Many never thought there would be a Windows 11, after Microsoft announced in 2015 that Windows 10 would be the operating system’s last version number. New competition from Chrome OS likely made the case for a more significant interface update, and Windows 11 borrows heavily from Google’s lightweight desktop design. Despite its drastically new look, Windows 11 remains nearly functionally identical to Windows 10, with some new features and conveniences added in. After six years of ho-hum upgrades, a major overhaul to the world’s most popular desktop operating system is welcome news: Windows fans finally have something to get excited about.
Despite the OS’s new look, we are nevertheless surprised that using it it doesn’t feel that different from Windows 10. Much of what’s new amounts to reupholstering and rearranging the furniture. Sure, Windows 11 looks nicer with rounded corners for all windows, the Taskbar icons in the middle, simpler icons, and more elegant Settings dialogs, but it doesn’t feel totally alien or require a whole new process the way Windows 8 did. The new interface is attractive, but if you prefer the more familiar Windows 10-style look, you can just stick with Windows 10.
What Are Windows 11’s Requirements and How Do You Get It?
Windows 11 launches on Oct. 5, 2021, according to an announcement on the Windows Experience Blog. A Microsoft representative informed me that the rollout actually begins on Oct. 4 at 1 p.m. PST, since that’s Oct. 5 elsewhere in the world at that time. At first, the upgrade is coming to recent and new PCs, and then it will be offered free to Windows 10 systems on a rolling basis, based on validated hardware configurations. The rollout will be complete by mid-2022. Pricing hasn’t been announced for non-upgrades—that is, DIY PC builds, virtual machine installations, or non-Windows 10 computers. I expect pricing for standalone licenses to remain as they were for Windows 10—$139.99 for Home and $199.99 for Pro editions.
Much has been made over the system requirements for Windows 11, but they’re very low—1GHz CPU, 4GB RAM, and 64GB storage. You’ll also need a computer with a TPM security chip and Secure Boot capability. Those are less of a problem than the internet is making them out to be, as they’ve been standard on most PCs for the last six or so years. The real limiter is the CPU model, which needs to be from about the last four years. Microsoft recently rereleased the tool that assesses your PC’s ability to run Windows 11, the PC Health Check app.
Word is out that the CPU requirements may be more like recommendations than hard requirements—and that Microsoft will allow systems powered by older processors to run the software. The company stopped feature updates on the Windows 11 preview installed on some systems using older CPUs, but we can hope this situation improves.
Anyone with one of the newer chips should have no trouble installing Windows 11 via Windows Update. Microsoft has made a downloadable ISO disk image file for the beta Insider version available for installing Windows 11, allowing in-place upgrades or clean installations on a PC or in a virtual machine. I expect a similar installation option to be available for the release version of Windows 11 via a webpage similar to the Download Windows 10 page. Some sources have reported that installing the OS this way bypasses the system requirements that have bedeviled some would-be testers.
As with Windows 10, there’s a Home and a Pro version of Windows 11. You need to sign in to an online Microsoft account to upgrade to Windows 11 Home, a fact that’s raised the ire of some commenters, though I really don’t think it’s an issue worth getting worked up about. Those who are gung-ho about not setting up the OS are likely to be running the Pro edition, anyway. If don’t want to pay for that and you object to signing in with an online account for your operating system, may I suggest Ubuntu?
A final note about installation is that you’ll be able to roll back to Windows 10 for 10 days after upgrading if you prefer the older OS version. Microsoft has announced support for Windows 10 through 2025.
A New Look (and More) for Windows
Those details out of the way, let’s look at what’s new in Windows 11. Most of the work went toward redesigning the interface rather than building new features, so—as I mentioned above—Windows 11 is more familiar than you may expect. It borrows ideas from Chrome OS, though you can still place app icons on the desktop background, which Google’s lightweight desktop OS doesn’t allow.
Windowing and multitasking remain far more advanced in Windows, too. The interface gets rounded corners (like those in macOS) for all windows, which is not a significant change but does give the OS a smoother look. Much of the new design brings a welcome new slickness and consistency to the Windows interface, but there are a few changes of which I’m not a fan, as you’ll see below.
Taskbar, Start Menu, and File Explorer
For decades, the Windows Start button has lived in the lower-left-hand corner of the screen, so, small detail though it may be, getting used to it being at the left edge of centered icons could be one of the bigger adjustments you need to make. The issue for me is that the Start menu has heretofore always been in the exact same place. Now, however, if you run more programs, it moves a bit more to the left. Not having to think at all about the Start button’s position was a plus in Windows versions going back more than 20 years. Happily, a Taskbar alignment option lets you move the Start button back to its rightful position in the left corner.
