Windows 11 hands on: Microsoft's biggest minor upgrade ever is all about new hardware
For the first time ever, Microsoft is releasing a Windows upgrade that it doesn't want most of its existing customers to use. But, especially on new hardware, Windows 11 offers some serious usability improvements, along with a handful of annoyances.
Microsoft is rolling out a major operating system upgrade this week. It is unlike any Windows upgrade I can remember, and I've been covering this beat since the dawn of recorded time.
Technically, you can look at Windows 11 and argue that it's really only a feature update to Windows 10. For Exhibit A, just look at the version string that appears if you open a Command Prompt window:
Microsoft Windows [Version 10.0.22000.194]
Version 10, you say? Microsoft says that string is there for compatibility reasons, but it follows the exact same format that Windows 10 feature updates follow.
Want more proof? Install Windows 11 and you can use any Windows 10 product key to activate that installation. Microsoft confirms this behavior is by design.
I could go down a long list of additional reasons why this is, technically, a minor Windows upgrade that's been assigned a new major version number for marketing purposes. And yet that explanation obscures a more important reality: This version of Windows marks a major hardware transition, with Microsoft drawing a firm line in the silicon and declaring that the majority of current CPUs will be obsolete when Windows 10 support expires in October 2025.
It's also noteworthy that this is the first Windows upgrade in recent memory that isn't the result of Microsoft responding to a crisis in its installed base. Windows 10, for example, was a response to the market's wholesale rejection of Windows 8, which was itself Microsoft's bold but flawed attempt to build an alternative to Apple's iPad. And then there's Windows 7, whose prime directive was to clean up the mess that was Windows Vista.
In that context, the fact that Windows 11 is a relatively modest refresh to the hugely successful Windows 10 is almost a relief. Indeed, it's remarkable that Microsoft's designers have been able to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of Windows in this release instead of having to rebuild the operating system's foundation for the umpteenth time.
This review is based on the final builds Microsoft released as part of the Windows Insider Program. I've done upgrades and clean installs on a variety of hardware devices and a few virtual machines, as well as testing Windows 11 on a Surface Pro 8 review unit that I've been using for the past week or so.
If your hardware passes Microsoft's requirements and you choose to accept the optional upgrade, here's what you can expect.
For anyone who upgrades to Windows 11 using Windows Update, the experience should be similar to that of installing a Windows 10 feature update. If you choose a clean install, you'll get a brand-new Setup experience that is much calmer and more understated than the Windows 10 experience, with none of those chirpy-verging-on-grating Cortana prompts. ("A little sign-up here, a touch of Wi-Fi there…" Arrrrgggghhh!)
This is what the new Setup looks like.
Besides a visual refresh, the redesigned Windows 11 Setup includes several new capabilities.
You now get an opportunity to choose a computer name as part of the installation process instead of having a random string of letters and numbers assigned as the computer name.
When you sign in with a Microsoft account, you're also given the choice to copy settings and a list of apps from another device or to set up the new PC using default settings. That's a choice that owners of mobile devices have been familiar with for ages, but it's nice to see it available on Windows PCs.
On the other side of the ledger, anyone installing Windows 11 Home edition will be disappointed to learn that Setup requires an Internet connection and a Microsoft account. You won't be able to proceed without either entering an existing Microsoft account address or creating a new one, although you can replace that account with a local account after setup is complete. If you're setting up Windows 11 Pro or Enterprise, you'll have the option to create a local account, which is a prerequisite before joining a Windows domain.
The Windows 11 installation does an excellent job of supporting password-less sign-in for Microsoft accounts as well as Azure Active Directory logins. On Microsoft Surface and other devices that include an infrared camera, Windows Hello facial recognition offers the easiest sign-in option.
The primary backup option in Windows 11 is OneDrive folder syncing, which allows you to save files from the Documents, Desktop, and Pictures folder to a connected OneDrive account. Legacy backup options are no longer accessible from Windows 11 Settings, although they're still there if you know where to look; the well-hidden features include File History, which copies data files and folders to a local storage device, along with the venerable Windows 7 Backup program.
After completing a Windows 11 installation, the most obvious change is the position of the Start button, which moves from the lower left corner to the center of the taskbar. Clicking that button opens the new, extremely streamlined Start menu, which is radically different from its Windows 10 predecessor.
