I had grander hopes for this piece to begin with; another five-parter deep dive with sections that analysed how much Windows 10 has changed in the last year compared to its release version, build 10240, or the most recent update, version 1511. But after several drafts and re-thinks, amid a complete breakdown of my personal rig, and some other latent issues that have crawled up from the woodwork, I decided to keep it much more short. Windows 10 has evolved so much in the past year that it’s somewhat unrecognisable from the first builds I started playing with. Much of the user experience has changed and there’s been some things lost as well as gained. One thing’s for sure, though – Microsoft, and Windows, will never be the same again.
Let’s start with the good, because there are several things that are both good AND new in Windows 10. To start off, Cortana now works locally, although this has turned into something of an adoption of an official workaround. Basically, you’re allowing Cortana to work for a language that isn’t an exact match for your locale, but it’ll still be mostly functional. Microsoft’s customers complained that regional issues had been overblown and led to delays in rolling out Cortana to more regions, but this also pushes out Cortana in a somewhat dysfunctional state in most countries around the globe – she doesn’t know about any local news or recent sports events. She can’t fetch me the weather or order pizza online.
Eventually Cortana will be able to do things like reply to phone calls and SMS messages on your phone, or order pizza from Debonairs, or reserve a booking at a hotal. In scenarios where contextual menus and commands aren’t too important, where the framework Cortana can work in exists, things work well. Microsoft has promised that Cortana’s abilities will be extended using their bot technology, which gives personal assistants like Cortana access to an API that allows them to perform more complex things for you, but when that happens is anyone’s guess. She’s still impressive, but Cortana needs to be decoupled from the Windows team in order to move and be updated quicker than the OS she runs on.
Windows Ink is another area which deserves a mention, because it changes the user interface for those of you who use Windows 10 with pen input. The new version of Sticky Notes, available since Windows 7, now accepts pen input and recognises things you type in there, like flight details for a plane you’re taking soon, or adding contacts with phone numbers and e-mails into your address book (although I’ve never actually seen anyone use that functionality before). Windows Ink is also a subsystem for all the things that you can do with a pen, like using FreshPaint for sketching, or OneNote for synced handwritten notes, or sync-capable sticky notes (which has always grated me that it didn’t already exist in Windows 8.1).
If you still use a stylus with Windows, the Ink feature set is really nice. However, given that laptops with touch displays are going the way of the dodo slowly, I think this comes too little, too late. There are some Android contenders already, and Apple ignores the problem of mismatched user experiences by putting most of their inking software and features into the iPad Pro. It’s awesome, but not a lot of people use a stylus with a touch screen in the first place.
Edge browser is improving in leaps and bounds, and it’s quite honestly the most impressive thing about Windows 10. Edge has a slickness to it that’s possibly only matched by Safari on MacOS. Font rendering is clear and legible, it scales perfectly to high-DPI displays, it consumes less memory than Internet Explorer, and battery life while browsing with it is better than anything else. It even features extensions now, available in the Windows Store, which enhance its functionality. Adblock Plus, Save To Pocket, Lastpass, the Reddit Enhancement Suite, Mouse Gestures, Office Online, even OneNite Clipper – they’re all there, and more are coming.
The extensions part of the story is interesting, because the plan was previously to implement a subsystem to support Chrome apps from the Chrome Web Store, but somewhere along the way Microsoft ditched this idea and went all-in on native functionality. They could still do it, but I guess there’s some part of the Edge functionality that would be lost if it wasn’t native to the application. RES and Adblock Plus still don’t sync up the user settings, by the way. I’m not sure why that’s still a thing. Also, there’s provision for paid extensions as well as free ones, so it’s going to be interesting to see how this little ecosystem changes.
While a lot of things will be small changes to the UI, including awesome mini-menus like the Network Settings tray menu, there’s also, finally, an official black theme for Windows 10. All through the Insider Preview the people watching for any new registry settings changes noticed that dark theme presets were becoming available for the applications built on the UWA platform. Just about every new menu and app inside of Windows 10 has a dark theme available, and there’s even one for Office 2016 as well – and it’s leaps and bounds better than the one in Office 2007.
To be honest, a black theme might not be that exciting to most of you, but it’s a great way to save on energy and reduce eye strain, especially if you’re going to be using one of those fancy OLED laptops in 2017. OLED displays are at their most efficient when displaying dark colours, with black actually being a part of the display where the individual pixels are turned off. Note that this only changes the theme for the apps themselves – you have to manually make the taskbar and system colours a dark colour to match.
But man, when you make it entirely dark and use a white icon theme… I’ve never been into ricing Windows, but this looks really good.
