Microsoft Weekly: Redstone's moving, games not goofing, future-proofing

A change of tracks on Redstone builds, gaming getting some well-deserved attention on Xbox, and quite a few interesting changes coming down the pipeline. All that and much more, in your Microsoft digest for the week of March 31-April 6.

Redstone’s moving

With the fourth Redstone series in the rear-view mirror, its successor steps up, giving a glimpse into some welcome new additions.

Since we’re zooming ever-closer to the general rollout of Windows 10’s spring update (on April 10), we’ve seen the RTM build go on a tour of the various Insider rings. This week, it landed in the Release Preview backyard, bringing with it Timeline, various OS element redesigns, and a slew of other improvements. While we’re on the subject, non-Insider folks can get this feature update before Tuesday by becoming Insiders, and specifically joining the Release Preview ring. You can check here for step-by-step instructions on how to do so.

Enthusiasts haven’t been left out of the picture, as build 17133.1004 made its way to those with a HoloLens HMD (head-mounted display). The rather sparse changelog only points out general reliability fixes, but is nonetheless significant because it brings the build number in line with the PC RTM one.

The few who managed to enroll in the Skip Ahead ring were treated to build 17639, which brought Calculator improvements, Bluetooth battery percentage display in Settings – for connected devices -, and an impressive array of changes to Sets. In no particular order, new context menu options, tab drag & drop support between Sets, more refined settings for Sets, as well as the ability to restore previous tabs in a much more granular way. Support for other Win32 apps – like Office – will make an appearance in future builds. As with anything of this sort, there are some lingering issues – such as Settings crashing if you try to open a link to the Store, and Movies & TV denying access to its video library -, but there are also some noteworthy fixes. BitLocker-enabled devices no longer boot into recovery unexpectedly, UWP apps no longer silently terminate when minimized, and the “Display brightness” setting has been completely deprecated from Control Panel, residing now in Settings.

Something that is contained within build 17639 but no yet user-facing is the ability to trigger screen clips from the Action Center. Working in much the same way as Snipping Tool, this feature doesn’t yet give you the ability to choose where to save the screenshot on disk. Then again, this is most likely subject to change once it shows up in future Redstone 5 builds.

Games not goofing

Fans of the Redmond giant’s home console family have reason to rejoice, due in no small part to the imminent spring update for the gaming box’s software.

Update 1804.180330-1920 popped up for Xbox Insiders in the Alpha ring, with fixes surrounding Edge, system reliability, controller vibration, and game audio loss. Then again, there are some issues to be aware of, between Pi-hole, Netflix, HDR, Guide, audio in the Hulu app, and more. The good news is that the first two already have workarounds at the time of writing.

On the other end of the spectrum, those in the Omega ring (the Xbox equivalent of Release Preview) got build 17133.2006, which hints at the fact that version 1804 for the Xbox One is on track to be released to the public soon. Among other things, it brings 1440p screen support, a ‘Share controller’ feature for Mixer users, and new audio controls.

Gamers interested in making use of the latest hardware while playing older games can take a look at the Backward Compatibility list, which this week welcomed two other games. First off is Ubisoft’s 2013 Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, joined by Larian Studios’ 2011 title, Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga. It’s also worth noting that the latest entry in Larian’s Divinity series, Original Sin II, is off to the Xbox One (and PS4) this August.

Not to be overshadowed by the others, Sea of Thieves received its 1.0.2 update, with increased ship respawn distance, brought solutions relating to Bounty Captains, UI consistency, and various other error fixes. The 450MB update also has some known issues around achievements, the equipping of weapons, and character details. Nevertheless, these bugs are actively being worked on.

Future-proofing

For this section, we look at what Microsoft is doing to future-proof its various software offerings.

A set of features that’s been available for business users of Office 365 will soon be making its way to those on the Personal and Home plans.

Starting things off is Files Restore, which allows you to restore OneDrive to a state it was in at any point within the last 30 days. Furthermore, the online storage solution has the ability to detect a ransomware attack on the account and point out which files have been affected. Users will receive a message via desktop, email, and SMS, guiding them through the recovery process. Real-time link checking in Excel, Word and PowerPoint – which will arrive later this year -, as well as encrypted messages in Outlook.com and message forwarding protections are also in place. Finally, you have the ability to password protect a OneDrive link to prevent unauthorized access.

On the fundamentals side, Microsoft will be making available the ARM64 SDK, which will lift the 32-bit limit currently in place. According to the company’s statement, this will allow devs to convert their Win32 apps, both 32- and 64-bit, to run on ARM. As such, the supported kinds of Windows 10 on ARM apps are set to increase quite a bit.

The different smart meters and other such devices that collectively make up the Internet of Things (IoT), will be getting some attention as well. Microsoft has stated it will invest $5 billion in the aforementioned technology category over the following four years. It’s worth noting that not much is known beyond the time frame and sum of money. Most likely, the money will be spread between the hardware and software sides, like different devices and their cloud-powered backend.

Last but not least, Xiaolce, one of Microsoft’s Chinese chatbots – at times seen as the baby sister of Cortana -, has reportedly been improved to such an extent as to potentially allow it to converse in full-duplex. What this means is basically a two-way conversation, which should sound much more natural when compared to the scripted and rather rigid ‘half-duplex’ approach seen in the current crop of chatbots.

Xiaolce is – or will soon be – able to reach such a level of sophistication due to its use of artificial intelligence to analyze how previous conversations have gone and detect relevant changes it needs to make.

The Fast Ring

Logging off

We end on a note that’s half puzzling, but also half expected if you’ve used any of Microsoft’s services in the last few years.

The service in question is Windows 10, more specifically its Mail app. According to a few users on Reddit, the latest update applied a rather noticeable ‘Get Office 365’ ad at the bottom of the application’s left pane. What’s more, this only seems to appear for those using hotmail.com or outlook.com accounts, not those from other email providers. There doesn’t seem to be any way to turn the ad off, nor does it appear to be rolled out to everyone at the time of writing.

This is not too different from the banners in File Explorer that nudged users to upgrade to Office 365 and get 1TB of OneDrive space, or the pop-ups to use Edge if the user is on Chrome. It's also similar to the ad you'd get on the web as an Outlook.com free user.

With all that in mind, this will most likely rub some folks the wrong away, and it certainly raises the question of whether Microsoft should advertise its services in such a way on its platform.

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