For the first time since Microsoft unveiled, there’s a major reason to be very excited about the future of Windows.
On June 24, Microsoft talked about “what’s next for Windows” and revealed Windows 11, the next big release of the Windows operating system, which puts a strong focus on hybrid work and learning. We went hands-on with the early version of Windows 11 and have rounded up everything we know and everything that has officially been announced.
Microsoft confirmed that Windows 11 will be a free update for all Windows 10 users and noted it will be coming for holiday 2021 and early 2022. Some rumors fueled by Intel documentation point to a late October release, too.
But you won’t need to wait that long. Microsoft is already beta testing Windows 11. Three major “builds” of the operating system have been released at the time of publishing for testing.
For those curious, Microsoft details how you can get Windows 11 early on this webpage. New PCs coming later this year will be powered by Windows 11, too.
Basically, if you want to give Windows 11 an early ride right now, you’ll need to opt-in to the Windows Insider program. You’ll also need to make sure you have an Intel 8th-generation or AMD Ryzen 2000 or newer processor and a PC with a TPM 2.0 chip. These are Microsoft’s current requirements to run Windows 11, but that is subject to change.
Once you confirm you reach these prerequisites, you can visit Settings > Update & Security > Windows Insider Program to opt your PC into flight Insider Preview builds.
As rumors indicated, a floating and centered Start menu and centered taskbar are the two most noticeable new elements in Windows 11. They give Windows a drastic new feel, both ditching Live Tiles and adopting a more touch-friendly design. Instead of Live Tiles, you have standard icons that link to your apps and that you can “pin” for your convenience. Microsoft even recently tweaked the Windows 11 Start menu to bring back the search box.
Under your icons, you’ll find a list of recommended documents and files powered by OneDrive or the files you navigate to most on your device. This is one of the biggest changes to the Start menu since Windows 10 was introduced. All of these features are powered by Microsoft 365 and Microsoft’s cloud, but you should still see your local documents, too.
Other than the Start menu, rounded corners and menus throughout Windows 11 are also new, as is an Action Center with a redesigned look focusing more on cleaner sliders and rounded buttons. Microsoft even tweaked the windowing system in Windows 11 so that hovering over the maximize icon will show you new ways to split your apps for multitasking.
This is a feature known as Snap Layouts, where Windows 11 will remember the work that you are doing and save it to the taskbar as a group for quicker access. But even more than that, Microsoft tweaked the way Windows docks with monitors. Now, when you return to Windows 11 on the big screen, Windows will remember the layout of your apps and projects and keep it running as-is.
New animations, sounds, and widgets
Animations throughout Windows 11 have also been updated to look more smooth and feel more natural. This is best seen when you click on the Start menu itself or minimize and close windows. The animations look and feel fluid, not unlike what you see on mobile operating systems.
Like old-school Windows Vista, Windows 11 brings back a new “widgets” section. The widgets function a bit as the News and Interests feature in Windows 10. Click the widgets icon in the taskbar, and you’ll see things like the weather, top news stories, stocks, sports scores, and more.
Microsoft says widgets are powered by artificial intelligence (A.I.) serving you curated content. You can choose topics you want to stay up to date on, support local content creators by giving them a tip right in the feed, and also rearrange widgets however you want.
A new Microsoft Store with Android apps on Windows
Another big feature in Windows 11 is the new Microsoft Store. The Microsoft Store has gotten a big boost — in Windows 11, you’ll be able to run Android apps via the Amazon App Store.
There has been some controversy around this, however. With Google now mandating developers use the new Android App Bundle format and not the traditional APK, some worried this might impact the ability to run and sideload Android apps in Windows 11. Amazon recently eased worries and confirmed that it, too, will be supporting the new Android App Bundle format.
Anyway, this means Android apps will run natively without the need for a phone, and you can drag them around and pin them to your taskbar or Start menu. Microsoft showcased TikTok running in Windows 11, but it’s not clear when the feature will come to PCs just yet. Intel worked together with Microsoft on this through Intel’s bridge technology.
Other than Android apps in the store, Microsoft also mentioned some updates on the Windows side of things. You’ll be able to find Win32, UWP, and PWA apps in the store, including apps like Google Chrome. Disney+ and the Adobe Creative Cloud suites were also examples Microsoft mentioned.
Microsoft even took a shot at Apple. The company mentioned that apps on the Microsoft Store can have their own commerce engine where developers can take home all the revenue without Microsoft taking its own cut.
A new chat app powered by Teams
Want to chat? Skype is now on its way out, and in Windows 11, Microsoft is going all-in on Teams. The operating system has a new Chat app. With it, you’ll be able to tap the icon and jump right into chat and video calls with Teams. When you click on it, you will see your recent contacts and conversations.
There are options to start a new video or chat, along with an option to launch the app for the full experience. This chat app will even allow you to connect with people on other platforms. According to Microsoft, if the person you’re chatting with didn’t use Teams, you can connect via two-way SMS.
Faster and more secure
Though Microsoft didn’t share specifics, there are some performance improvements in Windows 11. The company noted that Windows updates are 40% smaller and now install in the background. Microsoft’s Panos Panay also mentioned that Windows 11 is “the most secure Windows yet.”
That’s thanks to Windows Hello being faster and features like Wake From Sleep. Even battery life is improved, as Windows 11 systems now use less energy, according to Panay.
There are also changes to the touch experience in Windows 11. The dedicated tablet mode from Windows 10 is now gone entirely, and Microsoft has replaced it with gestures and other features.
This means you should notice that icons and boxes are easier to touch with fingers. That’s along with more clear window animations to show where things are moving. The touch keyboard has also been improved, so you can swipe with it using your fingers and use the spacebar as a trackpad. As for the gestures, you can use three or four fingers to swipe up and down on Windows to minimize and close windows. Microsoft even added haptics to the tablet mode. When using a pen, you’ll feel vibrations and hear more sounds as you edit or sketch.
Included in that is auto HDR, which will update the color and look of games to make them look more lifelike. No changes are required on your end or by developers, and it will all be automatic in games like Skyrim. Also included is Direct Storage. With this feature, which is the same as on Xbox Series X and S, games will load from the graphics card without stressing the computer’s processor. It should mean faster load times.
And in terms of game selection, Microsoft is going beyond the Microsoft Store. An update to the Xbox Game App later this year will bring Xbox Cloud Gaming to Windows 11 PCs via streaming over the internet to take on services like Google Stadia and Apple Arcade.