Today, Microsoft officially unveiled Windows 11, the next major version of its operating system (after a leak unofficially unveiled it last week). It’s going to bring a new, revamped Start Menu, better multi-monitor and touchscreen support, tighter integration with Xbox Game Pass, and a new push for the Windows Store. If you missed the announcement keynote, here’s what you need to know.
You’d be forgiven if the new features in Windows 11 sound familiar. Microsoft is adding widgets, translucent windows, and window snapping. All of these features have been around for a while, but the Windows 11 approach looks, well, better. In fact, most of the new features seem to be designed around a theme of incremental improvement rather than wholesale overhaul (which is good, because we all remember Windows 8.)
With the exception of one minor change that might be quite polarizing.
At first glance, the biggest difference in Windows 11 is that the task bar and Start button are centered as opposed to being on the far left of the screen. There will be an option to move it back to the corner if you’re not willing to retrain your muscle memory, but Microsoft seems to want to bring the feature more in line with the way macOS and Chrome OS look.
The new Start Menu, which will also appear in the center of the screen, has been reworked to remove Live Tiles (only marginally useful in the past), instead including a set of pinned apps and recent documents. A search interface will appear at the top of the menu which, much like the Start Menu today, will intelligently search for the documents, apps, or settings you’re trying to find.
Microsoft tried to make widgets happen for years before abandoning them, but this might (might) be the version that sticks. A new button in the task bar will open a widget panel with a to-do list, weather, traffic, calendar, and other basic widgets. This isn’t too different from how widgets work in macOS, available when you want to take a glance but disappearing when you don’t need them. Eventually the feature will be open to developers, so they can add their own widgets, but we’ll have to see how much the feature actually takes off.
Laptop users that dock their computer into a separate monitor are all too familiar with the hassle that comes from managing all their windows. Once you disconnect the monitor, any windows on that monitor get resized and shuffled around, creating a mess on your desktop. Windows 11 puts an end to that. When you unplug your laptop from a second monitor, any open windows on that screen will minimize but remember their place. When you plug the screen back in, they’ll pop right back to where they were before.
Windows’ current snapping feature is useful if you want to put two windows side by side, but any other arrangement you’ll have to do yourself. Windows 11 will change that. Now, when you hover over the Maximize button on a window, you’ll see a small arrangement selector, showing you different layouts you can snap windows to, including three- or four-window layouts. You can then select which windows to fill in the rest of the layout and get to work quicker.
Another in the category of features that Microsoft discontinued only to bring back, Windows 11 will once again introduce a translucent window design. Apps and window borders—including the Start Menu and widget menu themselves—will be semi-see-through, like a frosted glass window. It’s a nice look and probably won’t have the same performance issues that Aero had on lower-end hardware the last time Microsoft tried this trick.
While Microsoft’s hardware team makes some great convertible laptops and tablets, the software hasn’t quite kept up. Windows 11 hopes to fix some of the most annoying problems by adding larger touch targets for resizing windows. There’s also a smaller touch-typing keyboard that can sit in the corner of the screen for one-handed typing, not unlike how you might type on your phone. If you use a stylus, the OS will also support haptic feedback, which might make writing with it feel more natural. It remains to be seen if these changes are enough to make Windows a natural touchscreen experience, but it can’t be worse than switching entirely into a Tablet Mode like Windows 10 does now.
Like the last time that Microsoft announced a new major version of Windows, the update to Windows 11 will be free if you have Windows 10. The only other caveat is that your system will have to meet the minimum requirements for Windows 11, which you can check by downloading the PC Health Check app here.
With Microsoft owning two of the biggest gaming platforms in the world—Windows for PC gaming and the Xbox—you’d think that combining the two would be a higher priority. Well, finally, Windows 11 is making that more of a reality.
For starters, Windows 11 will bring two of the Xbox’s gaming improvements to the PC. The first is the company’s DirectStorage API, which lets games load data directly into your GPU’s memory, which can drastically cut down on load times. The process is a little more complicated than that brief description makes it sound, but if you have the hardware and games that support it, you’ll be spending a lot less time waiting to play.
Another major Xbox feature coming to PCs is called Auto HDR. For games created using DirectX 11 or later, this feature can automatically upgrade games that previously used only SDR to the much richer and vibrant HDR standard. Of course, this won’t magically make games take full advantage of HDR the same way game artists who intended the game to use the full range of HDR colors from the beginning would, but it’s a welcome quality-of-life update. Especially for your latest Skyrim play-through.
And speaking of games developed by Bethesda, the final and perhaps biggest Xbox-related change is that the Xbox app will come built in. The app will provide access to your library of games purchased through the Xbox store, including those that are part of Microsoft’s wildly popular Game Pass subscription. That subscription has only gotten better as the company adds games from Bethesda (which it recently acquired), as well as a number of high-profile brand-new games.
The Xbox app will also enable Game Pass subscribers to stream games from the cloud via the company’s xCloud technology. Similar to Google’s Stadia, xCloud lets players run games on Microsoft’s servers and stream the audio and video back to their computer. This could let players run big games on PCs with minimal specs, right from an app that comes built into Windows.
Right now, the Windows Store isn’t terribly useful because it allows only UWP apps—that is, apps specifically designed to work across a wide range of Windows devices like laptops, tablets, and phones. Most developers weren’t willing or able to rewrite their apps for this format, especially since Microsoft initially charged the same 30 percent cut for any sales made on the Windows Store that competitors like Apple and Google charged.
That all changes with the new Microsoft Store. After allowing game developers to upload win32 versions (read: the format that almost every Windows app you use comes in) to the store in 2019, Microsoft will be extending that flexibility to everyone. Now app developers can upload win32 versions of apps, as well as any other app framework.
Much more important, developers have the option of using their own payment system (or, as Microsoft clumsily called it, “commerce engine”) to charge customers for using their apps. This means that major players like Adobe and Disney don’t have to hand over 12 to 15 percent of their revenue for the privilege of being on Microsoft’s store. Now that companies don’t have to jump through major hoops like rewriting their apps or forking over tons of cash to Microsoft for business as usual, there’s a decent chance that you might actually be able to use the Microsoft Store to find and manage apps you care about.
Finally, Microsoft is bringing Android apps to Windows via perhaps one of the weirdest ways: through the Amazon appstore. Within the Microsoft Store, you’ll be able to search for Android apps. If an app is available, it will prompt users to download it “from Amazon Appstore,” which means it will be tied to your Amazon account, not your Google one. If you were hoping to download paid apps you bought via Google, you’ll have to buy them again. This compatibility is made possible through Intel’s Bridge technology, so we’ll have to see it in action to gauge how well it works, but at least in principle it could be a handy way to get access to a few apps that are out of reach on Windows today.
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