Last month Microsoft announced its new Windows 11 operating system, which surprised many after Microsoft indicated Windows 10 would be the last. The surprise is especially true as everybody was expecting Windows 10X, and then it got scrapped, and now we are getting Windows 11. It makes you wonder if Microsoft thought Windows 10X was too great to be called "10." I go into more detail about why Microsoft decided to move forward with a Windows 11 here on the Six Five Podcast with Daniel Newman at Futurum Research. Last week Windows 11 was available for preview in Microsoft's Windows Insider Program, and I want to give my first take on Microsoft's next-generation operating system.
The device that I am looking most towards in testing out Windows 11 is the Surface Book 3. The Surface Book 1 came out the same year, if not at the same release event as Windows 10. The Surface Book 3 has an identical hardware design to the first-generation Surface Book, with the difference being port selection and internal upgrades. The laptop-tablet hybrid has the most to gain from the Windows 11 upgrade in that Windows 11 integrates multi-touch input better than Windows 10 without the need to have a "tablet mode." In an article, I wrote one Windows 10X over a year ago about how Windows 10 unintentionally makes touch input as a secondary input to mouse and keyboard, even in tablet mode. I think the Surface Book 3 will have the most noticeable testimony to whether Windows 11 does what Windows 10 couldn't- to make multi-touch a primary input in the Windows user experience (UX).
I got my hands on Windows 11 through the Windows Insider Program, and although Windows 11's complete feature set isn't ready, it still has a truck-load of new and noteworthy features. Let's dive into my first take of Windows 11 that I did with an HP ZBook G7 Create.
Fresh and new user experience
Windows 11 has grown out of its box-like live tiles and mono-color style adopted in its Windows 8.x and Windows phone era. Although the UI will be missed by many, the new glassy UI easily passes as a rendition of Windows 7 under the modern neomorphic UI design. The UI design incorporates a realistic 3D look in a 2D space with a gradient that mimics lighting. The lighting is a cool reference to windows and an identifying trait to the design language of neomorphism. The new design makes things pop and reminds us of where to look, the center.
Everything to the left in Windows 10 has moved to the center except for the time and smaller settings icons. Rightly so, the exceptions tie more closely to the notification and calendar trays that pop out with a swipe as we saw in Windows 10 but with a more elegant look. The ability to move the start menu and apps to the left is available in the settings menu, but I don't think it looks as nice. The Start menu looks more refined without the live tiles and different-sized app icons. It is now a simple app tray with a recommended list of apps and files. To the right of the Start menu, Windows 11 features three new buttons, the search button, the Task View button, and the Widgets button. I like how Microsoft separated the Search button from the Start menu since it declutters the whole thing, but I turned off the Search button in the settings menu. I found it more intuitive to click the Start menu and start typing since the Start menu searches when you start typing, and it's identical to the search button. I also found it a little buggy when interacting with the widgets side panel.
The Widgets side panel I also turned off since you can swipe in from the left or use the hotkey "Windows key + W" to open the panel. I think the widgets panel captures much of what Microsoft was trying to do with Live tiles. It brings in the information that a user doesn't necessarily need to open an app, conveniently hidden in a swipe-in panel. Hopefully, developers also see how useful the widgets panel is and develop widgets for its apps in the panel. I think the To Do tasks app, weather app, and a few others make for a great start to widgets collection. I wish the widgets lead the user to the app rather than a link from the web browser. If I click on the To Do icon, it opens up the Edge browser instead of the To Do app. I also think it would be more intuitive if the Widgets panel closed with a swipe out rather than a tap on the screen.
The Task view panel is also more refined compared to the task view on Windows 10. I have kept it on my taskbar and find it useful to have multiple desktops. I think it can still use some work when using gestures and Windows 11 as a tablet. For example, when I go into Task View, I can hover over the different desktops and see what programs are open. This feature is useful when deciding which desktop to go into if I have forgotten where all my programs are. When using the Task View with touch input, I can't hover over the desktops. This environment would be a great environment to view my snaps or adjust which programs I have in snaps. It would make the whole experience of multitasking between programs more fluid and easier to manage programs.
