Windows 11 Promises Refinement, Not Revolution

Microsoft is rolling the new operating system out to consumers. Here's why you don't have to install it right away.

screenshot of Windows 11 desktop Image: Microsoft

The latest version of Microsoft’s ubiquitous PC operating system is rolling out to consumers this month, but don’t feel compelled to upgrade right away. Windows 11 is really just a slightly refined remake of the popular and reliable Windows 10.

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There’s a lightly refreshed user interface, with a brighter, more modern design; a simplified Start menu that’s similar to the one used in the Chrome OS; and playful sound effects. No longer a wasteland, a reinvigorated Microsoft Store now hosts genuinely popular apps like Adobe Acrobat Reader, Discord, the Epic Games Store, Firefox, and Zoom. Widgets for bite-sized bits of info, such as sports scores and stock prices, are easier to access than before. Overall, the operating system is not bad, but it’s not thrilling enough for the Rolling Stones to sing about.

After spending the past few days running the launch version of Windows 11 on a Surface Laptop 4 borrowed from our labs, I’m okay with waiting awhile before installing it on my personal gaming/work PC. I think you’ll be okay, too.

Here’s what you need to know about the transition from Windows 10 to Windows 11.

What Happens to Windows 10 Now That Windows 11 Is Here?

Not much. You can safely use Windows 10, receiving security updates and bug fixes, through October 2025. But the days of new features coming to Windows 10 are over.

How Do You Get Windows 11?

There are two ways: with the purchase of a new PC or by downloading it and installing it on your current PC.

Major manufacturers, including Dell and HP, are already selling Windows 11-equipped computers, so you should not have trouble finding one on store shelves. 

For those who wish to install the system on a current computer, the Windows 11 upgrade is free—for now at least. (Windows 10 was free, too, for the first year.) You just need to make sure your PC meets the minimum system requirements. Microsoft has released a small app called PC Help Check to assist with confirming you have what you need. If everything checks out, it’s simply a matter of launching Windows Update, clicking “Check for updates,” then following the installation prompts.

Before you begin, though, back up the contents of your computer to a hard drive or the cloud, saving all your photos and files, in case something gets lost in the upgrade process. 

There are three upgrade paths to choose from. Full Upgrade will attempt to keep all your data, including personal files like Word documents and photos, apps, and settings, intact. Keep Data Only will attempt to keep only your personal files (but not apps and settings) intact. Clean Install will erase your entire hard drive and start from scratch. Full Upgrade is the default choice, so feel free to use that if you upgrade.

What's All This About a Refreshed User Interface?

Truth be told, the Windows 11 interface is more like a new coat of paint than a full-scale renovation: Things look different on the surface, but the core remains much the same—unlike the radical rework that arrived a decade ago with Windows 8.

The biggest visual change is probably the redesigned Start menu, which now greatly resembles the main menu in Chrome OS. Instead of appearing on the left-hand side of the screen (useful if you have a very wide monitor like the LG UltraGear), it appears at the center, allowing you to “pin” your most frequently used apps right there, so they’re easily accessible. Beneath those, you’ll find a collection of recently used documents for easy access.

The widget-like Live Tiles icons found in the Windows 10 Start menu have gone away, replaced by widgets for things like the weather forecast and sports scores. But those appear in their own dedicated section, which can be activated by clicking the widgets icon in the taskbar, typing the Windows key + W, or swiping from the left on a PC with a touch screen. Don’t use widgets? Because they’re now housed in their own section, you can forget they’re even there.

If you look closely, you’ll also notice that all the windows in Windows 11 have rounded corners as opposed to the right-angled corners found in Windows 10. It’s a minor tweak, but it does make Windows 11 look more modern. (Both iOS and macOS use rounded corners, too.) I think I prefer the angular look of Windows 10, though. Call me old-school.

screenshot of Windows 11

Image: Microsoft Image: Microsoft

How Useful Are Windows 11's New Features?

That depends on what sort of user you are. If you’re the type that sticks to the apps you know and use every day, I’m not sure anything here will coax you away. If you’re willing to try new things, I can see some of the new features appealing to you. Even so, they’re not likely to dramatically change the way you work.

Take the new Microsoft Store, aka the Windows app store. In Windows 10, it was mostly filled with small, independent apps that hardly anyone has ever heard of. I used one, for example, to make it slightly easier to publish a podcast. 

Now the store is filled with heavy hitters like Discord, Firefox, and Zoom. (Android apps will come to the store sometime in 2022, according to Microsoft.) Yes, you can download apps like those from individual websites, but plucking them from one central marketplace is so much easier, especially when you’re setting things up right after you install Windows 11. Game changer? Eh, maybe not, but a welcome addition for sure.

Microsoft has also integrated its popular workplace chat app Teams more deeply into the new operating system. 

You’ll now find the app pinned to the taskbar. Better yet, you can use it to chat with people who aren’t on Teams. How? The app will send an SMS text message to anyone in your address book, allowing you to continue chatting by text or shift to the app once the recipient installs it.

Given the popularity of messaging services like iMessage, Signal, and WhatsApp, I can’t imagine many people are hurting for yet another one, but I suppose having more choice is good.

I already touched on the level-up given to widgets, but it bears repeating: Tucking them away in their own dedicated section is much better than having them crammed into the Start menu. For one, you can fit more of them. But you’re not accidentally invoking them every time you click Start, too. It’s up to you how many times a day you check, say, baseball scores or national headlines.

Lastly, Microsoft has made enhancements to the way you work with multiple windows. 

In Windows 10, for example, you can “pin” one window to the left side of your screen and one to the right, with each taking up half your monitor. That’s super-convenient, say, when you’re transferring files between folders or to an SD card. But in Windows 11, you can pin more than one window to the side of your screen. You could have your main browser, say, take up half of the display, while the other half houses your email app and the Slack app. Or you could work on an email in your main window with your calendar and a chat app (or, heaven forbid, Twitter) open on the other side. 

Sure, you could accomplish the same goal with an external monitor, but this makes for a nice experience, especially if you’re in a café or the middle seat of an airplane, where there’s no room for a second screen.

So What's The Bottom Line?

If you ask me, most consumers are going to shift to Windows 11 when they get a new PC (whenever that is), and that’s fine. Even though the upgrade is free, it’s not like Windows 10 has suddenly stopped being a useful and stable operating system, so why take time out of your day to install something that’s only marginally better? 

Of course, Windows 11 as it exists today will not be the Windows 11 that exists six months from now—let alone one year. It’s entirely possible that it will quickly become a more “vital” upgrade. 

As I noted above, we’re still missing at least one major feature that was announced last June (Android apps in the app store). And I fully expect Microsoft to keep improving Windows 11 in the months to come.

For now, however, I’m going back to Windows 10. I don’t see any reason to abandon it just yet.

Headshot image of Electronics editor Nicholas Deleon

Nicholas De Leon

I've been covering consumer electronics for more than 10 years for publications like TechCrunch, The Daily (R.I.P.), and Motherboard. When I'm not researching or writing about laptops or headphones I can likely be found obsessively consuming news about FC Barcelona, replaying old Super Nintendo games for the hundredth time, or chasing my pet corgi Winston to put his harness on so we can go for a walk. Follow me on Twitter (@nicholasadeleon).