What's the point of Windows 11? With Windows 10, Microsoft had to make a big course correction from Windows 8, an ambitious yet flawed attempt at bringing PCs into the touchscreen era. Before that, Windows 7 was meant as a palate cleanser to help us forget about the bloated mess that was Vista. Given that Windows 10 was already pretty polished when it launched, and only got better over time, why the need for a whole new version?
After testing early builds for months, as well as the shipping release this past week (here's how to nab it yourself), it's clear that Microsoft isn't actually trying to fix much with Windows 11. It's basically a fresh coat of paint on top of Windows 10 (and likely a last-ditch attempt at rebranding the defunct Windows 10X.) But the more I use it, the easier it is to see that small design tweaks can go a long way. Windows 10 was laser-focused on productivity; it aimed to make you as efficient as possible. Windows 11 goes a step further: What if being productive was also pleasant and oddly relaxing? Windows, meet mindfulness.
- The most polished-looking Windows yet
- Just as fast as Windows 10
- Free upgrade for Windows 10 users
- Stronger security features
- Taskbar and start menu changes take some learning
- Upgrade restrictions on older hardware
- Internet and Microsoft account required for Home setup
At first glance, Windows 11 may seem like a radical departure from Microsoft's typical desktop template — an aesthetic that hearkens all the way back to Windows 95. The taskbar is still around, but now all of your icons are centered by default. The Start menu is back with a redesigned look featuring pinned and recommended apps (you can also hit All Apps to see everything you've got installed). RIP, Live Tiles — nobody ever used you.
This refreshed look extends throughout Windows 11: App windows now have rounded corners; icons, Windows Explorer and the Settings app look sharper than ever; and even the sound effects have been cleaned up. This is Windows at its most refined. To put it uncharitably, though, it also seems a lot like macOS. But fret not, Windows diehards: You can still shove the entire taskbar back to the left side of the screen. (Editor’s note: Where it belongs.)
Microsoft has also reworked system tray, for better and worse. Hitting the date and time brings up your notifications and calendar, while clicking on the volume or networking icons makes the new action center pop out. It’s similar to the system shortcuts in Windows 10, allowing you to change Wi-Fi networks, enable airplane mode and quickly change your brightness and volume. You can also easily reach some accessibility tweaks, like enabling the magnifier or color filters. Everything looks sleeker than Windows 10, though some options are gone entirely. (Note: I originally didn't see Night Light settings when I tested Windows 11, but recently it just inexplicably appeared in the system shortcuts.)
Windows 11 also marks a major return for widgets: bite-sized apps that also appeared in Windows 7. You can reach them by hitting the widget button in the taskbar, but frankly, I found them useless. These days, I don’t need a glanceable screen for my calendar, news and mail, not when my smartphone is always within reach.
Less noticeable than the taskbar changes, but still important, is the new Windows Store. It looks cleaner, with a left-hand navigation bar and multiple panes for individual app entries. I'd wager Microsoft just wanted to keep those install and purchase buttons in clear view at all times. Windows 10 is also getting the same Store app eventually, so it's not really an exclusive for the new OS. Eventually, we'll also see Android apps in the Microsoft Store, but it's unclear when that's happening.
Similarly, Windows 11 ships with the latest Xbox app, but that's also available on Windows 10. Originally, Microsoft said Windows 11 would be the only way to use its DirectStorage technology on PCs, which is the same technology that helps to speed up load times on the Xbox Series S and X. Later, the company said that DirectStorage would also work on Windows 10, though it'll perform better on Windows 11 since it has a revamped storage stack. It's still unclear when the new feature will land on either OS.
Calm from the start... mostly
On a new PC, Windows 11 welcomes you with a series of setup screens that feel like you're flipping through a spa brochure. Log into your Wi-Fi (or plug into Ethernet), enter your Microsoft credentials, and maybe grab a cucumber water while you wait.
As with Windows 10, you can choose to disable advertising IDs, which prevents ad tracking, and opt out of sending diagnostic information to Microsoft. But there aren't many other choices you'll have to make; the setup process basically runs on autopilot until you see the new desktop.
It's worth noting that Microsoft has made setup more restrictive for Windows 11 Home users: Both an internet connection and Microsoft account are required. You won't be able to set up a local user account, or use your computer at all, until you meet those requirements. Windows 11 Pro users won't have that limitation, which is good news for IT professionals and power users. But it could be frustrating for people without reliable internet access of their own.
(As of last year, the FCC said around 14.5 million Americans don't have steady broadband, defined as at least 25Mbps download speeds and 3Mbps uploads. Recent figures from Data Reportal say around 40 percent of the world's population are offline. Microsoft is probably assuming that the majority of its potential customers won't have an issue finding internet, but that goes directly against the company's moves towards increased accessibility.)