Windows 10 20H1 review: Microsoft boosts Linux and Your Phone, but Cortana slips hard

What may be called Microsoft's Windows 10 April 2020 Update incrementally builds on features you know and use.

Credit: Mark Hachman / IDG

Our review of Microsoft’s Windows 10 20H1 update—also known as version 2004, or perhaps the Windows 10 April 2020 Update—shows an OS focused primarily on building out existing features, rather than launching new ones. Some scaffolding is still apparent in tweaks to Your Phone, and especially Cortana. Microsoft has further polished Task Manager, Settings, and Game Bar, however, and isn’t afraid to serve niche audiences with upgrades to the Windows Subsystem for Linux and the related Terminal app. 

As in the past, we’ve based our review on Microsoft’s Windows 10 20H1 Insider builds, beginning with the major features and working through to its minor additions. Though Microsoft essentially signaled that the 20H1 release was finished by January, we waited until the end of February to complete our tests. It’s important to note, however, that Microsoft hasn’t announced when the “final” 20H1 version will ship, and a few more bugs may be fixed before then. We’ll revisit the review at launch to see if anything’s changed. 

Meet the Windows Subsystem for Linux 2, and Terminal

When Microsoft introduced the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) as part of the Windows 10 Anniversary Update in 2016, it was a shock to see Microsoft embrace Linux after opposing it for so many years. But the original Windows Subsystem for Linux was hobbled by the fact that it wasn’t running a real Linux kernel. Certain kernel modules, such as device drivers, were unable to run.

With WSL2, Linux now runs on its own kernel, in what’s essentially a virtual machine. If you use Linux, you’ll also be able to place your Linux files within the Linux root file system, and access them via Windows File Explorer inside the Linux virtual hard disk. Consequently, performance is expected to improve, one of the key upgrades for WSL2 over WSL1.

microsoft windows 10 20h1 bash emacs Mark Hachman / IDG

You’re free to use Bash to open up something like the emacs text editor within Ubuntu...

To set it up, you’ll need to enable Windows’ Linux capabilities manually via the “Turn Windows features on and off” panel. Linux is free, conveniently available from the Microsoft Store as one of a number of downloadable distributions including Ubuntu and Debian, and relatively easy to set up. (Converting your existing distro over from WSL1 to WSL2 is relatively simple, too: Simply type 

wsl —set-version <Distro> 2

into the new Terminal app.)

And yes, there’s a new Windows Terminal app. The Command Line served as a DOS shell for years, allowing you to navigate Windows and run various commands. Now Terminal stands in as a command-line interface for DOS, PowerShell, and Linux, with multiple configurable tabs to run any of them side by side. You’re still free to run a BASH shell from within a Linux application like Ubuntu, but Terminal’s designed to be the preferred way to run Linux within Windows.

windows 10 wsl2 terminal various tabs Mark Hachman / IDG
...But there’s also the pretty new Windows Terminal app, with Ubuntu open in the current tab. As the drop-down menu shows, you can open tabs in Linux, the command line, and PowerShell. You can also adjust the settings to tweak the color scheme and even add a background picture.

That’s because Linux under WSL2 is largely text-based. While there are methods to enable a Linux GUI, most require some interaction between WSL2 and Windows 10, and a remote connection between the two. By and large, WSL2 is designed for text-editing apps like vim and emacs, according to Microsoft employees working on WSL2. as well as text-based “apps” like Nethack, as Microsoft’s own tutorial shows off. 

Terminal’s clean, modern, pleasant to use, and doesn’t get in your way—all prerequisites for a text editor. But it’s not perfect, either: For one thing, how functions are split between PowerShell, the Command Prompt, and Linux is confusing. Why does enabling the paned view below require the command to be entered into the Command Line box, rather than PowerShell? It may be obvious to an advanced user, but not to one who’s new to the environment.

windows 10 20h1 windows terminal split pane view Mark Hachman / IDG

Another look at Terminal, this time in a split-paned view that you can enable by typing in the command in the upper right pane. Note the semi-transparent “acrylic” effect through the Terminal window, too.

If you’re willing to dig into the multitude of tips, guides, and other documentation around the Web, WSL2 is fairly simple to use. (Just remember that Linux commands and files aren’t isolated from Windows in the way Windows Sandbox is, so be careful.) All told, the combination of WSL2 and the new Terminal app spruces up the interface and delivers a bit more power under the hood. 

Cortana dumbs down as she becomes an app

Remember last year, when Microsoft separated Windows Search and Cortana, once co-located within the same search box, into two separate functions? Now, Cortana’s left entirely. Cortana is now a windowed app that can be undocked, moved around your desktop, and resized at will. Microsoft has also returned Cortana’s ability to receive requests via text as well as voice.

