Drastic redesigns of Windows have proven disastrous for Microsoft in the past, with Windows 8 the worst case in point. But after testing Windows 11 for myself, I’ve found that, though the interface looks quite different, it doesn’t take long to figure out how things work. At its introduction event, Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay expressed a desire not to alienate longtime Windows aficionados, and that’s a good thing (though almost impossible given the way a lot of people react to change). There’s plenty of innovation in Windows 11 despite this goal to make it feel familiar.
The new operating system starts rolling out as an upgrade to PCs on October 4 at 1 p.m. PT, but you should first determine whether your PC can run Windows 11. The rollout will last into mid-2022, according to Microsoft, as the myriad PC hardware and software configurations are validated for compatibility. Microsoft is also launching a slate of new Surface devices that leverage a lot of the new options in the software. Keep an eye on PCMag’s Windows 11 page for all the relevant tips and news. Now let’s get started with our look at the biggest new changes and features.
Windows Will Have a New Look
The Taskbar icons are now indeed centered and smaller like in Chrome OS, but the Start button is still to the left of the other app icons. Windows get tightly rounded corners, similar to macOS. I’m still not a fan of the always-narrow Taskbar buttons, because having wide ones for running apps makes it instantly clear which icons are simply pinned and which are currently running. The centered look may win me over, however, since they don’t require you to move the mouse cursor across a full screen to launch an app.
More subtle are the transparency, animations, and clean icon design that represent an evolution of the Fluent Design system, which, though promised, never fully took over Windows 10. A couple of new materials join the translucent Acrylic: the opaque Mica, which is slightly tinted based on the background color; and Smoke, which darkens other areas to make you focus on an important input region. Dark mode, too, looks more consistent, and these materials change to reflect that mode.
Widgets are making a comeback! Apple bolstered widgets in iOS 14 and iPadOS 15, and Microsoft dabbled in bringing back desktop widgets with the News and Interests panel that recently arrived in Windows 10. But Windows 11 widgets take that idea a step further. Microsoft’s blog on Windows 11 notes that the new widgets will deliver a personalized feed powered by AI and use Edge for rendering. Widgets can be expanded to fill the whole screen, and third-party content providers can take advantage of this new palette.
For me, Windows has long been unmatched in its ability to position, size, open, and close windows on the screen to your taste. (I’m still a fan of Aero Shake for showing the desktop.) macOS very recently added the ability to set windows to take up exactly half the screen, something Windows users have had for years.
Now comes the latest windowing convenience: Snap Layouts. These let you choose from a selection of window layouts (see above), easily populating them with app windows of your choice. Maybe even more important than the extra layout choices is that these layouts are saved and accessible from the app taskbar icons so you don’t have to re-create them after doing something else on the PC.
Redesigned Settings App
The redesigned Settings app now features a persistent left menu. This saves you from having to back out of nested settings to quickly get to another group. Otherwise, you get pretty much everything found in Windows 10’s Settings interface.
New for Windows 11 will be the ability to set a different background for each virtual desktop. This makes a lot of sense: I use one desktop for work stuff and another for personal, and I suspect I’m not alone. The snap layouts mentioned above can be used on each desktop.
Teams Will Be Integrated
One of Microsoft’s biggest hits over the last has been Teams, its videoconferencing and messaging tool. The app went from having 20 million users in 2019 to 145 million in 2021. The company wants it to reach beyond the workplace, though, and a button will give easy access to Teams in Windows 11. Teams is cross-platform, running on Android and iOS as well as Windows. It can also work with SMS for those who don’t have the mobile app installed—this means you can text anyone’s cellphone from your PC for free.
The feature has two parts Teams Chat and Teams videoconferencing, which opens a new window. When you start a message to someone who doesn’t have an account, they get an invitation to sign up for the free service.
Tablet Mode and Docking
With Windows 11, when you plug your laptop into a monitor, it will remember the last app layout you were using.
The tablet mode will be more similar to the desktop mode than in Windows 10, with subtle changes like more space between taskbar icons. New three-finger swipe actions let you call up Task View and minimize or recall running apps. The new Surface Slim Pen 2 provides haptic and audio feedback, and voice typing keeps getting better.
Android Apps in the Store
Yes, you will be able to run Android apps on your PC—but not at the initial Windows 11 launch and only through the Amazon AppStore or by sideloading. Microsoft beat Apple to this mobile-app-on-the-desktop paradigm, even though Apple controls both its platforms which both now run the same class of CPU. What remains to be seen is how well Android apps will run on the desktop. We’ve seen the spotty performance and appearance of Android apps running in Chrome OS, both owned by Google, so I’m not expecting perfection in this collaboration of Amazon and Microsoft. The Amazon AppStore will run inside the Microsoft Store app. Note that the Your Phone app will be another way to run apps on the PC—you can use any apps installed on your compatible Android phone.
Other significant updates to the store are that developers are the ability to include PWAs (progressive web apps) and old-school Win32 apps as well as the UWP (Universal Windows Platform) apps normally found in the store. Even better for developers: They can bypass any fee cuts from Microsoft by using their own commerce engines. Using Microsoft’s commerce entails a still-market-low 15 percent cut.
The store also offers TV and Movies, which offer wireless casting to TVs.
The soundscape of Windows starting up, warning, notifications, and more become gentler, more soothing, and shorter in Windows 11. In using the OS for a few weeks, I’ve found that the new sounds indeed make for more enjoyable computing sessions.
Gaming Gets a Boost
You’ll be able to run Xbox Game Pass games and Xbox Cloud Gaming will be supported in the Xbox app on Windows 11. But in terms of performance and visual quality, the update will also add DirectStorage and Auto HDR. The former speeds up games loading from storage to the graphics card. The latter produces a far richer image quality with more color range and depth.
Faster Performance, More Security
Speed improvements are coming to web browsing, signing in with Windows Hello, and waking from sleep. Windows updates will be 40% smaller and more efficient and occur in the background. More efficient energy use will mean longer battery life. Windows head Panos Panay also said that Windows 11 would be the most secure version yet. One sign of this is that the new OS will require PCs to have a Trusted Platform Module 2.0 (TPM) security chip and Secure Boot capability.