Windows 10 tour: The good, the bad, and the missing

Microsoft’s latest OS shows polish, promise, and pain almost everywhere you look.

Windows 10 visual tour: The good, the bad, and the missing
Credit: John Lemieux via Flickr
Windows 10 visual tour: The good, the bad, and the missing

Some day, we're assured, Windows 10 will solve all of your computing problems, greatly enhance your productivity, protect you and warn of impending problems, scale tall buildings with a single bound, and cure terminal halitosis. We aren't quite there yet.

Instead, the version of Windows 10 that's making the rounds this week has some very good traits and some that aren't so good. The basic design holds together nicely, but a number of the pieces don't quite fit or need a lot of work -- some don't even exist yet.

In this visual deep dive, we'll take a look at parts of Windows 10 that don't appear on any flashy ads. Instead, they're parts that you, as a Windows 10 customer, are going to find helpful, challenging, or downright frustrating -- possibly all three at once.

Start menu: Back but not quite its former flexible self
Start menu: Back but not quite its former flexible self

Windows 10 marks the return of the Start menu, and those who raised their pitchforks at Microsoft for dropping the Start menu in Win8 should be pleased -- with reservations.

The right side of the Start menu, where the app tiles live, is remarkably malleable. You can drag tiles into different groups, rename the groups, and resize the menu itself by dragging at the edges. You can also resize the tiles as you see fit, make them stop flipping, or delete them by right-clicking. You can add more tiles to the Start menu simply by right-clicking on a program (nearly anywhere you find one) and choosing Add to Start.

The left side of the Start menu, however, is quite rigid. As you can see in the inset at right, you can choose whether to show your most used apps (a salted list that expands as the Start menu gets taller) and/or recently added apps. You can also choose which apps appear on the lower left, as long as you select from a preordained list of 10 apps.

The old Windows 7-style ability to create your own cascading menus on the left, pin your own locations and programs on the left, and generally customize the text side of the Start menu is gone.

Accessing apps: Cutting through the sprawl
Accessing apps: Cutting through the sprawl

In place of customizable, cascading menus, we get the glob approach typified by the All Apps list you see here. Yes, there’s a “phone book”-style index that helps you traverse the mass, but heaven help ya if you think that, oh, Internet Explorer, is under “I.” That All Apps list, mashed as it is, still beats Windows 8’s shotgun blast of icons.

If you get accustomed to it, finding apps by typing the name in the Cortana search bar works reasonably well, and you can get straight to the Cortana search box by pressing the Windows key. Type Win-Paint, for example, and the Paint app appears, Win-calc brings up the Calculator.

The access problem lies not so much with fresh systems, like the one in this slide, but in upgraded systems that have been running and accumulating programs for many years. Peter Bright at Ars Technica writes about a bug in the way the Win10 Start menu works when it exceeds about 500 entries. He found that the list of All Apps is limited to about 500 entries -- and performing a search on app names has the same limitations.

Taskbar: More flexible than meets the eye
Taskbar: More flexible than meets the eye

Icons in the taskbar -- to the right of, and including, Edge’s “e” icon -- all follow the same basic pattern: You can remove them by right-clicking and choosing “Unpin this program from taskbar”; you can add new ones by firing up an app, then right-clicking on its icon and choosing “Pin this program to taskbar.” Some of the icons have right-click jumplists that include shortcuts to various incarnations of the app, such as recently opened files or frequent folders. Others, notably Edge, have no jumplist.

The Start button stands immutable, as you might expect (though you can move the entire taskbar to the top, left, or right), but the Cortana search box and the Task view icon next to Cortana can be changed. Cortana can be hidden, reduced to an icon, or appear with the “Ask me anything” box. And the Task View icon can be hidden.

Microsoft Edge: Great promise and deeply hidden search options
Microsoft Edge: Great promise and deeply hidden search options

The new browser, Microsoft Edge, shows that Microsoft is finally serious about Web browsing. Weighty tomes have been written about the demise of Internet Explorer, and I won’t miss it or its evil spawn -- ActiveX, Silverlight, browser helper objects, VBScript, VML, custom toolbars (good-bye, Ask!), attachEvent, document modes -- one little bit. I apologize to those of you who followed Microsoft’s lead and built your careers around those technologies, but they have to go.

