Microsoft’s Windows 10 April Update reviewed
I remember at one point in my life being so excited that I finally had Windows XP! No more boring Windows 98 grey taskbar uglying up my sweet desktop made up of bright neon colors with low-res bitmap images copy-pasted onto them! Those were the heady days of the post-2000s, when I was a teenager with a Pentium II desktop with Windows XP and Starcraft. How times have changed. Now I’m a fat old man with a faster desktop, still banging away on Windows playing similar games.
Windows 10 launched roughly three years ago in the summer of 2015. Microsoft later announced that the operating system would receive regular bi-annual feature updates. We’ve just witnessed the launch of one of them for 2018. The imaginatively-named April Update appeared literally on the last day of that month, though you may not have it installed yet. Since you’re no doubt dying to know what the new features in this update are, let’s get started.
The most significant addition is the new organizational feature named Timeline. This interface replaces the old task view brought up by Win+Tab. When Timeline is activated, you’ll see a wall with a historical overview of opened browser pages and Office files, along with items opened in third-party applications, if developers add the necessary integration. Windows now remembers what you’ve been working on over the last hours, days, or even weeks. The operating system can also sync this data across your devices if you choose.
Think of Timeline like browser history, but for potentially everything on your computer and across all your PCs. Were you working with specific websites and Word, say for a Windows April update review on your desktop, and you’re now on your laptop? Simply open Timeline and there’s everything you were working on, ready to be recalled. For now, Timeline is mostly just used by Microsoft apps, as third parties need to update their applications to support it. Timeline support in Chrome is currently MIA, for example. The data sync functionality currently works only on Windows, though Microsoft announced that Timeline support is coming to Edge on iOS and to Android via the Microsoft launcher.
As far as I’m concerned, Timeline works and does what’s advertised. If configured right, it can be quite an excellent feature, and I’m eagerly looking forward to it working on my OnePlus 5T.
Progressive Web Apps
Another major change in Windows 10 is the addition of Progressive Web App (PWA) support, part of an ongoing joint effort by Microsoft, Apple, and Google. This feature may have a larger long-run impact on the Windows 10 ecosystem than any other change in this update. Essentially, PWA support lets websites run web-based apps that appear to the user as native applications. This means web apps can install local shortcuts, notify the user without a browser being open, and behave largely as people expect from a locally-installed application.
PWAs let you go to a website, click “download app,” and see a new shortcut or icon on your phone or PC, all without ever visiting an app store. Microsoft had initially required PWA apps to be listed in the store, but pulled this requirement at the Build conference. Ideally, you shouldn’t need to know if the app you’re running is native or web-based. There’s cross-platform support for PWA applications in Windows 10, Android, and iOS.
The chicken-and-egg problem
Whether the needed developer support for PWA and Timeline appears is yet to be seen. Given that Edge currently sits at less than two million downloads on Android and the Microsoft launcher at ten million, the potential number of non-PC users for Timeline isn’t that big. As a result, additional developer support might be a long time coming unless Timeline’s APIs are very simple to use.
I couldn’t find download numbers for Edge on iOS, but it has roughly one-sixth as many App Store reviews compared to the Play Store. That means actual installations are likely few and far between. The iTunes 17+ rating probably isn’t helping, either. At Build, Microsoft pitched its Android launcher at businesses, but whether it’ll be adopted remains to be seen. The fact that most of the Timeline functionality requires you to opt in also means many people will miss out on it.
For those of us who loved Windows Phone devices, PWA support could be a game changer if it plays out according to plan. Like with Timeline, that support is a big “if.” Microsoft’s My People, which appeared in the Fall Creators Update, is also a potentially useful feature that has had basically no developer support. For those interested in PWA technology, Twitter has a write-up on how it built the Twitter Lite PWA.
Fluent design and UI tweaks
Microsoft is addressing common complaints about Windows 10’s inconsistent UI, though perhaps not exactly in the expected way. In another swing of the pendulum between flat and glassy user-interface stylings, Windows 10 is doubling down on the new Fluent design language. Fluent includes lots of transparency, lighting, motion, and depth effects, coupled with variety of materials. A fancy transparent-blur material called Acrylic is part of the package. Other materials will come, but right now Acrylic blur is going everywhere, making Windows look not unlike iOS. Mouse pointers now have a light-based hover effect over supported materials, something that makes finding your cursor easier and that I think looks quite attractive.
