The Most Important Updates in Windows 10

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Windows 10 is officially out. It’s the biggest update to Windows in years and represents a number of new directions for Microsoft’s premier software product. Windows 10 replaces Windows 8 and 8.1, and serves to attract those Windows 7 users that never bothered to update to Windows 8. There are a host of new features in Windows 10, ranging from updated interfaces to new apps and services.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the new platform is that you don’t have to pay for it, so long as you already have Windows 8 or Windows 7. But if you’re looking for a reason or two to update your current Windows 8 machine or aging Windows 7 box, here are the top new features in Windows 10 that might make you want to.

The best new features in Windows 10

1. Refreshed user interface

The most obvious change from Windows 8 to Windows 10 is the new user interface. It’s still flat and modern looking, but Microsoft went through great efforts to make it work for both touchscreen devices and computers that rely mostly on a mouse and keyboard. While Windows 8 essentially forced a touch interface on users whether they had hardware that took advantage of it or not, Windows 10 works equally well on both touch devices and mouse-and-keyboard PCs. Fullscreen apps can now be easily windowed on the desktop, and there are new ways to arrange and manage multiple windows for easier multitasking.

For power users, Microsoft has implemented new windows-switching gestures similar to Expose on the Mac and native virtual desktops. All of these updates are pretty minor in themselves, but they add up to a much better user experience for the vast majority of Windows users, something that Microsoft whiffed on with its last version of Windows. If Windows 8’s take on the user interface was too different from prior versions of Windows for you, Windows 10 should be just what you’ve been looking for.

2. New Start Menu

A big part of Windows 10’s interface overhaul is the new Start menu, which replaces the fullscreen Start screen of Windows 8. It’s a blend of the traditional Start menu from Windows 7 and earlier with the Live Tiles of Windows 8 and Windows Phone. Users looking for quick access to recently used apps, the file explorer, and power controls will be just as happy as those that want the extra information displayed by Live Tiles. It’s a really great blend of the old and new and rectifies one of the biggest complaints many had with Windows 8 (and Windows 8.1, which fixed some issues, but didn’t really go far enough).

3. Cortana

Windows 10 includes something that Microsoft has never offered in a desktop operating system before: a built-in virtual personal assistant. Cortana, which first became available on Windows Phone last year, is Microsoft’s answer to Google Now and Apple’s Siri, providing useful information at a glance. In Windows 10, Cortana is built into the system’s native search function, pulling in both local and web-based data whenever you perform a search on your machine. It also crawls your mail and calendar to provide updates on upcoming events, plane tickets, travel plans, and more without you having to ask for it.

Cortana in Windows 10 is also able to be fully voice controlled and can even be activated with a simple “Hey Cortana” command. You can set reminders, perform searches, send email, add calendar events, and more with just your voice. If your experience with a PC has been mostly silent so far, Cortana might just get you talking to your computer and liking the results.

4. New Mail, Calendar, Photos, Maps apps

Every major new version of an operating system comes with new versions of core apps for email, calendar, photos, mapping, and more. But with Windows 10, you might actually want to use these core apps, because the updated versions of them are actually quite good. The Mail and Calendar apps have been completely overhauled with new interfaces and features. They borrow a lot of ideas and design from Microsoft’s very highly rated Outlook app on iOS, and support a variety of email and calendar services. Threaded conversations, easy ways to delete or archive mail, and gesture controls make the new Mail app fast and efficient to use. Mail and calendar also provide a lot of data to make the Cortana personal assistant more useful, so even if you plan to use web tools to manage your inbox and appointments, it’s worth the time to set up your email and calendar accounts when you install Windows 10.

The built-in Photos app has been redesigned with a new interface and plugs into Microsoft’s OneDrive service to make it easy to view all of the images or videos backed up from your phone. It also has automatic image enhancement features and basic editing tools. Maps has also been overhauled with a new interface and better integration with other parts of the system, such as Cortana.

5. Continuum

A big piece of Windows 10’s new interface is the Continuum feature, which lets devices that can be both tablets and PCs seamlessly switch between the two modes. Continuum allows Microsoft to keep the tablet-style interface ideas of Windows 8 without interfering with the desktop interface that works best with a mouse and keyboard. On a device like the Surface Pro 3, disconnecting the keyboard will switch apps to their fullscreen mode and turn the Start menu into a fullscreen experience. Pop the keyboard back on, and the interface will revert back to the windowed desktop and standard Start menu. Continuum will also allow smartphones to act as full-fledged computers when connected to appropriate displays, once Windows 10 is available on mobile later this year.

6. Edge Browser

Ever since Windows 95, Microsoft has included a web browser with its operating system. For years, that’s been Internet Explorer, which has been left behind by more modern browsers such as Google’s Chrome or Mozilla’s Firefox. For Windows 10, Microsoft is leaving the bloated and slow remnants of Internet Explorer behind and including Edge, its first new browser in 20 years. (Technically, Windows 10 still ships with Internet Explorer mostly for enterprise compatibility purposes, but most people using the system will be using Edge.)

Edge is a completely overhauled browser that’s lean, fast, and supports modern web experiences. It also includes useful features such as integration with Cortana and a note-taking mode that lets you doodle on a web page and share it with others. The first version of Edge will still be too bare-boned for power users — conveniences such as extension support are not yet available — but for the vast majority of people, it should provide a much better web browsing experience than anything Microsoft has offered before.

7. Action Center

Windows 8 included a basic notification panel, but Windows 10 takes it to another level with its Action Center. Accessible via a swipe in from the right on the screen or trackpad or by clicking the icon in the task bar, Action Center organizes notifications by app and provides quick access to a number of commonly used settings. It’s completely customizable in terms of appearance and which apps display notifications, and you can even perform actions on certain alerts, such as calendar notifications.

8. Xbox streaming to PC

Windows 10 is coming with an all new Xbox app that lets you stream games from your console to a PC or laptop. It’s still a beta feature for now, but it works quite well over Wi-Fi and makes use of Windows’ native support for the Xbox’s USB controller. It also offers the ability to record your gaming session up to two hours in length right to your laptop’s drive. If you’ve been fighting for time on the TV to play games but other people are hogging the screen, this might be just the reason you need to get Windows 10.

9. Hello

Windows 10 has a new, cleaner lock screen that’s available to everyone. But if you have a laptop or PC with supported hardware, the new Hello feature will let you log in without ever typing in a password. Just sit in front of your computer, and Windows 10 will recognize you and log in. It’s similar to image recognition login systems we’ve seen for years on Android, but Microsoft insists it’s far more foolproof thanks to the requirement of special cameras and infrared hardware. There aren’t many laptops that can take advantage of Hello just yet, but that will likely change quite a bit in a short time.

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