October is here, and it’s time for the second 2020 release of Windows 10. As pioneered in 2019, this is a smaller release than the 2004 update, adding stability features and prioritising a longer support model than the consumer- and early adopter-focused update. With 30 months of servicing, the H2 builds have a closer fit with common enterprise support lifecycles.
That shift in Windows development models worked well in 2019 and looks set to perform similarly in 2020. Microsoft was justly criticised for delaying the 20H1 release for many PCs, including its flagship Surface hardware, while it worked out some compatibility issues, but that won’t be the case with 20H2, as it’s built on top of the now fully available earlier release. In fact, if you’re already running version 2004 you have most of the bits for 20H2 already installed as part of the monthly cumulative updates. All that’s needed is for Microsoft to send an update that throws the right registry switches to turn on the new features.
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It’s important to note that, if you are using PCs that are managed by companies that have opted-in to only accept updates from the annual H2 cycle, then you won’t have the 20H2 bits pre-installed, and any update will require a full OS update rather than the quicker process for existing 2004 users. However, you will still get the benefit of telemetry from those users, as it will have allowed Microsoft to keep issues to a minimum — especially hardware and driver problems that might otherwise prevent a successful install.
So what’s in the 20H2 release? The obvious changes are a new Start menu and the switch to the new Chromium-based Edge as the default browser.
Refreshing icons and Start
Windows 10’s Start Menu has changed a lot since the initial release, and 20H2’s change is perhaps the biggest yet, as it’s intended to show off Microsoft’s new Fluent Design icons as well as improving support for Windows 10’s Dark and Light modes. Most of Microsoft’s own applications now have icons that support the new modes, and the resulting combination of translucent tiles and new icon designs works surprisingly well. The new Fluent icons are used in the taskbar and Start menu app list, for a more consistent look-and-feel.
There’s still an option to use your own colour scheme, but you’ll have to switch to dark mode first before working through the customisation features in the Settings app. In practice, it’s a lot easier to switch to one of the two default modes, as they’re where Microsoft will be concentrating its user experience work in future.
Microsoft has tweaked Notifications, removing the annoying notification that popped up when you switched into focus mode. The layout of the notification bar and notification pop-ups is improved, with icons to help you identify what application generated which notification. Similarly, the new desktop-focused tablet mode becomes the default, removing one of the last vestiges of Windows 8’s UI. You won’t find tablet mode on desktops or laptops without touch support, so you can’t get into it by accident on systems that don’t work with it.
New Edge by default
The new Edge has evolved a lot since its first public release in 2019. It’s a solid browser, and as it’s based on the same Chromium open-source code base as Google’s Chrome you should find fewer compatibility issues with web applications. Microsoft has added many of its own features to Edge, including Collections, a way to save groups of tabs and share them with colleagues. There’s support for older sites on your network with an embedded Internet Explorer 11 mode that launches IE in an Edge tab. IE Mode is only for intranet sites, and you need to set up and manage a list of addresses. It’s intended as an interim only, while you update sites for the new browser.
If you prefer the older EdgeHTML-based version of Edge, you need to set the appropriate registry settings and group policies before any updates install, otherwise the new Edge will be installed with the old browser no longer accessible to users. There is a new first-use experience that handles account migration from older browsers, including non-Microsoft browsers, so users will need to be aware that this will happen and how to cancel account migrations if they prefer to stick with Chrome or Firefox as their default browsers.
The new Edge gets deeper integration into Windows 10 too, with support for viewing and navigating browser tabs in the Windows 10 Alt+Tab task switcher. You will see all current tabs by default or, if you prefer, you can tune the number of recent tabs shown in the Settings Multitasking section.
The Settings migration continues
Windows 10’s Settings app is intended to replace the old Windows Control Panel over time. It’s been a slow process, with one or two settings moving over with each update. This time most of the changes are in the core System section of the app. Now you can drill into advanced settings for displays, changing refresh rates where possible. At the same time, there’s now the option of copying system details from the About section, making it easier for users to submit information as part of service requests. That means that the old System section of the Control Panel is now gone, as all its features are in Settings.
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New installs get an improved set of default applications in the taskbar. If you’re logging in with a Microsoft account, Windows 10 uses your choice of services and devices to pin icons — if you’re using an Android phone and have linked it to your Windows account, it will automatically pin Your Phone, for example. If you’re updating an existing install, your taskbar icons won’t change.
Ready to test
Microsoft recently made the current preview builds of 20H2 available for use in commercial pre-release validation. It’s a clear sign that Microsoft has finalised the features in its release build, with another being that recent Insider builds in both beta and release preview channels have only contained bug fixes. It can be downloaded from Windows Update, hosted in WSUS, or installed from ISO.
If you’re planning a roll out, it’s worth installing the previews now as part of your test and certification programme. Any tests should investigate 20H2’s new IT pro tooling, which adds more classic Group Policy settings to Windows 10’s MDM support, making it easier to manage devices with a lighter touch via Intune.
Building on several months of general availability of 2004, this is a stable and effective build, and should work well as an upgrade over 1909 or any 2004 systems you may have running. The new features make sense, and the user experience update with new icons and Start menu tiles give Windows 10 a much-anticipated refresh.
It’s been 5 years and 10 updates since the debut of Windows 10, and this latest release looks to give enterprises a mix of new features and stability across all Windows platforms. With a major upgrade to WSL 2 in the current Dev channel, it looks like there’s a lot more to come in 2021, so starting a roll out of 20H2 as soon as possible makes a lot of sense.
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