Windows 11 is simpler and more streamlined, but it’s also not finished
Windows 11 has arrived, and with it comes Microsoft’s vision for the future of personal computing. This is a softer, more rounded Windows, one that puts the Start menu front and center while doing away with some of the cruft that cluttered up Windows 10.
But while Windows 11 does introduce some welcome improvements, many are so subtle you probably won’t notice them unless you’re specifically looking. And even the changes that do grab your attention — like the newly centered Start button — tend to fade into the background with remarkable speed.
But perhaps that’s part of the plan. Microsoft is pitching Windows 11 as a safer, more performant Windows that’s simple to use, with a welcoming design that’s meant to make using your PC for work and play easier than ever. If moving from Windows 8 to Windows 10 was a minor revolution, moving to Windows 11 is a refinement.
And since just about every Windows 10 user with a qualifying machine will have the chance to upgrade for free, the only thing most of us have to do is decide whether the revamped design of Windows 11 is worth the hassle of upgrading. To help you make that decision for yourself, read on for our full Windows 11 review.
Windows 11 review cheat sheet
- Windows 11 has a more inviting and streamlined look, with rounded corners and a new Start menu that’s front and center.
- New Desktops feature helps you set up multiple desktops for work and play.
- New Snap Assist and Layouts make it easier to manage multiple windows on your screen.
- Windows 11 widgets are fine if all you care about is the news, weather and your calendar, but at launch there aren’t many others available and what’s here is barebones.
- Auto HDR and DirectStorage will improve game performance — if you have compatible hardware.
- Steep system requirements mean most PCs built before 2018 are out of luck.
- Native Android app support and other features missing at launch.
Windows 11 review: Price and availability
- Windows 11 launches Oct. 5th, but you may not be offered an upgrade ’til 2022
- Upgrading to Windows 11 from Windows 10 should be free
Windows 11 officially arrives October 5, and you can read our Windows 11 launch live blog to keep abreast of all the news, problems, quirks and other tidbits of information as it happens. If you’re buying a new copy, the update will be available in Home and Pro versions on Microsoft’s website and at select third-party retailers, just like Windows 10. It’s worth noting that while Windows 11 Home requires a Microsoft account and an Internet connection to activate, Windows 11 Pro does not.
Beta versions of Windows 11 have been available to the public for some time, but October 5 is the official day that it goes on sale and free upgrades begin rolling out to qualifying Windows PCs via Windows Update.
If your PC qualifies, upgrading to Windows 11 from Windows 10 will be free. And if you’ve been beta-testing Windows 11 already and your PC meets the minimum requirements, you should be able to upgrade to the final version of Windows 11 on launch day.
However, if you haven’t been a beta tester you could be waiting awhile to get the official offer to upgrade through Windows Update: Microsoft has said it plans to start rolling out Windows 11 to existing Windows 10 machines on October 5, but it’s hard to say which PCs will get the upgrade when. All we know so far is that Microsoft will prioritize PCs based on factors such as how old they are and how compatible they are with Windows 11. It’s likely that most Windows users won’t have the option to upgrade until next year, given that Microsoft has set itself the goal of offering an upgrade to every compatible PC by mid-2022.
That said, you can install Windows 11 on your PC right now if you’re willing to do a clean install of Windows 11 using an ISO file, but that means you’ll have to download the .ISO file yourself and mount it as a bootable drive.
Perhaps the most important thing to know about the release of Windows 11 is that we should expect it to change significantly over the next few years. I’ve been using beta versions of Windows 11 for a month in the lead-up to writing this review, and it seems like every few days there’s a minor new feature or redesigned app to check out. After October 5, we’ll likely see far fewer Windows updates than we did during the beta period, but even at launch Windows 11 is missing promised features like Android app integration — Microsoft will instead beta-test Android support in the coming months. We may not see that feature fully realized in Windows until next year.
So if you have any trepidation about upgrading, there’s no harm in waiting — while Windows 11 is, by my estimation, a completely decent and usable version of Windows with a slick new look, it’s not yet feature-complete. Plus, most of us won’t have the chance to upgrade for a while yet anyhow. And Microsoft has pledged to support Windows 10 into 2025, so there’s little risk in holding off.
