Review: Windows 10 Anniversary Update fails to excite

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

Review: Windows 10 Anniversary Update fails to excite
Credit: Thinkstock/Microsoft

One year after the initial, faltering release of Windows 10 “RTM” (build 10240) and almost nine months after the arrival of Win 10 Fall Update (version 1511), we finally have a new tenant at the apex of the Windows 10 “as a service” heap. Windows 10 Anniversary Update, aka Redstone 1, aka version 1607, is available to Windows Insiders.

The update should start rolling out to Windows 10 version 1511 users on August 2.

For those of you who have already taken the plunge and installed Windows 10 -- 350 million machines, at last count -- the upgrade should proceed without any intervention on your part. For the other billion or so Windows 7 and Windows 8 users who have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, it’s time to think again about upgrading to Windows 10.

If you’re happy with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, there’s still no overarching reason to upgrade, though the steady accumulation of improvements is starting to tip the balance. Anniversary Update brings real improvements in security, modest improvements in usability, and cosmetic improvements all around. Cortana has gone from being merely usable to being worthwhile. But the Edge browser still isn’t ready for prime time, and Universal apps are still a bust.

In short, Windows 10 is good, but it isn’t a slam dunk -- and it comes with considerable baggage.

On the other hand, if your machine, drivers, and apps are compatible (most likely they are), you want to ride the wave of the latest and greatest, and you're willing to accept the new Windows-as-a-service world of forced updates and Google-like data collection, you will probably be happy with Windows 10.

But be sure you understand the new rules:

  • Unless you go to extreme lengths, Microsoft will update your machine according to its own rules and on its own schedule, give or take a few hours. Enterprises can control updates to domain-joined Windows 10 PCs using Windows Update for Business, WSUS, SCCM, and other patch throttlers. But even corporate admins can’t separate key security patches from less critical updates.
  • Windows 10 snoops more than any previous version of Windows. We don’t know what gets sent to Microsoft’s vaults because the snooped data is encrypted before it goes out. Microsoft offers extensive assurances that your privacy will be protected. Nonetheless, information about your interests, preferences, browser usage, Cortana queries, and interactions with other Microsoft apps is still going out, even if you turn off all the snooping options. Enterprise data snooping can be configured to reduce the leak, but I haven’t seen data-field details.

That said, Microsoft has thus far refrained from using individually targeted advertising. The only visible results of Windows 10’s snooping have been an occasional flash in the Start menu’s “suggested” program slot and displays of advertising on lock screens, both of which can be manually disabled. If Windows 10’s data collection has influenced any other advertising, I’m not aware of it.

While the Windows 10 cumulative updates have brought on a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth -- with installs taking hours and hours, sometimes failing to complete -- we haven’t seen any fatal, show-stopping bugs in the patches. The only consistent problem with the cumulative updates is that they fail to install on many machines, for obscure reasons.

In the following sections, I talk about the features that have been improved in Windows 10 Anniversary Update (version 1607) compared to the earlier Fall Update (version 1511). I talk about what’s new for enterprise. Then I look at the near-term future of Win10.

What’s new in the Anniversary Update

The list of new and improved features in Windows 10 Anniversary Update includes a reformatted Start menu, improvements to Tablet mode (bringing back some features in Windows 8.1), new Cortana capabilities, a much-needed reworking of notifications, new Taskbar features, a Universal Skype client, an upgrade to Settings, Lock Screen improvements, and the introduction of Windows Ink for pen and finger input.

There truly is something for everyone, and even Microsoft has its pet points. I stepped through most of these features in April, when they appeared in beta build 14328. Here’s an update.

A better Start

The Anniversary Update Start menu works exactly like the Fall Update Start menu, but it’s been rearranged a bit. Instead of an All Apps list, all of the apps simply appear when you click the Start icon, in a massive scroll-down list that should look familiar to any Windows 10 user.

The other big difference: Any recently installed apps (up to three) bubble up to the top of the list, as you can see in the screenshot below.

windows 10 au start

Anniversary Update's Start menu displays your most recently installed apps (Netflix here) at the top of the list. 

There are minor cosmetic changes in the new Start, but nothing of substance, unless the presence of a hamburger menu gets your wickers in a twist, or you like to debate the colors on the File Explorer icon. Tablet mode gets a little more Start love in the Anniversary Update, with an All Apps view in addition to the old tiles and a disappearing taskbar.

