Review: Windows 10 Fall Creators Update from A to Zzzzzzzz
- 16 October, 2017 21:00
After six months of waiting, the next major upgrade to Windows 10 is almost here. Known as the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, it will begin rolling out to the public on October 17.
The upgrade touches countless parts of the operating system, from OneDrive file storage to Cortana, the Edge browser, security and more. I’ve been tracking its progress for the last half year and putting it to the test with serious use in the last several weeks. Here’s a deep-dive, hands-on look at what’s new. (IT pros: Don't miss the "What IT needs to know about the Fall Creators Update" section.)
Before I begin, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Like the previous upgrade, this one may have “creators update” in its name, but there’s not much in it for people who create things. However, there’s plenty to cover — so let’s jump in.
OneDrive Files On-Demand
Perhaps the best new feature in this update is an excellent refinement of Microsoft’s cloud-based OneDrive storage. It’s now ideally suited for using on multiple PCs, with the OneDrive Files On-Demand feature. You now have access to all of your OneDrive files on every device, without having to download them first.
When you turn on OneDrive Files On-Demand, you’ll see all of the files you have stored in OneDrive, whether they’re on your PC or not. Icons next to each file or folder indicate whether it is stored only on the web (the cloud icon) or on your PC as well (the checked circle icon).
If you double-click a file in File Explorer that’s on your PC or in both locations, you open it from your PC. If you double-click one that’s only online, it gets downloaded to your PC, and you work on it locally. From that point on, it’s available on both your PC and OneDrive and syncs to both.
It’s easy to change the status of any file or folder from local to cloud storage or vice versa. To do it, right-click the file or folder. Then select “Always keep on this device” if you want to download the file or folder to your PC, or select “Free up space” if you want to remove it from your PC to get more storage space but still keep it in OneDrive on the web.
This works not just in File Explorer, but also in applications. So, for example, files from OneDrive on the web show up in Microsoft Office, and when you open them, they get downloaded for use on your PC.
All this makes it easier to save space on local hard drives while still giving you access to all the files you need. So you’ll be able to buy a less expensive laptop with less storage than you would normally need, because it’s easy to access all of your OneDrive files, even with a modest amount of local storage.
Note that the feature might not be turned on by default after you install the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update. To turn it on, click the OneDrive icon (it looks like clouds) on the right side of the taskbar, click the Settings icon (it looks like a gear) on the upper right of the screen that appears, select Settings, and check the box next to “Save space and download files as you use them.”
In my tests it worked without a hitch. I was able to clear multiple gigabytes of files from a laptop with ease, and yet still have access to those files when I needed them — as long as I had an internet connection or downloaded the files ahead of time.
If you only use a single PC with as much storage as you need, you won’t find OneDrive Files On-Demand that useful. But if you’re like me and plenty of other people who have multiple PCs with varying amounts of storage, you’ll find this feature a winner.
For those looking to free up even more storage space, the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update also has a minor upgrade to Windows 10’s Storage Sense feature for automatically saving disk space. (Get to it by going to Settings > Storage.) You can now tell Storage Sense to delete files in the Downloads folder that haven’t been changed in 30 days. And you can also delete previous versions of Windows directly from Storage Sense rather than having to dig deep into Windows to find the ancient Disk Cleanup Manager utility.
Microsoft has never managed to make a mark in social media or done a particularly good job of handling contacts in Windows 10. In this latest Windows 10 iteration it tries yet again to give it a go. The result is the somewhat useful My People feature.
My People was originally slated for the April 2017 Windows 10 Creators Update but missed that deadline. Given its modest capabilities, it’s hard to see why it took Microsoft so long to build it. It lets you pin contacts to the Windows taskbar, and then communicate with them without having to open a separate app.
