Windows 10 anniversary update: Hands-on review
What can you expect when Microsoft’s first major update for Windows 10 arrives on 2 August?
Major updates -- and calling something the "Anniversary Update" certainly strongly suggests that the Windows 10 Anniversary Update (codenamed Redstone 1 if you like codenames) should be considered major -- usually bring with them a wide variety of new features.
We had the chance to go through the major new features of Windows 10 Anniversary Update with Microsoft representatives ahead of its 2 August 2016 wide scale delivery, and also to carry out more in-depth tests on an almost-complete build of the Anniversary Update. Here’s what you can expect from the next major update to Windows 10.
Is this a service pack? Is it Windows 11?
The answer to that is "neither", or at least that’s Microsoft’s position on it. Service Packs, in the old Windows vernacular, were largely bug and security fix-centric affairs that were delivered in large chunks of code that users were encouraged to install. That’s not what Windows 10 Anniversary Update will be, especially for consumer users, because the service model for Windows 10 doesn’t give you any way to opt out of smaller upgrades like this. Indeed, as many Windows 7/8 users have found, Microsoft can be rather pushy about simply upgrading to Windows 10 during the "free" upgrade period, so this shouldn’t be a surprise.
Again, though, it isn’t Windows 11 either, because it’s not that big a shift in the software platform overall. Instead, Windows 10 Anniversary Update is part of Microsoft’s strategy of delivering Windows 10 as an evolving software system. It hasn’t ruled out the possibility of Windows 11 emerging eventually, but it seems likely that it will stick with Windows 10 as the brand for the foreseeable future, in the same way that Microsoft Office is now just Microsoft Office, rather than having constantly iterating suffixes.
So what’s new?
Windows 10 Anniversary Update has a slew of bug fixes and security patches under the hood -- so many that even the Windows Insider Builds we’ve been playing with have their own knowledge base articles -- but it’s the redesigned and new features that will gain most of your attention. We tested at a hands-on event hosted by Microsoft, as well as by installing the latest Windows Insider version of the update, which at this stage barring a few bug fixes should be essentially feature-complete.
Some of the new features in the Anniversary Update are more subtle than others, depending on your usage patterns. So for example, the Start Menu on Windows 10 now has a scrolling alpha list of apps as well as the tiled glance expansion section if you need to visually search for an app. You can always simply hit Start and type the name of your application for quick searching, or for that matter talk to Cortana to achieve the same effect.
It’s a small, but welcome change, but at the login screen, if your account is set up via a Microsoft Account, it no longer displays your full email address for all the world to see while logging in. There is a lot more information that can be displayed on the lock screen thanks to Cortana and Windows Ink, but your email address is no longer part of that information set by default.
Cortana will talk smart... eventually
Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual voice assistant, gets a makeover in Windows 10 Anniversary Update, with the ability to be invoked from the lock screen for simple searches.
Microsoft Australia demonstrated Cortana making sensible deductions based on speech without revealing too much personal information; asking Cortana for something that’s too sensitive will result in her asking you to fully log in to validate such requests.
That being said, while the underlying code may be present in Windows 10 Anniversary Update, we’ll have to wait a while for Cortana to gain her full smarts down under.
If your PC is set to a US locale and US English Cortana will apparently work immediately on 2 August 2016, but for localisation reasons, Cortana’s ability to deduce meaning and integrate fully with the new Windows Ink features won’t go live outside the US for a while. Microsoft representatives were unable to give me a timeframe for when we might see the functionality available here. This doesn’t just affect Cortana’s speaking ability either, as other functions that rely on back-end processing, such as the ability to intelligently parse notes for URLS or list meanings, are also similarly limited. Which brings us neatly to...
Windows Ink is worth getting excited about
Drawing on a tablet screen is absolutely nothing new, but to date it’s always had two key problems. Firstly, there’s the difficulty spike of getting used to writing on a glass plate as opposed to the proper friction of a pencil or pen on paper. Sadly, Windows Ink doesn’t do much to combat that, but then you’d probably need a display screen with a granular finish to give the right kind of physical feedback to cover that issue.
The second is ease of access for jotting down notes or circling content, and this is where Windows Ink really shines. With a compatible stylus -- we tested with the Surface Pen -- adding a quick note or scribbling on a screenshot is just a couple of very quick clicks away. It’s something I’ve never found particularly comfortable or useful in the past, but the combination of Sticky Notes and Screen Sketch could make a believer of me. There’s some genuine utility in being able to pass handwritten notes to other applications that can reliably understand your handwriting, and if nothing else, the ability to use the Surface Pen to quickly grab and annotate screenshots is quite powerful.
