A new Windows – again?
On 29 July 2015, Microsoft released the newest version of its operating system, Windows 10. You might be forgiven for thinking it seems only last year that Windows 8 came out, but it has been almost exactly three years since the release of Windows 8, in line with Microsoft’s release schedule.
Microsoft has a patchy history with Windows releases. There is a good likelihood that your business still operates some computers with Windows XP and Vista installed. The venerable Windows XP, despite no longer being supported by Microsoft, is still estimated to be installed on over 10% of business computers. Windows XP is remembered as a familiar, effective and, if not loved, at least appreciated operating system. Windows Vista – not so much.
It is a virtual certainty that your business will also have Windows 7 computers, but as the popular Windows 7 has been available until very recently, you might not yet be running any machines with Windows 8. Windows 8 suffered from some of the same perception issues as experienced by Windows Vista. With Windows 8, Microsoft attempted to create an operating system for tablets and mobile devices, but users on standard desktops found the adjustments jarring. Perhaps unfairly, Windows 8 acquired a bad reputation and despite Microsoft’s attempts to smooth over the discomfort with its 8.1 update, many users and businesses have avoided updating to the new system.
With this in mind, we have written this review with new users in mind – those with no experience of Windows 8. Windows 10 is a hybrid of familiarity, with many elements and improvements from Windows 7 retained or reimplemented, and the best elements of Windows 8 refined and streamlined.
Windows, mostly as you know it
Windows 10 takes a step back from the adventurous departures of Windows 8, with familiar interface elements and tasks restored. Many of the complaints levelled at Windows 8 were aimed at the replacement of the Start Menu with a Start Screen – a full screen replacing the familiar pop-up panel with active and resizeable tiles. These tiles still exist in Windows 10, but wedged into the new-style Start menu. In Windows 8 these “Live Tiles” would show your latest LinkedIn updates, news headlines, current weather or stocks information, and other relevant data. While they’re hidden inside the Start Menu, they lose the benefit of being instantly visible. It can still be useful to see, for instance, that you have new emails without needing to open your email client.
Instant information is also available in the Notification Centre. Living in the system tray, the Notification panel provides you instant visibility of new emails, application updates and requests, and other important or useful information as configured. The notification centre is completed with the action tiles, giving direct access to options to turn wifi, bluetooth or flight mode on or off, connect to a VPN, set the computer into tablet mode, take instant notes, or other functions gathered into a convenient location.
Tablet mode is automatically enabled upon undocking an appropriate device, for instance a convertible tablet device. Tablet mode brings back the full screen start menu that caused Windows 8 so much grief (but was widely acknowledged as being ideal for use on a touch device) and makes other changes to make the system finger-friendly without a mouse.
Another obvious addition to Windows 10 is the universal Search bar, permanently located at the bottom left of the screen. Replacing the search Charm from Windows 8, this little text field allows users to search the internet (via Microsoft’s search engine, Bing) and the local computer for files and applications. In use, we found the search effective more often than not for finding specific files or applications. It will take some time before it replaces Google as the web search of choice.
The Charms of Windows 8 are gone, which will disconcert those who have become used to them but will not worry the majority who avoided the upgrade to Windows 8. Instead, system settings are scattered across a variety of locations, from the Notification panel to the Control Panel and a new Settings option on the start menu. In practice, most things users will need will just work out of the box, and those that will not can be set centrally by system administrators and Group Policy.
Under the covers, Microsoft has continued the process of streamlining and optimising it began with Windows 7. 7 was faster than Vista, and 8 was significantly faster to start and run than Windows 7. In benchmarks, Windows 10 tests as faster again – but only just. In practical terms, Windows 10 is an improvement on Windows 7, but no real advance on Windows 8.
Also new is the new web browser – Microsoft Edge, replacing Internet Explorer. Web developers across the world breathed a sigh of relief when the retirement of Internet Explorer was announced, but Edge still seems part-baked. It may mature into the “browser of tomorrow” but it’s not there yet; in our recommendation, stay with Chrome or Firefox for now.
Windows 10 for your business
Windows 10 Professional and Enterprise versions include a range of new “killer apps” that offer clear potential to businesses, but might also be of interest for private users.
