Despite two disastrous Feature Updates in 2018, Microsoft did right by Windows 10 in 2018 from a functional perspective: The firm stopped adding nonsense new features to the platform and began focusing on fit and finish, taking the first steps towards realizing my dream of Microsoft actually “finishing the job” for once.
This distinction—between the (lack of) quality of the Feature Updates and their actual contents—is important. The disasters of 2018 were process-related and are truly awful: Microsoft, again, is making lots of vague promises about doing better in the future, and while I’m sure they will try—and even succeed—that work is sort of beside the point. What I’m more concerned with, not just here but generally, is that Microsoft be a better steward of what was once its crown jewel. And is still an important asset, one that is used by hundreds of millions of people every single day.
Microsoft doing right by Windows is a big topic. And there’s a great argument to be made that the company is failing here, too, when you consider such in-box nonsense as advertising and crapware bundling. I will not back down in my criticism of these mistakes, which undermine both Windows and Microsoft. But here, I will be a bit more focused. What I want to know is whether the fit and finish work from the April 2018 and October 2018 Updates is continuing in the next release of Windows 10, which currently goes by the awkward 19H1 moniker and is expected sometime in the first half of this year.
Microsoft has been testing Windows 10 19H1 for several months—in fact, the first pre-release build shipped to Insiders way back in late July 2018, well before the development of its predecessor had concluded—and it has delivered over 15 builds of the system since then. So, we already have a great picture of the overall feature set of this release, and how it will compare to Windows 10 versions 1803 and 1809.
And on that note, I have good news.
Microsoft is making many, many changes to Windows 10 in 19H1. And none of them, so far at least, can be categorized as major new features, nonsense or not. Instead, this release focuses entirely on fit and finish. (Again, so far.)
These improvements are universally welcome. And to experience them, I’ve switched my desktop PC and primary portable PCs to the Insider Program and Windows 10 19H1. Here are the most important changes that are implemented so far.
Windows 10 Setup improvements. Windows Setup routine hasn’t changed much since Windows 8, with only minor revisions in some releases. In 19H1, you’ll see a small consolidation of options in the Ready to install screen on a clean install, but I didn’t see anything of note in the interactive part of Setup, called the Out of Box Experience (OOBE).
Personalization improvements. The default Light app mode (which is really a “theme”) has been completely revamped and, unlike Dark mode, it looks great. There’s even a new default wallpaper, the first time that’s happened since Windows 10 S.
Start improvements. I’m not sure what took so long, but Microsoft is finally acknowledging that live tiles make absolutely no sense when they’re hidden in a menu that’s usually closed. So 19H1 will offer what Microsoft calls a simplified Start layout in which there is only a single column of tiles instead of two. Interestingly, this is how I’ve always arranged my Start menu, as I rarely launch apps that way. Start also offers quick unpin for groups and folders, which is available from a right-click; this will remove that entire group or folder in one action.
Cortana and Windows Search improvements. While it’s not yet clear how this will be implemented yet, it appears that Microsoft is separating Cortana, its digital personal assistant, from Windows Search in Start. Beyond this, the firm is also making several useful changes to Cortana, including Microsoft To-Do integration and improved Alexa integration.
Uninstall more in-box apps. In previous Windows 10 versions, Microsoft Solitaire Collection, My Office, OneNote, Print 3D, Skype, Tips, and Weather were the only in-box apps you could uninstall. In 19H1, you will also be able to uninstall 3D Viewer, Calculator, Calendar, Groove Music, Mail, Movies & TV, Paint 3D, Snip & Sketch, Sticky Notes, and Voice Recorder.
Windows Sandbox. This new feature is an evolution of Hyper-V Client that provides on-the-fly access to lightweight virtual machines for application testing purposes. Its appeal will be limited in this version, but I’m wondering if Sandbox isn’t the first step to a legacy desktop application container/virtualization strategy.
Clipboard history improvements. Most Windows 10 users are probably unfamiliar with the system Clipboard’s history feature, which needs to be enabled first in Settings > System > Clipboard, and lets you choose between several Clipboard items when you paste using WINKEY + V. In 19H1, this feature is being updated with a new look so that you can see more copied items without needing to scroll.
Creating and signing-in to Windows with a password-less Microsoft account. I’ve not had a chance to test this feature yet, but it looks like Microsoft is allowing users to set up Windows 10 and then sign-in using only a phone number-based Microsoft account (instead of requiring you to type your MSA’s password). Once you’ve set it up, you can then sign-in to Windows 10 (and your MSA) using Windows Hello Face, Fingerprint, or PIN, so you’ll never need to use the password.
