[Editor's Note: the following pages between here and our verdict are largely for readers that have not yet used Windows 10. Welcome, potential newbies!]

In basic use, Windows 10 is not a million miles from Windows 7. You've still got the Start menu, even though it's fundamentally changed (more on that shortly). Key functions are all accessed from the task bar, which has a flat, functional feel. The design language feels refined – window borders are smaller, for example. Anniversary Update adds a new dark mode that switches the interface and all your Store apps to a darker interface, if you prefer that in a dimly lit (or indeed unlit) room.

The key controls that Windows 8 put on the short-lived charms bar and the familiar pop-up notifications are combined in a new Action Center pane that you open by swiping in from the right or clicking a notification icon. In Anniversary Update, this moves to the right of the clock and shows the number of unread alerts.

Key settings are at the bottom of the Action Pane: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode, Tablet mode, a new Note feature for opening the built-in version of OneNote, and a link to the full Settings app. If you have a tablet you'll see the option to lock rotation. There's also a version of the Windows Phone Quiet Hours for blocking notifications, although you have to turn it on by hand rather than setting the times.

In the Settings app you can select which of these Quick Actions appear in the Action Center, as well as which apps can send you notifications. When notifications appear, you can swipe them away with touch, flick them with the mouse or just click the X to close, one at a time or for the whole group. Tap or click the down arrow to see more detail. There's a Clear All option, too.

In Anniversary Update, the number of notifications from a single app is capped – that includes Edge, which can give you alerts from websites you have open; instead of being able to send unlimited updates, each app is limited to the three most recent ones. If you connect an Android or Windows 10 Mobile phone to your PC you'll also get notifications from your phone apps here.

Phone notifications

Right click on a notification group and you can make it high priority or turn it off (this isn't available for all notification groups, but you can always open the notification area in Settings to tweak things there). Notifications get richer; apps can use images, add buttons or let you reply to a message directly – messages from the new Skype app have notifications in the Action Center that let you reply, as do text messages that are synced from your phone.

The task bar

Microsoft keeps tweaking the look of the task bar slightly. The Windows button is always there (and you can still right click on it for the power user menu of shortcuts from Windows 8), plus you can shrink or hide the Search box next to it. Pinned icons get a subtle coloured bar beneath them when the app is open that shows a second bar at the side if the app has multiple windows (with a shaded overlay for the current app that also shows multiple windows).

The notification area (which you might still know as the system tray) still expands into a pop-up window if there are more icons that will fit on the task bar, and you can still drag most – but not all – of the icons into the order you want. The icons for the touch keyboard and the new Ink Workspace are fixed next to the clock (although you can turn them off, you can't move them). You can still hover your mouse in the far right corner for a quick look at the empty desktop (Aero Peek), or click in the far right corner to minimize all your windows, but that's now to the right of the Action Center button.

Touch emoji

The touch keyboard has new emoji. Six of those celebrate the Windows Insider ninja cat character, many of them are redesigned to match emoji on other platforms more closely and there's a new skin color button that lets you change the skin tone for many of the icons with faces – so you can pick from six shades including Simpsons yellow. You still have to hunt for the emoji you want though – we'd like to see the Windows Mobile keyboard show up here, which suggests emoji along with other auto-correct suggestions.

Clicking the clock opens the new clock and calendar pane with any alternate clocks you have set, and a monthly calendar. In anniversary update the latter shows your agenda for each day as you click through (taken from the Calendar app, so it's worth connecting that to your accounts even if you don't use the app itself).

Clock agenda

Also new in Anniversary Update is a handy extra on the volume control – plug in headphones or speakers or connect a Bluetooth audio device and you get a pop-up menu for choosing which audio output you want. Annoyingly, Microsoft is still blocking Store apps from showing up in the Volume Mixer, so you can choose different volumes for IE and Windows Media Player, but not for Groove and Edge.

Swap audio

The Start menu

Windows 10 combines the live tiles of Windows 8 and the familiar Start menu into a new, re-sizable menu. You can pin tiles for your favorite apps to see at-a-glance information like upcoming meetings, weather forecasts, news stories, sports results and messages from Twitter, Facebook and email. Tiles animate to show new content and you can group and name them the way you could in Windows 8. How useful you find them depends on which apps you like enough to pin.

Start hamburger

The rest of the Start menu is a scrolling list of apps and controls. Anniversary Update divides this into two: on the left is the increasingly ubiquitous hamburger menu that you can expand for a reminder that the tiny icons are (in turn) a fly-out menu letting you change your account settings, lock the PC or sign out, along with icons for File Explorer and Settings and another menu with the power options. Annoyingly, expanding this section hides the rest of the apps list, so you can't leave it expanded.

Right click on the Explorer icon for a jump-list with pinned and frequently used folders. If you dig into Settings, you can add extra folders, but only from a standard list.

Add to start

The scrolling lists of apps have been slightly rearranged in Anniversary Update; at the top is a Recently Added section that appears when you have new apps. Below that is a list of Most Used apps, followed by a Suggested apps section that you can turn off (but that also hides the tips on the mobile-style Lock screen). All of that pushes down the alphabetical list of what you have installed so you may not see many of them without scrolling.

