For the past several months, Windows Insiders have been treated to a steady drumbeat of change, testing the new features coming in the third major release of Windows 10. Soon, these changes will be made available to all Windows 10 users via the Anniversary Update. And it makes the best version of Windows yet even better.
As a quick recap, you may recall that Microsoft released the initial version of Windows 10, retroactively called Windows 10 version 1507, on July 29, 2015, This was followed by the Fall Update, which bumped Windows 10 to version 1511. And now we have the third release, courtesy of the Anniversary Update, bringing the OS to version 1607.
I’ll examine the new features in the Anniversary Update here in this review, but it’s important to remember that Windows 10 has benefited from other changes over the past year as well: The apps that ship with the OS have been updated in innumerable ways over the past year, too, and of course all Windows 10 users benefit from the more direct feedback mechanisms that Microsoft has built into the system. Microsoft’s description of Windows 10 as “Windows as a Service” is quite accurate: This is a classic desktop OS, sure, but it’s been improving steadily all along.
And according to Microsoft, the Anniversary Update is the most heavily-tested release of Windows yet, with over 25 complete builds of the OS shipped to testers since late 2015. The firm reports that Windows Insiders—those individuals who have elected to test these pre-release builds—have collectively spent over 50,000 years working with Windows 10 and have delivered over 75 million individual pieces of feedback, resulting in over 5,000 improvements to the OS. Not bad for a year of work.
And the results speak for themselves. While there are still a few misses, Windows 10 with the Anniversary Update is a much more visually and functionally cohesive system than the one Microsoft first delivered a year ago. To be fair, anyone who has been testing pre-release builds through the Insider program has probably lost track—as I have, certainly—of all the tiny improvements that have crept into Windows 10 over time. That’s the price of constant iteration.
On that note, let’s look at the changes and improvements coming in this release.
Over 15 years since Microsoft first started flogging tablet PCs and their active pens, Microsoft has finally deeply integrated support for tablet PCs and their active pens into Windows. Put another way, the only major new feature in Windows 10 is one that will benefit and interest only a tiny segment of the user base. If there’s anything weirder in Windows 10 than Windows Ink, I haven’t seen it.
That said, it’s a neat idea, and in keeping with the general direction of Windows 10—where Microsoft finally walked away from the terrible touch-first user experiences of Windows 8 and offered a system that could adapt to a multitude of device form factors and usage scenarios—it achieves a nice balance. That is, it won’t get in your way if you don’t want or need it. But it’s useful functionality for those with pens, or those who are pen-curious. (And you don’t even need a pen to use Windows Ink, as it turns out.)
Windows Ink is essentially a new set of system-level capabilities that integrates the power of the pen more deeply into the OS. In previous Windows releases, Microsoft allowed a pen to work like a mouse when it came to system interaction, and there were a handful of in-box (mostly terrible) and external applications like Microsoft Office that were pen-aware and offered basic handwriting and drawing capabilities. But now, with Windows Ink, compatible PCs—like Microsoft’s Surface products—will respond to the pen more naturally, letting interested users get up and running with native pen experiences more easily. Honestly, the most amazing thing about Windows Ink is that it took Microsoft this long to implement it in Windows.
Windows Ink is mostly just plumbing, so Microsoft also created a new Windows Ink Workspace as the obvious front-end for Windows 10’s new and improved pen-enabled apps and experiences. It’s a flyout panel that appears when you select the new Windows Ink Workspace system icon in the increasingly over-stuffed tray area. Or you can simply press the primary button on your pen for a more seamless experience. (On my Surface Book, I press the top, eraser-like button on the Surface Pen to invoke Windows Ink Workspace.)
Windows Ink Workspace collects all of the pen-enabled experiences—Sticky Notes, and the new Sketchpad and Screen Sketch apps—included with Windows 10 plus those pen-aware apps you’ve recently-accessed, in one place. A tiny ad of sorts at the bottom promotes new pen-enabled apps in the Windows Store, though this app collection is currently about as lackluster as anything else in the store.
