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Windows 10 Anniversary Update review: Cortana, Edge overshadow Windows Ink

The improvements Microsoft has made on features you use every day are what really matter.

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OneDrive: An app that meets you halfway

In May, Microsoft launched a UWP OneDrive app, which helped address the loss of “smart” or “placeholder” files in the original release of Windows 10.

windows 10 anniversary edition onedrive app Microsoft

The OneDrive app is a somewhat acceptable compromise between what Microsoft used to offer, and what it should.

Windows 10’s Anniversary Update improves OneDrive in important ways. In my original review of Windows 10 last year, I wrote of OneDrive: “One feature has disappeared, though: the confusing ‘placeholder’ files that resided on your PC as a timesaving device. And that’s good.”

No, it’s not. That was simply wrong. OneDrive is a mess, and the placeholder files simply should be there today. Fortunately, OneDrive meets me halfway: It’s an app that functions like the OneDrive website, listing the files you’ve stored in the cloud. It’s also slow. But you can drag files into the app and OneDrive will upload them, so it’s almost, but not quite as good, as a dedicated folder.

Windows Store: The triumph of UWP apps

Two things are noteworthy about the Windows Store: the new apps and descriptions that populate it, and the unnecessarily poor redesign that Microsoft forced onto it.

windows store main page Mark Hachman

The front page of Microsoft’s Windows Store app.

Microsoft’s Store app is already hamstrung by two issues: its relatively low app count (669,000 Windows Store apps as of September 2015, versus 2 million or so for Android and iOS) and its need to push those apps at you. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s Store redesign doesn’t help.

windows store platforms Mark Hachman

Noting all the platforms a particular app runs on is one sign that Microsoft is unifying the Windows Store.

Customers obviously weren’t scrolling down the page to find the “top apps” or “featured apps,” so Microsoft plopped four ugly boxes up top to capture your eyeballs. But what’s the difference between “top apps,” “featured apps,” “collections,” “Best of Windows Store,” as well as “Picks for you”? Take it down a notch, Microsoft. We’ll get there.

If you don’t go beyond the first page of the Store, though, you’d never guess that Microsoft suffers from an “app gap” between itself and Android—almost everything on its front page is of high quality. Individual app pages have also been improved, clearly spelling out which platforms they run on, including mobile and PC. App ratings now can be viewed just for the latest version, which is handy. We still need some indication of how many downloads an app has, though, and when the most recent version was published.

bank of america app

Higher-profile brands like Bank of America add some much-needed credibility to Microsoft’s app portfolio.

Kudos to Microsoft for at least trying to elevate its Windows 10 reputation with a series of higher-profile game titles, though. These are the somewhat controversial  UWP apps that straddle both Windows 10 and the Xbox One, including games like Quantum Break, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and even a nifty freebie, Forza Motorsport 6: Apex. Microsoft’s purchase of Xamarin has apparently paid off with new, quality apps: Bank of America, Hulu, Fox Sports Go, Plex, and others. Let’s hope it continues.

Skype Preview: To the point

Skype was notoriously left out of the original Windows 10 release, replaced with a “Get Skype” placeholder app. Now, Microsoft’s prepared for the eventual re-release of Skype  as a UWP app with Skype Preview, which so far has proven simple and effective.

skype preview bots Mark Hachman

The new Skype Preview supports a number of chatbots, but a bug prevented their responses from being displayed in real time.

Ignore all the silly love emoticons  and other cruft Microsoft added to Skype earlier this year. Skype Preview does calls and messaging—even some of the new chatbots Microsoft highlighted at its Build conference—and that’s about it. Premium features, such as translation, aren’t quite there yet. Refreshingly, Skype Preview just logged me in using my Windows login credentials.

I’m not a huge Skype user, although I tend to have most of my overseas conversations using the service. Skype Preview might not be the final, full-fledged UWP app, but it seems like it does everything I need to at the moment.

