Microsoft have announced to the world the general availability of Windows 10 on July 29th. Having used the Windows 10 Preview since October of last year, I’m skeptical about their very optimistic release deadline.
Every new Preview build have had serious installation problems in the realm were most users wouldn’t be able to resolve the problem and get stuck. This is only to be expected from any early software preview. However, we’re now rapidly approaching the release deadline and there have been few signs of improvement to the installation process. Here is a summary of the major problems and concerns I’m having over the current Windows 10 Preview release, build 10130. All issues have been reproduced on two different computers with different hardware configurations.
Every attempt at updating from one Preview build to the next build have required an intricate dance of reboots, service stop-starts, hardware removal, new system account creations, and post-installation recovery work. When you finally manage to start the installation the average installation time required is 34 hours. The latest build 10130 took 36 hours to upgrade from build 10122, and 4 hours to install from scratch on one system, but only 20 minutes on the second attempt on the same system. Even the very latest Preview build have a tendency to fall apart overnight and require a full and time-consuming reinstallation. The system will just no longer let you login, or no longer let you run any programs, or just leave the screen black. This can happen overnight or just as you’re going about your business. Every time this have happen, I’ve tried using the built-in recovery tools (“Reset this PC”) to recover the system. After around 20 minutes time, they report back that they could not resolve the problem. Reinstalling from an installation media always solved the problem.
Windows Update has an interesting new feature for enterprise and even bandwidth constrained households. Windows 10 will by default “download apps and OS updates from Microsoft, PCs on the local network, and PCs on the Internet”. This sounds an awful lot like peer-to-peer file transferring (like BitTorrent). Despite setting up many identical virtual machines in a test environment and capturing all traffic between them as they download updates; I’ve yet to see any evidence that this new peer-to-peer update system has been rolled out yet. Everything is downloaded directly from Microsoft’s servers. This distributed update system alone sounds like it would need more than six weeks of testing!
Windows Update is also a heavy user of the new Notification center in Windows 10. The Notification center keeps a list of all toaster notifications that pop up from the system tray and work just like its siblings on other operating systems. Windows Update will display a toaster notification saying there was a problem downloading or a problem installing an update. Clicking on the toaster notification or opening the notification from the Notification center will open the Settings app on the Updates section. More often that not, it will say there are no new updates and not complain about any issues. False notification alarm. The notification service should probably be a little less aggressive about alerting the user. Waiting a few more seconds seems to let the issue work itself out; raising the question of why Windows raised the problem as a notification to the user instead of just waiting another second. These experiences with Windows Update very accurately depicts how almost all other notifications from all apps that use the new Notification center behave.
An important part of the new windows 10 experience is the revived Start menu and the new and very prominent search field on the taskbar. The menu has just the right amount of customization and has visually turned out very well. Almost every new Preview build and updates to Previews have included “fixes for Start menu not opening”. There are still lots of issues with the Start menu like Live Tiles animating on top of each other, mouse cursor position off by 100px, newly installed apps taking ten minutes to show up in the menu or in search, uninstalled apps lingering in the list for hours even after rebooting, Live Tiles from the web takes far too many hours to update, and so on. Most of the visual issues of the early builds are gone but these and other issues persist.
The personal voice-enabled assistant called “Cortana” (after the beloved artificial intelligence in Microsoft Studio’s “Halo” game franchise) is built-in as an essential part of Windows 10. Cortana is not available in most of the world’s countries and languages. Despite that, Microsoft has paid little attention to how the search functionality works in regions without Cortana. Clicking in the Search field is supposed to bring up a happy circle representing Cortana. The circle should encourage you to ask it questions or tell you some random news, fact, or remind you about events on your calendar. In regions without Cortana, you see either a ¼ cropping of Bing.com’s image of the day, or the whole Start menu is just left with a black background. Bringing up this black background many times in a row will eventually crash the Start menu and taskbar, requiring the user to log out and in again to get their system back in a working order. Windows Search without Cortana also limits the scope of what files and metadata are indexed, thus lowering the quality of the fallback search experience even further. Microsoft have also announced that Cortana will come to the Xbox One gaming system this fall, where she is set to replace much of the user interface. As with Windows 10, this will be a problem for us living outside the very few regions where her services are available. I hope we’ll see Cortana coming to more countries and languages very soon after release, but I suspect it will take years. In the meantime, Microsoft must find out how to provide a better experience to those of us stuck without a personal assistant.
