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Windows 10 after three years: A greatly improved report card

As Windows 10 approaches its third birthday, it's maturing steadily. A worldwide installed base of more than 700 million active users is impressive, but what will it take to convince Windows 7 users to switch? Here's my report card.

Microsoft released Windows 10 three years ago this month.

That three-year anniversary used to be a very big deal for Microsoft's OEM partners and for its corporate customers running Windows, because it signaled the expected arrival of a new Windows version.

With Windows 10, that calendar is no longer relevant. Instead of a "big bang" release every three years, Microsoft has been trickling out new features for its flagship desktop operating system, releasing a total of five feature updates in the past three years.

The most recent release, the April 2018 Update, might not seem like that big of an upgrade compared to the version that came out a mere six months earlier. But compare it to the original Windows 10 release from July 2015 and the contrast is striking.

The Windows 10 you see today is the equivalent of one of those big-bang releases, and perhaps even more impressive because Microsoft's customers have been able to provide real-time feedback as new features have evolved in the intervening three years.

Earlier installments in this series:

The mid-2018 Windows 10 user experience, for example, would be familiar to anyone who just woke up after a three-year nap, but a closer look would reveal countless usability improvements.

The transition from the old Control Panel to the new, modern Settings app has been impressive, especially if you factor in the graphic changes that come with Fluent Design.

Microsoft's designers have been tweaking and tuning the Notifications pane steadily, with the biggest change coming in the way that potentially annoying notifications are grouped for the sake of efficient management. When you add in the integration with Cortana and the ability to link a mobile phone to Windows 10, the experience is surprisingly useful.

And then there's a completely new feature like Timeline, which was supposed to debut in 2017 but was delayed until this year. It's a downright transformative use of the old Windows key + Tab shortcut.

I issued report cards for Windows 10 after its first and second years. As we approach the three-year mark, it's time to do it again. My 2018 report card uses the same categories (with one noteworthy exception) as in the previous two years.

Adoption rate: B

The Windows 10 installed base is growing at a rate of roughly 200 million new active users per year. At that pace, the number of worldwide devices running Windows 10 will hit the 1 billion mark sometime around New Year's Day 2020.

That's an impressive number on its own, but maybe too little, too late. Because there's another major milestone that will arrive just a few weeks later: the end of support for Windows 7, on January 14, 2020. With that deadline only 18 months away, Microsoft's enterprise customers appear to be in no hurry to make the switch from 7 to 10.

Usage data from the United States Data Analytics Program offers a good measure of how that migration has been going so far. As of June 30, 2018, Windows 7 still accounts for nearly 40 percent of visits to U.S. government websites from Windows PCs.

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Source: U.S. Data Analytics Program

Microsoft insists it won't extend the support deadline for Windows 7, as it did with Windows XP. But if the bulk of its business customers refuse to budge by the end of next year, this could turn into a very dangerous game of chicken.

Upgrades and updates: B

The "Windows as a Service" concept got off to a somewhat shaky start, but after three years Microsoft has finally settled into a schedule of two feature updates per year, one in April and another in October, plus cumulative updates on the second Tuesday of each month.

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The last few feature updates have added clearer notifications of upcoming updates, along with options to reschedule the installation of those updates to a more convenient time. That design change has gone a long way toward mollifying Windows 10 users who are annoyed by updates that kick off at unexpected and invariably inconvenient times.

That still leaves two other update-related issues that continue to annoy Windows 10 users, however.

One is the sheer size of the semi-annual feature updates. Although some clever engineering has allowed Microsoft to shrink these packages slightly, they still weigh in at multiple gigabytes. That can be burdensome for Windows 10 users who pay by the byte for downloads.

The other concern is that the process of deferring updates is still too complicated. Unless you're running Windows 10 Home, that is, in which case it's literally impossible. Given the size and diversity of the Windows installed base, the update process will never be flawless. But a sensible deferral option ("Wait two months before delivering a feature update") could inspire some genuine good will.

Privacy, A-

For Windows 10's first year, critics delivered a steady torrent of alarming reports about the new operating system's collection of telemetry data and alleged threats to your privacy. In the past two years, however, that deluge has turned into a trickle and Windows 10 telemetry has become, for all practical purposes, a non-issue.

What changed?

For starters, in early 2017 Microsoft began sharing detailed information about exactly what it is and isn't monitoring with its Connected User Experience and Telemetry component, also known as the Universal Telemetry Client. It also modified Windows 10's default privacy settings to deal with complaints from European regulators.

