Microsoft plans to launch Windows 10 in mid-2015, but you can download a preview of the company’s next operating system today.
Just sign up for the free Windows Insider Program and Microsoft will provide you with a license and a choice of 32-bit or 64-bit download links. Burn the ISO to a DVD and you can use it to install Windows on your computer.
Keep in mind, this is an early build of Windows 10 and there may be some unpolished or buggy features. Microsoft plans to roll out a number of updates to members of the Insider Program and hopes that testers will provide feedback which will help the company improve the operating system before it launches to the public next year.
That’s not the way Microsoft usually does things. While the company has offered previews of some recent versions of Windows, it doesn’t tend to provide regular updates.
At this point Windows 10 looks like a mix between Windows 7 and Windows 8. It has a desktop with a Start Menu — but that menu borrows Live Tiles from the Windows 8 Start Screen.
These can show calendar details, news updates, and other information at a glance. You can resize or unpin any tiles you don’t want to see.
Add as many tiles as you’d like, and the Start Menu will expand to accommodate them. And if you don’t want to see any tiles at all, just unpin everything until you have a single-column menu that looks a lot like the Windows 7 Start Menu.
The menu to the left of those tiles looks a lot like the Windows 7 Start Menu, with your username at the top, followed by locations and then apps. There’s also a universal search box at the bottom which searches not only your computer, but also the internet.
Don’t like how much vertical space the Start Menu takes up? Just grab the top of the menu and pull down so that it becomes wider, but less tall.
There’s also a dedicated icon for the Search app in the taskbar. Tap it and you can see recent searches and trending topics from the web.
Or you can just start typing a new search query. The search window takes up a small corner of your screen when you first tap it, but once you enter a search term and hit enter the full Windows search app will open.
If you use the operating system on a tablet or other touchscreen device instead of a notebook, you’ll still be able to see a full-screen Start Screen, but desktop users will get a user interface that’s more keyboard and mouse friendly.
You can also choose to use the Start Screen on a notebook or desktop. Just click the Start Button, type “navigation properties” and then choose the Start Menu tab. Click the box that says “Use the Start menu instead of the Start screen” and you can pretend you’re using Windows 8.1.
Windows 10 should be able to run most software that works with Windows 8 or earlier, and I had no problems installing the Google Chrome web browser or Irfanview image editor, for instance. But it can also run free and paid apps from the Windows Store.
While Store apps run exclusively in full-screen mode on Windows 8, you can run these apps in windowed mode on Windows 10. This lets you resize and move apps, and you can minimize or close apps using a toolbar at the top of the window.
In other words, Windows Store apps act more like traditional desktop apps. They just happen to be distributed through the Windows Store, and most seem to have bright colors and big touch-friendly user interfaces. That might not be all that important if you’re using a desktop or notebook PC, but it means the apps will play nicely with tablets, touchscreen notebooks, or 2-in-1 devices.
If you snap an app to the side of the screen, Windows 10 will also show you a list of other apps that are currently running in case you want to snap them to another portion of the display.
There’s also a new settings icon for Windows Store apps. Tape the … button to bring up app commands, sharing options, and other settings.
Microsoft has also given you more options for arranging apps on your screen and for moving between apps.
There’s a Task View icon in the taskbar that shows you thumbnails for all of your currently running apps. You’ll also notice a new “Add a desktop” button at the bottom of the screen.
You can use this to create a new virtual workspace so that you can arrange some apps or document son one screen and others on another — as if you were using multiple monitors. Then you can flip between these screens from the Task View interface.
Virtual desktops are new to Windows, but they’ve been available to Linux users for years. Still, they’re a welcome addition — especially for users of devices with small or low-resolution displays.
You can also use the Alt+Tab keyboard shortcut to see thumbnails for your apps — but you won’t see which desktop they’re on in this view.
One of the key reasons Microsoft is making the Windows 10 preview available to the public is to gather feedback. There’s a new Windows Feedback tool which you can find in the Start Menu.
It’s designed to make it easy to send notes about your experience to Microsoft and offers a huge range of categories to choose from so you can submit feedback about apps, hardware, files, storage, updates, networking, or other areas where you’re having problems.
Overall, Windows 10 seems to be off to a pretty strong start. The installation process was pretty quick and painless, and the operating system boots in about 10 seconds on my 5-year old Asus UL20A notebook with an Intel Core 2 Duo ULV processor. I’ve replaced the hard drive on that notebook with a solid state disk, but Windows 7 certainly didn’t boot as quickly.
It’s probably a good idea to install the Windows 10 preview on a spare computer if you’ve got one rather than using it as your primary operating system. Microsoft isn’t guaranteeing that everything will work, and even if the operating system does run smoothly today something might break the next time there’s a software update. The free license will also probably stop working April 15th, 2015, so you’d best hope Microsoft has something you can upgrade to by then.