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Free Windows from Microsoft


September 8, 2015
By Tom Rataj

Breaking with tradition, Microsoft released the latest version of its Windows operating system in late July as a a free upgrade to users of Windows 7 through 8.1.

Vista, XP and Enterprise (corporate) installations are excluded. The offer is good until July 29, 2016. Windows Phone and Xbox One users will see their upgrade arrive later in the year.

Microsoft has skipped version 9 entirely, opting to go straight to Windows 10 (Win10). No definitive explanation has been provided.

Also changing this time around is that there won’t be new “versions” every few years. Instead Win10 will just continually evolve and all upgrades will remain free to licensed non-enterprise customers.

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{How to get it}

For most existing users a “Get Windows 10” icon appeared on their taskbar back in June. Opening the application resulted in a bit of a sales-pitch for the upgrade and the opportunity to reserve a free copy.

A hardware compatibility check is done to determine if the host computer is fully compatible. Most Windows 7 and 8x computers should be fine.

Once registered, Win10 downloads in the background within a few days. Users are notified when it’s ready to install and can do so at their leisure. The upgrade takes 30 to 90 minutes to complete, depending on hardware. Users are cautioned to back up all their data before proceeding.

{One Windows for all devices}

With Win8x, Microsoft tried to usher in a new touch-screen centric user-interface that was intended to look and feel more or less identical on every Windows device, from phones through to tablets, laptops and desktops and even the Xbox One game console.

While the concept was good, the execution was quite a mess and did not receive great reviews or sell well.

Much of this mess has been cleaned-up With Win10, although Microsoft’s work is still far from done. On a desktop or laptop computer Win10 launches into desktop mode. On a tablet, Win10 launches into a touch screen tablet mode now known as <Continuum.> It brings with it many much-needed improvements in user-interface and functionality. All users can switch between the two modes. Touch screen users will see numerous benefits.

{Major changes}

Users coming from Win7 will notice that Win10 boots up significantly faster, allowing them to get to work, or play, sooner.

The user interface has been overhauled (again), which fortunately includes a number of Win7-style pieces, including the very welcome return of the familiar (but updated) Start button.

It now functions in a hybrid Win7/8x-style, with most frequently used programs appearing as larger active tiles (as in Win8x touch screen style) on the right side of the expanded start menu. Everything else resides on the left in simple text-menu style as in Win7 and is fully customisable to suit individual needs.

Microsoft also introduces “Cortana”, a digital voice assistant previously available only on its smartphones. Cortana functions similarly to Siri, Google Now and BlackBerry Assistant.

Edge, an all new modern and light-weight Internet browser, is the new default, although Internet Explorer 11 is still available. It has a very clean, modern look that takes some getting used to. Edge includes the ability to add notes and freehand doodles to any web-page and offers a “Reader” mode, allowing complex web-pages to be viewed in an easier to read e-book style format.

The newly introduced Action Centre notification area on the right side of the screen provides a wide variety of instant notifications, including new e-mails and calendar reminders and system messages. It also includes direct access to the most commonly used system tools and settings.

A new Task View/Virtual Desktops feature allows power users to easily create, manage and switch between multiple “virtual” desktops. Instead of having two or three physical computer monitors with a variety of programs on each, they can create virtual desktops and move them on or off a single monitor. It’s not quite as efficient as multiple physical monitors but it’s a good multitasking feature, especially on smaller laptop or tablet screens.

{Security}

All versions of Win10 include several enhanced security features. Secure Boot prevents unauthorised software (like viruses and other malware) from launching before Win10. Device Guard provides additional security against malicious software.

Win10 Professional includes additional security enhancements, most notably the latest version of Microsoft’s BitLocker Encryption tool, which allows everything on the computer to be encrypted.

It also includes the Remote Access tool so tech-savvy users can remotely connect to the computers of friends and relatives to help diagnose and fix problems. The Enterprise edition includes additional security features and measures designed specifically for corporate networks.

Microsoft’s Windows Defender, an anti malware and firewall program, installs by default, although the consensus is that users should really purchase an aftermarket security suite for better protection.

Windows Update is turned on by default to ensure that updates, especially security patches, will be installed automatically. Win10 Home users cannot turn this feature off.

During installation, users will be asked to provide their Microsoft (Outlook, Hotmail etc.) user-name and password to automatically connect all related Microsoft services. User can opt to sign on to their computer by using a simple PIN number or their Microsoft account password. Computers with the latest hardware can opt to use biometric systems (fingerprint, facial recognition and iris scanning).

Microsoft’s free Cloud storage service OneDrive is now included and tightly integrated in Win10. It appears as a storage location in File Explorer and in the Save/Save As menu in all programs. The added bonus is that items saved to OneDrive are available from any Internet connected device so they are less vulnerable to loss through theft or other calamity.

The Microsoft Store, continued and enhanced from Win8x, offers free and paid apps, similar to smartphone platforms. Being relatively new, offerings are sparse in comparison to other platforms.

The built in Mail and Calendar app has been improved over previous versions, allowing users to access several different e-mail and calendar accounts while keeping everything synced. Photos and Groove provide basic functionality for images and music.

There’s an Xbox app that provides gamers access to all games they previously owned or played regardless of the hardware platform.

A few programs are missing from Win10, including Media Centre (which managed audio, video, TV and anything media related), and the Win7 desktop gadgets. DVD playback now has only a very primitive utility, so it’s best to acquire a free or paid aftermarket product. Not surprisingly, direct floppy-disk support is also gone, although external USB floppy-disk drives can be used with vendor supplied drivers.

{Privacy issues}

The user agreement and privacy policy change substantially in Win10, with the default settings surrendering additional user privacy and anonymity.

Some of it has to do with all the functionality included in Cortana, not unlike other voice-assist technologies. Other features that enable many of Microsoft’s cloud-based services such as mail, calendar and OneDrive also access user-data to make it all work seamlessly across various devices.

Users should dig into the privacy settings after reviewing some online articles on this topic. A few check boxes should probably be unchecked.

{Concensus}

The general consensus is that Win10 is a good upgrade for most. It will be familiar enough for Win7 and Win8x users, while providing many interface updates and improvements.

I installed it on my Lenovo ThinkPad 10 tablet, which took about one hour, and found it improved many of the touch screen features found in Win8x.

For those not qualified for the free upgrade, Win10 is available at retail for $119 (Home) and $199 (Pro). Most new computers now come preloaded with Win10.


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