Last year, I published an article detailing the ways in which Windows 10 has come to light and how it substantially changed the goals of Microsoft. Windows 10 was the seed which ushered in a new era, one where customer feedback is more listened to and there’s greater transparency between the teams behind Windows and the rest of the world.
I don’t think writing ten thousand words on the OS this year is necessary, but diving into what has changed is crucial. Since I began writing and testing pre-release Windows builds for over ten years (thinking back to Windows Vista build 5048), the way in which outsiders shape Windows through the Insider hub has significantly changed. Gone are the days of “leaks” where some outside person would have to release information, just so the public had an idea of what is coming. Gone are the blue pills and red pills, tools which would unlock functionalities of Windows 8.x before it was released. This year, Windows was shaped a lot by outside user feedback, and this is important, a significant departure from this secrecy of the past.
For you, dear reader, it means that this update delivers more of a refined edge to your daily Windows experience, pun intended. All of the changes might not seem significant at first, but do improve productivity and perhaps bring back a familiar comfort to some. It was users who submitted these, and I can tell you from first-hand experience that people from the “REAL” Windows team respond to these submissions, not just some HR person sending generic responses back. I wanted to connect these two points together, because as we dive in, it’s something you will see while I describe new features and concepts.
Is the update worth it for me, though?
I’ve been struggling to come up with a clear-cut answer to people for this, especially as the changes in this update require that you run and use the product to see the most results. You won’t know about the new handy way of switching audio devices from the system tray audio icon without using it firsthand, and appreciating it when it is needed. The new start menu changes are useful, but again require that you have many apps and tools at your disposal. My resounding answer is a definite yes, especially if you are running Windows 10 (either the original or November update.) For users of Windows 7 or 8, this is a great time to jump into Windows 10 after a year of having others shape it and no longer feeling as though it’s a gen 1.0 product. These people will also benefit from the refinements here; although it is your choice whether the trade-off between updating and learning to cope with some of the UI enhancements you aren’t familiar with is worth exploring.
From an objective standpoint, the update does not break anything, although some might have a guard against Cortana’s “evasiveness” – she can no longer be turned off, although she can be signed out of and not used. There will clearly be a group who will oppose this change and understandably so, as it walks a fine line of privacy. To be honest, this update does not address those areas whatsoever, and beyond Microsoft making clear the data it collects and the ways in which this is being used, there is no easy way to please this demographic. Nevertheless, ultimately technology moves forward – and for the Windows 7 users out there, you have about 4 years left before you even begin to lose support from big Redmond. By that point, Windows 10 will have been taken apart and observed by many more experts, and as a society we might understand where this balance needs to strike for everyone to marginally enjoy Windows.
Has anything changed in the upgrade process?
Again, making this a full Windows 10 review would be pointless, as this has already been written and covers a lot of transitional and initial experience information about Windows 10. Here, it’s important to focus on what has changed, and how it could impact your daily life.
Fortunately, the upgrade process is one where life has stayed the same except that, for the first time, most user settings are kept after the process has completed. This would include such things as sound audio device volumes, enhancements, various registry “tweaks” you might have applied, and an array of other smaller modifications. This should make the upgrade process extremely painless for anyone who dislikes re-configuring many aspects of life after.
A note about the free upgrade offer
As many might be aware, Windows 10 is no longer being offered as a free update to all Windows 7 or above users. This was a policy which was clearly communicated last year, as the process was only running for a short time to help everyone be on the same page in security and compatibility. The good news is that Microsoft is Extending the free offer to those who use AT products such as screen magnifiers, readers, or any other aid that could face potential issues during the transition. There’s no limit on this offer, although you’ll definitely know way before it ends. The truth is, Windows 10 still has a ways to go with accessibility in some regards, however this update improves on that in many key ways as well.
For existing users, the Anniversary update will appear as an item in Windows update. Installing it is as simple as choosing it from the list and taking 30-45 minutes to do the work and wait. For those who prefer things the manual way, an Upgrade tool will automatically download and configure Windows 10 for you. Again, the process should be a lot smoother from years passed.
An overview of Windows 10 update changes
Windows 10’s new features can be broken down to five key areas.
- UI and basic core changes: These include modifications to the start menu/taskbar, settings interface which is more dynamic, changes to virtual desktops, and other outlining areas which are impacted. This update adds abilities such as using Cortana from the lock screen, Action center which allows for, well, actionable notifications, a better and more expanded start menu, and various other minor changes to the basic UI.
- Store changes: More information about app downloads and usage, new connector app, purchasing with Windows Hello, Skype universal app, XBOX cross-platform support, and more.
- Changes for developers, including Linux running on Windows, the ability for developers to convert regular Windows programs to the store, a new activator tool which allows you to manage your license, and other API changes.