To use it, click the People button on the right side of the taskbar. (If the button isn’t visible, right-click the taskbar and from the screen that appears, and select the Show People button.) The first time you use the app, a Get Started button appears. Click it, then click People at the top of the screen that appears. On top of the screen are a list of people you’ve frequently contacted. Click a contact to pin him or her to the taskbar. (To pin other contacts, click “Find and pin contacts” at the bottom of the screen. That leads to a search box that lets you search for contacts to pin.)
Once that’s done, the contact is pinned to the taskbar. (To unpin a contact, right-click it and select “Unpin from taskbar.”) You’ll now be able to communicate with him or her without having to open a separate app such as Mail or Skype. Just click the icon for the person with whom you want to communicate, and in the contact information page that opens, choose the app you want to use. You’ll be able to get in touch from right inside the contact info page.
Also useful is that you can scroll through your history of communications with the contact. You’ll see all messages you two have exchanged in a threaded list. It includes communications such as Skype video chats and instant messages, not just email.
All this is to the good. But there’s a drawback as well. You can only pin three people directly to the taskbar. When you pin more than that, you’ll have to click the People icon to see them, making the feature less useful because it’s more difficult to get to.
Also, the more I used the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, the less often I found myself using My People. That’s because I communicate with far more than a small handful of people on a daily basis, and I found it much easier to go to my email inbox to see all my new mail, for example, rather than have to check with different people separately using My People. This is, of course, a personal preference, but I ended up unpinning contacts after several days of usage. However, if there are a few people you communicate with quite frequently, you’ll probably find it helpful.
Linking iPhones and Android phones to Windows 10
Microsoft recognizes that Windows Phone (a.k.a. Windows Mobile) is a lost cause and has stopped adding features to the platform. After all, the most recent figures from market research firm Kantar Worldpanel show the mobile operating system’s sales market share nearly vanishing, with a 1.3% market share in the U.S., and lower than that in most places around the world — for example, 1% in Great Britain and Mexico, 1.2% in Germany and 0% in China.
So in the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, Microsoft has bowed to reality and is allowing Windows 10 to sync with iPhones and Android phones — in a limited way.
At its Build 2017 developers conference in May, Microsoft highlighted an ambitious new feature in the Fall Creators Update. Called Timeline, it keeps track of all your activities — emails, web browsing, apps you’re using, documents you’re working on, etc. Using a visual timeline interface, you can jump back in time to any of those activities. A related feature called Pick Up Where You Left Off leverages Cortana to keep track of the files you work on, both on your PC and mobile devices. When you move from one device to another, it asks if you want to keep working on the files. If you do, it opens the files and brings you to the exact location you were working on last.
Just two months after the conference, however, Microsoft said that Timeline would not be included in the Fall Creators Update after all. Instead, the Fall Creators Update includes two less powerful ways to connect iOS and Android devices to Windows 10.
One feature notifies you on your PC when you’ve been working on Office files on your iOS or Android device, so that you can then open it on your PC. (This is a feature of Office, not Cortana.) I tried it with various Word and PowerPoint files, and it worked fine, in a limited way. Go to the Action Center, and you’ll see a list of Office files you’ve recently opened on your mobile devices. Click any file to open it on your PC. However, it doesn’t open the file to the exact location where you left off.
People who don’t work on Office files on their mobile devices (like me) have no reason to use it. And those who do work on Office files on mobile devices could well use it, but given that it doesn’t open to the location where you were last working, it’s less useful than it should be.
The other new feature lets you start web browsing on your iOS or Android phone, and when you get to your PC, you can open those web pages up on your PC. To start syncing, go to Settings > Phone, click Add a phone, then type in the number of the phone you want to link. A text link gets sent to your mobile phone. Click the link and you’ll be sent to an app to download. Then install the app.
Next, when you’re browsing the web on your phone and want to have the URL open in your PC web browser, click the Share icon at the bottom of the phone’s browser screen, then tap More and look for the “Continue on PC” setting from the screen that appears. Turn the slider next to it to On and click Done at the top of the screen. That turns the app on. You only have to do this once. From this point on, when you click the Share button when browsing the web on your phone, the Continue on PC icon appears among the sharing options. (Note: These instructions are for the iPhone; the Android version may differ slightly.)
