I spent the weekend working with the latest Windows 10 beta, build 14328.rs1_release.160418-1609. If you're in the Insider Program and on the Fast track, you probably installed the latest version over the weekend. Microsoft can be unpredictable, but all indications are the rollout has finished.
With the Anniversary Update (previously known as Redstone 1) widely expected to be released in July, Microsoft's getting down to the wire when it comes to introducing new features. And going by what we've seen in the last beta build and this current one, the features are arriving fast and furious.
Remarkably, even with all of the new features, this build is quite stable. I've seen some reports of installation difficulties (driver problems still reign supreme) and a few complaints about Edge crashing on right-clicks and odd Edge rendering problems. Windows Feedback seems to trigger a false positive with Malwarebytes, and a handful of testers are having debilitating problems. I had problems with wake-from-sleep. But these are likely teething pains. By and large, the build's doing well -- a remarkable achievement, considering how many new features are on offer.
You can read the official list of new features on Gabe Aul's Windows Experience blog. Aul emphasizes Windows Ink (separate discussion here), the newly reformatted Start menu, improvements to Tablet mode (primarily to bring back some features in Windows 8.1), many new Cortana features, a much-needed reworking of the Action (Notification) Center, a few new capabilities in the Taskbar, reformatting and beefing up the Settings app, Lock Screen improvements, a Universal Skype app, and a whole lot of "other."
The one feature everyone is talking about? You guessed it: the new Start menu -- or Start "experience," for those who are politically correct. Unless you're addicted to your pen or insist on using Tablet mode, the Start menu will likely capture your attention, too.
Reaction to Microsoft's major changes to the layout of the Start menu ranges from enthusiastic endorsement to threats of mutiny. Start, after all, is the universal anchor that binds all keyboard-toting Windows users ... at the wrists and ankles.
As you can see, the live tiles part on the right remains largely unchanged. The left side, though, has undergone major changes. It likely will change again before the Anniversary Update arrives.
For those of you who were hoping Microsoft might restore Windows 7-style customizability to the Start, uh, experience, you're out of luck. There's no way to add menu items, no way to customize your shortcuts, no Explorer-based Erector Set for constructing hives of cascading commands. Start10 and Classic Shell fans aren't going to see new competition.
Those of you hoping to gain some control over the massive All Apps alphabetized list -- a legacy of Windows 8 -- won't be very happy with the new Start either.
That said, I've used the new Start extensively and think it's better than the one in the original Windows 10 and the nearly identical one in the Fall Update, build 1511. That may be damning with faint praise, but it's a step in the right direction.
The Windows 10 Start menu right now has a single column on the left, populated by a link to user info at the top, a Most Used list, an optional spot for Microsoft advertising, and four immutable entries: File Explorer, Settings, Power, and All Apps.
The new Start experience adds a mini column with a hamburger tile at the top and four immutable icons: User info, File Explorer (with a weird new icon), Settings, and Power. The new second column contains Most used, the old advertising slot, and the massive undifferentiated All Apps list. You see All Apps, all the time.
Click on the hamburger icon and you see text to go along with the four icons: the user name, File Explorer, Settings, and Power. The menu itself can be dragged to resize, but it won't go all the way to the top of the screen -- just like the current Start menu.
Opinions on the new experience range all over the place, but it bears noting that the All Apps list remains as monumentally unstructured as ever. Microsoft pioneered the use of folders to group together programs on the desktop in Windows 2.0. On the working (left) side of Start, we aren't yet back to that level of control.
You'll note that the File Explorer icon no longer appears in the Taskbar -- a design decision I expect to be summarily voted down in beta feedback.
Speaking of the Taskbar, in a multimonitor setup the clock now appears on all monitors. When you click on the time, you see today's events as logged in your Outlook Calendar. It's not quite as cool as Google Now cards, but it's a start.
The Notification area, er, Action Center also has a few new tricks. The New Notifications icon now sits to the right of the time. Individual apps can show "hero" images, which were first introduced in the Win10 Mobile beta build 14322. If you click on the Wi-Fi tile at the bottom of the Action Center, you go to the Network fly-out, which is probably where you want to be. And you can control all of your playback devices from the Sound tile.
If you have a pen with a driver that's Win10 compliant, Windows Ink is worth a gander. (Surface Pro and Surface Book users can run to the head of the line.) The Windows Ink Workspace turns your pen into a viable input method and navigation tool. A new pen toolbar makes it easy to switch ink color and width, erase, and perform simple pen calisthenics, including a new "ruler" that makes it easy to draw straight lines.
Apps haven't caught up to the new pen shenanigans yet -- OneNote, Edge, and Photos are the only major not-built-for-pen apps that fully support pen functionality -- but the writing's on the wall. Pen and voice are well on the way to becoming fully supported input mechanisms. It won't be long before you can put your finger and your mouse away.
I keep expecting a deluge of new features in Edge, but there's nothing of interest in this build. If you want to see something funny, use Edge to run a video on YouTube. Do you get a notification in the upper-left corner that "YouTube works better with Chrome. Yes, get Chrome now"? Seems that YouTube (owned by Google) has a slightly jaundiced view of the new kid on the block.
Cortana is growing wings and oozing Halo-esque synthetic intelligence into more nooks and crannies of Windows. Cortana responds to voice commands even when your screen is locked. She (forgive my anthropomorphism) can put photos inside reminders and show photo-encumbered notifications in the Action Center. She'll search your OneDrive files. She even sets herself up -- you don't need to enable her any more.
Creepy, isn't it?
The flip side of the story: It's very hard to turn off Cortana. If you ask Cortana how to turn off Cortana, you get a nonsensical response that refers to icons no longer present. The Settings icon inside Cortana includes options for responding to "Hey Cortana," scanning email for flight and appointment information, and keeping app and setting history. There are also ancillary Web-based tools to clear Web search histories, as has always been the case with Cortana.
But in this build I can't find a way to turn her off. (Turning her off in build 1511 is easy -- click on the left of the Cortana search bar, choose the Notebook icon, then Settings.) If you have build 14328 Pro or Enterprise, you can use the Group Policy editor to turn off Web searches (Computer Configuration > Administrative Templates > Windows Components > Search), and thus keep Cortana from collecting your Web search history. In build 14328 Home, I don't see any such options.
If you know a better way, please hit me in the comments here or on the AskWoody site.
There are lots of small improvements. The Lock Screen, by default, doesn't show your email address. (Doh!) There are volume controls on the Lock Screen. (Doh squared.) You can switch desktops by swiping with four fingers (if your touchpad driver is sufficiently sentient). The Settings app has a potful of new settings. It remains to be seen if the new Universal Skype app will work any better than the old Skype app. You can control multiple playback devices (think speakers vs. headphones) from the Taskbar.
As for the bigger picture, Microsoft is making considerable improvements to the 10 hurdles to Windows 10 adoption I talked about in February. Unfortunately, we don't yet have the ability to easily control patches -- although there are jury-rigged workarounds that work. Security and nonsecurity patches are still jumbled together. There's no privacy on-off switch -- in fact, Cortana's getting much worse. OneDrive, Edge, and Skype are all in RSN mode. And we still have no idea if Win10 upgrades will be free after July 29.
All in all, Windows 10 looks a whole lot more interesting now than it did a year ago. We'll know in a few months, but perhaps the tide has truly turned.