Windows 11 got a sleek new look and some fascinating software changes for PC enthusiasts.
Nearly five full years after the launch of Windows 10, the follow-up is finally here.
Microsoft officially unveiled Windows 11 during a live-streamed event on Thursday, showing off the basics of the new operating system, which will come in the form of a free upgrade this holiday season. Windows 11 brings a new look, more conveniences for productivity-minded users, and some bonuses for PC gamers, too.
Here’s a rundown of everything Microsoft showed off.
Swanky new look
Kinda like Mac, but it’s Windows. Credit: Microsoft
The most striking change to Windows 11 you’ll notice upfront is the aesthetic overhaul from Windows 10. Gone are the square tiles and the usual left-justified taskbar, replaced here by rounded corners on everything, a transparent glass texture for windows and other UI elements, and a Mac-like centered taskbar. While it’s definitely different, it should still be familiar to Windows users. The biggest change is the placement of the Start button in the center of the taskbar.
Speaking of the Start button, it’s been upgraded to have more of a grid layout for apps you pin to the menu. Microsoft is also taking advantage of its cloud technology to make the Start menu display any recent files you’ve used, regardless of device. That means you can theoretically move from a Microsoft app on an Android or iOS device to a Windows PC, and the Start menu will take you right back to what you were doing on the mobile device.
Oh, and there are light and dark mode options this time around. Dark mode forever.
Snap layouts, Teams, and more
Snap layouts (upper right) let you align windows as you see fit. Credit: Microsoft
Moving onto some of the changes made for productivity’s sake, Microsoft showed off its new Snap Layouts system during the stream. Depending on the size and shape of your display, you’ll be able to align multiple open windows in several different ways. Maybe you want one window taking up the left half of the screen and two stacked on top of each other on the right. With Snap Layouts, you should be able to do that, save the layout, and even pin it to the taskbar so you can open those windows together in that specific way the next time you need them using Snap Groups.
On an even broader scale, the new Desktops feature will let you create different desktop instances for different tasks. Maybe you want one for writing, one for video editing, and one for gaming, each with its own distinct app layouts and even desktop backgrounds. You’ll be able to create, save, and open those whenever you want, without having them interfere with one another. This isn’t an entirely new idea (certain versions of Linux have had this for years), but it’s convenient nonetheless.
Microsoft Teams got a bit of a publicity boost during the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to the urgent need for video calls, and the app will now be built directly into Windows 11. You can view a text chat log or, start a voice or video calls directly from the taskbar. Microsoft says SMS functionality works here, too, so you can chat with Android and iOS users who don’t use Teams, as well. That said, Teams integration isn’t entirely positive depending on your point of view; Skype was bundled into Windows 10 and Microsoft is clearly pivoting away from that app, which some might prefer to Teams.
Auto-HDR and Game Pass
Easier access to the Xbox app. Credit: Microsoft
Windows is and always has been the top destination for PC gaming, so it’s no surprise that Windows 11 is taking steps to cater to that audience, too. The Xbox app is now built directly into Windows 11, and naturally, that means quicker access to things like the Game Pass subscription service. It’s not a huge change from Windows 10, but it’s a little less work you have to do out of the box.
A much bigger enhancement is Auto-HDR, a feature Microsoft introduced in the Xbox Series consoles that automatically adds high dynamic range to compatible games without developers needing to do additional work to make it happen. HDR adds a wider range of colors to a display, and while it’s a little tough to demonstrate in a web article, you’ll have to trust us. It’s cool and makes games look much better.
Beyond that, Windows 11 will have an exclusive feature for games called DirectStorage. In a nutshell, this allows games to load straight to your graphics card, shortening lead times and getting you into the action faster. This is another carry-over from the new gaming consoles. Anyone who’s used an Xbox Series machine or a PlayStation 5 can tell you the faster loading times make a huge difference.
Better tablet functionality and…Android apps?!
Android! On Windows! Mass hysteria! Credit: Microsoft
Windows 10 has shipped on plenty of touch-sensitive devices over the years, from Microsoft’s own Surface tablets to third-party machines. But just because you could navigate Windows 10 with your fingertips never meant it was a good idea. That particular interface never felt intuitive for touch controls, and Windows 11 is apparently taking some steps to change that.
Microsoft says moving and resizing windows via touch will be easier, icons will be spaced further apart, and touch gestures that you would have seen on things like laptop trackpads will be compatible with Windows 11. Those who use styluses with their tablets can also expect new haptic feedback features, though it’s tough to say how well that works without getting it in our hands first.
Last but not least, the new Microsoft Store app has been redesigned so finding new apps should be easier than before. Not only that, but native Android apps are coming to Windows, which is kind of nuts. Android is Apple’s chief competitor on mobile and Windows plays the same role in desktop computing, making this a sort of virtual pincer movement. Okay, not really, but it’s still an interesting idea that means you’ll be able to natively watch TikToks through a desktop app instead of using the web interface, for example.
In terms of features designed for regular folks like you and me, these are all of the biggest changes coming to Windows 11 when it launches at the end of this year. PC gamers in particular will probably want to upgrade as soon as they can, assuming they care about things like HDR and faster loading times.
For the price of “free,” you might as well give it a shot.