Another of Windows 11's new features is the ability for a window to remember its placement when snapped to an external monitor and to close when the monitor is unplugged. The placement of the windows was smoother than I expected it to be, and I found it interesting that you can pull windows into a snap from a different monitor without having to drag it to that monitor. It made it surprisingly faster to adjust windows than I imagined. I found the snap feature useful with programs that I commonly use together. It reminds me of the Surface Duo’s feature of grouping apps together on separate screens and using them together rather than switching back between apps. I find it useful to snap OneNote and Word together, like now when I’m writing blogs. The snap feature remembers which windows I have snapped together and gives me the option to return to the group of snaps. This group feature keeps me from having to resnap windows together when I go back and forth between other programs. Other snaps I found useful were Outlook with File Explorer and Edge Browser, and OneNote with two separate browser windows open. This feature alone is worth the price of admission. I work with no less than three displays, mostly four, when I work so this is an awesome feature.
Fresh new keyboard and themes
When you resize the keyboard and switch apps, the keyboard defaults to the center of the display, I think it would be helpful to determine a position, left or right-handed, then default to one side for the s keyboard. I don't see myself using the smaller keyboard in the center because of the large keyboard. The small keyboard is a joy to use and will be a key component in making windows favorable, not just useable as a more touch-friendly mobile operating system. The larger keyboard is the same, if not similar, as the Windows 10 on-screen keyboard. Having the designated emoji and gif button brings it up to par with other modern iterations of screen keyboards.
Microsoft has also done a great job of providing, if not consolidating, the theming of Windows in its settings menu. The start menu, the taskbar, and even the new keyboard can be customized and themed to the user's liking.
Microsoft's crisp new store
The Microsoft store was one of the major improvements and Microsoft's surprise for the conference in announcing that the Microsoft store will be supporting Android apps through Amazon. Although the current Windows insider preview of Windows 11 does not have this feature, it is still worth mentioning the implications of Windows gaining the ability to use cross-platform apps. It gives Windows the ability to compete better in tablet markets with the versatility to run touch-specific and tablet-specific applications. I think this is especially true when using the Snap feature alongside other Android apps and legacy Windows apps.
The store is much faster and easier to navigate than the Windows 10 store, which was incredibly slow. The store can host any application that runs on Windows, and Microsoft only takes 15% when hosting in the store, and that's only if you use Microsoft's commerce engine. Microsoft's fees are making life more difficult for Apple considering Apple's fee is 30%.
The current Windows insider preview is the new UI and snappy window resizing that doesn't look like an abandoned storefront. The store follows the Windows 11 theme with clear and crisp animations when navigating through the market. With the much-needed changes to the look of the Microsoft Store, the integration of Android apps through the partnership with Amazon, and the competitive prices for apps in the store, I think the Microsoft Store will have a significant role in Windows 11 being such a success.
Microsoft, for the most part, has gotten it right with Windows 11. The subtle UI features will please newbies and provide Apple a run for its design money. It’s beautiful and dare I say it… simple. The design also works better for finger and pen interactions and up to now, I think Apple and the iPad owns the finger input right now. When combined with Android app compatibility, I can’t wait to see the new crop of 9-11” tablets and their experiences. I’m not expecting “great” with Android, but I don’t think it needs to be. It just needs to be “good” for all those apps you can’t get in Windows that you can on Android like home IoT apps. While the store isn’t filled yet, it will be with its relaxed app framework rules and “free” posting. Oh, and it’s incredibly fast now.
Windows 11 still has a long way to go before it comes out of its preview. Its focus on multi-touch and hybrid devices tells me it has learned a lot from its Windows 8.x days. It has taken great features and components that made Windows 10 so pleasant to use while building on and improving much of what would be my greatest critiques. There are still a few features and elements of Windows 11 that I would like to see and test out more, like the integration of Teams as a large part of the ecosystem and the performance of DirectStorage in gaming, Android apps and “super secure” mode for businesses. Overall, I think Windows 11 is off to a great start.
Note: This write-up contains contributions from Moor Insights & Strategy researcher, fact-checker and writer, Jacob Freyman.