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Windows 10 May 2020 Update review: Microsoft boosts Linux and Your Phone, but Cortana slips hard

Microsoft's new Windows 10 May 2020 Update incrementally builds on features you know and use.

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Your Phone is now (almost) fully operational

The Windows 10 Your Phone app has been slowly adding additional functionality across several Windows feature releases, and it’s arguably nearing completion. But the experience is still fragmented among various devices.

With the right combination of phone and PC, the Your Phone app on Windows can now show recent photos shot with the phone, view and send SMS messages, be alerted with the phone’s notifications, see the phone’s battery life, view and interact with the phone screen and apps, and even make calls. (Phones require the Your Phone Companion app to establish the connection.) It’s worth reading our earlier Your Phone tutorial to learn how each feature works.

Microsoft Windows 10 your phone messages edited Mark Hachman / IDG

The majority of users should be able to take advantage of the Windows 10 Your Phone app’s basic functionality, which includes recent SMS text messages.

Subtle UI touches have crept in, such as indicators for unread messages or notifications, and built-in GIF and picture support within the Messages component. Some aspects could use some polishing: I still can get redundant notifications from both Windows as well as Your Phone if someone messages me, for example.

Microsoft Windows 10 20H1 your phone messaging Microsoft

The Messages text interface is now richer than ever, too, with robust GIF and image support. (We’ve used a Microsoft-supplied image here, for privacy’s sake.) Messages can also be replied to from a notification.

The reality, however, is that Your Phone’s functionality still varies by device, PC, and connection. With a OnePlus 6T connected to a Surface Laptop 3 running a Windows 10 20H1 build, my Your Phone app included all of the functionality listed above, save for my ability to interact with my phone’s screen. Ditto for a Google Pixel 3XL.

gif window Windows 10 Your Phone 20H1 Mark Hachman / IDG

While I really like the fact that GIFs are now integrated within the Messages window in Your Phone, the GIF picker needs to be enlarged. GIF text can be too small to read as currently implemented.

The ability to interact with the smartphone screen under Your Phone also depends on whether you own a PC with Bluetooth that supports a low-energy peripheral role, like the Surface Book 2 I used to create the Your Phone tutorial. Desktop PCs often don’t have Bluetooth. Meanwhile, Samsung phones require their own app, called Link to Windows, to establish a connection. Oh, and Apple iPhones? They’re pretty much out of the loop entirely.

Microsoft Windows 10 your phone angry birds Mark Hachman / IDG

More advanced functions, such as remotely viewing the screen of your Android phones, is still restricted to a subset of available devices.

I don’t want to sell Your Phone short—there’s quite a lot there. Like many Windows apps, Your Phone isn’t a necessary part of your workflow, but a convenience that allows you to interact with texts and notifications easily, without breaking your workflow to pull out your phone. It’s true, too, that the basic photos/messages/notifications/calls functionality should be in play for a majority of Android users as the 20H1 release rolls out. But there’s still work to be done to establish a uniform Your Phone experience for everyone.

Monitoring your gaming with Windows 10 Xbox Game Bar / GPU temps

I prefer a clean, uncluttered window when I game, so I usually don’t turn on Windows’ Xbox Game Bar (using the Win+G shortcut) for more than few seconds. An update that’s rolling out as part of the Windows 10 May 2020 Update release, though, may compel you to think differently: a frame-rate indicator. (A second, related Xbox Achievement overlay is also part of this release.)

Microsoft Windows 10 20H1 game bar Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft’s Xbox Game Bar can show you how well—or in my case, how poorly—a game is running.

FPS counters, which you can access via Steam and some other GPU tools, provide a handy way of casually tracking how well your PC’s hardware is meeting the game’s demands. Dip too far down, and you may want to dial back a setting or two to preserve a smooth experience. With the ongoing FPS counter (which tracks FPS over the last 60 seconds) you have an in-Windows tool to monitor your gameplay. Note that the Game Bar already allows you to track CPU and GPU usage, and take screenshots—capabilities that Microsoft added previously. 

windows 10 20h1 gpu temp edited Mark Hachman / IDG

Windows 10’s Task Manager just keeps on adding more information. Note the GPU temp, but also the device type (SSD) in the Storage section, too.

There’s another metric Microsoft has added to Windows 10 20H1 that you may find useful: Task Manager’s new ability to monitor your GPU temperature. It’s not especially convenient—there’s no ability to monitor the temperature over time, or alert you if it exceeds a certain threshold —but it’s a data point that may prove useful. The Task Manager now reveals what type of storage device you’re using, too.

Smaller, important features under the hood

Windows Sandbox forges closer ties to the PC: I really like Windows Sandbox, and its isolated container for trying out new apps and Web sites. Microsoft has added optional new conveniences: the ability to enable networking and your PC’s GPU within Sandbox and even a shared folder between Sandbox and your PC’s desktop. Be aware, however: while all three features improve Sandbox’s ease of use, all three increase the attack surface for potential malware, too. 

DirectX Raytracing / DirectX Ultimate support: Microsoft began talking about DirectX Raytracing early in 20H1's development, but it wasn't clear that it would be included in the final release. But the technology, now called DirectX Ultimate, appears to be a go. My colleague Brad Chacos tells me that Nvidia is starting to seed drivers to developers. It sounds like it's all aimed at providing a consistent experience for games like Minecraft's RTX version, especially when the Xbox Series X launches by the end of the year.