When you tap on the Continue on PC icon, a screen pops up that lists all the devices you’ve logged into. Tap the device you want to send the web page to, and the URL gets sent. Or at least it’s supposed to. In practice, I found this feature problematic. At first it didn’t work at all — the phone couldn’t locate my Windows PC. I found out after investigation that I needed to be signed into Cortana on my PC in order for it to work. I had already signed into my Windows account, but I also had to sign in separately to Cortana.
Once I did that, the URL was sent, but in my iPhone I received the message “We hit an error but we’ll save this in your PC’s Action Center.” The message was, indeed, sent to Action Center. It read “Resume browsing a page from phone” along with the title of the web page. I clicked it and the URL opened in my browser.
However, the feature remained flaky, no matter how often I used it. Sometimes the alert appeared on the lower-right of my desktop, just above the taskbar. Sometimes it appeared only in the Action Center. And I found an even bigger problem: When I clicked the notification, the web page opened in Microsoft Edge, not my default browser, which I had set as Chrome.
My conclusion: This feature deserves a big thumbs-down. It’s hard to get working (and I never managed to get it working quite properly), and it won’t open pages in your default browser. Beyond that, it lets you send only a single web page at a time. But in a typical browsing session, you’ll have multiple pages open, not just a single one, and you can’t send an entire browsing session of multiple pages. That makes it not particularly useful. If you do want to share entire browsing sessions between PCs and mobile phones, you can instead use Chrome, which has that capability built in. So I have no plans to use the Windows 10 phone-PC browsing sync again.
A final note: Microsoft has recently launched a preview version of an Android app called Microsoft Launcher, which among other things, is supposed to let you start working on a document on your Android device, and then continue working on it on your Windows 10 Fall Creators Update PC. This is one more indication that Microsoft knows it needs to bring Windows closer to iOS and Android, given the failure of Windows Phone. Another piece of evidence is that the company has recently released early test versions of Edge for both iOS and Android.
Fluent Design for the Windows Shell
Microsoft continues to fiddle with the finer points of Windows 10’s appearance in the Fall Creators Update. The update incorporates Microsoft’s new design system and guidelines, called Fluent Design. Fluent Design has been applied to what’s called the Windows Shell, the main interface including the Start Menu, File Explorer, the taskbar and Action Center, among other Windows features. So far, the changes are subtle. Overall, transitions are smoother, and it’s supposed to be easier to resize windows, although I haven’t noticed any difference.
The main difference is the transparency effect in window backgrounds, menus and throughout the interface, although in some cases the interface is less transparent than previously. For example, the Start Menu is now less transparent, not more. That’s because of the use of a tool called Acrylic Material, which adds an opaque effect designed to add depth to the interface.
For me, it’s much ado about nothing, but design geeks could well be thrilled with the changes.
Improvements to Cortana
In the four-way battle of virtual assistants with Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant, Cortana doesn’t get much respect. So Microsoft has done some work to improve Cortana, although not in a dramatic way.
The best change is that Cortana results are now displayed in a scrollable flyout panel to its right. You won’t have to click a result to launch your web browser; instead, the results are right there in what’s in essence a mini-browser. I found this saves a great deal of time and makes Cortana more of a self-contained assistant rather than a tool that sends you out to the web for detailed information.
Cortana can now lock Windows, sign you out and shut down or turn off your PC. Say things such as “Hey, Cortana, lock PC” and it will do your bidding. You can also do all this from the lock screen, without having to log into Windows. And you can do more with Cortana from the lock screen as well, including making notes to yourself, creating reminders and more.
Cortana also has more intelligence built in. For example, you’ll be able to snap a picture of a poster of an event, and Cortana will detect the dates on it and ask if you want to create a reminder to attend the event.