Overall, the Windows 11 UX has a different visual style, with a new system font (Segoe UI Variable), new themes and system icons, and rounded corners pretty much everywhere you look.
The Start menu is drastically simpler than it was in Windows 10, perhaps too much so. The taskbar moves to the center of the screen (although you can reconfigure it in Settings to align on the left instead), but it can no longer dock to the side or top of the display.
The tiles that made up the Windows 10 Start menu are gone (along with any information that appeared on Live Tiles); they're replaced by rows of app icons that can be pinned and moved but can't be grouped into folders. The jump lists for program icons, showing recently opened files and common actions, are now available only on the taskbar and not on Start.
The other place where Microsoft's designers have lavished attention in Windows 11 is the Settings app, which has received a total makeover in this release. Compare the Settings pages for adding new devices to a Windows 10 and Windows 11 PC for a particularly enlightening example.
In the Windows 11 layout, the list of categories is pinned to the left, with options in the selected category sliding open and closed in panes on the right as you work with them. That eliminates the need to continually return to the Settings Home page to select a new category, as is the case in Windows 10.
Over the past six years, Microsoft has been slowly but steadily moving settings from the legacy Control Panel into the new Settings app. With the Windows 11 upgrade, that effort has gone into overdrive. There are still bits and pieces of Control Panel and other ancient pieces of Windows that pop up occasionally, especially for components that use the Microsoft Management Console. But this is a serious effort to relegate those outdated pieces to a corner of Windows where most people will never see them. You'll still find inconsistencies in the Windows 11 user experience, especially when using dark themes with legacy apps.
Two major improvements in the user experience are less obvious but extremely welcome, especially for those who use Windows on a large display or with multiple monitors with a docking station.
Windows 11 adds a new set of options for snapping windows into side-by-side arrangements. You can still use the keyboard shortcuts (Windows key plus left and right arrows, for example), but moving the mouse pointer over the Restore button reveals a set of layouts that are appropriate to the size of the current display. On the 38-inch Dell display in my office, for example, which has a resolution of 3840x1600, I can arrange two, three, or four windows automatically using this menu; those layouts are automatically saved for reuse later.
The experience of using a docking station is also greatly improved, with Windows 11 remembering the position of windows on each display and restoring those windows to their previous location when reconnecting. That's a noteworthy contrast with Windows 10, which requires manual rearranging of windows when reconnecting a docking station.
As part of the Windows 11 launch event, Microsoft announced big changes coming to the Microsoft Store, with developers now having the ability to deliver conventional desktop apps through the Store. They also promised that Windows 11 users would be able to install and run Android apps. That latter capability is still missing in action, with no firm ship date in sight. Meanwhile, the jury is out on whether Windows users will discover the Microsoft Store and flock to it after years of disappointment. I'm not holding my breath.
Crapware and other annoyances
If you found yourself annoyed by the constant reappearance of Candy Crush and other unsolicited software on the Windows 10 Start menu, prepare to be equally exasperated with Windows 11.
On a default clean installation of any Windows 11 consumer edition (Home or Pro), where you sign in using a Microsoft account or a local account, you'll be offered an assortment of third-party apps. (Note that Windows users in corporate environments won't see any of these apps if they sign in with a domain-based or Azure AD account or install Windows 11 Enterprise.)
On my test systems, the crapware collection consisted of Clipchamp, an online video editor; Picsart Photo Studio, which offers a suite of online image editing and design tools; and Corel PaintShop Pro. All are nominally free but push their paid plans fairly aggressively.
The list of preinstalled shortcuts (the apps aren't actually installed until you click a shortcut) also includes WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram; Amazon Prime Video; and TikTok, all available as progressive web apps (PWAs).
You can completely remove any of these apps, installed or not, by right-clicking its shortcut on the Windows 11 Start menu and choosing Uninstall.
The worst offender in the "I never asked for that app" competition, however, comes from Microsoft itself. On a default installation, you'll find a Chat icon pinned to the taskbar, with no obvious way to remove it. Unlike other pinned taskbar icons, there's no Unpin or Uninstall option available when you right-click, and when you search in the list of installed apps, you won't find anything that includes the word Chat.
That's because Chat is actually a part of Microsoft Teams, a version of which is installed automatically with Windows. (Even more confusing is that Microsoft 365 installs a separate Teams app if you install the Office Apps for Business on Windows 11.) To hide the Teams Chat icon, you have to go to Settings > Personalization > Taskbar and turn the Chat switch to the Off position.
