Windows 11 is now generally available, and it features one of the largest visual refreshes to Windows yet. Ok, maybe a close second to the clean sheet redesign that was Windows 8. Windows 11 is big enough of a change that might have some people questioning if it was Windows at all, in a good way, I think.
Besides the refreshed UI, which I’ll dive into later in the review, Windows 11 brings with it new functionality that Microsoft claims will help people stay connected in the world we live in today, and it also comes with sound and touch optimizations for PCs of all shapes and sizes, be it desktops with multiple monitors, or tiny little hybrid tablets like the new Surface Go 3.
A redesign and a fresh coat of paint
Windows 11 features a new take on Microsoft’s Fluent Design language, one that feels more consistent and flows a little deeper into the operating system than it did before. There are a new set of system icons that replace those that have been in use since *shudder* Windows 95, and rounded corners replace the sharp edges of windows and apps.
Subtle animations are found throughout the operating system accompanied by elegant new system sounds, and a gorgeous set of default wallpaper culminate in a Windows that is friendlier and more welcoming than it’s ever been. Surface devices especially are beautifully designed hardware that now, finally, have beautiful software to match.
Owners of Surface and other touch-enabled devices will love the new multi-touch gestures, which now match touch pad gestures. So dragging three fingers down will minimize all open apps, or dragging four fingers across will switch between virtual desktops, among others.
Speaking of touch, there are bigger touch targets in Windows 11, so using touch to resize or move windows around is much easier than it was in Windows 10.
All these touch improvements are welcome, but you still shouldn’t expect iOS levels of touch friendliness in Windows 11. There are still areas of OS that are difficult to use with touch, and apps that have yet to be updated with the new Fluent Design language. More on that later.
One of the most obvious changes to Windows 11 is the new taskbar, which is now centered. The taskbar also adapts depending on whether you’re using a mouse and keyboard, or a touchscreen. So if you detach the Type Cover from your Surface Pro or separate the display from the base of your Surface Book, the app icons on the taskbar will flow further apart from eachother, making it easier to tap on the app you need with your finger.
I do have some grievances with the new taskbar though. Right-clicking an empty space on the taskbar no longer presents a menu with quick access to useful tools like Task Manager. The menu can still be accessed by right-clicking the Start button, but it’s a conscious effort that will take some mental readjustment if you’re used to the way it was in previous versions of Windows.
The taskbar will also not display the clock on multiple monitors. So if your Surface device is docked and you have a full screen video playing on the primary display for example, there’s no way to check the time quickly on secondary displays. I admit, I have lost track of time watching movies and playing games because of this.
There are other shortcomings too, like the inability to resize the taskbar, or move it to the sides or top of the screen. So while it does have a nice visual appeal and smooth animations, it still feels like a work-in-progress.
Moving on to other obvious changes, the Start menu has been completely redesigned. Gone are the Live Tiles that made their debut back in Windows 8 and carried over to Windows 10. Just like the taskbar, the Start menu is also centered and is more minimalistic than before.
Up top is a search bar, and below it a grid of pinned icons. Under that is a group of recommended files and documents that Microsoft thinks you’ll want to access next, which in my experience has often been inaccurate in predicting which documents I want to access, and mostly just displays most recent documents. Sadly there’s no way to completely disable the recommended section without affecting jumplists too, which is inconvenient. Other than that, this a Start menu that, while boring, serves its purpose well.
If you miss Live Tiles, the new Widgets menu is easily accessible from the taskbar, and does a similar job of giving you glanceable information related to weather, sports, news, calendar, and more. The top section of the Widgets menu is customizable, while the bottom section will show you news articles based on your regional settings and fed from Microsoft News (now called Microsoft Start).
The Widgets Menu can be invoked by swiping in from the left edge of your Surface device. I’ve found it particularly useful on Surface devices like the Surface Go or Surface Pro 7, the smaller screen sizes makes it really easy to navigate the menu using only your thumb. It feels natural, intuitive, and readily accessible at any time.
The new Chat button on the taskbar brings Microsoft Teams integration to your fingertips. Well, kinda. While it looks like a tiny MSN Messenger window from the good ol’ days, it’s more a group of links that pop-out to the Microsoft Teams app, which now launches in the background on startup.
The Chat menu gives you a preview of your latest conversations with people, but it doesn’t have the functionality to let you caht and respond in the same window, which seems counterproductive to Microsoft’s goal of making it easier to connect with friends and family on Windows 11. Why use the Chat menu when I could just launch the Teams app and get everything done there?