I’m also not crazy about the new Taskbar itself, with its smaller, less-informative buttons. With Windows 10, it’s totally clear which programs are running, as Taskbar buttons for running programs are wider if you choose not to combine them in Settings. Thankfully, you can still hover over the buttons to see a thumbnail of the app window and right-click to open the Jump List showing recent documents or other common actions for the app.
The Start menu gets a major overhaul in Windows 11. Pinned app buttons (they’re larger than icons but smaller than Windows 10’s tiles) are at the top of its panel. Recent and frequent apps and documents are in a section below them. The Start menu’s new mini-tiles are still good for touch input, but you lose info that live tiles offer, annoying as those could sometimes be. Another quibble I have with the new Start menu is that it’s harder to get to the All Apps view than in Windows 10. With that version of Windows, you can see all installed apps as soon as you open the Start menu; they’re in a list on the left while tiles for your pinned apps are on the right.
File Explorer is a good example of Windows 11’s new look, particularly its updated left panel controls and folder icons. Note the simplified ribbon along the top, which is far less busy and distracting than the previous File Explorer’s. The New button at the top left works for new folders or documents supported by your apps, and the same viewing options (list, details, differently sized icons) for files are available. The overflow menu offers file compression, selection, and Properties options, as well as the old Folder Options dialog. The right-click context menus, which have grown longer and longer over the years, get shorter, smarter, and clearer in Windows 11. They now show only the most often-needed options.
Widgets in Windows 11
One of the few actual new features in Windows 11 is this Widget panel, which shows you tiles for news, weather, stock quotes, sports scores, and more. It’s not entirely new, since the News and Interests Taskbar popup that arrived in Windows 10 recently does nearly the same things. I’ve gotten used to having the News and Interests weather indicator always in the Taskbar in Windows 10. To see the same info in Windows 11, you have to click on the Widgets icon in the Taskbar. In addition to Microsoft-produced first-party tiles, third-party developers can offer content through Windows 11’s widgets, too. Touch-screen users can easily swipe in from the left to open them and you can full-screen the widget panel if you want a bigger view.
An Entertainment widget surfaces new movies and TV shows, and the Family widget is good for those who use Microsoft Family Safety parental controls tools.
Notification and Quick Settings
Microsoft has split the Windows 10 Action Center into two separate panels and tap targets. This resembles Apple’s revamped macOS’s notification area, which used to be a clean, simple, single panel, but which is now a collection of smaller popups. The Windows 11 version isn’t quite as bad as the macOS one, but I still prefer the single Action Center panel for notifications and quick settings. I appreciate the circled number—similar to those on some mobile app icons—that shows how many notifications you have. Touch users can swipe in from the right to display the Notifications panel.
The Quick Settings panel opens when you click on or tap the Wi-Fi, speaker, or battery icon. By default, it shows buttons for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane mode, Battery Saver, Focus Assist, and Accessibility, along with sliders for audio volume and screen brightness. A Pencil icon lets you customize what buttons appear, with a choice of Connect (for external displays and audio), Keyboard layout, Nearby sharing (like AirDrop for PCs), Night light, and Project. You can still hover over each of the three icons in the Taskbar to see their status, but I prefer to have just sound settings pop up when I hit the speaker and just Wi-Fi options to appear when I hit the Wi-Fi icon.
One of the more irksome things about Windows 10 is its inconsistent settings windows and dialogs. Sometimes you uninstall a program in the new Settings app, sometimes in the antiquated Control Panel. That inconsistency goes away in Windows 11—almost entirely. For some detailed controls, such as sound devices, you still see the content in the old style, though the window uses the new design.
Light and Dark mode settings are still in the Personalization > Colors setting area, and the modes look much better than in Windows 10, particularly the dark mode, which uses transparency effectively. Dark mode can now hold its head up proudly when compared with that of macOS.
You can still change system sounds in Settings, but the new Windows 11 default set of sounds is slick, quick, and modern.
Layouts and Multitasking
Windows has long surpassed macOS in the way it lets you arrange app windows on-screen, and the gap grows wider with Windows 11’s new LayoutsLayouts option. You get to this tool by hovering the cursor over the maximize button at the top right of any window—this seems a bit hidden to me, and I hope and expect Microsoft surfaces the capability more somehow. When you do hover over the maximize button, you see a choice of layouts—two windows side-by-side, three with one large and two small, and so on as shown below.