Other little UI nods are just as appreciated as the kick-ass black theming. One of those is that Groove Music now shows you media controls when you adjust the volume while using the desktop. If your mouse has volume controls on it, changing to a different track is easier than mousing to the taskbar and waiting for the pop-up. That same pop-up window also appears on the lock screen while music is playing, and Groove will continue playing music while the lock screen is on by default.
If you have multiple audio output devices, you also get this menu when clicking on the sound icon in the taskbar. It automatically switches to the selected device, and changes aren’t permanent – whatever was your default before you switched to something else will still be the default after a reboot or if you unplug the sound device you switched to. That same menu is also available for multiple Ethernet connections or switching between Ethernet or Wi-Fi.
Powershell on Bash on Ubuntu on Windows 10
The most extensive change to Windows has to be the Windows Subsystem for Linux, however. The WSL is a very confusing move looking from the outside in, but for those of you who are system admins, network engineers, or even web developers with server experience, you know how much of a pain in the butt it is administering Linux servers on a Windows network, especially if everything else you have on the network is a Windows machine. WSL is sort of a WINE layer for the Linux kernel, and it runs a very optimised version of Ubuntu Linux inside its own environment. In a nutshell, it’s the full Linux kernel being run, with kernel commands being translated by the WSL API to allow for the magic to happen.
This kind of move is disruptive for a few reasons. The first is that one of the biggest uses for virtual machines on Linux operating systems is to run Windows in a VM. The reverse hasn’t exactly been true for Windows users, although a good amount of Linux converts come over from experimenting in a VM beforehand. But since everything is sandboxed in a very restrictive manner, it’s difficult to include any hooks into the guest OS, at least from the Windows perspective. WSL makes all of this a lot easier, and also makes it possible for developers making software that is also compatible with Linux to test their code on a WSL instance instead of running a separate machine with its own hardware. There’s even crazy stuff like Powershell for Linux now – your batch scripts can be used on two different operating systems.
WSL, in other words, is kickass. In some cases, it’s faster than a native Linux install on the same hardware, and it’s a version of Linux that is officially supported by Microsoft. That sentence gets weirder to read the more you go over it, but that’s the gist of it. Microsoft has, in a way, gone back to its roots of selling and supporting UNIX-based software. 2016 has been a weird year, OK?
Is it enough to make it worth it?
Admittedly, most of what you’re going to notice about the Anniversary Update is superficial. It’s on the surface and in your face, and thus it’s more easily noticeable. But it’s the things just beneath the surface that are troubling, and Microsoft has spent a year without addressing them properly. Instead, the insider preview community gets caught up on the feel-good parts of the program, whilst Microsoft allows their Windows development team to gloss over things that in the past would have been caught early, or never implemented at all to begin with. Like, maybe, an update that turns off H.264 codecs for HD webcams.
The first is Edge. Development of Edge is probably going quite swimmingly, but you won’t know that. As a consumer receiving the normal upgrades, you’re only ever going to see new features twice a year. Edge extensions were available in the insider ring for a good six months, but they only popped out this past month for consumers. That’s six months in which more extensions could have been made to generate a backlog to work through, but instead we’re left with very few to try out with. Every single one also needs to be vetted internally and hosted on the store, which means that you also need to wait for recertification of your app if you’ve issued an update to it, introduced new features, or fixed a critical vulnerability.
Edge also is in a very desirable position as far as browsers go. It supports more DRM standards than any other browser, but it’s also the only one that supports every DRM scheme without question. Netflix 1080p on the desktop only works on Edge (as will 4K playback), and 4K Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go playback is also going to only happen via Edge or the EdgeHTML engine that serves as the platform for universal apps that are web apps in a custom wrapper. Chrome doesn’t do this, and neither does Firefox, but both do it for good reason – the DRM protection schemes in use are heavy-handed and run the risk of the companies behind the protection schemes locking out other browsers for financial gain, and that something simpler, like VP9, would serve the purpose better for everyone.
Keep in mind that this isn’t new ground for Microsoft. They’ve done this kind of thing before. Netflix, and others offering similar streaming services, needs to tread carefully if they want to avoid being sucked into the next generation browser war.
Then there’s the fashion in which builds launch. We have three consumer-bound versions of Windows 10 so far; version 1507, version 1511, and version 1607. The version numbers correspond to the year and month that the build was released to the Current Branch for consumers. But that’s not the only version of Windows 10. There’s also, technically, build 10240, the oldest LTSB build, or a slightly different release of 10240 for the Current Branch for Business. And then there are the Insider Preview builds, which themselves have multiple versions. The whole thing is a mess to keep track of.
This haphazard method of keeping various people up to date is arduous. It also leads to the plethora of issues that we’re stuck with today. For example, menus based on the new UWA framework sometimes don’t write changes to the registry properly, or if they do, that change will be hosed after just one upgrade, requiring users to back up their registry before attempting any updates. Managing networks has become a pain in the rear because you still can’t set Ethernet connections as metered, nor can you guarantee that after every upgrade that your 3G connection will not be reset to unmetered. Privacy settings don’t always transfer between builds and neither do shortcuts, and to add salt into the wound all the bloatware you uninstalled returns with every upgrade.
