Windows 10 Creators Update, the first major update to Microsoft's operating system since last summer's Windows 10 Anniversary Update, is finally here.
As always, Microsoft will make much of its new version -- to the point that it's announced that impatient users can download the Creators Update today, a week before the official April 11th roll-out date. But is it as big a deal as Microsoft wants you to believe? Or is it much ado about nothing?
I've been using the Creators Update in its various builds for months, and have put the final version through its paces. Here's the lowdown.
Start menu folders
One note before I begin: Ignore the name "Creators Update." This newest upgrade to Windows 10 has very little to do with creating things apart from a few relatively minor features that I'll describe later.
In fact, the only significant interface change in the Creators Update has to do with the Start menu -- and even then, it's not particularly noticeable at first glance. But if you're a fan of the Start menu and you use it to run applications, you'll find this update extremely useful, because it helps clean up some of the clutter.
With the Creators Update, you can now place multiple tiles into a folder on the Start menu. It's simple: You just drag one tile onto another. This automatically creates a folder with both tiles inside it. You can then drag any other tiles you want into the folder.
Folders look like tiles and display small thumbnail icons of all the apps they contain. Click a folder and it opens, with each app appearing as an individual tile. You can then click any tile to run the app. Click the folder again and all the tiles slide back inside.
You can resize the folder tile if you need to by right-clicking it and selecting Small, Medium, Wide or Large. But although this changes the size of the folder tile, the icon thumbnails inside don't change -- they stay small no matter how large you make the folder tile. You simply see more thumbnails.
How useful you'll find these folders depends on how much you rely on the Start menu to run applications and how many applications you run. In my case, I pin my most-used applications to the taskbar and run them from there; otherwise, I type the apps' names into Cortana and run them that way. Because I rarely rely on the Start menu to run applications, this feature is a nice-to-have rather than a must-have for me. Your mileage may vary.
I do have a small nit to pick with the way the feature is designed. Other tiles on the Start menu have text labels underneath them -- Mail, Calendar, Microsoft Edge and so on. But folders don't, which makes it hard for you to identify the purpose of each folder and what's in it. You have to peer closely at its small thumbnails to figure out what's in each. It would have been much better if Microsoft let you label each folder.
More control over Windows updates
Many people have complained about the unyielding way that Windows updates itself -- you can't bypass an update, and you have to do it on a schedule set by Microsoft. In the Creators Update you get some control over the process, depending on which version of Windows you use. Windows Home users get less flexibility than those with Windows Pro, Windows Enterprise or Windows Education editions.
Home users will no longer be blindsided when Windows interrupts their work to do an update. They'll be notified when an update is available, and given the option of either installing it immediately, scheduling it for a specific time or putting it off by clicking "Snooze."
Clicking "Pick a time" brings up a dialog box that lets you schedule the precise day and time the update runs. Clicking Snooze puts off the update for three days. Three days later another notification appears with the same three options. If you want, you can click Snooze again. You can keep doing this to indefinitely put off the update.
Users with Windows Pro, Windows Enterprise or Windows Education editions have much more control over how Windows updates. Before, users who wanted to delay their cumulative updates had to use a complicated workaround that required changing several settings and using either the Group Policy Editor or Registry Editor. They could delay "feature updates" (which add new features to Windows) by up to 180 days.
With the Creators Update, users can now automatically delay cumulative monthly updates for up to 30 days, and can delay feature updates by up to 365 days.
A sharper Edge
The latest figures from NetMarketShare show the Microsoft Edge browser with a market share of under 6%, far behind Chrome, which has more than 58%, and even Microsoft's legacy browser, Internet Explorer, which has nearly 19%. So with every Windows upgrade, Microsoft spends considerable time improving Edge in hopes of closing the gap with Chrome and weaning users off IE.
The Creators Update is no different. For a start, Flash is now disabled in Edge by default, although you're given the option of allowing it on a site-by-site basis, either on a one-time basis or permanently. (In the previous version of Edge, only non-essential Flash content, like advertising, was blocked.) Microsoft is disabling Flash to improve security, performance and battery life. When a website also uses HTML5 to deliver ads or other multimedia content, Edge uses HTML5 instead of Flash.
Perhaps more important than blocking Flash is the addition of some very useful tab-handling features. If you've ever been frustrated by not being able to quickly locate the tab you want to switch to, you'll appreciate this.
You can see a thumbnail of every open tab by clicking a down arrow to the right of the Add Tab button at the top of the screen. That lets you quickly scan all the currently open sites. Click the thumbnail of the tab you want to switch to, and you get sent immediately to that tab. I frequently keep many tabs open, and I found this feature a great help in getting me fast to the tab I wanted to find. Over the course of a day of browsing, I found it a tremendous time-saver.
