With Windows 10, Microsoft has the right stuff

The Start menu returns to Windows 10.
The Start menu returns to Windows 10.

At its best, a computer operating system ought to be like tap water — something you only notice when it comes out brown.

Microsoft Corp’s Windows 8 software emerged muddy and reeking in 2012, and the company’s been cleaning up the mess ever since. That’s why Wednesday’s release of the new Windows 10 operating system matters so much to the company and the computing industry. After one of the biggest fiascoes in its history, can Microsoft get back on track?

Well, yes. Windows 10 is good stuff — snappy, efficient, and generally a pleasure to use, even on my four-year-old Dell laptop originally loaded with Windows 7. The new operating system also represents a crucial milestone in the ongoing transformation of Microsoft’s business model. Remember, Windows is Microsoft’s core business, the genesis of its empire. Yet now, they’re giving it away. If you’ve got a computer running Windows 7 or, heaven help you, Windows 8, you’re entitled to download a free copy of Windows 10, anytime between now and next July.

Businesses won’t be quick to change over. Most companies wait a year or two before installing new operating systems, to let suckers like me trip over the bugs first. That’s not a bad policy for consumers too. If you’re content with your current software setup, hold off on installing Windows 10 until it’s acquired a little more polish. Even if you’re in the market for a new computer, not many Windows 10 machines are available yet, so give it a month or two.

The road to Windows 8 was paved with good intentions. Microsoft wanted software that could control tablets as well as desktop computers, so they delivered a dual interface to work on both devices. But for desktop users the constant switching from one format to the other was infuriating.

The Windows 10 interface is a splendid compromise. You get the good old mouse-friendly desktop and the beloved Start button returns to the lower left corner. Click it, and you see a standard menu of program icons on the left, combined with a large expanse of the Windows 8-style square icons. The coolest of them are live, and constantly updated with fresh data — headlines, sports scores, the weather, incoming e-mails.

Next to the Start button is a search window featuring the Cortana personal assistant. Named after the sharp-tongued computer in Microsoft’s Halo computer games, Cortana is Windows’ answer to Apple’s Siri. If your computer’s got a microphone, you can launch programs or look up useful data simply by asking.

Like Siri, Cortana isn’t smart enough. It doesn’t come close to matching the deep knowledge base of the Google Now system. But Cortana is bound to get better as it learns from millions of users. And from day one, you can tell it your tastes and interests, and get personalized news, weather and sports headlines in return.

Microsoft plans to make our computers even more personal with Hello, a new feature that uses the computer’s video camera to recognize its user’s face. Plenty of laptop makers have tried this before, with awful results. But Microsoft says it has cracked the code.

Trouble is, Hello will work only on brand-new computers with a new kind of digital camera, so I couldn’t test it on my aging laptop. Even the Boston Microsoft store didn’t have a Hello-capable computer on hand when I dropped by.

But I did check out Windows 10 on a Lenovo Yoga two-in-one computer, the kind that transforms from a laptop into a tablet. When I folded the Yoga’s touchscreen 180 degrees, Windows 10 switched into tablet mode, with the big icons and touch controlled apps. When I pulled the screen back 90 degrees, it reverted to laptop mode, ready to accept keystrokes and mouse commands. It’s hybrid computing done right.

I’m also impressed with Edge, Microsoft’s replacement for the Internet Explorer web browser. It launches almost instantly and serves up Web pages fast, the way Google Chrome used to do. And it lets you clip out images from a Web page or add notes, then e-mail the results to a friend. I’d make Edge my default browser right now, except that it doesn’t support extensions, those little programs that run inside my Chrome browser. Microsoft says extensions are coming soon, though. When that happens, it looks like I’ll have a new favorite browser.

There are a bunch more welcome additions, along with a few glitches. Some Windows 10 apps seem primitive and buggy, and Cortana has a bad habit of randomly activating itself at odd moments. But there’s not a deal-killer in sight, and nothing brown oozing from the tap. With Windows 10, Microsoft’s in the clear.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at h_bray@globe.com.
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