With Windows 11, Microsoft has taken a risk by changing up its operating system, though many of the changes amount to not much more than window dressing. Windows 11 is a response to competition from Apple and Google, both of which have been nibbling at the edges of the market-leading desktop operating system with slick new designs. Despite its drastically updated look intended to respond to the competition, Windows 11 functions much as Windows 10 does—with notable added features and conveniences. Coming after six years of ho-hum upgrades, this major overhaul to the look and feel of the world’s most popular desktop operating system is welcome news: Windows fans finally have something to get excited about.
Despite the OS’s smooth new look, we were surprised that using it doesn’t feel that different from Windows 10. It still runs all the same apps, and 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 might just want to stick with Windows 10.
Windows 11 is still a work in progress. As with Windows 10, you can let the company know what you’d like to see added to the software in a dedicated Feedback Hub app, and you may be surprised at how often it listens. Anyone can sign up for preview builds of the OS through the Windows Insider Program. This lets you experience new features before they’re available for general release. The next major update, 22H2 (sometimes referred to by Windows analysts as Sun Valley 2) is expected to add Start menu options, some redesigned stock apps, and machine-learning intelligence.
What Are the Requirements and How Do You Get Windows 11?
Windows 11 launched on Oct. 5, 2021. 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. The most recent survey from AdDuplex (February 2022) showed that Windows 11 is in use on over 19% of PCs, which is not insignificant, considering 1.3 billion devices run Windows.
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—but there’s still no info from Microsoft on such an option, even after the Windows 11 launch.
Much has been made over the system requirements for Windows 11, but they’re very low: 1GHz CPU, 4GB RAM, and 64GB storage. A 64-bit processor will be required; there’s no longer a 32-bit version of the OS. 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, and the company announced that more PCs will be able to upgrade to it.
Anyone with one of the newer chips should have no trouble installing Windows 11 via Windows Update. Microsoft 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. A similar installation option is now available for the release version of Windows 11 via Microsoft’s Download Windows 11 page. Some sources have reported that installing the OS with the ISO installer bypasses the system’s hardware requirements, but that’s not advisable as you may not get future OS updates if you install it on unsupported hardware.
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
Most of the work on Windows 11 went toward redesigning the interface rather than building wholly new features, so—as I mentioned above—the OS 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. Microsoft’s Fluent Design System, and that system’s new Mica material play a role in the redesign. This semi-transparent look is appearing in more and more included apps and utilities. Much of the new design brings a welcome new slickness and consistency to the Windows interface, but there are a few changes in Windows 11 I’m not a fan of, 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 not especially 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
Windows 11 has a 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 is exceedingly similar, and a recent update made it even more similar, adding a weather indicator to the taskbar. In addition to Microsoft-produced first-party tiles in the Widgets panel, 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. For more, read How to Use Widgets in Windows 11.
Notifications 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 press the speaker and just Wi-Fi options when I press 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.
Snap 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 Snap Layouts 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.
Snap 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 press 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!
A Better Screenshot Tool
Windows 10 introduced a terrific utility for taking screenshots, called Snip & Sketch. With a press of the Windows Key-Shift-S keyboard shortcut, it let you select an area (either rectangular or free-form), a window, or the entire screen and snap a screenshot that you could paste from the clipboard or open in an image editor. Windows 11 instead has a new Snipping Tool. It’s named after an earlier, less functional screenshot tool that had been a fan favorite among Windows enthusiasts. The Snipping Tool adds an optional timer delay before it takes a screenshot. There remain other ways to take screenshots in Windows 11, including using the tried-and-true PrtSc key, the Game Bar, third-party screenshot utilities, and so forth. Read my article How to Take Screenshots in Windows 11 for all the details.
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 press 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. You can use the Task View button in the Taskbar, but it’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, which is what swiping your thumb now gets you.
On the plus side, Windows 11 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.
Speaking of emoji, Microsoft released Fluent design-influenced emoji. On Windows 11, just as on its predecessor, you can tap Windows Key–. (period) to access a small panel with a generous selection of symbols, special characters, and emoji. Microsoft’s Judy Safran-Aasen, Program Manager for the Windows Design Team, writes in a blog post that the new emoji “would scale to the expansive set of Unicode emoji” and that they’re “more modern and expressive emoji to use in your hybrid communications, allowing you to add fun, expression and personality to your communications.” They do seem to convey more of an immediate feeling to me.
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 press 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!
Like the rest of the interface, the Microsoft Store app (also known as Windows’ app store), gets a slick design refresh. In addition to apps, the Store offers Movies and TV shows as well as games. For some ideas on what to install, read our roundup of the best apps for Windows 11.
A marquee feature is Windows 11’s ability to run Android apps, though with some caveats. You have to install them either via the Amazon Appstore running inside of Windows’ Microsoft Store or as a sideloaded APK. Android apps are available on Windows 11 now but the feature is still considered to be in Preview.
Perhaps even more significant for the store is that developers no longer need to code with the UWP app type 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.
Updated Stock Apps
In addition to apps you can get in the Store, you also get standard apps like an updated Photos app, 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 started including the updated Paint app (though I’ve started to enjoy the modern Paint 3D), as well as new versions of Notepad (with a dark mode!) and the Calculator.
Windows Media Player and the Groove music player have recently been replaced by a new media player app. If you had music stored in Groove, your library and playlists will automatically migrate to the new Media Player when your PC gets the update. The new player does not replace the Movies & TV app, too, which is the default video player and catalog app for content bought through the Microsoft Store; Movies & TV also supports the cross-platform Movies Anywhere system.
The Chromium-based Microsoft Edge is the default browser, with Internet Explorer no longer existing as a standalone program, though companies that need IE functionality for their custom business apps can invoke that through Edge when enabled. Web pundits have panned Microsoft’s decision to require Edge for some OS-related features like the news widget and the built-in search, but you can still use the browser of your choice as the default link opener. The company is also testing a Set Default Browser button to make switching easier.
Of special note is the updated Clock app, which now offers a way to help you complete tasks. It still offers alarms, timers, and a world clock, but its Focus Sessions feature integrates 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.
When it comes to setting apps as the default for certain file types, Windows 11 makes things somewhat trickier: You now have to change the setting for each file type, rather than just choosing an app to handle, for example, all photo files.
Gaming and New Technologies
PC gamers are seldom left out 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. It basically puts PCs on a par with Xboxes, though with users in control of how much hardware power they want to throw at their games. PCMag gaming analyst Jordan Minor goes so far as to declare that With Windows 11, Microsoft Makes Every PC an Xbox.
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. In fact, PCMag lead analyst Neil Rubenking has written one that you should read, called Windows 11 Is Ultra-Secure: Don’t Mess It Up!
In terms of raw performance on traditional synthetic benchmarks, the new OS is largely at parity with Windows 10. Our hardware team ran benchmark tests both for gaming performance and productivity performance on the same PC with Windows 10 and then again after upgrading to Windows 11. The team found that Windows 11 performs just as well, and even showed some gains in frame rates and a slight edge in the productivity tests. In any case, you can still speed up Windows 11 with a few tricks if you notice it getting sluggish.
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 Gone 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 conveniences that I like, but are apparently hardly 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, although 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 this new version of 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—and we’ve already seen this in action, with the Weather icon returning to the taskbar.
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 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. We expect Microsoft to make a steady stream of improvements. The currently more polished Apple macOS is also a PCMag Editors’ Choice winner.