And Cortana’s settings are easier to get to, because they’re accessible from the main Settings app as well as by selecting Settings when you’re using Cortana. And the settings are much clearer and more logically organized, with four types of settings: Talk to Cortana, Permissions & History, Notifications, and More details.
Beefed up security and privacy
In an increasingly dangerous digital world in which Windows has long been the most popular attack vector, Microsoft focused a great deal of effort on beefing up security in this version of Windows. Perhaps the most important is one you won’t physically see: the removal of the extremely insecure and much-hacked SMBv1 networking protocol. A version of this protocol has been around in one way or another for nearly 30 years, beginning back in the ancient days of DOS, and has hung on despite its inherent insecurity. It was exploited by hackers in two of the biggest global ransomware attacks of all time, WannaCry and Petya.
Microsoft has long known that keeping this protocol around is a bad idea. Ned Pyle, principal program manager in the Microsoft Windows Server High Availability and Storage group, wrote in a blog more than a year ago, in September 2016: “Stop using SMB1. Stop using SMB1. STOP USING SMB1! ... The original SMB1 protocol is nearly 30 years old, and like much of the software made in the 80’s, it was designed for a world that no longer exists. A world without malicious actors, without vast sets of important data, without near-universal computer usage. Frankly, its naivete is staggering when viewed though modern eyes.”
In the Fall Creators Update, SMB1 is finally being put out to pasture … sort of. It won’t be included on clean Windows 10 installs, but SMBv1 components will remain on Windows machines that already have the protocol installed and are being upgraded. So it’s not quite completely gone, but this is a good first step.
Beyond that, the Windows Defender Security Center, the all-in-one app for keeping Windows secure, also gets an upgrade, including the Windows Defender Exploit Guard, which takes a variety of features from a retired enterprise secrurity tool called the Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET) and embeds them directly into Windows. These include intrusion rules and policies to protect against a variety of threats, notably zero-day exploits.
There’s also a new anti-ransomware capability called Controlled Folder Access, in which only approved apps can get access to Windows system files and data folders. Microsoft determines which apps get access, but you can customize that. To turn the feature on, in the Windows Defender Security Center select “Virus & threat protection” > “Virus & threat protection settings,” then scroll down to “Controlled folder access” and move the slider to On. When you do that, you’ll also be able to customize how it works, including changing which folders should be protected and which apps should be allowed to access them.
Privacy is top of mind for a lot of people; there’s been some small improvement in the way that Windows handles it in this update. When you install an app from the Microsoft Store (the new name for the Windows Store in the update), you’ll be warned about what kinds of devices and capabilities it needs to access, such as your camera, microphone, contacts and calendar. You can then grant the app permission or deny it. Afterwards, you can change the permissions for any app by going to Settings > Privacy and then going to Microphone, Contacts, Calendar and so on and changing the permissions there.
Less-than-compelling Edge tweaks
Ever since it was introduced, Windows 10’s Edge has been the get-no-respect browser. Even though it’s the default browser for Windows 10, as of August 2017, only 17.7% of Windows 10 users ran Edge as their main browser, down from 39% when the browser debuted in 2015.
So Microsoft continues to enhance Edge, hoping to gain market share. As with previous improvements to the browser, however, the changes introduced in the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update aren’t particularly significant or compelling. If you didn’t use Edge before the Fall Creators Update, you’re unlikely to use it after.
Edge’s underwhelming Favorites handling has been improved. You can now more easily work with Favorites in a directory tree and edit their URLs. And the few people who may be enticed to switch to Edge from their existing browser can easily import their bookmarks into Edge.
Edge’s PDF-reading and EPUB e-books capabilities have been improved. You can now annotate both PDFs and e-books, and use ink-based notes when you do so. Edge can also now fill in PDF forms. And if you like your browser to read to you, you’ll be happy to hear that Edge can read PDFs, e-books and web pages out loud.
