Windows 10 Anniversary Update: Take the preview tour

Ed Bott takes a close look at the Anniversary Update of Microsoft's flagship operating system.
1 of 12 Ed Bott/ZDNet

It's officially Version 1607

Although members of the Windows Insider Program have been seeing new Windows 10 preview builds at a furious pace, there haven't been a lot of visible changes in recent releases. Nor should you expect to see anything new in the operating system itself between now and the official release date of August 2. The big focus between now and then is stabilization (bug fixes) and localization (translating the Windows interface into its many languages for simultaneous worldwide release.

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Fewer unexpected update-related reboots?

The Anniversary Update introduces a new concept to Windows 10 updates, allowing you to define Active Hours, a period of up to 12 hours daily when you typically use the device and you don't want a surprise reboot to cut into your productivity during working hours.

Updates are still mandatory, although you can use Group Policy to delay the monthly cumulative updates by up to four weeks.

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More tweaks to Start

Conceptually, Start hasn't changed since the initial release of Windows 10 a year ago. Version 1607 still sports a column of shortcuts on the left and a much wider space for tiles on the right. But with this release the scrolling All Apps menu becomes a permanent fixture instead of being hidden behind an All Apps button as it was in the previous release.

The slim column of icons on the left side is consistent with the design of the built-in Windows universal apps, with a hamburger button available to expand that column to include labels.

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Action Center: actually useful

A notification center is de rigueur for modern operating systems, mobile and desktop. With this update, the Windows 10 version is starting to make sense and even become (gasp) useful. Notifications are neatly grouped, with ample customization options for each app.

Possibly more useful in the long run is the capability to customize the list of quick actions, those buttons at the bottom of the Action Center. You can add or remove buttons and drag them into preferred positions from the Settings page shown here.

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The ever-expanding Settings app

Given the weird compatibility requirements of Windows, it's impossible to imagine the legacy Control Panel going away completely. But someone has been working very hard to migrate features from Control Panel to Settings, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the Network & Internet category. The connectivity diagram is new, and in the event there's something wrong with your connection, you get both a visual indicator and a handy Troubleshoot button.

The other noteworthy visual change is the addition of icons, in the distinctive flat and monochromatic Windows 10 style, to the left of every category in the pane on the left

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Cortana isn't sentient yet

Cortana's speech recognition, as it turns out, works very well indeed. Say "Hey Cortana" or click the microphone icon, ask your question, and you're likely to get an intelligent answer.

I've found Cortana to be excellent at tracking packages and reminding me of upcoming events. It's also very good at quick translations and calculations. The biggest surprise of all, though, is cross-platform notifications, with Cortana on Android sharing notifications of missed calls and voice mail on the Windows PC.

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Quick Assist adds remote help

I haven't seen the Quick Assist app mentioned much by Microsoft, but it's been available in all recent builds. If you've used TeamViewer, you already know the concept: One person requests assistance, the other provides help via screen sharing. Time-limited security codes reduce security concerns, and this app certainly works better than the old Remote Assistance app.

In recent builds, performance of the remote connection isn't great, although it's good enough for basic remote troubleshooting. One sure sign that it's not quite ready for primetime is the placeholder message: "###foobar@microsoft.com###" will be able to see your files and control your computer."

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Edge gets extensions

It didn't matter how well (or how poorly) Microsoft Edge rendered webpages. The fact that a modern browser doesn't support extensions is an absolute disqualifier for most power users.

Anyway, you can now scratch that object off the list. The version of Edge now shipping in preview builds supports an assortment of extensions that are remarkably similar to their counterparts in CGoogle Chrome, with the LastPass password manager and Adblock and Adblock Plus at the top of the list. Still an open question, though, is whether extension developers will spend the minimal effort to port Chrome extensions to Edge after the Anniversary Update ships.

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Improvements in the Store

It might just be my imagination, but downloads and updates from the Store seem faster and less problematic in recent Preview builds. The Store user experience has gotten some tweaks as well, with more modern progress bars and notifications.

Despite some high-profile recent additions, though, the jury is still out on whether developers are willing to fill in some serious gaps in the Store's selection.

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Projecting to another PC

I remember seeing requests for this feature on wish lists more than 10 years ago. Better late than never, I guess.

The Projecting to a PC feature is cool in theory. Using a Wi-Fi Direct connection, you can project the display from a laptop or Windows 10 Mobile device to another Windows 10 PC. In recent builds, the performance has been less than stellar, and this might be one of those features that makes a good demo but doesn't get any traction in real-world usage.

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Ink. Again.

The Tablet PC never really caught on, but its promise lives on in the Windows Ink platform and the Windows Ink Workspace, shown here. The Sketchpad app is fun to play with, as are the new in,k-driven Sticky Notes.

Here, too, this is a feature that still needs to prove it can make the leap from interesting demo to essential productivity tool.

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A more personal lock screen

Call it eye candy, if you will, but personalization features really do matter. Case in point is the new capability to use the same image for both the lock screen and the sign-in screen. That makes the whole sign-in experience more fluid and less jarring.

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