Microsoft’s Windows 10 April 2018 Update barely gets a formal title, which understandably makes you wonder how much time the company put into it. But as our review shows, what Microsoft internally referred to as the “Redstone 4” release conceals numerous changes and improvements, with two—Timeline and Nearby Sharing—sharing the marquee.
Really, though, the Windows 10 April 2018 Update (Version 1803) is an ensemble show, with a supporting cast of more minor improvements. There’s Quiet Hours, now called Focus Assist; improved data usage management; and a ton of updates in Edge, some of which you’ve seen before within other browsers. Underneath it all, Microsoft may be building something new, as the Edge engine includes the underpinnings for Progressive Web Apps, a fresh way of supplying apps to the Microsoft Store.
This somewhat piecemeal update frees us from trying to establish a cohesive narrative, though. You’ll find that Microsoft tweaked, improved, and altered Windows here and there, and our review will hop around as well.
A peppier look and feel: Fluent Design
Your first impressions of the new version of Windows 10 will begin on the desktop, which looks nearly identical to earlier versions. Dive deeper, though, and more subtle changes reveal themselves. Expect to see more of Microsoft’s Fluent Design throughout Windows, with its semi-transparent “acrylic” UI letting the colors of background apps bleed through like frosted glass.
Under Settings > Ease of Access > Display, you’ll find a wealth of new settings to manage this experience. Do you want to add visible scrollbars within UWP apps? (I do.) Turn off the background image? (Never!) You can also adjust how long notifications remain on your screen, and even extinguish Fluent Design’s transparency effects.
Functionally, there are a few small changes. Microsoft has now added shortcut icons for Documents and Pictures above the Start Menu icon in the lower left. Notifications once assigned to Cortana have now migrated to the Action Center on the lower right. The Windows Defender Security Center (Settings > Update & Security) is now just “Windows Security.” And if you haven’t turned on Windows Hello, you may see a prompt on the lock screen to set it up.
Timeline: A solid feature with future potential
One of Windows 10’s strengths is supplying innovative ways to help users get things done. One of its weaknesses is how it peers over your shoulder to accomplish this. Timeline, arguably the marquee feature of the Windows 10 April 2018 Update, incorporates elements of both.
As you work, Timeline optionally records the pages you visited using Edge (but not Chrome, or any other browser) and keeps track of what documents you touch within Microsoft Office. (Timeline is on by default.) If you click the taskbar button once reserved for Task View, Timeline opens up to reveal your recent computing activity, going back over the past days and weeks.
For Microsoft, Timeline is part of the “pick up where you left off” experience, tracking your work from your smartphone and from desktop PC to desktop PC. Is it useful to know what you were working on a week ago? Possibly. The selling point of Timeline, though, is its ability to group documents and webpages together in collections called Activities. If you do see value in knowing which budget spreadsheet you were working on a week ago, you’ll find even more in being able to quickly re-discover and launch any related Web pages and Powerpoint presentations that you had open at the time.
Timeline’s a fine addition to Windows, similar to but worthier than your browser history. It’s a helpful way to reorient yourself while hopping from task to task. Like many features within Windows, though, it doesn’t thrust itself at you. What ultimately doomed Task View was a lack of attention, and the same fate could befall Timeline.
Near Share: Microsoft’s disappointing answer to AirDrop
Near Share (also called “Nearby Sharing” within the Settings menu) sounds great on paper. It’s a new feature that allows Windows PCs to share files and URLs with nearby PCs, assuming both have authorized the exchange. (Apple’s similar AirDrop feature debuted several years ago.) The Edge browser and File Explorer already include “Share” options, which would normally limit you to routing that data via Mail, Facebook, Twitter, and other apps. Now, directly connecting to nearby PCs is an additional option.
Near Share has a small list of requirements: you’ll need a Windows PC (no phones, sorry) with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi enabled. You’ll also need to turn on Nearby Sharing in Settings to share data with either your own devices or with strangers. Once set up, connecting is a cinch, though the way Windows assigns PCs names—with a seemingly random string of letters and numbers—can make identifying which PC you’re sharing to a bit more complicated than it could be.
Unfortunately, Near Share offers Bluetooth-like (~3Mbits/s) speeds for actually sharing files — most of the time, anyway (I saw 30 Mbits/s or so once or twice.) That makes sharing large files iffy. But if you need to quickly beam a complex URL to a neighbor, or zip a photo or a small file to a colleague in a conference room, Near Share avoids the necessity of digging out a USB stick. There are other, possibly even better ways of transferring files, but Near Share’s a decent addition to a Windows PC’s bag of tricks.
Since we’re talking about sharing, there’s one additional footnote you should be aware of. Within the April 2018 Update, the legacy Homegroup feature has gone away.
Focus Assist (nee Quiet Hours) keeps you on task
Email notifications sliding in from the side of your Action Center can provide you the opportunity to respond quickly to a task at hand, but can quickly become distracting when you really need to buckle down. A feature called Quiet Hours has helped manage notifications since Windows 8.1.
Within the Windows 10 April 2018 Update, Quiet Hours has been renamed Focus Assist, with substantially more powerful controls added to the feature. By far the most important are two: the ability to turn off all notifications while playing a DirectX game, as well as when you’re duplicating your screen during a presentation.
Focus Assist isn’t perfect. You’ll still need to dive into the Settings and order Windows 10 not to interrupt your game or presentation. It might be nice, as one beta-tester suggested, to be able to actually prevent websites like Facebook or Twitter from loading during an intensive work session. Otherwise, Focus Assist does one thing—block distracting notifications—and does it well enough that you’ll barely notice.
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