Windows 10 2004: Here are the new features you need to know about

The spring 2020 Windows 10 update is a few weeks away. Here are the top new features you can look forward to.

Microsoft's next Windows 10 release (2004) is just about cooked and ready to face the world. A longer than usual development cycle, coupled with an extended spell in the Windows Insider slow ring, has perhaps left most of us thinking that it's not as big an update as it might be.

That's not the case. Aligning Windows and Azure has shifted the timelines of Windows 10's development, at the same time as Microsoft has shifted to different support lifecycles for its spring and fall Windows releases, describing them as "a small fall update and a comprehensive spring update". With 30 months of enterprise support for the fall release, it's not surprising that most of Windows' feature updates are going to be in the spring release.

It's important to remember that Windows is about more than the user interface. An operating system used by nearly a billion people isn't always going to deliver updates that make your life easier. But you can be sure that they will be welcomed by a substantial portion of that enormous user base.

WSL 2 and Windows developers

One of the biggest changes is to a feature that's targeted at developers. The Windows Subsystem for Linux is about to get its biggest change yet, moving from a translation layer that converted Linux system calls to Windows system calls, to a virtual machine running Microsoft's own Linux kernel while still linking Linux and Windows file systems.

WSL 2 still runs from the Windows Terminal (with a new version due from the Windows Store in May), with the new kernel making it more compatible with Linux binaries. It boots fast, and shares memory and CPU without affecting Windows operations. The only real issue is a change in how it uses shared networking, which makes it harder to run Linux graphical applications. However it should be possible to add a startup script that exports the right value every time you launch a WSL 2 instance.

Windows 10's incremental approach to development means that many changes won't be obvious. However, plenty of them provide useful tweaks to previously rolled out features. For example, there's now the option of renaming virtual desktops, so you can label them by task. Renaming is easy as right-clicking the desktop thumbnail.

Updates and installation

Admins managing a fleet of Windows 10 PCs will get help from the 2004 release to control the amount of bandwidth needed for updates. Using Delivery Optimization, you can set an absolute value for throttling bandwidth -- not only for background downloads like updates, but also for foreground downloads, like those from the Windows Store. It can be managed from either MDM or group policy, or directly from Windows 10's settings app.

If you've deleted your Windows recovery partition to save space, 2004 can help with device resets. You'll be able to download the necessary files from the cloud rather than a local disk. That does mean that resets will require a connection to the internet and may take longer to run than with local files.

Security remains an important aspect of Windows updates, and Microsoft has been working on ways to reduce its dependencies on passwords. The 2004 release will add support for passwordless sign-in, making sure all Microsoft accounts use multifactor authentication, like Windows Hello. You can even use your PIN to sign into safe mode, ensuring troubleshooting doesn't need passwords too.

SEE: Windows 10 Start menu hacks (TechRepublic Premium)

Windows Sandbox makes a great security and testing tool, and its new configuration file makes it easier to manage startup. You can use this to set up access to shared folders, to a vGPU, networking, and supporting startup scripts. Shared folders can be marked as read only, allowing quick access to suspicious files, and scripts can force the Sandbox image to download and install specific applications, ready for use.

Usefully, Microsoft is making the option to restart apps you were running before you restarted Windows easier to find (previously this option was tied to the "Use my sign-in info to automatically finish setting up my device" option under Sign-in options in accounts settings). It's now off by default, including for UWP apps, which start minimized and suspended. Under Settings > Accounts > Sign-in options, turn on "Automatically save my restartable apps when I sign out and restart them after I sign in." under "Restart apps" to change this behaviour.

Networking and system

Pairing Bluetooth hardware can be an issue, and Microsoft is trying to simplify the process in this Windows release. If you've got Bluetooth hardware that supports Microsoft's Swift Pair, put the device in pairing mode, bring it close to your PC, and you get a notification popup that shows the device that's trying to pair. All you need to do is click and your PC and device are connected.

Wireless and wired networks get some tweaks, too, with more useful network status information. You can see all available connection interfaces on the Status page with integrated data usage and the single one in use at the top. If you need to block updates it's easy to quickly use this view to mark a connection as metered.

Some networking features are useful: Windows 10 will use the ONVIF standard to connect to wired and wireless IP cameras on your network. Once connected they will be available through the Windows camera app, for snapshots and recordings.

Microsoft is providing updates that help with Windows' graphics and modern GPUs. You can now see the GPU temperature in Windows' Task Manager with discrete GPUs that use a 2.4 or higher WDDM driver. If you're not sure if you have the right driver version, use 'win-r dxdiag' to check. Gamers will find that there are new DirectX 12 features, including DirectX Raytracing tier 1.1, Mesh Shader, and Sampler Feedback.

windows-10-2004-cortana.jpg

In Windows 10 2004, Cortana becomes a separate, more business-focused, app.

Image: Microsoft

Search and Cortana

One of the more obvious changes is to Cortana. With a new search box in Windows 10, Cortana is being relegated to a separate app updated from the Microsoft Store. It's getting a new focus -- less for consumers, and more for business users. Currently it supports lists and reminders, assisting with email and calendars, and launching apps. Its search features are now handled by Windows, although it will soon add support for voice-driven quick searches. Microsoft showed a video of its vision for what the new Cortana could be at Build in 2019, with support for continuous conversations and deep integration with Microsoft 365 services. It's not there yet, but it's certainly on the way. Local search in File Explorer gets a boost too, with Windows Search providing faster access to your files. It's now able to provide spell-checking and uses less CPU.

Microsoft has been adding more and more natural language tooling to Windows 10, branching out from Cortana, and it now supports dictation across many common languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, and Chinese. This works in any text field, although you may need to download the appropriate speech resources to use the feature. It's easy enough to use: click in a text box and press WIN + H.

There's a lot in the next Windows release, and we're only scraping the top of the list of features. What's clear after having run the current build on both Intel and ARM devices is that Microsoft has done a lot to work on the stability of its flagship OS, at the same time as adding many new features and improvements. As its long incubation period comes to an end, it looks as though 2004 could be one of the most trouble-free Windows 10 updates yet.

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