The Evolution of Productivity: The Best of Windows 3.1 to 10
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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)

Windows 1.0

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 7 Ways to Organize and Control Your Windows Desktop 7 Ways to Organize and Control Your Windows Desktop Your Windows desktop is more versatile than you think. You can utilize a number of tricks and tools to keep things tidy and get things done quicker. Read More .

Windows 2.0 (1987)

Windows 2.0

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 Keyboard Shortcuts 101: The Ultimate Guide Windows Keyboard Shortcuts 101: The Ultimate Guide Keyboard shortcuts can save you hours of time. Master the universal Windows keyboard shortcuts, keyboard tricks for specific programs, and a few other tips to speed up your work. Read More .

Windows 3.0 (1990)

Windows 3.0

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)

Windows 3.1

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 The Windows 10 Fonts Management Guide The Windows 10 Fonts Management Guide The default fonts that come pre-installed on Windows 10 are fine but boring. We'll show you how to install, manage, and resize fonts in Windows 10. Read More , 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 Desktop

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 Windows 10 Taskbar Customization: The Complete Guide Windows 10 Taskbar Customization: The Complete Guide Use this guide to make your Windows 10 Taskbar both more aesthetically pleasing and more useful. We'll show you how to completely customize your Taskbar. Read More to make it work even better for you.

Windows 98 (1998)

Windows-98

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 4 Boring Tasks You Can Automate With the Windows Task Scheduler 4 Boring Tasks You Can Automate With the Windows Task Scheduler Your time is too valuable to be wasted with repetitive tasks. Let us show you how to automate and schedule tasks. We have a few great examples, too. Read More today.

Windows ME (2000)

Windows-ME

Though it’s widely regarded as one of the worst Windows versions The Most Hated Windows Versions & Why They Were So Bad The Most Hated Windows Versions & Why They Were So Bad The rule of thumb is that every other version of Windows is awesome. But why have the "bad" versions of Windows — ME, Vista, and 8 — been so hated? Read More 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 12 Tips to Fix Windows System Restore 12 Tips to Fix Windows System Restore Struggling with creating a system restore point or rolling back to a system state? Here are twelve tips to help get your Windows System Restore up and running once again. Read More , but it’s still a handy troubleshooting tool that can save you hours of work.

Windows XP (2001)

Windows XP Manage Computer

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 You Need This Trick If You Use Multiple Accounts in Windows 10 You Need This Trick If You Use Multiple Accounts in Windows 10 Do you have multiple users on your computer? When someone needs to use it, you can let them log in without losing your current session. Read More 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)

Windows-Vista

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 7 Search Tips to Find What You're Looking for in Windows 10 7 Search Tips to Find What You're Looking for in Windows 10 Are you using Windows 10 search to its full extent? We will show you how to customize where Windows searches, handy search parameters, and other shortcuts. Our search tips will turn you into a search... Read More in just a moment.

Windows 7 (2009)

Windows-7

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

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 18 Essential Touch Gestures in Windows 10 18 Essential Touch Gestures in Windows 10 Touch gestures are like keyboard shortcuts for your touchpad and touchscreen. And with Windows 10, they have finally become useful! We'll show you how to access the full potential of touch gestures. Read More 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 10 Windows Task Manager Tricks You Didn't Know 10 Windows Task Manager Tricks You Didn't Know If the only time you open the Task Manager is when an application is frozen and needs to be killed, you're overlooking some of its more powerful features. Read More . 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)

Windows 10 Start menu

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 Cortana in Windows 10: Everything You Need to Know Cortana in Windows 10: Everything You Need to Know The digital assistant Microsoft Cortana is an integral part of Windows 10. Do you wonder what Cortana can do or how to turn Cortana off? We've got answers. Read More . 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 How Windows Has Become More User-Friendly, 5 Examples How Windows Has Become More User-Friendly, 5 Examples Over time, Windows has smoothed rough edges and created a more user-friendly experience, especially for novice users. Here are five big reasons that Windows is easier to use than ever before. Read More .

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  1. Isaac
    June 13, 2018 at 6:48 pm

    I'm going to have to say that MS Peaked with Win7. Anything after that is slowly drifting towards the Apple path, forcing you to accept their "productive" applications. If I could turn off Cortana and half the other apps, I would... You can run XP/7 on old hardware with little issue. Now, if you don't have the newest system, it putts along..

    This is why I switched to Linux (Mint is amazing).

    • Lugh
      June 15, 2018 at 5:52 am

      @ Isaac:
      "If I could turn off Cortana and half the other apps, I would"
      I have Cortana and almost all the apps turned off. Search if you want to know how—that's how I learned.

      "You can run XP/7 on old hardware with little issue. Now, if you don't have the newest system, it putts along"
      I upgraded a Win7PC to 10, and it runs slightly faster than 7 used to—and I agree, 7 was excellent, so much better than XP [I skipped Vista]. Furthermore, 10 runs a few old big games I couldn't get working in 7.

      The biggest thing though is how much more secure 10 is than 7—10 married 8's good security enhancements with 7's usability and is now quite good after a first year of teething.

      Linux wouldn't work for me since it can't run a number of my important software. It sounds great for old hardware though, if I find time I may play with it down the road.

  2. Rachael Preston
    June 10, 2018 at 9:45 pm

    Why not mention Windows 2000 or NT?

    • Dave
      June 11, 2018 at 8:48 pm

      NT was extremely stable and advanced. Maybe focusing on consumer version. NT/ 2000 was more of a business interface. Loved them however!

    • Ben Stegner
      June 12, 2018 at 4:47 pm

      I didn't mention every single version to keep the article from getting too long, mainly. But also, I stuck with the versions that were focused on consumers. NT and 2000 were both at least partially intended for server/business use, so I excluded them.

      Thanks for reading and mentioning this!

  3. Shivam Lavti
    May 27, 2018 at 10:08 am

    Windows XP. Best version of windows ever!

  4. Gazoo
    May 25, 2018 at 11:17 pm

    Microsoft peaked with XP (though I personally liked 98SE - extremely hackable, boot to command-line). Windows 7 was a tweaked on XP. Productivity on Windows has been devolving since. Now it's just a hybrid-based surveillance OS weaponized against it's users.