Windows 10 Anniversary Update: the definitive review (video)

The biggest update to Windows 10 is finally upon us, but can it keep up the momentum Microsoft has been building?

A year ago, the release of Windows 10 was more than just the next version of Windows. Windows 10 represented a new vision of how an operating system could be developed, trading the traditionally years-long gap between releases for a constant stream of incremental updates. It was dubbed ‘Windows as a Service’ and overall Microsoft has kept their promise over the last 12 months.

New features and improvements have come at a steady clip, but the Anniversary update is the largest and most ambitious of these updates since Windows 10’s launch last July. We’ve been following the Anniversary Update, codenamed Redstone, for months as you all know, but today we’re taking an in-depth look at everything that made the cut. Having an opportunity to see these changes evolve has been fascinating and it feels like everything’s finally ready for the masses. Let’s take a look.

Let’s take a look.

Start and Taskbar

Start

The first thing most people will probably see will be the new adjustments to the Start Menu.

In an effort to reduce the number of clicks it takes to launch apps in the Start Menu, the ‘All Apps’ and ‘Recent Apps’ menus are now present at all times. The shortcuts like user account, File Explorer, Power, and others have been consolidated behind a hamburger menu on the left side, and this change helps to keep the Start Menu’s design in line with the rest of Windows 10’s design language.

The Start Screen has seen a number of tweaks as well. Unlike the Start Menu, the ‘All Apps’ list is not shown by default but has been expanded significantly onscreen. The list is now full screen and acts more like it did back in Windows 8 and 8.1. You toggle between ‘Pinned’ and ‘All’ apps with a shortcut button on the left side of the Start Screen, making it easy to move quickly between the two modes in tablet mode. According to Microsoft, this is one of the most highly requested features requested by users since the changes made between 8.1 and 10.

For the taskbar, it seems like glanceable information was the key idea behind many of the changes. The button for the Action Center is now on the right side of the Clock, giving it more prominence compared to the other icons. The icon also cycles between the icons for apps generating notifications, along with numerical badges showing the number of notifications active per app. Those same badges can be found listed on the icons for supported applications in the taskbar, making it easier to see what apps are trying to get your attention.

A calendar has been included in the taskbar Clock for a long time, but it’s now more useful than ever. Rather than just being a listing of the days in the current month, the taskbar Clock is now fully integrated with the system calendar and shows an agenda view with the day’s events. It is also possible to create events straight from there as well, making it easy to manage your entire day all from the taskbar.

Virtual Desktops can now be navigated with a four-finger swipe, though the feature is only available to devices with Precision Trackpads. It is now also possible to pin an application or a window to multiple desktops, having the app mirror across all active desktops. Along with an option for showing the clock along the taskbar of each monitor in a multi-monitor setup, these features help to make things more customizable for power users.

Action Center

Notifications

The Action Center gets some much-needed attention in the Anniversary Update, fleshing out one of the most lacking pieces of the basic Windows 10 UI. Now empowered by Microsoft’s cloud computing technology, it will sync notifications across all your devices and even on compatible devices as well. Android and Windows Mobile devices gain the option to sync their notifications with a Windows 10 PC, even allowing for replying and sending text messages through your smartphone from Cortana. The ‘Messaging Everywhere’ features that were originally planned for the Anniversary Update has been tabled in favor of a Skype + SMS app later on.

Customization is an important part of the Action Center now, offering fully configurable actions for notifications and how they appear. Banner notifications can now be disabled on an app by app basis and notifications are now bundled per app in the Action Center itself. Priorities can be assigned to apps, allowing for Normal, High, and Top to be assigned to different apps. They allow for better management of notifications, especially as more apps are updated to take advantage of them. Quick Actions are now configurable as well, letting users reorganize and disable actions as they please.

Cortana

Cortana

Microsoft has put in a lot of effort to make Cortana a powerful, cross-platform assistant and the Anniversary update proves that Microsoft isn’t slowing down. Along with the Android and Windows Mobile notifications we mentioned earlier, Cortana’s own notifications will also show up in the Action Center now. Smartphones with Cortana installed will also start giving notifications for low battery, synced transit directions, and respond to commands like “Find My Phone” and “Ring My Phone.” iOS devices miss out on most of these features unfortunately, primarily because of the platform restrictions imposed by Apple’s mobile OS.

