Microsoft wanted everyone to use Windows 10.
Faced with slow adoption of Windows 8 and the stubborn popularity of Windows 7, Microsoft made Windows 10 a free upgrade for anyone using either version—the offer technically expired years ago, but to this day, old Windows 7 and 8 product keys still activate Windows 10 without protest. The OS was billed as a return to form that would appeal to people put off by Windows 8’s divisive touchscreen-oriented interface while still retaining touch-friendly features for people who had bought a PC tablet or a laptop with a touchscreen.
Windows 10 would be long-lived, too. Some in the company billed it as “the last version of Windows”—one big, stable platform that would simultaneously placate change-averse users, huge IT shops that would have kept using Windows XP forever if they had been allowed to, and software developers who would no longer need to worry about supporting multiple wildly different generations of Windows at once. Windows could still change, but a new twice-a-year servicing model would keep that change coming at a slow-but-consistent pace that everyone could keep up with.
Microsoft actually accomplished its main goal with Windows 10: by any measure, it is the most widespread and most universally accepted version of Windows since XP. Statcounter says that nearly 80 percent of all Windows systems worldwide run Windows 10; the Steam Hardware survey pegs Windows 10 usage at or above 90 percent, suggesting an even greater level of acceptance among enthusiasts.
Those top-line numbers do require some context. Microsoft has put out a dozen-ish distinct releases that are all called Windows 10, and the newest version of Windows 10 is at least as different from the version that launched in 2015 as (say) Windows 7 was from Windows Vista. But in theory, nearly every computer with Windows 10 installed will eventually be updated to the newest version, and that gives Microsoft a larger and more consistent platform than it has had in a very long time.
The problem for Microsoft is that achieving one goal—the same version of Windows running on almost all PCs—hasn’t necessarily had the results that Microsoft was hoping for. Make Windows 10 big enough, the thinking went, and developers would be more willing to migrate from their old Win32 apps to newer Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps and easy distribution through the Microsoft Store. And since UWP apps would be able to run not just on PCs but also on Xbox and Windows Phone, speedy Windows 10 adoption in the Windows-dominated PC industry would kick off a virtuous cycle that would bolster Microsoft’s other hardware and software efforts.
That part never really happened. UWP apps never took off, and Microsoft’s new play to make the Microsoft Store relevant is to allow developers to submit whatever kinds of apps they want to it. The Xbox, while successful, remains narrowly focused on gaming and media-streaming. And Windows Phone is dead, murdered by a combination of user and developer disinterest driven by confusing messaging and baffling corporate neglect.
And that’s at least part of the reason why, after a release that treated widespread adoption as its primary goal, Microsoft is releasing a brand-new version of Windows that isn’t even supported on computers more than 3 or 4 years old. “Windows Everywhere” was ambitious, but the dream is dead. Microsoft has shifted its focus to providing solid versions of its apps on iOS and Android, and even Microsoft’s modern-day phones run a Microsoft-flavored version of Android rather than anything Windows-related. The new version of Windows is more preoccupied with the places where Windows already is and is likely to stay—risk-averse, money-rich, security-conscious businesses. There are plenty of user-facing changes, sure, but the PCs that run Windows 11 (at least officially) need to support a range of hardware- and firmware-level security mechanisms that are fully supported but optional in Windows 10.
(The more cynical take is that the new requirements are meant to drive new PC sales, an interpretation made all the more plausible by ongoing pandemic-driven PC part shortages and price increases. I personally find Microsoft’s security rationale compelling, but there’s not no evidence to support this more nefarious read of the company’s intentions.)
We’ll focus on those security features and system requirements in this review while also covering the new design and the broad strokes of new and updated apps and the other changes Microsoft has made to Windows under the hood. We’re also planning separate coverage about a few specific areas of the operating system, including gaming, new Linux subsystem features, and how it runs on older “unsupported” hardware; we’ll link those pieces here as they go live.
Table of Contents
- New system requirements
- UEFI Secure Boot
- TPM 2.0
- A “compatible” processor
- The hardware I used
- A free upgrade (or downgrade)
- Windows-as-a-service lives on
- A new look
- More consistency, but still haunted by the past
- A new sound
- A redesigned user interface: Taskbar
- Start menu
- System tray and notifications
- Touch and ink changes
- Windows Explorer
- Context menus
- Snap Layouts and a smarter Snap for portrait mode
- Other window management tweaks
- App highlights
- Microsoft Teams, now built in
- Microsoft Store
- Clock and “focus sessions”
- Snipping Tool
- Under construction
- Grab bag
- Microphone usage indicator
- Smaller disk footprint and smaller updates
- 64-bit x86 emulation on ARM
- Terminal replaces Powershell
- Improved voice dictation
- Selecting a default browser is more annoying (sometimes)
- Android apps aren’t here yet
- RIP 32-bit Windows (1993-2021)
- App removals
- A good, if rough, new Windows with a PR problem
- The Good
- The Bad
- The Ugly
New system requirements
Windows’ system requirements have almost always been about performance—the minimum processor speed, disk space, and amount of memory Microsoft thinks your computer will need to run Windows acceptably. Windows 11 still has performance-based system requirements, but they take a back seat to the new security requirements. There’s also a long list of additional feature-specific hardware requirements, which we won’t cover here.
Here’s the bare minimum:
- A “compatible” 1 GHz or faster dual-core 64-bit processor from Intel, AMD, or Qualcomm.
- 4GB of RAM.
- 64GB of storage.
- UEFI Secure Boot supported and enabled.
- A Trusted Platform Module (TPM), version 2.0.
- A DirectX 12-compatible GPU with a WDDM 2.0 driver.
- A 720p display larger than 9 inches in size.
- Windows 11 Home requires a Microsoft account and Internet connectivity; Windows 11 Pro can still be used with a local account. Windows 10 Home used to let you create a local account as long as you didn’t connect to the Internet during setup, but that trick no longer works.
The processor compatibility requirement is by far the most restrictive, limiting Windows 11’s official support list to computers built no more than 3 or 4 years ago. With just a handful of exceptions, you’ll need an 8th-generation or newer Intel Core processor (or a Pentium or Celeron CPU based on the same Kaby Lake-R or Coffee Lake architectures) or a 2nd-generation AMD Ryzen CPU or newer (not counting the Ryzen 2200G and 2400G APUs, which are technically based on the first AMD Zen architecture and not the required Zen+). Newer Qualcomm chips in Windows 10-era ARM tablets, like those in the Surface Pro X or HP’s Elite Folio, are supported, too.
If your computer meets the “compatible processor” requirements, it is practically guaranteed to meet the others, since all recent PCs will support Secure Boot and include built-in TPM 2.0 functionality. Microsoft’s PC Health Check app can confirm whether your PC is officially supported, and if your PC fails the check, it will tell you what (if anything) you can do about it.
It’s possible (with varying degrees of difficulty, depending on your computer’s hardware) to install Windows 11 on unsupported hardware. We’ll dive deeper into the specifics of this in a separate piece. The short version is that it’s possible to install Windows 11 on pretty much any 64-bit PC that runs Windows 10 if you use some registry hacks, and it’s possible to do a clean install from a USB drive on any computer that supports Secure Boot and any kind of TPM (even older TPM 1.2 modules).
Microsoft has reserved the right to withhold even routine security updates from unsupported machines; in practice, I suspect routine security patches will download and install without incident but that you’ll need to jump through more hoops to install Windows 11’s yearly servicing updates. Regardless, you can expect installing, running, and maintaining Windows 11 on unsupported hardware to be more difficult than just continuing to run Windows 10 on the same hardware.
Microsoft has long mandated different requirements for Windows based on who’s buying it. A PC-maker who wants to sell a PC with an official Windows sticker on it needs to meet requirements that regular end users don’t need to meet to install Windows on an older or custom-built PC, including Secure Boot and TPM support. This is just the first time that those kinds of features are being required across the board to run the operating system at all, which is why breaking them down in more detail is worth our time.
UEFI Secure Boot
Secure Boot has been included in all OEM Windows PCs since Windows 8, a feature intended to prevent the loading of malware during the boot process by requiring bootloaders and other software to be signed. The Windows installer seems to treat all Secure Boot implementations the same, whether you’re trying to install Windows 11 on a computer that shipped with Windows 8, 8.1, or 10—Secure Boot support is Secure Boot support.
