Windows 10: 12 of the biggest improvementsIt’s hard to overestimate the importance of the Windows 10 launch today (29 July).

Representing Microsoft’s bold vision of the future of computing, the new version marks a watershed for Windows as an operating system, as its makers switch to a more continuous and incremental upgrade policy, and it’s packed with features designed to help you get more out of your devices.

Here are a dozen things you need to know about Windows 10.

Switch from touchscreens to keyboards

Windows 10: 12 of the biggest improvements

One of the biggest perceived problems with Windows 8 was the awkward way it tried to combine a touchscreen tablet interface with a traditional desktop one controlled by a mouse and a keyboard.

Windows 10 brings with it Continuum, a new feature that detects whether a keyboard is connected and then rearranges and optimises the interface accordingly. On two-in-one hybrid devices you can use Continuum to switch between the two modes almost instantly.

Cortana on the desktop

Windows 10: 12 of the biggest improvements

Cortana is Microsoft’s digital assistant, designed to take on Siri and Google Now head on, but up until now it’s been restricted to Windows Phone. With Windows 10, Cortana spreads its wings to the desktop too, and you can access all of the same features — smart Web searches, intelligent responses to natural language prompts (“remind me to email my wife tomorrow”) and much more.

With Cortana apps on the way for iOS and Android devices too, it’s going to be crucial to Microsoft’s future.

The return of the Start menu

Windows 10: 12 of the biggest improvements

One of the biggest outcries when Windows 8 arrived centred on the removal of the Start menu — or rather its transformation into the Start screen. Microsoft has listened and brought the Start menu back in desktop mode, though tiled, animated apps can still be pinned to it alongside more traditional shortcuts.

When Windows detects you aren’t using a keyboard (see the first improvement we mentioned), the touch-friendly Start screen mode automatically returns as the default.

A brand new browser

Windows 10: 12 of the biggest improvements

It feels like Microsoft has been playing catch-up in the Web browser stakes for a long time now, as young upstarts like Firefox and Chrome steal users away from Internet Explorer.

The company wants to change that with Microsoft Edge, a new browser for Windows 10 (though Internet Explorer will still be lurking in the corner for the benefit of those who still need it): Microsoft Edge is fast, it’s streamlined, and it includes extra features such as the ability to annotate websites as you view them.

New ways to log in

Windows 10: 12 of the biggest improvements

If you didn’t get the memo, passwords are definitely on the way out at last. Windows 10 includes a host of new ways to log into your account when you boot up your computer, including fingerprint reading technology and facial recognition support, so you can definitively prove you are who you say you are.

Which options are available to you will depend on the type of laptop, desktop or tablet you buy, but support for these methods is going to be built right into the software.

Xbox One and Oculus Rift integration

Windows 10: 12 of the biggest improvements

Microsoft is going big on gaming with Windows 10 too: it’s going to work seamlessly with the Xbox One and the forthcoming Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. You’re going to be able to stream and record games live from an Xbox to a Windows 10 machine on the same network, and that’s just the start for console integration.

On the VR side, from next year gamers will be able to plug a Rift headset into a Windows 10 computer and jump into a fully immersive digital world.

Improved apps that run anywhere

Windows 10: 12 of the biggest improvements

Windows Phone’s big flaw has always been its app selection, something that Microsoft wants to fix with Windows 10 — the Mobile version of the platform is going to roll out shortly after the desktop edition. Apps can run seamlessly across all kinds of devices, and Microsoft recently announced tools for developers to make it easier to port apps over from iOS and Android.

In the not-too-distant future, you could be running Instagram, Snapchat and Gmail across every Windows 10 device.

Enhanced desktop features

Windows 10: 12 of the biggest improvements

Desktop users might have felt a little neglected and overlooked when Windows 8 came out, but the focus is now back on the traditional Windows interface with the next edition. Modern, universal apps (which work everywhere) can now be run in windows on the desktop, and it’s possible to snap windows into the corners as well as to the sides of the screen.

Microsoft has revamped notifications too, which now appear on the right-hand side of the display where the Charms bar used to be.

Streamlined settings

Windows 10: 12 of the biggest improvements

Another area where Windows 8 wasn’t quite a successful mix of the old and new was in computer settings.

Thankfully, the integration between the new options pane and the old Control Panel is much more straightforward in Windows 10, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding the settings you’re after: the most important ones are given priority and the more obscure ones are hidden away so you don’t have to worry about them. It makes for a PC that’s much easier to configure.

A companion to your smartphone

Windows 10: 12 of the biggest improvements

Microsoft knows you’re probably not running Windows on your smartphone (at least not yet) so it’s created a whole new Phone Companion app to connect up your Windows 10 PC with an iOS or Android mobile device.

You can transfer files, contacts, music and more with ease, and the aim from Microsoft’s perspective is to get all of its software (OneDrive, Office, Outlook, Skype, Cortana) on your smartphone whether or not you’re actually using Windows 10 Mobile on it.

Free and automatic updates

Windows 10: 12 of the biggest improvements

For the first time, users of the Home edition of Windows aren’t going to get a choice when it comes to installing software updates, and that’s good news for just about everyone. It means your operating system is going to be patched and protected on a regular basis, and there’s less chance of a security vulnerability staying unfixed.

Windows 10 is a free upgrade for the first year that it’s going to be available, and Microsoft has confirmed it’s going to support the operating system for the next five years.

Better OneDrive integration

Windows 10: 12 of the biggest improvements

OneDrive is going to be more important than ever in Windows 10 as Microsoft looks to compete with Google Drive and Apple iCloud. Thanks to the apps available for iOS and Android you can access your photos and files from anywhere, and of course having your files in OneDrive means they’re automatically backed up.

Everyone gets 15GB of storage space for free, and you can pay if you need more (subscribe to Office 365 and you actually get an unlimited amount of OneDrive space).