Should you decide to close all your open tabs, but think you might want to revisit them later, click a button to their left to put them aside as a group. When you want to open the group again, click a button to the left of that one, and they all open. You can recall the tab group even after you've closed Edge -- in fact, even after you've logged out of Windows.
What makes this feature even more useful is that you can do this to multiple groups of tabs. For example, over the course of several hours I visited several museum websites, news sites, and sites with medical information. I grouped and closed each session, and was able to easily revisit them later.
However, while this is a useful feature, it does feel like a first step. It would be much more useful if you could label each group -- for example, Museums, News and Medical -- and add and remove tabs once a group was created.
Also new in Edge is that you can read books and other content in ePub and PDF formats. Edge will also read their text aloud. This includes the usual e-reading features, such as the ability to continue reading where you had previously left off, change text size and so on.
You can find books to read in the Microsoft Store. But given the Kindle's dominance as an e-reader, it's unlikely this feature will see much use, especially because Microsoft has no dedicated e-reader device. I can't see myself lugging my laptop to the beach and pulling it out to read a book on Edge. (Of course, those with a Surface or other Windows 10 convertible may appreciate it more.)
There are a variety of other improvements to Edge, including the ability to play Netflix at 4K resolution, under-the-hood security improvements, and being able to import favorites from other browsers. However, one of Edge's biggest drawbacks -- a serious lack of extensions -- hasn't been fixed. Only 25 are available, compared to the tens of thousands available for Chrome.
Microsoft says that it has released more extension APIs for developers and is working with developers to get more extensions built. But it's been about eight months since Edge was given the ability to use extensions, and Microsoft has only managed to get 25 of them written. It looks unlikely that Edge will ever come remotely close to competing with Chrome in this arena.
The upshot? Despite some improvements, Edge is still not a particularly compelling browser, and this latest iteration is not likely to convince many people to switch from Chrome or any other browser.
A step into 3D
Microsoft is betting big on virtual reality and 3D. In fact, 3D and virtual reality are likely the reasons Microsoft calls this version Creators Update.
With the update, Windows 10 can run HoloLens virtual reality and mixed reality apps for the first time. Additionally, Microsoft is highlighting a variety of hardware devices in concert with the OS update.
Microsoft is also hoping that you'll be a creator -- not just a consumer -- of 3D content, so the update includes the Paint 3D app. (The original Paint is included as well.) The app includes a variety of tools for creating 3D drawings, including 3D objects, brush tools, text, effects and more. Even if you're not an artist or have no artistic talent (like me), you'll be able to easily create and edit 3D objects, by starting off with models and objects included in the app. You can even doodle in 3D -- use a mouse or compatible pen to draw, and the program converts your doodle into a 3D object.
Better still, join Microsoft's Remix3D.com community, which has many 3D objects and models built by other Paint 3D users. You can browse and import them from right within Paint 3D, and then customize them. You can upload your creations to the community as well.
Consolidated system settings
In the Creators Update, Microsoft took a crack at improving Settings, which controls and customizes the way that all aspects of Windows work. It's part of an ongoing attempt to fix a problem with Settings that first surfaced in Windows 8, when some settings were put in the new Settings app and others in Control Panel or other places in the operating system. Ever since then, it's been tough to know exactly where to find the setting you want.
Over time, many settings have migrated to the Settings app, which has been reorganized several times. The Creators Update continues that trend, to good effect. For the first time, Apps appears as its own top-level category in Settings. It consolidates settings that were previously scattered in multiple locations, including Default apps, Offline maps and Apps for websites. It's no game-changer, but it's useful.
The Apps category is also where you'll find a new feature that lets you block the installation of desktop applications (the more old-fashioned keyboard/mouse apps) and only allow Windows apps (touch-friendly apps that are installed from the Microsoft Store) to be installed. I don't find this feature personally useful -- I rarely install Windows apps because desktop apps are usually more useful and powerful than Windows apps. However, it might be valuable for those who prefer Windows apps.
I've always found it moderately difficult to find the screens for adding and configuring new devices to Windows. So I was pleased to see that there's now a Devices heading in the Settings app that provides a unified interface for adding any device -- just choose Settings > Device > Add Bluetooth or other device.
There's also a new top-level setting for Games that lets you control how games play on your PC, with new features such as broadcasting your games over the internet.
A unified security dashboard
When was the last time you thought about -- or used -- Windows Defender, Windows' anti-malware protection? Probably not in a very long time. I know that I haven't. And there's a good reason for that. You set it once or just accept its defaults, and it does its job, with no more fiddling needed.
