Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Windows 10: I'd Think Twice Before Considering Upgrading If I Were You

Windows 10 Start Menu
Windows 10 has been getting mixed reviews. Some say it's the best OS Microsoft have ever made while others decry it as malware with a pretty face. I've held off on commenting on it till the hue and cry died down. Now I'll tell you what the fuss is about and why I decided not to go ahead with the upgrade.

Windows 10 is a proprietary operating system that has its own browser, EdgeHTML (Edge). While it's being sold as a completely new system it's based on an older one, but with the kinks ironed out. To understand why this is important we need to consider where all this came from and why it's such a big deal, bearing in mind that Windows 10 and Edge come as a package.

The browser wars

During the mid 1990s, when the boom in the home computer market saw increasingly widespread use of the internet, Netscape Navigator was king. Microsoft got in on the action and killed off the competition by bundling Internet Explorer with its Windows operating system. This also slowed development down since Microsoft was now incumbent. With its dying breath, Netscape made its code open source, which kick-started a new wave of competition from community-driven upstart Mozilla, which gave us the excellent Firefox. Apple joined the fray in 2002 with its Safari browser, then Google Chrome arrived in 2011. Now we have Microsoft's Edge browser.

Effects on the internet

The nascent web design industry was heavily reliant on printed page-style layouts, and, pre-mobile, they used tables to make items sit where they wanted them to on the page. What complicated matters was the lack of common standards in the rendering engines used by the browsers produced by the competing factions. Presto, Webkit, Trident, Spartan, and Gecko are the main ones. Since they all render images and code, e.g. CSS, in different ways, designers have to take those differences into account when, let's say, putting rounded corners on a box. The result is several lines of code where one will do. WC3 was intended to create and maintain the standards in web development that would cut across party lines, as it were, but the desire on the part of the proprietary faction to lock up various elements has slowed down consensus. That said, Internet Explorer's later versions do support CSS3. Of course, this means finding workarounds to make your pretty designs work on older browsers if you want your site to appear as intended on all of them.

Where does this leave web design?

Basically it's been competition, not protectionism, that has forced Internet Explorer to display web pages as their designers intended, as Windows 10's Edge browser does. That said, some designers and programmers are too damn lazy or incompetent to make their sites compatible; e.g. Wix websites, which are built on HTML5 (or Flash in the case of older sites), are only compatible with the most recent browsers. People using older browsers who visit websites built on Flash or HTML5 are directed to download and use another browser to view the website. This sounds fine till you realise how widespread the use of older browsers is. This is where the rubber hits the road as far as web design is concerned: if your designer can't build for older browsers, look for someone who can. Backwards compatibility is the litmus test for web design.

Windows 10 overview

Windows 10 has a brand new rendering engine called Spartan and a shiny new browser called Edge. They underpin the new operating system and make it display and work the way it does. Let's take a closer look.


While the latest versions of Trident on Internet Explorer 11 support common web standards (including CSS3 and HTML5), its progress was weighed down by the burden of legacy support for IE5.5, IE7, IE8, IE9, and IE10 document modes — a concept the web no longer needs. Having realised that it was better to start again with a clean slate, Spartan was created using IE11’s standards support as a baseline. Result: a modern web platform built with interoperability and standards at its core. This means that designers and developers don’t have to deal with the cross-browser inconsistencies that require a range of workarounds to make our websites appear as intended on all of them. Where Spartan falls down is in backwards compatibility; it's designed to work on the Edge browser. The resolution is a dual-engine approach on Windows 10 where it will load Trident on Internet Explorer to display legacy enterprise sites, using the Chakra JavaScript engine to display those websites requiring a higher degree of backward compatibility on Edge.

EdgeHTML (Edge)

Edge began as the promise of an evergreen browser, meaning that developers can rely on Microsoft Edge users always having the latest version of the rendering engine, and can expect frequent updates to the platform with new features and standards support delivered via automatic update. The JavaScript engine, ‘Chakra’, is open-source, a boon for developers. That's all well and good but Microsoft still suffers from Proprietary Echo Chamber Syndrome, meaning that it seems to think it's got a lock on the market and that is why it's slow to change. The result is an inferior browser with a superiority complex that only the fanbois can love. CIO's Bill Snyder complained in October 2015 that Microsoft was begging people to use Edge instead of making it better. That's not surprising if it really is more bloated and slow than Chrome. Oh, and extensions for ad-blocking, etc., are not yet available in the Windows Store. That said, Chrome extensions can be added by changing a line or two of code until a tool for adding them is made available. This is unlikely to stem the haemorrhage of users to rivals Chrome and Firefox.

The interface

The Windows 10 operating system has a range of user-friendly features.

The Start Menu is customisable - you can resize it, and rearrange the tiles, create groups of tiles...

...Instead of placing a search box in the Start menu, ...Windows 10 sticks it front and centre on the Taskbar. 

...If you’ve ever used a phone running Windows Phone 8, you’ll probably know Cortana already. The beauty is that you can type or talk to her and it’s the same in Windows 10. It’s much faster to tap the microphone button (or even say, “Hey Cortana”) and reel off your request than to type it. 

