Windows 10 October 2018 update review: What’s new with Windows 10 and is it safe?

It may seem odd weighing up the pros and cons of downloading a free update to your operating system, but the October 2018 Windows 10 update’s path to computers around the world has been anything but smooth.

Windows 10 October 2018 update: A rocky start

Short of setting the house on fire, it’s hard to think of a worse case scenario for an update than destroying users’ files, but that’s exactly what the first take did. Not everybody’s, mind you – just those that had moved their personal files away from the default. A bit harsh given those are the people that presumably cared the most, but a timely reminder that local backups are just one bit of protection against the unthinkable.

In any case, Microsoft quickly pulled the update until it was fixed – and will be rolling it out again in the coming days. Some users reported that the update broke Intel audio drivers, and other HP users have found additional problems, but Microsoft has moved relatively swiftly to fix these and now we can say – touch wood – that the October 2018 update should be safe to install when it arrives on your machine. But should you be excited?

Well, here are all the changes you can expect and what they bring to the party.

Windows 10 October 2018 update review: Visual changes

Probably the most striking visual change is entirely optional, but its one that has gained popularity wherever it’s been added: dark mode. That gives File Explorer, Settings and various apps a black background rather than the regular white, which should make it a little easier on the eyes, especially those with a penchant for using their laptop in bed before sleep. You may remember that macOS added the same feature with the most recent Mojave release, so it’s nice that Microsoft is keeping pace.

You can find dark mode in the settings app. The default changes are harder to spot, but they are there. Look closely at the borders of windows and you’ll see they’ve adopted a sober grey hue, rather than packing the colour of old.

On top of this, you’ll see more use of shadow and transparency for a greater feeling of depth. It’s subtle, but it makes the OS feel a bit more professional, if that’s important to you. More practically useful for those with weaker eyesight is the ability to adjust system font sizes without making icons and other interface elements comically large – something that’s especially handy for people with high-DPI screens.

You’ll find it in the Ease of Access settings, but it’s a little bit fiddly: each change requires you to sign in and out to see the impact, which means getting it just so is a matter of trial and error. Finally, the update brings HDR options within the Display Settings page. Here, you can immediately see whether your display devices are compatible with HDR streaming and gaming, and set how HDR content gets rendered.

You can even disable HDR when your laptop is approaching an empty battery, which is a nice touch – although it’s debatable how much juice this would actually save.

Windows 10 October 2018 update review: Tablet mode and smartphone improvements

I don’t think it’s going to be a great shock to anybody reading this that Windows 10’s tablet mode hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, but it has been making gradual improvements for those people plugging away with Windows 10 tablets. Improvements began to show in last year’s Fall Creators Update, where swipe-to-type was introduced. This lets you trace a line over the virtual keyboard to type common words, rather than jabbing away at the glass.

It’s what I use on my phone, and typing is immeasurably nicer. Not nice enough to eschew a real keyboard regularly, but nicer all the same. Now Microsoft is ready to go further with the October 2018 update.

Remember when Microsoft bought SwiftKey back in 2016? It’s now fully integrated here, meaning that smart predictive suggestions appear above the keyboard as you type away. Better still (or worse, if you’re a privacy worrier), this can be carried across from your iPhone or Android account, meaning the predictions it makes should already be tailored to your vocabulary. This long memory is also evident in Clipboard History, too.

On desktop, if you press Windows+V instead of Ctrl+V in an app, you’ll get a range of recently copied texts and images to paste in. This history can be synced between Windows 10 devices, and a future update will bring the feature across mobile too. You can disable this, if it leaves you feeling a bit anxious, mind.

Windows 10 October 2018 update review: What’s new with Windows 10 and is it safe?

Finally, the Your Phone app is now fully part of the Windows 10 experience.

This means Android users can read and reply to SMS messages conveniently from the desktop – a feature that might have been nice when people actually texted – and drag photos from the phone. It’s early stages yet, and more functionality is promised, but it’s a good start. You don’t have to plug in your phone – just download an app and as long as your devices share the same wireless network, you’re good to go.

Windows 10 October 2018 update review: Other additions

There are other nice little extras that don’t really warrant their own section.

Handily for those of us who have a keyboard without a PrtScn button, you can now press Shift+Windows+S to access the snipping tool. This allows you to grab a bit of the screen then immediately edit, crop and share via the Snip & Sketch app. Anyone using Game Bar will also see improvements.

The tool for capturing footage and live streaming of gaming exploits now shows a framerate counter as well as stats for CPU, GPU and RAM usage. Similar extra detail is now added to Task Manager with a two new columns: the first shows the power consumption of a process, while the second gives you an indication of power usage over time.

Windows 10 October 2018 update review: What’s new with Windows 10 and is it safe?

Notepad is another old timer to get some attention. It can now correctly parse text from UNIX and macOS systems, for a start, but there are other improvements for the more casual user.

You can change the text zoom, ‘Find and Replace’ now searches the entire document (not just above or below the cursor) and you can add line and column numbers too. Registry Editor fans, you haven’t been forgotten! The software now has an autocomplete function, making it that bit less tedious to hunt down a specific long key.

Back with the casual user, and Microsoft Edge gets a few choice cosmetic improvements, but more significantly you now have more control over how you handle auto-playing video. It can be blocked completely, only allowed on whitelisted sites, or muted until it’s enabled. Your emoji library has been updated too, so bald and red-headed faces are in the mix along with badgers, bagels and DNA.

These can be added to text anywhere you like with Windows 10’s built-in emoji panel, activated with the Windows+full-stop shortcut. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Windows 10 update if Microsoft wasn’t bringing the dead Bing horse out for another flogging, and so it is with the October 2018 edition. The Start menu now shows web search results from Bing without you requesting them, and even more weirdly you can now search the web directly from Notepad.

The mind boggles.

Windows 10 October 2018 update review: What’s new with Windows 10 and is it safe?

Similarly, Microsoft even manages a plug for OneDrive in the ransomware protection feature. It’s true that if you have stuff backed up to the cloud you’re less vulnerable to extortion, but it’s a touch heavy handed. That’s a pity, because the other big change here is all for the better: you can now whitelist trusted programs from a list of blocked apps, rather than having to track down each program you want to have full permissions.

Windows 10 October 2018 update review: Improvements for next time

“Sets” is MIA.

This feature, announced some time ago, was supposed to allow you to group applications like tabs in a browser. Picture a Word document, a web page and File Explorer lined up as tabs along the screen and you get the idea. It’s not ready yet outside of Microsoft Insiders, so we assume it’ll be with us next time around.

Video of Sets in Windows 10
Microsoft also promised that machine learning would be deployed to learn your usage habits, ensuring that updates won’t restart your computer at inopportune times. It’s a nice idea, but at the moment it doesn’t make any attempt to ensure work isn’t lost when the restart finally materialises.

Come on AI, use your loaf.

Windows 10 October 2018 update review: Verdict

Taken separately, the updates feel like thin gruel in terms of goodies. Together, though, they make up a fairly decent update. And given they’re free, you can’t really complain about the price either.

With Sets hopefully ready for prime time, our main hope is that the next outing has less of the incremental improvements and more headline features.

Oh, and we could do without the patchy roll out next time too…

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