The new ink apps aren’t anything special per se, though I really enjoy the hand-controllable ruler in Screen Sketch. And the ability to create ink-based reminders in Sticky Notes is as goofy and hard to find as it is fun. But the quality of these apps isn’t really the point: In Windows 10, finally, Windows Ink is a first-class experience, and by making it obviously available, perhaps Microsoft can drive more usage.
Since it impacts so few users, Windows Ink won’t seem like a big deal to those many users stuck with traditional form factor PCs. But in an era in which Microsoft seems to be walking away from the failed experiments of the past—Media Center and Kinect, for example—it’s a helpful reminder that the firm still backs, and improves on, those technologies which are both useful and unique to Windows. This is a real platform differentiator. Now let’s see if it will ever amount to anything.
Microsoft Edge improvements
With the Anniversary Update, Microsoft Edge—the new web browser no one was asking for—goes from laughable also-ran to a truly first-rate experience that provides, for most people, a viable alternative to mainstream browsers like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.
It gets there with the long-awaited extensibility functionality that have made Chrome and Firefox so useful for so long. And while the pickings are currently slim—AdBlock, AdBlock Plus, LastPass, Microsoft Translate and Save To Pocket round out the useful extensions so far—the ability is there and the basics are already covered. Extensions work as one should expect.
But Edge isn’t just about extensions, as useful as that functionality is. This browser offers superior battery life compared to the competition, a key consideration for road warriors, and it’s getting even better with the Anniversary Update. It natively supports Windows Hello biometric authentication (though this must be supported by the web site you’re using as well). It has an excellent Reading View experience built-in, unlike Chrome, and it displays text and graphics better than any browser in Windows 10, and works great with high-DPI displays. The performance is incredible, too.
The only important thing missing for most people, I guess, is mobile support: You get Edge with Windows 10 Mobile, but no one uses that. And Microsoft doesn’t (yet?) offer a way to sync Edge settings and Favorites to other mobile browsers on Android and iOS. Now that would put it over the top.
The inability to disable Cortana in this release will be troubling to some, given that you could do so in previous Windows 10 versions. But the technology is a natural and necessary extension of the search functionality that Microsoft has long built into Windows. And Cortana’s ability to interact with so many Windows 10 features and outside services makes it a glue of sorts, one that hints at a pervasive technology future, where we simply speak into an empty room and some invisible software agent does our bidding.
The key word in that sentence, of course, is “future,” as Cortana today is a bit more pedestrian than that. But Microsoft is getting there, and since the initial release of Windows 10, the biggest Cortana improvements can indeed be categorized as features that make the service more pervasive. So in the Anniversary update, for example, you can access Cortana at the lock screen, meaning you don’t need to even sign in to your PC to get started. (Yes, privacy nerds, this is fully configurable and the most privacy-invasive stuff is disable above the lock screen by default.)
Cortana is also available in more places within Windows 10, too. In the initial release, we saw some nice but basic Edge integration. But with the Anniversary update, Cortana can be summoned from more places, like Sticky Notes, and it does more things, like search within documents, work more efficiently with reminders, and more.
For all that, Cortana is still a bit like Windows Ink: I get it, and I understand why Microsoft is pushing it … but I don’t quite think I’ll ever actually want to use it all that much. This isn’t a judgment about its utility—Cortana is getting quite useful—but rather that I still find verbally interacting with technology—be it on the PC or a phone—to be somewhat awkward. And if I’m really looking for, say, a file, I don’t want to have a conversation or be offered all kinds of choices. I just want the damn file.
OK, I’m a curmudgeon. Cortana is cool.
Xbox and gaming improvements
With its excellent Xbox One console falling behind Sony’s PlayStation 4, Microsoft has called a mulligan, and it’s going to benefit Windows 10 users handsomely: The new Xbox strategy puts Windows 10 PCs and tablets on nearly even footing with the console and really steps things up in the integration department.
The improvements come mostly from two places: The little-understood Xbox app that ships with Windows 10 and via new cross-platform capabilities that bring Xbox One and Windows 10 closer together.