You can search from the Start menu by starting to type – that gives you the same result as tapping in Cortana's search box next to it.

Cortana

Microsoft's virtual assistant, Cortana, still powers the search box on the Windows 10 task bar – where you can type or speak – and in Anniversary Update you can no longer turn her off (though you can turn off personalization if you don't want her to remember things for you). But Cortana goes a long way beyond search, so you probably want to keep her around.

Searching with Cortana is fast and accurate. It finds your files, it finds your folders. It has become quite brilliant. Say, for example, that you type LinkedIn into the menu: you'll be given the option to open the site in your default browser (even if it's Chrome), or you can search for LinkedIn in Bing.

Cortana

Depending on what you search for, different types of results are prioritized – so the first result might be a setting, an app, a document or a web search. You can also pick the category to search: apps, documents (including OneNote and files on OneDrive that you're not syncing), folders, music, videos, photos or settings.

Type in a sum or a currency conversion and Cortana does the maths for you. Type in the name of a city or a celebrity and you get a nib of relevant information – that all comes from the answers you get for those kind of searches on Bing, but if there's a match in your documents for the same term you'll see that first. The only annoyance is that you can't pin the search results open – if you need to open a couple of documents from the results, you have to run the search twice.

Type in commands like 'remind me' to set quick alarms and appointments. And in Anniversary Update, you can use that to remember useful information like your passport number, or anything else you want to jot down. Ask Cortana 'what is my passport number' later and you'll see it pop up. Type 'send a text' to write an SMS on your PC and send it from a phone you have the Cortana app installed on. You can also ask her to sing you a song or tell you a joke (they're usually terrible jokes).

Cortana uses the news interests you set up on Bing as well as your search history to show you news stories and refine search suggestions – these, your reminders, accounts Cortana can get information from (ranging from Xbox Live and Office 365 to Uber and LinkedIn) and other information about your interests are stored in the Cortana Notebook.

Cortana notebook

You can customize settings for different areas of interest, from Academic Topics to Getting Around, Music, Food and Drink or Weather, or turn off topics you don't want. Reminders and interests sync across every device you use Cortana with, so you can set a reminder on your phone and see it on your PC, or vice versa.

You can also change Cortana's settings to turn voice control on or off, choose what Cortana can index to learn more about you, and clear the history that makes searches more accurate.

If you just tap or click without typing anything, Cortana shows you upcoming appointments, Windows tips, news, weather, how many steps you've walked (courtesy of Microsoft Health), along with any activities from your email that look like trips and flights Cortana could track for you. You also get suggestions for other things Cortana can do like keeping a note of when you usually have lunch and warning you if a meeting would clash with that.

With Anniversary Update, Cortana also makes an appearance on the Lock screen, showing upcoming appointments. Initially, that might sound like more of a mobile or tablet feature, giving you a quick overview of your day when you first pick up your device. But if you often leave your PC on and let it lock, seeing a quick glimpse of your calendar from across the room is very handy, and you can use Cortana on the Lock screen to ask questions, set reminders and control the music you're playing.

Annoyingly though, if you turn off Suggested apps in the Start screen, where they take up a lot of space, you also lose Cortana suggestions on the Lock screen, and you can't use the frequently updated Windows Spotlight images – you have to pick one or more images on your PC to be your Lock screen background.

We'd like to see Cortana do a lot more – there are apps like a network speed test built into Bing that it would be great to see inside Cortana – but this is evolving to be a really useful tool that gives you a quick way to do things you'd normally open an app for. Get into the habit and you'll find you keep turning to Cortana – Microsoft's digital assistant could evolve into a whole new way to use your computer. And if you don't like any of that, it's still a great way to search your PC.

File Explorer

File Explorer enhancements

File Explorer has been given a little bit of a makeover, and in Anniversary Update it gets a new icon. You now have a Quick Access area to which you can pin and unpin any folders you want to regularly access. In the 'home' screen of File Explorer you can also see Frequent Folders and Recent Files. It's much more helpful now.

You can pin things permanently to Quick Access by right clicking them and selecting Add to Quick access.

There are a lot more file operations that you can access on the ribbon at the top of the window without the need to use the right click menu.

The old Windows 8 Share logo is now used for file sharing from all apps. You can choose to email a file straight from the File Explorer window or add it to a ZIP file.

OneDrive not integrated

Microsoft OneDrive gets a section in File Explorer, but that's only a shortcut to files and folders you've chosen to sync. You no longer see placeholders for files that are only in the cloud – a feature that confused some users but also made your whole cloud drive available at any time. To see your files in the cloud now, you have to go online and use the OneDrive Store app.

Settings

In Windows 8, this was annoyingly basic and many options were still in the Control Panel. Control Panel is still there in Windows 10, and if you're a technical user, you will come across it from time to time. But the majority of users will never see it.

Settings

Settings is now a far more comprehensive solution and is much more logically arranged. There are still a few things you'll need the Control Panel for – to reset a network adapter, for example – but they're few and far between.

You've been able to search the Control Panel from the Start menu since Windows Vista – with the Settings app in Windows 10, what you get from that search is a clean, clear interface where you can easily see what it is you need to change.