The new effects can be seen in the Start Menu, Settings, numerous UWP apps, and the updated-and-improved on-screen keyboard. They will eventually make their way into more of Windows 10. Personally, I care about how shiny my OS looks and I do quite like these UI tweaks. I ran Compiz for years even though it made my Ubuntu PC lag heavily.
Microsoft also overhauled the design of Windows’ Game Bar design for this update. The functionality of this widget remains the same, though, and to be honest, I’m not sure the new version is an improvement. The pop-up bar incorporates transparency effects and is now much larger. It also now pops up from the right side of the screen to alert you it exists every time you start a game. Game Bar joins Nvidia’s GeForce Experience in offering another overlay I don’t want or need warnings about. Even with the old version, I don’t remember ever thinking “gosh, this bar is too small and doesn’t annoy me enough.”
The updated Game Bar does make broadcasting vastly easier to setup, share, and view than other methods, since it incorporates Xbox Live and Mixer by default. Other streaming setups require you to download, install and configure third-party utilities like Open Broadcaster Software, while Game Bar requires just a button push to put its user on the air. It had a few hiccups when it first launched, but now it seems to work fine.
Windows now includes a clumsily-named Near Share feature that makes it easier to share files easier locally by sending them over Bluetooth. Near Share’s functionality is opt-in and works largely like Apple’s AirDrop. However, it’s currently restricted to PCs only. Once Near Share is activated in Settings, click “share” then pick a computer from the list. You can share sites, photos, and files.
Near Share seems to Just Work, though speeds are restricted to Bluetooth’s low transfer rate. It’s a handy feature, particularly for business environments or when you want your wife to see something cool but there’s no way she’s getting out of bed. In my testing the transfer was reliable, but if you haven’t changed your PCs’ names from Windows’ automatically-assigned monikers, it can be confusing to figure out which computer is which.
Microsoft sharpened Edge in the April Update. That refinement includes the usual bug fixes, security, and performance improvements that always come with an update, but there are also some UI tweaks and new functionality. There’s now a form-filling feature, clutter-free printing that puts the kibosh on ads, and the ability to mute specific tabs.
The browser’s eBook reader functionality has been improved and now includes support for notes, a read-aloud mode, and a scrubber. Edge is a decent-enough eBook reader, but most people will probably stick with their Kindle app. Buying or reading purchased books in Edge is still a USA-only affair, something that’s part of a larger problem for Microsoft (and that we’ll come back to later).
The Hub where Edge stores all your books, downloads, history, and favorites has been changed to expand dynamically. It does look better, but I’ve always found the Hub a confusing setup. In my experience, new Edge users can’t seem to find the downloads or favorites section of the browser. I think the Hub’s combined star-hamburger icon is misleading and needs to be changed. It’s ambiguous for new users and probably hurting the uptake of what is now an actually pretty good browser.
Edge is already reliable, fast, and the inclusion of new Fluent design elements means it’s probably the most attractive browser on the market. The Windows 10 Pro version now includes Windows Defender Application Guard for those who enable it. Essentially a virtual sandbox, Application Guard should improve security for those who frequent less-virtuous parts of the internet. Overall, Edge is a perfectly usable browser, and many popular extensions are now available. I switched away from Vivaldi to Edge thanks to the improved integration between Android and Windows, and I’m mostly satisfied with my choice.
Cortana got some new smarts in the April Update, although I’m not sure it’s progressed as Microsoft originally planned. The card-based system of the past is on the way out, and you can no longer click the icon to see what’s happening in your day. Instead, the main Cortana screen is wider and more integrated with Timeline. That means that while the search functionality remains pretty much the same, the display of useful info like the weather, calendar events, and news gives way to a Timeline display. Cortana’s alerts and notifications now live in the Action Centre.
The assistant is apparently now focused on providing information without a user prompt, like helping you shop on Amazon when using the Edge browser, making lists, or alerting you if an eBay package has shipped. Cortana can still perform typical tasks, though, like receiving and sending SMS messages, telling you the weather, or opening a program.
