A year after it was first launched, Windows 10 continues to evolve. Now, as the product moves from its “free to everyone” model, the company has released the Anniversary Update. This builds on Windows 10’s most successful features while significantly changing those that users have found to be annoying, irritating or just plain missing.

Back at release, it became obvious that Windows 10 is the last big monolithic update to Microsoft’s key operating system. This will be the last time users will have to undergo the upheaval of reinstalling a major version of Windows. The last time they’ll have to worry about backwards-compatibility, just to keep up with the bleeding edge. The last time they’ll have to make a decision over whether to install this version or wait until the next one in the hope that things will get better. There will be no Windows 11.

This means upgrading to Windows 10 – which you should have done by now – was something of a leap of faith. So does the Anniversary Update justify that faith?

What’s new in the Windows 10 Anniversary Update?

Microsoft has scattered tweaks throughout Windows 10 for the Anniversary Update, but there are three areas it has concentrated heavily on: Edge; Cortana; and ink support.

Microsoft Edge: The best browser around

When it was first released, many people claimed Edge was too simple, but it’s always been responsive and easy to use. Now it’s gained support for extensions, too. There aren’t many of these about yet – yes, AdBlock is there, but please whitelist us if you’re using it – but we’d expect this to grow over time.

Extensions are installed through the Windows Store, as you’d expect, and there’s no option to install extensions independently of the store. There isn’t much to say about extensions at this point, except to say that they work, and that there’s so few of them at this point that we were able to try out every single available one.

Edge keeps the nice-but-not-vital features it had at launch, including an annotation feature that lets you scribble with a stylus onto a web page, or type into sticky notes, and save or share your markup for future reference – and across Windows 10 devices.

There’s Cortana integration. Visit a restaurant’s website and you’ll see a Cortana prompt in the address bar: “I’ve got directions, hours and more.” Click and the details appear in a pop-up pane at the side of the window.

The browser is more secure than the old Internet Explorer, benefitting from the sandboxing built into the Universal app framework. As a result, it’s far less vulnerable to hackers and drive-by downloads. So confident is Microsoft in the robustness of its new browser that it’s offering a “bug bounty” of up to $15,000 for anyone who manages to expose a security vulnerability.

Edge’s biggest advantage over Chrome, however, remains its parsimonious approach to your battery, and this is an area Microsoft claims to have pushed even further in the Windows 10 Anniversary Update.

Edge’s advantage is partly down to the appalling state of memory management in Chrome, but Microsoft should be applauded in realising this is a priority for users and giving it some focus. As a test, I installed Chrome and did my regular work for a day, then did the same using Edge. Our workflow is heavily web-based, as all of our content originates in Google Drive and we use Google for calendar and mail. We also use other apps, including Trello and Slack, which are web-native.

The difference between the two browsers was huge. I got a full hour and a half more battery life out of the Surface Pro 4 with Edge compared with using Chrome. Unless you’re plugged in all the time, that will make a big difference to your working day.

Cortana’s new features

Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-driven digital assistant, was one of the flagship features for Windows 10. You can invoke it by hitting the Windows key and typing (as it understands type-written commands as well as voice), or with a three-fingered tap on your touchpad (assuming your touchpad supports multitouch gestures). You can also optionally set up Cortana to appear whenever you say “hey, Cortana” – and this is where the biggest change in Anniversary Update comes in.

You can now invoke Cortana when your computer is locked. Turn on the option, and you don’t even need to log in to do things such as adding reminders, checking appointments and even sending emails.

This is obviously a useful feature, although if you want to do anything with the information it gives you, you’ll still need to log in. The biggest problem is actually training yourself not to automatically reach for the on switch to wake your computer up. Several times I caught my hand heading to the keyboard when I could have used Cortana to check something from the lockscreen.

And that “cultural” issue remains Cortana’s biggest issue. Speaking to a computer in the average open-plan office will still turn heads, and that’s assuming that the overall hubbub doesn’t confuse the speech recognition. Cortana is a great piece of technology, but for corporate users it’s likely to get less use than it should, at least in speech-recognition mode.

As with previous Cortana releases, the system finds programs and documents, but it can now also respond to other types of request: type in a calculation or a phrase such as “weather Sheffield” and results will pop up directly from your taskbar.

It’s a clever way to dissuade people from going to Google for simple errands, but it’s not yet smart enough: after a few requests such as “show me bus times” yielded only dumb Bing searches, I found myself falling back on the browser.

The Anniversary Update sees Cortana get a little smarter in other areas, however. For example, it (I can’t call it “she”) can now save and recall useful information such as your frequent flier numbers, and you can add photos to reminders to make them more visual.

Reminders are now synced across devices, too, so if you’re away from your desk, your Windows Phone will tell you about a reminder you set from your laptop. If you’re in the US, you can also use the Cortana app for Android or iOS to get reminders – but Microsoft has yet to bring out the app outside the US.

Inking: The future of Windows?

Microsoft must look at the sales of the iPad Pro – particularly into enterprise – and experience pangs of jealousy. Although Bill Gates didn’t invent pen-based computing, the company championed it throughout the early 2000s, and even through the Tablet PC years when, to be honest, the technology hadn’t quite caught up with the vision. Then Johnny-come-lately Apple appears with its Pencil and everyone acts like no-one has created a stylus before.

The truth is that Windows has had pen support for a long, long time, and in the 24 years since it released the first pen-supporting version, Microsoft has become really rather good at pen interfaces. The problem it has faced is twofold: not enough pen devices out in the wild, and not enough developer support for those devices.

The Windows 10 Anniversary Update can’t fix either of these issues on its own, but it can at least improve the pen experience for those who use it, and find ways to encourage users to use the pen more often.

To that end, it’s created the Windows Ink Workspace, a little icon on the taskbar which reveals three new features: Sticky Notes, Sketchpad and Screen Sketch.

I can already hear you mumbling about Sticky Notes. “That’s not new,” you’re saying, “and who uses them anyway?” The answer to the latter is “lots of people” – just take a trip around the average office and count the number of little yellow bits of paper around people’s screens.

And these Sticky Notes are more than just yellow blobs on your screen. You can, for the first time, ink on them as well as typing. And thanks to Cortana, they’re actually smart. Write “Call Bill tomorrow” and Cortana parses the writing and colours it. You then tap on it to create a reminder. It also works with certain kinds of information, for example flight numbers or phone numbers. If Cortana recognises something, it colours the text, and tapping on it lets you take actions, such as adding the phone number to your contacts.

In theory, this is great. In practice, I couldn’t get it to work. At present, this smart ink recognition feature only works with US English, with other languages to follow.

The other apps did work as expected, though. Sketchpad is a reasonably full-featured drawing application, which lets you draw with pen, pencil and highlighter tools. It also has a ruler you can draw lines against, and which you move around and rotate using multitouch. If that sounds familiar, it should: it’s borrowed directly from Apple’s iPad Pro Notes application and Adobe’s earlier Sketch app. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it certainly made me smile.

Screen Sketch is probably my favourite application in Ink Workspace. All it does is capture the screen and let you crop it, annotate it, and share it to other applications. I did this constantly, and found Screen Sketch incredibly smooth. It’s one of the small applications that ties together different parts of Windows – Ink, the Share charm – and makes something work really smoothly.

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