Microsoft wants you to think of Windows 10 as a service, where new features arrive as they're ready, and where regular updates are themselves a feature.
That's true in a sense, but Windows 10 is still Windows, a big and sprawling tangle of code that carries an implicit promise of backward compatibility. The "as a service" part just means more frequent upgrades, which are now called "feature updates" to distinguish themselves from the cumulative monthly "quality updates."
On July 29, Windows 10 celebrates the first anniversary of its release. Four days later, on August 2, a new upgrade -- sorry, I mean feature update -- will begin rolling out to the 350 million or so devices already running Windows 10.
The Anniversary Update is, technically, version 1607, and it is far more than a service pack. In this post and the accompanying gallery, I offer a preview of what you can expect from this major update, based on near-final preview releases.
Part of the unpleasant reality of Windows as a Service is the necessity for frequent installations of these large feature updates. Over the past few weeks, I've installed near-final Windows Insider preview releases on a dozen PCs, new and old. On newer hardware, with solid-state drives and modern CPUs, the upgrade process typically takes between 20 and 25 minutes (not counting download times).
On a three-year-old HP Stream 11, powered by an Atom processor, with minimal storage, and with only 2 GB of RAM, the entire upgrade process took about an hour. That's nearly a worst-case scenario, although it's certainly possible that some pre-2009 PC designs with slow conventional hard drives could take longer.
A bigger change is the way that Windows 10 version 1607 handles those monthly cumulative updates. This release still offers no way to defer those updates automatically (short of using Windows Update for Business Group Policy settings), but you can at least define an Active Hours period of up to 12 hours per day during which you normally use the PC.
During the Active Hours period, you should in theory be assured that Windows 10 won't automatically interrupt your work to install an update. If an update has been downloaded but not installed, you can manually set an alternative update time.
The steadily evolving user experience
The signature elements of the initial release of Windows 10 were a direct repudiation of the radical changes introduced in Windows 8. Version 1607 retains the same basic design of Start, which mashes the Windows 7 Start menu with the Windows 8 Start screen.
That's not to say the Start experience hasn't been tweaked for this release, however. The new design incorporates a scrolling All Apps list that is permanently available, while the power button and shortcuts to frequently used folders shrink to a slim column of icons on the left.
That change echoes the design of the built-in Windows 10 apps, including Groove Music, Photos, and Mail & Calendar. Spoiler alert: If you dislike the hamburger button, prepare to grit your teeth as you use Windows 10 version 1607, because that interface element is omnipresent.
Since the release of Windows 8 nearly four years ago, Microsoft has been methodically moving user controls from the old Control Panel to the new Settings app. With version 1607, that work takes a major step forward. Several major groups of options, including networking, have now moved almost entirely to the new Settings app, and the new iconography, replacing the generic gear icons used in previous versions, adds to the sense that this version of Settings is a major update.
Another signature piece of Windows 10 is the notifications pane along the right side. This Action Center was frankly a bit of a mess in previous builds. But a few subtle changes in the Anniversary Update make it far more usable.
First, the Action Center icon moves to the right of the system clock, and a badge over the icon lets you know how many new notifications are available. In addition, you can now tweak notification settings on an app-by-app basis, with more intelligent grouping options.
I originally thought of Cortana as a novelty, but with the changes in version 1607 I find myself calling on her services more often, as a calculator, a translator, a bringer of sports scores and search results, and a package tracker. This is definitely not Siri, but it's also not exactly Google Now. Microsoft has created something unique with Cortana.
And if you don't like the idea of an intelligent personal assistant sitting on the Start menu, you can just say no. Cortana is still an opt-in feature, one that can be completely disabled (so that it works as a search box only) and even hidden from the taskbar completely.
Edge and extensions
The new default browser for Windows 10, Microsoft Edge, arrived late in the original preview cycle, and it has been playing catch-up ever since.
The big news for version 1607, of course, is the arrival, at long last, of extensions. After a rocky start, the limited selection of preview releases seems to be working well. The LastPass password manager, which was the number-one request from many of my correspondents, does its job as expected, and the two Adblock extensions have the same strengths and weaknesses as on other platforms.
In current builds, Edge has been fast and smooth. In fact, it appears that Microsoft's goal with Edge is to make a browser that is essentially a clone of Google's Chrome. Even the extension format is Chrome-like.
The big question for Edge is whether these changes will be enough to spur developers into actively developing extensions and to convince end users that it's a "good enough" alternative to Chrome.
Microsoft has been delivering support for digital pens and the ink datatype since the dawn of the Tablet PC in 2002. Those designs never took off. Version 1607 tries to reboot that feature with the introduction of the Windows Ink platform.
The Windows Ink Workspace, which appears when you click the pen icon in the notification area, feels very much like version 1.0, offering quick access to pen-enabled apps that are fun to play with but don't exactly feel sticky.
With its Surface Pro and Surface Book lines, both equipped with pens as standard equipment, Microsoft remains firmly committed to the idea of the pen as a first-class input device. Whether that vision becomes a reality is still very much an open question
There's much more in this release, of course, including a few surprise features that I call out in the accompanying gallery, and an updated suite of apps that I'll cover in more detail in a follow-up post..
The good news, based on my testing on multiple hardware platforms, is that this appears to be a solid, stable release.