The Internet may have fun trying to guess the next natural feature of California or animal alliteration name for the other major operating systems, but Windows build naming conventions can be downright hard to parse. The latest officially released build was originally known as 20H1—meaning the first half of 2020. As it got closer to release status, it received its official build number: 2004, meaning April 2020. However, it didn’t actually hit release status for another month, on May 27.
Maybe that’s all indicative of what awaits users when they finally upgrade to Windows 10 2004; this is not Microsoft pumping out major changes like its debut of Windows 2000 roughly two decades ago. Still, a new Windows release is a new Windows release. So we recently spun up a fresh VM with a clean install of Build 2004 to take a look at its new features.
Edge, Installation size, Search, and Kaomoji
The very first thing we noticed after a fresh install of Build 2004 was Edge. To be specific, Legacy Edge. You’ll still need to go out of your way to install the new and improved Chromium-based Edge, which we’re going to keep calling “Edgium” until the legacy version finishes going away.
Using Windirstat to pull a directory treemap on the brand-new Windows 10 2004 installation, we see 14GiB used. It’s worth noting that this 14GiB is before either installing any applications, or—and this is important—hitting Windows Update.
Windows Update will still tend to bloat up the operating system pretty rapidly, and the SxS directory in particular still balloons with legacy versions of code that has been replaced in security upgrades. Unfortunately, you cannot remove any of that without damaging your OS. There are methods to reduce the size of SxS (pronounced Side by Side) somewhat, but they’re limited and kind of a pain in the butt. Even the optimized results still get inexorably larger over time.
Although there’s no Edgium, 2004’s Internet access did get modernized in one unexpected place—the Start menu. We’re not really big fans of searching the Internet directly from a Start menu—we prefer a little more logical separation between what’s local and what’s remote. If you’re into that, though, you can do things like type “weather” into the Start bar and get attractively formatted Internet results directly in the menu itself without ever opening a real browser.
Speaking of search, Microsoft says it noticed how commonly people were turning its Search Indexer service off, so the company took several steps to try to convince users to turn this back on. Microsoft’s search indexer now recognizes many new signals of high disk activity—or potential high disk activity—that trigger it to either slow down or entirely pause its disk activity:
- Gaming mode is on
- Power savings mode is on
- Low power mode is on (constrained mode or connected standby)
- The device is waking up after being in low power mode or in a log-on state
- Device goes from AC > DC
- CPU usage goes above 80 percent
- Disk usage goes above 70 percent
- The device’s battery charge is less than 50 percent
- The device’s display state goes to screen off
Microsoft pretty aggressively polls its Windows Insiders running preview builds, and it says that the results of pop-up dialogs asking Insiders why they’d disabled Search Index showed significant improvement after the new signals were in place.
Beyond Internet and search, what else is new? Emoji and kaomoji. If you’ve been using the smileyface button in social media sites to get access to emoji from your Windows PC or laptop, you’re doing it wrong. Any standard graphical text interface on Windows—including Notepad—provides direct access to emoji by using the keyboard shortcut [Windows key] + [.].
The [Windows key] + [.] shortcut to bring up an emoji selection panel is pretty old news—it has been in Windows since Build 1803. And in Build 1903, the emoji panel added kaomoji support. Kaomoji are traditional, generally elaborate text-mode constructions such as the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ shruggie. Build 2004 adds significantly to the kaomoji section of the emoji panel, adding classics like ヾ(⌐■_■)ノ♪ and (∩^o^)⊃━☆ to its repertoire.
Listing image by Jim Salter
Windows Subsystem for Linux, version 2
In our opinion, the two most exciting new things happening in the Windows world are Edgium and WSL2 (Windows Subsystem for Linux 2.0). Since Edgium is still not a default part of a Windows install in 2004, that leaves us focused on WSL2.
Unlike its version 1 predecessor, Windows Subsystem for Linux 2.0 runs as a virtual machine, with a real, no-kidding Linux kernel. Technically, there’s not much difference between running WSL2 and running a full-on Linux virtual machine in Hyper-V. But from a user perspective, it’s much more tightly integrated with the Windows experience than a “normal VM” would be, with—for example—your Windows filesystem automatically mounted and available within your WSL2 Linux environment.