Back when it was originally announced, there was hand-wringing among Linux users in particular who worried that Secure Boot support would make it more difficult or impossible to run Linux or other operating systems on PCs designed for Windows. That fear has since proved unfounded—many computers allow you to turn Secure Boot off and use UEFI’s legacy boot (also called “CSM”) functionality instead. Major Linux distributions circumvent the issue entirely by using a Secure Boot “shim” bootloader so that installing Linux on a Secure Boot PC is indistinguishable from installing it on anything else. Even the Debian wiki acknowledges that “UEFI Secure Boot is not an attempt by Microsoft to lock Linux out of the PC market” or “to lock users out of controlling their own systems.” So we are a far cry from where the rhetoric was a decade ago.
Of all Windows 11’s requirements, Secure Boot should be the least controversial.
TPMs have been included in most business-class PCs for something like 15 years. Microsoft began requiring TPM 2.0 modules in all new OEM PCs in January 2015 or July 2016 (depending on who you ask). TPMs used to be their own discrete chips, but the TPMs in most PCs now are “firmware TPMs” that use the trusted execution mode on your CPU to keep the TPM functions separated from the other software you’re running. All Intel and AMD processors made within the last five or six years include firmware TPM support, though you’ll sometimes need to enable it in your BIOS, especially if you have a custom-built desktop.
TPMs handle quiet in-the-background features, primarily related to disk encryption and Windows Hello authentication—if your TPM is working properly, you’ll never notice it at all. For example, if you use BitLocker to encrypt your hard drive in a PC, you will need to provide a key to “unlock” your disk every time you boot your PC. You could type that in manually every time, or you can store the key on a USB stick that you insert every time you boot, but neither option is very convenient. A TPM is an internal component that can provide that key automatically without exposing it to theft.
If you’re worried that TPMs are in some way nefarious and are going to be used to lock down your computer, the bad news for you is that just about any modern PC, phone, or tablet is relying on some kind of TPM or TPM-like device to provide disk encryption and other security protections. ChromeOS uses TPMs, Android phones use TPMs or equivalent features, and Apple’s devices all use the “Secure Enclave” to handle many TPM-ish functions. At least most Windows PCs give you the option to disable the TPM if you really want to. But as with Secure Boot, the most dire predictions about TPM’s threat to standardized PC hardware never came to pass, and you’re better off just leaving it enabled.
The biggest problem with the TPM requirement was the way Microsoft communicated the requirement: a TPM went from “important but mostly invisible” to “new top-line requirement to run Windows on your computer at all” in the space of one afternoon without adequate explanation. This caused a brief panic and a run on (totally unnecessary) standalone TPMs by the same scalpers who have been making PC builders’ lives miserable all year.
If you’re using a processor on Windows 11’s support list, your computer includes a firmware TPM. But if you built it yourself, the TPM might not be enabled. Many motherboard vendors have released BIOS updates that enable the TPM by default to get computers ready for Windows 11. For others, it’s usually as simple as toggling a setting. Many Intel boards refer to the TPM as “Platform Trust Technology,” or PTT; on the AMD boards I’ve used, it’s generally just called an “fTPM.”
A “compatible” processor
Windows 11’s processor compatibility list isn’t about raw performance—some processors left off the lists are definitely faster than some of the listed processors. In theory, Windows 11 needs some under-the-hood security features that are only included in very recent processors. But in practice, this is the hand-waviest of the new security requirements (which is too bad, because it’s the most restrictive).
Microsoft hasn’t spelled this out as clearly as it could, but the best rationale for the processor requirement is that these chips (mostly) support something called “mode-based execution control,” or MBEC. MBEC provides hardware acceleration for an optional memory integrity feature in Windows (also known as hypervisor-protected code integrity, or HVCI) that can be enabled on any Windows 10 or Windows 11 PC but can come with hefty performance penalties for older processors without MBEC support. We’ve covered HVCI and MBEC in more detail here.
Assuming MBEC support was Microsoft’s goal here, there are two big problems. The first is that not all processors that support it are on the Windows 11 support list (most notably 7th-generation Intel Core CPUs). Some processors that are on the list don’t appear to support MBEC (namely AMD’s Ryzen 2000-series CPUs and their Zen+ architecture). This may be why Microsoft doesn’t explicitly call out MBEC support in any of its posts on the Windows 11 requirements; you have to dig further into the company’s documentation to have it spelled out that HVCI works best with MBEC and that MBEC is only available in Intel Kaby Lake or AMD Zen 2 processors and newer.
The other problem is that HVCI isn’t even enabled by default in Windows 11. To enable it, open the Windows Security app, navigate to Device security, click Core isolation details, and turn on Memory integrity. This is the exact same way the feature already works in Windows 10. Microsoft does advise OEMs to enable it by default on new systems with 11th-generation Intel Core or AMD Zen 2 processors and newer, though, even then, it’s not a strict requirement. This is, again, the state of the feature as it currently exists in Windows 10.
It may be that enabling HVCI by default for all Windows 11 installs and upgrades on all supported PCs could cause compatibility problems or slowdowns in some cases (it does, for example, interfere with some virtualization software, as I encountered when writing this review). And maybe Microsoft doesn’t want Windows 11 to be associated with those kinds of problems. Equally likely is that cutting the 2- to 3-year-old Ryzen 2000 lineup from the compatibility list would have caused even more of a backlash (and accusations of Intel favoritism) than Microsoft was prepared to deal with.
Another theory: older processors are more likely to be running in old systems that haven’t had their firmware updated to mitigate major hardware-level vulnerabilities that have been discovered in the last few years, like Spectre and Meltdown and their progeny. Intel and AMD have continually released updates to mitigate these flaws in older processors. To benefit from those fixes, however, your laptop- or motherboard-maker needs to release new BIOS versions that integrated the fixes (unlikely if you’re not using a business-class desktop or laptop from a major PC company). After that, you need to take it upon yourself to install those updates, which is even less likely for most people. But if this is part of the rationale, Microsoft hasn’t advertised it.
The point is that there’s no one easy explanation for why the CPU support list is the way it is, and we’re left guessing about the rationale. And this is why that cynical argument about Windows 11—that it’s a ploy to sell new PCs to people who don’t need them yet—resonates. Never mind that Windows 10 will continue to receive security updates through at least 2025 and that its ubiquity (and underlying similarity to Windows 11) means that most major apps will continue to support it for years.
Microsoft’s communication on this subject raises too many questions and provides too few satisfactory answers. And for computers that are already out there, installing Windows 11 doesn’t seem to actually improve security in any way that wasn’t already possible with Windows 10—getting more people to enable Secure Boot and TPM 2.0 on their self-built systems is good for the platform’s security as a whole, but these features are already enabled on Windows 10 PCs made and sold by major OEMs. And that accounts for the vast majority of PCs out there, particularly in businesses and governments that stand to gain the most from improved security.
The hardware I used
Because we’ve talked so much about the hardware requirements, I did want to talk for a minute about the hardware I used the most while testing Windows 11.
The system I relied on the most was a ThinkPad L380 Yoga with a Core i5-8250U, integrated graphics, a 512GB SSD, and 16GB of RAM. This was the first PC I installed the Insider Preview builds on, and it’s the one that most of this review was written on and based on. This is by no means an ancient, slow, or bad computer, but Windows 11’s new requirements make it one of the oldest kinds of PCs that will officially run the software. By running the software primarily on a decidedly middle-of-the-road laptop rather than a high-end custom-built desktop or a shiny new Surface, I hoped to come away with impressions that will better reflect what most people will see on the hardware they’re already using.
I used Windows 11 the next most often on my gaming desktop, which uses a Core i7-10700K CPU, a Radeon RX 6800 GPU, 32GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD. This is a reasonably modern system that doesn’t stumble much, but while I did start from a clean install on the laptop, on the desktop I did an in-place upgrade of my Windows 10 install with a near-final build of the software.
Over the course of the previews, I’ve run Windows 11 on a wide range of other supported and unsupported hardware, but those two account for the bulk of my experience with the OS. I’ll be reporting more on my experience with unsupported hardware in a separate piece.
A free upgrade (or downgrade)
Windows 11 will be a free upgrade for everyone running Windows 10 on a supported PC (unless you’re in a business, where the normal volume-licensing rules and rates apply). Microsoft formally only provided the free upgrade from Windows 7 and 8 to Windows 10 for a year, but it hasn’t said anything about an end date for the Windows 11 upgrade offer.
