating system marks a return to the traditional desktop interface with a Start menu, while adding the voice-controlled Cortana virtual assistant, a notification center, and other new features.
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The Start Menu is Back
Yes, it's back ... but with a few changes. Clicking the Start button, or pressing the Windows key on your keyboard, will open a pop-up menu that doesn't take up the entire screen. The new Start menu contains live tiles -- interactive apps that show constantly changing data like news, stock, and weather info -- which you can right-click to remove. You can also resize the Start menu by clicking and dragging its edges.
Universal Windows Apps Now Run in Windows
Windows 8 introduced a new type of application, which Microsoft once called "Metro" apps. These apps ran in a special full-screen environment that was entirely separate from your normal desktop, making them confusing and inconvenient for most desktop users. With Windows 10, Microsoft is making these applications more useful to everyone. These "universal apps" will now run in windows on your desktop, where they'll work alongside your traditional desktop apps. You can download and install most of them from the Windows Store.
Tablet Mode is Available, but Optional
You'll see the Windows desktop by default on a typical laptop or desktop PC. But there's also a "tablet mode" where Windows 10 presents a full-screen, Windows 8-style interface. It's automatically enabled on tablets. If you have a convertible PC -- a laptop/tablet hybrid like the Microsoft Surface Pro series -- detaching or attaching the keyboard will prompt you to switch in and out of tablet mode.
Cortana is Your New Digital Assistant
Microsoft's voice-activated Cortana assistant -- named after the artificial intelligence in Microsoft's Halo games -- has a prime position in Windows 10. It's located on the taskbar right next to the Start button, and provides voice search and other personal assistant features. Think of Cortana as Microsoft's answer to Apple's Siri and Google's Google Now. Cortana can do everything from simple voice searches to email dictation, flight-tracking, and reminders.
Charms Are Out, Notifications Are In
Windows 8 "charms," which appear when you swipe in from the right or move your mouse to certain corners of the screen, are absent in Windows 10. Instead, options like shutting down your computer are back in the Start menu, where they belong. (In Windows 8.1, desktop users can find the "shut down" option by right-clicking the Start button.)
In Windows 10, swiping in from the right on a touch screen will open the new Action Center, which provides notifications as well as quick shortcuts to common settings like Wi-Fi and screen brightness. You can also access the Action Center by clicking the little notification bubble in your notification area.
Task View Provides Multiple Desktops
At long last, Microsoft catches up to Mac and Linux PCs with multiple virtual desktops, allowing you to organize windows and programs into several workspaces. Click the Task View icon to the right of the Cortana search box (at the bottom of the screen) to launch this feature, or press Windows Key + Tab. You'll see an overview of your open windows, which you can arrange into multiple separate desktops. For example, you might have one desktop for work tasks, and another for Facebook and general goofing around.
Microsoft Edge Replaces Internet Explorer
Windows 10 features Microsoft's new web browser, Microsoft Edge, which has an entirely new interface and streamlined engine. Microsoft claims Edge is faster the Google Chrome, a browser renown for its speedy performance. Edge also includes Cortana as well as a cool new feature called web annotations, which lets you scribbles notes and images directly on web pages. (Your annotations are saved separately. The next time you visit the page, Cortana will ask if you want to open your notes.) Browser extensions that bring additional capabilities are coming in a future update. Windows 10 also includes Internet Explorer for navigating older websites that don't work with Edge.
Windows Hello for Easy Sign-Ins
Microsoft wants to kill the password, and Windows Hello is designed to make that happen. On new PCs that include an Intel RealSense camera, Windows 10 can automatically log you in by looking at your face. Windows Hello will also enable fingerprint authentication on laptops with fingerprint sensors. If you don't have any of this new hardware, you can still log in more easily by configuring a PIN or picture password, just as you could on Windows 8.
Microsoft Accounts and OneDrive are Integrated
If you're a Windows 7 user who hasn't used Windows 8, this might be a bit of a surprise. Windows 10 encourages you to sign in with a Microsoft account, just as you'd sign into an Android device with a Google account, or an Apple device with an iCloud ID. Your Microsoft ID will automatically sign you into various Microsoft services included with Windows.
Microsoft's OneDrive cloud storage service is integrated directly into File Explorer on the Win 10 desktop, providing 15 GB of free online storage to all Windows users. It's similar to Dropbox, Google Drive, and Apple's iCloud Drive.
Windows 10 Will Get Regular, Automatic Updates
Windows Update is now automatically enabled on Windows 10 Home PCs and can't be disabled. You'll automatically get software updates when Microsoft rolls them out. Why is this mandatory? So that users don't disable Windows Update and get stuck with an out-of-date operating system that's vulnerable to malware. In a sense, Windows is becoming more like Google Chrome, meaning it's updated automatically in the background. Microsoft also plans to provide new features and other improvements on a regular basis. Future Windows updates will be free and appear regularly, Microsoft says, rather than being reserved for new, paid versions that arrive every few years.