What to expect in Windows 10 today

Today is the day: Microsoft rolls out Windows 10. If you currently run Windows 7 or Windows 8 and you pre-ordered your free copy of the new operating system via the promotional icon in the taskbar, then you may very well be able to install it today; if you are a "Windows Insider" who installed the Windows 10 beta, you're pretty much guaranteed to be able to get it today.

If you haven't pre-ordered, you might have to wait a bit. Indeed, in typically Microsoft fashion, the rollout is a bit confusing. Pre-ordered retail boxes will ship today, but if you want to get Windows without a pre-order, you'll be waiting well into August. And then there are Windows 10 computers: It looks like HP and Dell machines are available now, with other vendors following later in the month, leveraging free upgrades to Windows 10 as a way of avoiding the need to have machines Windows 10-ready right out of the gate.

So much for a seamless, orderly product roll-out. But availability notwithstanding, what are you actually getting?

For starters, a Start menu. If you know anything at all about Windows 10, you probably know that Windows 10 restores the start menu that Windows 8 took away -- but it's a modernized start menu that incorporates aspects of the horizontally-sliding Start Screen, complete with Live Tiles. It's not exactly like the old Windows 7 start menu, but then again, the start menu has evolved significantly with almost every version of Windows.

After the start menu, the thing you're most like to notice about Windows 10 is virtual desktops. While cynics will complain that Microsoft has rolled out the ability to switch among multiple desktops, each with its own set of programs, is about 15 years too late, people who tend to run a lot of programs and get lost in a sea of open windows may appreciate the ability to better organize their workspace.

And then there's Cortana. Microsoft's answer to the iPhone's Siri, Cortana is a natural language voice search tool built into the start menu. Cortana can launch programs, conduct web searches, and serve as a sort of personal assistant thanks to her ability to understand your schedule and other personal details.

The last of the obvious improvements: Microsoft has also matured the modern apps -- the full-screen, menuless apps that lived in their own environment that was once called Metro -- by letting them run on the desktop. They now have all the usual interface elements of any Windows app.

But there's a lot more under the hood. There's a brand new web browser called Edge, for example, which replaces the much maligned Internet Explorer. It's fast and streamlined, but obviously not nearly as mature as competitors like Firefox or Chrome. There's also something called Windows Hello, a biometric tool that can log you in using face recognition. Few folks will get to experience this right away, though, as it requires a special depth-sensing webcam which is still relatively rare. There's also Continuum, a feature that lets you switch seamlessly from touch to keyboard depending upon how you configure your tablet or hybrid laptop. And if you've ever been annoyed -- or infuriated -- by the way Windows restarts your PC on its schedule, not yours, you'll appreciate the fact that you can schedule those restarts now.

Should you upgrade? Almost certainly. Windows 10 appears to be a dramatic improvement over most versions of Windows -- XP, Vista, and Windows 8 especially. And for Windows 7 and Windows 8 users, the upgrade is free. That's the best Windows deal Microsoft has ever offered.

Photo courtesy Microsoft