Windows 10 is nearly four years old. In a bygone era, its replacement would have been delivered last year, and early adopters would be eagerly awaiting Windows 11 Service Pack 1.
But those old days are gone for good. In the Windows-as-a-Service era, those every-three-years "big bang" releases have vanished, replaced by a rolling succession of smaller but still significant feature updates that now arrive every six months.
Since the launch of Windows 10 in July 2015, Microsoft has released six feature updates, each of which is the equivalent of a full Windows upgrade. A seventh, version 1903, is rolling out to the Release Preview ring of the Windows Insider Program in April and will be released to the general public in late May. But this one is different from the rest.
Windows 10 version 1903, which was codenamed 19H1 in its Insider Preview testing phase, is the first update since Microsoft changed its support lifecycle late last year. The version 1903 update will have an 18-month support cycle for all editions, whereas the version 1909 release, due in October, will get a longer, 30-month support cycle for Enterprise and Education editions. (All Windows 10 Pro installations will be supported for 18 months; beginning with version 1903, Windows 10 Home users will have the option to skip installation of feature updates until their support lifecycle ends but cannot specify a deferral period.)
The upshot of this new release cadence is that enterprise customers who want to minimize the disruption of Windows 10 feature updates will target those end-of-year releases. And if Microsoft is smart, they'll treat the H1 release as a major update, with the H2 release smoothing the rough edges in its immediate predecessor and introducing minimal new features.
That strategy should make the fall 2019 update more appealing to enterprise customers, especially given that it will be the last Windows 10 update before the end of Windows 7 support in January 2020.
There's certainly plenty of evidence in version 1903 that Microsoft is treating this one as a major update. And, interestingly, Windows Insider Program members who opt for the Skip Ahead release are going straight to 20H1 instead of 19H2, suggesting that the October update will indeed be about polishing and refining rather than packed with a long list of new features.
So, what's new in version 1903? I've put together a comprehensive list of new and redesigned features in gallery format: Windows 10 May 2019 Update: The new features that matter most. A few are worth calling out here:
- Windows Sandbox uses built-in virtualization to create a "safe" desktop where you can try out an untrusted program or visit a suspicious website without risking the integrity of your PC. When you close the sandbox, every trace of those actions is wiped out and the next session starts fresh.
- The default Start menu layout is cleaner, Cortana and Windows Search are now separated, and there's a shiny new Windows Light theme.
- Several old-style management controls have now been moved into new Settings pages. Most notable is the addition of a drag-and-drop interface for installing new fonts, but you'll also find improvements in the Search Indexing interface and the modern printing dialog box, as well as options for setting a manual IP address and DNS server settings for a wired Ethernet adapter.
But that list focuses mostly on visible parts of the user experience and doesn't include some of the equally substantive under-the-hood improvements.
For example, effective with Windows 10 version 1903, Microsoft has moved Start to its own process, called StartMenuExperienceHost.exe, and also changed the process so it no longer suspends. Separating this process from the rest of the shell should make it faster and more reliable. You can't show that in a screenshot, but if the change works as expected you'll notice snappier performance.
Microsoft continues to polish the update process, adding more notifications and, reportedly, giving you the option to postpone updates for up to 35 days on a PC running Windows 10 Home edition. There's also an option to set Active Hours automatically based on observed usage. (Interestingly, that latter option was recommended by the authors of a study who found that users are baffled by the update process in Windows 10 Home edition.)
This release removes some artificial limitations that restricted the ability of administrators to remove built-in applications. As of version 1903, you can now uninstall any of the following apps by right-clicking its entry on the All Apps list: 3D Viewer (previously called Mixed Reality Viewer), Calculator, Calendar, Groove Music, Mail, Movies & TV, Paint 3D, Snip & Sketch, Sticky Notes, and Voice Recorder.
One longstanding annoyance is reportedly fixed in this update. In current Windows 10 builds, if you adjust the display brightness and then plug in (or unplug) the charger, the brightness changes back to the default setting; as of version 1903, Windows now remembers your custom brightness setting as preferred, regardless of whether you're running on battery or AC power.
Also: 7 commands to reinstall or upgrade Windows 10 computers TechRepublic
A few changes in the new feature update will only be obvious when setting up a new PC. Microsoft has made significant changes to the setup experience you'll see when using an ISO file or a bootable USB drive to set up a new PC. As part of the same setup process, Windows will now reserve disk space for use by updates, apps, temporary files, and system caches, although those changes will only apply to clean installs and won't be imposed if you upgrade.
In my tests of a very late Insider preview release I was unable to test some features that Microsoft introduced as part of Insider preview builds, including a new design for the Settings home page. Another new feature, the introduction of friendly dates in File Explorer Details view, appeared on one test PC but not on others, suggesting that Microsoft is continuing to roll out some new features slowly even at this late date.
In sum, version 1903 contains enough new stuff to earn its status as a major feature update. As always, you can manually update immediately, or you can wait till Microsoft releases the update to your PC, a process that might take a month or two. And, of course, you always have the option to watch and wait as Microsoft fixes the inevitable glitches and hiccups in those first few months. For details, see "Windows 10 version 1903: Act fast to delay this big upgrade."
For those organizations that have already made the move to Windows 10, there's plenty of time to refine the strategy for dealing with these updates. For those who are yet to begin the upgrade from Windows 7, the alarms are beginning to sound in earnest.