Review: Windows 10 Anniversary Update fails to excite

The new upgrade introduces small improvements across the board, but nothing to sway Windows 7 stalwarts

Thinkstock/Microsoft

One year after the initial, faltering release of Windows 10 “RTM” (build 10240) and almost nine months after the arrival of Win 10 Fall Update (version 1511), we finally have a new tenant at the apex of the Windows 10 “as a service” heap. Windows 10 Anniversary Update, aka Redstone 1, aka version 1607, is available to Windows Insiders.

The update should start rolling out to Windows 10 version 1511 users on August 2.

For those of you who have already taken the plunge and installed Windows 10 -- 350 million machines, at last count -- the upgrade should proceed without any intervention on your part. For the other billion or so Windows 7 and Windows 8 users who have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, it’s time to think again about upgrading to Windows 10.

If you’re happy with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, there’s still no overarching reason to upgrade, though the steady accumulation of improvements is starting to tip the balance. Anniversary Update brings real improvements in security, modest improvements in usability, and cosmetic improvements all around. Cortana has gone from being merely usable to being worthwhile. But the Edge browser still isn’t ready for prime time, and Universal apps are still a bust.

In short, Windows 10 is good, but it isn’t a slam dunk -- and it comes with considerable baggage.

On the other hand, if your machine, drivers, and apps are compatible (most likely they are), you want to ride the wave of the latest and greatest, and you're willing to accept the new Windows-as-a-service world of forced updates and Google-like data collection, you will probably be happy with Windows 10.

But be sure you understand the new rules:

  • Unless you go to extreme lengths, Microsoft will update your machine according to its own rules and on its own schedule, give or take a few hours. Enterprises can control updates to domain-joined Windows 10 PCs using Windows Update for Business, WSUS, SCCM, and other patch throttlers. But even corporate admins can’t separate key security patches from less critical updates.
  • Windows 10 snoops more than any previous version of Windows. We don’t know what gets sent to Microsoft’s vaults because the snooped data is encrypted before it goes out. Microsoft offers extensive assurances that your privacy will be protected. Nonetheless, information about your interests, preferences, browser usage, Cortana queries, and interactions with other Microsoft apps is still going out, even if you turn off all the snooping options. Enterprise data snooping can be configured to reduce the leak, but I haven’t seen data-field details.

That said, Microsoft has thus far refrained from using individually targeted advertising. The only visible results of Windows 10’s snooping have been an occasional flash in the Start menu’s “suggested” program slot and displays of advertising on lock screens, both of which can be manually disabled. If Windows 10’s data collection has influenced any other advertising, I’m not aware of it.

While the Windows 10 cumulative updates have brought on a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth -- with installs taking hours and hours, sometimes failing to complete -- we haven’t seen any fatal, show-stopping bugs in the patches. The only consistent problem with the cumulative updates is that they fail to install on many machines, for obscure reasons.

In the following sections, I talk about the features that have been improved in Windows 10 Anniversary Update (version 1607) compared to the earlier Fall Update (version 1511). I talk about what’s new for enterprise. Then I look at the near-term future of Win10.

What’s new in the Anniversary Update

The list of new and improved features in Windows 10 Anniversary Update includes a reformatted Start menu, improvements to Tablet mode (bringing back some features in Windows 8.1), new Cortana capabilities, a much-needed reworking of notifications, new Taskbar features, a Universal Skype client, an upgrade to Settings, Lock Screen improvements, and the introduction of Windows Ink for pen and finger input.

There truly is something for everyone, and even Microsoft has its pet points. I stepped through most of these features in April, when they appeared in beta build 14328. Here’s an update.

A better Start

The Anniversary Update Start menu works exactly like the Fall Update Start menu, but it’s been rearranged a bit. Instead of an All Apps list, all of the apps simply appear when you click the Start icon, in a massive scroll-down list that should look familiar to any Windows 10 user.

The other big difference: Any recently installed apps (up to three) bubble up to the top of the list, as you can see in the screenshot below.

Anniversary Update's Start menu displays your most recently installed apps (Netflix here) at the top of the list. 

There are minor cosmetic changes in the new Start, but nothing of substance, unless the presence of a hamburger menu gets your wickers in a twist, or you like to debate the colors on the File Explorer icon. Tablet mode gets a little more Start love in the Anniversary Update, with an All Apps view in addition to the old tiles and a disappearing taskbar.

The “Suggested” Start item appears by default, as you can see in the screenshot. It’s easy to turn off (Start > Settings > Personalization > Start > Occasionally show suggestions in Start).

