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Jul 29 2016

Windows 10: Happy Anniversary, Pt. 1

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For those adept in the art of sarcasm, Microsoft's introduction of the commercial versions of Windows 10, which is due this upcoming Saturday, may either mark 'the end of the broadest beta test ever' or prove that nowadays it's 'easily possible to sell an unfinished product.' For the average user, the move from free upgrades to those that come with a license fee means that it's time to decide whether they want to stick with a classic desktop OS or accept Microsoft's "Windows as a Service" policy – or perhaps leave the platform altogether. Our two-part preview takes a look at the benefits and potential drawbacks of a switch to Windows 10, Version 1607 – the upgraded OS which is scheduled for release next week.

The time is up: Today was the last day that all users contemplating a switch to the latest version of Microsoft's desktop OS had the opportunity to do so for free. From tomorrow (July 30) on, the best way to obtain a legal copy is to either buy new hardware or installation media/download licenses from the Microsoft Store and other retailers. As per usual, costs will vary depending on the edition you use and the country/region you live and do business in; in the U.S., official retail prices range from $120 for the Home Edition to $200 for a Pro version, while in the Eurozone you'll have to pay €135 and €279, respectively. Elsewhere, single licenses may sell for four- or even five-digit amounts. Alternatively, customers may also buy Enterprise or Education Editions, but those either come with usage restrictions or require a volume license that's not available for single professionals and SMBs with less than 250 employees. At any rate, users who are willing to invest might as well wait a couple more days – until Redmond ships its Anniversary Update on Tuesday next week.

Aside from the release date and license fees, word has also spread regarding new features and functionalities: the Anniversary Update, aka "Redstone" or Version 1607, is reportedly based on Build 14393, which is now available in its fifth iteration issued on Monday this week. According to reviewers Zac Bowden and David Rubino at Windowscentral.com, this latest version completes a line of over 25 'pre-releases' that supposedly incorporated customer suggestions made since the last major update from November last year. Since this approach could result in a somewhat exotic feature set, one will have to rely on the Microsoft developers' ability not to take things too far. At the same time, there are still areas where the previous versions didn't live up to initial PR promises – the new Edge browser in particular proved to be a disappointment for users who had grown accustomed to the speed and customizability of Chrome, Firefox or Opera. Experienced Windows users know that a lot of the actual enhancements are likely to reside under the hood and will only be revealed over time; so today, we will focus on the visible improvements alone.

On the Surface
Since 2012, pretty much every discussion about Microsoft's desktop OS was at least partially devoted to the software's look and feel. Back then, the switch to a mainly touch-oriented GUI was initially hailed as a bold move. However, it soon turned out the change didn't go down well with keyboard-oriented users who not only missed the Start Menu, but had a hard time adapting to the new logic and operating concept in general. Their vastly negative response led to the commercial failure of Windows 8/8.1 and their quick replacement after only 33 and 22 months. With Windows 10, the Start Menu returned, signaling an attempt to appease the existing professional and enterprise customer base while retaining some of the concepts that allow for more direct and convenient interaction with the OS itself and the device it's running on. Even so, the original Windows 10 GUI was often criticized for its lack of consistency – many apps and controls looked like they had been directly imported from Windows 7 – as well as for introducing incomplete and therefore largely useless features like the Action Center (the pop-up panel that appears on the right of your screen when you click the speech balloon in the system tray or move the mouse too close to the edge). Consequently, a lot of the improvements to be delivered with next week's update center on the user experience:

  • The Start Menu now features three columns instead of two, with the User, File Explorer, Settings and Shut Down icons being moved to a small vertical bar on the left. The Apps section has moved to the center and comes with a slightly reversed order that lists "recently added" apps at the top, followed by the "most used" and "all apps" categories. The right column sticks with the "Life at a glance" design that pushes promoted apps from the Windows Store, but is basically user-configurable. The Start Screen shown on tablets now appears in a full-screen layout with larger icons that are easier to aim at and tap. Moreover, so-called "Chase-able Live Tiles" give users direct access to the content displayed in an app icon instead of merely opening up the app.
  • The Action Center speech balloon is still there, but has moved to the far right of the system tray (as opposed to left of the system clock). Like before, the Action Center panel serves as a notification board for various apps, informing users about incoming mail and chat requests or reminding them of appointments and planned activities. But unlike before, the notifications are now a tad more interactive and gimmicky; for example, it is possible to respond to a notification without launching the mail or chat client, and the Action Center will even show the icon of the app that sends the notification. What's more, the Anniversary Update adds "Synced Notifications," meaning that you'll be able to see who called your smartphone or left a message on WhatsApp on your desktop PC; at launch, the feature works with Windows and Android phones only. Lastly, the entire Action Center can now be configured according to individual preferences, as users may attach different priority levels to app notifications or pick the number and types of Quick Actions displayed at the bottom of the panel.

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Fig. 1: Starting next week, Edge users will be able to download and install browser extensions directly from the Microsoft Store via the 3-dots drop-down menu at the top

  • One of the most prominent innovations in Windows 10 is Microsoft Edge, the OS's new default browser that's supposed to finally help retire a geriatric Internet Explorer. Touted as a rival for faster and more customizable software, Edge had raised great expectations – but unfortunately, Redmond's developers only kept that promise in part. Anyone who has experimented with Edge will confirm it is definitely fast and displays modern web pages smoothly, without the quirks that made the IE so easy to hate. On the other hand, the first two versions did not support extensions – and that's definitely a setback for people who are used to working with personalized browsers and/or individual app sets. The Anniversary Update solves that problem: come Tuesday, users will be able to download popular extensions like Adblock/Adblock Plus or a plug-in that lets you work on documents generated with Microsoft's Office suite from the Microsoft Store. In addition, the developers have improved Edge's power efficiency so that it uses fewer processor cycles and less memory, thus effectively increasing mobile devices' battery life. Further enhancements can be found in the various Settings menus; for example, the revamped Edge finally includes an option to clean up your browser cache and history whenever you close the app. Skilled users who feel comfortable trying out advanced functionalities will find even more features to play with in the Developer Settings section, where they can enable support for new audio and video file formats (namely Opus and VP9) or turn on TCP Fast Open to cut down page load times. A full list of the upcoming browser enhancements plus explanations is here. Altogether, the upgrade should bring Edge up to par with its competitors.

Please check back for the second part of this article next week.

 
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