Windows 11 is Microsoft’s latest desktop operating system. Few were predicting its arrival at the beginning of 2021, with Windows 10 previously described as “the last version of Windows”.
But Microsoft’s attitude seemed to change during the pandemic, which left people around the world relying on its software for everything from remote working to keeping in touch with friends and family. Some of these new trends appear to be permanent, so the company decided it was time for a fresh start.
Windows 11 represents a big shift in design, aiming to simplify the user experience and reduce clutter. Many elements are inspired by Windows 10X, the cancelled Windows 10 spin-off designed for touchscreen devices. These days, Microsoft appears intent on making Windows 11 a great OS for a variety of different devices and form factors.
All eligible laptops and PCs can now install Windows 11, either via Settings or downloading it manually. Aside from a Mac or Chromebook, almost every other 2022 laptop runs Windows 11, so there’s already plenty of choice.
But despite its simple design, there’s plenty of different elements to the Windows 11, many of which are worth exploring in more detail. This full guide aims to answer every question you might have about the OS, linking out to our extensive Windows 11 coverage.
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, although a workaround lets you use the Google Play Store instead.
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
All compatible devices can upgrade manually.
As Microsoft confirmed a month earlier, Windows 11 was officially released on 5 October 2021.
Really, that was just 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.
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, any outstanding devices should receive the update very soon if they haven’t already.
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 via a download link, which will be sent to you once you complete the purchase:
You can buy it pre-loaded on a USB stick if you’d prefer – this is currently available for Windows 11 Home ($139/£115.99), but not Pro. At Amazon UK, you can even 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”.
The minimum hardware requirements for Windows 11 are as follows:
1GHz dual-core processor
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 a free ‘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.
That storage requirement might be SSD-only from 2023, if data storage analysts Trendfocus (via Tom’s Hardware) are to be believed. However, Windows 11 devices using HDDs or eMMC storage aren’t expected to be affected.
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.
The company accidentally released the 22H2 feature update to unsupported Windows 10 devices in June 2022, but that doesn’t make it any less risky. Like before, we’d only recommend trying this if you have a spare Windows 10 device lying around – not on your primary machine.
Windows 11 trailers
There are two key trailers for Windows 11 that are worth watching. First up, the official introduction video from June 2021:
Then, from September 2021, 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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
Teams and chat are integrated into Windows 11, with future updates allowing you to share windows and toggle mute directly from the taskbar:
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.
Windows 11 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 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 also has a brand new startup sound. Check out the five-second clip below:
Nine years after the previous version was introduced, we also finally have an updated volume indicator. Here’s what you can expect:
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.