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Windows 11 review: New car, tried and tested chassis

Microsoft doesn’t want users to make a huge behavioural change to adapt to the OS, but it also wants the platform to feel new, modern and mobile-friendly

Windows 11 switches the left aligned task bar and Windows logo for the start menu to the center position on the bottom of the screen 
Windows 11 switches the left aligned task bar and Windows logo for the start menu to the center position on the bottom of the screen  (HT_PRINT)

Android and iOS get a new version every year, so it’s no surprise that we care less and less about their updates. The stakes are higher for Microsoft though, as Windows 11 is the first big update in over five years. And not just that, it’s an update that most of us didn’t think would ever happen. After all, Windows 10 was supposed to be, in Microsoft’s own words, “the last Windows ever”.

The overarching theme here is quite simple. Microsoft doesn’t want users to make a huge behavioural change to adapt to the OS, but it also wants the platform to feel new, modern and mobile-friendly. And I daresay the company has struck a nice balance between professional or enterprise use-cases and those of the day-to-day millennial and Gen-Z customer.

Also read: iPhone 13 Pro review: The ‘S’ year iPhone without the S

This is without a doubt the most colourful Windows has ever been, and it finally drops the live tiles Microsoft introduced with Windows 8. But before we get to any of that, let’s address the elephant in the room.

You won’t get Windows 11 right away

Microsoft wanted every PC in the world to update to Windows 10 as fast as possible, but it doesn’t want to do that with Windows 11. Big tech firms always use “phased” rollouts for big OS updates, but Microsoft’s is also “measured”. Which means that the company will use its own telemetry to understand which devices will deliver the best possible experience for Windows 11, and those devices will get the update first.

So, if you don’t have the update despite having a compatible PC, it’s because Microsoft wants it that way. Windows 10 had 75 million devices onboarded after the first month of rollout, Windows 11 will surely have fewer. You just have to wait for a notification from Windows Update to know when you can upgrade.

For devices that aren’t compatible, there are still ways to download an official copy of Windows 11 off the internet, but Microsoft doesn’t recommend it. It’s likely that these devices won’t get further security updates, etc, even if they do upgrade. The company will also support Windows 10 till at least October 2025, meaning your PC won’t be obsolete for at least four more years.

What’s new in Windows 11

Unlike an yearly Android or iOS update, the first thing you notice with Windows 11 is that it looks and feels different. Microsoft still has the room to change things, and it all begins with a Start Menu that is at the middle of the taskbar. It’ll take a bit of getting used to, but it’s a sign that Microsoft sees the future of Windows in tablet-like, touchscreen devices.

We’re much more used to tapping on buttons at the center of a tablet screen than pulling the mouse cursor to the center. Of course, you can shift the Start Menu back to the left of the taskbar if you need to, but I personally do like this more.

Tapping on the Start Menu also pulls up a list of apps, along with a search bar, which is reminiscent of Android’s app drawers. These apps have rounded icons too, much like they look on smartphones. Microsoft didn’t just drop the Live Tiles from Windows, it appears to be moving away from Windows’ block-like design altogether.

While the Start Menu is indeed the most noticeable design change, the settings screen and notification center on Windows 11 also look and feel very different from what they used to.

Most importantly, the platform now has widgets. But unlike Apple and Google’s operating systems, widgets on Windows 11 come out from the left of the screen in a whole new section of their own. It’s sort of how Apple’s iPads used to display widgets before the 2021 edition of iPadOS. While widgets are a great feature for power users, they would really be more useful had we been allowed to snap them onto the main desktop, instead of having a whole other section. After all, the whole point of widgets is to jump into an app quickly.

Speaking of jumping into apps quickly, Windows 11 has a new way to “snap” apps onto the screen. When you hover over the maximize button on a window, it shows a bunch of different layouts and you can choose one to snap the app to that side of the screen. Windows will also remember these layouts so you can get back to work quickly.

You can also minimize all the apps you’ve snapped at the same time using a simple three finger swipe on the touchpad. Windows 11 improves gestures too, with four finger swipes to switch virtual desktops, and three finger sideways swipes to switch between open apps.

Lastly, Windows 11 supports Auto HDR, which will bump up the quality of games using software even if they don’t support high-dynamic range (HDR) playback. This, and support for Dynamic Refresh Rates for newer 120Hz displays are features power users will appreciate.

Closer Microsoft app integration

Post the pandemic, Microsoft Teams has become one of the priority apps for Microsoft. So it’s no surprise that Teams is now integrated into Windows from the get go.

This means Microsoft is trying to make Teams the go-to chat application for everyone, not just those whose workplaces force them to use Teams. Like Zoom, Teams is one of the apps that became really popular as the pandemic forced us all indoors. But whether you use this will really depend on how many of your friends or family are on Microsoft Teams. For me, that number was zero.

This kind of integration for Teams actually takes me back to the MSN and Yahoo Messenger days, when Instant Messengers were the go-to communication medium online. Unfortunately, WhatsApp Desktop is one of the first apps I’m downloading on any PC I use nowadays.

Teams being more like a system app didn’t really bother me though. I just don’t use it, and I can’t ignore the fact that this would have been useful had I been using the Windows 11 PC I tested as my work device. What’s annoying is how Microsoft is treating its new Edge browser on this OS.

Let’s be clear here, Edge is actually a great browser. The only reason we use it to download Chrome is because of how familiar most of us are with Chrome, and Google’s close integration there. However, I’m sure some would be annoyed that Edge will always remain the default browser to some extent.

Also read: Highlights from Microsoft's 2021 Surface event

It works like this - Windows 11 allows you to choose a third party browser as default, but clicking on external links from another app, or search will always open them in Chrome. It’s a risky step from Microsoft in the age of antitrust, but can you really blame the company for trying to return to the browser wars?

It’s also more difficult to change the default browser now. To set Chrome or Firefox as your default browser, you need to navigate to the default apps menu, find the browser option and set Chrome or Firefox as the default for a bunch of different file types.

A more open system

While Edge and Teams make Windows 11 feel like a close operating system, the Microsoft App Store is the opposite. The Store feels simpler, has a section to see previously downloaded apps, and allows virtually any Windows app to list on it, including rival app stores like the Amazon AppStore.

The company also allows developers to keep 100% of their revenues as long as they aren’t game developers, which is a marked step away from how Apple and Google operate their platforms.

Should you upgrade?

The funny thing about Windows 11 is that none of the design and usability updates have anything to do with whether you should upgrade or not. That decision solely comes down to the hardware on your PC. Unlike Windows of yesteryears, Microsoft wants a certain kind of hardware to be running Windows 11.

While most PCs will meet the 4GB RAM and 64GB storage requirement, the recommended settings include 8th generation Intel processors or AMD’s Zen 2 chips, both of which are less than 5 years old. The mere fact that these requirements are present, and that Microsoft will support Windows 10 till 2025, means you could hold on to Windows 10, but it doesn’t end there.

The company also recommends that laptops have Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chips installed, which is another thing that most modern laptops have. They are useful for performing specialized cryptographic operations and storing cryptographic keys. You can check whether your PC has this by typing tpm.msc into the Run app on your current device. Some devices have TPM chips installed but they are disabled, and they can be turned on from a PC’s BIOS settings.

Either way, the bottomline is that Windows 11 has plenty to offer for those who just want a new OS experience. For the vast majority of users it will only be a visual refresh, and that’s great.

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