As has always been the case, we have few of the Start menu customizations that were so useful in Windows 7. To get them back, you have to turn to third-party utilities like Start10 or Classic Shell.

Cortana turns the corner

Cortana is getting smarter all the time. In my experience, it’s not nearly as smart as Google Now, but it’s definitely getting better. In build 1511, you had to train Cortana before it would work; it also had a universal off switch. That’s changed in the Anniversary Update.

Cortana isn't as smart as Google Now, in my experience. But it's getting smarter all the time. 

Cortana can now run “on the lock screen,” which means it’s running all the time, listening to what you say whether you’re logged on to the computer or not. Further, the old Cortana Reminders icon has been subsumed into Cortana, and you can turn photos or some app data into reminders.

Cortana remains an expressway to Bing. Anything you do with Cortana ends up in your Bing profile, including local searches. With the Anniversary Update, though, Cortana gains the ability to search your OneDrive files in addition to the files on your machine.

Put it in Windows Ink

The new Windows Ink Workspace finally presents a usable Windows front end for both pen and pinkie. You don’t need a Surface Pro or Surface Book or fancy stylus to play; pedestrian pens and even your finger will work fine. If you don’t have a touchscreen, you can use your mouse. Enable the new Windows Ink Workspace by right-clicking on the Taskbar and choosing “Show Windows Ink Workspace button.”

Windows Ink Workplace welcomes your sketches or handwritten notes. No fancy stylus (or touch-screen) required. 

The best overview of new inking features that I’ve seen comes from Microsoft itself. Windows Ink group program manager Li-Chen Miller has the lowdown on the Windows blog. In a nutshell, the new interface lets you do the following:

  • Sketch freehand with the assistance of a “ruler” that guides your scribbles
  • Start a new sketch with a screenshot, much the same as you could with the Edge browser inking feature available in earlier versions of Windows 10
  • Create Windows 7-era sticky notes that can be automatically converted to text, then further manipulated using Cortana (for example, look up the price of a stock based on a handwritten stock symbol, set reminders) thanks to Cortana

I tend to think of the translation of handwritten sticky notes as more of an aspiration than a feature. I continue to have problems getting the hand-drawn notes translated, and the added steps (stock lookup, reminders) seem to work only in demos.

Looking for an Edge

Microsoft Edge finally has the long-promised support for extensions, but it is still a long, long way from being a first-rate browser.

As of this writing, I count 13 extensions available for Edge, including two ad blockers. The Office Online extension is a collection of links to Office Online services, not unlike the Google Apps links we’ve had in Chrome for many years. The Evernote extension freezes frequently. The Amazon Assistant means never having to leave Amazon.com. Most of the extensions look like they were thrown together over a long weekend.

The one extension I really need -- LastPass, the password manager -- doesn’t cut the mustard either. I continue to have all sorts of problems running it.

As Microsoft’s premier Universal Windows Platform app, Edge should be a shining example of how great Universal apps can be. Instead, we’re given a default browser that, even a year after its first release, can’t do many of the things some browsers have done for years -- such as a closed tab list, mute button, profiles. The taskbar icon doesn’t show all tabs. It’s still ridiculously difficult to change search engines. Settings options go on for pane after pane. We’ve seen a lot of promises for Edge over the years, but progress has been slow.

Edge continues to suffer from the same security holes that plague Internet Explorer. Nearly every month we see security patches that apply to both IE and Edge. Security holes in IE are so common that most folks are inured to their appearance. Edge, as the new kid on the block, should be much more secure.

That said, I remain optimistic that the Edge developers will ultimately deliver a better browser. The ability to identify “non-essential” Flash garbage on a page and throttle it rates as a first-class improvement, and I expect many more good things are still to come. But I can’t recommend Edge to anyone until more of those good things arrive.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Ease of Use (25%)
Features (25%)
Manageability (15%)
Security (15%)
Compatibility (10%)
Value (10%)
Overall Score (100%)
Windows 10 Anniversary Update 8 8 9 9 10 8 8.5

Ready for Action Center

Microsoft’s new, improved notification pane (dubbed the “Action Center”) represents a major makeover, which brings Windows 10 notifications up to the level you would expect on any modern smartphone.

The Action Center brings a much-needed overhaul to Windows 10 notifications. 

Plus, Cortana can now throw notifications, so your appointments will generally appear at the top of the Action Center. You can choose from several new Quick Actions tiles at the bottom of the notification pane. Unfortunately, you can’t drag to move a tile or right-click to add or delete one; you have to go to Start > Settings > System > Notifications & Actions and work with a template to change the icons.