Reminders in Cortana can now have photos or information from 3rd party apps attached to them directly, offering an innovative twist to traditional reminders. Any application in Windows that supports the system share functionality can now share that content to a reminder. Having this sort of functionality baked so deeply into the operating system is great to have and Microsoft’s dedication to cross-platform support with Cortana makes it that much more useful.

Cortana is going to be getting a lot smarter now, with the addition of features like better natural language processing and ‘Proactive Actions’ that give Cortana more opportunities to help users. Cortana will now give notifications and reminders based on content that can be parsed from email and calendar entries, among other things, and will be able to understand phrases like “Open the PowerPoint I was working on last night.” Proactive intelligence can be accessed by 3rd party developers as well, allowing even greater integration and consolidation between other apps and websites and the virtual assistant.

Microsoft Edge

Extensions

Extensions are here! By far one of the most anticipated features since Edge first launched, extension supported has finally arrived. There are only a small number of extensions available at launch, but some big names like LastPass and Adblock are present and accounted for. The beauty of Microsoft’s implementation is that they’re modeled closely around the guidelines for Chrome extensions, and so it’s theoretically a trivial task for developers to port over their existing extensions.

The other additions to Edge are finer touches, but help to make Edge feel like the mature browser Microsoft needs to compete with Chrome and Firefox. Tabs are now pinnable, allowing users to consolidate space in their tabs. ‘Paste and Go’ functionality is present in the address bar, navigating to previous pages by right-clicking on the page navigation buttons, improved bookmark organization, ‘Click to Play’ functionality for Adobe Flash content, and swipe navigation to move forward and back between web pages. Accessibility options have also recived a boost, with expanded options for things such as high contrast, screen reader support, and keyboard navigation.

Windows Ink and Workspace

Windows Ink

Pen support has been around in Windows in one form or another for over a decade, but it’s always felt like an afterthought. When Microsoft launched the Surface Pro line and even started including an active pen, many thought that pen support could start be getting better integration into Windows as a whole but the pen still felt like an extremely niche tool. Microsoft is finally stepping up and building tools into Windows 10 to prove that the pen can be a useful input device for more than just artists and designers. Overall, that effort is called Windows Ink.

Windows Ink comes in two parts: a set of APIs that can be used by developers and a new workspace that offers quick access to several pen-centric tools. The Windows Ink Workspace can be launched from a button on the taskbar or via a shortcut on a supported active pen. It’s composed of Sticky Notes, Sketchpad, Screen Sketch, and a list of recently used pen-supported applications.

Sticky Notes is a modern reimagining of the Sticky Notes application that has been around for the last several versions of Windows. You can write on notes, type on notes, and because it’s integrated with Cortana, Sticky Notes can intelligently reformat data (like writing a note about a calendar event or a reminder). Sketchpad allows for quick sketching, with support for some types of pen tips and colors. Screen Sketch takes the same tools but allows to use them on a screenshot of whatever you’re looking at on the screen.

The other half is arguably more important, though: moving forward, it will be significantly easier for developers to add support for pens in their own applications. Pen support has been a niche feature for a long time, but with more devices supporting or even coming standard with a pen, there are more and more reasons for developers to start taking pen-based computing seriously in Windows 10.

System and Settings

Settings

The Settings app is continuing its gradual consolidation of everything that can be adjusted in the operating system, and it couldn’t happen any quicker. There are a few new sections, like dedicated pen and taskbar settings, as well as subtle new organization, especially along the left side of each page. The Control Panel has been an overwhelming mass of options for years and it’s refreshing to see Microsoft working hard to not repeat the same mistakes.

Along with a new app called the ‘Activation Troubleshooter’ that can help to keep track of Windows upgrade licenses and other things, Microsoft now allows for the ability to link a Windows 10 license directly to a Microsoft Account. Microsoft is also introducing a feature called ‘Active Hours’ to try and make updates more invisible to users. The idea is that a user can set a 12-hour period where all upgrades will be postponed, helping to make the update process more invisible. It’s a great idea in theory, though it’s not the most effective system with portable computers that spend much of their life in sleep mode.