Microsoft has also added a feature to Edge that Microsoft’s earlier browser Internet Explorer had in Windows 8 — the ability to pin web pages to the taskbar. Another less-than-groundbreaking change is the ability to run Edge in full-screen mode, something other browsers have supported for years. And Microsoft claims that Edge renders pages faster, helped by a new version of EdgeHTML, the browser's rendering engine. In practice, I didn’t notice a difference.
All those are moderately useful improvements. But perhaps the browser’s most glaring drawback hasn’t been fixed: As I write this, Edge has only about 70 extensions available, even though it has been around for more than two years. Chrome and Firefox both have thousands of them.
The upshot: Edge remains inferior to the most popular browser, Chrome; nothing in this update has changed that.
There have been a host of other, more minor changes as well. Those who use pens for inking will be happy to see there’s a new “Find My Pen” feature that shows you on a map the last place you used your pen, in case you lose it. Of course, that only goes so far, because you could have placed the pen somewhere when not using it, and this feature won’t help with that.
Microsoft also has something for an emoji-mad world in the update: A slew of new emojis as well as a simple way to enter them. Press the Windows key and the semicolon key simultaneously, and an emoji screen pops up.
The Action Center has also gotten a small, though useful, facelift. It now more clearly indicates the origin of notifications and groups them — for example, creating separate groups for Twitter posts, Skype requests, and so on.
Microsoft continues to bet that mixed reality (a.k.a. augmented reality) will be the Next Big Thing, and so it has added new mixed reality features in this update. With one, you can create 3D objects in Paint 3D, which was introduced in the previous Creators Update, then use the objects in mixed reality by combining them with photos that you take on your PC’s camera. In addition, the new Story Remix feature in the Photos app helps you create slideshows from your pictures and lets you add 3D objects from Microsoft’s Remix 3D database for more mixed reality fun. Finally, when the Fall Creators Update ships, a slew of companies plan to release Windows Mixed Reality headsets.
You can now also fine-tune the way that Windows, Office and Windows Store updates are delivered to your PC. New settings in Delivery Optimization (get there from Settings > Update & Security > Windows Update > Advanced Options > Delivery Optimization) let you set download and upload limits for updates. Click Advanced options to limit the amount of bandwidth used for downloading updates in the background, the amount of bandwidth used to upload updates to other PCs, and a total monthly upload limit.
And if your desktop apps have ever gotten blurry after you’ve switched displays and you’ve had to reboot your PC to fix the problem, you’ll be pleased with this new fix: Just restart the app. Voila — blurriness is gone. Or so Microsoft says. I haven’t had the problem with my desktop apps, so I couldn’t test out this feature myself.
Anyone who likes to peek under the hood to see how Windows is performing gets a nice little gift in the Task Manager. It now tracks GPU performance in the same way it had already done for CPU, RAM, disk access and networking. Every GPU in your PC shows up on the Performance tab, and you can track its usage there. And over on the Processes tab, you’ll be told which processes access which GPU.
Gamers will be especially pleased to hear that the company claims it’s fixed performance problems with games. Ever since the first Windows 10 Creators Update in April 2017, gamers have complained of sluggish performance, stuttering games, and dropped frames. This update is supposed to fix them. There are several other minor gaming improvements as well, including the addition of a toggle to the Game bar for turning Game mode on and off.
Finally, Microsoft is touting improvements in performance and stability, notably a power-throttling feature that reduces the CPU resources consumed by background apps, which should improve battery life on laptops, according to Microsoft.
What IT needs to know about the Fall Creators Update
The big security news for IT is the removal of the notoriously insecure SMBv1 networking protocol, as outlined in the “Beefed up security and privacy” section above. In this update, SMB1 won’t be included on clean Windows 10 installs, but SMBv1 components will remain if you do in-place upgrades on PCs that already have the component installed. If you have machines that include SMBv1, you’ll want to protect them. Follow this advice from Microsoft to disable SMBv1 on existing machines.