Hello security

Microsoft bills Windows 10 Anniversary Update as “the most secure Windows yet,” and there’s no doubt it’s true. Anniversary Update introduces new hardware-based isolation, which uses virtualization extensions to protect the operating system and data against attacks. Other new “pre-breach defenses” include sandboxing in the Edge browser, isolating Flash from the browser, and new techniques in Windows Defender to protect against malware.

Microsoft is also working to replace passwords in Windows 10 with biometric authentication via Windows Hello. For those who have sufficiently capable fingerprint readers, the Windows Hello fingerprint scanner works well enough -- arguably on par with similar scanners for Apple and Android devices. That isn’t a new feature in the Anniversary Update, but it’s becoming more common. We’re promised “instant access to paired apps and protected websites on Microsoft Edge,” but I haven’t seen that in action yet. I can say that fingerprint verification with LastPass on Android and iOS works wonderfully.

Windows 10 Anniversary Update also includes Windows Information Protection, or what used to be known as Enterprise Data Protection. In a nutshell, Information Protection provides a way to separate personal and corporate data and apply policies (and remote wipe) to the business side.

For more details about the behind-the-scenes changes, see Rob Lefferts’ post on the Windows blog titled "Advancing Security for Consumers and Enterprises at Every Layer of the Windows 10 Stack" and ESET engineer Aryeh Goretsky’s independent report on Windows 10 security and privacy.

Universal Windows apps

Although Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform apps are updated according to their own schedule and generally not obliged to follow the vagaries of Windows versions, many of the Universal apps that ship with Windows are going through major changes.

On the plus side, Windows Mail has become usable -- an adjective that wouldn’t have applied last year. Groove Music and Movies & TV are also improved.

On the minus side, the new Universal OneDrive app shows you only the files on OneDrive that you’ve synced to your machine; its sole redeeming value may be its finger-friendliness. The Skype Universal app has many of the same reliability problems of its non-Universal brethren.

The story with third-party Universal Windows apps bobs from week to week. Many companies have withdrawn support for Windows Store apps, while others have signed on. Neither Project Centennial (a tool that converts traditional Windows desktop apps into Universal apps) nor Microsoft’s acquisition of Xamarin (which makes a toolset for porting iOS and Android apps to the Universal Windows Platform) have begun to fill the gaping hole that is Windows Store.

Other changes

The Win10 Anniversary Update is peppered with all sorts of smaller changes:

  • Windows Update lets you set “active hours,” which limit the times that Windows will reboot to install pending changes (Start > Settings > Update & security > Windows Update, Change active hours). Unfortunately, you can black out at most 12 hours in the day.
  • Start fresh, which isn’t a Windows feature but a link to a web page, lets you install a clean version of Windows 10 on your system.
  • Bash command line shell for those of you who love Linux.
  • Battery support improves with Cortana-based low-battery notifications and a central Universal Settings location for battery settings.
  • New emojis that should make every texter smile.

Everywhere you look there are cosmetic changes: dark backgrounds, lock screen changes, icons added here and deleted there. In the “duh” category, the sign-on screen no longer shows email addresses, by default.

Some of the old Control Panel settings have been moved to the Universal Settings app. Many are still back where they were in Windows 7.

Looking forward

As of this writing, about a third of a billion machines are running Windows 10. In general, they’ll be upgraded to Windows 10 Anniversary Update shortly after Aug. 2. If you have problems, keep your eye on InfoWorld for the latest advice and commiseration.

Those of you who recently upgraded from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 to Windows 10 will likely have to wait before you’re offered the Anniversary Update. As a rule, automatic updating of versions hasn’t kicked in until you’ve passed the 30-day mark of your previous update. Why? Microsoft doesn’t want to clobber your ability to roll back to your previous version of Windows -- and you’re allowed to roll back for 30 days.

There are many open questions about the transition on July 29. How to install the Anniversary Update directly, how to upgrade from Win7 or 8.1 after July 29, and how to buy a copy after the free upgrade offer ends have not been adequately explained yet. Again, watch InfoWorld for no-bull answers to your questions.

Is it time for Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 users to embrace Windows 10? It’s not a clear-cut decision. There’s no killer app, no killer service, and certain drawbacks (forced updates, snooping). Windows 10 is good and steadily improving, but not yet compelling. If you’re happy with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, and Anniversary Update’s key draws (such as Cortana and Windows Ink) don’t ring your chimes, you might as well stay put. There’s no harm in waiting, although the free upgrade from Win7 and 8.1 will likely expire on July 29.

Rumor has it we won’t see the next major Windows 10 update (“Threshold 2,” or in my way of thinking, Service Pack 3) until early 2017. Maybe this third major update will be the charm.