The “Suggested” Start item appears by default, as you can see in the screenshot. It’s easy to turn off (Start > Settings > Personalization > Start > Occasionally show suggestions in Start).

As has always been the case, we have few of the Start menu customizations that were so useful in Windows 7. To get them back, you have to turn to third-party utilities like Start10 or Classic Shell.

Cortana turns the corner

Cortana is getting smarter all the time. In my experience, it’s not nearly as smart as Google Now, but it’s definitely getting better. In build 1511, you had to train Cortana before it would work; it also had a universal off switch. That’s changed in the Anniversary Update.

windows 10 au cortana

Cortana isn't as smart as Google Now, in my experience. But it's getting smarter all the time. 

Cortana can now run “on the lock screen,” which means it’s running all the time, listening to what you say whether you’re logged on to the computer or not. Further, the old Cortana Reminders icon has been subsumed into Cortana, and you can turn photos or some app data into reminders.

Cortana remains an expressway to Bing. Anything you do with Cortana ends up in your Bing profile, including local searches. With the Anniversary Update, though, Cortana gains the ability to search your OneDrive files in addition to the files on your machine.

Put it in Windows Ink

The new Windows Ink Workspace finally presents a usable Windows front end for both pen and pinkie. You don’t need a Surface Pro or Surface Book or fancy stylus to play; pedestrian pens and even your finger will work fine. If you don’t have a touchscreen, you can use your mouse. Enable the new Windows Ink Workspace by right-clicking on the Taskbar and choosing “Show Windows Ink Workspace button.”

windows 10 au ink

Windows Ink Workplace welcomes your sketches or handwritten notes. No fancy stylus (or touch-screen) required. 

The best overview of new inking features that I’ve seen comes from Microsoft itself. Windows Ink group program manager Li-Chen Miller has the lowdown on the Windows blog. In a nutshell, the new interface lets you do the following:

  • Sketch freehand with the assistance of a “ruler” that guides your scribbles
  • Start a new sketch with a screenshot, much the same as you could with the Edge browser inking feature available in earlier versions of Windows 10
  • Create Windows 7-era sticky notes that can be automatically converted to text, then further manipulated using Cortana (for example, look up the price of a stock based on a handwritten stock symbol, set reminders) thanks to Cortana

I tend to think of the translation of handwritten sticky notes as more of an aspiration than a feature. I continue to have problems getting the hand-drawn notes translated, and the added steps (stock lookup, reminders) seem to work only in demos.

Looking for an Edge

Microsoft Edge finally has the long-promised support for extensions, but it is still a long, long way from being a first-rate browser.

As of this writing, I count 13 extensions available for Edge, including two ad blockers. The Office Online extension is a collection of links to Office Online services, not unlike the Google Apps links we’ve had in Chrome for many years. The Evernote extension freezes frequently. The Amazon Assistant means never having to leave Amazon.com. Most of the extensions look like they were thrown together over a long weekend.

The one extension I really need -- LastPass, the password manager -- doesn’t cut the mustard either. I continue to have all sorts of problems running it.

As Microsoft’s premier Universal Windows Platform app, Edge should be a shining example of how great Universal apps can be. Instead, we’re given a default browser that, even a year after its first release, can’t do many of the things some browsers have done for years -- such as a closed tab list, mute button, profiles. The taskbar icon doesn’t show all tabs. It’s still ridiculously difficult to change search engines. Settings options go on for pane after pane. We’ve seen a lot of promises for Edge over the years, but progress has been slow.

Edge continues to suffer from the same security holes that plague Internet Explorer. Nearly every month we see security patches that apply to both IE and Edge. Security holes in IE are so common that most folks are inured to their appearance. Edge, as the new kid on the block, should be much more secure.

That said, I remain optimistic that the Edge developers will ultimately deliver a better browser. The ability to identify “non-essential” Flash garbage on a page and throttle it rates as a first-class improvement, and I expect many more good things are still to come. But I can’t recommend Edge to anyone until more of those good things arrive.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Ease of Use (25%)
Features (25%)
Manageability (15%)
Security (15%)
Compatibility (10%)
Value (10%)
Overall Score (100%)
Windows 10 Anniversary Update 8 8 9 9 10 8 8.5
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