Emoji support has been expanded, with a redesigned slate of emoji that are more colorful and distinct compared to their old designs. Time zones can be set based on network location now, which is incredibly useful for people that often travel with their computers. The system-wide Dark Theme has finally received an official launch as well, though the support is still definitely rough around the edges. Not all system applications are supported, particularly Windows Explorer, but the fact that Microsoft is laying the groundwork is exciting enough.

Security and Enterprise

For Enterprise and Education users, Microsoft has added a feature called Windows 10 Defender Advanced Threat Protection (WDATP) that allows Windows Defender to work in tandem with another piece of antivirus software. Windows Information Protection (WIP) is another feature that allows for a certain level of data sandboxing, separating business data from personal data for devices managed by a company or school. A centralized app for managing a ‘shared cart’ of devices, a new app designed for student testing, a new version of Windows Imaging and Configuration Designer, and improved login times for new users are all added as well. That last feature is something especially important to education users, where teachers and administrators need to create and move through user accounts on shared devices often and can’t wait several minutes for initial account creation to complete time and time again.

The authentication mechanisms in Windows Hello have been opened up to 3rd party applications and websites (when used in Edge). This integration makes it easier for developers to focus on security and should encourage better security and standardized authentication across Windows and its applications. The ability to use Windows Hello to authenticate User Account Control (UAC) prompts has been added as well.

Quick Assist is the reimagining of an old Windows application called ‘Remote Assistance’ that allows users to quickly request or provide assistance to other Windows users. It’s an obvious answer to tools like ‘TeamViewer’ and is significantly more straightforward in its configuration than the Remote Assistance functionality of old. In a similar vein, ‘Project to PC’ is a new option in the Anniversary Update that allows for a user to project the content of one Windows device to another. This feature will work with a Windows phone or a Windows PC and the computer being projected onto will allow you to control the target with its keyboard and mouse. It’s similar to the idea of a remote desktop, but with significantly less overhead and configuration all in all.

Developer

Ubuntu

One of the more important Windows features to attract developers back to the platform is the addition of Bash on Windows. This new functionality adds a complete bash shell based on Ubuntu 14.04 into Windows and allows for developers to install and run tools used for developing and testing their applications. Bash on Windows is not a virtualized solution either, but rather is natively implemented within Windows and allows for performance that nearly matches the same code running on a dedicated Ubuntu device. The Bash implementation cannot interact with Windows applications or tools, but it does have full access to the same filesystem and files used by Windows.

Another feature that will likely excite developers is the addition of native Hyper-V Containers to Windows 10. Hyper-V Containers will allow developers to completely isolate instances of a service down to the kernel level without having to use full-blown virtual machines. This allows for faster, smoother testing and deployment of in-development cloud applications and is migratable to Windows Server 2016 as either Windows Server Containers or Hyper-V Containers.

Microsoft is making it possible for developers to start treating their apps as ecosystems in the Windows Store, allowing for plugins and add-ons to be sold and distributed alongside their applications. This same feature powers the extensions available to Microsoft Edge and should provide an answer to an issue many developers have run into in the modern world of siloed app marketplaces. The ability to sell and distribute plugins will be a huge boon for media creation applications, in particular, and it’s exciting to see what this new functionality can offer.

Wrap-Up

If Microsoft can keep up the momentum with Windows 10 into the future, there’s a lot to be excited about. Microsoft has given us some extremely impressive new additions to the Windows 10 platform since its inception a year ago and the Anniversary Update is the largest single example so far. The philosophy of the ever-changing operating system is paying off for Microsoft, allowing the company to very quickly undo years of negative impressions built by the image of the slow-moving, boring Microsoft of old.

There are some truly useful new features on display here and I can’t think of any in particular that failed to live up to my expectations. It’s an impressive update all in all and it’s nice to be able to again, one year later, give an unequivocal recommendation to upgrade as fast as you can.

Share This
Further reading: , , , , , , ,