In Windows 10 Creators Update, that may change for you. Windows now consolidates a slew of security settings in an all-in-one security dashboard called Windows Defender Security Center, available from Settings > Update & Security > Windows Defender > Open Windows Defender Security Center.
The new center is more than just a dashboard for Windows Defender; it's command central for your device's security and overall health. It shows at a glance any potential security issues and lets you delve into customizable settings. A check next to any icon on the dashboard means everything is safe and secure. A red circle with a white X in it means you need to take action to protect yourself.
The dashboard has five sections:
- Virus & threat protection. This shows the state of your anti-malware. It works not just with Windows Defender but with third-party anti-malware programs as well. If you use Windows Defender, you can click the icon to see the results of scans and to customize your anti-malware protection. If you use a different anti-malware package, clicking the icon will launch the application.
- Device performance & health. Click it to see the latest Windows updates, and whether you have problems with your storage, device drivers or battery.
- Firewall & network protection. This shows your firewall settings and lets you change them. It also gives information about your network connections and a link to a network troubleshooter.
- App & browser control. This controls the SmartScreen Filter, which, when you're using Microsoft's Edge or IE browsers, blocks malicious websites as well as potentially dangerous apps and files downloaded from the web.
- Family options. This links you to parental control options.
It's nice to know that this is around, and I found that most everything worked as expected. However, there was a problem with one section -- Device performance & health. When I clicked it I got a message that "Health report is not available." There was no apparent way to do a health scan or have it create a report.
New gaming features
The Creators Update offers several new gaming features, including streaming gaming sessions over the internet, a Game Mode to improve gaming performance, and a Game bar to let you record your gameplay, take screenshots and perform games-related tasks.
When you put your PC into Game Mode, it looks at all processes running on your computer and then gives your currently running game priority. This is designed to help games run better, with fewer glitches and hiccups.
Streaming gaming sessions is done via the livestreaming service Beam, which Microsoft bought in August 2016. To stream a gaming session, open the Game bar (you can use the key combination Win+G), then click the Broadcast icon.
In addition, there's a new Games section in Settings, which lets you do things such as control the Game bar and Game Mode, and configure how your games should be streamed, including whether to record audio when you broadcast your games.
A few Cortana updates
The Cortana personal assistant gets a few modest additions in the Windows 10 Creators Update. To begin with, you can schedule monthly reminders. You can also ask the digital assistant for help in setting up devices. In addition, Cortana can recognize new voice commands to restart your PC, turn it off, and raise or lower the system volume, among others. And you can use it in full-screen mode.
Cortana also integrates with Microsoft's Groove Music service -- tell Cortana to play a song, and it will launch Groove Music and play it. The digital assistant also integrates with TuneIn and iHeartRadio in the same way, although you'll have to tell it to play music on that specific service. While all this is nice, I would have preferred integration with the much-more-popular Spotify streaming music service.
Other noteworthy additions
There are plenty of other minor changes as well:
- You can now use Windows Ink to mark up photos in the Photos App, write on photos and add comments. You can also use Windows Ink to write on videos. In addition, Ink now works on the Maps app, letting you, for example, ink two points and have Maps calculate the distance between them.
- The Windows Narrator, which provides assistive technologies, now offers Braille support.
- The PowerShell feature-laden command line is now built into File Explorer.
- The Snipping Tool, which lets you take screenshots, has been modestly improved. It can now be invoked with a key combination (Win+Shift+S) and has been slightly redesigned, making it a bit easier to use.
- A "Night Light" feature removes blue light from your computer's display, and adds warmer colors. There's some evidence that blue light can disrupt the normal sleep cycle, so this feature is designed to help those who like to read or surf a bit before going to sleep. I used it and found the color difference to be subtle, adding a kind of twilight feeling. Did it help me sleep better? Not that I was aware of. But I liked the moody feel it gave to computing at night.
- When Creators Update installs, you'll be prompted to select a variety of privacy settings, including whether Microsoft should collect content so it can display relevant ads to you, whether the Location setting should be turned on, and similar options. Don't worry if you're not happy with the settings you selected, because you can change them at any time in the Privacy section of Settings.
The bottom line
To a certain extent, Windows 10 Creators Update is a "don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it" update, because there have been so few major visual and feature changes. Still, there are some useful additions. Tiles can help clean up the Start menu, Edge has gotten modest improvements, gamers will be pleased, and Paint 3D will allow people to create 3D content. Getting some control over Windows updates is welcome as well.
But while there's nothing dramatic in it, the update makes Windows 10 a better operating system. It reflects a stay-the-course attitude Microsoft has taken towards Windows 10, making incremental improvements while doing no harm. If that was its goal, it succeeded with the Creators Update.