Your Windows 11 PC is about to get a supersize helping of new features. Exactly when those features will arrive, though, is anybody's guess.
Welcome to the latest evolution of Windows as a Service. In Windows 11, Microsoft has once again shaken up the way it adds new features to its flagship operating system. Instead of delivering them once or twice a year as part of a big feature update (the original Windows 10 model), the company now practices what it calls "continuous innovation ... to provide you with the best experiences, when new features are ready."
As Microsoft's VP in charge of Windows Servicing and Delivery, John Cable, explains, "Windows 11 devices will get new functionality at different times, as we will be gradually rolling out some of these new features over the coming weeks initially via controlled feature rollout (CFR) to consumers.... We anticipate broad availability for most new features by the November 2023 security update release for all devices."
To make things even more confusing, these updates are being delivered as part of the normal update process for the year-old Windows 11 version 22H2. This year's update, version 23H2, is still due before the end of the year. It's built on the same servicing branch and code base as version 22H2, which means it will be delivered as a small "enablement package" that will take seconds to install. (Going from version 22H2 to 23H2 will increment the Windows 11 build number from 22621 to 22631 and add another year to the support clock.)
For those still running the original Windows 11 release, version 21H2, it's time to upgrade, as your version hits its end-of-support date in just a few weeks, on October 10, 2023. (If you're managing PCs running Windows 11 Enterprise edition, you have an extra year.)
If you're eager to get the new features without waiting for Microsoft's servers to declare your device ready, go to Settings > Windows Update and slide the switch labeled Get The Latest Updates As Soon As They're Available to the On position.
Oh, and even after you install that update, you'll also need to visit the Microsoft Store app and get the latest updates for a handful of built-in apps.
So, what are those new features, exactly?
The one Microsoft is pitching most prominently is Windows Copilot, which adds an AI prompt in a sidebar on the right side of the Windows display. It's available as a preview in "a select set of global markets," according to Microsoft. Click the Copilot taskbar icon (just to the right of the search box) or use the Windows key + C shortcut to open that prompt.
Copilot can do most of the same tasks as its Bing counterpart (write an email, generate an image, or answer a trivia question). It can also perform some Windows-related tasks, such as changing the theme or opening an app.
Copilot is still in preview mode, and in my experience with the Windows Insider version of the feature, I found it slow to respond and generally not much of a timesaver compared to simply typing the name of a feature in the search box and jumping to it directly.
Microsoft is also leveraging its substantial AI investments into other parts of Windows. In the Paint app, for example, you'll find an AI-powered feature called Cocreator, which promises to create an image, DALL-E style, based on your text prompt. (For now, this feature is available as a preview, with Windows Insiders getting first crack at the waitlist.)
Likewise, the Auto Compose feature in Clipchamp can create a new video based on media you select, while the Photos app adds the ability to blur backgrounds and offers enhanced search capabilities based on the content of images stored in OneDrive.
Snipping Tool adds the ability to identify text in an image (using AI, of course) and then extract that text to the Clipboard; you can also redact email addresses and phone numbers for sharing a screen capture without giving away personal information.
New backup and management options
The most prominent new feature that isn't part of Microsoft's relentless AI push is a new Windows Backup app. Don't be confused by the name; this isn't a competitor for third-party apps that back up data files or create system images.
Instead, it streamlines the process of backing up settings, apps, and files for moving to a new PC. It works only with personal Microsoft accounts (you'll get an error message on a system that's joined to an enterprise network using Entra ID, the new name for Azure Active Directory).
The Backup app uses OneDrive storage and works with Windows 10 and Windows 11. A matching Restore function works only when setting up a new PC using Windows 11 version 22H2 or later and requires a network connection. Both apps are available globally except in Mainland China.
In Settings, you'll find a new home page that offers quick access to tools for managing Microsoft services, storage, and devices. Passkey support is now explicitly available in the Accounts tab, although there's no easy way to add new passkeys.
This version expands the availability of voice access tools, including options to use voice control during setup. On devices that have sensors that can detect whether a human is sitting at the PC, you'll find improvements in the Wake On Approach and Lock On Leave features, which can reduce the risk of an unauthorized third party accessing an unattended PC.
The new Adaptive Dimming feature is designed to dim the screen (saving energy) if the sensor determines your attention is directed elsewhere. All these features have to be enabled explicitly; they're not on by default.
In its public demos, Microsoft emphasizes the sexy AI-based features, but its core market is really in business. This release includes a slew of features designed to help network administrators manage deployments more effectively.
Unmanaged Windows PCs have had the option to sign in to a Windows using a passwordless Microsoft account for several years. This release adds the same option on managed devices, using Windows Hello for Business.
Another new feature, Config Refresh, automatically refreshes group policy settings at regular intervals (every 30 or 90 minutes) so that admins in managed organizations can override settings that have been changed or tampered with.
Microsoft's effort to move Windows completely to the cloud is still in its early phases, but this version enables a key option called Windows 365 Boot, which allows employees to boot directly to their cloud-based Windows 365 desktop, bypassing the local PC completely.
Finally, a feature called Mobile Application Management for Windows is touted as allowing employees to access organizational resources through Microsoft Edge on an unmanaged device, while giving network administrators the ability to control the conditions under which the resources can be accessed.