What you need to know about Windows 10's new upgrade

The latest upgrade to Windows 10 offers a variety of fixes and tweaks -- and misses a couple of major ones.

windows10 4tiles

There's been a good deal of confusion about the just-released upgrade to Windows 10. It's been called by a variety of names, including Threshold 2, Fall Update, build 10586 and Windows 10 version 1511, and there's been a lot written about it -- but it may still be difficult to glean exactly what it is, what it does and how to get it.

Here's everything you need to know about the upgrade, including how to get it now, even if it doesn't show up for you in Windows Update -- and, of course, assuming you want it.

What it is

This upgrade is much more than a garden-variety update that rolls up a handful of operating patches and security fixes. In fact, in his blog post announcing the new version, Terry Myerson, Microsoft's executive vice president for the Windows and Devices Group, proclaimed it the "First major update for Windows 10 available today." Myerson writes that the new version includes faster performance, improvements to the Edge browser and changes to apps such as Mail, Calendar and Photos.

Although Myerson calls it an "update" in the blog headline and throughout his post, Computerworld's Gregg Keizer points out that, by Microsoft's own definition, it's really an upgrade rather than a mere update. Updates are what are delivered on Patch Tuesday, the second Tuesday of every month, and then on an as-needed basis. They fix security issues and make non-significant changes to Windows that may or may not be visible to users.

Upgrades, on the other hand, "install the latest new features, experiences, and capabilities" of Windows 10, according to Microsoft. The vendor says it will release only two to three upgrades a year -- and this is the first since Windows 10 was released this summer.

(By the way, if you're wondering what the 1511 refers to for this upgrade, it represents November 2015.)

What's new

Don't expect to find anything earth-shaking. However, there are some changes you should know about.

A wider Start Menu. You can now make the Start Menu four tiles wide instead of three.

To do that, go to Settings / Personalization / Start and switch on the "Show more tiles" toggle. That will make the Start Menu wider, but won't rearrange your tiles to take advantage of that extra width -- you'll just have an area of blank space on the right. So you'll have to drag tiles to the blank space to take advantage of it.

New touch features. If you use a touchscreen, there are a few new gestures you can use. In Task View (which shows all your open windows), you can now swipe down to close an app. You can also simultaneously resize side-by-side snapped windows, although you'll have to turn that feature on by going to Settings / System / Multitasking and enabling "When I resize a snapped window, simultaneously resize any adjacent snapped window."

A better Edge. The Edge browser has been given minor improvements. If you hover over an open tab, you'll now see a small thumbnail of the page. It's a moderately useful feature if you frequently work with many open tabs. Favorites and items from the Reading List app now sync across devices. Microsoft also claims Edge is more secure and faster than previously, although I didn't notice a speed difference.

edge popup

If you hover over an open tab in the Edge browser, you'll now see a small thumbnail of the page.

However, the most important Edge feature is still missing -- extensions. Microsoft has promised to add extensions to Edge since the launch of Windows 10. Chrome has them. Firefox has them. Until Edge gets them, it can't be considered a truly usable browser.

A few Cortana improvements. Cortana now syncs your call history and messages, and can track your movie bookings and event bookings, as well as send you reminders to go to them. Uber fans will be pleased to see they'll now be able to book a ride using Cortana.

A device tracker. For those who use Windows 10 on portable devices, there's now a device tracker, similar to iOS's Find My iPhone. You can turn it on by going to Settings / Update & Security / Find My Device.

find my device

Find My Device is a device tracker, similar to iOS's Find My iPhone.

Note that you won't see the Find My Device setting on a desktop computer, but only on mobile devices (at least, it didn't show up on my desktop PC, but did show up on my Surface tablet).

Turn off background. Don't like seeing the background picture on the sign-in screen? With this upgrade, you can turn it off by going to Settings / Personalization / Lock screen and disable the option "Show Windows background picture on the sign-in screen."

Add color. If you want a little more color in your computing life, you can now have an accent color in the title bars of most windows, instead of the current white. To do that, go to Settings / Personalization / Colors, and turn on "Show color on Start, taskbar, action center, and title bar."

And wait -- there's more

In addition to all this, many Windows 10 apps have gotten minor changes. Notably, if you've experienced bugs and crashes with Mail, you may want to give it another try now, because it's more stable and usable.

Microsoft also claims that Windows 10 is now faster than previously -- that performance "in everyday tasks, such as boot time" is now almost 30% faster than in Windows 7 on the same device. Microsoft hasn't said how much faster it is than the non-upgraded version of Windows 10 and I didn't notice any general performance improvements, although it seemed to take slightly less time to get to the desktop after logging in.

There is also a variety of features designed specifically for enterprises. Windows Update for Business makes it easier for IT to control Windows 10 updates, including the ability to set up device groups and stagger their deployment on a schedule set by IT (something individual Windows Pro users can also take advantage of).

Also included is Azure Active Directory Join, which allows IT to manage a single enterprise directory that lets people use any Windows device with a single login and have their Windows settings and data be available on every one of their devices. In addition, IT can now also turn off all Windows 10 telemetry data (anonymized data sent to Microsoft about how Windows 10 is being used).

How to get it

Possibly because the upgrade files are quite large, Microsoft is taking a slow, phased-in approach and not automatically delivering it to everyone at once. It's not clear how the company decides who gets the update when. However, if you want to see it now, there are ways you can get the upgrade.

The simplest is to go to Settings / Update & Security / Windows Update and click "Check for updates" (even if your system says it's up to date). I did that on two machines that hadn't yet gotten the upgrade via Windows Update but said they were up to date. When I clicked "Check for updates," in both instances the update appeared. I was then able to install it. I can't guarantee that will work for you, but it did for me.

Note that if you've moved to Windows 10 from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 within the last 31 days, the upgrade won't show up in Windows Update. That's because Microsoft gives you 31 days to go back to your previous version of Windows. After 31 days, according to Microsoft, the newest Windows 10 upgrade will show up.

What's next

Don't expect another major Windows 10 upgrade for quite some time. As I mentioned before, upgrades are supposed to happen only two to three times a year.

Many people expect the next upgrade, code-named Redstone, to be available in the middle of 2016. No word from Microsoft about what's in it, but rumors are already flying -- that Edge will finally get extension support, for example, or that Windows 10 will get a feature like Apple's Continuity X that lets you start a task on one device and keep doing that task when you move to another device.

Stay tuned for when we know more.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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