You can add third-party “skills” to Cortana, and in the update the skills management screen has been moved to the Cortana Notebook, making it easier for users to find it. While Cortana skills have been growing in both number and quality, they’re entirely USA-only. That’s right: the bulk of improvements to the assistant over the last year have been available exclusively to one country only. That restriction is still in effect even after the April Update.
Judging from this year’s Build conference, it seems that Microsoft wants to move and position Cortana as a productivity assistant and mostly leave the consumer-focused skills to Alexa. Microsoft announced a partnership with Amazon to mind-meld Cortana and Alexa a year ago, and we’re starting to see the fruits of that work now. I’m not totally sold on voice assistants generally, and don’t regularly use them on my devices. Having said that, I’ve tried to use all the major ones quite a bit (except for Siri) in the expectation that they could do what I wanted them to, not what the companies wanted them to. Perhaps one day we will get our own version of Iron Man‘s Jarvis?
Odd bits and bobs
There are some other minor changes in this update. The built-in Do Not Disturb mode is now named Focus Assist, and by default, it won’t bug you if you’re gaming. There are some improvements to pen input, the best of which is that you can now write in any supported text box, not just the large text box that sits where the on-screen keyboard lies. The combination of pen support and OneNote is excellent, and any student going without a pen setup in 2018 is missing out, particularly in the field of sciences.
Microsoft also improved data usage management, and you now have more control over your device’s data usage, including the ability to set limits. Improved privacy controls have come along for the ride, too. A new and simpler Bluetooth pairing method has also been added. Simply put a supported device into pairing mode and Windows will pop up a prompt to pair. Click it, and you’re connected.
Homegroup has also been completely removed, and I lost all network shares on my home network thanks to that. I had to do a full Windows reset on one of my PCs to get it to see the other machines on the network. On another machine, I had to dive through numerous networking services and set them to to automatically start, since they suddenly stopped doing that. One of the PCs is a Skylake system and the other is Haswell-based, so neither machine is exactly ancient. For me, this update was the most problematic of any yet on Windows 10, and I’d advise caution when installing it on a system-critical PC.
This update’s headlining items are Timeline and Progressive Web Apps (PWA) support, along with the necessary backend changes for those two features. Timeline is a strong addition to cross-platform and multi-device work scenarios, but we’ll have to wait to see if it gets the developer support it needs to truly free us from being tied to a single device. Meanwhile, PWA support could help bring a new generation of easily-installed apps regardless of what platform you choose. Near Share is a welcome addition, and the ability to easily transfer files and small bits of data using only OS functionality is more useful than I was expecting.
Features like Near Share bring the Windows ecosystem on par with the competition in many ways, and the added cross-platform functionality is handy and will only be growing in the future. I think April’s improvements to the UI are welcome, and I look forward to more consistency in Windows.
Cortana continues to evolve, and we’ll have to see how the Microsoft-Amazon deal works out regarding voice controls in the future. Edge is finally a strong browser, and one I’m now comfortable recommending. Its feature set is complete, particularly to the eyes of your average user. The fact that it looks pretty helps, too, as does the improved security for Windows Pro users. Pen input in the April Update is excellent, and Windows has what’s probably the best pen support of any operating system. Better privacy control, Focus Assist’s improved Do Not Disturb mode, and better data cap management tools round out this update.
However, Microsoft has a rather significant problem with some of its most important functionality being restricted to the USA, and I’m not sure why. Almost all of Cortana’s more powerful abilities and numerous other Microsoft platform features only work in the States. The company has a long history of offering little to no support for major products outside the US. For a tech company of this size and of this importance, it’s embarrassing and likely hurts its perception and that of its products. It’s simply unfathomable in 2018, and Microsoft’s had this issue for decades. It’s not like the company can’t afford some additional engineers, too.
The upcoming Windows 10 Redstone 5 update is currently previewing in the Insider program, and it looks like it’ll have more significant feature changes when it launches this fall. Keep your eyes on it if you’re brave enough to use a beta OS. All in all, Windows 10 continues to be a strong operating system, and the April update lays the foundation for bigger things to come.