Windows 11 review: System requirements
- Steep system requirements mean most PCs built before 2018 are out of luck
- It’s still possible to install Windows 11 on non-compliant PCs — for now
The minimum specs Microsoft claims your PC needs to install Windows 11 have been controversial, to put it politely. As of this writing, the Windows 11 system requirements dictate that your PC must have the following:
- CPU: 1GHz or faster with 2 or more cores on a compatible 64-bit processor or system on a chip (SoC)
- RAM: 4GB
- Storage: 64GB of larger
- System firmware: UEFI, Secure Boot capable
- TPM: Trusted Platform Module (TPM) version 2.0
- Graphics card: Compatible with DirectX 12 or later with WDDM 2.0 driver
- Display: High definition (720p) display that is greater than 9 inches diagonally, 8 bits per color channel
- Internet: Windows 11 Home edition requires internet connectivity and a Microsoft account to complete device setup on first use. Windows 11 Pro edition does not.
These requirements are stringent enough to make installing Windows 11 on even semi-recent PCs a chore. Microsoft’s list of CPUs compatible with Windows 11 is both remarkably complex and way too short, since it’s limited chiefly to CPUs released since 2018. And the requirement to have an active TPM 2.0 has proven even more frustrating, since most of us have no clue what a Trusted Platform Module is, or how to tell if we have one in our PC. Here are more details on what a TPM is and why it matters for Windows 11 as well as how to check if your PC has a TPM.
Windows 10, by comparison, has a much broader range of acceptable CPUs and does not require you to have a TPM 2.0 enabled. Microsoft claims the stricter system requirements of Windows 11 are meant to make it a safer ecosystem by ensuring Windows 11 PCs are more hardened against cyberattacks, but it’s hard to take that claim seriously when it seems easy enough to get around the Windows 11 system requirements, During the Windows 11 beta period, it’s been possible to install Windows 11 on PCs that don’t meet the minimum system requirements by installing from an .ISO file, rather than upgrading directly.
Windows 11 will warn you that your PC isn’t up to snuff, but will otherwise let you carry on your merry way. You should be able to circumvent the system requirements in this way (or others) even after the official launch of Windows 11, though Microsoft has regularly told us that systems running Windows 11 without meeting the minimum system requirements may not receive updates via Windows Update — including essential security updates.
Windows 11 review: Design
- Redesigned icons and menus to be rounder and more inviting
- Windows 11 looks nicer than Windows 10, out of the box
The biggest change you’ll notice when upgrading to Windows 11 is the new design. When you launch Windows you’re still greeted with a taskbar and desktop, but now there are some new buttons on the taskbar and they’re all centered in the middle, rather than clustered in the left corner.
During the lead-up to launch, I regularly heard words like “calm,” “focused,” and “freedom” to describe how Windows’ new look is intended to make users feel. Microsoft seems keenly aware that most of us have spent the last 18 months enduring various forms of COVID-19 lockdown, and it’s selling Windows 11 as an operating system that can help you do more with your PC in a warmer, more inviting way, whether you’re using it for work or play.
It’s a nice idea, and after using Windows 11 (in various forms of beta) for over a month, I can tell you that some of the new features incorporated into its design do work well. They give me more tools for managing what I’m paying attention to on my PC, and when.
Windows 11 review: Desktops
- Helps give you more control over how you focus your attention
- Optional and easily ignored, like many Windows 11 features
Notably, there’s a new Desktops feature which helps you set up and manage multiple iterations of your desktop. It sounds complicated, but in practice it’s simple. There’s a new Task View button alongside the Start button which looks like two contrasting windows overlapping one another. Hover your pointer over it, and you’ll see a small preview of all the desktops you have open, as well as the option to set up a new one.