The virtual desktop is a nice new addition to the Windows 10 experience. A virtual desktop is a way to collect windows in groups, allowing you to keep your work files in one place, your browser in another place, and your games separate from all the other windows. Users on Mac and Linux will recognize this workflow as they’ve had virtual desktops for years already. Opening and switching between the virtual desktops works fine in the Preview builds. This is one of the new Windows 10 features that works the best. However, if you close an virtual desktop it can cause serious havoc and break all your other virtual desktops or simply crash the graphics driver. Manually moving many windows quickly between different virtual desktops seems to also trigger the problems.
The Store beta where you can download new apps and media content is also quite lacking. App installations and updates often fail and require many retries. The Store only works when the system is set to a U.S. format locale setting. Other locales can browse the Store selection and a few apps will even install, however most apps will fail during installation or fail to open the app’s store page. (This seems to be a problem in locales that use the comma as decimal separator instead of a period.) The Store also frequently installs a fresh copy side-by-side with an older version of the same apps after auto-updating apps.
Microsoft have opted to include a bunch of basic-functionality apps by default. These are the new modern style app covering functionality such as News, Movies, Music, Weather, and Money (stocks). All of these apps have so far been classic examples of the the minimum viable product methodology. They are very basic and frequently misbehave. Clicking on one news item in News will open another item instead at random. The Movies app can’t find your Xbox Video purchases in your library even after buying movies from within the app. The Music app stutters a lot and randomly stops playing your music. The apps look very minimal and some sections of them are empty even in the U.S. region. The apps use inconsistent design and navigation patterns preventing them from feeling like they’re part of the system. In addition to problems like these, the Modern Windows app host process crashes fairly often and require the user to log out and back in again to open any modern apps.
On a more positive note, I’ve not noticed much compatibility issues with third-party apps and drivers. With the exception of some anti-cheat systems in games and anti-virus programs, everything have just about behaved like it did on a Windows 8.1 system. As usual, Microsoft is very good at keeping up with it’s enormous platform legacy and compatibility.
Streaming from an Xbox One was only made available this week. This is an ambitious system and should probably have a much longer beta period given how many different computers and network setups there will be out there. My own experiences from testing it a few hours is good. Controls are responsive and the Xbox app only occasionally crashes mid-play.
It’s hard to know beforehand which games will be recognized as a game by Windows and offered Xbox services. Using a connected Xbox One controller, you can press the Xbox button and can then be prompted to recognize the current program as a game. Xbox services like the Game DVR is available to every program once they’re recognized as a game and can then be started using a keyboard shortcut. The dependency on a controller to recognize a running program as a game is a bit baffling. Unlike the old Games app for Windows 8.1 and special Games folder in the Start menu in Windows 7; there is no library or system attempting to organize all your games in one place in Windows 10. Given all the other basic apps that are included by default, this is an unexpected omission.
It’s worrisome for the Windows 10 quality experience that Microsoft announced a specific release date when the system is still in such an unfinished state. I think the most worrying problem overall is the poor installation and upgrade experience. From reading other users’ upgrade and installation experiences in the community Feedback app for Windows 10 Preview, installing the new operating system is not going to be a pleasant experience. There could be a small and simple problem behind all the various upgrade issues many are having, but it’s more likely a myriad of different things that break an various circumstances. In other words, issues that will be time consuming to fix and to roll out to customers for testing. With a three-week average turn-around time between preview build released to the Windows Insider Program and only six weeks to the finale release, Microsoft is not going to get much more public testing in before it tears off the Preview label and start shipping it to the masses.
All users currently on Windows 7 and 8 are being prompted to “reserve their free copy of Windows 10” through system prompts. A process in which the user opt-in to having their systems automatically download and install Windows 10 before they can read the news about how many others are having issues with the update and maybe get second thoughts about upgrading.
The second most worrying problem is probably the poor support for non-U.S. format locales. Localization bugs are often hard to fix and time-consuming. U.S. users will most probably get a much better Windows 10 experience at launch than anyone else in the world. From the looks of it, Microsoft is throwing their huge international install base under the bus to catch a self-imposed summer release deadline. It’s an interesting strategy, but I don’t believe it will pay off for them.