Review: Windows 10 Anniversary Update fails to excite

The new upgrade introduces small improvements across the board, but nothing to sway Windows 7 stalwarts

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Ready for Action Center

Microsoft’s new, improved notification pane (dubbed the “Action Center”) represents a major makeover, which brings Windows 10 notifications up to the level you would expect on any modern smartphone.

windows 10 au action center

The Action Center brings a much-needed overhaul to Windows 10 notifications. 

Plus, Cortana can now throw notifications, so your appointments will generally appear at the top of the Action Center. You can choose from several new Quick Actions tiles at the bottom of the notification pane. Unfortunately, you can’t drag to move a tile or right-click to add or delete one; you have to go to Start > Settings > System > Notifications & Actions and work with a template to change the icons.

Hello security

Microsoft bills Windows 10 Anniversary Update as “the most secure Windows yet,” and there’s no doubt it’s true. Anniversary Update introduces new hardware-based isolation, which uses virtualization extensions to protect the operating system and data against attacks. Other new “pre-breach defenses” include sandboxing in the Edge browser, isolating Flash from the browser, and new techniques in Windows Defender to protect against malware.

Microsoft is also working to replace passwords in Windows 10 with biometric authentication via Windows Hello. For those who have sufficiently capable fingerprint readers, the Windows Hello fingerprint scanner works well enough -- arguably on par with similar scanners for Apple and Android devices. That isn’t a new feature in the Anniversary Update, but it’s becoming more common. We’re promised “instant access to paired apps and protected websites on Microsoft Edge,” but I haven’t seen that in action yet. I can say that fingerprint verification with LastPass on Android and iOS works wonderfully.

Windows 10 Anniversary Update also includes Windows Information Protection, or what used to be known as Enterprise Data Protection. In a nutshell, Information Protection provides a way to separate personal and corporate data and apply policies (and remote wipe) to the business side.

For more details about the behind-the-scenes changes, see Rob Lefferts’ post on the Windows blog titled "Advancing Security for Consumers and Enterprises at Every Layer of the Windows 10 Stack" and ESET engineer Aryeh Goretsky’s independent report on Windows 10 security and privacy.

Universal Windows apps

Although Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform apps are updated according to their own schedule and generally not obliged to follow the vagaries of Windows versions, many of the Universal apps that ship with Windows are going through major changes.

On the plus side, Windows Mail has become usable -- an adjective that wouldn’t have applied last year. Groove Music and Movies & TV are also improved.

On the minus side, the new Universal OneDrive app shows you only the files on OneDrive that you’ve synced to your machine; its sole redeeming value may be its finger-friendliness. The Skype Universal app has many of the same reliability problems of its non-Universal brethren.

The story with third-party Universal Windows apps bobs from week to week. Many companies have withdrawn support for Windows Store apps, while others have signed on. Neither Project Centennial (a tool that converts traditional Windows desktop apps into Universal apps) nor Microsoft’s acquisition of Xamarin (which makes a toolset for porting iOS and Android apps to the Universal Windows Platform) have begun to fill the gaping hole that is Windows Store.

Other changes

The Win10 Anniversary Update is peppered with all sorts of smaller changes:

  • Windows Update lets you set “active hours,” which limit the times that Windows will reboot to install pending changes (Start > Settings > Update & security > Windows Update, Change active hours). Unfortunately, you can black out at most 12 hours in the day.
  • Start fresh, which isn’t a Windows feature but a link to a web page, lets you install a clean version of Windows 10 on your system.
  • Bash command line shell for those of you who love Linux.
  • Battery support improves with Cortana-based low-battery notifications and a central Universal Settings location for battery settings.
  • New emojis that should make every texter smile.

Everywhere you look there are cosmetic changes: dark backgrounds, lock screen changes, icons added here and deleted there. In the “duh” category, the sign-on screen no longer shows email addresses, by default.

Some of the old Control Panel settings have been moved to the Universal Settings app. Many are still back where they were in Windows 7.

Looking forward

As of this writing, about a third of a billion machines are running Windows 10. In general, they’ll be upgraded to Windows 10 Anniversary Update shortly after Aug. 2. If you have problems, keep your eye on InfoWorld for the latest advice and commiseration.

Those of you who recently upgraded from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 to Windows 10 will likely have to wait before you’re offered the Anniversary Update. As a rule, automatic updating of versions hasn’t kicked in until you’ve passed the 30-day mark of your previous update. Why? Microsoft doesn’t want to clobber your ability to roll back to your previous version of Windows -- and you’re allowed to roll back for 30 days.

There are many open questions about the transition on July 29. How to install the Anniversary Update directly, how to upgrade from Win7 or 8.1 after July 29, and how to buy a copy after the free upgrade offer ends have not been adequately explained yet. Again, watch InfoWorld for no-bull answers to your questions.

Is it time for Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 users to embrace Windows 10? It’s not a clear-cut decision. There’s no killer app, no killer service, and certain drawbacks (forced updates, snooping). Windows 10 is good and steadily improving, but not yet compelling. If you’re happy with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, and Anniversary Update’s key draws (such as Cortana and Windows Ink) don’t ring your chimes, you might as well stay put. There’s no harm in waiting, although the free upgrade from Win7 and 8.1 will likely expire on July 29.

Rumor has it we won’t see the next major Windows 10 update (“Threshold 2,” or in my way of thinking, Service Pack 3) until early 2017. Maybe this third major update will be the charm.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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