Today Microsoft announced the next big chapter for its ubiquitous operating system: Windows 11 is here, and while there’s some awkwardness to work out (specifically in the way Microsoft is handling Android app integration), Windows 11 feels like the big facelift Microsoft really needed.
With elements like rounded corners for app windows, a new centered task bar (which can still be left-aligned if you prefer), and a generally sleeker and more minimalist UI, Windows 11 shares some of its aesthetic with other modern OSes—most notably macOS and, to a lesser extent, Android. And while Microsoft’s slick visual update might feel a bit scary to some folks, to me this change is encouraging: a sign of a fresh start for Windows.
You see, one of Windows 10's biggest strengths has also become one of its biggest weaknesses: it’s backwards compatibility. Even with all the millions of hardware configs and evolving PC designs, Microsoft has done an exemplary job of making sure apps that ran on Windows a decade ago still work almost flawlessly today. And if they don’t, there’s usually a small tweak you can make to fix them.
Unfortunately, as we’ve upgraded from Windows 95 to Windows 98, Windows 2000, Windows XP, and more recent versions of Windows, the look and feel of Windows 10 has become rather messy. Depending on where you look, you can see the remnants of previous versions of Windows. Exhibit A: Live Tiles, which were originally introduced in Windows Mobile after being adapted from Microsoft’s Metro design in Windows 8.
Look elsewhere, and Windows 10 is littered with multiple settings menus that serve similar purposes, except that some feature a clean, modern design befitting of Windows 10, while others look like they’ve been ported directly from Windows XP (and it gets even worse if you dive deep into things like the Device Manager or the Advanced Power Settings section). Features brought over from Windows 8 (which came out back in 2012!) like Windows Tablet Mode feel a bit outdated.
With Windows 11, Microsoft has a big opportunity to address many of these issues while creating a consistent look and design across the entire OS. That might sound like a minor upgrade, but carries with it some potentially profound effects.
When you have a more consistent design and user experience, you give people more confidence in the platform. This is clearly something Microsoft execs have thought about: one new feature ensures windows will remember where they’re supposed to be after you connect to or disconnect from an external display. On top of that, Microsoft is also adding new Snap Layouts for Windows, so you can more easily create a desktop arrangement that works for you. Even little things like being able to create personalized desktops for different use cases (e.g. work, personal, gaming, etc.) makes it easy to switch between different use cases without having to reconfigure your apps and windows all the time.
On top of that, by getting rid of Windows 10's discrete tablet mode and simply using the same general layout (with some added space between icons), Microsoft is creating a more consistent user experience across all sorts of devices. Windows 11 will reportedly support the same set of gestures regardless if you’re using a touchpad or a touchscreen, so 2-in-1 devices should function more intuitively, too. Not to mention the new touch keyboard in Win 11 looks like a big improvement.
I’m even cautiously optimistic about the new Windows 11 Start Menu, which looks more like the kind of launcher you’d get on an Android phone as opposed to the sprawling mess you get in Windows 10. By splitting the Start Menu and Search into two different icons on your task bar, Microsoft is making it faster to access the 20-30 apps people use on a regular basis, while still making it easy to find less frequently used apps, even if it takes a couple extra seconds of typing. And for anyone who has to factory reset laptops on a regular basis, the removal of Cortana from a Window machine’s initial setup feels like a godsend. Hi there Cortana, I really don’t need your help right now, or ever again.
Now don’t get me wrong, I still have some reservations about a few of the new features in Windows 11, such as how Microsoft is adding support for Android apps via integration with the Amazon Appstore. Partnering with Amazon instead of Google seems like an awkward workaround, especially compared to the native integration you get with the Google Play Store on Chromebooks.
And while the Windows Store (which is technically now the Microsoft Store) is getting revamped too, a slick new UI doesn’t directly address the dearth of available apps compared to Google’s Play Store or Apple’s App Store. I don’t care for all the added integration with Teams and OneDrive either, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since Apple and Google have made similar moves on iOS/macOS and Android.
At least for gamers, tighter integration with Xbox should make getting into the action or partying up with your friends simpler than ever. And while new support for Auto HDR in games is promising, I’m hoping Microsoft also addresses the way Windows 11 handles monitors with high refresh rates, because I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard about people who bought a fancy new monitor only for them to have been running their display at 60Hz in the months or years since they set it up.
I haven’t had the chance to use Windows 11 just yet, but as I think about new categories of devices coming down the line, like laptops with flexible displays or dual-screen notebooks, Windows 11 really feels like Microsoft is taking what it learned from Windows 10X and turning it into a new foundation for old PCs, new PCs, and PCs that haven’t even been invented yet. So even if Windows 11 seems like it’s merely a facelift for Windows 10—and it’s not—that would be more than enough reason to push out a new version of what was supposed to be the last Windows ever.