Installing WSL2 is still, frankly, kind of a mess. Following Microsoft’s documentation, we first enabled both WSL and the VM hosting feature on the command line, in Powershell, then rebooted so that the VM hosting feature installation could finish. The next step, unfortunately, was missing from that first set of docs. Before we could set the WSL version to 2, we had to find a different set of docs, unreferenced by the first.
From the WSL2 kernel update documentation site, we manually downloaded and installed a WSL2 Linux kernel update package. With that done, we could return to the Powershell CLI and successfully
wsl --set-default-version 2—and with that done, leave both Powershell and the browser, this time heading to the Microsoft Store to download and install a Linux distribution. (We chose Ubuntu 20.04.)
All of this works, but it’s incredibly messy. It should be much easier to get a WSL2 installation going—ideally, in a single step, whether command-line or graphical. And if there must be multiple steps, they should at least be within the same interface, and all steps referenced cleanly in order in a single set of docs.
Once you’ve got your WSL2 VM up and running, it’s a little exciting if you’re a Linux person. For almost all intents and purposes, you’ve got yourself a real Linux system inside your Windows system, with fully native code including all kernel syscalls (not just some emulated APIs patched through to the Windows kernel) and all devices working.
The one big fly in the ointment is that there’s currently no bridge mode available for your WSL2 VM’s network interface. The way things work now, your Windows 10 PC creates a virtual subnet, with NAT between it and the LAN on the Windows 10 PC’s real network interface. Your WSL2 VMs then get addresses within that virtual subnet, assigned by DHCP.
This makes things a little painful in terms of your own Windows 10 PC accessing network services on your WSL2 VM—after all, it may not get the same virtual IP address every time it’s booted—but at least your Windows 10 PC can access the WSL2 VM’s network ports directly (as shown in the screenshot above). If you know the VM’s internal IP address, you can ping it or access any TCP or UDP ports on it at will.
Things get even more complex, unfortunately, if you want to make those services available to other computers on the network besides the host. Now you’ll need complex port forwarding, possibly routing, dynamic firewall entries on the Windows 10 host, and so forth.
The best answer to this problem so far comes from a developer named Edwin Dijas who describes himself as “no expert at security nor scripting, and technically new to the Windows OS.” It works—but it’s very complex and fragile. We wouldn’t want to rely on it for anything that had to work for very long.
This lack of proper bridge mode for the WSL2 VM is another area we devoutly hope Microsoft gets cleaned up soon. It’s great that we can run Linux-native services such as Nginx, PostgreSQL, and BIND9 efficiently and easily inside WSL2 VMs, but the inability to just as efficiently and reliably make those services available to the whole network limits that utility sharply.
Virtual Desktops and Task Manager get minor upgrades
Windows 10 began previewing Linux-style Virtual Desktops in March 2019, and it made them generally available beginning with last Fall’s Build 1909. For those who aren’t familiar, Virtual Desktops give users a way to separate applications into functional groups with less clutter. For example, you might have Photoshop, Lightroom, and an instance of Edgium open to a stock images site on one virtual desktop, and your email, a company intranet site, and an instance of Teams open on another.
The new addition in Build 2004 is relatively minor: before, each Virtual Desktop a user created would be automatically and immutably named with a number—”Desktop One,” “Desktop Two,” and so forth. Beginning with Build 2004, users can give each of their Virtual Desktops a name of their choosing, whether functional or frivolous. You might name three Virtual Desktops Browsing, Company, and Design—or Elrond, Frodo, and Gandalf. Windows 10 won’t judge, and neither will we.
If you’re not familiar with how to get to Virtual Desktops in the first place, you should probably take a look even if you have no intention of using them. That’s because in 2004, they’re exposed within another feature many Windows users may not know about yet, called Task View. Pressing Win+Tab brings up both Task View and the Virtual Desktops.
Task View itself is basically like a browser history, only for apps, folders, and documents accessed on the computer. If you’re only logged in with a local account, Task View history goes back 24 hours. But if you’re logged in with a Microsoft cloud account, it can go back up to 30 full days.
Not every application knows how to make an entry in Task View, so it’s not a perfect record of what you’ve done on that system. But as you can see in our screenshot above, it does show a lot of what you’ve done. If you’re using a shared computer, you may not want the next user getting a visual blast of everything you’ve installed, run, browsed, and opened in big, bright panels. But luckily, just like a browser history, Task View’s history can be selectively edited, manually cleared, or disabled entirely to address privacy concerns.