Microsoft doesn’t appear to have changed anything about how Windows 11 is activated or licensed compared to Windows 10. Unsupported PCs running Windows 10 can be upgraded to Windows 11 at no charge, and old Windows 7 and Windows 8 product keys still seem to activate the equivalent editions of Windows 11. This hasn’t technically been “allowed” for years, but Microsoft doesn’t seem interested in disallowing it either. Make of this what you will.
You should take this with a grain of salt, but on the handful of PCs we’ve tested that are shipping with Windows 11, you should also be able to install and activate the same edition of Windows 10 without any problems. Technically, only the Pro versions of Windows grant these so-called “downgrade rights” when pre-installed on a computer by an OEM (PDF). But there doesn’t appear to be anything technically preventing you from doing it with the Home version of Windows as long as you can get Windows 10 drivers for whatever you’re using.
Windows-as-a-service lives on
Microsoft isn’t abandoning one piece of its “Windows-as-a-service” strategy: Windows 11 will still receive major “servicing updates” on a regular cadence, and these updates will include new features and UI tweaks that are separate from routine security patches. But while Windows 10 received two major numbered updates a year, Windows 11 will only receive one. The current release of Windows is Windows 11 21H2 (Windows 10 also has a 21H2, so the distinction is important). The next release will presumably be 22H2, about a year from now.
I think this strategy makes sense in the long term, but I do worry about it a little in the short term. In the last couple of years, Windows 10’s twice-yearly update schedule has settled into a cadence where the fall release makes bigger changes and the spring release is nearly invisible. But in its first couple of years, the changes came at a faster clip, and they helped address early problems and made Windows 10’s UI more usable and consistent.
Throughout the rest of this review, we’ll identify a sizable list of early problems with Windows 11. We can probably expect bugs to be fixed quickly. But when it comes to larger changes—like restoring lost functionality to the taskbar and system tray or continuing to modernize still-untouched parts of the user interface—will we need to wait a year for that to happen?
Any design that shifts as much as Windows 11’s has is going to benefit from a bunch of small, quick updates and tweaks to address the most common complaints and pain points. I hope Microsoft leaves itself room to make those kinds of changes without having to wait until this time next year to implement them.
A new look
Windows 10 re-centered Windows around the desktop and the Start menu, but it refined rather than abandoned the paean to flat design that was Windows 8. Once dubbed “Metro,” Windows 8 (and later, 10) was high-contrast and monochromatic where Windows 7 had been textured and gradient-ed, squared-off and minimalist where Windows 7 was rounded and glassy. It was part of the design wave that killed pseudo-realistic “skeuomorphic” design, but it was also guilty of that design era’s sins, including swaths of blank space and buttons that don’t look like buttons.
At this point, most operating systems have taken at least a couple of steps back from some of those ideas. Dubbed “neuomorphism” by some designers, this course correction retains the flat-design-era’s love of bright, bold colors. But modern operating systems have been reinstating texture, shadow, detail, and depth without skeuomorphism’s wholesale recreation of real-world objects.
This is what Windows 11’s design is doing. Where Windows 10’s design had flat, unbroken menus, Windows 11 adds boundaries and padding to give them shape. Where Windows 10 used monochromatic textureless icons, Windows 11 adds color and shading. And where Windows 8 and 10 were both defined by squared-off Live Tiles and right angles, Windows 11 is round. It’s round everywhere. The window corners are round, the buttons are round, the separators that break up settings menus are round. Microsoft has carefully inspected the house that is Windows and childproofed all the corners so that no one hurts themselves.
I’ll say this as someone who never hated the Windows 8/10-era design but also never really loved it: I do like how Windows 11 looks. New transitional animations when you open, close, or maximize windows, the way that icons in the taskbar or the Start menu contract when you click them, or how icons spring up from the bottom of the screen when you open an app that’s not already pinned. When everything’s working right and animating smoothly, these changes collectively create a striking sense of motion and fluidity in the operating system. Some subset of the Windows userbase is going to complain about this, as has happened every time Microsoft has made Windows look like anything other than Windows 2000. But, overall, the changes are a solid evolution of the Windows 8/10-era design.
Apart from rounded corners, Windows 11’s design is defined by animation, which starts from the moment you first boot it up and is visible any time you manipulate a window, open or close an app, fill in a checkbox or radio bubble, or click an icon on the taskbar or in the Start menu. And I’m not talking about the subtle fade-in of windows or the way the Start menu would quickly pop up from the bottom of your screen—everything across Windows 11 has a springiness and bounciness that’s often subtle but always noticeable. Microsoft calls this “Motion Design,” and it’s a core element of Windows’ new look and feel.
The level of detail in Microsoft’s documentation about motion in Windows 11 makes clear that that was the part of the Windows 10X experiment that was the most developed when it was scrapped and rolled into regular Windows. Taskbar icons contract when clicked or touched, creating an illusion of depth, and the icons also bump downward when windows are minimized and bump upward when they’re maximized. Anything that flies out from the taskbar flies up and then back down in a consistent way, from the Start menu to the Search UI to the system tray. “Page transitions” and “connected animations” create the sense that each app has a physical layout—every pane in the Settings app or Microsoft Store app, for example, comes in from somewhere when summoned and retreats to that same place when dismissed.
As in recent macOS versions, Microsoft also creates depth in Windows 11 by allowing app windows to sample your underlying desktop background and working subtle hints of those colors into app windows. This “material” is called Mica, and it’s the most visible in the Settings app, in the Start, Search, and context menus, in the Windows Explorer window chrome, and other places throughout the OS. (If you don’t like the transparency feature, there’s an easy toggle in the Personalization settings. I find the effect more obvious in dark mode than in light mode.)
The wallpaper-sampling effect that Mica creates only applies to the currently focused window, which can help you distinguish between active and inactive windows when they’re all using Mica somewhere (but doesn’t help as much when you’re using a mix of Mica and non-Mica windows). The Settings app and Windows Explorer show two subtly different Mica implementations—Settings uses Mica coloring for all content in the window, where Explorer uses it for the titlebar and top-of-window controls but not the sidebar or the area where the app’s content actually lives. The built-in Windows apps that use Mica also use it for their title bar all the time, even if you tell Windows to use your accent color in title bars.
Along with all these window-design changes, Windows 11 changes its approach to the way it uses icons and text throughout the UI. In Explorer windows and right-click context menus, you’ll find that most text throughout the interface has either been paired with or totally replaced by small two- or three-color icons (more on how the context menus work later). These generally simplify and clean up the apps and menus they’re in, occasionally at the cost of clarity. It’s always immediately clear what printed words like “Copy” or “Paste” mean in an app’s menu, but you do risk a little confusion when you turn them into text-free icons like “one rectangle sitting on top of another rectangle” and “clipboard with a rectangle on top of it” (respectively).
When used in apps like Explorer, the icons are playing into another modern-day design trend: a desire to hide or minimize an app’s UI and leave more room for the “content” part of the app. Apple uses the same argument a lot in macOS.
This approach to design always risks irritating power users because of how much it either hides, moves, or removes. And it can make advanced features even harder to find for novice users, because they’re buried in menus or obscured by less-than-obvious iconography.
More consistency, but still haunted by the past
At this point, the steady old Windows NT codebase has clearly defined geological strata; dig deep enough in any modern version of Windows and you’ll inevitably discover some icon or dialogue box that hasn’t been revisited for two decades or more.
But even at its topmost, most user-visible levels, Windows 10 could still be an awkward melding of the last three versions of Windows. Many of Windows’ basic built-in apps still looked and worked like they did in Windows 7, while the Windows Explorer remained basically as it had been in Windows 8. Moving all of Windows many settings into the Settings app was (and remains) an ongoing project, with many older but still-not-removed features relegated to standalone system apps or the old Control Panel.
Windows 11 at least makes a serious effort at unifying the look and feel of Windows (though it seems like redesigns for some of the built-in apps, like Paint and Media Player, may need additional time to percolate in the Windows Insider channels before everyone gets them). Bits of the operating system ranging from Windows Explorer to the system sounds to old shell32.dll system icons have been revisited, and Microsoft’s attention to detail in Windows 11 make it the most cohesive-feeling Windows version since at least Windows 7.