Microsoft succumbed to the pressure (some would say the realities) of browsing in the 21st century and kept support for Flash, but the Flash player is built in, and users can turn it off with a slider in Advanced Settings. There’s PDF support built into Edge, as well.

I was startled to discover a couple of days ago that you can add alternate search engines to Edge, though the method is by no means obvious. Navigate to the site you want to use for a search engine; in this case, I went to duckduckgo.com, but the method works for google.com as well. Click the ellipses icon in the upper right, choose Settings, then View Advanced Settings. Scroll down to “Search in the address bar with” and choose “<Add new>.” If Edge can work with the search engine, it will appear in the “Choose one” box at the top. Click on it, then click Add, or Add as default.

Microsoft Edge: Not all sweetness and light
Microsoft Edge: Not all sweetness and light

Superlatives aside, Microsoft Edge has few of the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect from a fully developed Web browser.

For example, there are no extensions as yet. Microsoft has confirmed that it’s trying to build a framework inside Edge that will allow Chrome extension developers to port their extensions to Edge with “not much work to do, or zero work to do.” Replicating the Chrome API inside Edge is not a simple task.

Microsoft’s also drawing the ire of Mozilla, for one, by ignoring the choice of default Web browser during an upgrade, and making it difficult to change default Web browsers inside Windows 10 itself, as shown in the screenshot. The browser can no longer set itself as default. Mozilla CEO Chris Beard has taken to the ether, posting a blog and an open letter to Satya Nadella that details his concerns. “It is bewildering to see, after almost 15 years of progress bolstered by significant government intervention, that with Windows 10 user choice has now been all but removed.”

Cortana: Less easy, more snooping than advertised
Cortana: Less easy, more snooping than advertised

Like Edge, Cortana is also very much a work in progress. Cortana is supposed to listen, but she only occasionally (at least in my experience) listens well. Part of the problem is hardware. The type of notice shown in this slide is common -- very few microphones on computers today pass muster, and Cortana will moan about them.

If you let her, Cortana will listen to absolutely everything you say, snoop your email, look in your files, and generally carry privacy invasion to its obvious electronic limits. Microsoft gathers it all like rosebuds, stuffing Microsoft’s database with every sort of goody. That’s the price you pay for a personal assistant: She can’t very well do personal things for you, unless you give her the information.

Microsoft has a Web page that lets you clear information Cortana has gathered about you. To see it, click the Cortana ring, then the second icon for Notebook, then click Settings. If you click “Manage what Cortana knows about me in the cloud,” you get a Bing settings page, which lets you clear stored information about your saved favorites and interests. There's also a button to clear your calendar, contacts, location history, and browsing history. 

In addition, Microsoft has an entire site devoted to letting you control whether personal information collected about you can be used to target ads. (Note that this is rather different than preventing Microsoft from gathering information about you.) Go to the Choice site and plug away.

Universal apps: From the mundane to the truly incapable
Universal apps: From the mundane to the truly incapable

Microsoft’s Universal applications -- Mail, Calendar, People, Photos, OneNote, Groove Music, Movies & TV, the News, Money, Weather, and several others -- run a gamut from reasonably usable to truly pathetic. Let me start by looking at one of the good ones: the new Universal Mail app.

Universal Mail has many of the capabilities you would expect in a modern email program, though it won’t consolidate inboxes, and it always shows threads in conversation view -- you can’t simply look at mail as it comes in, chronologically.

The Calendar app works well, particularly when fed a Google Calendar. I was quite startled by how well changes in the Windows Universal Calendar app showed up on my Android phone.

But the People app is a cruel joke. If you can figure out the interface (click the ellipses icon on the right edge of the left pane, choose Settings), it’s possible to add contacts from Outlook.com, Exchange, Google, iCloud, and POP or IMAP. If you choose to Get Social Apps, you see a rude notice from the Store that “Your search for '' had no results.” The People list does little more than an Outlook 97 Contact list -- less, in fact, because you can’t export it.

Universal apps (part 2): Microsoft still can't get music or videos right
Universal apps (part 2): Microsoft still can't get music or videos right

Speaking of barely-good-enough apps, the new Universal Movies & TV app has a fatal flaw. If you minimize the window, the whole thing stops playing -- no sound at all.

The obvious solution is to install VLC, the old-fashioned Windows desktop version, which doesn’t suffer from the same problem. VLC has been playing my videos on many platforms for many years.

Microsoft has been working on Universal/Metro music and video apps for four years now. Somehow, I expect better.