Someone at Microsoft thinks they can convince consumers to switch to Teams as their primary chat app. It's hard to imagine that happening.
The other annoyance, visible on that same list, is the new Widgets pane, which appears when you swipe in from the left on a touchscreen, or click the taskbar Widgets button, or press Windows key + W. Widgets are a prominent feature on every other computing platform, so Microsoft is playing catch-up here.
As delivered, widgets are a colossal disappointment. The Calendar widget, for example, works only with the signed-in Windows user account. On Windows 10, I've been accustomed to signing in with a Microsoft account and then connecting my Microsoft Exchange calendar (part of a Microsoft 365 Business account) to Windows. That configuration allows me to view upcoming events with a click of the taskbar's date.
The calendar integration feature is gone from Windows 11, and none of the widgets (including Calendar and To-Do) allow you to swap accounts. The only way to see a business calendar is to sign in to Windows using that business account.
Meanwhile, the selection of available widgets is meager, with no third-party add-ons available.
The main purpose of the Widgets panel seems to be to deliver extra cash to Microsoft's bottom line via an endless scrolling feed of headlines sprinkled with ads from Microsoft Start (the latest incarnation of MSN News). Although you can customize that feed by specifying interests and hiding some news sources, it's not a great experience.
Windows 11: Built for new hardware?
I've been running Insider preview releases of Windows 11 on a Surface Pro 7 for several months, and it's been a generally positive experience, with all the frustrations that come with running prerelease software.
For the past five days, though, I've switched to a Surface Pro 8 with Windows 11 preinstalled, using a review unit supplied by Microsoft. This is the same combination of hardware and software that retail customers will use when they receive their preorders starting today, and the experience has been generally extremely positive.
I've paired the Surface Pro 8 with Kensington's new SD5750T Thunderbolt 4 dock. That dock attaches to one of the two USB Type-C ports on the Surface Pro 8 using the supplied Thunderbolt cable and enables high-speed wired Ethernet and external audio, with support for up to seven additional USB ports.
Connecting the dock via a second USB-C cable to a Dell UltraSharp 38 monitor enables multimonitor support and connects additional USB ports on the monitor itself.
This review unit has 16 GB of RAM and a 256 GB NVMe SSD. Normally, I'd steer clear of enabling Hyper-V and creating virtual machines without significantly more storage. But I decided to try using a Crucial X6 2TB portable SSD connected to one of the USB-C ports on the Kensington dock, and to my surprise its performance was more than sufficient for creating a pair of virtual machines for test purposes.
The touch experience on the Surface Pro 8 running Windows 11 is surprisingly pleasant. One surprise is the ability to apply themes to the touch keyboard and to resize it so that it doesn't overwhelm the rest of the display.
Windows 10 includes a feature called Tablet Mode that completely changes the taskbar and the way of interacting with the device when you disconnect the keyboard from a Surface Pro. Windows 11 does away completely with Tablet Mode. Instead, when you remove the keyboard, you'll notice that icons on the taskbar spread out slightly, making them easier to touch. You'll notice the same effect in the Office ribbon.
Microsoft claims that the Surface Pro 8 can run for 16 hours on battery. As always, you can take those projections with a very large grain of salt, but the observed battery drains reported by Windows (using the powerconfig /batteryreport command) over the past five days show battery life estimates of 8 to 10 hours per session, which is significantly better than the 5-plus hours of battery life I normally get from the Surface Pro 7.
I'll have more to report on the Surface Pro 8 after I've had a few more weeks to work with it.
Upgrade or new hardware?
As I said at the top, this Windows upgrade cycle is unlike anything I've ever seen before.
Normally, the big question is "Should you upgrade?" For Windows 11, the more important question is "Can you upgrade?" In a typical business, with a mix of hardware of various ages, it might not be possible to upgrade an entire fleet even if you wanted to.
For those whose hardware does meet the minimum standards, the benefits of an upgrade might be hard to justify. On laptops with docking stations, the improvements in multi-monitor support alone might be enough, but if you expect to switch between devices that are still running Windows 10, you might prefer to avoid the upgrade in the interest of maintaining a consistent user experience.
For new hardware, though, I'd probably recommend Windows 11, if only because it has a future that extends for another decade. For Windows 10, the clock is counting down.
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