Although Windows has changed drastically over its lifespan of a few decades, many of the basics are the same. For example, you still use a mouse cursor to interact with on-screen elements, and programs appear in windows.
But as Windows has evolved, it’s added a lot of productivity-enhancing features. Let’s take a look back at the biggest features each major Windows version introduced, and how they’re still useful today.
Windows 1.0 (1985)
The first real version of Windows wasn’t critically successful, but it laid the groundwork for the operating system we know today. Since it was essentially a graphical interface on top of MS-DOS, it didn’t include many now-standard Windows features.
However, it did make some big improvements over DOS. One of the most important was the ability to switch between running programs. With DOS, you had to quit your current application before launching another one.
Windows 1.0 also automatically resized open windows to fit the space available. This version didn’t let you overlap windows, but we can trace this early feature to the handy window-snapping in modern versions of Windows.
Windows 2.0 (1987)
Windows 2.0 built on the framework that the previous version started. While it allowed users to overlap windows and was the first version of Windows to run Word and Excel, the biggest development with Windows 2.0 was the focused introduction of keyboard shortcuts.
Adding new ways to navigate using the keyboard was a huge leap for productivity, especially when using a mouse was still a relatively new form of input. If you don’t take advantage of keyboard shortcuts today, you’re missing out. Check out tons of useful ones in our ultimate Windows keyboard shortcuts guide.
Windows 3.0 (1990)
The release of Windows 3.0 marked the first widely successful version of the fledgling OS. And as Windows began to come into its own, it added features that would shape its future.
Two of the biggest productivity features from Windows 3.0 still around today are the Program Manager and File Manager. The former is a shell that provided groups of icons representing installed programs for launching. File Manager was a rudimentary version of what we know as the File Explorer today; it even included the standard two-panel design.
These made it easy to browse your installed programs and files. Can you imagine having to navigate through the Command Prompt to do everything today?
Windows 3.1 (1992)
Unlike other point releases of early Windows versions, Windows 3.1 made some major improvements to Windows 3.0. It was the last major release until Windows 95 launched.
One of the biggest improvements in Windows 3.1 was support for TrueType fonts. This allowed programs to scale their fonts without relying on a third-party program. Today, this has given way powerful font management, allowing you to install, remove, and use hundreds of different fonts.
Also, Windows 3.1 is notable for introducing the Registry, which stores OS and program information.
Windows 95 (1995)
Windows 95 marked an enormous leap in capability, stability, and productivity for Microsoft’s OS. It’s the first version of Windows with looks resembling what it is today.
We could highlight several features of Windows 95 that are still helping our productivity today, but the Taskbar and Start Menu are the most impactful. As it does today, Windows kept your running programs at the bottom of the screen for easy access. And the Start Menu organized your programs, files, and system utilities into an easy-to-browse hierarchy.
Follow our guide to customizing your Windows Taskbar to make it work even better for you.
Windows 98 (1998)
The next Windows release built on the success of Windows 95 with more refinements. It added now-standard Back and Forward buttons as well as active content on the desktop, but the longest-lasting productivity tool from Windows 98 is the Task Scheduler.
While a rudimentary Task Scheduler existed in Windows 95, it was only part of the separate Microsoft Plus! package. Windows 98 marked the first time it was a full-fledged part of Windows. Having the ability to run tasks automatically in the future is a huge time saver for tedious tasks. You can still save lots of time with the Task Scheduler today.
Windows ME (2000)
Though it’s widely regarded as one of the worst Windows versions due to stability issues, Windows ME still brought some now-standard features to the table. System Restore, while buggy in its first iteration, is arguably the most important new feature Windows ME introduced.
This feature allows you to roll back changes to your Windows system with just a few clicks. It keeps track of changes to the Registry and other important folders, and creates restore points when you install software, apply an update, or add one manually. If a driver update or something causes an issue, you can return to a prior point to undo those changes.
System Restore can run into trouble, but it’s still a handy troubleshooting tool that can save you hours of work.
Windows XP (2001)
Now we’re reaching more modern versions of Windows. The beloved Windows XP added many new features, as well as refinements and upgrades to prior utilities. These included AutoPlay for automatically opening the right app when you plug a removable device in, more features in Windows Explorer, a revamped Start Menu, and more.
The handiest productivity feature award, though, goes to Fast User Switching. It allows another user to log onto the computer and use their account without the current user having to log out and lose their place. With multiple people sharing a computer, this is a huge convenience.
This isn’t as noticeable a feature as some others, but it’s still around today. Every family computer has benefited from it.
Windows Vista (2007)
Another Windows version that was plagued with issues, Vista still added handy features to Windows’s growing repertoire.
Far and away the biggest advancement Vista made to productivity was the new Instant Search feature. While prior versions (like XP) had search functionality, it was slow, unintuitive, and limited.
The revamped search in Windows Vista replaced this with a search function that pulls up results as you type. And it wasn’t limited to just files—it could open programs, Control Panel entries, and more.
Today, with more refinements, Windows Search can find whatever you’re looking for in just a moment.
Windows 7 (2009)
Windows 7 addressed many of the issues Vista had and became one of the most popular Windows versions ever. While it was a relatively incremental upgrade, it still offered plenty of new tools to use.
One of the best features still available today is the Libraries organization in Windows Explorer. This allows you to group similar folders together and browse their contents together. It’s a great solution if you keep, say, photos in several different places on your PC.
Windows 8 (2012)
Windows 8 represented the biggest change in the Windows interface since Windows 95. With its full-screen Start Menu and emphasis on touch controls, it left many users confused. But that doesn’t mean it was all bad.
For users with touchscreen computers, Windows 8 actually introduced a lot of new ways to interact with your PC. The touchscreen gestures that made it to Windows 10 are great for casual browsing, and have given way to handwriting functionality with Windows Ink.
But even if you don’t use a touchscreen, you can appreciate the productivity that the revamped Task Manager offers. This gives you more information than the old version, and even bundles in the Startup tab for disabling apps running at boot.
Windows 8.1, released in 2013, was essentially a service pack that fixed several annoyances with Windows 8. It didn’t add any significant productivity features worth mentioning here.
Windows 10 (2015)
Finally, we come to the latest Windows offering. Windows 10 feels like a proper successor to Windows 7, and is also the first version to receive continuous feature updates from Microsoft.
While Windows 10 made big strides in gaming and the user interface, Cortana is definitely the biggest new productivity feature. This virtual assistant can create reminders, toggle settings, look up information, and much more with just your voice. It doesn’t require any expensive extra software, and Cortana regularly improves as Windows 10 evolves.
These Windows Features Supercharge Your Productivity
It’s fun to peek into the past and see where history has brought us. While each version of Windows has enjoyed a varying level of success, something from every iteration has survived to the present day. Knowing these productivity features can help you work more effectively today, and it helps you learn about the history of the OS to boot.
For more like this, check out ways Windows has become more user-friendly over time.