Windows 10 Impressions

Windows 10

About a month ago I moved my desktop Windows installation to the Windows Insider Preview Program, which gets you an early and unfinished version of Windows 10. Tomorrow the first regular Windows upgrades to 10 will begin.

Kind of like Chrome’s different update channels, there are two different paths in the preview program. The different update channels, or paths, or rings as Microsoft likes to call them determine how quickly you’ll get updates and in what condition they’re in and exactly how broken you’d like your machine at any time.

I chose the default slow ring because I’d rather my gaming computer’s operating system wasn’t completely broken during my preview program experience, just somewhat broken.

That is exactly how I ended up with a fairly broken Windows 10 installation the first night where I could use it for maybe ten minutes before a giant error message was displayed telling me that I had to log out immediately. This message would go away if I rebooted my computer. Logging out just made it happen again the next time I logged in. This is just the nature of pre-release software. When I next updated to a newer pre-release version of Windows 10, no more errors for a while.

Well, I did have to reinstall the Visual Studio C++ redistributable files manually so that Logitech’s awful gaming software could run at start-up, but that wasn’t a system-ending disaster like the first prerelease I tried.

In Windows 10 there are now just two Windows Update settings for how updates are delivered to your computer and neither of them lets you choose if you want the updates downloaded and installed. Towards the end of my pre-release Windows experience I ran into issues with Windows Update forcing new versions of Nvidia’s Geforce graphics driver. Despite having the driver for my video card installed manually through the Geforce Experience desktop program, Windows Update would attempt to install newer versions itself. Throughout this mess the driver would incorrectly choose which output to use and I would end up having to turn on my TV in order to regain control of my desktop. Not fun. There is a program that Microsoft offers to reject particular updates, it is not sufficient for resolving this issue as the next version that comes via Windows Update will need to be rejected as well. I would recommend that anyone who doesn’t want to run into this mess let Windows Update handle the driver installation for their video card and not install the driver manually. These issues may be resolved in the shipping version of Windows 10.

Everything else seemed to work fine once that was sorted out and my older games continued to work just as they had before. I’m about 40 or 50 hours into Fallout: New Vegas and it continues to run in Windows 10 just like it did in Windows 8.1.

But hey, there are new features in Windows 10!

When you clicked the Windows-logo button in Windows 8.1, or if you pressed a Windows key on your keyboard in 8 or 8.1, you would be removed from the familiar desktop and whisked away to the tiled application launcher called the start screen. This start screen felt more at home for the tiled phone and tablet apps that you could get from the Windows app store that nobody uses unless they’re on a phone or a tablet.

I don’t mind when interfaces change and provide some kind of progress. People get upset, but they usually adjust to it.

Though I didn’t agree entirely with the general sentiment, I understand why the start-screen replacing the start-menu put so many people off of Windows 8 and 8.1. The start-screen was just so unfamiliar. It never even made sense to keep calling this Windows when it was presented on a tablet or phone where you could only run one or two programs at a time. Overlapping and arranging applications is part of why the operating system could be called Windows in the first place.

In Windows 10, clicking the Windows logo in the lower left presents you with something that at first glance looks like a modern start menu. If you look a little closer you’ll see you’ve been fooled again. This is a hybrid start menu. In addition to adding the tiles from the start screen in a bizarre pop-up box that takes visual priority and space in the interface over your list of programs.

This is even worse than the start screen and feels like another step backwards from the company that couldn’t stick to their plans for the Xbox One.

At least on the start screen every tile and application icon wasn’t crowded together in a smaller visible area. Here, desktop programs are fighting with tiled applications for space. The programs in this new start-menu/screen hybrid are named similarly and only have slightly different icons from their desktop application counterparts. There are two versions of Skype here in bizarro land.

Do you have the desktop version of Skype already installed? The tile-lovers at Microsoft don’t care. They’ve stuffed a tile that looks confusingly similar to the regular Skype icon into this new franken-start-menu to confuse you even if you already have the desktop version installed. If you click this false Skype you’re presented with a simple screen encouraging you to download this terrible version. Don’t do it. It will be very confusing for anyone who isn’t technically savvy to upgrade to Windows 10 and try to launch Skype.

The only improvement to running these phone and tablet apps on your desktop in Windows 10 is that tiled apps are now windows. No more full-screen calculators on a 27 inch monitor unless you intentionally hit the maximize button. Finally, progress.

One actual improvement that I’ve been excited about since first hearing about it was the ability to stream games from my Xbox One to Windows 10.