But under the hood, Windows 11 still isn’t that different from Windows 10, and if you dig you’ll still find artifacts of 25 years of Windows development. You can do most important things in the Settings app these days, but the Windows 7-era Control Panel is still there, and many of those control panels retain Windows 2000 or even Windows NT-era designs and dialogues. The “Open With” dialog, along with some pop-ups in the Settings app, are still flat square-cornered pop-ups straight out of Windows 10. Microsoft has made no attempt to modernize the Device Manager or the operating system’s various Management Console windows.
One could argue that a lack of change is good when it comes to programs that manage your computer’s drivers and its lower-level underpinnings. The people who rely on these kinds of tools day-to-day are used to Management Console windows and the Event Viewer and the Device Manager and other areas of the OS working the way they do because they’ve worked pretty much exactly the same way since at least Windows 2000. Every time Microsoft tries to fix this with a stripped-down simplified version of Windows, we end up with a dead end like Windows RT or Windows 10X, some operating system that looks kind of like Windows and works kind of like Windows but is missing the legacy app compatibility and flexibility that every IT manager and power user on Earth thinks of when they think of Windows.
This isn’t to make excuses for Windows’ layers of cruft, but to say that the layers of cruft are actually a feature of Windows for lots of people who rely on it. A release like Windows 11, which at least polishes and unifies the stratum of Windows’ UI that most people interact with every day, is the best we can probably hope for at this point.
A new sound
It’s easy to give windows and buttons rounded corners, but can sounds also have rounded corners? Because that’s how I would describe Windows 11’s new system sounds.
This video plays a bunch of the common Windows 10 and Windows 11 system noises in rapid succession, to demonstrate what I mean. It’s not that most of the new ones are day-and-night different from the old ones, but Windows 11’s sounds are softer and more reverb-y and not quite as bright. The notes being played are less distinct from the ambient sound around them.
Fun fact—you might not have noticed because the startup sound is off by default in Windows 10, but this is the first new startup noise Windows has had since Windows Vista. Good to see that the “maybe all of this stuff should be marginally more consistent” impulse even extends to the system sounds.
A redesigned user interface: Taskbar
The first thing you’ll notice about Windows 11, even before the rounded corners, is the newly center-aligned taskbar. Its alignment behaves a little like the macOS dock or the taskbar in ChromeOS, in that icons continually realign themselves and shift around slightly as more unpinned apps are opened and closed. If you don’t like how the icons bounce around, you can return to the traditional left-aligned layout in the taskbar settings.
The new taskbar takes up a shade more vertical space than it used to, but the default arrangement of the stuff inside it takes up a lot less horizontal space—the Cortana button is gone, the Search field has been shrunk down to a button, and the News & Interests weather forecast that began appearing to the left of the system tray in a recent Windows 10 release is gone. The system tray is also compacted, with less space between icons (the dedicated button for peeking at the desktop appears to be gone, too, but if you click the area where it used to be, it still works).
New to the taskbar are buttons for Windows 11’s new Widgets (more on those in a bit), a Microsoft Teams button to reflect that Teams is built into Windows now, and an improved Task View button that now shows thumbnails of each of your virtual desktops when you hover over it.
Layout changes aside, the overall experience of using the taskbar isn’t dramatically different than it was before, but it does include a handful of weird removals and feature regressions. While the buttons can be left-aligned to recreate the old default look of the taskbar, the taskbar itself can no longer be docked to the top or sides of the screen. Files can’t be dragged down to a taskbar icon to be opened by the app you select. You can no longer ungroup taskbar icons, and now need to rely on hovering over each taskbar icon to differentiate between multiple open windows in the same app. The taskbar also no longer offers to show the time, date, and system tray icons on all monitors in a multi-monitor setup, even when running a full-screen app like a game or video player on the primary monitor.
The taskbar context menu has also been pared down to a single “taskbar settings” entry, removing with all the window arrangement options that used to live in it (this was how I used to launch the Task Manager, but luckily the Quick Access menu can also be used for that and it works like it did before, by either right-clicking the Start button or using the Windows + X keyboard shortcut).
It’s not clear whether these behavioral changes are intentional omissions that Microsoft intends to stick to in the name of simplification, or things that it hasn’t had time to implement, or things that it removed on purpose but will happily add back if there’s enough public feedback following the official release. But the new design does feel like something that still needs some refinement before it’s as flexible and useful as the taskbar it’s replacing. I don’t think most people are going to have issues adapting, and I was fine after I had some time to adjust my workflows around a couple minor things that were missing. But the first time you go to do something you’ve been able to do for years and discover it’s not there, it does feel a bit unmooring.
Windows 11 does away with the last vestige of the old Windows Phone design that was still hanging on in Windows 10—Live Tiles have been put out to pasture, never to deliver glance-able information again. The full-screen Start menu option is also gone, removing the last vestiges of Windows 8.
A way to get fast top-level information from a handful of apps makes a lot of sense on a phone or even a tablet, where there’s no “desktop” metaphor and you mainly use the device by bouncing between one or two fullscreen apps and a fullscreen app launcher. The success of widgets in iOS and Android speak to that—Live Tiles made a lot of sense in Windows Phone or even in Windows 8, where the full-screen Start menu briefly superseded the more traditional version.
But I won’t be mourning their absence from Windows 11. That’s mostly because few apps ever actually used the Live Tile concept in any useful way. They were mostly built-in apps like Weather and Microsoft News, and when I’m on a PC, I almost always prefer to get that kind of information from full-fledged websites that can deliver more information to me at once. In Windows 11, that utility has been moved into the separate Widgets feature, leaving the Start menu to just be an app launcher again.
And this version of Start feels pared back compared to previous versions. Microsoft has used some iteration of a static two-column design in every version of Windows since Vista (excepting Windows 8), when the company did away with the endlessly branching app menus of the Windows 9x to XP era. The top-level Start menu view in Windows 11 merely shows you a 6×3 grid of icons for your pinned apps, on top of a “recommended” section that’s a mix of un-pinned but recently launched or installed apps plus some recently opened files.
The same vertically scrolling “All Apps” view that Windows 10 provides is still here and still works the same way it did in the old Start menu, but it’s hidden behind a button. I rarely found myself using the All Apps view in Windows 10 anyway, between the number of things I can have pinned and the fact that I launch most of my unpinned apps by using the search box rather than scrolling.
The search box does sit atop the Start menu, so that when you push the Windows key you can just start typing. As in Windows 10, using the Search box technically closes the Start menu and opens up the Search menu instead. This menu has been tweaked to match the rest of the rounded Windows 11 design, but otherwise works mostly as it did before.
System tray and notifications
Microsoft has substantially reworked the way things are grouped in the system tray area (also sometimes called the “Taskbar corner” in Windows 11’s settings). There are now three different things going on down here: there’s the notification center, accessible by clicking the date and time; the Quick Actions menu, which is now totally separate from the notification center and absorbs the UI for adjusting volume and managing network connections; and regular old one-off system tray icons like Windows has used for ages.
The notifications area is substantially similar to what was in Windows 10, albeit with Windows 11’s typical rounded corners and a full monthly calendar at the bottom (on smaller displays or higher zoom levels, you’ll need to click to pull the calendar up; otherwise it takes up too much of the notification area). It’s the Quick Actions area that’s the most different. It’s now a unified sheet for most basic system settings, not unlike the Control Center in macOS or iOS; click anywhere in the area of the taskbar where the network and audio and battery indicators are, and it brings up the full menu, which is also used for quickly adjusting screen brightness, toggling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, entering airplane or battery saver mode, turning on the “Focus assist” do-not-disturb mode or the night light feature, and a few other settings. You can add, remove, and reorganize pretty much everything in this area except for the volume and brightness sliders, which are static.
Though the network, audio, and battery icons in the system tray no longer exist as discrete elements that you can click, hovering over them does still provide the same tooltips with network, audio, and battery information, and right-clicking any of them can still take you to the area of the Settings app where you control more of their behavior.
The new Quick Actions menu strikes me as a solid improvement over the old one (especially if you don’t really interact with Windows’ notification center much), at the expense of the Wi-Fi and audio settings being slightly more annoying. It now takes two clicks to get to the screen where you can switch Wi-Fi networks or audio output devices, where it used to be one. And until I got used to it, I found myself toggling the Wi-Fi off by clicking directly on the Wi-Fi icon, rather than opening the Wi-Fi network selection menu as I intended to.
