Microsoft is marking Windows 10's first anniversary with a big update on August 2, and the plan is so bold that it's not limited to your desktop or laptop. Since the Xbox One game console runs its own version of Windows 10, it's getting both the Anniversary Update and partial convergence with desktop Windows. Microsoft is also reinforcing its determination to make Cortana your personal digital assistant, and the Edge browser is finally getting legit support for add-ons, such as password managers and ad blockers. Here are the highlights.
Cortana wants your commitment
Cortana is a digital voice assistant, Microsoft's competitor to Google Now or Apple's Siri. Say "Hey, Cortana" into your device's microphone, and the AI (artificial intelligence) is summoned. Or you can type a search query in the taskbar box at the bottom of your screen. If you make liberal use of Outlook and its calendar, Cortana will be pretty aware of what you're up to and will use that info to hone its responses. It can also integrate your Skype contact list as it figures out how to answer your request, such as dictating a text message or opening a video call.
Previously, Windows 10 users could disable Cortana if they were content with Google Now, Siri, or no AI assistant at all. And understandably, some people were uncomfortable about the amount of personal information that Cortana -- and by extension, Microsoft -- would be getting access to. The company has responded by embedding Cortana even deeper, right down to the login screen.
The Anniversary Update is mandatory, and you can no longer disable Cortana, to the only way to totally avoid it is to not use Windows 10 at all. However, most of the actions that trigger a Cortana response can be disabled. To decide how much Cortana you want in your life, check out our guide to Windows 10 privacy settings.
The Edge browser gets add-ons
Microsoft Edge is the replacement for the Internet Explorer in Windows 10 (though IE is still available for legacy applications). Edge is a streamlined, modern-looking Web browser. But it has not supported extensions like ad blocking and password management, a problem we noted when we took a look at Edge last fall.
Microsoft has been testing add-on functionality for several months, and the Anniversary Update finally makes add-on support available to the general public. Adblock Plus and the LastPass password manager are available out-of-the-box, and you can try about a dozen more offerings. Get them in the Windows Store app in Windows 10. The size of the selection is surely dwarfed by Chrome and Firefox's extension libraries, but it's a start.
Can Edge and its add-ons succeed?
Ultimately, add-on developers decide whether to support Microsoft Edge, and some may never choose to, depending on their resources and level of interest. According to the latest figures from the analysts at NetMarketShare, less than 5% of desktop browser users are on Edge. Internet Explorer is at about 20%, Chrome sits at 37%, and Mozilla Firefox has fallen to about 6%. (Mozilla is overhauling its browser over the next several months to make it lighter and faster.)
Edge has a chicken-or-egg problem: It needs enough users to motivate add-on developers to participate, but the users may not come en masse if there aren't enough add-ons to greet them in the first place. And in the long run, Edge needs more than add-on parity; it needs to offer something that the competition can't provide. Cortana has been integrated into Edge from the beginning, so making the AI a permanent resident in the Anniversary Update looks like a puzzle piece of that larger fight for a browser audience.
Enhanced biometric security and features
Windows Hello is an umbrella name for the biometric security features in Windows 10. Previously, Hello was limited to logging in to the operating system, but now you can use your fingerprint or facial recognition on partnered websites when you use the Edge browser.
You can also now use a companion device to log in to Windows 10. One example is a wearable called the Microsoft Band, which automatically unlocks your Windows 10 device when you get close enough.
Windows 10 gaming gets reinforced
Earlier this summer at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, Microsoft announced Xbox Play Anywhere, in which the company's first-party games would come out simultaneously on Windows 10 and Xbox One. First-party titles are those published by Microsoft Game Studios, such as Gears of War, Forza Motorsport, and Quantum Break. On the desktop PC side, these games will be available exclusively through the Windows Store, rather than competitors like Steam, Origin, or GOG. Xbox Play Anywhere will launch in September.
Windows 10 is the only desktop OS with DirectX 12. DirectX is a technical layer that operates in between the game and the player, and version 12 enables some visual effects and performance optimization that weren't available before. However, your PC needs fairly recent internal components to take meaningful advantage of DirectX 12.
August 2 also marks the release of the Xbox One S, the first major revision to the console since it was launched in November 2013.
The Windows 10 Anniversary Update is a major step forward for the company and its main products, so keep your eyes peeled for more coverage in the coming months.