So Windows 11 is here. Leaked a week ago, but officially revealed by Microsoft today at its ‘What’s Next for Windows’ and offered to try out (an early build, of course) as early as next week.
Despite previously stating that Windows 10 would be ‘the last version of Windows’, Microsoft has decided to launch a new version: Windows 11. (No-one will ever know what happened to Windows 9.)
It is, or certainly appears to be, the culmination of Microsoft’s long-running ‘Sun Valley’ project, with the new features previously expected in Windows 10’s late 2021 feature update rocking up as Windows 11 instead.
The question is: is there really enough here to justify the change in version number? Based on what I saw at the launch event, the answer is an unequivocal no.
Let’s start with the user interface tweaks, undoubtedly the most-eye catching difference between Windows 10 and Windows 11. Microsoft has redesigned the taskbar, complete with centrally positioned icons and a brand new Start Menu. The latter has deeper integration with Microsoft 365, as well as the age-old ability to pin favourite apps.
Anyone who follows Windows news will know these well: they look just like those in Windows 10X, Microsoft’s now-cancelled Windows 10 spin-off aimed at portable devices.
It is, admittedly, a big departure from the current Windows 10 UI, which has remained largely unchanged for the last six years. This means there's a bit of a a learning curve to Windows 11, which goes against Microsoft's key aim of familiarity. Will it ultimately be more intuitive once everyone is used to it? Only time will tell.
If the jury’s still out on design, it looks like Microsoft is on to a winner with the new multitasking features. Snap Layouts offers more flexibility when it comes to having multiple windows open at the same time, and Snap Groups allows you to instantly launch them together. There will also be deeper customisation options for virtual desktops, a hugely underused feature in Windows 10.
But surely these could have been all rolled out in a Windows 10 update?
It also finally looks like Microsoft is taking tablet mode seriously in Windows 11. A redesigned on-screen keyboard now works with gestures to be more ‘phone-like’, while improved voice typing also now supports commands. Alongside full stylus support, there’s plenty of flexibility when it comes to touchscreen devices.
Could Windows 10 not be tweaked with the same changes?
Microsoft also said that "If you're a gamer, Windows 11 is designed for you". And yes, gaming is one of the most popular things to do with a Windows PC. DirectX 12 Ultimate technology supposedly enables higher frame rates, while DirectStorage improves load times and Auto HDR enhances the visuals - automatically.
Those sound like more serious behind-the-scenes changes, so possibly some justification for that updated version number, but not enough on their own.
Direct integration of Microsoft Teams into the Windows 11 taskbar is something that will likely divide opinion. It could be great if you rely on Teams to stay productive, but if you prefer Zoom or Google Meet, you’ll probably see it more as an advert for Microsoft's other products, and will want to know how to remove it.
A handful of more minor features were also announced, but none are likely to have a big effect on the way you use your PC. A new Widgets window delivers personalised news and information from the taskbar. Many stock apps have also been redesigned, including the Microsoft Store.
Significantly, Android apps will now be natively supported on Windows 11, although you’ll be limited to getting them from the Amazon Appstore.
It’s nice to see Microsoft give some much-needed attention to Windows, after a few updates which contained very little in the way of noticeable new features. But as I've said, these changes could easily have taken the form of a major Windows 10 update. Indeed, many expected them to be in the 21H2 update.
As for Windows 11, it's surprising Microsoft didn't simply opt for ‘Windows’. Yes, there are other changes that I haven't talked about here - better security, smaller, less intrusive updates - but launching a brand-new version feels unnecessary.
You could rightly point out that Microsoft rarely introduces wholesale changes in new versions of Windows. The one big exception (which the company would likely rather forget) was with Windows 8. It was so extremely unpopular it was replaced within three years of launching.
So it’s probably a good thing that Microsoft hasn’t completely transformed Windows. It could also explain why recent Windows 10 feature updates have barely added anything - all the work has been going into Windows 11.
The challenge now is to persuade as many of the 1.3bn+ Windows 10 users as possible to move over to Windows 11. One easy way is to offer it as a free upgrade for eligible (read compatible) Windows 10 devices.
And that's exactly what Microsoft is going to do once Windows 11 is officially released towards the end of 2021. (You can find out if your PC is compatible by downloading the free PC Health Check app.)
What's not clear is whether any of these features will be rolled out to Windows 10 users who can't upgrade due to 'ineligible' devices.
If you disagree and think Windows 11 makes complete sense as a new version number, but can't upgrade your existing laptop or PC, the other option is to buy a new PC with Windows 11 on it – many of the most popular brands are likely to launch new hardware soon. Microsoft has also said that you’ll get a free upgrade option if you buy a Windows 10 device right now.
Ultimately, does Windows 11 do enough to be described as 'the next generation of Windows'? In my view, it's an unequivocal 'no'.
Learn more about the new operating system in our full guide to Windows 11.