There are also fewer options for hiding or removing icons from the system tray area than before—the network, audio, and battery icons appear to be non-removable, and you can enable or disable the icons for the pen menu, the touch keyboard, and the virtual touchpad. But all you can do for the other system tray icons is decide whether they’re always visible in the tray or relegated to the “taskbar corner overflow” area.
When it comes to the system tray (and indeed, most taskbar stuff) I generally stick pretty closely to Windows’ default settings, and if that describes you, then nothing here is especially disruptive or difficult to get used to. Like so much about the new taskbar, it’s more advanced users who need to be able to customize everything who will be the most frustrated with the restrictions Microsoft has implemented in the name of simplification here.
Touch and ink changes
Windows 11 gains a few touchscreen-specific touchscreen features. You can use the same multi-finger gestures on the touchscreen as you do on the trackpad to bring up the Task View and switch between apps.
It’s also possible to resize windows with your finger. And there’s a nifty effect when you move a window with your finger; the window contracts a bit as though it’s being pressed down upon, while an acrylic sheet behind it shows you how much space it will take up on screen when you release it.
For pen users, the Ink menu becomes a bit more flexible. It’s now possible to add apps other than the Snipping Tool and Whiteboard, regardless of whether they actually have any specific pen support.
Windows’ touch keyboard (not to be confused with the on-screen keyboard, which is still a separate accessibility feature) gets some tweaks too, including emoji and gif typing options, and customizable theming. Undocking and re-docking the keyboard from and to the bottom of the screen is also doable with a single button press now, though note that if you’re using a screen larger than 18 inches, the keyboard will no longer dock at all.
Windows Explorer gets its first major redesign since Windows 8 in Windows 11, though calling it “major” says more about the normal rate of improvement for Explorer and less about the amount of stuff here that’s actually new.
Indeed, the left-hand navigation toolbar and the main content viewing pane haven’t really changed at all, beyond a set of new folder icons that give me “design-focused Linux distro” vibes. The main difference is the absence of the ribbon menu added back in Windows 8. It has been replaced with a single row of icons that shifts depending on context—normally just offering the typical set of copy-paste-rename-style controls, but also popping up things like rotating controls when you select an image.
In the previous version of Explorer, those context-sensitive menu options would show up in a whole separate ribbon tab, highlighting one problem with the old interface: there was a whole lot of clicking involved if you needed to explore the whole thing. And it was cluttered with all kinds of buttons and checkboxes, sometimes of dubious utility. Do we need dedicated buttons for burning things to optical media and sending faxes in 2021? I would argue: probably not.
So if nothing else, the Windows 11 version of the toolbar certainly looks cleaner. The most important settings for sorting and viewing items are still here, placed in drop-down menus rather than their own standalone tab, and the full Folder Options settings window is just a couple of clicks away if you need to do anything more advanced.
Any time you replace text labels with icons, you run the risk of confusing people who don’t instantly know what those icons mean, and Microsoft does use the ellipsis icon as a sort of non-obvious junk drawer for things like “copy path” and “compress to ZIP” and “properties” that don’t fit anywhere else. But for those kinds of things, you’re better off using a right-click context menu, and those also see substantial changes in Windows 11.
If you’re reading this on a Windows 10 computer with lots of apps installed, go ahead and right-click a file somewhere, any old file. What comes appears is a powerful menu that instantly gives you access to all kinds of advanced functions, including features provided by third-party apps that didn’t come with the OS. This kind of power and extensibility, accessible with a single simple gesture, is one of the things that is great about desktop operating systems.
That menu is also kind of a mess. It’s jumbled, with seemingly related options like “Open” and “Open With” separated by multiple lines. It’s full of tiny text and it’s as long as your arm. Windows 11 makes an effort to tame context menus—the effort will be worth it in the long term, though the transitional period may be frustrating, especially if you make extensive use of third-party apps.
The new context menus are much shorter, and substantially reorganized. Common commands—cut, copy, paste, rename, share, and delete, normally—are arranged in one horizontal row and represented by icons rather than text. And the rest of the entries still use text labels, but with accompanying icons that Common commands like “Open,” “Open With,” and “Run as Administrator” now appear next to each other, and lesser-used options like “Troubleshoot compatibility” or “Restore previous versions” are also removed in the interest of cleaning things up.
Early on, the new context menus will look especially short because third-party apps haven’t added support for them yet. But Microsoft has provided a few mechanisms for extending the new menu style, with guidelines for keeping the new menu from getting as long and unruly as the old one (keeping one-verb activities as a thing you can click at the top level of the menu, for example, while putting more complex commands in a cascading sub-menu).
The neatest little detail I’ve noticed about the new context menu is that it tries to put the most common commands——as close to your mouse pointer as possible. Most of the time, when the context menu is expanding down and to the right of the pointer, those commands appear in a horizontal row at the top of the menu. But if you’re clicking toward the bottom of the screen, forcing the menu to expand upward instead of downward, that row of icons is positioned at the bottom of the menu so as to be closer to the pointer. It’s a smart touch.
There are still a few ways to access the old context menu, though they’re less convenient than you might like. One is to click “show more options” at the bottom of the new menu, which brings up the old one with all first- and third-party shortcuts intact. Another is to press an oddball “Shift + F10” keyboard combo after left-clicking whatever icon you need to see the context menu for. And if your keyboard has a dedicated keyboard menu key, you can press it to call up the old context menu too.
Snap Layouts and a smarter Snap for portrait mode
Snap is one of Windows’ best window management feature, and it gets a boost in Windows 10, especially for larger screens. Hover over the Maximize button with a mouse pointer or stylus (or use the Windows + Z keyboard shortcut), and you’ll see a menu of several different window layout options. One is the traditional split-down-the-middle Snap mode, and the others split the screen up three or four different ways.
Exactly what you see here will differ depending on the size of monitor you’re using and its orientation; on a 13-inch 1080p laptop screen set to 125 percent scaling, I only see four Snap options. But on my 27-inch 1440p desktop monitor, I see six—it does appear to have to do with some combination of resolution plus zoom level, not tied to any specific resolution or aspect ratio. When you select which Snap Layout you want to use, the Snap Assist feature pulls up your other open windows and allows you to populate the other areas of the screen one by one.
Using the Maximize button isn’t the only way to make these layouts work. On a screen large enough to support six Snap Layouts, try dragging a window slowly across the top of the screen. There’s a preview layer (Microsoft calls it an “acrylic sheet” which is, yes, close enough to what the material looks like) that resizes and moves itself to signal where the window you’re dragging will end up if you let go of the mouse button.
As you drag the window across the top of the screen, you’ll see the acrylic layer shift to the leftmost, center, and rightmost thirds of your screen, rather than simply maximizing the window as it still does if you quickly drag a window up to the top of the screen and then let go of your mouse button. Windows 10 worked similarly when you wanted to use Snap to split your screen up into quarters rather than halves, but now you have more options and the acrylic layer makes it easier to see where your window is going to go.
Finally, Snap treats monitors and tablets that are flipped into portrait mode differently than landscape-oriented displays. In Windows 10, Snap on a portrait display works just like it does on a landscape display—you drag a window to the top of the screen to maximize it (still useful), or you can snap it to the left or right of the screen and split the screen with two long tall skinny apps (less useful). Now, windows that are dragged to the sides of the screen snap to the top and bottom of the screen by default. And the same window dragging trick can be used to split the screen into horizontal thirds, or even to get the tall skinny 50-50 split that previous Windows versions defaulted to. As someone with a monitor that’s always in portrait mode, these tweaks definitely make Snap feel more thoughtfully designed and useful than it did before. If you want even more control over your window resizing options, there’s always the FancyZones PowerToy.
Other window management tweaks
Windows 11’s version of the Task View is gently refined, with your virtual desktops in a row across the bottom of your screen and all your windows above them; hovering over the Task View icon in the taskbar will also show thumbnails for each of your virtual desktops for easy switching. Different picture backgrounds can be applied to each of your virtual desktops, making it easier to tell (both by the background and in Mica windows that sample the background) which desktop you’re using. Why Microsoft can provide an easy user interface for this and not for putting different backgrounds on different physical monitors, I don’t know, but maybe next year.
The last change is a big deal for anyone who connects their laptop to external monitors: Windows 11 will now remember which of your monitors you had any given window open on, and will restore those windows to the appropriate monitor when you reconnect your PC to it. In my limited use of the feature, it works well, and is definitely a big improvement over the older “I will forget absolutely everything about where your windows were the second I am disconnected” system.