Reset your PC from the cloud: When you reset your PC, the image that your PC installs and boots from is pulled from the image already residing on your PC. That’s fine, but extracting that image can take time and can actually fail entirely if your PC’s hard drive is significantly corrupted. Enter Cloud Reset: As the name suggests, your PC can optionally download a new, clean image from Microsoft’s servers. 

Microsoft windows 10 20h1 cloud reset larger Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft’s Windows 10 20H1 update adds this option when you choose to reset your PC.

Yes, downloading it will take some time, and cost you 4GB or so against your bandwidth cap. But you’ll be able to download the image directly to your PC (no USB installation key required). If you have a fast Internet connection, installation could actually execute in less time than a normal reset.

Expanded language support in SwiftKey, dictation: Microsoft has expanded the scope of its language prediction, especially in tablet mode and shapewriting, also known as electronic inking. Thirty-nine new languages are supported, from Afrikaans to Uzbek.

If you prefer speaking instead, you can try Windows’ built-in dictation (Win+H), which now supports English (Canada), English (UK), English (Australia), English (India), French (France), French (Canada), German (Germany), Italian (Italy), Spanish (Spain), Spanish (Mexico), Portuguese (Brazil), and Chinese (Simplified, China). I’ve been pretty impressed with how the Office app for Android handles dictation, too.

New tablet experience for 2-in-1 PCs: We can’t guarantee that this will be in the Windows 10 20H1 release until it rolls out, as a 2-in-1 isn’t among our test machines. But those who use the Surface Pro 7 or related devices should see a new twist on the desktop while in tablet mode, that preserves the look and feel of the desktop while making it easier to navigate with fat fingers. Microsoft’s example should explain:

microsoft windows 10 20h1 new tablet experience Microsoft / IDG

Better network, update management: Those of you in rural areas or with slow connections probably don’t want to impede your normal browsing or Internet gameplay with a pesky Windows update downloading in the background. Microsoft now has more granular tools for managing this, including specific bandwidth settings.

Microsoft windows 10 20h1 delivery optimization Mark Hachman / IDG

Windows 10 still allows you to control how much of your bandwidth is being applied to updates, but it’s offering more options in response to user feedback. Go to Settings > Windows Update > Delivery Optimization > Advanced options for this menu.

Likewise, Microsoft also cleaned up its Network & Internet status page, giving it a face-lift and consolidating more information up front. Pay attention to the “data usage” button: It’s a reminder that you can still check which apps are sucking up your bandwidth, and set limits if you so choose. (The data usage functionality was present in previous feature updates.)

windows 10 20h1 network status page microsoft Mark Hachman / IDG

It’s not revolutionary, but it’s noticeably better.

PIN options in Safe Mode: Microsoft’s made several efforts to do away with ungainly passwords in past releases, and it’s made another tweak here: If you need to boot into Safe Mode for whatever reason, you can now use a PIN as opposed to your password.

Rename your virtual desktops: Task View doesn’t get the love that Microsoft probably hoped it would, but it’s not forgotten. You can now rename your virtual desktops to help you remember what they’re being used for.

windows 10 20h1 rename virtual desktops task view Microsoft Mark Hachman / IDG

You can also use emoji to rename your virtual desktops within Task View, if that’s your thing.

FancyZones gets multi-monitor support: Technically, this has nothing to do with Windows 10. But this Microsoft-authored PowerToys utility is basically a super-powered version of Windows’ own Snap function. FancyZones added multi-monitor support during 20H1’s development cycle, eliminating its only major shortcoming.

Other conveniences: Microsoft is making a number of small changes behind the scenes. Spell correction in Apps and Settings has improved, so that Windows will understand you better. If you change your account picture, it will now quickly and consistently propagate across Windows. There’s a new cursor-speed setting within the Mouse settings, too. And if your PC crashes or you reboot, UWP apps like Mail will now restart in the same state you left them in.

Conclusion: A little something for everyone

On paper, Microsoft’s Windows 10 May 2020 Update (20H1) represents a decent effort, signaling what appears to be an evolution toward a Windows 10X-like user interface. For all of our kvetching about Your Phone’s need to address all of Windows’ user base, it’s absolutely true that the app has evolved into a practical link between a Windows PC and an Android smartphone. Linux, too, is available, free, and ready to roll within Windows Subsystem for Linux 2.

Right now, though, Cortana absolutely must be fixed. While Cortana’s independent development track may allow this to happen quickly, the assistant’s current inability to handle simple math, among other flaws, invites ridicule and sours the otherwise simple, practical upgrades Microsoft’s included across the remainder of Windows 10 20H1.

After the relative dearth of new content in either of the 2019 feature releases, the  variety of across-the-board improvements Microsoft’s Windows 10 May 2020 Update is a welcome change. It justifies digging in and learning what it can do for you. 

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At a Glance
  • Microsoft's spring 2020 update nearly polishes off the Your Phone app and boosts Linux, also signaling a release to a new UI in the process. But some functional weaknesses in Cortana somewhat sour the experience.

    Pros

    • Free, like other Windows 10 releases
    • Your Phone provides a useful link between phone and PC for nearly everyone
    • Linux within Windows become more powerful, yet still convenient
    • New icons may signal an end to a tile-based world

    Cons

    • Cortana shows a shocking lack of functionality in places
    • Ongoing polish and improvements mean little is ever truly done
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