We're now about halfway through the release cycle for the next semi-annual version of Windows 10, due in March or April of 2019. Instead of a Halo-themed codename, Microsoft has been referring to this as Windows 10 19H1, meaning it's the release due in the first half of 2019, with 18 months of support. There's just one public 'bug bash' planned for this release, which will officially be called 1903, in late January.
One of the biggest changes to Windows 10, the Chromium-powered version of Edge, isn't going to be in 1903, and there's no sign that the Sets feature tested as part of the previous Windows Insider cycle is ready yet, either.
Early builds have had the usual mix of interesting new features and annoying bugs. We've seen a number of 'green screen' crashes, for example, and the new 'disconnected' Internet icon has sometimes shown up when all we did was disconnect from a VPN, while the Edge browser showing PDFs at a small fraction of their size for several builds was particularly annoying. Still, the build quality is about what we'd expect at this stage of development.
Given the emphasis on quality following issues with 1809, and the way the longer three-year support cycle will focus enterprise interest on autumn releases, 1903 seems to be shaping up to be a mix of general improvements (including Retpoline kernel patches to protect against Spectre and Meltdown) plus some relatively minor new features.
Look and feel
Small UI changes are continuing as Microsoft introduces its Fluent design language to more parts of Windows, including some much-needed improvements to the new printing dialog and a new 'light' theme that lightens the taskbar, Start menu, Action Center and other elements. That's not entirely successful: all-white icons like OneDrive become hard to see and if you've turned off transparency you end up with a very anodyne, flat grey.
More useful is the improved interface for the Windows-V clipboard history, which keeps a copy of text and images you've copied recently and even roams that between different PCs if you want.
If you use remote desktop or a dock (or change your display settings), some apps may look blurry on-screen. Since version 1803, Windows 10 has offered to fix them without you having to log out of Windows; that will now happen without Windows asking first (unless you turn off Fix scaling for apps under Settings / System / Display / Advanced scaling). You can right-click in Task Manager to add the new DPI Awareness detail column to see which of your apps are properly DPI aware.
SEE: System update policy template download (Tech Pro Research)
After several years, the screen brightness setting is finally back to being a slider in the action center rather than a set of buttons, and you can right-click to customise which quick actions you see here. If you've turned your brightness down by hand, unplugging a laptop will no longer make the screen switch to a default on-battery brightness level that's actually brighter than the setting.
Version 1903 will include support for the new characters in Emoji 12 including waffles, wheelchairs and kaomoji (Japanese text emoji) as well as symbols like © and Π. Annoyingly, you can't type to search the symbols section, which would make it far more useful.
The touch keyboard gets the same next-letter-prediction that made the Windows Phone keyboard so accurate. As you type, the touch target of different letters changes to make it easier to hit the letter you're likely to type next. Version 1809 added SwiftKey shape writing and text prediction to the touch keyboard, and that's now available for a wider range of countries. The languages are still English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian but they're available in Canada, India, Belgium, Portugal and Switzerland (as well as Spanish US). There are also keyboard and font improvements to better support a range of non-European languages.
More of the inbox apps can be uninstalled too, so if you don't want Groove Music, Movies & TV or Paint 3D you can remove them — along with 3D Viewer, Calculator, Calendar, Mail, Snip & Sketch, Sticky Notes and Voice Recorder. No news on Candy Crush, though...
Storage and search
It's always been possible to have Windows search all folders and drives, but turning that on has come with warnings. Enhanced search is now the recommended option, giving you full search from the Start menu, but because the initial indexing process uses a lot of resources it will still need to be turned on (under Settings > Cortana > Searching Windows) and the indexing will only start if the PC is plugged in. You'll see a warning that results may be incomplete until the initial index is finished, which can take hours or even days for a lot of files, so you'll want to warn users about the impact of turning this on.
Storage settings now shows a live list of where your disk space is going: click on individual categories to find ways to free up some of that space. For PCs that ship with or get a clean upgrade to 1903, some of that space (around 7GB on most systems) will be 'reserved storage' allocated to updates, temp files and system cache. This isn't extra space being used by Windows (it's the same space currently required for updates and app or OS needs) — it's just reserved so your drive doesn't get so full that Windows can't work properly. It will also get cleaned up automatically by Storage Sense so it doesn't grow over time (although if you enable optional features, that will increase the reserved space). Updates that need more disk space will use normal disk space too. This will have the most impact on PCs with very small drives, but blocking out this storage for the OS should mean they function better, even if there's less space available for files.
If you want to try out reserved storage to see the impact, you need to navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\ReserveManager in the Registry Editor, change the value of ShippedWithReserves to 1 and install the next available preview build (18298 or later). Look under Settings / System / Storage / Show more categories / System & reserve / Reserved storage.
Controlling updates becomes a little clearer (where your policies allow users to do this themselves): the option to Pause updates moves up to the top of the Windows Update page and Active Hours will now try to track when the PC is being used and not restart then (although you can still set specific protected hours if these are too regular to need to be detected). It's also easier to see when a PC needs to be rebooted to apply an update: the Power button on the Start menu gets an orange highlight, as does the Update and Restart command that applies the update. Making it easier to find these options should help reduce the numbers of times users are interrupted by updates.
Windows will also start running the built-in troubleshooters and fixing problems automatically, based on diagnostic data (so you'll want to consider this if you usually disable telemetry). The default under Settings / Update & Security / Troubleshoot / Recommended troubleshooting settings is 'Ask me before fixing problems', but you can change this to fix problems, with or without notifications.
Security and developer features
Add a phone number to a Microsoft account and you can use that to avoid ever adding a password to that account on Windows: you can get an SMS code to set up a new account with and then sign in using biometrics or a PIN (which can be alphanumeric, but unlike a password is stored securely in the TPM). You can also now set up security keys directly from Settings / Accounts / Sign-in options, along with other sign-in methods.
The new Windows Sandbox is an isolated desktop environment for trying out software or Windows changes without changing your existing setup or needing a VM. This is intended for developers and admins rather than as a way of isolating apps that you use regularly, and it has a lot of overhead because it has to download and install updates every time you create or access the sandbox. It also won't help if the installer requires a reboot. It's an interesting idea that needs much more development.
SEE: Mobile device security: A guide for business leaders (Tech Pro Research)
Elsewhere, if you hover over the microphone icon in the notification area of the taskbar, you'll see which app is using your microphone — double-click to see the privacy settings page for a list of apps that have used it. There's a similar privacy settings page for the camera too, where you can control what apps can use the camera and see which apps have taken pictures and when. If you have Application Guard turned on for Edge, you can manage camera and microphone use while browsing.
Improvements to the Console continue: they're marked as experimental and have to be turned on in the Terminal tab of the Properties page for your Console window.
You can now pick different cursor shapes and colours (including the very visible inverse of the background colour), as well as setting the foreground and background colours as RGB. And Notepad's default file format is now UTF-8 without a byte order mark.
All this adds up to a worthwhile but not particularly disruptive update. However, we may well see more small changes and improvements in preview builds before the feature list for 1903 is finalised.
- How to lock down the Settings app in Windows 10 (TechRepublic)
- How to use the Windows 10 troubleshooter to fix just about anything on your computer (TechRepublic)
- How to turn on the Microsoft Windows 10 firewall and modify its configuration settings (TechRepublic)
- Windows 10 privacy guide: How to take control (ZDNet)
- Clean out junk files in Windows 7, 8.1, and 10 (Download.com)
- 20 pro tips to make Windows 10 work the way you want (TechRepublic download)
- Microsoft Office 365 for business: Everything you need to know (ZDNet)
Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.