For technical reviewers, criticizing a new operating system is an absurd ritual.
It’s like a professional home inspector making a report that always goes like this: Here’s what you need to know about the house you are going to be moving into. Some parts are great, but there are big problems. You’re moving in anyway, so you have to learn to live with it.
Because operating systems are essentially where your digital life takes place. If you own a PC designed to run Windows, chances are you’ll be using the next version of Windows, no matter how good or bad it is.
That’s how I felt when I tried Windows 11, Microsoft’s first major operating system update in six years. The company marketed it as a new start to Windows with a modern, people-centered design. (What’s not new is the way tech companies keep reminding us that their products are designed for users, not my Labrador Retriever.) The software will be a free update for many Windows PCs this holiday season.
New to Windows are productivity tools like the ability to instantly shrink and reorganize windows and support for Android mobile apps. But Windows 11 is ultimately a further development. While there are improvements, parts of it feel frustratingly familiar.
I tested an early, unfinished version of Windows 11 for a week. There are some ups, like a design that makes the software behave similarly to mobile devices, and some downs, like the outdated concept of widgets, which are essentially miniature apps that appear in a dashboard appear on your screen.
Here is my inspection report that sums up the good, the meh, and the ugly.
Microsoft executives have described Windows 11 as a new beginning in personal computing with people first. The cheesy pun should highlight the biggest design change in Windows: the iconic start button, traditionally squeezed into the lower left corner, has moved down and centered. And the start button no longer loads a list of settings and apps; it shows a folder of your apps.
This is the same interface we use on Apple and Android smartphones and tablets, which display a taskbar of important apps in the lower center of the screen. Still a welcome change. The Start button in earlier versions of Windows opened a laundry list of apps and settings that was tedious to scroll through.
The most interesting new design change is a feature called Snap Layouts that I loved. Hovering over the maximize window button in the upper right corner of an app will open a grid showing various arrangements that will automatically shrink or reposition the app.
So if you want to reposition an app window so that it only takes up the left side of the screen, click the appropriate icon to snap it into place. This is much faster than moving a window and dragging a corner to the right size.
Many additions to Windows 11, including support for Android apps, are designed to keep users flowing on their computers, said Yusuf Mehdi, a Microsoft executive. For example, when you order an Uber, you no longer have to pick up an Android phone to summon the car and you can do so directly from the Uber app on the Windows machine.
But many of the new features didn’t keep me flowing.
One of them is the ability to create multiple desktop areas that Microsoft calls task views. The idea is that you can have a desktop screen for every aspect of your life. A desktop could be dedicated to work and show shortcuts to your email and calendar apps. Another could be dedicated to your personal life and show links to all of your games.
That all sounds good, but dividing my life into separate desktop screens quickly felt annoying. Switching to a specific screen and finding the right app to launch took much longer than using the search tool to quickly find and open an app.
Windows 11 also reintroduces the widget, a concept that Apple and Google operating systems have long used. Widgets are basically a lightweight app that stays open at all times, like a weather app, calendar, or stock ticker so you can get important information right away. To show widgets, click a button that shows a drawer with them all side by side.
I’ve never gotten used to using widgets on my smartphones or computers because they feel superfluous – and that was also the case with Windows 11. Widgets display a bite-sized amount of information, like a cropped view of your calendar, the current date and your next appointment. But whenever I checked my calendar widget, I always wanted to open my full calendar app to see all of my events for the month.
Microsoft plans to give Windows 11 users access to Amazon’s App Store to download Android apps. This wasn’t available for testing yet, but I predict it could blow your flow with widgets. Let’s say you love a great Android to-do list app and add all of your to-do items there. If the same app isn’t also available as a widget, you won’t be able to view your to-do list in the widgets dashboard. Why bother with widgets?
The ugly one
These are still the early days, as Windows 11 will officially be released around Christmas time and a lot of the software can change. One problem that is unlikely to change, however, is that for security reasons, PCs must at least contain relatively recent chips from Intel and AMD in order to install Windows 11.
That means millions of computers that are running Windows 10 on older hardware, including some that are a few years old, cannot run Windows 11. Therefore, at some point these users will have to buy new computers in order to take advantage of the stronger security benefits and new functions in the operating system.
In other words, unlike previous free updates, Windows 11 can mean paying for a truck to move into a house that feels pretty familiar, with new window decorations.