Image: Microsoft

At the end of March, Microsoft began delivering the same Windows 11 Insider builds to both Beta and Dev channels. This was the first sign that it’s in the process of finalizing what’s planned to be the first major update to Windows 11, 22H2.

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It’s important to remember that Windows 11 changes the familiar Windows servicing model used for Windows 10. Instead of two major releases each year, in Spring and in Fall, there’s going to be only one, along with regular updates that can refine the Windows 11 user experience without changing the underlying code.

The February 2022 update

We’ve already had one release in February 2022 that rolled out some of those refinements, adding support for Android apps running on Windows in the U.S., as well as improving the taskbar. Taskbar changes include a way of muting all windows when you’re in an online meeting using Teams. You can now click on an app’s hover preview to quickly share it with your meeting, speeding up access to documents and presentations. Other changes add a weather icon to the left of the taskbar, which also provides a shortcut for opening Windows 11’s widgets.

The February update swapped out two older apps for new versions, updating the venerable Media Player with a version that replaces Windows’ Groove music player at the same time, and providing the biggest update yet for the now Windows Store-delivered Notepad. The new Notepad brings in some Windows 11 interface features, as well as finally adding a dark mode.

Here comes 22H2

Now it’s time for the first set of big changes that mix updates to Windows core features and to its look and feel. Users on the Beta channel are already using preview builds of 22H2, with many of its new features.

Windows 11’s taskbar has had a lot of criticism, as it is a big change to the way Windows used to work. It’s slowly restoring familiar features, while adding new ones to support new devices and use cases. Perhaps the most obvious is an update that changes its look and behaviour when you switch a convertible laptop into tablet mode. This changes the taskbar into one that collapses into a status viewer when you’re not using it, while providing an expanded, touch-first option when you want to use it.

Other changes improve the Start menu, giving you the option of increasing or decreasing the number of pinned apps. Apps on the start menu can now be grouped into folders, so you’re able to bring all your Office apps together, for example, making more efficient use of Start’s limited space. You’ll also get a new Task Manager, and Microsoft is working on updates to File Explorer. These are planned to include support for tabs, which have appeared in some Dev channel builds though aren’t currently available. It’ll be interesting to see how tabbed Explorer windows work and how users take advantage of them.

Accessibility for everyone

A useful new feature, Live Captions, shows how accessibility tools can be used by anyone. Turning on Live Captions will convert any speech to text: in meetings, in videos, even from your PC’s microphone. Building on the speech recognition tools used in Azure, Live Captions need to be enabled from Settings, turning on a key stroke that toggles the process and downloading the necessary language files. It’s now only available in U.S. English, but additional language support will be added. Voice data is processed locally; it won’t be uploaded to the cloud.

More hardware-based security (if you start from scratch)

One new feature that has caused some confusion is the new Smart App Control. This builds on existing Windows 11 security features to ensure only trusted code runs on devices that have been set up to use this new feature. Apps running on managed devices need to be signed with trusted certificates and are checked against a cloud-managed security model that looks for signs that indicate malicious code. It’s a powerful tool, and one that many IT managers have been asking for, especially when backed up with an easy way to sign code.

However, where there is some confusion is that it can only be run on a freshly set up PC. Some people have misunderstood this to mean that the 22H2 release will reset PCs. This isn’t true. Yes, if you want the benefit of Smart App Control you will need to reset existing PCs or roll it out as part of a hardware refresh program. If you’re upgrading existing PCs with the 22H2 release they’ll get all the other features, just not this one.

It’s an approach that makes sense. You can’t run a tool like Smart App Control on a machine that may already be compromised by a rootkit or other malware; it can only run in a trusted environment, and the only trusted environment is one that’s never had software installed over and above the original Windows image.

Your PC and Cloud PC together

Windows 11’s many security features are a key reason for any upgrade, along with updates to the closely related Microsoft 365 platform. As the way we work changes, Windows needs to change to support those new working patterns. Hybrid work and work-from-home now require taking a very different approach to protecting applications and data, and Microsoft will be using the 22H2 release to bring its Cloud PC model and Windows 11 closer together.

Two planned features should help bridge the divide between PC and Cloud PC, allowing you to keep business data inside cloud-hosted virtual infrastructures, using Windows 11 PCs as endpoints for those Cloud PCs. Windows 365 Boot will support booting directly into a Cloud PC, bypassing personal data and applications. Users will go straight to their work content, with no way to copy data to their PC and no need to juggle licences to account for hybrid work. Alternatively, Windows 365 Switch will simplify switching between local PC and Cloud PC as and when users need to access cloud resources.

While it’s now only in the Dev channel, there’s another big change on the horizon: Microsoft is finally removing SMB1 file access support for new installs of the consumer-focused Home edition. This is the last Windows product to lose SMB1 support, and while anyone with Admin rights will be able to install the feature and upgrades will leave it in place, you may need to look at replacing old network hard drives that will lose connections in advance of the 22H2 release.

The beta release of 22H2 shows it’s not far away, and that most of the new features are already in place. Microsoft continues to double down on security, blending in cloud solutions with its focus on locking down hardware and applications. If you’re managing a Windows fleet, especially one that’s used by a hybrid workforce, it’s more than time to set up a test group of devices to see if the changes in this major update work for you and your users.

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