In addition, Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection (ATP), a suite of tools introduced in Windows 10 that helps enterprise customers protect their users and networks against threats and respond to attacks, is being beefed up. Among other things, it will run on the Windows Server OS. This update also takes key features from Microsoft’s retired Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET) and builds them directly into Windows 10 in a new feature called Windows Defender Exploit Guard.
Also part of ATP is Windows Defender Application Guard for Microsoft Edge, available only for Windows 10 Enterprise Edition. It was initially planned to be released along with the Windows 10 Creators Update released last spring, but wasn’t quite ready for prime time. With it, when a user visits an unknown or untrusted site, Edge gets launched inside a virtual machine using Hyper-V. In essence, it’s a new instance of Windows with its own memory, local storage, stored credentials, network endpoints and other settings determined by administrators. In that way, if malware tries to launch, it should be confined to the virtual machine and can’t harm the PC or spread throughout the network. The virtual machine and any malware it contains are discarded when the browsing session ends.
If you’re interested in learning more about the enterprise security features in the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, read Microsoft's blog post “Announcing end-to-end security features in Windows 10.”
Some big news for IT over the summer was the release of Windows AutoPilot, a suite of cloud-based tools designed to make it easier to deploy and manage Windows 10 PCs. Windows AutoPilot also enhances Microsoft’s mobile device management capabilities and adds device health features to Windows Analytics, which offers insights into how IT can better deploy and support Windows 10.
Overall, Windows AutoPilot improves self-service deployments of Windows 10 PCs. Microsoft says the tool does away with many of the time-consuming tasks typically required to deploy a new Windows 10 device, such as building images and gathering drivers. When new Windows 10 devices are purchased, information about them is sent to an enterprise so that IT can start configuration in the cloud before the computers are even received. Users can then complete the deployment themselves by logging in and following prompts. It works with Azure Active Directory (AAD) and Intune’s mobile device management (MDM) services.
In the Fall Creators Update, Microsoft says Windows AutoPilot will also improve MDM by making it easier to configure baseline security settings such as account and logon policies. It can also configure Windows Firewall rules. Beyond that, it adds new kiosk configuration and management features. Other enhancements include a new reset feature that maintains the MDM management and AAD connection, enhanced personalization capabilities and self-service Active Directory domain join.
Windows Analytics’ new Device Health tool gathers information from how PCs perform in an enterprise, and based on that, identifies potential issues and outlines steps to resolve them. Microsoft claims, “This reduces helpdesk calls and support costs, saving time and money.”
Enterprises also get more control over what kind of information Windows Analytics gathers for the IT staff. The current Windows Analytics service gathers information from each PC about hardware and software installed, crashes and other data that can help admins keep computers running more smoothly. In order to improve users’ privacy, IT staff can limit the information collected by Windows Analytics to only diagnostic data.
Read the Microsoft blog post “Delivering the Modern IT promise with Windows 10” for more details about Windows AutoPilot, Windows Analytics and more.
Finally, IT admins should also know that users can set bandwidth limits for downloading Windows updates using the new Delivery Optimization capabilities described earlier in this story.
The bottom line
Like the first Windows 10 Creators Update, the Fall Creators Update doesn’t dramatically change the way Windows 10 works or looks. Microsoft is continuing its stay-the-course approach to its twice-a-year updates. The Windows 10 you’ll see before the update is largely the Windows 10 you’ll see after the update.
Still, there are some useful changes, notably OneDrive Files On-Demand, some nice Cortana improvements and better security. Edge, however, hasn’t been much improved, and the new feature linking Android and iOS phones to Windows 10 is largely a bust.
This all adds up to a modest improvement in Windows — not a bad thing, considering that Windows 10 is a solid, stable operating system free of the bugs and design disasters that bedeviled Windows 8.
As for how Microsoft will further develop Windows in the next six-month update, code-named Redstone 4, the Timeline feature that was dropped from the Fall Creators Update will most likely be included. Beyond that, time will tell. As we did this update, we’ll be with you every step of the way, reporting on every single build as it’s released.