Wondering what’s new in Windows 11 and whether it’s worth upgrading? We’ve been using it for months and have everything you need to know.
Drastic redesigns of Windows have proven disastrous for Microsoft in the past, with Windows 8 the worst case in point. But after testing Windows 11 for myself, I’ve found that, though the interface looks quite different, it doesn’t take long to figure out how things work. At its introduction event, Microsoft chief product officer Panos Panay expressed a desire not to alienate longtime Windows aficionados, and that’s a good thing (though almost impossible, given the way many people react to change). Despite that goal of keeping it familiar, there’s plenty of innovation in Windows 11.
The new operating system started rolling out as an upgrade to PCs on October 4, 2021. Before taking the plunge to upgrade, you should first determine whether your PC can run Windows 11. The rollout will last through mid-2022, according to Microsoft, as the myriad PC hardware and software configurations are validated for compatibility. Keep an eye on PCMag’s Windows 11 page for related tips and news. Now, let’s get started with our look at the biggest new changes and features.
Windows 11 Has a New Look
The Taskbar icons are now centered and smaller like in Chrome OS, but the Start button is still to the left of the other app icons. Windows get tightly rounded corners, similar to macOS. I’m still not a fan of the always-narrow Taskbar buttons. In Windows 10 you get wide taskbar buttons for running apps that contrast with narrow icons for pinned apps. The centered look may win me over, however, since it doesn’t require you to move the mouse cursor across a full screen to launch an app from the Start Menu.
More subtle are the transparency, animations, and clean icon design that represent an evolution of the Fluent Design System(Opens in a new window), which, though promised, never fully took over in Windows 10. A couple of new materials join the translucent one called Acrylic: the opaque Mica, which is slightly tinted based on the background color; and Smoke, which darkens other areas to make you focus on an important input region. Dark mode, too, looks more consistent, and these materials change to reflect that mode.
Windows 11 Widgets
Widgets are making a comeback! Apple bolstered widgets in iOS 14 and iPadOS 15, and Microsoft dabbled in bringing back desktop widgets with the News and Interests panel in Windows 10. But Windows 11 widgets further the idea. The new widgets deliver a personalized feed of news, weather, traffic, sports, and stock market data, powered by AI for customization and Edge for rendering. Later updates will let you expand the Widgets panel to fill the whole screen, and third-party content providers will be able to take advantage of this new feature.
Windows 11 Snap Layouts
For me, Windows has long been unmatched in its ability to position, size, open, and close windows on the screen to your taste. (I’m still a fan of Aero Shake(Opens in a new window) for showing the desktop.) Apple’s macOS only recently added the ability to set windows to take up exactly half the screen, something Windows users have had for years.
Now comes the latest windowing convenience: Snap Layouts. Snap Layouts let you choose from a selection of window layouts (see above), easily populating them with app windows of your choice. Maybe even more important than the extra layout choices is that these layouts are saved and accessible from the app taskbar icons so you don’t have to re-create them after doing something else on the PC.
Updated Default Apps in Windows 11
Many of the old Windows standbys—Paint, Photos, Notepad, Media Player, Mail, and so on—have or will be updated for the new look and in some cases get new features. A great case in point is the humble Clock app, which Windows 11 endows with a super productivity feature: Focus Sessions. With Focus Sessions, you set boundaries for when you want undistracted time for getting stuff done.
The Photos app in Windows 11 is a sleeper in that it’s remarkably capable not only for organizing and editing photos, but also for video editing with titles, transitions, effects, and more. The Photos app includes face recognition, auto-generated albums, and integrated maps for photos with location data—features that even some paid photo applications lack. New for Photos is an edge-to-edge photo view, multi-image view, and an improved cropping interface, along with the Fluent Design updates.
The new Media Player app handles both music and video, and replaces Windows 10’s Groove app. Like that, the new player can handle FLAC audio and 4K video.
A Redesigned Settings App
The redesigned Settings app now features a persistent left menu. It saves you from having to back out of nested settings to quickly get to another group. Otherwise, you get most everything found in Windows 10’s Settings.
Multiple Desktops in Windows 11
Now in Windows 11 you can set a different background color or image for each virtual desktop you have, which makes a lot of sense if you have one desktop for work and another for personal use, for example. Note that you can only set the backgrounds to be pictures or solid colors. If you want a slideshow background or Theme, then that background will apply to all desktops. The Snap Layouts mentioned above can also be used separately on each desktop. For more, read How to Manage Virtual Desktops in Windows 11.
Teams Is Integral in Windows 11
One of Microsoft’s biggest hits over the last few years is Teams, the videoconferencing and messaging tool. Microsoft Teams went from having 20 million users in 2019 to more than 250 million active monthly users by the end of 2021. The company wants it to reach beyond the workplace, though, and a new taskbar button gives easy access to Teams in Windows 11.
Teams is cross-platform, running on Android, iOS, and macOS as well as Windows. It also works with SMS for those who don’t have the mobile app installed, meaning you can text message anyone’s phone number from your PC for free, an appreciated perk.
The feature has two parts: Teams Chat and Teams videoconferencing, which opens a separate window. When you start a message to someone who doesn’t have an account, they get an invitation to sign up for the free service.
Windows 11 Tablet Mode and Docking
With Windows 11, when you dock or plug your laptop into a monitor, it remembers the last app layout you were using (see above).
Microsoft no longer uses the term Tablet mode in Windows 11, because using the OS on a device like the Surface is more similar to the desktop mode than in Windows 10. When you detach a tablet’s keyboard or flip its screen back for touch interaction, subtle changes appear, such as more space between taskbar icons. New three-finger swipe actions let you call up Task View and minimize or recall running apps. The new Surface Slim Pen 2 provides haptic and audio feedback, and voice typing keeps getting better.