Windows has experimented with widgets before; they initially appeared in Windows Vista as “gadgets,” a handful of simple gewgaws that were originally restricted to a sidebar before Windows 7 allowed them to be placed anywhere on the desktop. In Windows 8, they were removed, with the argument that Windows 8’s Live Tiles could provide similar information at a glance. But now that Live Tiles are gone, widgets are back, once again restricted to their own separate little sandbox (it’s astonishing how few of Windows 8’s contributions to the operating system have withstood the test of time).
Windows 11’s widgets have nothing to do with their old Vista-era counterparts. In fact, the UI as well as the widgets themselves have largely been lifted from Windows 10’s “News and Interests” view. Remember when your Windows 10 taskbar started showing you the weather all of a sudden? That’s News and Interests.
The built-in widgets include news sourced from MSN, weather, sports and esports scores, traffic reports, stocks, a photo widget, an Outlook calendar widget (if Outlook is installed; why this can’t also offer to pull from the built-in Windows Calendar app I don’t know), to do lists from Microsoft To Do, an “entertainment” widget that just shows you a series of individual movies or TV shows you could choose to watch, tips for using Windows, and a Family Safety widget (if you have those features enabled for your account). It’s a real grab bag, utility-wise—seeing the weather or a to-do list at a glance seems useful, but a little widget with a link to the Microsoft Store page for Trolls World Tour is decidedly less so.
To be maximally useful in a modern desktop operating system, any widget system really needs to allow for third-party extensibility, and Windows 11’s Widgets view doesn’t. Widgets for weather, stocks, and sports scores are intermittently and situationally useful, but most of the widget view serves as a bit of a billboard for Microsoft’s services; the news is all pulled from MSN, like Microsoft Edge’s default Start page. And the search field, which unlike the regular search field makes no effort to bring in live results as you type, will always boot you out to a Bing search conducted in Microsoft Edge, regardless of whether you’ve changed your default search engine in Edge or set another browser as your default.
That’s not to write off widgets entirely, just to say that I haven’t found any of Microsoft’s widget implementations to be especially compelling up until now and Windows 11 doesn’t change anything about that. With an option to allow third-party widgets and data, it could become more useful, but I wouldn’t count on that happening.
We won’t cover every single app that Microsoft has put rounded corners on for Windows 11, because some of them (including Mail, Calendar, and Calculator) haven’t been updated beyond that. But we will cover some of the built-in apps that have seen larger functional changes in Windows 11.
I booted up Windows 8.1 for the first time in years to get some screenshots from this review, and I was astonished at how bad the Settings app was. This early attempt at a touch-friendly user interface could barely do anything, and Windows 8 overwhelmingly relied on the Control Panel and nontouch UI to handle anything other than changing the desktop wallpaper. (This is an exaggeration, but it’s bad.)
By the time you get to the last versions of Windows 10, though, the Settings app had become a capable replacement for the old Control Panels for most things that you need to do with your PC, from power settings to Bluetooth pairing to network configuration. The settings that remain in the old Control Panel at this point are either alternate ways of doing things that Settings can do, or they manage less-used or semi-deprecated Windows features like Storage Spaces or the old Windows 7-era backup functionality.
The new Windows 11 Settings app doesn’t add a ton of new stuff, but does benefit immensely from a Windows 11 redesign, with an attractive Mica theme and a layout that makes considerably more efficient use of space.
Across the top of your app you’ll see info about the currently logged-in account, when the computer last checked for updates, OneDrive and Microsoft 365 account information, and the name of the computer (which you can change) as well as its model number (which you can’t). How close the computer gets to telling you your actual model number will depend on your OEM; the field populates properly on my Dell and Surface systems, but my ThinkPad shows a less-helpful manufacturer part number, and my custom-built desktop’s ASRock motherboard merely returns “To Be Filled By OEM.”
The rest of the app is reordered on the model of Windows Explorer, with a persistent top-level navigation in the left-hand sidebar and breadcrumb-style navigation at the top that makes it easier to know exactly where in the Settings app you are. If you mostly use the search function to find settings rather than digging through the app, the search field remains in the upper-left corner of the app just as it was in the Windows 10 Settings app.
Most of the settings themselves haven’t changed all that much, aside from some light renaming and reorganization. These are a few individual changes that merit discussion:
- Bluetooth has been promoted within the “Devices” settings screen, which is now called “Bluetooth & devices” and prominently displays paired Bluetooth accessories across the top of the screen.
- Within the new Accessibility screen, which replaces and redesigns Windows 10’s Ease of Access screen, you can find a “Visual effects” screen where you can disable most of Windows 11’s animations and transparency if you’re bothered by that sort of thing.
- Windows 10’s “Power & sleep” and “Battery” settings screens have been merged into one “Power & battery” screen that includes power recommendations, estimated time remaining, and a visual indicator of your battery life over time along with more detailed information about screen-on, screen-off, and sleep time as well as the app usage info Windows 10 already provides. It also delivers more of that app-level information upfront, with less clicking required.
- The “Default apps” screen no longer offers top-level default app settings for common tasks like viewing photos, sending emails, or web browsing. This can make switching your default browser a bit more annoying than before, depending on the one you’re using.
Microsoft Teams, now built in
Microsoft’s Teams software is getting a big boost in Windows 11, coming pre-installed on every system, getting its own dedicated taskbar button, and officially replacing Skype as Windows’ built-in video and text chat client. The taskbar button lets you launch recent chats or launch a video call without opening up the full Teams app.
Compared to the Teams app in Windows 10, the version in Windows 11 does get a light visual refresh, but more importantly it adds some language about using Teams with your friends and family rather than focusing purely on workplaces. I do have trouble, conceptually, thinking of my family or any group of friends as a “team.” But I suppose if an app called “Discord” can bring so many online communities together, your name isn’t necessarily predictive of success or failure.
The new Teams app, which will also be coming to Windows 10, looks a lot like the old one but changes on the backend, switching out Electron for Edge WebView2. It’s still Chromium-based, as Edge is, but uses the version built into the operating system rather than its own separate implementation. The benefits of this include better performance and lower memory usage than the old version of Teams, and you can definitely feel the difference even when doing simple things like resizing the Teams window.
The Microsoft Store gets a facelift in Windows 11, moving from a squared-off tabbed design to one with more rounded corners and padding plus a new carousel across the top of the app that highlights different apps, games, movies, TV shows, and services. A top-level “Library” button in the bottom-left is especially helpful for downloading apps you own to a new PC, and it’s handy to have the Library view combined with the previously separate screen for grabbing app updates.
Microsoft says it’s bringing the new Store to Windows 10 eventually, though per usual it has declined to commit to a timeline.
More important than any visual refresh of the Microsoft Store are the new rules for the Microsoft Store, which represents a major concession to developers (or maybe to reality?) on Microsoft’s part. Rather than requiring the use of any specific API or packaging technology, Microsoft is going to let basically any old app distribute itself through the Microsoft Store, including other app and game stores. The company’s revenue split with developers will also shrink; nongames pay Microsoft 15 percent of their Store revenue, or none if they use a non-Microsoft payment platform. Games will pay 12 percent of their revenue to Microsoft regardless of the payment platform they use.
The strategy shift appears to be paying dividends already, at least if the goal is to get more apps that people actually want to use distributed through the Microsoft Store. Apps like Discord, Zoom, the VLC player, and even LibreOffice have already climbed aboard, as has the Epic Games Store. Microsoft is betting that any traffic to the Microsoft Store will be good for it, even if those people are just grabbing free apps they could download from anywhere and then leaving without paying for anything.
Having more legitimate apps in the Microsoft Store should benefit users in at least one way: fewer paid copycat apps like “LiteCord” or “Multi-Platform Video Conference” that attempt to charge users for an “app” that is basically just a wrapper for a different, more popular web app’s site. This is the kind of low-quality junk that dominates lots of Microsoft Store app searches right now, and official versions of these apps will hopefully either make this problem go away or help keep most people from falling prey to it.
Clock and “focus sessions”
The built-in Clock app seems like a strange place to find one of Windows 11’s most interesting additions, but as someone who is (1) on the hook for many multi-thousand-word written pieces a year and (2) has trouble staying on-task, I really appreciate the intent behind Focus Sessions.