Game streaming works very well if you can look past the image quality degradation in the process. Compared to the same image on my TV some extra compression artifacts and color banding were visible in this pre-release version of the Xbox streaming software. The only real disappointment is that you can’t use a mouse and keyboard to play the Master Chief Collection. Instead you can use either a gamepad plugged into your desktop or the wireless gamepad going to your Xbox One to control streamed games from your Xbox One. With a kid on the way I can see this as a useful feature for when the little one is watching cartoons and mom or dad need to go hunt some aliens.

I had some fun playing Halo 3: ODST again, but it would be better if original Xbox, 360, and One games just worked on Windows 10 machines without relying on streaming. Emulator authors are already working on it, but haven’t been as successful as authors of emulators for older consoles.

Another new feature is the ability to record your desktop computer gameplay and share it via the Xbox app. You would be better served by using the Open Broadcaster Software instead. You’ll notice a pattern here. These new gaming features feel like more insincerity from what should be the most successful computer gaming platform in the world. Instead of Windows 10 gaming improvements, these feel like the Xbox console encroaching into Windows territory just like with the old Games for Windows Live system.

Perhaps DirectX 12 will be useful in this regard, but without any games that require it I can’t say that it helps today. Microsoft touts that it will improve performance for games that are limited by the CPU today. My understanding is that games are more limited by the GPU if you have a discrete graphics card already. So, I guess it might help out the Surface devices. Hooray for them. Even Microsoft’s Xbox spokesperson Larry Hyrb can’t come up with more than DirectX 12 when describing the actual upgrades in 10 for gamers.

The only exclusive gaming experience in Windows 10 at launch will be Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition. If nothing else, Microsoft is excellent at creating the most ridiculously long names for products. I can’t speak to the quality of Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition, it wasn’t included in the preview program and will be a beta when it is released on the same day as Windows 10. This version of Minecraft will be free to those who already have purchased the game directly from Mojang’s website. The main upgrade to this version appears to be that it won’t require Java. Which is good, because Java in 2015 is awful.

Cortana is another new feature in Windows 10. Named after the Halo video game character, she is supposed to be like Apple’s Siri, but a little bit more conversational and unfortunately she seems more likely to boot you off to Microsoft’s Bing web search. Like Apple’s “Hey, Siri,” you can have Cortana listen for the catch-phrase “Hey, Cortana” and then she will then keep listening for a command of some kind which is handy when you quickly want to check the weather before heading out.

I just spent a few minutes playing a movie guessing game with Cortana, it’s fun up until she misinterprets what I’m saying and launches a movie editing program.

Surprisingly, that is pretty much it for front-facing new features in Windows 10 that I care about. There are new versions of Microsoft’s web browser, music, e-mail, calendar, and photo programs but I don’t do anything besides playing games on Windows. All of my work is on my Macbook Pro.

I did briefly try out the new e-mail and calendar programs, but they’re from bizarro tile land, and not terribly useful. The mail app can’t seem to display a unified inbox when you have multiple accounts, so I suppose that feature is reserved for the desktop Outlook program. Outlook 2013 still prompts you to enter the password your Internet Service Provider gave you when you go to set up your first e-mail account. Even the least tech savvy people have learned their lessons from moving ISPs and losing their e-mail at one time or another and won’t make the same mistake again. At least the new mail app properly understands how to configure a non-Outlook server account. Outlook 2013 did not understand any of my non-outlook server e-mail account and was confused by the idea that it should support them. I was eventually able to get an account into it in order to compare it with the new Windows 10 mail app and would not want to repeat the experience. Stick with web-mail or the Windows 10 mail app.

There are performance improvements in Windows 10. I don’t have any interest in benchmarking them, but they’ll be doubly improved for anyone who rejected Windows 8 or Windows 7. Start-up times in particular are faster for anyone coming from Windows 7 and the desktop was as speedy and responsive as it should have been, even in the pre-release version of Windows that I was using.

Overall, I feel like Windows 10 is not as big an upgrade to 8.1 as it might have been if Microsoft hadn’t been held back by the start-screen grumblings from desktop users. It is still an important step for users who didn’t upgrade to Windows 8 and 8.1 from the unsupported Windows XP or Windows 7, but it feels like 10 could have been more if Microsoft had continued down whatever path they were going in Windows 8. Microsoft continues to be freightened of torpedoing legacy compatbility and moving on. Even their advertising copy for Windows 10 reads:

This is the one that you’ve been waiting for.

Despite the confusing terminology with an asterisk Microsoft is using to encourage upgrades I would encourage anyone who is currently using Windows as a gaming platform to upgrade after a month or two. Those who aren’t reliant on the latest technology for fun should probably hold off until later this year but certainly before uncle Scrooge’s free upgrade offer ends.

Unless Apple starts treating games as a serious need for Mac OS X or the Year of the Linux desktop finally gets here, we don’t have a better option.

Author: Jack Slater

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