Software

Windows 10 from the Fast Ring: A look at the new features coming out of the Insider program

Microsoft's Insider program keeps rolling out new builds of Windows 10. What does the current state of the Fast Ring mean for the future of Windows 10?

It's coming up to three years since Microsoft launched Windows 10, in July 2015, and it's finally well into its 'Windows-as-a-Service' groove. The latest six-monthly release 1803, the April 2018 Update, is on over 50 percent of Windows 10 PCs, a significantly faster update rate than previous releases, with Microsoft beginning to provide it to business users. Machine learning from installation telemetry is being used to reduce the gap between consumer and enterprise releases, as well as speeding up consumer deployments.

As with previous Windows 10 updates, Microsoft has continued to deliver preview builds for the planned 1809 release as part of its Windows Insider Programme. Due for release some time in September or October as part of Microsoft's roughly six-monthly Windows release schedule, the next Windows update is currently codenamed RS5 and will be the last of the Redstone series of Windows builds. Future preview builds will follow Windows Server in using the semi-annual channel names in advance of release, with 1903 preview builds following the release of 1809.

On the Fast Ring

With Fast Ring builds appearing at roughly weekly intervals, Microsoft is using the current set of previews to trial new user-interface concepts, as well as test out the next edition of its Windows 10 SDKs. I've been testing them on a range of different machines, of different vintages and processor types, with a Surface Pro 3 as my main test device. Like all preview builds there's the risk of instability, and one test device needed to be reset to the previous build after getting stuck in a boot loop.

We're now a couple of months into this pass through the Windows Insider program, and the team at Microsoft has announced its first major 'bug bash' for this cycle, at the end of June. These set up 'quests' through specific actions to capture data about reproducible bugs, and prioritise fixes over features for the next few builds. With a bug bash on the schedule we probably haven't seen all the features that are going to be in the 1809 release, but what's in current builds is likely to make the cut.

Tweaking the Windows UI

A key element in the current release cycle is a continued transition from the flat colors of Windows 8 to the new Fluent Design model, with a more Windows 7-like blur in transparent views, and with added animations and highlights where necessary. The resulting look-and-feel is less clinical, and while it looks back to Windows' past, it's also a look forward to the effects Microsoft expects developers to add to UWP apps in the Windows Store. That's paired with a continued move from the old control panel to the new settings app, with this release cycle bringing more language and sound settings across, as well as improving an alternate dark theme for Windows.

Microsoft recently bought iOS and Android keyboard vendor SwiftKey, with the intention of replacing its own Word Flow machine-learning driven screen keyboard with SwiftKey's larger data set. That keyboard has finally come to Windows 10 in the latest Insider Build. Using SwiftKey's services, autocorrect and predictive typing in Windows 10's pop-up keyboards will benefit from training across many more keyboards, hopefully improving accuracy when using Windows 10 as a tablet.

Updating the web with Edge

The Edge browser also continues to get improvements, with Microsoft announcing that it will soon be adding the ability to stop media auto-playing. Anyone who's worked in an open-plan office will appreciate this feature, as news sites and adverts won't suddenly start playing in hidden tabs. There are also updates to how Edge handles debugging, with improved support for the WebDriver debugging protocol and an easier way of installing and updating the WebDriver components.

The big new feature: Sets

Release 1803 introduced the promised Timeline feature, and that's refined in the RS5 builds. However, the big user interface changes that Microsoft's trialing in the current previews are based around a new feature that it's calling Sets.

win10-rs5-sets.png

The Sets feature groups everything related to a task — webpages, research documents, files and applications — under tabs, available in one click.

Image: Microsoft

Originally trialed with a small group of 'skip ahead' users in the last preview cycle, Sets is no available to most users in the Fast Ring. Designed to group apps and web pages together into a single frame, Sets is an interesting concept that upends Windows' windowing metaphor. However, it does take some getting used to, especially if you've grown used to the way Windows 10 tiles windows on a larger screen. However, on laptops and tablets it's an interesting way of ensuring all the content you need for a task is in one place.

While Sets looks promising, it's still missing key features that leave the current implementation underwhelming. Microsoft has promised a 'pick up where you left' option for Sets, but while elements of the user interface are in place, it's not currently working. That does mean you'll currently need to remember what you were using and reassemble a collection of apps with each new Sets session. An explicit save option — perhaps akin to the Set Tabs Aside function in Edge — is also missing. I regularly switch between different tasks in a day, and it would be useful to have named Sets for articles I am writing that mix copy and research that I could load as needed. Another missing feature is the ability to send an entire Set to a colleague, allowing you to collaborate on not only one, but several documents.

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Recent builds have added an apps option to the New tabs pane, but that only shows apps you've recently used. Recent Office releases have added initial support for Sets in familiar tools like Word and Excel, allowing you to group them into a set of working documents. The ability to bundle many of the apps you're using into a single window, tabbing between instances of Office apps and between Edge web pages, is starting to grow on me. It's not quite a fit for the way I work, but it's showing promise.

Sets is an obvious candidate for the next release, but Microsoft is yet to commit to a specific release cycle for it, preferring to stick to its policy of under-promising and over-delivering. Even so, with the desktop version of Office adding support for the Sets UI in its mainline monthly release, all the signs are pointing to it making into the next Windows 10 release.

On the road to 1809

Microsoft continues to make progress with its Windows 10 previews. While we're still in the early part of the 1809 release cycle, the current series of Insider builds are stable and usable — even in the fast ring. By using its semi-annual releases to fine-tune user interface updates, they can quickly roll them out to consumers providing telemetry that can define when a release is ready for use in enterprises.

If you're running a fleet deployment of Windows 10 Enterprise, it's well worth keeping a handful of Windows 10 Pro devices on the Insider program, to ensure you're ready for the ever-shortening gap between consumer release and enterprise rollouts and that your software is compatible with the latest builds.

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About Simon Bisson

Born on the Channel Island of Jersey, Simon moved to the UK to attend the University of Bath where he studied electrical and electronic engineering. Since then a varied career has included being part of the team building the world's first solid state...

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