I have a confession to make: It's been four months since Microsoft publicly unveiled the name of the next big Windows 10 feature update, and I still have no idea why it's called the Creators Update.
From Microsoft's perspective, of course, the aspirational tagline makes perfect marketing sense and is much easier to sell than a version number or a release date. It also gives marketers the chance to show off some of the demo-friendly features in the new release, like the 3D Builder and Paint 3D apps, a mysterious Mixed Reality Portal, and some nifty features aimed at gamers.
But a mundane label like version 1703 (its likely name) might be more meaningful for the rest of us. In the "Windows as a service" era, this should be just another steady-as-she-goes checkpoint on Microsoft's new, twice-a-year release cadence. It's due to arrive roughly nine months after its predecessor, version 1607 (aka the Anniversary Update), and six months or so before its as-yet-unnamed successor, in the fourth quarter of this year.
What Microsoft's marketers are calling the Creators Update is now entering the final stage of development, a closing sprint that should see a flurry of Fast Ring Insider preview builds released in the next few weeks. If all goes according to schedule, a final build should be ready in mid-March and released to the Windows 10 Current Branch in early April.
Regardless of what you call it, there's little secrecy around what will be in this update. After all, it's been developed in the open with frequent releases to the Fast Ring of the Windows Insider Program. For those who haven't been paying close attention, though, this article should get you up to speed quickly.
This preview is based on my hands-on experience with builds 15042 and 15046, both released in the past week or so. This isn't a comprehensive review, but it covers the changes I think most productivity-focused Windows users will care about. The tl;dr version: These recent builds contain enough features to be interesting, but not so much change that they feel threatening.
There are very few "Who moved my cheese?" moments in this release. Some of its new features address pain points that Windows users have been grumbling about since the launch of Windows 10 nearly two years ago. Others are evolutionary improvements.
Here's what you're likely to find in version 1703 when it hits your desktop later this year.
New update options
One of the biggest changes in this update involves giving more control to users and administrators over how and when updates get installed. That should deal with the all-too-common complaints over forced updates occurring at the worst possible time. After this upgrade, you should see proper notifications when updates are available, along with options to schedule the installation or snooze until you're ready.
I covered the upcoming changes in detail in a separate post that I encourage you to read: Microsoft prepares new update options for Windows 10.
Microsoft Edge approaches maturity
After nearly two years, the no-longer-all-that-new default browser in Windows 10, Microsoft Edge, is finally approaching the stage where it can be considered a serious alternative to Google Chrome.
It's still not quite there, however.
The Creators Update will add a slew of extremely welcome under-the-hood security changes, as well as catching up to the competition by blocking most Flash-based content unless you specifically approve it.
Most of the attention will focus on a handful of obvious changes to the Edge user interface. Tab previews are now available, making it easier to scan to find the exact tab you're looking for. Two new buttons to the left of the row of browser tabs lets you set tabs aside, keeping them close at hand (and freeing up their memory) until you're ready to retrieve them.
One of the biggest disappointments in the Microsoft Edge story to date has been painfully slow adoption of extensions. Microsoft added support for extensions in the Anniversary Update last year, but to date fewer than two dozen such extensions are available in the Windows Store, and six of those extensions are from Microsoft.
The limited selection does include some heavy hitters: the LastPass and RoboForm password managers, for example, and at least four ad blockers. But given that the extension model is essentially a clone of Chrome's scheme, shouldn't we have seen a lot more extensions by now?
Microsoft says it is expanding "the Microsoft Edge Extensions ecosystem and platform" with this release. According to a recent blog post, extension developers targeting Edge in the Creators Update will have access to more APIs, "including access to favorites, roaming data between PCs, and the ability to securely communicate with other installed applications." Developers will also benefit from updates to the Microsoft Edge Extension Toolkit to help with porting extensions from other browsers.
New device setup options
I would like to give a medal to the unsung hero who created the new unified interface for adding devices to Windows. Previously, the interfaces for adding Bluetooth, Miracast, and other devices were scattered in seemingly random fashion. Now, they're right where you'd expect them to be, under the Devices heading in Settings.
User experience improvements
As befits an incremental upgrade, this update includes a handful of small tweaks to the Windows UX. Nothing too dramatic, and definitely nothing that's going to stop users in their tracks.
One of the most welcome changes in the Start menu is the addition of tile folders. In previous releases, you could add a tile to Start, change the size of tiles, and organize tiles into groups. This release lets you organize tiles into virtual folders that occupy the same space as a single large tile.
Here's an example.
Instead of splattering icons for Office apps all over Start, this tile folder keeps the entire collection neatly tucked away until you need one. Click the folder to slide it open and display its contents, then click to run an app.
There are plenty of other small changes in the user interface as well. Two worth calling out are in Settings: The list of installed apps gets its own top-level category in Settings, and you can also find a new Troubleshoot item in the Update & security section. It contains a list of Troubleshooting tools that were previously only available in the old Control Panel.
The most intriguing new addition is a Blue Screen troubleshooter. I have yet to see it produce any results, perhaps because the necessary debugging symbols are missing. But if the final version works, it will be the first time this sort of diagnostic information has been available to mere mortals as a part of Windows itself.
Windows Defender, expanded
From an extremely modest start as a bare-bones anti-malware solution, Windows Defender has moved to the center of the Windows interface. With this update, the transmogrification is complete.
The new Windows Defender Security Center is a dashboard that groups the traditional virus and threat protection information with an assortment of other functions for checking the health of a system.
The settings panel displays green checkmarks to confirm that security settings are set properly, with a red x indicating a problem. The new console also includes family options that parents can use to control computer access, as well as easy access to a "fresh start" button that performs a clean installation of Windows.
The list of additional improvements in this update goes on for several pages.
Display improvements mean that this version will do a better job of handling scaling transitions when you plug a laptop with a high-DPI screen into a large external monitor. Better, though, still doesn't mean perfect, which is why you'll still probably want to sign out and sign back in when making those transitions.
This release also adds the Night Light feature, which goes by other names on other platforms (Night Shift on iOS, for example). It's designed to remove blue light from the display, theoretically making nighttime computing less disruptive to sleep cycles.
One nice touch with the implementation of Night Light is that it knows sunset and sunrise times in your location and can adjust automatically.
This release will also include built-in ebook reading capabilities. Technically, this feature is a part of Microsoft Edge, and the implementation, intended for tablets like the Surface Pro, is still rough around the edges.
The standard EPUB format, with and without DRM, is currently supported, and a new Books category is available in the Store. The ebook reader also includes a text-to-speech option that's a long ways from natural sounding, at least in this release.
Hyper-V virtualization gets an assortment of new features, including a Quick Create dialog box that bypasses the multi-step wizard and allows you to create a virtual machine with just a few clicks.
And finally, Cortana continues its evolution with an assortment of changes. Cortana voice support powers setup for those who require accessibility assistance, for example. There's also an option for issuing voice commands to Cortana over the lock screen, and a new "pick up where you left off" feature that's still in development.
All in all, this is an impressive list of changes, but it doesn't feel like a radical revision. Most of the additions feel like welcome improvements, and if you're responsible for helping users with the transition you should have a relatively easy time with this feature update.