- Improvements to Microsoft edge, including extensions support, Cortana providing coupons, pausing auto-playing ads, and more.
- Cortana improvements, including file searching, the ability to “remember” information of interest without making it a reminder, the ability to display notifications on your Android or Windows phones, and others.
All of these, once more, add up to an update which might not seem large on the surface, but in fact do add a substantial amount of heft once experienced.
UI and basic core changes: Where Windows needed the most help
With the original shipping version of Windows 10, there existed a huge difference between the newly designed universal interface and the classic Win32-based one. In short, this is entirely the reason why a commercial screen reader program, or any other one, would not run on Windows Phone 10. Unfortunately, the disconnect between both environments was large. There were two control panels, one which often did not include all settings from the older one. Apps could not “touch” the interaction on the Windows Desktop, besides the ability to pin them and use an app through the taskbar. Truthfully, this became less pronounced with Windows 10 already, as the divide was more vast in 8 and 8.1. Unfortunately, this meant that Microsoft sacrificed some tablet and universal-app driven concepts, such as the “charms bar.”
The action center gets actionable
If you felt as though the Action center was confusing in the initial release, you wern’t alone. It could easily become a dumping ground for grouped notifications, and somehow dismissing a group never really took away the one you wanted.
Image Credit: PC World
The action center now includes only 3 notifications by default, on a per-app basis. This can be changed in the new and expanded settings screen, and you can also set which apps appear by priority on this list using a 3-teared system: Highest, high, and normal. In fact, going into the new notifications settings would not be a bad idea – you can exactly customize how each app behaves. A lot of this was already possible with respect to sound and such, however this adds a refinement which removes a lot of clutter.
For users of screen readers, it is much easier to navigate this window. Simply using tab will move you through not only the various apps and their respective notification panes, but also other buttons in the center. This will make dismissing a group of them efficient, as you can keep track of what’s important to you. If there are more notifications, a “see all” will expand the list.
Notification badges can also appear on the taskbar now, and the action center’s icon will indicate how many there are. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, hearing these with a screen reader was not possible; This review will be updated if any further details on this arise. If an app is pinned to your taskbar, it will also display the number of notifications next to it. Finally, deeper integration!
Audio switching, made easy
Perhaps the shortest section of this review, I must point out a very neat feature which was introduced in this update. Left-clicking the speaker icon on the system will now also reveal an audio device switcher, which can be expanded next to the volume slider. Here, you can just switch to a new device on the fly, and it means that unless you are changing audio device properties, you will not have to use the sound control panel applet.
Cortana on the lock screen
This was something Windows 10 needed, as virtually all phones allow you to access the voice assistant to some capacity without an unlock. Image credit: Groovypost
Just as many of the other features here, using Cortana on the lock screen is very customizable. In settings, personalization, then lock screen, there’s a new link to access “Cortana on lock screen.” This brings up several options, such as whether it should access your e-mail and calendar data when locked. It works as you’d expect, and someone could certainly use this alongside “hey Cortana” for a very decent connected cloud experience, perhaps at home on a family computer.
Settings with more settings!
An annoyance of Windows 10 was the constant switching back and forth from the larger, over-populated control panel, to the smaller and more sleak settings screen. Both offered value in terms of functionality, but quite frequently, one might throw you into the other – so playing a game of back and forth was entirely possible.
Image credit: ZDNet
This is not gone with the update, but it is certainly minimized. Many settings are now mirrored back to desktop counterparts. For example, network settings have all migrated here, and old interface elements like right-clicking a wi-fi connection and choosing “connect” will bring up this new settings now. Windows update has also expanded, allowing you to choose which times of the day you are active – the computer will then respect those times and will only install updates outside of them. Just be sure to save everything before leaving your computer unattended during that period, though.
The start menu, now with a new view
Since the inception of Windows 10, the start menu was finally transitioning over to more of a Windows 7-style yet modern interface. Sure, it was limited to only being able to contain 512 items, but this limit was lifted in the November update. Now, the start menu re-arranges the panes it contained to become more simplified and intuitive. The concept of “all apps” is gone, to be replaced with a multi-grouped list of apps and programs. This is where your most recent and frequently used applications will also live, along with a featured section. If you don’t want the featured section, an option to “occcasionally show suggestions in start” will cut out this entirely.
Image Credit: PC World
Functionally, the power button and account information is now hidden under a new navigation menu, which has a hamburger icon. Expanding this will show you a list of places, as well as the power button and your user account information. The pins view is still there, but now only tabbing twice will wrap you around the entire menu. Of course, for those who use the search box, the convenience remains. These results are also now read better with screen readers, unlike in prior versions where at times searching twice was required.
