If I were ever to write a list of topics I never expected to write about, a new version of Windows would have to be somewhere near the top. Those who remember the Windows 10 launch would know that Microsoft announced that it would be the last desktop version of Windows, and that any new “versions” would be released as feature updates to Windows 10. It seemed quite a sensible way of releasing updates going forward. Microsoft’s business strategy has diversified quite substantially, so they are now less dependent on the cash cows that are Windows and Office. With the near-ubiquitous nature of the Internet, the infrastructure was now there to support a different approach.
Because of this, the announcement of Windows 11 took a lot of people by surprise. It seems that there was to be a new version of Windows after all. I don’t think this was necessarily planned all the way back when Windows 10 was released, I think at the time they did honestly believe that providing ongoing updates to Windows 10 was the way forward. Something has obviously meant they’ve now changed their mind.
Now that we have a final release, I think it’s time to give it a spin and see if it lives up to the hype. Strap yourself in, because this is likely to be one of my longer articles.
Minimum System Requirements
The minimum system requirements have been increased somewhat for Windows 11. You will now require a dual-core 64-bit processor with a 1ghz or higher clock speed, 4GB RAM, 64GB disk space, Secure Boot, a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 2.0 chip, and a graphics card compatible with DirectX 12.
This is where things start to get a little confusing. These system requirements are higher than for Windows 10, however the CPU and RAM requirements on paper look like they’d cover all but the most budget of devices released in about the last 10 years or so. Due to the requirements for a TPM chip, it was later clarified that you’d need at least an 8th Generation Intel or an AMD Ryzen 3-series or higher CPU. This has caused a lot of confusion amongst those that have older machines, as the requirements suggest those machines might have been supported. The communications for this should have been a lot clearer from Microsoft. While the argument for requiring TPM is good, they’ve potentially alienated people who have more basic requirements and therefore continue to use older equipment.
Microsoft have advised that they won’t be preventing upgrades of older machines, but those that do may not receive full support. While this is good to a degree, this whole situation is less than ideal and could have been communicated better.
Installation was a little bit of a challenge, though to be fair I think this was because of the way I was trying to go about it. I had initially wanted to set this up in a virtual machine rather than take a punt on my existing Windows 10 installation. While my machine fully supports the TPM requirements for Windows 10, I would need to make a $280 investment in the Pro version of VMWare to be able to have that work in a virtual machine. VirtualBox is my other go-to and that also doesn’t seem to offer support for TPM. It looks like doing this in a virtual environment would be easier said than done.
So this brings me to option number 2. I had a rather antique, but still functional, 80 gigabyte SSD that I was keeping for another project. Using this would allow me to do a dual-boot setup, leaving my Windows 10 installation untouched. This is the option that I’ve run with. The only slight hitch is that it initially didn’t want to install onto this drive as it had been set up using MBR and Windows 11 wants to install onto a GPT partition. This was easily fixed by booting back to Windows 10 and converting the partition to GPT. This might confuse a few less-technical users who are repurposing older drives, though to be fair most will be either doing an in-place upgrade or installing onto a new drive.
The only other gotcha is that while a machine might support TPM 2.0, it is fairly common for this to be disabled in the computers BIOS settings. The process for enabling this will vary between different motherboards. A little tip is that you can use the System Information utility to identify your motherboard. You can use this information to google how to enable the TPM chip on your particular motherboard.
Otherwise, the installation actually ran fairly smoothly. It installed somewhat more quickly than Windows 10 on the same machine, so it looks like there have been some improvements there.
A big thing to watch for is you now require a Microsoft account to be able to sign in, at least for the home version. There is no easy way to install Windows without one. This is likely to cause some concern for people that don’t necessarily want their computers tied to cloud computer services, or those who might want to limit what information gets shared with Microsoft. I would have preferred to have an option to easily set up local accounts and make a Microsoft account optional. I’ve begrudgingly come to accept this was inevitable. If you have an Apple or Android device, both of these platforms also try and push you towards their various cloud platforms. It was only a matter of time that Microsoft would try and better integrate their own ecosystem into Windows.