...Now in Windows 10, you can create virtual desktops right out of the box. It’s a simple case of clicking the Add desktop button and you’ve got a new, blank desktop on which to launch apps.

[New browser Microsoft Edge has] a new annotation feature which lets you highlight things and add notes and crop to a certain area of the page before sending them to others. - Windows 10 review: It took Microsoft 30 years, but the new Start menu, Edge browser, apps and Cortana make Windows 10 the best Windows yet, by Matt Egan for Tech Advisor

So Windows 10 can all but wash your dishes and make you a nice cup of tea. It's touch-friendly and designed with mobile devices in mind, providing an at-a-glance view of all the things you want to do on bigger screens. Heck, you don't even have to touch the thing; just talk to it to get what you want. What's not to love?

The issues

Apparently, it's a bit clunky to use, particularly when moving between desktops. Useful features such as OneDrive and Skype (there's still the old desktop version) are gone. Windows Media Center is gone. Windows 10 can’t play DVDs. Continuum, which enables you to switch from touchscreen mode to mouse and back again, and Windows Hello, the face, finger, and retina log-on recognition feature, needs new hardware and drivers before they can become fully functional. Email and calendar trail behind Google and Outlook, and many of the Bing apps have been pulled. If you are particularly fond of those features you're better off sticking with Windows 7. It's also a bit of a privacy nightmare:

What you need to realize is that Microsoft has made Windows 10 both a desktop and a cloud operating system. Adding cloud functionality means that when you run Windows 10 you'll be sharing far more information with Microsoft and its partner customers than ever before. - How to secure Windows 10: The paranoid's guide, by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols for ZDNet: Between the Lines

This includes collecting keystrokes and spoken words to improve spell-checking and voice recognition (don't have a cow — most cloud-based services do this to a greater or lesser extent) and Wi-Fi Sense is on by default. Oh, and they've decided already what you can or can't use your PC to do, and will enforce their will via updates loaded with DRM, AKA malware.

The most annoying thing about this is that you're forced to choose between privacy and functionality; turning off the keylogger/speech recognition function switches off dictation and Cortana — no more talking to your computer to make it do things. And if that's not bad enough a new vulnerability has been found that lets hackers run apps on our PCs without leaving a trace. This affects Windows 7 too and Microsoft has yet to issue a patch. I'm hoping it's not going to be "Move to Windows 10." Don't worry, if you're not happy with Windows 10 you can always roll back the changes. There's a catch, though: you'd better have 25% spare capacity on your hard drive or you're stuck with it.

How to protect your PC from Windows 10

Nobody likes to be force-fed anything; I'm personally skeptical of mandated software, I'd rather have a choice over what goes on my PC, particularly when there are more reasons not to have a particular item on it than not. And for months I've had this little icon at the bottom of my screen urging me to update, producing a popup screen that offered to schedule an update unless I wanted to go ahead right now. The final straw came when it offered to update right now or update later on today. "You're getting it whether you like it or not, Mrs. Cockcroft." That's when I went looking for ways to be rid of it.

Some of the options I tried

Screenshot of Wendy Cockcroft's registry editor screen.
My registry editor screen. Click to enlarge

Microsoft has a confusing article on how to get the update notification off your PC. Basically, you have to modify the registry, assuming you can find the particular item that needs changing. The Register provides the code, then assumes you can execute the program. When I tried it myself, I had no clue as to how to proceed once I had the registry editor open because the file path wasn't immediately visible and I was afraid to go digging around in case I messed something up.

PC Advisor recommends that we disable GWX and uninstall the KB3035583 update to stop Windows 10 upgrade notifications. That would have worked for me if I had been able to locate the update, which didn't show up in a search of my PC using the Start Menu search bar.

Supersite For Windows advised that you can uninstall it via Windows Update. Well I found it on my updates history screen but when I right-clicked on it, no option to uninstall was available.

The winner: GWX Control Panel

Finally, Infoworld came to the rescue with a link to a free program for ridding your PC of nagware. I'm so pleased, I made a $10 donation via his PayPal link, and ask that those of us who take advantage of Josh Mayfield’s GWX Control Panel do the same. The man has rent and bills to pay. Okay, let's take a walk through it.

Screenshot of GWX Control Panel
GWX Control Panel. Click to enlarge.

First, download the .exe file and run it. This will bring up a control panel with options, which installs itself on your PC and presents you with options. Click on those options. Note that this program allows you to change your mind if you actually want Windows 10 on your PC. This might happen if it gets to a point where they force adoption by refusing to issue patches for earlier versions of Windows and you decide not to try using alternative OS, e.g. Linux or Ubuntu.


While there's a lot to be said for updating to the latest version of any program and Windows 10 is receiving positive reviews, I'm not ready to "upgrade" if it means having my privacy violated by default on pain of losing functionality, and "unauthorised" third party programs being removed from my PC or rendered inoperable via "updates" that are basically malware. I can't thank Josh Mayfield enough for giving me back some control over my own PC and recommend that you check out his GWX control panel if, like me, you don't like being dictated to. Its reputation is bad enough but when you can almost hear the sound of villainous cackling when you read up on how to fix its flaws on its own website, you think twice before making the change. Personally, I'll be holding out till Microsoft has taken all the criticism on board and applied the fixes required.

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