When you set up a new desktop, it’s effectively just a cosmetic difference. You can give a different name to each desktop, but they all access the same files on your PC and pull from the same Microsoft account. In my testing, I also found that desktop icons are shared across desktops, so if you delete your shortcut to Microsoft Edge from one desktop, it’s gone from all desktops. However, apps and windows you have open in one desktop aren’t duplicated in other desktops, and each desktop can also have its own custom cosmetics like wallpaper and theme.
What this means, in practice, is that you can use desktops to silo your projects. If, like many of us, you’re using your Windows PC to both work from home and pursue your own personal projects, you could have one desktop named “Work” set up with your work apps open and another named “Play” with Steam and the Xbox app ready to go.
I’ve been using Windows 11 this way for some time now, and it feels like a natural evolution of how I already split my attention between work and personal stuff. When I’m using two monitors, I’ll have one earmarked for work apps (Slack, email, our CMS) and another set up to display my personal email, Twitter, and the like. Even when I’m using a single monitor, I tend to put browser windows side-by-side in Windows 10 so that I can focus on work while keeping tabs on my personal social media feeds.
If you work in similar ways, I think you’ll find Windows 11’s expanded Desktop groups feature useful once you spend some time coming to grips with it. But if you don’t care to, that’s fine too — like many new features of Windows 11, these desktop groups are optional and can easily be ignored. You can even remove the button from the taskbar entirely, though you’re still able to access the Task View by hitting the Windows key + Tab.
Windows 11 review: Teams
- Teams is now integrated into Windows, which is good for Teams power users
- If you don’t use Teams, you can safely ignore it
Incidentally, there’s another easily ignored new button on the Windows 11 taskbar: a little purple Microsoft Teams icon. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic Teams saw a big boost in users, and now Microsoft has made it a more central component of Windows.
However if you never use Teams, you don’t have to start now — you can remove the icon from the taskbar and uninstall Teams entirely without losing out on any meaningful features.
Windows 11 review: Snap Assist, Layouts and Groups
- Layouts give you more granular control over screen real estate
- Groups let you batch control groups of related windows
A more notable new feature of Windows 11 is Snap Assist, which makes it easier to arrange open apps on your desktop into Layouts and Groups. Like much of Windows 11, it’s a more granular version of a Windows 10 feature —specifically, the way you can already “snap” windows into pre-configured layouts on Windows 10.
On Windows 11, instead of having to drag them into position (or know the keyboard shortcuts) you can just hover your pointer over the minimize/maximize button in the top-right corner of any app window. A little pop-up window will quickly appear showing pictographs of different layout options: splitting the screen 50/50 between two apps, for example, or 50/25/25 between three, or even giving one app two-thirds of the screen while a second app lies narrowly alongside it in the remaining third.
Once you pick a layout (by moving your pointer to hover over your chosen layout, highlighting where you want the current app to go), Windows will help you fill in the rest of it by serving up a menu of apps you currently have open and letting you assign them to different parts of the screen.
Windows 11 will also attempt to automatically remember your layout as a group, which means that if you minimize everything you can quickly open all the same apps in the same arrangement by mousing over the minimized app’s icon in the taskbar and selecting the Group option that pops up. It’s very similar to how Spaces works on macOS, and serves much the same function.
These are neat features that improve upon the screen real estate management options already available in Windows 10. Admittedly, during testing I found myself rarely using snap assist or groups, and the only layout I reliably used was the simple 50/50 side-by-side view I’ve been using in Windows 10 for years. But if you’re more of a power user than I am, these new features should help you feel a little more productive in Windows 11.
There are countless other small changes lurking in the design of Microsoft’s latest OS that are too numerous to get into here, and in my experience, all of them are pretty easy to adjust to once you spend a few hours getting to know Windows 11. There’s a new tiered notification menu that slides out of the right side of the screen, for example, and more granular options for controlling which notifications you see and when. Cortana is completely gone, though you can still download it from the Microsoft Store.
There are also newer, more streamlined context menus in many parts of Windows, so that when you do something like right-click a file in File Explorer you now get a smaller menu with fewer options that’s crowned by icons for common tasks like Cut, Rename, or Share.
