Microsoft Announces Free Windows 10 Upgrade With Cortana Integration, Universal Apps

In a perfect world, we all could forget all about Windows 8 and the headaches that it caused for regular consumers all over the world. Microsoft’s heart was in the right place; it sought out to create an operating system that would not only cater to its existing base of desktop and notebook users, but also to the growing tablet market. However, the company missed the mark and ended up with a UI that did more to frustrate than to increase the productivity of users. Microsoft sought to right the ship with tweaks in Windows 8.1, but many consumers had already put on their life preservers at that point.

Microsoft has learned from its Windows 8.x mistakes and even skipped right over “9” to further distance itself from the controversy with the next version of Windows. The result is Windows 10, which Microsoft first announced in late September and proclaimed its “most comprehensive platform ever.” When Microsoft says “comprehensive,” it isn’t kidding: Windows 10 will encompass platforms ranging from smartphones to tablets to notebooks to desktops. Today, Microsoft is saying that it wishes to introduce “More personal computing” with Windows 10. 


Free Upgrades For [Most] Windows Users 

When it comes to upgrades, Microsoft is doing something remarkable here. Customers that already have Windows 7 or Window 8.1 installed will get a free upgrade to Windows 10 during the first year of its availability. This is huge news and should do wonders for ensuring that Windows 10 adoption skyrockets from the moment of release. Likewise, smartphones running Windows 8.1 will also receive a free update to Windows 10.

"Once a device is upgraded to Windows 10, we'll be keeping it current for the supported lifetime for the device,” said Terry Myerson, Microsoft’s Windows Chief.

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Continuum Rights The Wrongs of Windows 8.x

We can’t talk about Windows 10 without first detailing the headlining feature which aims to correct the biggest problem with Windows 8.x — the dueling user interfaces. Continuum aims to nip that nuisance in the bud by allowing users to easily switch between touch- and keyboard/mouse-centric environments. Continuum will automatically kick in for multi-mode devices like Microsoft’s own Surface Pro 3 or devices like the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga. For example, a Surface Pro 3 would obviously operate in the touch environment when in tablet mode, however, the system would prompt the user to switch to a non-touch environment as soon as the keyboard is attached. 

But Continuum isn’t the only new addition with Windows 10; Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore today announced a number of new features that will prompt Windows 7 (and battle-worn Windows 8.x users) to upgrade. 

UI Tweaks Here and There

Action Center has been introduced to allow quick and easy access to oft-changed settings including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and screen brightness. It also provides direct access to app notifications, which are synced across all Windows 10 devices. In addition, a new full screen Start Screen option has been introduced for those that prefer the Windows 8.1 look versus the more Windows 7-centric Start menu seen in the early builds of Windows 10.

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The new Action Center

Cortana for the Desktop

Cortana has made its way from Windows Phone to your PC or tablet’s desktop. Cortana has been upgraded to perform searches and interact with the activities that are prevalent on the PC side of things. That means that Cortana can search your local documents and photos and even items stored on your OneDrive. You can also command Cortana to play music for you, or tell her “Hey Cortana, please be quiet” which will cause your music to stop; this is definitely a nice touch. 

"Having Cortana on your PC is like having another member of the family sitting around and helping you get things done." 

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The digital assistant has also been upgraded with a number of new tricks, including the ability to perform impressions (Cortana tried her best Yoda impression during today’s demo). Cortana’s speech patterns are also more lifelike and not nearly as synthetic as you would find with competing digital assistants like Siri.

Tailoring Windows 10 for Devices 8-inches and Below

Belfiore demoed an early build of Windows 10 running on a Lumia 1520. This version of Windows 10 in effect replaces both the unloved Windows RT and Windows Phone 8.1, and is tailored for ARM devices. It brings with it in-line responses to notifications, the ability to “float” the keyboard on the screen to a position of your liking, and new dictation options. Another new feature is the addition of Skype into the messaging app. You’ll be able to easily switch between SMS/MMS and Skype (along with other future third-party apps) easily when communicating with your contacts. And the setting menu has also been THANKFULLY cleaned up from the messy scrolling lists that are currently implemented.

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Microsoft is making a big deal about ensuring that all of your devices live in harmony, thus Windows 10 smartphones will of course be in constant sync with your PC or tablet. Your Action Center alerts sync across devices. Microsoft’s new, lightweight Spartan browser will also make its way to the smartphone version of Windows 10, relegating Internet Explorer to legacy operations. 

Microsoft will begin rolling out early builds of Windows 10 for phones to Windows Insiders shortly. 

Universal Apps for Windows 10

Windows PCs and Windows Phone devices currently have separate app stores, but Microsoft is looking to change this in a big way. Microsoft is making it easier for developers to create both PC and smartphone apps from a single codebase, allowing for universal apps that should in theory bring much needed app reinforcements to Windows Phone. Microsoft is showing developers how it’s done with universal versions of some of its core apps.

Microsoft pissed off a lot of Windows Phone customers when it rolled out fresh versions of Office for iOS and Android, leaving them to soldier with older, inferior versions. Belfiore explained earlier this month that Microsoft hadn’t forgotten Windows Phone users, and he delivered today with a demo of universal Office suite for Windows 10 (which will be free of course for smartphone users). Mobile versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint have been upgraded to support the Office Ribbon and the overall look of the UI is very polished (PowerPoint has even been upgraded to support hardware graphics acceleration). Wireless printing is supported which is a boon for those that may need to quickly edit and print a document. Outlook has also been upgraded as a universal app and works across phone, tablet, and PC platforms. The full Word engine has been built in.

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Microsoft currently has roughly three percent of the global smartphone market, putting it well behind Apple’s iOS and light years behind Google’s dominant Android operating system. Improving the app situation is definitely a move in the right direction for advancing the platform.

Overall, Windows 10 is shaping up to be a might fine operating system release for Microsoft. It’s also a very impressive project as it encompasses devices ranging from smartphones to laptops to massive all-in-one PCs. Microsoft has definitely learned its lessons from Windows 8.x and there’s little to be upset about with the company’s direction with Windows 10. We can’t wait to see how the operating system matures over the coming months, and are eager to test out the latest builds that will be offered to Windows Insiders.