The taskbar and your calendar, married in a universal union
Image Credit: PC World
Going further down towards small pieces of change which bridge the barriers of old and new, several behavioral enhancements have also been made to date and time. The keyboard shortcut Alt+ Windows+D will now bring up the date and time view, which also includes your calendar information. From here, you can even create a new event, and a nice grid shows all calendar events you might have. If your day and workflow rely on using a calendar for managing life goals, this will no doubt be an indispensable tool.
This is a small but welcome change: Pinning an application to all desktops is now possible, should you have several of them open. Opening the “task view” switcher, choosing a program running on a desktop, and right-clicking it will reveal a “pin to all desktops” option. Useful if you would always like to have a window open everywhere, such as when chatting with work coleagues but juggling multiple workspaces.
Changes to the Store app
Now that Windows apps can run on a multitude of devices, the Windows Store has changed somewhat as a reflection. For each app, information such as system requirements and the types of hardware it can run on are shown. Reviews can now be sorted based on app version and platform, providing more customizable filters. You can also choose to install a game on a different drive, which you are prompted for upon installation.
Overall, the store is one area where improvements could still be had. It has become more complicated with content, and does nothing to explain requirements to consumers in friendly ways they could understand. Better yet, can the store run some type of app compatibility platform? From an accessibility standpoint, however, I would always pick the new store over the old one. Lists are navigable by screen readers without too much verbosity within what is being read, and tabbing around the store just feels more fluid, more “whole.” Each store category and its list are in the tab order, so moving between categories (and finding the “show all” buttons) just takes pressing tab. The “accessibility” rating is no longer announced next to each item in the list – this ended up being less useful as it marked apps that were not accessible as accessible.
The Skype Universal app
Microsoft’s Insider program brought with it 25 different Windows versions for testers to use, along with many updates to apps which were being prepared alongside this big release. This included a (yet again) redesigned Skype experience. (remember when this was part of people, then messaging, then that new phone app?) However, this is a very simple and quite usable incarnation, one which also has great accessibility and to those familiar with the desktop Skype interface, you will no doubt find yourself somewhat home. The navigation drawer houses 5 tabs for choices such as recent, personal profile, and settings. (a navigation button drops this down.)
In April, Microsoft updated this to also include group chats and conversations, so you can definitely think of it as a full-featured client.
Developers, developers, developers… Consumers?
Here is, of course, my favourite part of this review. The one where I get to geek out and explain all the new fancy developer features we have with this update. OK OK, not quite – I’ll keep it at a good length. Still, if you are not a developer, some of this you can no doubt skip. Not every person would want to run Linux under their copy of Windows.
Linux on Windows: Complete, but not quite yet there
Tucked deep within the programs and features control panel applet is a new Windows Feature. To get it, simply press Windows X, navigate to “programs and features” and “turn windows features on or off.” Here, a new “Windows Subsystem for Linux” will be available. Before enabling it, though, you also have to turn on developer mode from within the “update and security” category of the settings app.
Once you have enabled it and restarted your computer, all that is left is to type in the word bash within a run dialog. You will be asked to read some terms, and then the components will download from the Store.
The nice thing about this, of course, is the file system integration. Within bash, your drives will appear under /mnt, and under Windows, you can simply go to %localappdata%\Lxss\rootfs to see the Linux file system.
Of course, some things will not work, but most things might. For example, ifconfig and many IP/internet capabilities are not yet wired up between the Linux and NT Kernels. Linux processes run as small objects in memory that Microsoft is calling Pico processes, so Windows Task manager can in fact terminate Linux apps as well. Typing in “free” into bash will map the memory allocations to Linux also, allowing you to see and monitor system information realtime.
Compiling code with GCC works most times, unless the path scheme confuses the compiler. And no, you will not be able to run Orca or any other graphical interface on this system. The convenience is still huge: Being able to ssh into a server without a third-party client, running simple linux files and code, or just seeing how well a project would run in the terminal – it’s all possible. At least for developers, the leverage will always be huge.
Troubleshoot your activation.
An important new tool, called an Activation Troubleshooter, lives in the land of settings. You are able to assign your Windows license to a Microsoft account through it, which helps you manage and de-activate connected Windows devices.
Microsoft Edge improvements
Edge still remains a 3rd-class choice in the world of assistive technology, and this is rather unfortunate. With NVDA, it still exposes too much information, such as errors and prompts which are not on screen but are part of the webpage. Moving in pages is also still a bit delayed as well.
Narrator, on the other hand, works reasonably well with edge. The new speed improvements which are in Narrator are welcome, as browsing is no longer slow. The new “scan mode”, invoked with capslock + space, will also allow you to get the best edge experience, as you can navigate without holding down capslock.
As a browser, there also is no better one which helps save your battery life than edge. The auto-pause feature, which will stop ads or other content not central to the page boosts this somewhat. Along with new improvements in memory and rendering, Edge has tried to become a browser which could at least play a Youtube video on the lowest of lowest hardware as well.