At the same time, if you dig just a little bit behind the surface of Windows 11, you’ll find the familiar face of old Windows there to greet you. There’s typically an option to “Show more options” at the bottom of those new, shorter context menus, for example, and if you hit it you’ll see the longer, messier context menus we know from Windows 10. Mingling legacy components of Windows into Windows 11 like this has the potential to be deeply confusing for casual users, but Windows vets may appreciate that the old ways of doing things still (by and large) work.
Windows 11 review: The new Start menu
- Yes, it’s in the center now and yes, you can move it back to the left
- New design is simpler and more functional
Let’s focus on one of the most controversial changes coming with Windows 11 — the Start button, which has been uprooted from its decades-long home in the bottom left corner of the taskbar and slid over the center. So, too, have the row of pinned apps typically nestled next to the Start button: now they’re all centered in the taskbar. When you hit the Start button a compact rectangular menu that looks a lot like Android’s app drawer opens above them.
This new Start Menu bears all the hallmarks of Microsoft’s Fluent Design language: it has rounded corners, centered text, and big, colorful icons. It also has a search bar prominently displayed across the top, which I think is great because hitting the Start button and typing the name of whatever program, file, or menu you’re after is one of the fastest ways to get around Windows.
The trick is, there’s no clear indicator you can do this on older Windows Start menus — you have to read about it or just stumble into it by accident. Now that there’s a clear Search bar at the top of the Start menu, hopefully more people will have an easier time getting around Windows.
Below the Search bar, most of the Start menu of it is taken up by a 3 x 18 scrollable grid of pinned apps: this is where you put your most-used apps, and by default it’s full of Microsoft standbys like Edge, Excel, Notepad, Word, the Microsoft Store, and of course, Solitaire. There’s also an “All apps” button in the top right corner of the menu which opens an alphabetical list of all programs and program folders you have installed.
Below the scrollable grid of apps is a “Recommended” section that shows a 2 x 3 grid of programs, files, or folders Windows thinks you might want to access. As far as I can tell, the algorithm that determines what shows up in this lower section of the Start menu predominantly cares about what you most recently used, and in my experience this “Recommended” section mostly shows the most recent apps and files you’ve used or downloaded.
It’s a simpler, streamlined menu that’s effectively a refinement of the existing Windows 10 Start menu. Gone are the Live Tiles which used to haphazardly fill up the right-hand side of the Win 10 Start menu. Gone also are the quick links to Settings, Pictures, and Documents, though these can all be quickly accessed in Windows 11 by typing the relevant term while you have the Start menu open. You can access the same “secret” Start button context menu as you can on Windows 10, too, with the same trick: just right-click the Windows 11 Start button and you’ll see a simple list of useful shortcuts to things like the Task Manager, the Settings menu, your power options, and more.
Just as a small aside, one of the nicest aspects of the new Start menu is that after more than a month of using it, I’ve yet to notice a single “Suggested” ad from Microsoft inserted without my knowledge. This is a nice change from Windows 10, which will often insert a link in the Start menu to advertise something to you (in my case, the Bing Weekly News Quiz) unless you specifically right-click said ad and tell Windows to turn off all suggestions.
Windows 11 review: Widgets
- Widgets available at launch are bland and unhelpful
- We need more control over what headlines appear in Widgets menu
One of the big new features Microsoft touts for Windows 11 is Widgets. These are auto-updating tiles showing things like news headlines, weather, and your calendar, and the concept should not be unfamiliar if you spend a lot of time staring at a mobile phone.
Windows 11 widgets also aren’t so far removed from the Desktop Gadgets we saw in Windows 8; instead of sitting on your desktop, though, Windows 11 Widgets reside in a hidden tray that slides out from the left side of the screen when you hit the Widgets button. Speaking of that button, it’s now embedded alongside the Start button on the taskbar.
It’s a neat idea, and perhaps in the future I’ll come to rely on Windows 11 Widgets during my daily routine. But right now, Widgets on Windows 11 are quite limited and easily forgotten. When Microsoft first announced they were coming to Windows 11, we were shown demos of a Widgets panel that can be customized, expanded into full-screen mode, and rearranged to your liking.
