At the beginning of 2021, the likelihood of Microsoft releasing a successor to Windows 10 anytime soon seemed extremely low. That remained the case until late May, when CEO Satya Nadella began openly discussing "the next generation of Windows".

Speculation surrounding a potential 'Windows 11' soon went into overdrive, especially once Microsoft announced an event for 24 June. An preview version leaked ahead of the official reveal, but Microsoft still had a few surprises up its sleeve.

Early builds became available to members of the Windows Insider Program soon after, before Microsoft finally confirmed an initial release date - 5 October 2021.

As the company explained in an official blog post, the update wasn't delivered to all eligible devices straight away. Microsoft has throttled up availability in order to manage demand, with newer hardware prioritised. However, there's an easy way for all compatible devices to get Windows 11 right now.

Microsoft launched new Surface hardware around the same time Windows 11 released, making the Surface Pro 8, Surface Laptop Studio, Surface Go 3 and Surface Pro X (2021) some of the first devices to run the new OS out of the box. However, within the space of a few months, there are already plenty of alternatives. 

Without further ado, here's everything you need to know about Windows 11.

What's Windows 11 like?

Clearly wanting to avoid upsetting millions by making radical changes (as it ultimately did with Windows 8), Microsoft has kept the same basic layout, albeit with a significant redesign. You'll also find rounded corners everywhere you look and a new centrally positioned Start Menu, although you can return the latter to the side if you'd prefer.

There's a new widgets panel which can show the weather, stocks, news and other things - seemingly replacing the old Start Menu's live tiles - and improved grouping and snapping of open Windows so you can focus more easily on what you're trying to do.

Windows 11 on tablets is much improved thanks to the introduction of gestures and a new on-screen keyboard that much more similar to the one on your phone. You can even install and use Android apps via the Amazon Appstore, but that's only beginning to be rolled out.

However, while there are lots of visual changes, Windows 11 should be an easy transition from Windows 10 for most people.

When did Windows 11 come out?

  • Initial release date: 5 October 2021
  • Free upgrade for all eligible Windows 10 PCs soon
  • Insider Preview Builds and ISO files can be downloaded now

As Microsoft confirmed a month earlier, Windows 11 was officially released on 5 October 2021.

However, really the date that OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) can begin to release Windows 11 hardware. The blog post stated that 'in-market devices' which are eligible for the upgrade will be offered it later as part of a phased and measured approach. 

In an official tweet just after the initial launch, the Windows Twitter account appeared to confirm that Windows 10 users be waiting until 2022 for the free upgrade:

However, an official blog post from January 2022 confirmed that this was ahead of schedule. Given Windows 11 entered "its final phase of availability" at this time, all compatible devices should receive the update soon.

You don't have to wait until it's delivered to your laptop or PC, though. If you're happy to install it manually, a final version is available to download from the Microsoft website. Learn more in our separate guide - how to download Windows 11 now. This ISO file is also the way to go if you want to install it using a USB.

How much does Windows 11 cost?

  • Free for eligible PCs
  • New hardware pricing dependent on manufacturer
  • USB versions available from £128.99/$139

Pricing was always likely to be one of the big questions, but the good news is that it is free for eligible PCs. This will continue indefinitely, potentially for the duration of Windows 11's lifespan. 

However, it's not as simple as all Windows 10 devices getting Windows 11 - as is explained below, Microsoft has updated the hardware requirements for its new OS.

Naturally, upgrading from Windows 10 isn't the only way to get Windows 11. Plenty of new laptops and PCs are already running the operating system out of the box, with plenty more on the way. So far, it doesn't seem like having Windows 11 pre-installed has affected the asking price.

However, you can also now buy Windows 11 as a standalone operating system. The easiest method is pre-loaded on a USB stick, which will cost you £104.48/$139 for the most popular Home version. But at Amazon UK, you can also get a disc version for £128.99.

It's worth reiterating that this isn't necessary for most people, especially while the free upgrade from Windows 10 is available.

Wasn't Windows 10 the 'last ever' version of Windows?

That's what Microsoft said when it announced Windows 10, yes. But apparently it changed its mind about that. The company could have rolled out these changes in a Windows 10 update, but it chose not to refer back to this statement during the launch event and might be hoping its customers have short memories.

Interestingly, Microsoft did reference this at its April 2022 hybrid work event. However, the company described the pandemic as the key driver of this change in strategy, adding that "how, when and where we work fundamentally changed overnight". 

But after spending a few months with Windows 11, it's clear not much has really changed under the surface.

Will my current PC or laptop run Windows 11?