Layouts appear as options in the Taskbar, so that you can either open the group of apps or the single app. You also see layouts preserved when you open a group of apps on an external monitor multiple times.
Windows still offers multiple virtual desktops, something I find incredibly useful for separating work apps and websites from personal ones. I either hit Ctrl–Windows Key–Arrow to move back and forth between them or the Windows Key–Tab keyboard shortcut to choose one from Task View. With Windows 11, you can now use a four-finger swipe to move back and forth, something Mac users have long enjoyed, though only via trackpad rather than right on the screen. Also new is the ability to set different desktop backgrounds (aka wallpapers) for each desktop.
Teams Chat Integration
Microsoft’s Teams chat and videoconferencing app is prominently in the center of the Taskbar by default. This move makes sense in some ways: With the increasing importance of virtual meetings, maybe Microsoft can grab some of that videoconferencing market. Teams grew phenomenally during the COVID-19 pandemic, from 20 million to 145 million active users, but it remains unclear as to if it can become as ubiquitous as Microsoft would like. Adding a Skype Meet Now button to Windows 10’s notification area didn’t have that effect. (Skype remains an excellent, highly capable communication tool, nevertheless.) But maybe once Window 11 becomes the dominant version, the operating system’s ubiquity will accelerate Teams chat’s adoption.
To get started, click the chat icon. A welcome experience prompts you to grant the app access to your Microsoft account and its contacts. When you subsequently tap the icon after this initial setup, you see a list of all your contacts. Click on one to start a chat. Your contacts are likely not using Teams chat yet, so the app sends along an invite to join Teams (it’s free for personal use) along with that first message. One strange thing about the interface is that, once you’re in a video chat, you see a second Taskbar icon for Teams along with the centered chat icon; this seems like an unnecessary duplication to me. A killer feature of Windows 11’s Teams app, though, is that it lets you converse from your PC with anyone with a cellphone via SMS—for free!
Windows 11 on Tablets
Windows 11, unfortunately, ditches a couple of its best tablet- and touch-friendly features. Most importantly, you can no longer swipe in from the left to open the task-switching view, a gesture I use all the time on my Surface Go tablet. You can no longer swipe down from the top to close an app, either. This omission is less of a big deal because you can still hit the X in the window’s upper right corner as you’d do in desktop mode. Again, though, for a handheld device, the down-swipe is more direct and requires less dexterity. There are, however, new three-finger swipe gestures to show the Task View and to minimize (but not close) and app on the desktop. A sideways three-finger swipe switches you between running apps. And you can, of course, use the Task View button in the Taskbar, but that’s not as immediate as a swipe of the thumb. I’d argue that switching tasks is more important to tablet users than accessing Widgets, the new result of that gesture, too.
On the plus side, tablet users get new stylus options and on-screen touch keyboard tricks. The new Surface Slim Pen 2 has haptic feedback—always a plus. This latest-generation pen (available on Surface Pro 8 and Surface Laptop Studio) buzzes in your hand, for example, when you delete previously written text and when you tap the Back button to open the Whiteboard app. In that app, you can experience the full digital inking experience, which has gotten to the point of feeling exactly like writing with ink. You can, for example, highlight text, write freehand (albeit sloppily), and sketch diagrams. You can even convert what you write to digital text. The on-screen keyboard supports swipe text entry and offers a healthy selection of emoji and gifs, and it now lets you choose custom backgrounds.
Voice typing (which is useful for both tablets and non-tablets) is the new name for Windows 10’s fantastic speech dictation tool. Windows’ voice-to-text feature has improved remarkably in recent years and now uses machine learning algorithms to correct its guesses and punctuation. As with the previous dictation feature, you hit the Windows Key–H keyboard shortcut or press the on-screen touch keyboard’s mic icon to launch the tool. Then you simply dictate the text you want to enter in the on-screen text area.
New App Store With Android Support Coming!
Like the rest of the interface, the Store gets a slick design refresh. In addition to apps, the Store offers Movies and TV shows as well as games. A marquee upcoming feature is Windows 11’s ability to run Android apps, though with some caveats. You’ll either have to install them via the Amazon Appstore running inside of Windows’ Microsoft Store or as a sideloaded APK. Android apps aren’t yet available in the initial Windows 11 release, however.
