Thursday, July 30, 2015

Windows 10 is the Best Version Yet—Once the Bugs Get Fixed

I'm more conflicted about Windows 10 than I have been about any previous version of Windows. In some ways, the operating system is extremely ambitious; in others, it represents a great loss of ambition. The new release tries to walk an unsteady path between being Microsoft's most progressive, forward-looking release and simultaneously appealing to Windows' most conservative users.

And it mostly succeeds, making this the best version of Windows yet—once everything's working. In its current form, the operating system doesn't feel quite finished, and I'd wait a few weeks before making the leap.

Windows 7 was a straightforward proposition, a testament to the power of a new name. Windows Vista may have had a poor reputation, but it was a solid operating system. Give hardware and software vendors three years to develop drivers, come to grips with security changes, fix a few bugs, and freeze the hardware requirements, and the result was Windows 7—an operating system that worked with almost any hardware, almost any software. It was comfortable and familiar. Add some small but desirable enhancements to window management and the task bar, and the result was a hugely popular operating system, the high point of the entire Windows family's development.

Windows 8 was similarly easy to understand. With it, Microsoft wanted to make Windows work well on tablets while also wanting an operating system that continued to support the enormous legacy of Win32 applications.

Windows 8 did both of these things—just not at the same time. It contained the basics of a very competent tablet platform, with particularly strong handling of multitasking. It also contained, in most regards, a solid desktop operating system that was very similar to Windows 7. Some things it even made a little better; in Windows 8, for instance, the taskbar finally became multi-monitor aware, ending the need for various third-party hacks.

But these worlds collided in an ugly fashion. The tablet part was never self-contained, with touch users forced to visit finger-unfriendly desktop apps to access a full range of system settings, manage files, and so on. And many desktop users resented being forced to use a full-screen application launcher that, while perfectly functional, was clearly designed for touch users first.

This operating system showcased some of Microsoft's worst habits. Windows has always been a frustratingly inconsistent platform, sporting a mix not just of visual styles but also of user interface elements. It contains, for example, multiple different styles of "menu." While these all do roughly the same thing, they differ both in how they look and in some of the finer points of their behavior. Windows 8 introduced yet another new and very different appearance and set of interface elements to Windows, with no effort to unify and integrate. (...)

Since Windows 8's launch, touch PCs have proliferated, and while there was some initially awkward experimentation, manufacturers today have a decent idea of how to do touch systems. While there's still some skepticism about the value of touch on a desktop PC, on laptops it's an attractive feature, especially when paired with perhaps the best form factor innovation that has come from the Windows 8 experimentation: the 360-degree hinge. As an occasional business traveler sitting in misery in cattle class, the ability to use a laptop in "stand" mode or "tent" mode for watching movies is genuinely useful. Touch makes it practical.

Similarly, devices such as Microsoft's own Surface Pro 3 have found a small but growing audience. Its combination of touch, pen, and keyboard has won plaudits, and, while it's still early days, it looks as if Microsoft is starting to build a small but credible PC hardware business.

Which all means that Microsoft's broad desire with Windows 8 was perhaps not entirely off-base. Touch systems are not some discrete category entirely disjointed from more traditional machines. Rather, there's a continuum of devices, ranging from the dedicated mouse-and-keyboard machine through to the tablet that may occasionally be paired with a Bluetooth keyboard and all the way on to the smartphone, which will almost never use anything but touch. Microsoft continues to want to make Windows an operating system that works across this spectrum—and the dream lives on in Windows 10.

by Peter Bright, Ars Technica |  Read more:
Image: Andrew Cunningham