All the Focus Sessions feature really does is give you a persistent timer that sticks on your screen. That’s it. You can decide how long the timer will go for, whether to give yourself breaks and for how long, and assign tasks to individual focus sessions from Windows To-Do (a separately downloadable app in Windows 10, now kind-of-sort-of built-in to Windows 11, in that it shows up as an installed app but only installs itself the first time you click it to launch).
That’s pretty much it. It doesn’t do anything fancy, like lock you out of specific apps on your PC while the timer is going. It’s just a way to keep you from frittering away time during the day, and to lightly gamify productivity by recording the amount of time you’ve spent in focus mode and how many days in a row you’ve hit whatever goal you set. It’s all on the honor system.
Part of me is sort of grossed out by the concept of gamifying work, especially in the middle of a pandemic where working from home has become more common and more people have to deal with the challenges of keeping their work life cordoned off from their home life. I still sometimes think about these tone-deaf Microsoft Office ads from years ago that revel in our societal inability to unplug from work.
But focus sessions seem pretty harmless to me. The fact is, I do need to get through a certain amount of work every day, and if I can manage to do that while my kid is in daycare then I can more fully disconnect and stop thinking about deadlines in the afternoons and evenings. The few times I have played with focus sessions, especially when writing longer pieces, they’ve helped, and enough similar time-and-focus-based productivity apps exist out there to suggest that other people find it helpful too. So use focus sessions to get some things done! And then treat yourself later by reading a book or taking a nap.
The new Photos app pics up Mica styling, and a few different photo viewing options in addition to the basic cropping and markup tools that the Windows 10 version of the app includes. A row of photos across the bottom of the app can jump between photos in the folder you’re in, while checking photos in that row will bring them up into the main window to make it easier to compare them side-by-side.
Microsoft also allows third-party apps to advertise themselves within the Photos app so that they can be opened easily in more advanced photo editing apps—Microsoft says that Picsart, Photoshop Elements, Corel PaintShop Pro, and Affinity Photo will all support this, and that other compatible apps will be “coming shortly.”
Snipping tool has been Windows’ primary built-in screenshot tool going back to Windows Vista, but the version in Windows 10 has been warning of a “move” to the Snip & Sketch app for years now. Windows 11 sort of makes good on this threat by taking the Snip & Sketch user interface and features, grafting on a redesigned version of the Snipping tool UI, and calling the whole thing “Snipping tool.”
If you use Snip & Sketch’s old Windows + Shift + S keyboard shortcut, the app’s behavior is identical to the version in Windows 10. It’s only when you open the app that you see that the buttons for choosing your screenshot mode and a time delay have been pulled over from the old snipping tool.
I do find myself wanting at least an option for a more macOS-like screenshot behavior, which offers you the opportunity to quickly markup and share a screenshot but automatically saves the image to your desktop if you don’t interact with it. The new Snipping Tool, like Snip & Sketch, copies screenshots to the clipboard and requires some kind of manual interaction if you just want to save it to disk without doing anything to it. It’s a minor quibble about an app that otherwise works fine.
Microsoft updates most of Windows’ built-in apps via the Microsoft Store now, and it does feel like the company has deprioritized some of the redesigns in favor of getting the OS out the door in time.
Microsoft assures me that Paint will be rolling out along with the rest of it on October 5, but as I write this in late September it has only just begun to roll out to Dev channel Windows Insiders on the least-stable builds of the OS. Whiteboard is also getting a major update I haven’t seen. New designs for the Your Phone app and some kind of media player have momentarily surfaced in official Microsoft videos, with no indication of whether those redesigns are real and when they’re coming.
And then there are the apps we haven’t heard anything about. WordPad’s Windows 7-era design is just as old as Paint’s, but there’s no word(pad) on a redesign for that. The bread-and-butter Mail and Calendar apps don’t see much improvement beyond rounded corners, either. Notepad could use, I don’t know, tabs or something? Dark mode support? Surely there’s something you could add after 20 years without going full Notepad++.
The way Microsoft is rolling Windows 11 out, it will be a few weeks or months before most people are offered the upgrade, and by then hopefully more of these built-in apps will have updates rolled out. It’s a byproduct of the continually updating, software-as-a-service model. Things don’t all need to be ready all at the same time! So sometimes they won’t be.
We’ve covered the major new features of Windows 11 in this review, and we have some separate pieces coming about running the OS on unsupported hardware, gaming, and niche enhancements like new Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) features. But there are a few other small things that don’t merit in-depth coverage that are worth covering in brief.
Microphone usage indicator
Mobile operating systems like iOS and Android will show you some kind of indicator when your microphone is in use, so apps can never be recording you or listening to your voice without some kind of visual indicator present. Windows 11 adds a similar symbol to the system tray when your microphone is in use. Hover over it to see what app or apps are currently using your microphone, and click it to view the current list of apps with permission to use the microphone. You can also use the toggles on this screen to disallow microphone access for any apps that you don’t want to have it.
What isn’t ready yet is the universal microphone-muting feature Microsoft mentioned when it introduced Windows 11. You still need to dig into the sound settings or mute the mic from within the app that’s using it.
Smaller disk footprint and smaller updates
A video from the Microsoft Mechanics channel on YouTube made the rounds a few weeks back, talking up some of the under-the-hood improvements in Windows 11. Among other features, that video advertised better foreground prioritization of apps so that your computer would stay responsive even when the processor was busy. As far as I can tell, the behavior in the release version of Windows 11 looks and feels the same way as it does in Windows 10 21H1, and I know that some of the features Microsoft talks up in that video (including sleeping tabs in Microsoft Edge) are already available in Windows 10. So I’m still doing some digging to figure out what is actually new, and what is merely recent stuff from Windows 10 that Microsoft is playing up in the run-up to a new OS.
What I have been able to verify is that a fresh install of Windows 11 takes up slightly less space on disk than a fresh install of Windows 10, albeit not by a lot. After being installed on a 256GB SSD in the same computer, having all updates and drivers installed from Windows Update, and then having Disk Cleanup run to get rid of all the temporary files, a clean Windows 10 21H1 install took up 29.7GB while Windows 11 took up 29.1GB. Not much of a change, but it’s there.
Microsoft is accomplishing that in part by shipping some of Windows 11’s “built-in” apps as stubs that aren’t downloaded and installed until the first time you try to run them. Sticky Notes and To-Do are both examples of first-party apps that need to be downloaded the first time they’re run, while my upgrade install of Windows 11 also advertised several third-party app icons like WhatsApp and Adobe Lightroom in the Start menu that only downloaded the first time I clicked them.
Another thing Microsoft is doing to save space and bandwidth in the long-term is reducing the download size of Windows 11’s monthly cumulative updates. In Windows 11, Windows Update will be able to tell which patches your computer already has, and can install a delta update with a smaller file size to make sure you’re only getting what you need. It’s going to be more of an improvement for huge corporate or school networks with dozens or hundreds of Windows PCs downloading updates, where the advertised 40 percent space savings will add up quickly. For home users, it’s likely to go unnoticed, since those updates are already being downloaded and installed silently in the background for most people anyway.
64-bit x86 emulation on ARM
We haven’t really talked about the ARM version of Windows 11 in this review, both because most of the user interface improvements are the same and because the vast majority of Windows users will be running the software on x86 processors. But Windows 11 brings a new feature that should improve the app compatibility situation for anyone using ARM Windows tablets like the Surface Pro X or HP Elite Folio: support for emulating 64-bit x86 apps.
This feature has been available in Windows Insider builds of Windows 10 for a while now, but Windows 11 will be the first time it’s been made available in a stable version of Windows. As with 32-bit x86 emulation, emulated apps run with a performance penalty, which will vary from app to app. But being able to run apps slowly is better than not being able to run them at all.
More interesting for the future of the ongoing Windows-on-ARM experiment is a developer feature called “ARM64EC.” This will make it possible for apps to use a mix of x86-64 code and ARM code at the same time, so that app developers can port most of their apps to run natively on ARM (with the attendant speed improvements) without breaking compatibility with less-used extensions or plugins that still use x86-64. Microsoft is using ARM64EC itself in the newest ARM versions of Office; you can tell if an app supports ARM64EC by opening Task Manager and looking for “ARM64 (x64 compatible)” in the Architecture field.