Microsoft windows 10 20h1 cortana conversation Mark Hachman / IDG

Integrating information as well as images into the resizeable, undockable Cortana window is a nice touch, but a true conversation between user and assistant isn’t something Microsoft has achieved yet.

This change has pluses and minuses. When Cortana was integrated with the taskbar, the assistant had a tendency to disappear when you returned focus to another window. This made sense in certain cases, but when you hollered a question at her, you had to copy down the answer before doing anything else. Currently, Cortana seems to disappear as a window if she’s on your primary screen and you begin interacting with another window. On a secondary monitor, though, the window remains.

Cortana now allows you to specify whether you’d like to talk to Cortana or simply type responses in its in-app Settings menu. That’s somewhat handy, although at that point Cortana becomes less of an assistant and just another search box. Microsoft also says its changed the “wake word” to just “Cortana.” The distinction is largely academic: On my build, Cortana didn’t respond to a wake word at all, even after double-checking that the mic was properly set up. Clicking the mic button (or the Win+C shortcut) did trigger Cortana, however, and the speech recognition was usually quite good.

windows 10 20h1 cortana alexa microsoft Mark Hachman / IDG

Once BFFs, Amazon’s Alexa is now apparently dead where Cortana is concerned.

Cortana’s functionality has suffered. There’s no Windows 10 Settings area that controls the app, just general speech controls. While Windows can be governed by a personal account and connect to a business account, there’s no obvious way to do that with Cortana—you have to pick one or the other, which is sort of awkward. Even worse, Cortana can’t even handle basic math problems. On my test build, Cortana was unable to launch Amazon’s Alexa in-app, as it’s done previously. (We know there will be an enormous loss of Cortana functionality, including IoT controls like the Harman Invoke, Spotify controls, and more. Microsoft representatives tell us that the calculator functions and other skills will be added back, supposedly by the time 20H1 ships to users.)

At some point, Cortana is supposed to evolve into a “conversational” assistant, like the Google Assistant. If I ask Google the height of the Eiffel Tower, then follow up by asking “where is it,” Google understands that I mean the same tower. Cortana doesn’t.

Microsoft windows 20h1 cortana 2 basic math Mark Hachman / IDG

It’s a good thing I don’t need Cortana to perform basic math.

On the other hand, if I ask Cortana to send an emailed note to my wife, Cortana will ask for confirmation before it’s sent. Replying “no” prompted her to ask me what I wanted to change: the recipient, the message, or something else. That’s the sort of conversational interaction Microsoft seems to be shooting for, but examples of this seem to be few and far between. Cortana’s ability to understand is also improving, as it parsed “What did the Dow Jones do today?” correctly.

While I know separating Cortana into its own app allows for improvements to be made independently and at their own pace, our current testing shows (and Microsoft confirms) that Cortana is failing to meet the basic requirements of a digital assistant.

Fresh new Windows 10 icons signal the future

I’ve always been of two minds on cosmetic updates: I tend to strongly favor function over form, but I despise Brutalist architecture. Aesthetics does play a role.

windows 10 20h1 icons in start menu Mark Hachman / IDG

Here are a few of the new, updated icons within the Windows 10 2004 Start menu. Note that both the Office icons as well as the general-purpose Windows apps are getting a facelift.

Microsoft’s begun rolling out a stable of updated icons to Windows, and it looks like those will be appearing in the 2004/20H1 build, too. They provide a new, cohesive design language to Windows 10, and it looks like they’ll be a unifying element for Windows 10X and possibly subsequent versions of Windows 10.

Any new icon updates have the advantage of looking fresh, and they’re consistent with Microsoft’s Fluent Design principles. (For more, see Microsoft’s blog post.) It’s very likely that we’re seeing the end of the road for Microsoft’s tiled interface, and a return to a more icon-driven UI.

new microsoft windows 10 icons Mark Hachman / IDG

A Microsoft-authored collection of the new Windows 10 icons in the 20H1 feature update.

New emoji and kaomoji, too! 

Even though it’s not forced upon you, the emoji/kaomoji keyboard that’s accessible via the Win + ; shortcut is one of the more useful additions to Windows over the past few feature releases. Now, there are a few new additions to the pane, courtesy of Emoji 12, with icons that include an otter, a sloth, ballet shoes, and more. 

microsoft windows 10 20h1 emoji 12 Microsoft

The new Emoji 12 emoji include this ice cube, which can be handy in discussions of... climate change?

Kaomoji—more complex representations of various symbols that combine punctuation marks— have been enhanced as well. So while the basic kaomoji include representations of the “shruggie,” , ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ there’s also been some new additions including the wizard  (∩^o^)⊃━☆ and whatever this is: ಠ_ರೃ. The emoji toolbar still disappears when you’re not using it, though. It would be nice to have a toggle where it could remain on your screen at all times. 

Keep reading to learn about Your Phone, Xbox Game Bar and more.

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Mark Hachman

Mark Hachman

PC World (US online)
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