The last several versions of Windows have supported alt-tab keystrokes to jump between open applications, and each version has featured further refinements to viewing the inventory of your current workspace. Alt-Tab still exists in Windows 10, but it’s been joined by Windows-Tab which arrays your open apps in a neat grid of tiles. More interesting is the new feature of Virtual Desktops. Virtual Desktops operate like separate monitors, allowing you to have applications open and arranged to your liking, protected from accidental closure or relocation until you activate that specific desktop view. Whilst it doesn’t compete with using multiple physical screens, having multiple separate desktops on a single computer is still a step up from being limited to a single screen. Power users will likely find it a significant productivity boost. Use Ctrl-Win-D to instantly create a new virtual desktop, or use the Task View icon in the taskbar.
Another power user tool is the built in support for Hyper-V. Versions of Windows 10 from Professional upwards are able to optionally install a Hyper-V manager. This is Microsoft’s answer to VMWare and other virtualisation solutions and has been built into Microsoft Server systems for years, but the inclusion in Windows 10 allows users to set up separate virtual machines for trialling software, or to safely run older or insecure operating systems. Software developers will find it a particular boon. Medium and large enterprises might find novel ways to use virtualisation for security, standard operating environment and system / software distribution purposes.
As the perennial target for virus authors and malware producers for decades, Microsoft is always at the forefront of software security, if often on the back foot. Microsoft has added new methods of logging onto Windows using biometrics or dedicated device PINs. Laptop providers have been offering fingerprint logon for years, but Windows 10’s new “Hello” features include facial recognition that automatically unlocks the computer when you approach and locks it when you leave. New computers with Windows 10 may have the hardware required for the new biometric security features; most likely your office currently does not have any machines currently able to use this feature. Windows 10 makes further advances in system security. From technical security measures such as “Device Guard” and refined User Access Control, to the automatic inclusion of Windows Defender and better default security settings in web browsers, Microsoft takes two steps forward.
And with a variety of default permissions to share data with Microsoft and others, they have taken one step backwards. Keeping an eye on the default security and sharing options is required to avoid exposing a range of information and tracking data to Microsoft, which in some business contexts may be damaging.
Some of the automatic sharing options are of benefit to businesses. For instance, operating system updates, once installed, are automatically shared across your network, reducing the internet bandwidth requirements for subsequent updates. This is just as well, as updates cannot be deferred for downloading and installing as was previously possible. This mandatory application of updates will help to keep Windows machines secure, but reduces the ability of users (and administrators) to schedule download and installation according to bandwidth and usage constraints.
A new “kiosk mode” is available in Windows 10, allowing you to create a user logon which will have access only to one Windows Store application, in full-screen mode, and no access to the rest of Windows. Businesses can use this for demonstration of applications or products, or for security purposes (for example, giving a temporary employee access to a single working application).
With Windows 10, Microsoft comes a step closer to its vision of One Windows, running everywhere. Over the coming months, Microsoft is releasing new hardware devices, including tablets and phones, running Windows 10 – theoretically, a single version of the operating system, running identically on phones, phablets, tablets and computers. Users’ Windows profiles, including logon details, installed apps, cloud file storage, desktop and wifi access details can be instantly and automatically synchronised across devices. At Adams Consulting Group we can attest to the effectiveness of this sharing, having automatically configured new machines through addition of a Microsoft account.
The Microsoft account is key to this vision. Microsoft accounts can use any email address, including Gmail or business addresses, but once you enter the Microsoft ecosystem, it becomes very easy to take advantage of shared cloud storage, synchronised accounts, and personalised settings. The free OneNote application, once experienced, falls naturally into a workflow (and is a killer app on a tablet or phone device). Making cut-down versions of Office applications free for installation on any mobile phone or small tablet (under 10 inches) supports businesses whose operations centre around creating and using Office files. Microsoft’s answer to Siri, its “Cortana” personal assistant software, is not yet available for Australia but will further entrench the company into business and personal daily life. Combined with new subscription offerings for Office (via Office 365 for businesses, or Office subscriptions for personal users), Microsoft’s new approach is to lock users in with convenience and ease. Arguably, Microsoft is late to this approach, as other providers have been using this strategy for many years, but the success or otherwise will determine Microsoft’s future.
If you operate a modern Windows machine either in your office or privately, you will probably have seen notifications from Microsoft letting you know that you are eligible for a free upgrade to this new version of Windows. The upgrade is available free, for a limited time, to current users of home and professional versions of Windows 7 and 8.
Some business users, on the other hand, will need to pay for the upgrade. Windows 10 will be installed by default on new hardware going forward (although Windows 8 will still be available for some time), so businesses will need to come to grips with the new system and the changes it brings to corporate security, ubiquitous computing and new user experience. Adams Consulting Group is able to support your business through the transition to a new operating system and can help smooth the process. Contact us to find out if you’re eligible for a free upgrade.