The minimum hardware requirements for Windows 11 are as follows:

  • 1GHz dual-core processor
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64GB of storage
  • UEFI, Secure Boot capable
  • Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 2.0
  • Graphics card compatible with DirectX 12
  • Display larger than 9in with 720p or higher resolution
  • Microsoft account + internet connection

Not sure if your device is compatible? Microsoft has released an updated version of its 'PC Health Check' app, designed to help you do just that. It's available to download from the bottom of the main Windows 11 page.

For more information, check out our separate guide: Will my PC run Windows 11?

Microsoft doesn't encourage it, but there is still a way to install Windows 11 on unsupported PCs. Indeed, you'll probably see messages within Settings and on the desktop warning you that your device isn't compatible. It doesn't seem to affect performance and app compatibility, though.

Windows 11 trailers

There are two key trailers for Windows 11 that are worth watching. First up, the official introduction video from 24 June:

Then, from 9 September, a shorter advert-style trailer. You may have seen a version broadcast on TV:

What new features does Windows 11 have?

There are too many to go into lots of detail here, but here are the main ones you need to know about.

First, there's a significant visual overhaul. Windows 10 has maintained a similar look and feel throughout its lifespan, but that's about to change with Windows 11.

A new taskbar moves icons to the centre, although this can easily be reverted to a more traditional layout. What can't be changed is some of the functionality Microsoft removed compared to the Windows 10 version, but Microsoft is taking steps to rectify this. The February 2022 update will mean the time and date shows across all external screens, while drag-and-drop is expected to return in the 22H2 feature update.

However, there are no signs of other removed features making a reappearance. The Windows 11 taskbar is still lacking in some customisation features compared to the Windows 10 version. 

The brand-new Start Menu isn't necessarily lacking, although its brand-new design certainly isn't for everyone. In fact, this aesthetic is similar to what Microsoft teased for the now-cancelled Windows 10X. Here's what it looks like with dark mode enabled:

Windows 11
Image: Microsoft

It features a grid of customisable 'Pinned' icons, with separate 'All apps' section for everything else you have installed. The 'Recommended' heading below displays recently used files, apps and folders - including from cloud services such as OneDrive and Microsoft 365 - enabling you to quickly pick up where you left off, even if you last used a different device.

However, many people have been disappointed by this, especially the lack of customisation ability. However, Microsoft has since added the ability to choose the split between Pinned and Recommended sections. The official screenshots below give you an idea how it looks:

Windows 11 new Start Menu options
Image: Microsoft

One new feature that has gone down well is the new Snap Layouts multitasking functionality. Hovering over the maximise button allows you to choose the arrangement of apps on the screen, as you can see below. 

Windows 11 leak
Image: Mark Hachman/IDG

Widgets haven't been a major feature of recent versions of Windows, but that's changed now. The panel slides in from the left, but can be customised to fill the whole screen if you'd prefer. It's designed for quick glances at important information without distracting you from what you were doing before you opened it.

Windows 11
Image: Microsoft

Teams and chat are integrated into Windows 11, with future updates allowing you to share windows and toggle mute directly from the taskbar:

Windows 11

The Teams integration now extends to the Edge browser. It means individual tabs now show up within Task Manager, with GPU and crashpad data shown too. Tabs on the taskbar will also include the site, icon and topic name, although this is replaced by a generic icon during private browsing sessions.

Many stock apps have been redesigned, including File Explorer and the Microsoft Store. The latter includes Android app support via the Amazon Appstore, but you can also use the Epic Games Store if you'd prefer. There's no indication the Google Play Store will be added to Windows 11, but a workaround allows you to do just that.

If you'd rather stick to official services, Google is also working on a dedicated Play Store Games app. This is expected to be compatible with Windows 11 and Windows 10 and released sometime in 2022.

The stock Photos app has also been redesigned, as is shown by Microsoft's Panos Panay below:

Windows 11 also has a brand-new Action Center, splitting Quick Settings, Notifications and a music controller into separate sections. Its design is inspired by Windows 10X, making it easy to navigate using touchpad, mouse, pen or finger.

Windows 10 Sun Valley

Windows 11 also has new Snipping Tool. It replaces Windows 10's Snip & Sketch, but offers a lot more functionality than the legacy Snipping Tool found on earlier iterations of Windows.

Plenty of stock apps have also been redesigned to be more in keeping with Windows 11's new design. They include Calculator, Clock, Notepad, Media Player and File Explorer, with the latter shown below:

Windows 11 File Explorer

Windows 11 also has a brand new startup sound. Check out the five-second clip below:

After nine years, we also finally have a new volume indicator. Here's what you can expect:

Windows 11 new volume indicator
Image: Microsoft

This has been designed to be in keeping with the rest of the Windows 11 UI. It supports both light and dark modes, with the same sliders appearing when changing brightness via the keyboard shortcuts. Other notable changes in this update include a new in-progress call window for the Your Phone companion app, more on-screen keyboard themes and the ability to uninstall the clock.

