With Windows 10 19H1 development winding down, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate this major new Windows version. Rather than a formal review—Windows 10 is Windows 10 is Windows 10, after all—I figured it would make a bit more sense to sift through the many changes and improvements that Microsoft will bring with this release and focus on the best of the best instead.
Any list like this is, of course, subjective, and you may appreciate some other features more than those I note below. You can certainly find more complete lists of new Windows 10 19H1 features out there: Microsoft, for example, maintains its own list at its Microsoft Docs website. And How-To Geek’s Chris Hoffman has a very complete overview as well. But I will focus just on the very best changes. You know, in my opinion.
Let’s dive in.
Microsoft has long confused matters with its Windows 10 system themes, which, to date, have actually been called app modes because the word “theme” was used earlier to describe bundles of wallpaper images, sounds, mouse cursors, and color schemes. In Windows 10 19H1, the term app mode appears to be going away. But you still access the system themes—not the old-school themes—in the same place in Settings: Personalization > Colors.
As with the previous few Windows 10 releases, Windows 10 19H1 includes both Light and Dark, um, themes. But the Light theme has been dramatically overhauled in this release. It’s much lighter than before, an even comes with a lighter new wallpaper. But more substantively, the new Light theme is dramatically more professional-looking and—spoiler alert—it also happens to hint at the new UI coming in Microsoft’s future Chrome OS competitors. I thought the Light theme was a bit too light when I saw it in images, but it’s just great looking in real use. Unlike the Dark theme, which still looks like it was cobbled-together by unprofessionals.
Like live tiles in Start, Cortana has long been frustrating and mostly pointless in Windows 10. And Microsoft made the grave mistake last year of making its personal digital assistant annoying, too, by forcing all users to endure her scatting and screeching during Windows Setup, a terrible ploy to make it seem like it was addressing some non-existent Accessibility need. But in Windows 10 19H1, Microsoft is taking steps to roll back the madness, finally.
First, and perhaps most dramatically, Microsoft is “decoupling” Windows Search and Cortana, both visually and functionally. That means we’ll now have two things to remove from the default taskbar, a Cortana button and a Search box, instead of just one combo Cortana/Search box. That’s fine because the more substantive change here is that Search and Cortana are now completely different experiences. So instead of being confused by Cortana’s UI when all you want to do is find a file on your PC, you can now safely ignore a technology that makes little sense on a PC anyway. (Again, like live tiles.)
For those who do use Cortana, no worries: The assistant has actually gotten a nice upgrade in 19H1, too, with support for Microsoft To Do (for those in Australia, India, the US, or the UK), new smart home features, and Amazon Alexa integration. (As always, Cortana is currently only available in supported markets, which may also help explain why removing it from Search makes sense.)
The other big change is that Microsoft is disabling the terrible Cortana voice-over in Windows Setup … but only in Windows 10 Pro, Education, and Enterprise. Windows 10 Home users will still have to nervously try to find the Mute button after Cortana scares the shit out of them when setting up that version.
Windows 10 Pro and higher have always had controls for pausing and deferring Windows 10 updates, though the interface is a bit hidden and quite obtuse. So Microsoft, to make the most common use case more obvious, has added a “Pause updates for 7 days” option right at the top of the list of options in Windows Update Settings in 19H1. More amazingly, this option is now available in Windows 10 Home, making this Windows 10 version the first and only time that Windows 10 Home users could explicitly pause updates in any meaningful way.
Yes, I’d like to see more. But I’m still applauding this first and very important step. Microsoft is finally backing away from the abyss.
Windows 10 ships with a ton of Store apps and most of them are either useless or are outright crapware. In previous Windows 10 versions, only some of them—Microsoft Solitaire Collection, My Office (renamed to Office in 19H1), OneNote, Print 3D, Skype, Tips, and Weather—could be fully uninstalled without resorting to complicated PowerShell-based trickery. But in 19H1, Microsoft has dramatically expanded the list of in-box apps that the user can uninstall. So the list now includes the following, too: 3D Viewer, Calculator, Calendar, Groove Music, Mail, Movies & TV, Paint 3D, Snip & Sketch, Sticky Notes, and Voice Recorder.
Removing these apps won’t save an appreciable amount of disk space. But it will declutter the Start menu quite a bit, and if you prefer not to even see these entries there, peace of mind will follow. It’s all good.