When you consider how relatively low-powered the basic Surface 3 is, it gives you a good indication of how well Windows Ink is embedded into Windows 10 Anniversary Update. If you’re not rocking a touchscreen-enabled Windows PC, you can ignore it entirely.
Extending Microsoft Edge
Edge is Microsoft's browser competitor to Google Chrome, and while it can boast of heavy adoption stats for Windows 10, the same isn't true of Edge itself. The big new feature that you get in the Anniversary Update for Microsoft Edge is the inclusion of extensions. It's been a missing part of the browser puzzle for Microsoft for some time, so it's quite welcome, although at launch the available number of extensions is rather meagre.
There are two versions of AdBlock, extensions for Amazon, Reddit, Pocket, LastPass, Mouse Gestures, Language Translation and Microsoft Office available right now. Thirteen extensions in total, which is paltry compared to the hundreds (if not thousands) available for Chrome. It's early days for Edge extensions, however, and the total can only improve.
Windows Hello: Conceptually good if folks get on board
Microsoft’s Windows Hello is a feature that hass been part of Windows 10 since launch; the new feature in the Anniversary Upgrade is the ability for developers to offer integrations with it for further biometric verification. So instead of, say, logging into your Netflix account with your password, you’d do so simply by looking at your camera.
Microsoft demonstrated this for me, but the limitations of the Surface 3 being used for testing meant that Windows Hello wasn’t a supported feature. This is an understandable hardware limitation, but it’s one that’s likely to hamper adoption of Windows Hello until compatible camera hardware becomes more commonplace and, presumably, cheaper to implement in lower cost devices.
It's also worth noting that Windows Hello login integration for sites is limited to Microsoft Edge only, at least at launch, which means if it isn't your browser of choice, you won't be able to biometrically log in anyway.
Xbox Play anywhere: Great for digital buyers
It’s not coming immediately on 2 August, but one of the new features in the Anniversary Upgrade is the inclusion of Windows Play Anywhere feature. For selected game titles, you’ll be able to purchase them once from the Windows/Xbox store and play them on either a Windows 10 PC (presuming your system is powerful enough) or Xbox One console.
Microsoft demonstrated this for me, and it seems simple enough, but there’s one tiny catch to be aware of. While Microsoft intends to offer the Xbox Play Anywhere feature across a range of titles, this will only work if you buy the game digitally, rather than in a store on optical media.
Buy the Xbox One disc version of Forza Horizon 3, and you’ll only ever be able to play it on your Xbox One, whereas the digital version will have rights that flow through to a Windows PC tied to the same Microsoft account. On the flip side, your consumer rights do allow you to sell, trade in or give away the disc copy, which you can’t do at all with digital software.
Is it worth upgrading?
The timing of the Windows 10 Anniversary Upgrade is rather specific, because that 2 August 2016 delivery date falls just after the 29 July 2016 expiry for the "free" upgrade to Windows 10 for existing Windows 7 and Windows 8 users.
If you’re an existing Windows 7/8 users still on the fence about Windows 10, you’ve only got a relatively short period of time to decide whether to make the "free" jump to Windows 10 in any case. Microsoft hasn’t entirely helped matters here with rather persistent reminders of this fact, or, as appears to have been the case for some users, stealth upgrades to the new operating system.
That being said, upgrading to a major point release is always a slightly fraught matter, even if you have jumped over the Windows 10 fence already. New software is massively complex stuff, and Windows has more software running on it than any other desktop platform in the world by a very wide margin. That’s a lot of space where your apps could behave unpredictably. Testing with the Windows Insider build (technically Windows 10 Insider Preview build 14393 if you like specificity) hasn’t shown us too many of those issues, but your experience may vary.
Where this gets difficult is that, according to Microsoft representatives, at the consumer end there’s no particular way to avoid the Windows 10 Anniversary Upgrade short of keeping your Windows 10 PC off the Internet. Enterprise customers have tools to delay upgrades to ensure compliance with applications, but that’s not part of the consumer offering.
When it starts rolling out on 2 August 2016 it will automatically upgrade on compatible PCs in accordance with your upgrade schedule. Microsoft does expect to stagger this in the same way that it staggered updates to Windows 10 when it launched just under a year ago, so you might not automatically see it on 2 August, but you will see it eventually. You can always opt to push it to your PC as part of the Windows Update process if you’re so inclined.