Automated troubleshooting help. Windows Troubleshooting hasn’t really changed that much in years, and I’ve found it to be kind of a crapshoot when it comes to actually solving problems. In 19H1, Troubleshooting is being improved so that it will now proactively suggest troubleshooting actions. (This feature was sort of previewed in Windows 10 version 1809, where you’ll be prompted about fixing blurry apps when running applications that are not high DPI-aware.) And yes, you can turn this off if you don’t like getting help. (And that blurry app fix will now happen automatically in 19H1 with no prompting.)
Task Manager improvements. Task Manager’s More details view provides a multi-tab interface, each with its own view. In 19H1, you can choose which of those tabs will be displayed by default when you open Task Manager by navigating to Options > Set default tab.
Settings improvements. The Settings homepage is getting a new header that somewhat mimics that of the Microsoft Account website and provides options for managing your MSA and “making the Windows and Microsoft experience better.” There are also changes throughout Settings, the most notable of which, perhaps, is to the Sign-in options page in Settings > Accounts. Date & Time settings is also getting several updates, including Leap Second, Precision Time Protocol, and Software Timestamping support.
File Explorer improvements. Microsoft is making a number of small changes to File Explorer, the legacy files management app that, quite frankly, needs a complete overhaul and modernization. But the minor refinements in 19H1 are still welcome: Support for a friendlier date format in the Date modified column, an updated icon that looks better with the new Light app mode, and a new layout for the Downloads folder where downloaded files are sorted by date ranges and then alphabetically.
Fluent design improvements. As you probably know, Microsoft has been slowly adding more and more Fluent Design System user experiences in Windows 10 with each release. And 19H1 is no different. The most obvious changes include the use of Acrylic translucency on the Sign-in screen, a somewhat egregious addition of more Fluent elements and effects in Start, and a new context menu shadow in Store apps.
Office app. The new Office app for Windows 10 replaces the My Office app but pretty much does the same thing by providing quick links to your installed Office desktop applications and recent documents. But it also looks similar to the Office.com website, and lets you install those applications from your Office 365 account if they’re not already installed. (I’m a bit surprised it doesn’t try to install them from the Microsoft Store.)
Notepad improvements. It’s goofy to me that Microsoft bothers to improve this legacy application when it really needs to be replaced with a modern Store-based app. But it will be improved in 19H1 with a number of new features, including an “*” indicator in the title bar when the current document is unsaved and a new Send Feedback option under Help.
Game bar improvements. The Windows 10 Game bar now provides a new Gallery experience so you can view your saved screenshots and videos without leaving the game you’re currently playing. You can also share these items from the Gallery.
Privacy improvements. Microsoft fiddles with the Windows privacy settings in every release. The biggest change in 19H1 is that you can now see which app is using your microphone via a new notification area icon and disable that access if you’d like.
Windows Update improvements. Aside from a nicely-redesigned Windows Update page in Settings, Windows Update is gaining some useful changes in 19H1, including an orange “pending update” notification in the notification area, a simpler way to pause updates for seven days, and the ability to automatically configure active hours based on activity so that the PC won’t reboot while you’re working. Smart. (And, yes, overdue.)
Mail and Calendar improvements. As with Cortana, the in-box Mail and Callendar apps are updated with Microsoft To-Do integration. (I believe this one is rolling out publicly to Windows 10 version 1809 as well.)
Printing improvements. The modern printing experience—which you’ll only see in Store apps—is being updated with an improved layout with visually distinct icons so you can quickly find the options you wish to change.
Focus assist improvements. Focus assist will now be enabled automatically whenever you’re doing anything full screen, including giving a presentation, watching a video, and more. As with other Focus assist features, you can configure the rules that determine what can interrupt you in these situations.
Action Center improvements. Action Center now displays a Brightness slider instead of a toggleable Quick action button.
Network improvements. Aside from some enhanced settings for Ethernet, Windows 10’s networking functionality is getting a useful new icon that displays in the notification area when you’re disconnected from the Internet. This replaces the previous separate icons for disconnected Cellular, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi connections.
Beyond all this, of course, Microsoft will also rearchitect its Microsoft Edge web browser to utilize the Chromium open source project. It’s unclear yet how this will change the user experience and feature set, but I don’t expect this work to be completed until Windows 10 version 19H2 at the very earliest. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the switch took even longer than that.