Other UWP apps get their own tweaks

You’ll notice tweaks big and small to other UWP apps in the Anniversary Update. Here are the highlights:

One of the biggest is actually a new addition: the Bash app, which lets developers to try out a Linux environment within Windows, without the need for a virtual machine. I’ll confess that I know little about Linux, however, and can’t offer any informed commentary on what the shell can or can’t do.

groove custom playlists Mark Hachman

With the version of the app that's available with the Anniversary Update, Groove Music now displays a (ludicrous!) number of customized playlists, based on what you listen to.

Insider builds of the Windows 10 Mobile Photos app now capture video in slow motion, and a similar capability may be coming to the desktop Photos app as well. Unfortunately,  Microsoft pulled it before the AU code shipped.

Mail’s been updated with the ability to drag-and-drop calendar appointments. It’s also mercifully much more stable, unlike in the early days of Windows 10.

Finally, the Start menu looks just a shade different: What was previously an All Apps button is now just a scrolling list of apps, by default.

windows 10 au start menu Mark Hachman

Although you can tweak it as you’d like, the Start Menu in my test version of the Anniversary Update went very heavy on the suggested apps.

Connect: The Continuum you don’t need

The Connect app marries your Windows 10 Mobile device to your Windows 10 desktop wirelessly, providing a Continuum-like experience without the cost of the Display Dock. I don’t quite grok the Connect app on Windows 10.

windows 10 anniversary edition connect Mark Hachman

Windows 10’s Connect app puts your phone’s content within a window on your PC.

Connect was one of the anticipated features of the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, partially because Connect projects your phone’s display onto your Windows 10 PC screen, just like Continuum. But Connect simply connects your phone, embedding its desktop within a window on your PC. Shouldn’t you already have those files on your PC? That’s not adding much to the experience, in my book. Connecting my phone to my Surface Pro 4 via Bluetooth was simple enough, but the connection lagged fairly severely. I poked through some photos, surfed the web a bit, then moved on.

Is the Windows 10 Anniversary Update worth it?

For anyone who already runs Windows 10, the Anniversary Update is coming, like it or not. I hope Microsoft patches many of the random bugs that still remain, a few of which I noted in this review.

win10upgradedialog

Once more for old times’ sake.

Meanwhile, millions of Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 users are wondering if they should follow Microsoft’s lead. I suspect that little in the Anniversary Update itself will convince them to make the switch. Far more important iwill be the hit to the pocketbooks of people who skipped the free upgrade to Windows 10, which expired July 29.

As stable and solid as Windows 7 is today, there simply must come a day when Windows 7 will become so outdated as to become nearly unusable. Meanwhile, Windows 10 introduced Cortana, Windows Hello, Task View, Edge, and the Action Center. To that, the Windows 10 AU adds Windows Ink and buffs several existing Windows 10 features—worthwhile, certainly, but not the sort of monumental changes that Windows 10 originally introduced.

Has Windows 10 improved? Clearly. Does it still demand further work? Sadly, yes. Microsoft promised us features such as using Windows Hello to log in via the web, and it really ought to provide a full-fledged Ink experience with rich, editable text. Neither are here yet. Speech should be Microsoft’s next priority—yes, you can talk to Cortana, but oral dictation should be a more prominent option than it is. 

Cortana, biometric web authentication, data stored seamlessly in the cloud: These are bold strides forward, and ones that can potentially reshape the way we work and play. But they’re unfinished. Windows 10 may be the last Windows, but these are still its first steps.

Correction: Windows 10 PIN codes can now be longer than four digits. Updated at 12:12 PM on August 2 to add details about the new Groove Music app as well as how to get the Anniversary Update. 

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At a Glance
  • Microsoft's Windows 10 Anniversary Update delivers moderate but meaningful improvements to those features you use most, while pointing the way to more substantial improvements down the road.

    Pros

    • Microsoft Edge has significantly improved, in performance and features
    • Cortana is now accessible from the lock screen
    • Minor upgrades throughout Windows 10's apps
    • It's free!

    Cons

    • Windows Ink is promising, but far from finished
    • Just properly integrate OneDrive, already
    • The bugs are still there, in places
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