On the Xbox app side, this one-time 97-pound weakling on the beach has been transformed into a Charles Atlas of gaming, with new capabilities that will benefit gamers on both Xbox One and Windows 10, and on the latter, no matter which gaming network (Xbox Live, Steam, whatever) they use.
Now, you can see what your friends are up to no matter which games they play, across both Xbox and Windows. Desktop Windows games are getting their own activity hubs in the app, and you can chat with your friends, using the Xbox app, no matter where they’re gaming. This app, which started life as a weird SmartScreen utility, has become the nexus of gaming in Windows 10.
As exciting, Microsoft and its partners will release a steady stream of Xbox Play Anywhere-compatible games throughout late 2016 and beyond. The idea here is exciting, though some quite tinkering of the official explanation of this service has some understandably worried.
It goes like this: When you buy an Xbox Play Anywhere compatible title, like the upcoming Gears of War 4, you get it on both Xbox One and Windows 10 (in digital, not disc-based form). As you play the game, everything—your progress in the game, your achievements, your game saves, and game add-ons—go with you, no matter which platform you’re using. So you might play Gears 4 for a while on your Xbox One and then move into another room with your PC, boot up the game, and pick up right where you left off. You’re in the same game, literally. But on a different device.
This is exciting stuff, and while the list of games that will ship with Xbox Play Anywhere capabilities is of course rather short right now, that will improve over time. But even now, there are some stunners in there, including the aforementioned Gears 4, Cuphead, Crackdown 3, Forza Horizon 3, ReCore, State of Decay 2, Killer Instinct Season 3 and more.
Action Center and notification improvements
Microsoft has been steadily improving how notifications work since introducing this technology to the desktop in Windows 8. And in Windows 10, notifications are getting even better. We see interactive notifications, which let you respond right from the pop-up banner, and improved Action Center, which is used to house notifications you’ve missed, and more.
Action Center, like the Windows Ink Workspace, helps clog up an already cluttered system tray area with a new icon that is now placed all the way to the right, ensuring you’ll never see it, even when there’s a missed notification badge on it. (I don’t have a remedy for this, but it seems like something more visible and noticeable is required. Not helping matters is the fact that the Action Center icon is completely unrecognizable as being anything.)
Speaking of Action Center, Microsoft has also improved the Quick Action tiles area, increasing the number of actions to 14 and providing a handy layout customization feature so you can make it look and work like you prefer. Nice.
With the initial release of Windows 10, Microsoft successful navigated a potential controversy by providing a Start experience that combined the familiarity of the Windows 7 Start menu with the more useful and modern features it provided in the correctly-maligned Windows 8. But … we’re complainers. And with with users pummeling Microsoft with feedback, the firm has made further changes to Start in the Anniversary Update, providing a very vivid example of why it’s not always a good idea to try and please everyone.
Now, the default Start view is a confusing mess of three separate interfaces: a vertical row of icons that will mean nothing to most people, an ugly but useful list of all of the installed apps on your PC, and a pretty but generally useless grid of live tiles. It’s a classic example of a Frankenstein monster user interface with no cohesive, driving design.
Thankfully, you rarely need to look at it. So if you don’t use Start all that much—and I haven’t, not since Microsoft started letting me pin my most-often-used apps to the taskbar in Windows 7—these changes won’t impact you much. But for those who stand firmly on either side of the Start debate—some still prefer the Windows 7 Start menu, while others grew to like the live tiles introduced in Windows 8—the final design in the Anniversary Update will please no one. Mission accomplished.
So the layout is a mess, and I’ll continue to argue that putting live tiles in a normally hidden flyout menu more than sort-of undercuts their utility. But there are some subtle improvements here. Live tiles are now “chasable,” meaning that they can be designed to navigate to the content that is being displayed right when you click the tile. And that ugly All Apps list contains a useful Recently Added list right at the top so you can find apps you just installed.
That’s nice. But Start is still arguably the least successful addition to the Anniversary update, and my guess is that we’ll see further changes to Start in the next milestone. Start complaining if you agree: Clearly, Microsoft is listening. Perhaps too much.