Perhaps even more significant for the store is that developers no longer need to code with the UWP app type in order to be included. Even Microsoft’s own gargantuan Visual Studio development program is in the store now. Microsoft also announced that Progressive Web Apps, which are actually websites with some extra code that bestows app-like qualities, will also find their way into the Store.
In addition to apps you can get in the Store, you also get all the standard apps like Photos (updated for Windows 11), the (FLAC-capable) Groove Music player, Voice Recorder, two Paint apps (3D and a redesigned classic Paint), Mail, Calendar, and so on. We can hope for the last two mentioned to be greatly improved as Windows 11 development progresses. In the initial release, we still have the existing apps, albeit with rounded corners, but new versions will be based on the excellent Progressive Web App versions of Outlook.com. Microsoft has already teased an updated Paint app (though I’ve started to enjoy the modern Paint 3D), as well as new versions of Notepad and the Calculator.
Of special note is the updated Clock app, which now offers Focus timers to help you complete tasks. It still offers alarms, timers, and a world clock, but its Focus Sessions integrate with Spotify to give you appropriate background music for your tasks, and with the To Do app, so you can check off those tasks upon completion.
Gaming and New Technologies
PC gamers are never forgotten in major new Windows updates, and Windows 11 is no exception. Two areas benefit: game selection and technologies. For the first, the Xbox app built into Windows 11 offers access to the Xbox Game Pass collection of video games. This includes titles like Halo Infinite, Twelve Minutes, and Age of Empires IV. The app also enables Xbox Cloud Gaming, Microsoft’s streaming game platform.
As for new gaming technology, Windows 11 introduces Auto HDR and DirectStorage. The first expands the color space to reveal superior clarity even with non-HDR game titles. The second technology, DirectStorage (a subset of the Xbox Velocity Architecture) can speed up game loading times by bypassing the CPU and allowing graphics memory to load directly.
Other technical advances in Windows 11 include Dynamic Refresh, which can save laptop batteries by decreasing a screen’s high refresh rate when it’s not needed. The OS also supports the much faster Wi-Fi 6E standard. The requirements of TPM and Secure Boot are part of Microsoft’s beefing up the OS’s security technology, a topic worthy of a whole separate article. Stay tuned, Lead Analyst Neil Rubenking is working on this right now.
In a follow-up blog post to the one announcing the new OS, Microsoft detailed new accessibility features in Windows 11 to join existing ones like Narrator, Magnifier, Closed Captions, and Windows Speech Recognition, along with support for third-party assistive hardware and software. For example, Windows 11 has new Contrast themes, redesigned closed caption themes, and AI-powered Windows Voice Typing. The new OS also adds APIs for programming assistive apps, and even the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) now has accessibility options.
What’s Going Away in Windows 11?
It only makes sense that some legacy features no longer fit in with the new approach of Windows 11. A couple of windowing conveniences that I like, but are apparently seldomly used, are going away. Aero Peek and Aero Shake are turned off by default in Windows 11, but you can re-enable them in Settings.
The Cortana AI voice assistant isn’t preinstalled on Windows 11 systems by default, but it’s still available in the app store. Live tiles are gone, too, with Widgets now replacing their functionality. Tablet mode is replaced by what Microsoft calls “new functionality and capability…for keyboard attach and detach postures.” Another casualty is the Windows 10 Timeline—though the Start menu’s Recommended section still shows your recent documents and apps.
Time for a New Windows
Minor complaints aside, we like to see Microsoft giving its marquee software some attention. For the last few years, the company has focused more on its Azure cloud computing services—justifiably given that business’s profitability. Windows 11 brings slick new looks, useful new tools, updated default apps, extra capabilities, and performance advances. Perhaps that’s enough to lure away some Chrome OS users or Mac users. Regardless, it’s still early days for the desktop OS that’s used on 1.3 billion PCs, so we look forward to Microsoft fine-tuning and perfecting Windows 11’s design in future updates.
Windows 11 retains most of the vast feature set of Windows 10 and enhances the operating system with more attractive, modern interface touches and new conveniences like Snap Layouts and Widgets. For those reasons, despite some early growing pains and the unfamiliarity it presents, Microsoft Windows 11 remains a PCMag Editors’ Choice-winning desktop operating system, though at a slightly reduced score of four stars. It’s early days for Windows 11, however, and we expect Microsoft to make a steady stream of improvements. The currently more polished Apple macOS is also a PCMag Editors’ Choice winner.