But In the lead-up to the formal launch of Windows, 11 I’ve played around with Widgets and found them terribly rigid: there aren’t many available yet, I can’t customize much of what they show me, and at the time of writing this review, I couldn’t resize the Widgets panel at all.
Of course, your experience could be completely different if Microsoft changes the way Widgets work by the time you read this. But here at the launch of Windows 11, when I hit the Widget key I’m greeted by a pane that slides out from the left. At the top of that pane are widgets that show data like the local weather, some current financial stock values, and my to-do list. I can move them around and change their size, remove them, or swap in new ones by opening the Widgets menu in the top-right corner, but right now there are only 9 available.
Beneath the widgets is a Top Stories module listing six headlines from major media outlets I had no obvious hand in choosing, and I can choose to see more or less stories from those outlets with little 3-dot menus on each headline. Below that Top Stories module is an endlessly scrollable list of rectangular tiles, each of which shows a headline and image from a curated list of media organizations I had nothing to do with selecting. Each of these stories can be removed by hitting a little “X” button in the corner, and they each have their own little 3-dot menu button which gives you options for seeing more or less stories from that outlet.
This news feed is tied into your Interests, which Microsoft introduced earlier this year as part of Windows 10. You’re asked to select some Interests when you first set up Windows 11, and the main way of controlling what appears in the news feed of your Widgets menu appears to be changing your interests in the My Interests section of Microsoft’s website.
Maybe that’s useful for some, but in my experience the widgets and news stories available in the Widgets menu are completely superfluous and hard to configure. I hope Microsoft makes some big changes to Windows 11 Widgets quickly, because I can’t see why anyone would use them at this stage. At best, the Widgets menu appears to be a hard-to-customize way of catching up on news, weather, and sports scores, all of which can be accomplished just as easily in a browser or on your phone.
Windows 11 review: New gaming features
- Auto HDR is great — if you have an HDR-capable display
- Likewise, DirectStorage is nice if you have a compatible NVMe SSD
There are two new Windows 11 features that game enthusiasts will care about: Auto HDR and DirectStorage. Put simply, the former can make the lighting in games look much better, while the latter can help games load more quickly. However, both require specific hardware in order to work.
Auto HDR is a feature which uses machine learning to replicate the effect of high dynamic range lighting in DirectX 11/12 games which lack it. It’s hard to describe the difference HDR makes if you haven’t seen it yourself, but in essence, lighting looks better thanks to an increase in the spectrum between the lightest and darkest parts of the picture. It works well on the Xbox Series X/S consoles, but less so on Windows 10.
It’s a neat feature to have in Windows 11, and it really makes the lighting in games pop, but to take advantage of it you have to have one of the best monitors capable of displaying HDR content. HDR-capable monitors are still pretty rare, and HDR support is equally rare in laptop panels, so chances are the majority of Windows users don’t currently have displays which can take advantage of Auto HDR.
In contrast, DirectStorage is all about cutting down loading times by using some tricks to pipe game data directly to the graphics card, rather than involving the CPU. That should make games load faster, but to use this feature, you’ve got to be playing a game that takes advantage of the DirectStorage API on a PC with an NVMe SSD and a GPU that supports DirectX12 Ultimate.
Luckily, those two components are pretty common in new PCs these days, so as long as your machine isn’t too ancient, there’s a good chance you’ll see faster game load times on Windows 11. Anecdotally, I saw games like Forza Horizon 4, Control, and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind load quite speedily in Windows 11.
Windows 11 review: Native Android apps aren’t here yet
- No native Android apps in the Microsoft Store at launch
- Microsoft hasn’t said when it will be added
I hesitate to break into a separate section for native Android support on Windows 11 because, quite frankly, there’s not a lot to say about this feature right now other than that it’s barely functional at launch.
