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Windows 10 Anniversary Update review

Microsoft's latest update is surprisingly light on completely new features

The Microsoft Windows logo with lights shining through on top of a dark background
  • Host of useful and interesting minor tweaks
  • Many features dependant on developer support; Windows Ink mostly collects pre-existing features; Cortana app for Android and iOS still unavailable in the UK;

The Windows 10 Anniversary Update is almost here, and IT Pro has taken an advance look at what users can expect when the update rolls out on 2 August.

Timed to coincide with Windows 10's first birthday, the update includes a host of behind-the-scenes tweaks and upgrades, as well as one or two major new features. Microsoft is putting a major focus on productivity and efficiency, with a number of updates designed to streamline the user experience.

Windows Ink

One of the the most interesting new features is a host of new stylus-friendly tools, dubbed the 'Windows Ink Workspace'. Accessed through a little pen icon on the taskbar, the Ink Workspace gathers together all of the installed pen-compatible apps, as well as system apps for use with a stylus. Microsoft describes it as being "like the Start menu for ink".

The three pre-installed apps are Sticky Notes, Sketchpad and Screen sketch. None of these apps are actually new, however - they're just repackaged versions of pre-existing tools. They've all been tweaked and updated, but they can hardly be classed as 'new features'.

Sticky Notes, which lets you plaster your screen in virtual Post-it notes, has been included in one form or another since the days of Windows Vista. It can now integrate with Cortana, which can save reminders and add items to your to-do lists, but it's still essentially unchanged.

Similarly, the Screen sketch function for instantly taking an annotatable screenshot was first seen in the original release of Windows 10. It originally used OneNote for editing, rather than a standalone utility, but divorcing it from OneNote has made it much quicker and easier to grab and share screenshots on the fly.

Sketchpad is the other default 'Ink' app, and comprises a blank, full-screen canvas with a couple of basic pen settings for writing and drawing, as well as cropping and sharing options. Once again, this is essentially a radically chopped-down version of Microsoft's Fresh Paint app, which has been available since before Windows 10's launch.

The only real novelty in Sketchpad is a virtual ruler, which can be rotated, repositioned and used to quickly draw straight lines. It's an obvious but incredibly useful addition - although it is crying out for a 'snap to' function.

Even though none of these functions are new, having a central point to access them (as well as any forthcoming pen-compatible apps) makes it much easier to quickly scribble something down and refer back to it later. We found ourselves gravitating towards the Sketchpad in particular, rather than a paper notebook or apps like Evernote.

The only downside is that handwritten notes in Sketchpad can't be converted to text and dropped into other applications. Cortana can analyse handwritten Sticky Notes for the purposes of adding them to reminders, so the fact that this feature remains absent is as baffling as it is frustrating.

Cortana

Cortana has had some updates too. Most notably, she's now accessible from the lock screen, allowing you to perform functions such as viewing your reminders and appointments without unlocking the screen.

The usefulness of this is questionable if you're using Windows Hello, as merely glancing at the lock screen will log you in seconds, but it could be handy for viewing your schedule when you can't get to your laptop, or for those who use traditional security methods such as a password or fingerprint reader.

A really great feature of Cortana is the ability to sync all your phone's reminders to Windows 10's notification center. From there, you can dismiss unwanted notifications, reply to messages and more. The only downside is that you need the Cortana app on your smartphone.

Microsoft released a standalone version of its digital assistant for iOS and Android, but it is yet to come to the UK at time of writing, and Microsoft has not revealed when it will be arriving. This means that use of the smartphone sync function in the UK is currently limited to Windows Phone users. As such, Cortana still isn't anywhere near as helpful as she could be.

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