Tablet Mode improvements
Tablet Mode, like Windows Ink and Cortana, is one of those things that users absolutely love or simply ignore. But for that small but vocal group of Windows enthusiasts who insist on using a Windows tablet like—get this—a tablet, this display mode, which debuted in the original version of Windows 10, has gotten even better.
If you’re not familiar, Tablet Mode modifies Windows 10 to be a more elegant experience on a tablet, where you’ll use touch, and not a keyboard or mouse, to interact with the system. Apps go full screen, and the taskbar is simplified so that there aren’t application icons everywhere mucking up the display and presenting inadvertent tap targets for your greedy fingers. The neat thing about Tablet Mode is that it can be invoked automatically when you remove a keyboard from a 2-in-1 device like a Surface, and when so configured, your PC will transition semi-seamlessly between the normal display mode and one that is better designed for tablets.
In the Anniversary Update, Tablet Mode is further enhanced with an option that lets you hide the taskbar. Yes, I know this has been a feature of Windows since, well, the first Clinton administration, but this change furthers the one-screen/one-app model that users expect of tablets, and you can easily invoke the taskbar by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. It should be—but isn’t—the default. Oh, Microsoft.
Sadly, the other major change is less successful, and if you read my comments about Start above, you won’t be surprised: There is a goofy hamburger menu in Start—which is of course presented in full-screen in Tablet Mode like everything else—that lets you toggle between the normal tiles-based view (inexplicably called “Pinned tiles”) and the All Apps list.
Guys, come on. There’s so much on-screen real estate here that the All Apps list should always be available, just as it is in the smaller Start menu in the normal display mode. If only as an option. You have to hunt around to find your recently installed and most-used apps, and that’s dumb.
Speaking of dumb, Tablet Mode still comes with a few downsides that have dogged this usage mode since it debuted. App switching performance is still curiously slow, as if Microsoft were trying to hard to emulate an iPad, and it comes with an unnecessary animation. And desktop applications, in particular, aren’t savvy to Tablet Mode, so when you switch back to the normal display mode, many applications simply stay in a full-screen display. Grr.
Still, I feel like Tablet Mode neatly answers the needs of the few who actually liked the touch-first Windows 8 user interface on tablets, and provides a unique and somewhat seamless experience for the equally small audience that regularly transitions between tablet and real PC modes on their 2-in-1s. Those in the Apple ecosystem need to buy two devices, and learn two user experiences, to do the same.
User experience changes
Aside from Start, Microsoft has made a number of other user experience changes in the Anniversary Update. And some are even improvements.
Settings is a great example. Since the modern Settings app debuted in Windows 8, Microsoft has been busy filling it out with more settings, and further deemphasizing the legacy Control Panel as it goes. But of course when bulk something up like this, navigation and discovery suffer. So it’s been interesting to watch Microsoft slowly settle on a Settings layout that makes sense—and makes sense for non-PC device types as well, by the way—and evolve this app into something both useful and obvious. In the Anniversary Update, Settings gets even more settings—naturally—but it also gets a nice visual refresh that makes it look more like a real tool and a lot less like an infant’s activity center. It’s nicely done.
Microsoft is promoting that Windows 10 has moved into the 21st century with its support of a new emoji keyboard that supports Windows-exclusive emojis like “Ninja cat,” the latest and lamest rendition of “embrace and extend” yet. This will be the last time I ever use that feature, so enjoy.
Windows 10 version 1607 also picks up the “dark theme” option that some users have been clamoring for. But in sadly familiar Microsoft fashion, this feature is both branded and implemented inconsistency.
By branding, I mean that the dark theme, or dark mode, as one might think of it, is referred to as “app mode” for some reason in Settings, while apps like Calendar call it “the Windows theme.” Seriously.
And from an implementation standpoint, switching the OS to dark mode—sorry, the “dark app mode”—doesn’t even change all app windows to a dark display. File Explorer remains as lily-white as the snow, for example, and some apps can inexplicably ignore the global setting and provide their own dark and light modes. What insanity is this?