Over toward the left side of the taskbar, taping on the collection of network, sound, and battery icons will bring up the Action Center. Here you’ll find big, touch friendly shortcuts to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Focus Assist, battery saver, and other quick functions, in addition to sliders for screen brightness and volume. It’s a wonderful, handy little menu to quickly adjust frequently used settings.
Swipe in from the right edge of the screen and the Notification Center slides in. Now split into two sections, there’s your notifications at the top, and a collapsible calendar at the bottom. If you have your phone connected via the Your Phone app, you’ll see notifications from it in the Notification Center, but as of the time of writing, you can’t take action on those notifications. You can tap on them though, which will open the Your Phone app, and that’s where you’ll be able to quick reply or interact with notifications.
One of my favorite new features of Windows 11 is the new Snap Layouts functionality. The feature allows users to easily visualize a layout to snap applications to. These layouts differ depending on the screen size and resolution of your device.
You can access Snap Layouts by hovering the cursor over the maximize button of an app, but I’ve yet to figure out how to access it using touch. Alternatively, you could simply drag an app or window to the edges or corners of your screen to get a similar snap layout visual.
New to Windows 11 is that if you snap two windows side by side in landscape mode, rotating your device to portrait will have the apps re-stack vertically. Snap Layouts are also saved, so if you undock your Surface after having set them up on an external monitor, they’ll come right back when you re-dock your device.
New app experiences
Microsoft redesigned a handful of the built-in Windows apps, bringing then in line with the design of Windows 11. The Photos app for example has been updated with the new Mica translucent material prevalent throughout Windows 11. Pictures now appear edge-to-edge, taking up the entire window while the UI fades to the back.
There’s also a new way to view and compare multiple images at the same time, and the addition of a filmstrip makes switching between images faster. Photo’s remains a great way to markup images with the Surface Pen.
The Clock app has also been updated. Besides the UI redesign, it also includes a new Focus Sessions feature with Spotify and Microsoft To-Do integration. Focus Sessions is designed to help users stay focused and productive, and make a habit out of it too. It works by selecting a task from To-Do, a playlist from Spotify, and then setting a timer. It will automatically set up 5 minute breaks in between so you aren’t sitting in front of your PC for too long.
A new Snipping Tool app merges the old Snipping Tool and new Snip & Sketch apps. This new app can be invoked using the Win + Shift + S key and allows for the usual rectangular, freeform, window, or fullscreen screenshots. After you’ve taken the screenshot, the updated UI allows for quick markup using your finger or the Surface Pen. A ruler is also present to help you draw straight lines.
Paint has also been redesigned for the first time in a long time. It has a new simplified toolbar to access all the same functionality as before. It’s not just a visual refresh though, there’s a new text tool to make adding text easier.
One of my personal favorite redesigned apps in Windows 11 is the new Microsoft Store app. It’s beautifully done. The new layout is designed to showcase apps in all their glory, and with new animations, the Store feels exquisitely polished.
Microsoft’s new open policy for the Store makes it more welcoming to third-party developers. With less restrictions on how an app is packaged or how much of a cut Microsoft takes from each app (0% for apps that use their own commerce platforms), more developers have already brought their apps to the Store. Discord, Reddit, Disney+, TikTok, Zoom, the Epic Games Store, and more of people’s favorite apps are now available to download.
Microsoft has also partnered with Amazon to bring Android apps to the Store. They’ll be “first class citizens” in Windows 11, so they can be pinned to the taskbar and have working notifications. As of the time of writing, Android apps are not yet available.
The Windows Settings app has gone from being one of my most despised Windows 10 apps to one that I absolutely love in Windows 11. Settings no longer feels like an endless list of text and toggles, and are instead grouped more intuitively and in a way that finally makes sense. The search functionality is also more consistent in suggesting the settings I’ve been looking for so that’s a bonus too.
File Explorer got a little love from Microsoft too. A resigned toolbar features new icons and drop down menus. Folder and library icons have also been refreshed, but the overall layout and functionality of File Explorer remains the same. It’s still single-threaded as it was before, so performance hasn’t improved.
Microsoft clearly decided to focus on updating and redesigning apps that the average user might use on a regular basis. There are however many less used, but important apps that have yet to receive the same attention. Task Manager, Device Manager, Disk Management, the Run dialogue, the File Picker, Advanced Sound Settings, Event Viewer, Control Panel and more are all still present, but look just as they have in Windows 10 and earlier versions of Windows. They also highlight the inconsistency of dark mode as they remain in Light mode regardless of which theme you use.