This release finally introduces extensions, with a sparce amount of them at launch. If you own several Windows 10 PCs, bookmarks will be synced across them in Edge as well. Cortana is also integrated more deeply, allowing the assistant to show coupons for products when you visit a website. Truly instant and convenient savings!
Of course, you can always restrict her from not seeing this data in the privacy section of settings.
Hey Cortana, are you smarter?
Cortana is a central piece to Windows, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Microsoft is positioning the assistant as a central location where people can share and consume content. To that end, yes indeed, she can no longer be disabled completely. This is because the search box on the start screen now relies on Cortana for pulling information. She has, quite honestly, become a hub within Windows. And that’s OK.
The ability to use Cortana without logging into a Microsoft account was added in the November update. If you are conscious about privacy, you can turn off Cortana’s data collection in the privacy section of settings – specifically, stop Microsoft from collecting inking and typing data, or sound information. Cortana’s settings also allow you to clear out all the data which she might have learned about you.
A few other minor words of change: Cortana now allows you to play music from Groove Music’s catalog, which, for the first time, also makes her a viable juke-box solution should you require one. New enhanced calendar commands mean that you can also say “Send the word document from this morning to Tomi”, and her file-management capabilities will do the rest. This extends to glancing through photos and previous information as well – you could ask “What did I do in Barcelona last year?” Similar to Google Now, she can also find flight information in e-mails and display those as a Windows notification. This makes her become integrated so deeply that it almost makes sense why disabling her is not possible.
Using Cortana to Sync notifications
On Android, there is a Cortana app which serves as a way for the phone version to also tap into your computer through the Microsoft account. After granting the app notification access, it can be configured to push all Windows 10 notifications to your phone, where you can dismiss them. No such functionality exists for iOS, as accessing notifications is not possible there.
Naturally, this works better on Windows phone, where the Connector app takes care of the communication. For example, you can receive phone calls from your windows Phone to your PC, but the same does not work with Android. No matter, ecosystems will always win. Knowing how dead your phone is on your computer is super useful, though.
Making handwriting feel more natural
It’s important to mention one other key area in which Windows 10 has evolved significantly, highlighting Microsoft’s new balanced approach. Instead of “touch first”, inking is now possible on any Windows machine, which will open it up to a wider audiance. Previously, Windows almost pushed touch-centric environments to the user, requiring a certain number of touch points and inking skills for usage. Ink support has been part of Windows since 2002, and this places that pen experience in a more prominent view.
Image Credit: PC World.
Once opened from the system tray, inking gives you three basic features:
- Screen sketch: Allows you to draw on the screen, over your desktop and on top of other apps. Useful if you wish to jot down information on existing surfaces.
- Sticky notes, which also allow for handwriting recognition, and integration with Cortana, so she can read information you jot down.
- A Sketchpad, which gives you the ability to draw anything you desire.
The button to open this ink workspace is not turned on by default on non-touch devices, mostly because drawing with a mouse is, well, still drawing with a mouse. However, right-clicking the task bar reveals an option to show the panel. A settings button also lets you customize pen and ink options.
It’s worth dedicating a section to what is changing in the landscape of access with this update. We were promised gradual fixes to the way in which Windows 10 behaves, as it had a very rough start at launch with respect to this.
Narrator has significantly changed with this update, though again, not in its interface. As most features here, what you will see are under-the-hood or perhaps a few additional commands. For example, Mark and David Mobile are two voices which have been added and switching to them can significantly speed up text-to-speech performance. A new scan mode, invoked with Caps + Space, allows for the navigation of websites with just the arrow keys. Speed improvements mean that using Narrator during the initial Windows setup is a breeze, though I would still like to see boot-level Narrator support. You will notice this speed improvement from the moment you launch narrator though, and you can expect Narrator to become a more fluid screen reader over time. It now has verbosity and punctuation levels, all of which point to this sign in the sky.
Other apps, such as Windows Mail, have received accessibility enhancements over time. It’s worth noting that Mail is slowly becoming a better client. The presentation creator Sway also just had some accessibility changes added in, so updates to the built-in Windows apps experience will be happening throughout the year as well. Microsoft is no longer tied just to big OS updates.
Conclusions and other notes
How large can a review of an incremental update be? Almost half the size of the original, or so it would seem. This is important, and can serve as a yardstick for measuring the performance of the Anniversary update. There’s no person who would say it is as “major” as an entirely new OS might be. Admittedly, Microsoft still has to get used to the cadence of the update cycle they have created, and this will take time.
What’s next? Insiders can expect to start receiving the second wave of Windows 10 builds starting later this month (August.) These will lead up to another release, though the time of this is not yet known. Until then, enjoy the new features, and know that your feedback helps shape Windows more than you can imagine these days.