Microsoft announced that Windows 11 will run Android apps during its June 2021 Windows 11 event, and it did so by showing a version of TikTok available in the Microsoft Store for Windows. That TikTok app is still in the store, and you can download and run it on Windows 11, but it’s a native web app, not a native Android app. Microsoft has delayed the larger rollout of Android apps on Windows 11 until it can do some more testing.
So if you’re hopping into Windows 11 around launch, don’t expect to find a bumper crop of your favorite Android apps available for download. Microsoft has said it will be partnering with Amazon to distribute Android apps from the Amazon Appstore to Windows 11 users, and the Amazon Appstore — as well as other third-party app storefronts like the Epic Games Store — will become available in the Microsoft Store for Windows in the coming months.
Once that happens, you should be able to download just about any Android app in the Amazon Appstore and run it on your Windows 11 PC thanks to Intel’s Bridge Technology, which helps non-native apps run on x86 PCs. And no, Intel has said it’s not limited to Intel tech, so if you have an AMD-equipped Windows 11 PC you should still have no trouble running your favorite Android apps on it once they start showing up in the Microsoft Store.
The real question is, will we see a broader variety of Android apps available in the Microsoft Store over time, or will we be limited to whatever’s in the Amazon Appstore? Because if all we ever get access to is Amazon’s curated list, Windows 11 users — like Amazon Fire tablet owners — will lack easy access to a wealth of great Android apps (including Google apps like YouTube and Gmail) in storefronts like the Google Play Store.
Windows 11 review: Known issues
In addition to missing advertised features, Windows 11 has some known issues at launch that you should at least be aware of before you try to upgrade.
For example, Windows 11 ships with VBS (virtualization-based security) enabled by default, and that can be bad news for gaming PCs (at least, pre-built ones) because VBS uses up resources in a way that can negatively impact game performance.
Also, folks who reside in China are out of luck right now if they want to install Windows 11, because it requires TPM 2.0, and foreign-made TPM chips are currently banned in China.
Plus, at least out of the gate Windows 11 is negatively impacting the performance of most AMD CPUs. It’s a small but meaningful performance hit (3 – 15% depending on what app you’re running, according to AMD) that will be most noticeable if you’re trying to play games, and the first Windows 11 update (released 10/12/21) has, if anything, actually made AMD CPU performance even slower. AMD and Microsoft have both promised to release patches near the end of October 2021 to address these issues.
For more up-to-date details, check out our guide to the latest Windows 11 problems and fixes.
Windows 11 review: Verdict
It’s hard to make a definitive judgment about Windows 11 because so much of it is still being built out in front of us. Native Android app support is MIA at launch, Widgets lack some advertised features, and during testing I ran into annoying (but not critical) bugs in apps like Snipping Tool and Cortana. I expect Microsoft will address all of these issues before the end of the year, which means it should be a whole different OS by the time many of us get the offer to upgrade from Windows 10.
The Windows 11 you log into on your brand-new PC this month will be different from the Windows 11 I’ve been using for weeks, and they’ll both look different than whatever Windows 10 users see when they upgrade next year.
But so far, what’s here is pretty good. Windows 11 refines what’s good about Windows 10 without losing too much in the process, and once you learn how everything works, the new operating system is rarely any harder to use. It’s more customizable, and new tools like Desktops and Snap Assist give you more granular control over how you divide up your screen and your time.
Windows 11 is more streamlined and easier to navigate with a touchscreen, with bigger touch zones and simpler, rounder menus. In many ways, Windows 11 is more akin to competitors like macOS, Android, and Chrome than ever before — and I think that’s generally a good thing.
Most importantly, if you don’t like the changes, most of them can be safely ignored or changed back to the way you like them — even the Start button can be slid back into the lower-left corner by clicking a button in the taskbar settings. And if you don’t like the look of Windows 11, you can safely ignore it and keep using Windows 10 for years — though Microsoft will eventually expect you to upgrade.
But right now, as much as I like Windows 11, I don’t recommend you upgrade unless you’re really excited about the new tools and revamped design. There just isn’t a compelling reason to, and you’d be well-served by giving Microsoft time to address some of the bugs and build out the features a bit more.