An advantage though is that if you have two-factor authentication enabled on your Microsoft account, it integrates very nicely on Windows 11. This combined with the TPM requirements should help improve security,
New Start Menu Layout
The Windows Start Menu has had a fairly colourful history. It began its life way back in the Windows 95 era. It was then unceremoniously ditched in Windows 8, only to make a return in Windows 8.1 after much protest.
I will preface this section by saying I don’t actually mind the Start Menu layout in Windows 10. Rearranging it to your tastes was sometimes easier in the older versions of Windows, but on the whole it was a nice and compact springboard to your applications. I am also somewhat of a user of the tiles, using them as a way to quickly access applications I use regularly
The Start Menu in Windows 11 is a further refinement on this. Rather than displaying the pinned icons in a second column, they now take the entire menu space. You can then click to get a list of all the applications installed on your PC.
I can see this having one downside. One of the first things I do when I install a new Windows 10 build is clean up the tiles and the start menu to get it looking exactly how I want it. This will be a a little trickier on the new Start Menu, as you have to switch between the two different views a little.
Now that I’ve spent a little bit of time with it, I actually don’t mind it. It was a bit of a culture shock at first, but now that I’ve had a chance to use it, it’s grown on me. It is somewhat cleaner and the basic functions seem to be more sensibly laid out. For instance, a text box to search for a particular application is now more obvious.
There are only two major things I’d actually like to see. One is I would have preferred to keep it in the bottom left corner. That’s where it’s been for 26 years now. I think people would be expecting to see it there, and it would take people some time to get used to a change which really only seems to have been made to make Windows more Mac-like.
The other thing I would have liked to see is some extra customisations. It is already somewhat customisable. However, I have never really found the “Recommended” list useful in Windows 10, and I’m not sure that’s going to change in Windows 11. I couldn’t find any way of turning this off.
A lot of fuss has been made over the new Snap Layouts. This appears to be borrowed from other operating systems and now implemented in Windows.
This is a feature that will be of different utility for different people. It is a feature that I didn’t find particularly appealing, but that’s primarily because I am a long-term user of a dual monitor setup. Whenever I’ve got a need to use something like this, I can just throw one of my applications onto my primary monitor and one onto my secondary. This has done me well so far.
Having said that, Microsoft are making a big deal out of this. It does seem to be implemented moderately well. You can just hover over the Maximise button with your mouse, and you can see a selection of different layouts. You can click where you want that window, and then you can click the other windows you want in the other locations. It will take people a little bit to get used to as for many this will be new to them, but I think once people have the hang of it, it will actually be useful. For those that work among multiple applications, particularly if you’re only using a single monitor, it will make arranging these windows easier.
The fact that it’s borrowed from other operating systems should be neither here nor there. There has been a long history of operating systems stealing design elements from each other. Looking at the early Linux windowing systems, and it is apparent that KDE was influenced very heavily by Windows and GNOME had a very Mac-like feel to it. Everyone seems to beg, borrow and steal the best bits from each other. This is really just a case of Microsoft finally catching up, and while it’s very obviously so, there really should be no shame in getting the best ideas from elsewhere and implementing them.
It seems Microsoft is making a lot of noise about the widgets that are available in Windows 11. It should be noted this is not necessarily a new concept. Those that remember Windows 95 would remember that Active Desktop made an appearance. Windows Vista also briefly reintroduced them as well.
In both cases, they faded into obscurity. The fact that very few people actually found them useful, and so nobody really supported them in any meaningful way, would likely be the reason for this.
The Widgets pane can be accessed from an icon near the Start Menu normally. This then pops out from the side of the screen. By default, it will give you some customised weather and news information. You do have the option to personalise the types of news and weather to an extent. You don’t really get much beyond this however.
This will be a good addition for those news junkies among us. I don’t see this getting much use unless third-parties provide support for additional widgets. At the moment this seems to be a re-hash of an idea they’ve tried in the past in the hopes this time it will work.
To be fair, I don’t think the idea is necessarily a bad one. A lot of us do like to keep track of what’s going on in the world. This is a feature that seems to just come and go, and I feel that unless it can get that third-party support, it will once again fall by the wayside.