As part of Microsoft’s ongoing effort to eliminate passwords from online accounts, Windows 10 19H1 now supports all of the ways in which you can sign-in to your Microsoft account (MSA). And that includes new, password-less MSAs for which you have an associated phone number. When you first sign-in to Windows 10 19H1 on a new or reset PC, you can optionally do so using only that phone number. Then, you type in the code that was sent via text messaging to complete the sign-in, and you can then configure Windows Hello facial recognition, fingerprint, and/or PIN so that you’ll never once have to type in your password. Amazing. And secure.
Because live tiles are useless on PCs—they were designed for the “at-a-glance” interaction that is typical on smartphones—I usually cull that area of Start on my PCs and then pretty much ignore it completely. So I was interested to see that Microsoft has adopted my trimmed-down tiles area design as the default in Windows 10 19H1. This new layout consists of one column of tiles instead of two, creating a sleeker and thinner default Start menu and is apparently just the first step to further enhancements. (Which I assume will include the complete removal of live tiles in a future release.) This one isn’t rocket science—again, I’ve been configuring my Start menu like this for years—but it does look better. And that’s a good thing.
Those with Windows 10 Pro and better and the appropriate hardware chipsets in their PCs have always been able to use Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualization platform. And that continues in Windows 10 19H1. But Microsoft has also added a new, more lightweight virtualization solution called Windows Sandbox that can be used to test one-off applications without the overhead and time needed to fire up Hyper-V, create a new virtual machine (VM), and install (and maintain) Windows. Instead, Sandbox comes up quickly, letting you test applications without compromising your real Windows 10 install. And when you’re done testing, it goes away, completely. This one won’t benefit most users, I guess, but it’s a much faster and simpler experience for those who do need it.
Windows 10’s “cloud clipboard” functionality is little-understood and under-used because it’s disabled by default and you have to navigate to Settings > System > Clipboard to even find it. But this feature is pretty amazing: It stores a history of the text, images, files, and other items that you copy to the system clipboard, does so over multiple PCs if desired (and can include your smartphones too, albeit in a more limited fashion), and then presents a visual list of those items when you use the WINKEY + V keyboard shortcut to paste.
That’s pretty excellent. But it’s getting even better in Windows 10 version 1903, with a redesigned user interface that shows more of the items you can paste. Also, I’m mentioning it here because, again, most people don’t even know about this feature.
Windows Mail is the most unprofessional and weakly-featured email application that Microsoft has ever created and the fact that it is included with Windows 10 makes this fact particularly embarrassing: The in-box apps should be showcases for what’s possible in Store apps, not poster children for what’s wrong with the platform. But as is the case with some other items on my list here, Microsoft is again subtly acknowledging the problem by taking some baby steps towards fixing them.
For example, Microsoft is finally addressing my biggest Mail complaint by adding a feature, called Default font, that other email applications have offered since the 1990s: The ability to customize the font face, size, color, and emphasis of text displayed in email messages. For the past three and a half years, Mail has instead relied on your system zoom settings to determine what this text looked like, and while it did offer manual zoom capabilities—which never “stuck” and could not be set—they didn’t respect the mail message container by offering auto-wrap.
Also, Microsoft is finally formally supporting the Windows 10 Dark “theme” in Windows Mail (and Calendar), meaning that the app itself, as well as the contents it displays, will be themed according to what the user chooses. Microsoft says that this change means that Mail will now “provide a calmer reading experience for people that work in a low light environment or just prefer screens that are less bright, and helps to reduce eye strain.” I’ll just call it consistent and more mature.
Yes, Mail still needs a lot more work. But again, baby steps.
OK, Windows 10 has way too many ways to create screenshots. But the Snipping Tool app that I found so superfluous in previous Windows 10 versions has been updated nicely, and in Windows 10 19H1, it’s become the preferred way to capture all or some of the screen.
First, it’s been renamed to Screen snip, and is also available via a keyboard shortcut (WINKEY + SHIFT + S) and the Action Center’s Quick Settings tile grid for easy access. There’s a full-screen overlay that appears now, too, with a little toolbar offering rectangular, free-form, window, or full-screen snip options. And when you make a snip, you can optionally edit it immediately via the notification banner that appears. Nice.
Still too complicated? Navigate to Settings > Ease of Access > Keyboard, find the option “Use the PrtScn button to open screen snipping,” and enable that. Now, you can just trigger Screen snip with the Print Screen button on your keyboard!
OK, I cut the list off at 10. There’s a lot more coming in Windows 10 version 1903, of course, so I’ll be writing more about this release soon.