Terminal replaces Powershell
Windows 11 still includes the cmd.exe console and PowerShell command-line interfaces in Windows 11, but the Windows Terminal app is now intended to be the default (and replaces PowerShell in the context menu you get when you right-click the Start button). The Terminal app, which is also available for Windows 10, is a tabbed application that can be used as a front-end for almost any command-line interface you’d want to use, including the regular Command Prompt, PowerShell, and Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) command lines.
Improved voice dictation
Windows’ built-in dictation tools get an upgrade in Windows 11. Pressing Windows + H brings up the dictation tool, just like in Windows 10, but it’s now a small round pop-up at the bottom of your screen instead of a squared-off bar across the top of it. It can be used to write or spell in any text field, including third-party apps and browser address bars, and the Windows + H keyboard shortcut, saying “stop dictation,” or beginning to type with the keyboard still turns it off.
Aside from the visual refresh, new features include an auto-punctuation option that can dynamically insert commas, periods, and question marks based on the way you’re speaking. And if you want the dictation pop-up to stay onscreen at all times even when you aren’t using it so that you can start it without the Windows + H keyboard shortcut, enabling the “voice typing launcher” will keep a small version of the pop-up on screen at all times. You can reposition it however you like.
Selecting a default browser is more annoying (sometimes)
The first time you try to click a link or open a page after installing a new browser in Windows 10, you get a pop-up asking you what browser you’d like to use to open links in the future. You were also able to set a default browser in the Default Apps view in the settings, simultaneously changing the app responsible for opening .htm and .html files as well as HTTP and HTTPS links.
Neither of those things are possible in Windows 11. If you want to set the default browser in Windows 11, you either need to go to the Default apps screen in Settings, select your browser, and then set it as the default for those four file and link types. Or you need to use a browser that just sets defaults for you rather than relying on default apps (Firefox handles this gracefully, Chrome currently does not.)
I normally don’t give a lot of weight to annoying one-time things like this; usually, normal people will encounter these things the first time they set up their computer and never think about it again. But it should be evaluated in the context of the way Microsoft regularly pushes Edge on non-Edge users, from the first “are you sure you want to switch?” message you get when you try to change anything to the periodic reminders that, hey, Edge still exists. Even when you’re using Edge but you decide to use a different search engine, Edge pressures you to use Bing. It never ends.
This mild annoyance isn’t enough to get me to switch from Edge, which is actually the browser I use day-to-day. But it also would not convince me to use Edge if I had already decided on something else. Switching browsers is less disruptive than switching from PC to Mac, or Android to iOS, but it is disruptive, and not something likely to be done on the spur of the moment. All I want is for Windows to make it simple to choose which browser I’m using, and then for it to respect that choice once I have made it, which I do not think is unreasonable.
Android apps aren’t here yet
One of the tentpole features of Windows 11’s announcement would be that Android apps would be coming to the Microsoft Store (though that excitement should be tempered by the fact that it’s apps from Amazon’s Android app store and not the more active Google Play Store). But that functionality isn’t in the initial version of Windows 11 and will be rolling out to Windows Insiders in the next few months.
RIP 32-bit Windows (1993-2021)
Microsoft has offered a 32-bit version of Windows since Windows NT 3.1 first shipped back in July of 1993. That ends today with Windows 11, which only comes in a 64-bit version.
It’s been years since 32-bit versions of Windows were the default configuration installed on most new computers. Most new PCs began shipping with 64-bit Windows as the default sometime in the Windows 7 era (and both XP and Vista came in 64-bit flavors before that). But Microsoft continued to develop and ship 32-bit editions of Windows for much older hardware and some low-power Intel Atom processors that were still shipping without 64-bit support in the Windows 8 and early Windows 10 eras.
At this point it’s hard to imagine many people actually being affected by the lack of 32-bit hardware support, especially given that 64-bit Windows has a long history of running most 32-bit apps just fine. It’s just the end of an era, is all.
Windows 11 makes a few changes to the suite of default apps that come with a fresh installation of Windows. These are the most prominent. Everything on this list except for Internet Explorer and Wallet are still available to download from the Microsoft Store, and will stay installed on your PC if you do an upgrade install from Windows 10.
- Internet Explorer 11. Trying to run iexplore.exe in Windows 11 just opens up Edge. Edge still has an Internet Explorer Mode that can be used for specific sites by businesses that still need it.
- Skype, which has been supplanted by the new Microsoft Teams integration. Skype is still available to download and is still in active development.
- Paint 3D. This might surprise a time traveler from 2017 who was really obsessively interested in Microsoft news, since just a few short years ago it was the venerable mspaint.exe that was getting deprecated and Paint 3D was the future of bad drawing in Windows. Now Paint is getting spruced up and Paint 3D is an optional download.
- OneNote, though this will still be installed if you install Office or your computer ships with it.
- The 3D Viewer app.
- The Wallet app.
A good, if rough, new Windows with a PR problem
Here’s the thing: I actually like Windows 11 pretty well, and as I’ve dug into it and learned its ins and outs for this review, I’ve warmed to it more. The window management stuff is a big step forward, the new look is appealing and functional, and the taskbar regressions mostly don’t bother me (the more you customized the taskbar and Start menu in Windows 10, though, the more the new version’s lack of flexibility will irritate you).
Unfortunately for Microsoft, Windows 11 is going to be starting its life with some of the same public perception problems that made Windows Vista and Windows 8 relatively unpopular.
Like Windows Vista, Windows 11 comes with an onerous set of new system requirements that many computers aren’t going to meet, and early coverage of the OS had to focus on this relentlessly because Microsoft communicated and explained these new requirements poorly. This was especially true initially, but there are still things about where the compatibility lines are drawn that just don’t make sense.
And like Windows 8, Windows 11 changes some core pieces of the Windows UI in a way that may frustrate the early adopters who evangelize new operating systems. The “[no one randomly recommends operating systems to one another]” meme is funny, but if you’re “the tech person” in your family or circle of friends you are likely to get a couple of “is this one safe to install” questions about new releases, and I think the safest answer for anyone already running Windows 10 is “maybe give it a few months, there’s no rush.”
That’s not to say that Windows 11 is automatically guaranteed to be one of the “bad” versions of Windows, but I do think it’s beginning its life with some of the same kinds of real and perceived problems that the less-successful Windows releases were saddled with. And those releases of Windows have shown us that even good updates that address a lot of the actual problems—Service Pack 1 for Vista, and Windows 8.1 for Windows 8—can’t always fix a public perception problem.
But Windows 11 has two things going for it. The first is, aside from the system requirements, it’s nowhere near as buggy and slow as the first versions of Vista, and it’s nowhere near as disjointed and jarring as Windows 8 was. There are some regressions, especially for people who extensively customized their taskbar and start menu. And there are some bugs, like how I can’t get any of the computers I’m using to respect my “down motion scrolls down” trackpad setting between reboots. But these all feel like issues that can be addressed relatively quickly.
The second thing is that, unlike Windows Vista or Windows 8, Windows 11 is still a free upgrade that’s eventually going to be offered to all supported computers running Windows 10. No one is going to go out and pay a $100-plus so they can upgrade the computer they’re already using to some new OS that they have heard vaguely negative things about. But plenty of people will go ahead and install a free Windows update, since it’s something their computer is always asking them to do anyway. As a percentage of the entire PC install base, computers that are officially compatible with Windows 11 are going to be in the minority. But getting the update installed on a higher percentage of those existing computers plus new computers that ship with it by default could still make it reasonably successful in the long run.
- A nice-looking and functional redesign that takes us past the Windows 8/10 design aesthetic.
- Window management improvements are great across the board.
- Performs about as well (and in some specific circumstances, better than) Windows 10 on the same hardware.
- Raises awareness of security features like Secure Boot and TPM, which most people should be taking advantage of if they can.
- Tons of beneficial tweaks to apps, touchscreen and pen support, and other fit-and-finish improvements.
- Free upgrade to Windows 10.
- Windows 11 is more consistent and unified than Windows 8 or Windows 10, but you’ll still find traces of older Windows versions all over the place.
- Taskbar regressions will annoy those who relied on the flexibility and customization options of older versions.
- Widgets still feel mostly pointless in their latest iteration.
- Lots of built-in apps haven’t been updated yet.
- General brand-new-major-OS-update bugginess.
- The biggest jump in Windows’ system requirements in 15 years leaves plenty of perfectly functional and not-particularly-old PCs with no fully supported upgrade path.