There are other remaining inconsistencies in the Anniversary Update, and I’m not just talking about the hold-over icons (like Offline Web Pages) from the Windows 95 era. Right-click menus remain a sore spot, and you’re treated to any number of styles and colors depending on what you select. For example, with the OS in light mode, you can right-click on File Explorer and get a nice, light-gray menu. But if you right-click on the taskbar, the menu is a very dark gray. And jumplist menus are black. For some reason.
With two important exceptions, Windows 10 version 1607’s new and improved security features work under the covers to ensure your PC and your data are safe, so there’s no much to say beyond acknowledging that, yes, this is the safest and most secure version of Windows yet.
But let me describe two security features you will in fact encounter in your day-to-day use.
The first is Windows Defender. Unfairly criticized by those in the know—security researchers—and by those users who simply don’t know any better, Defender has always been better than its press. And it has protected the PCs that I and my family use for years. But in the initial version of Windows 10, Microsoft made Defender a bit too quiet, meaning that while it was always there doing its thing, it never really promoted that it was keeping your PC safe. This was a key complaint that I made to Microsoft in a recent Signature study.
That’s changing in the Anniversary Update. Now, a Defender icon appears in the system tray, and it lets you know at-a-glance that your PC is protected. (That said, I wish it were visible by default and used a green-yellow-red color scheme to indicate PC health.) Even better, Defender pipes up from time to time via notification banners and Action Center items to let you know how it’s doing. This kind of communication strikes just about the right balance, I think.
Second, Windows Hello is being adapted, as we’ve always suspected it would, to work with both web sites (in Microsoft Edge only) and UWP apps. This emulates how Touch ID works on an iPhone, yes, but it’s important step towards making all of the authentication you must perform on a daily basis more seamless. So instead of typing complex passwords or a PIN, you can now use biometric schemes like a fingerprint reader or facial scan.
So far, Windows Hello support is only sparsely available in the real world—the Dropbox app supports it, I know—but with the Anniversary Update rolling out to hundreds of millions of PCs in the coming weeks, that’s going to change. As is the way you interact with authentication prompts.
Windows Store improvements
Microsoft continues to work on the lackluster Windows Store app, and in the Anniversary Update it’s finally starting to gell a bit. I’m not completely on board with jamming app, game, music, movie and TV show content into a single location—I still feel like the music store should be in Groove, for example—but the design is now more professional looking, and the additional content at least helps fill things out.
With the Summer update coming to Xbox One—allegedly on August 2, the same day that the Anniversary Update starts heading to Windows 10 users—Microsoft will be integrating the Xbox Store and its content into Windows Store as well. I don’t see this in Windows 10 today, so it’s not clear how well this will work, but the idea makes some sense given Xbox Play Anywhere (see above). We’ll see.
It’s not free anymore
Starting with the Anniversary Update, Windows 10 is no longer a free upgrade for Windows 7 and 8.1 users. This is a mixed blessing, in a way, as Microsoft’s incredible and indefensibly aggressive tactics to fool these users into upgrading is finally coming to a close. But I felt that Microsoft had crossed a different kind line it could never uncross in making the upgrade free, and there are still several hundred million compatible PCs out there that would benefit from moving to Windows 10. This is a lost opportunity, though of course the 350 million PCs Microsoft’s customers didupgrade to Windows 10 is nothing to sneeze at.
Point being, if you’re reading this, the time to upgrade to Windows 10 for free has already passed, or soon will. So if you missed out on that, sorry. But it’s not like we didn’t warn you.
It’s 2016, so it’s not like you can avoid the Anniversary Update: If you’re running Windows 10, you will simply receive this update in the next few weeks. Fortunately, it’s nothing to fear: The Anniversary Update improves Windows 10 in innumerable ways, despite a few minor setbacks like the scrambled new Start experience.
To be clear, this is mostly an iterative or evolutionary update, unless of course you’re a tablet PC and pen fan: The delta between the original Windows 10 release and version 1607 isn’t as great as, say, the move from Windows 8.0 to 8.1,. But it’s still a major milestone, and a further realization of Microsoft’s goals to keep Windows 10 evergreen. Plus, it’s free to current users of Windows 10. What’s not to like?
Overall, Windows 10 version 1607 is pretty great. You’re going to love the new Windows.