Just over three months after it was first announced, Windows 11 is officially released today. The first Microsoft Surface devices running the new OS are now available to buy but eligible Windows 10 devices will get the update between now and mid-2022.
If you haven’t tried Windows 11 via the Insider Program yet, you might well think that this is a significant change and even a new era for Windows. Microsoft describes 11 as “the next generation of Windows”, claiming it “inspires people to create” and “brings you closer to what you love”. The official advert portrays Windows 11 as exciting and other-worldly.
However, after spending a few weeks with the new OS, I can confidently say that’s not quite the case. Windows 11 does have a very different look and feel to Windows 10, but its core functionality is largely unchanged. It’s unmistakably Windows, just with a new lick of paint; your familiar home but with new carpets and curtains.
At first glance, those visual changes make Windows 11 feel like a whole new operating system. The taskbar, Start menu and Action Center have all been redesigned, alongside new versions of stock apps such as Settings and File Explorer. It takes a while to get used to using these tools, and that's something we haven't seen in Windows for many years.
But once you do get used to them, Windows 11 is pretty much the same as all previous iterations of Windows. It's just the way you navigate them is different. Snap layouts - one of the new features - make it easier to use apps side-by-side, but the new Widgets pane and Microsoft Teams integration add very little to the experience. The latter might be a different story if you use Teams as one of your main messaging apps, though.
And if you do get Windows 11 today, that's about all that's different. Other big new features such as native support for Android apps (via the Amazon Appstore) and third-party app stores aren't yet available. The Microsoft Store itself has been redesigned, but there are only a handful of new desktop apps you couldn't get on the Windows 10 Store. Even then, they could easily be downloaded via the web.
However, I still don't see the Microsoft Store becoming a go-to destination for apps, in the same way Apple's App Store or the Google Play Store are. The situation is different on PCs and laptops because downloading software from websites has become such an ingrained behaviour for Windows users. Unless you want to use a specific Android app on your laptop or PC, or the app is only really available via the Store (such as iTunes) then most people will probably continue to download from the web.
This begs the question: do you really need to upgrade to Windows 11? For most people, the answer is no, as Windows 10 will continue to be supported until October 2025.
Of course, Windows 10 is unlikely to get any new features of note. We're not expecting a follow-up to the 21H2 update, meaning Windows 10's updates will be limited to security patches and bug fixes. Windows 11 might not have a wealth of new features right now, but it will be the place to be as more functionality is added. It's also currently a free upgrade for compatible devices, something which might expire just as it did with Windows 10.
If the visual changes are what you're struggling with, there's another option. You can still make Windows 11 look more like Windows 10, without sacrificing any of its functionality. It requires some tinkering and potentially paying for software, but could be worth it for people who can't stand Windows 11 in its current.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Windows 11 is a relatively small update from Microsoft. The company will want as many of Windows 10's 1.3bn+ users to make the switch, but won't want to alienate them at the same time. That's what happened with Windows 8, forcing Microsoft to revert to type with Windows 10.
Another factor is the sheer diversity of Windows devices you can already buy. Everything from a 10in tablet to 49in ultrawide monitor is expected to run Windows 11 without issue, whether you're using your finger, a stylus, touchpad or mouse. Producing an operating system that's optimised for all these different form factors is no mean feat.
Ultimately, most people just want an OS that can comfortably handle the basics - web browsing, video calls and watching videos. Microsoft has simplified Windows 11 in an attempt to do just that, while still being capable of running the demanding apps so-called 'power users' require.
With that in mind, it's no wonder Microsoft hasn’t tried to reinvent the wheel with Windows 11. It’s rightly focusing on security, but stability should be another top priority. This is something Windows 10 has seriously struggled with in recent months, with some issues persisting despite being patched. Early signs are promising: the Windows 11 beta was surprisingly stable.
It could be a different story once millions more devices make the switch, but this is why Microsoft is doing a phased roll-out with only the 'most eligible' devices getting the option to update first.
When the time comes, there's really no reason to be concerned about updating your device or buying a new machine running Windows 11. Unless you detest the new design, almost every feature or app you already use will still be available in some capacity.
Features such as the new Settings menu and Action Center are a genuine upgrade, and you'll be in a prime position for any new features Microsoft adds in the future. Windows 11 is a cautious new version which could have been delivered as a feature update, but it's familiar enough that you won't be desperate to roll back to Windows 10.
If Microsoft can keep it mostly bug-free, the lack of genuine new features won't be a cause for concern. Windows 11 is here to stay, so it's worth getting used it sooner rather than later.