The Microsoft Teams integration has received mixed reviews, but it now also applies to the Edge browser. It means individual tabs now show up within Task Manager, with GPU and crashpad data shown too. Tabs on the taskbar will also include the site, icon and topic name, although this is replaced by a generic icon during private browsing sessions.

In the Task Manager, versions available since February 2022 support an 'Eco mode'. This can be used to allocate more resources to specific apps by setting the priority of others to 'low'. This stops resource-intensive apps from consuming too much of the CPU or GPU power, which should help improve performance and battery life.

Elsewhere, Windows 11's Dynamic Refresh Rate feature is now available. On compatible devices (including Microsoft's Surface Pro 8 and Surface Laptop Studio), this allows panels above 60Hz to automatically adjust their refresh rate depending on what you're doing. It prevents power from being wasted unnecessarily.

The first major update for Windows 11 arrived in February 2022, adding several new features. They include redesigned Notepad and Media Player apps, new taskbar functionality and a public preview of native Android app support. However, the latter requires at least 8GB of RAM and an SSD - that's stricter than Windows 11 itself.

Microsoft made it much harder to change the default browser when it introduced Windows 11, but the company mostly reversed that decision in March 2022. Starting with version KB50011563, there'll be an option within Settings to set a browser as your default for HTTP, HTTPS, .HTML and .HTM files. However, you'll still need to change where PDFs open separately.

Updates like these are 40% smaller than Windows 10 and applied in the background, meaning they shouldn't shouldn't interrupt your work. Windows 11 is also more power efficient, meaning battery life should be improved in the long run. which means it uses less power which means your laptop should last longer.

Upcoming Windows 11 features

Initially, Microsoft said Windows 11 would be shifting to annual feature updates, but it's since become clear that the OS will be getting new features throughout the year. Several new features have already been added since Windows 11's launch, with more on the way soon.

As Windows Central reports, many of these could arrive in the 22H2 update. These will supposedly be as follows, with all new functionality available to test soon:

  • App folders in Start
  • Drag and drop on Taskbar
  • Quick Settings / Notification Center improvements
  • Pinned files in File Explorer
  • Acrylic title bars - that's something Windows Latest is also reporting
  • Snap Bar snapping
  • UX Gestures for Start/Quick Settings using touch
  • New live captions feature

In early March 2022, Microsoft announced Preview Build 22567, which includes more new features. Among them are new touchscreen gestures, accessibility-focused voice commands and and a redesigned 'Open with' dialog box. A tweet from Windows Central's Zac Bowden appears to confirm they'll arrive in the 22H2 update:

A February 2022 Insider build had several features disabled, suggesting they may be added in a future update. These include the ability to hide the taskbar when using Windows 11 as a tablet, a new sustainability mode within Settings and stickers that can be pinned to the desktop wallpaper. Focus Assist will supposedly be known simply as 'Focus' and get a couple of new features, while Priority notification sessions will be easier to access.

In May 2022, Microsoft announced it was 'reimagining' many of Windows 11's pre-installed apps and tools. Updates to the likes of Photos, Notepad, Media Player, Clock, Calculator, Paint and the Snipping Tool are already available, but there's one more on the way. A refresh to Sound Recorder is being tested, including a new waveform view and support for changing recording device/file format within the app. Here's a taste of how it'll look:

Windows 11 Sound Recorder
Image: Microsoft

Windows 11 is already a popular OS for gaming, but Microsoft is testing another feature in the Windows Insider Program. With an Xbox controller connected to your computer, pressing the Xbox button will launch a new 'controller bar', which lets you quickly switch between recent games and games launchers. Here's how it'll look:

Windows 11 controller bar
Image: Microsoft

One feature that's been rumoured but not confirmed is support for third-party Widgets. That's what FireCube on Twitter suggested in January 2022, based on screenshots from the Microsoft Store:

It's not clear if we'll have to wait until Windows 11's first feature update to see all these features - that's expected in 2022, potentially as soon as July. Here's everything we know about the 22H2 update so far.

We discussed Windows 11 in depth on episode 86 of Fast Charge, our weekly podcast:

Tech Advisor's guide to Windows 11

We have plenty of Windows 11 coverage on the site, answering all the key questions about Microsoft's new operating system.

The basics

Tutorials

News

There's plenty more where all that came from. Keep it locked to Tech Advisor for plenty more Windows 11 coverage over the coming weeks and months.

But Windows 11 is just one part of Microsoft's prioritisation of accessibility. The Surface Adaptive Kit makes any laptop easier to use, while the new Adaptive Accessories help people who are unable to use a traditional mouse and keyboard. Combined, these tools make a big difference.