The Windows Store: A hopeful wasteland
The Windows Store: A hopeful wasteland

The Windows Store is there, and it doesn’t have as many truly horrendous apps as it once had. Maybe someday the big-name apps will arrive, but for now the shelves are as bare as a 7-11 in a typhoon. Yes, you can get a Twitter app (newly updated, no less) or a Facebook app, but neither comes close to the apps on iOS or Android -- much less the Web. Instagram and Vine are OK renditions of venerable hits.

There’s still lots of junk. For example, I looked at an app (mercifully, it’s free) called How to Do. As best I can tell, it consists entirely of pages scraped word-for-word from WikiHow.com. The app doesn’t cost anything, but inside there are plenty of ads -- Low Cost Dental Implants! Reverse Mortgage Calculator! -- that link to keywordblocks.com, a site that pays for clicks. All of the written reviews for the app are 5-star. Of course.

That said, there aren’t as many out-and-out scams as once existed. But the Windows Store is still a wasteland and likely to remain so for some time.

OneDrive: Death by a thousand cuts
OneDrive: Death by a thousand cuts

OneDrive remains a constant pain. While Windows 8.1 had OneDrive working pretty well -- Windows maintained thumbnail “smart files” on your computer to show you what was actually stored in the cloud -- a range of technical problems forced them to backtrack. (Simple example: What does File Explorer do when there isn’t enough room on the machine to even store thumbnails of all those pictures you took?)

The result is a confusing array of settings. When I installed Windows 10 on this machine, I told OneDrive that I wanted to store local copies of my Documents and Public folders on the machine -- and it should keep Music, Pictures, and Videos in the cloud. Later, I decided that I wanted to put some pictures stored on the computer in OneDrive. What I got in the end was the untenable mess you see here, with duplicated folder names and files that appear to File Explorer to be in OneDrive, while OneDrive itself (accessed from the Web) doesn’t show the files.

We’ve been promised a resolution to the problem ... some day.

File History & System Restore: Some assembly required
File History & System Restore: Some assembly required

Many Windows 8 improvements continue in Windows 10, and if you are a Windows 7 user, it’d be worthwhile to look them up. Chief among them, in my opinion, is File History. Windows 7 used Shadow Copies (“Previous versions”) to back up blocks of changed data. File History offers both more thorough backups and an easier interface for retrieving them.

To get File History working, make sure you have a secondary drive available somewhere -- a second hard drive, an external drive, or a network-attached drive -- then in the Cortana search box type “file history.“ Click on the link at the top and follow the instructions to turn it on.

The old Windows 7 backup and restore, which were gutted in Windows 8, have returned in Windows 10. You can get to them from this same Control Panel applet. Click the link at the bottom to System Image Backup.

While you’re thinking of it, now’s a good time to ensure Windows is making periodic System Restore points, which you can use to roll back from simple problems (including, uh, bad forced patches). Right-click on Start, choose System. On the left, choose System protection. On the System Protection tab, check to see that your Local Disk (C:) (System) drive has Protection set On. If it isn’t, click the Configure box.

Windows updates: The great unknown
Windows updates: The great unknown

Permit me to end this tour with something of an enigma. I’ve been writing for several months about how Microsoft will force-feed updates to Windows Home customers, as well as Windows Pro customers who aren’t connected to an update server. The details are still cloudy, in my mind -- nobody outside Redmond has even seen a Windows Update for Business server, for example -- but that seems to be the direction we’re headed.

There’s no question that security patches will be distributed to everyone, although it seems likely that update server admins will be able to hold them back, at least for a short period of time, to make sure they don’t cause massive damage. Historically, the security patches have caused the most mayhem.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a little-known Microsoft utility called wushowhide (or KB 307930) that, with a few hiccups, lets you manually block specific updates, for an unknown period of time. It came in very handy when the Windows Updater suddenly started forcing a bad Nvidia video driver.

Here’s the enigma: Very late in the beta testing process, a check box appeared in Windows Update advanced options, shown in this screenshot. It’s marked "Defer upgrades." I have no idea what the box does, and the “Learn more” link doesn’t help. Perhaps those who aren’t attached to an update server will be able to defer their own upgrades. Then again, maybe not.

That’s one of the big unanswered questions at this point -- and for many of you, the chance to block unwanted patches could be a deal-breaking consideration given Microsoft’s update track record.