Whether or not Microsoft decides these tools are worthy of a redesign to make for a consistent and thorough Windows 11 experience is something we’ll just have to wait to find out.
Enabling powerful hardware experiences
Windows 11 enables some powerful new hardware-based experiences. A new haptics API allows developers to support haptic feedback in their applications for the new Surface Slim Pen 2 on the Surface Pro 8 and Surface Laptop Studio. This mimics the friction felt when writing/drawing on paper. Haptics also expand to the touchpad of the Surface Laptop Studio so you can feel reassured that your clicks have been registered.
Microsoft also made improvements to voice recognition in Windows 11, so if you have a Surface device with dual Studio Mics, voice commands and dictation will be inputted with less errors.
DirectStorage is also coming to Windows 11, a feature initially designed for Xbox Series X|S. The DirectStorage API allows game developers to take full advantage of the massive bandwidth available from PCIe NVMe drives, greatly decreasing game load times and allowing for smoother transitions in vast open world games. Think Microsoft Flight Simulator. DirectStorage is relatively new, especially for PC, so there aren’t many supported titles at the time.
Surface Pro 8 and Surface Laptop Studio owners will appreciate the Dynamic Refresh Rate functionality included in Windows 11. While having a 120Hz display is great when inking or scrolling through websites, battery life suffers as a result of running at higher refresh rates all the time. The Dynamic Refresh Rate feature will automatically reduce the refresh rate when you’re watching movies for example, since most play at sub 30Hz rates, or when typing in a Word document.
On Windows 11 devices that support HDR, AutoHDR is a feature that automatically upgrades SDR content and games to HDR. It’s a feature that was initially available on Xbox, but made its way to Windows 10 and 11. AutoHDR is AI-based, so it’s not perfect, but it’s a great way to take advantage of your HDR capable display on content that does not natively support HDR. Unlike haptics or DirectStorage, no modifications are needed from developers to get AutoHDR up and running. It’s just a toggle in Windows Settings.
Microsoft has made changes to memory management in Windows 11, favoring apps running in the foreground. In addition to optimizations to CPU and disk utilization, as well as hardware calls when waking from sleep. So performance in general should be better.
During my testing, I haven’t noticed any significant performance improvements on my Surface Pro 7 or my custom built PC at home. Maybe waking from sleep is a little faster, but no noticeable gains in games. The fact that it hasn’t gotten worse given the addition of all the new UI eye candy and animations is a good thing in my book. There’s no repeat of the Windows Vista nightmare here.
How to upgrade?
So that’s Windows 11. As of October 4th, it has begun rolling out to supported Windows 10 devices as an optional update. Microsoft has set a pretty high bar when it comes to what constitutes as a “supported device”. The minimum hardware requirements aren’t so minimum. You’ll need to be running an Intel 8th Gen processor or AMD Ryzen 2000 Series processor or later, and your device needs to have a TPM 2.0 chip enabled.
Windows 11 System Requirements:
- Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster with two or more cores on a compatible 64-bit Intel, AMD, or Qualcomm processor or system on a chip (SoC).
- RAM: 4 gigabytes (GB) or greater.
- Storage: 64 GB or greater available storage is required to install Windows 11.
- Graphics: Compatible with DirectX 12 or later, with a WDDM 2.0 driver.
- System firmware: UEFI, Secure Boot capable.
- TPM: Trusted Platform Module (TPM) version 2.0.
- Display: High definition (720p) display, 9″ or greater monitor, 8 bits per color channel.
- Internet connection: Internet connectivity is necessary to perform updates, and to download and use some features.
- Windows 11 Home edition requires an Internet connection and a Microsoft Account to complete device setup on first use.
If this all sounds like techno mumbo jumbo to you, download and run the Microsoft PC Health Check app. It will tell you if your device is compatible with Windows 11.
Surface device owners can consult our Windows 11 Surface Compatibility List to check if your Surface is compatible.
Windows 11 is gradually rolling out to all compatible PCs. This rollout will extend into early 2022. If your device is compatible, you’ll get a notification to upgrade in Settings > Windows Update. Or if you like, you could enroll your device in the Windows Insider program to get it earlier. Note that Insider releases are public betas that will have bugs, so if you’d rather stick to a stable version of Windows, wait for the rollout to reach your device.
Disclaimer: Many of the features mentioned in this review are native to Windows 11 and are not exclusive to Surface devices, unless stated otherwise.