Windows 10: A cheat sheet

This comprehensive guide covers must-know Windows 10 details, like features, system requirements, upgrade options, and Microsoft's Windows-as-a-service strategy.

Like a Swiss Army Knife, Windows 10 was designed to do just about everything for everyone...or at least that's Microsoft's hope. It's built to provide a unified operating system that can run across multiple platforms, such as PCs, tablets, and smartphones. It's also designed to provide PC users with a more traditional Windows experience compared to Windows 8's touch-centric UI, something Microsoft hopes will win over long-time Windows users and many IT departments that skipped Windows 8. Lastly, Windows 10 marks the beginning of Microsoft's new Windows-as-a-service strategy, which could signal the end of numbered Windows releases.

To help IT leaders quickly get up to speed on Windows 10, we've compiled the most important details and related resources on Microsoft's new operating system into this "living" guide, which we'll periodically update as new information becomes available.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's cheat sheets and smart person's guides

Executive summary

  • What is Windows 10? Windows 10 is the latest major release of Microsoft's Windows operating system and is the successor to Windows 7 and Windows 8/8.1.
  • Why does Windows 10 matter? Windows 10 contains a host of new features, security updates, and a platform-unifying design aimed at both enterprise users and consumers. It also marks the beginning of Microsoft's "Windows-as-a-service" strategy.
  • Who does Windows 10 affect? Windows 10 was available as a free upgrade to qualified devices, but that offer has expired. Windows 10 is now available from the Microsoft Store and from other retailers, and it will be the default operating system of many newly purchased computers and electronic devices.
  • When was Windows 10 released? Microsoft made Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro generally available on July 29, 2015 through a staggered release schedule. Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education editions were made available beginning on August 1, 2015. Microsoft released the Windows 10 Anniversary Update on August 2, 2016. Microsoft started rolling out the Windows 10 Creators Update on April 11, 2017, and it should be installed on all Windows PCs shortly thereafter. Microsoft started rolling out the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update on October 17, 2017.
  • How can I get Windows 10? Windows 10 is available through the Microsoft Store or through other retailers. Users can also download a Windows 10 ISO to be used on multiple PCs.

SEE: Windows 10 ebook: Prepare, repair, and recover (Tech Pro Research)

What is Windows 10?

Officially unveiled on September 30, 2014, Windows 10 is the next major release of Microsoft's Windows operating system and is the successor to Windows 7 and Windows 8.1.

Developed under the codename "Threshold," Microsoft's goal with Windows 10 is to provide a common operating system that can run across multiple platforms—including PCs, tablets, smartphones, embedded systems, and even Xbox One, Surface Hub, and HoloLens at some point in the future. Each platform will have a device-specific user interface (UI), but share the same Windows 10 core.

Windows 10 includes several new features and important changes, in addition to its platform unifying design. Many new features are designed to improve the desktop experience and draw in business users who were turned off by Windows 8's tile-based UI and the initial removal of the Start menu. New features include:

  • Start menu: Windows 10's new Start menu combines the Windows 7-like application list and the live tiles interface from Windows 8's Start screen. Windows-8 style "modern" apps (now called "universal apps") can run within a window on the desktop, like standard desktop programs.
  • Action Center: The Charms menu has been replaced with the Action Center, a sidebar that provides notifications and contains buttons for common tasks.
  • Tablet mode: A new tablet mode is designed to make Windows 10 easier to operate without a keyboard or mouse.
  • Improved security: Microsoft has announced several new security features for Windows 10, including Windows Hello—an integrated biometric authentication system.
  • Microsoft Edge: Formerly codenamed Project Spartan, Edge will be the default web browser in Windows 10. With the release of the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, the Edge browser now supports extensions, greatly increasing the flexibility of the browser. Internet Explorer 11 will also be included with the OS, but will be basically unchanged from the version of IE11 found in Windows 7 and 8.1.
  • Cortana integration: Cortana, Microsoft's voice-powered personal assistant, makes its desktop debut in Windows 10 and can be configured to take over the Search box.
  • Xbox Live integration: Although not critical for many business users, Xbox Live is built into Windows 10. Users can stream games from an Xbox One to a desktop, laptop, or tablet over Wi-Fi, play multiplayer games with people on different platforms, and more.
  • Enhanced graphics: Windows 10 will include new versions of DirectX and WDDM to improve game performance.
  • Above the login screen: The Windows 10 Anniversary Update allows users to access several applications, including Cortana and the Calendar app, without having to log in first.
  • 3D Paint app: The Windows 10 Creators Update added a new 3D Paint app, which allows users to more easily create and share 3D scenes and models.
Microsoft's new Edge browser
Image: Mark Kaelin

Windows 10 comes in four Editions (versions): Windows 10 Home, Windows 10 Pro, Windows 10 Enterprise, and Windows 10 Education.

