First look: Microsoft's Windows 10 Anniversary Update

Unlike most Microsoft watchers, I haven't been installing the interim Windows 10 preview builds since last fall. Here's my first look at the Windows 10 update coming August 2.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

It's a tradition. Another Windows release, another non-reviewer's review by yours truly. (I call my reviews "non-reviewer" ones because unlike some of my colleagues, I don't do many and definitely don't do them as thoroughly, with all the speeds and feeds.)


I've had a chance to use the upcoming Windows 10 Anniversary Update preview (the Pro version) for the past few days. I am one of the few dedicated Microsoft watchers who haven't been installing and running the 25 interim test builds of this Windows 10 release over the past few months. I've only been using the November update (Build 1511) on my Acer S7 and other loaner devices since it was made available last fall. So the Anniversary Update is completely brand new to me.

Microsoft doesn't want us to call the build we've been testing "RTM" (release to manufacturing) because Windows 10 is a continually updated service. Company officials want us to say we're using the latest preview release.

However, Build 14393, which testers got last week and which I installed on a couple of devices last week, is effectively the "Release to Mainstream" version of Windows 10 1607. (Hat tip to Ali Robertson for the idea of what to rename RTM.) The Windows 10 Anniversary Update version that Microsoft will begin rolling out to users on August 2 is going to be this code base plus updates that Microsoft makes between last week and next Monday.

This release is the second major feature update to Windows 10 since Microsoft initially introduced the operating system on July 29, 2015. (The first was the Fall 1511 update.) Microsoft isn't keen on us using the old "service/feature pack" nomenclature, either, but Windows 10 Anniversary Update is basically the equivalent of Windows 10 Feature Pack 2. This is a rollout of performance, reliability, bug fixes, and new feature updates for Windows 10 that Microsoft has developed since last fall.

From a consumer standpoint, there are a few main features in this release that existing Windows 10 users will notice.

Windows Hello, Microsoft's biometric authentication mechanism, is a lot more reliable and is starting to be integrated into apps with this release. Cortana can now be used above the lock screen and provides more entry points. The built-in Edge browser now supports extensions. And a dedicated Windows Ink capability makes using digital pens easier and more interesting.

Let me get the pen out of the way from the get-go. I am not a pen user. Microsoft loaned me a Surface Pro 4 with a pen so that I could test drive the new Windows Ink capabilities, which include updated Sticky Notes and other apps designed to make pen use more intuitive.

I tried to care, readers. But I just don't need or want to use a pen on my PC/laptop. I fully understand artists, students and some others really want and need digital ink/pen support. I've finally weaned myself from using pen and paper and for the past year-plus, I've been typing all my notes into Notepad. A digital pen didn't win me back; I found it clunky and found some of the promised Sticky Notes functionality unreliable. Your mileage may vary.

Cortana is getting more robust. I still find talking to my PC, even alone and in the confines of my own home/office, unnatural. When Hello is enabled and working as promised, the idea of being "above" the lock screen is kind of irrelevant, since the lock screen doesn't stick around for very long. But on my Acer S7, which doesn't support Hello, being able to get weather, upcoming meetings (if you decide to turn that functionality on), metric conversions, and other basic information using voice is handy. It doesn't turn a Windows 10 PC into an Amazon Echo equivalent, but it's a start.

Edge getting extension support is YUGE. I have been avoiding using Edge on my Windows 10 laptop because ads have totally killed Edge's speed and performance for me. Ad blockers make Edge more competitive with Chrome. There, I said it -- in spite of being someone whose livelihood is tied to ads running on web sites. AdBlock and Adblock Plus aren't the only extensions available through the Store: There's also LastPass, Amazon Assistant, Evernote and OneNote Web clippers, Pin It, Save to Pocket, and a few more.

Regardless of all Microsoft's speed tests showing Edge beats Chrome on performance, I still don't find that to be the case on many of the sites I'm visiting. But with Anniversary Update, Edge is good enough for me to use it as often, if not more so, than Chrome. However, for the kinds of searches I do, for articles and tech information, Chrome's default search engine, Google, still yields more and better results. (Update: As reader Barry Wallis noted, I could change the default engine in Edge to Google and see how that works. I'm skeptical given how deeply Bing is integrated into Cortana and Windows 10 about how well this experiment will go, but I'm giving it a whirl.)

Hello now works far better and more quickly for me, which definitely was not the case when Windows 10 initially was released. I ended up turning off Hello on the Microsoft Surface Book loaner I had because it was more of a nuisance than a benefit. But with the Anniversary Update and a Surface Pro 4, Hello, while still not flawless at recognizing my face to log me in, is functional.

What's been most surprising to me with the Anniversary Update has been how much better the bundled apps and certain integrated features run with this release.

The built-in Windows Mail app developed by Microsoft has been pretty bad. When it runs on the Anniversary Update, it is passable. The app can be pinned to the task bar to show more quickly the number of unread emails. And the mail app seems to me to be syncing faster and more automatically now, too. I've only dabbled with the preview version of the new Skype Universal Windows app that works with the Anniversary Update, but it seems solid and usable.

The updated Action Center in the Anniversary Update is more useful and predictable. With the prior to versions of Windows 10, my new and unread mail messages occasionally showed up there, but more often didn't. Now they seem to be showing up there, as do other tips and information, such as the fact the new Skype preview is now available and the results of my automatic scan with Windows Defender.

I've also found the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity in Windows 10 Anniversary Update to be considerably more solid than what I've been living with in the November Update.

Existing Windows 10 users on the Current Branch and Current Branch for Business will get Windows 10 Anniversary Update at some point by default, as that's the way the Windows 10 servicing model works. Feature updates aren't optional; they're required for these groups of users.

But the reason Microsoft wants reviews of the Anniversary Update out now, a week ahead of the August 2 general availability date is because of the looming July 29 cut-off for the free Windows 10 update offer. After Friday, users still on Windows 7, 8, and 8.X won't be able to get Windows 10 -- including the coming Anniversary release -- as a free update. There won't be an extension to the offer.

My advice, after using the Anniversary Update for the past few days is any Windows 7/8.X user who is thinking at all about going to Windows 10, now's the time. Whether or not you care about Windows Ink, Cortana, or Hello, this update to Windows 10 makes the operating system and the apps integrated with it more reliable and better performing.

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