Finally, Task Manager gets a couple of minor but welcome visual updates—when selecting any disk under the Performance tab, the make and model of that disk is displayed along with its logical address, drive letter, and performance data. For example, we’re running Windows 10 Build 2004 in a virtual machine under Ubuntu, so our C: drive shows up as “Red Hat VirtIO SCSI Disk Device.” In systems with a dedicated GPU, that GPU’s temperature is also visible on the Performance tab.
If you’re into Microsoft’s Digital Assistant, you’ll get some nice updates with Build 2004. Cortana can now parse spoken or typed natural language queries to handle a wide range of productivity and scheduling related tasks across the Office365 suite.
Microsoft foreshadowed this focus shift back in February, when they announced the removal of consumer “skills” and local account integration to focus on further Office365 integration. Cortana’s Office365 natural language queries now include finding and learning about contacts, scheduling and reviewing meetings and appointments, creating lists and reminders, and even opening applications.
- Open Word.
- Open Wi-Fi settings.
- Remind me to pick up dog food at 6pm.
- Add “call Dave at 4pm about the pod bay doors” to my task list.
- Who is Jeff?
- Who is Jeff’s boss?
- Who’s my next meeting with?
- When is my next meeting with Eric?
- Book a meeting with Zaphod at nine PM about his second head.
In addition to the extended natural language capabilities, Cortana’s desktop window can now be dragged to a more convenient location on the desktop if its normal spot is in your way.
New DirectX 12 features
Windows 10 Build 2004 brings access to new DirectX 12 features—DirectX Raytracing Tier 1.1, DirectX Mesh Shader, DirectX Sampler Feedback, and more. We covered most of these features extensively in March with the announcement of DirectX 12 Ultimate, which unifies Xbox Series X and Windows gaming PC featuresets.
In addition to the above features, DirectX 12 in Build 2004 offers DRED support for PIX markers, new D3D9on12 mapping layer APIs, R11G11B10_FLOAT format for shared resources, new resource allocation flags, and the D3DConfig tool, which manages DirectX Control Panel settings.
Last but not least of the Build 2004 features that stood out to us, the Windows Sandbox—first introduced in build 1903—gets a barrage of improved capabilities and configuration settings. We’ll list the changes, but first let’s talk a little about what the Sandbox is and does.
If you need to experiment with changes to your Windows system that are difficult, impossible, or untrustworthy to safely undo, the Sandbox is your friend. It’s a working clone of your Windows system that runs inside a protected VM, but it’s automatically instantiated from scratch each time the Sandbox is opened. All changes are destroyed each time it’s closed.
This was our first time actually using the Sandbox. It’s immediately and obviously useful. As a demonstration, since our brand-new Windows 10 Build 2004 system came with legacy Edge only, we used the Sandbox to test install Edgium without any potential of irrevocably altering the “real” environment.
First, we went to Programs and Features from the Control Panel and selected Turn Windows Features On and Off from the left sidebar. In the Features dialog, we can then tick the box for Windows Sandbox. Once that’s done, and the feature is installed, Sandbox can be started from the Start menu—which spawns a window containing a new, Inception-style copy of your system’s own desktop.
Although you can’t drag and drop files from the “real” environment to the Sandbox, you can copy and paste them—which is exactly what we did with Edgium’s installer MSI. Once on the Sandbox’s desktop, we double-clicked it, and installation went quickly, smoothly, and just as you would expect. Once done, we had a fully installed and functioning Edgium to play with inside the Sandbox—without having disturbed legacy Edge in the real environment.
If you’re already using and intimately familiar with the Sandbox, here are the specific features and changes new to Build 2004:
- MappedFolders now supports a destination folder
- AudioInput/VideoInput settings now enable you to share their host microphone or webcam with the Sandbox
ProtectedClient is a new security setting that runs the connection to the Sandbox with extra security settings enabled (disabled by default, due to issues with copy and paste)
- PrinterRedirection: Host printer sharing with the Sandbox can now be enabled or disabled
- ClipboardRedirection: Host clipboard sharing with the Sandbox can now be enabled or disabled
- MemoryInMB can specify the maximum memory usage of the Sandbox
- Windows Media Player is added back to the Sandbox image
- Microphone support is now available inside the Sandbox
- The audio input device can now be configured via the Windows Sandbox config file
- Shift + Alt + PrintScreen now activates the ease of access dialog for enabling high contrast mode
- Ctrl + Alt + Break now toggles fullscreen mode