Microsoft's official system requirements for Windows 10 are:

  • Processor: 1GHz or faster processor or SoC
  • RAM: 1GB for 32-bit OS or 2GB for 64-bit OS
  • Hard disk space: 16GB for 32-bit or 20GB for 64-bit OS
  • Graphics card: DirectX 9 or later with WDDM 1.0 driver
  • Display: 800x600

Additional resources:

Why does Windows 10 matter?

Windows 10 is Microsoft's effort to recapture many enterprise users who balked at Windows 8's mobile-focused interface and to finally move the last Windows XP and Vista holdouts onto a newer OS.

Beyond the new features, security updates, and its platform-unifying design, Windows 10 marks a significant shift in how Microsoft's characterizes its flagship operating system. Microsoft is encouraging people to think of Windows 10 as a "service." Instead of releasing a new numbered version of Windows every few years, the company will continuously release new features and updates. Microsoft has committed to support Windows 10 for a decade after the July 2015 launch.


According to ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley there are three distinct "servicing branches" for Windows 10: Current Branch (CB), Current Branch for Business (CBB), and the Long Term Servicing Branch (LTSB). Access to each servicing branch will be determined by the version of Windows 10 you have.

Windows 10 Home users can only use the CB, under which Microsoft will automatically push new features, bug fixes, and security updates to them through Windows Update. The version of Windows Update that ships with Windows 10 Home does not give users any way to delay or disable updates. (Microsoft has released a special tool designed to allow power users to block certain updates, particularly hardware drivers, but this tool isn't intended for mass use and doesn't ship with the operating system.)

Windows 10 Pro users can use either the CB or the CBB servicing branches. The CB option on Windows 10 Pro works exactly as it does on Windows 10 Home. The CBB option, however, allows Pro users to install security updates immediately, but delay new features and bug fixes (although not indefinitely).

Windows 10 Enterprise customers can use the CB, CBB, and/or the LTSB. The LTSB allows enterprise IT departments to put off the installation of new Windows 10 features for up to 10 years.

Additional resources:

Who does Windows 10 affect?

Users running an eligible version of Windows 7 (SP1) or Windows 8/8.1 could have upgraded to Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro for free until July 29, 2016. However, the time for the free upgrade has passed and acquiring a copy of Windows 10 from the Microsoft Store now costs $119.99.

Users running Windows XP or Windows Vista must purchase a copy of Windows 10 from the Microsoft Store or other retailer. There is no direct upgrade path from Windows XP or Windows Vista to Windows 10. On these machines, Windows 10 must be loaded as a "clean install," and users should back up their data prior to installing the new operating system.

Additional resources:

When was Windows 10 released?

Windows 10 general availability (GA) began on July 29, 2015, but Microsoft has adopted a staggered deployment schedule.

Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education editions were made available beginning on August 1, 2015 through Microsoft's Volume Licensing Center. (Neither edition was included in the first-year-free program.)

The Windows 10 Anniversary Update was released on August 2, 2016. The update includes new and better security features with improvements to applications like Windows Hello, Windows Defender, and Windows Information Protection. The Anniversary Update also augments support for digital pens with the addition of Windows Ink, a built-in platform that can interpret input beyond the traditional mouse and keyboard.

With the update's release, Microsoft Edge now supports extensions, including AdBlock, Translator, and Office Online to name a few. Extensions allows developers to create apps inside Edge and greatly enhances the browser's overall capabilities.

The Windows 10 Creators Update was released on April 11, 2017, and will be pushed out to Windows 10 customers over the next few weeks following that date. The Windows 10 Creators Update includes a new 3D Paint app, new security features, changes to how Microsoft updates Windows 10, and lays the foundational platform for new hardware and content based on augmented and virtual reality.

The Windows 10 Fall Creators Update was released on October 17, 2017, and its new features include built-in ransomware protection, bandwidth controls, and more. Find out whether your machine will run the update, and why IT admins should prepare for the inevitable glitches and hiccups.

Additional resources:

How do I get Windows 10?

For the first year of general availability, Windows 10 Home and Pro were free if you were running a genuine copy of an eligible version of Windows 7 (SP1) and Windows 8/8.1. On eligible machines, an icon for the Get Windows 10 app appeared in the taskbar and allowed users to "reserve" a free copy of the operating system.

As of July 29, 2016, the free upgrade is no longer an option. Users can purchase Windows 10 from the Microsoft Store for the retail price of $119.99. Frugal shoppers may be able to find Windows 10 available at a lower price.

The Microsoft Windows 10 Anniversary Update was released on August 2, 2016. This is the first major update to Windows, 10 and it comes with new features, including the ability to access certain applications without logging into the computer.

Mark Kaelin/TechRepublic

Additional resources:

    About Bill Detwiler

    Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

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