Then, with the release of Windows 10 version 1803 earlier this year, Microsoft provided a new utility, the Windows Diagnostic Data Viewer, which allows anyone with an administrator account to inspect the telemetry data being collected from a device. The April 2018 update also includes a Delete button that instantly clears any saved telemetry data.

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The Diagnostic Data Viewer, new in Windows 10 version 1803, shows everything being sent to Microsoft's telemetry servers.

That tool was available as a preview release for three months and is now installed on more than 250 million Windows 10 PCs. So far, no privacy advocates have come forward with any discoveries that contradict Microsoft's insistence that telemetry data is used only for product improvement.

And it doesn't hurt that in the past year Facebook and others have made it increasingly obvious that there are much more significant threats to focus on.

Security: A/B

As in previous years, I've assigned two grades to this category, reflecting the two very different groups of customers that use Windows.

Microsoft has delivered an impressive assortment of security features for its enterprise customers, earning a solid A on my report card. Many of those security features aren't available for the consumer and small business segments of the market, which is why I've assigned a B for that category.

All the baseline security features are present in every Windows 10 edition, including support for biometric authentication in Windows Hello, pervasive disk encryption, and built-in antimalware protection. Microsoft continues to invest in Windows Defender Security Center, which ties its many security features into a single dashboard.

The net effect is to make it less necessary for consumers and small businesses to spend money on third-party security software. Deciding to ditch those programs gets a little easier when they end up causing more problems than they solve, as was the case when Avast Behavior Shield caused some Windows updates to fail spectacularly a couple months ago.

But as I noted last year, the list of enterprise features is more impressive, with Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection at the top of the list. This feature, which is designed to detect threats that have made it past other defenses, provides corporate customers with tools to investigate breaches and offer suggested responses.

Other features that were still in preview last year are now fully available for enterprises, including Windows Defender Exploit Guard and Windows Defender Application Control (previously known as Device Guard).

The one security feature that didn't take off in the past year was the much-maligned Windows 10 S, which has now transformed from a separate Windows edition to a feature, "S Mode."

Apps: C-

For Windows 10's two-year anniversary, I awarded an Incomplete in this category as we awaited the arrival of some key desktop apps in the Microsoft Store. A year later, those apps are here, and they've done little to revitalize the app landscape.

You can now get Microsoft Office, Apple's iTunes, Slack, and Spotify from the Store, along with some other lower-profile desktop apps, courtesy of a software tool called the Desktop Bridge (previously code-named Centennial). Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a lot of reason to detour through the Store when every one of those apps is also available as a conventional download.

In fact, iTunes in the Microsoft Store has some of the worst reviews I've ever seen. Of the most recent 10 reviews, 9 offer the lowest possible rating, 1 star, with review headlines like "Irritating," "Stupid," and "Hate it."

Meanwhile, the apps that are included with a default installation of Windows 10 are greatly improved from the rough first-generation versions, but whatever positive credit they earn is offset by the load of foistware (Candy Crush, for example) that Microsoft insists on bundling with every new Windows 10 PC.

The one bright spot in the Windows apps firmament these days is Office 365. But of course, that doesn't require Windows 10 at all.

Hardware: B+

This used to be the Tablets & Phones category, and Microsoft earned a solid F last year as its capitulation in mobile markets reached its absolute low point. Thankfully, the company killed off its Windows Phone product line completely last year, leaving it free to concentrate on PC hardware.

At the high end, at least, there's never been a better crop of PC hardware to choose from. The Surface Pro and Surface Book have evolved into gorgeous exemplars of the state of the PC art. In the process, they appear to have accomplished what Microsoft said was its goal all along: to encourage its OEM partners to build better devices.

It doesn't hurt Microsoft's cause that Apple is stumbling badly in the Mac market right now, criticized for the quality of its keyboards, a lackadaisical approach to design, and an inability to deliver upgrades for signature products like the Mac Pro.

And, of course, the most egregious failing of all: a complete lack of support for touchscreen devices on what are supposed to be its professional products.

That's left an opening for Windows OEMs to deliver some truly interesting designs, like HP's Spectre x360 and Huawei's MateBook Pro X.

At the beginning of this decade, a surprising number of pundits were ready to declare the PC dead. But the industry keeps outsmarting the undertaker, and a large share of the credit should go to Windows 10.

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