Support for Android Applications
This is one thing that I was initially fairly excited about. For a long time, I was a Windows Phone hold-out. I wanted Microsoft to be a serious player in this market. The IPhone scene tended to suffer from a heavy case of fanboyitis, whereas Android devices seemed to suffer from a lack of software updates once a device was no longer being sold as well as a rather poor user experience on lower-end devices.
By the time Microsoft were bringing out their Windows Phone 8 and 10 devices, they seemed to have finally come up with something that picked the best bits from both platforms. The problem was this was too little too late, and they were never able to get a lot of support from the major players due to low market share. This meant that there would always be a shortage of apps for the platform.
This is something though that I have been unable to really test, however it looks like this has been omitted from the original Windows 11 release. This is a disappointment. While I don’t think Microsoft will be able to easily release a new version of Windows Phone, this could be a way for them to recover and become somewhat of a third player in that space again by providing services for the Android ecosystem as well as a way of allowing the Android ecosystem to better integrate with Windows. I’m not sure why there is a delay, but I suspect this will be them wanting to get it right rather than go early. The fact they’ve promised this and have yet to deliver is a cause for concern.
Improvements for Gaming
Microsoft have gone to great lengths to promote improvements to the gaming experience in Windows 11. There have been a number of changes under-the-hood such as Direct Storage. I will consider benchmarks to demonstrate these improvements out-of-scope, not because I don’t have an opinion on how well this works, but because this article has already turned out to be longer than I first anticipated. This needs its own article to properly to it justice
What I want to focus on are some of the more visible aspects of the gaming experience that are more likely to be noticed by the casual gamer.
One of the things that Microsoft has start pushing is the included XBox application for Windows 11. I must admit that I haven’t been a huge user of the XBox application on Windows 10, primarily because most of my gaming library is in Steam.
This on the surface looks very similar to the Windows 10 version. Accessing the library is identical to what shows in on Windows 10. I could not find any differences between the application on Windows 10 and Windows 11. From what I can gather elsewhere, the only benefit aside from HDR and Direct Storage comes from if you own an XBox console. Given that the newest console I own is a Commodore 64, this was somewhat of a letdown, given the announcement event seemed to make quite a big deal out of the better integration.
Another big feature is that Windows improves support for HDR. It does seem promising, but I am unable to test this as I do not have a monitor that supports this.
I have mixed feelings over the new Windows 11 release. In some senses it’s a good leap forward, but there are a few things I wish could be changed.
The Start Menu layout could use some extra options for customisation, but once I had given it a chance, it was actually quite usable. It just needs one or two more customisations to allow you to better choose the location and remove panes that you don’t actually use.
The Snap Layouts are very obvious Microsoft playing a game of catch-up to match features with other operating systems. Even so, this appears to be long overdue for those that have multiple applications going at once. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. As I’ve mentioned, it’s fairly common for a variety of GUI developers to take note of the best bits of what others are doing.
Having more integration with Microsoft’s cloud services was inevitable. Microsoft have been diversifying their business to be more than just a software company. They might take some heat from this that I think is unwarranted, after all both Apple and Google have been pushing their own cloud services on their devices just as heavily for years and nobody batted an eyelid. I think there will be some that will forget this and give Microsoft some flack because that’s what the cool kids on social media are doing this week. Having said that, I would have liked to have the opportunity to decouple your computer from these services and still continue to allow easy access to local accounts. This comment should apply to all these cloud platforms: give users the choice as to whether they use those services.
The gaming improvements are a bit hit and miss. While I was unable to properly test HDR, it does seem promising. I may consider doing some performance testing to see how Direct Storage improves performance. They’ve made a big deal out of it, but for people who don’t own an XBox, the gains might boil down to slightly better CPU usage and HDR if your hardware supports it. I would have hoped for more given the big deal Microsoft were making of this.
Would I have called this Windows 11 though? I’m not sure. This seems to be just a series of refinements rather than anything ground breakingly new. It’s basically a new lick of paint, with a few improvements under the hood.
Most parts of this could have been done as updates to Windows 10. The only reason I can think of for the new version is to make it easier to enforce the TPM requirements of the new version. In a sense I can understand this, however one of Microsoft’s biggest failings here is how this change has been communicated to users. Otherwise it really does seem like nothing more than a minor evolution to Windows with a new interface.