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Microsoft Windows 10 April 2018 Update aims to shield us from notifications

The new Windows 10 April 2018 Update, available for free April 30, will include several new features. But the most valuable may be the least obvious.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Notifications are both one of the most revolutionary inventions of the mobile age, and one of the most hated features on our devices.

The little nudges typically appear as a number sitting atop an app's icon or a text alert telling you about anything from President Donald Trump's latest tweet to a friend's beautiful vacation photo posted to Instagram. And they're everywhere. Which is why they need to be tamed.

Microsoft thinks it has a solution.

The answer, it says, is in a new feature called "Focus Assist," due April 30 as part of the company's free "April 2018 Update" for all PCs powered by Microsoft's Windows 10 software.

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Here's how Focus Assist works: You can set times when you don't want notifications to bother you, such as during key work hours or when you plug in a second display for a presentation or when you're playing a game. During those periods, Windows will keep alerts at bay.

This isn't just to answer frustration. Microsoft found that people spend an average of 23 minutes per day regrouping and getting back on task after being distracted by a notification.

"It's an incredible amount of time," said Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president of the Windows and Devices group at Microsoft. Focus Assist engages in a sort of "attention hacking," he said, to help you avoid those notifications and get that time back.

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Microsoft is updating its Windows software twice a year.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Microsoft isn't the only company that's trying to solve this problem. Apple and Google offer features like this called "Do Not Disturb," but they tend to be mostly an all-or-nothing proposition.

With Microsoft's system, you can allow some people's messages or emails to get through. Or you can let an app, like Slack for work, still send notifications while you're hunting down foes in Fortnite

"For me it's been night and day," Mehdi said. "When I use a different device, I really realize it's missing."

The April update to Windows comes as part of Microsoft's now twice-yearly efforts to tinker with its software. In the past, these types of refinements would come in large new "versions" of Windows, with massive marketing pushes behind them urging people to update from Windows 7, for example, to Windows 8.

But with Windows 10, Microsoft has taken an approach similar to that of Apple and Google, releasing regular updates with changes both large and small in an effort to keep Windows feeling fresh.

In the past, these updates included support for virtual reality and augmented reality headsets, a new version of Microsoft Paint, and refinements for Microsoft's Cortana voice assistant.

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Microsoft's hoping to make it easier for you to pick up where you left off with a new "Timeline" feature.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

Other refinements

Microsoft is offering a few other features along with this latest Windows update as well.

One, called "Near Share," is designed to make it easier to send movies, music, files or whatever else from one computer to another. Bluetooth devices, like headsets, mice and keyboards, should also be easier to connect with a computer. And -- a sure crowd-pleaser -- if things go according to plan, the update will take less time to install.

Perhaps the other big feature people will look toward is Timeline. This function, teased last year, will show all the work you've done on a computer in a reverse-chronological list, making it easy to pick up where you left off and switch between apps running on a phone and a computer.

Mehdi said all these efforts amount to a mix of ambitious and bite-sized updates. Some cases, like Focus Assist and Timeline, could potentially change the way we use computers. Smaller updates, like making the Cortana voice assistant work with more devices, are nice-to-haves.

"We feel good about what we've been able to accomplish," Mehdi said.

Windows 10 April 2018 Update: Everything you need to know: How to prepare, when to download and more.

How to download Windows 10 April 2018 Update right now: Why wait for April 30?