Not to mention that if you’re a system administrator, your hands are tied as far as managing Windows 10 Pro installs are concerned. You can’t ever expect full control of group policy anymore, just like you can only assume that being able to access the registry at all is a privilege. Microsoft removed the ability to restrict access to the Windows Store and to remove pre-installed applications via group policyin the Windows 10 Pro and Enterprise editions, and there are a number of things you can’t turn off – automatic updates, for example, turns itself back on after 10 minutes if you’ve turned off the service on build 1607. Do you want full control? Great, upgrade to Windows 10 Enterprise with an applicable volume licensing deal. You still don’t get full control even with that edition of Windows 10, though. The only clean edition left is Server 2016.
The most annoying part is the new thing Microsoft is doing, which is cumulative updates. This is a bunch of updates packaged together to “make it easier” to update and upgrade newly installed machines, but all it does is remove more control from system admins. Do your users suddenly have malfunctioning systems after a cumulative update came out? Too bad, because you can’t stop that update from installing automatically, especially if it’s marked as a security update. You also can’t tell exactly what’s in there, and it might contain critical security fixes that you need to implement right away.
One year on, and we’re not better off, yet
Bryan Lunduke, senior marketer for SUSE Linux, puts it quite well in one of the recent episodes of his podcast, when he points out to the project managers for Elementary OS, Ubuntu MATE, and Solus Project, that as maintainers and owners of the repositories that people grab updates from, they have absolute, tremendous power and ability to screw with people in unique and inventive ways. That’s the same power Microsoft has with Windows 10. It’s never had that capability before. They’re seemingly still struggling with the ethical quandries of being able to make every computer on the planet running Windows 10 install a bogus update that includes a Bitcoin miner and a microphone snooping service.
Even if you’re not a system administrator, or someone working in a managed environment, you can’t expect to have any control over your system any longer. If you’re looking for a stable installation that doesn’t change for months, go back to Windows 7 SP1 or 8.1 and keep an eye on what updates you’re offered. Windows 10 might work for a large majority of people just fine, but it’s just not the same. For example, update releases to new or existing builds are staggered so that if issues are reported back through telemetry, the rollout can be halted and the issue fixed for users who haven’t installed the broken builds. Drivers are installed automatically even if they end up breaking your system. Reverting back from an upgrade is still a risky move.
The year is 2016, 4K OLED monitors are kicking it on store shelves around the world as you read this, and yet somehow half of the menus don’t scale to high-DPI monitors because they’re from the Windows NT era. Old hardware that uses kernel-mode drivers to function won’t work in future Windows 10 releases because they require digital signatures from Microsoft, which means that still-functional TV tuners might not work anymore unless the drivers get digitally signed.
I can’t even play Borderlands with decent framerates because there’s a regression in DirectX 9 compatibility mode that drops framerates to unplayable levels on systems using AMD Athlon II and Intel Core 2 processors. And because it’s an old set of software, and definitely not on Microsoft’s to-do list of things to fix, it probably won’t ever get patched.
I sound like a Debbie-Downer, I know. It’s such a good-looking operating system, and it does so many things right. Despite this, because of how things are going internally at Microsoft, and due to the radical shift they’ve made in terms of where their business is heading, it seems to have taken most of the collateral damage from the changes being made. It would be nice if Microsoft gave control back to the users, as well as introduce just three branch lines to make updates simple (LTS, Insider Ring, and Current Branch), but I also don’t see that happening soon. The Windows division of the company would need to experience yet another upheaval to achieve that, and the first time that happened we ended up with Windows 8.
A year later, I still offer readers the same tentative warning I did in my first Windows 10 write-up. This is a big change from what you were used to – all your cheese has been moved, someone swapped the ground coffee out for instant decaf, and you can’t change when the air conditioner turns on or off. In some ways, it sucks. In a lot of other ways, it’s awesome. If you’re on new hardware, it’s worth the jump. If you’re using older hardware, it might still be a good idea to stick with what you have. There’s a lot of potential here, and it has a built-in browser that doesn’t completely suck. It’s lighter, and faster than any Windows OS before it, and it offers gamers the ability to play Xbox One games on a non-native platform.
Windows 10 is OK, in my books, after a year of evaluating it on my personal machine and netbook. It’s not for everyone, although it will suit the majority of the people’s needs, and it’s not going to dethrone Windows 7 that easily either. But we’re only a year in, and everything could change between now and Windows 11. I look forward to seeing how things will improve from here on out.
In the meantime, I’ve moved back to Windows 8.1. I want to experience Borderlands with friends this time around.