Microsoft officially released Windows 11 in October 2021, and anyone with a compatible laptop or PC can upgrade now. Here’s all you need to know about the new OS
Windows 11? At the beginning of 2021, the likelihood of Microsoft releasing a successor to Windows 10 anytime soon seemed extremely low. That remained the case until late May, when CEO Satya Nadella began openly discussing “the next generation of Windows”.
Speculation surrounding a potential ‘Windows 11’ soon went into overdrive, especially once Microsoft announced an event for 24 June. An preview version leaked ahead of the official reveal, but Microsoft still had a few surprises up its sleeve.
Early builds became available to members of the Windows Insider Program soon after, before Microsoft finally confirmed an initial release date – 5 October 2021.
As the company explained in an official blog post, the update hasn’t been delivered to all eligible devices straight away. Microsoft has throttled up availability in order to manage demand, with newer hardware prioritised. However, there’s an easy way for all compatible devices to get Windows 11 right now.
What’s Windows 11 like?
Clearly wanting to avoid upsetting millions by making radical changes (as it ultimately did with Windows 8), Microsoft has kept the same basic layout, albeit with a significant redesign. You’ll also find rounded corners everywhere you look and a new centrally positioned Start Menu, although you can return the latter to the side if you’d prefer.
There’s a new widgets panel which can show the weather, stocks, news and other things – seemingly replacing the old Start Menu’s live tiles – and improved grouping and snapping of open Windows so you can focus more easily on what you’re trying to do.
Windows 11 on tablets is much improved thanks to the introduction of gestures and a new on-screen keyboard that much more similar to the one on your phone. You can even install and use Android apps via the Amazon Appstore, but that’s only beginning to be rolled out.
But while there are lots of visual changes, Windows 11 should be an easy transition from Windows 10 for most people.
When did Windows 11 come out?
- Initial release date: 5 October 2021
- Free upgrade for all eligible Windows 10 PCs soon
- Insider Preview Builds and ISO files can be downloaded now
As Microsoft confirmed a month earlier, Windows 11 was officially released on 5 October 2021.
However, really the date that OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) can begin to release Windows 11 hardware. The blog post stated that ‘in-market devices’ which are eligible for the upgrade will be offered it later as part of a phased and measured approach.
In an official tweet just after the initial launch, the Windows Twitter account appeared to confirm that Windows 10 users be waiting until 2022 for the free upgrade:
However, an official blog post from January 2022 confirmed that this was ahead of schedule. Given Windows 11 entered “its final phase of availability” at this time, all compatible devices should receive the update soon.
You don’t have to wait until it’s delivered to your laptop or PC, though. If you’re happy to install it manually, a final version is available to download from the Microsoft website. Learn more in our separate guide – how to download Windows 11 now. This ISO file is also the way to go if you want to install it using a USB.
How much will Windows 11 cost?
- Free for eligible PCs
- New hardware pricing dependent on manufacturer
Pricing was always likely to be one of the big questions, but the good news is that it is free for eligible PCs. This will continue indefinitely, potentially for the duration of Windows 11’s lifespan.
However, it’s not as simple as all Windows 10 devices getting Windows 11 – as is explained below, Microsoft has updated the hardware requirements for its new OS.
Naturally, upgrading from Windows 10 won’t be the only way to get Windows 11. Once it launches, new laptops and PCs will be running the operating system out of the box, negating the need to buy a license separately. It’s impossible to say how each company will price their hardware, but expect it to be similar to the equivalent Windows 10 devices.
It’s worth noting that the free upgrade will be to the same version of Windows as you used on Windows 10. If you’re looking to upgrade from Windows 10 Home to Windows 11 Pro, for example, it’s best to get Windows 10 Pro first. It’s available from the Microsoft website for £219.99/$199.99.
Wasn’t Windows 10 the ‘last ever’ version of Windows?
That’s what Microsoft said when it announced Windows 10, yes. But apparently it changed its mind about that. The company could have rolled out these changes in a Windows 10 update, but it chose not to refer back to this statement during the launch event and might be hoping its customers have short memories.
Indeed, after spending a few weeks with Windows 11, it’s clear not much has really changed.
Will my current PC / laptop run Windows 11?
Microsoft has published a list of minimum hardware requirements:
- 1GHz dual-core processor
- 4GB RAM
- 64GB of storage
- UEFI, Secure Boot capable
- Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 2.0
- Graphics card compatible with DirectX 12
- Display larger than 9in with 720p or higher resolution
- Microsoft account + internet connection
Not sure if your device is compatible? Microsoft has released an updated version of its ‘PC Health Check’ app, designed to help you do just that. It’s available to download from the bottom of the main Windows 11 page.
For more information, check out our separate guide: Will my PC run Windows 11?
Microsoft doesn’t encourage it, but there is still a way to install Windows 11 on unsupported PCs.
Windows 11 trailers
There are two key trailers for Windows 11 that are worth watching. First up, the official introduction video from 24 June:
Then, from 9 September, a shorter advert-style trailer. You may have seen a version broadcast on TV:
What new features does Windows 11 have?
There are too many to go into lots of detail here, but here are the main ones you need to know about.
First, there’s a significant visual overhaul. Windows 10 has maintained a similar look and feel throughout its lifespan, but that’s about to change with Windows 11.
A new taskbar moves icons to the centre, although this can easily be reverted to a more traditional layout. What can’t be changed is some of the functionality Microsoft removed compared to the Windows 10 version, but Microsoft is taking steps to rectify this. The February 2022 update will mean the time and date shows across all external screens, while drag-and-drop is expected to return in the 22H2 feature update.
However, there are no signs of other removed features making a reappearance. The Windows 11 taskbar is still lacking in some customisation features compared to the Windows 10 version.
The brand-new Start Menu isn’t necessarily lacking, although its brand-new design certainly isn’t for everyone. In fact, this aesthetic is similar to what Microsoft teased for the now-cancelled Windows 10X. Here’s what it looks like with dark mode enabled:
It features a grid of customisable ‘Pinned’ icons, with separate ‘All apps’ section for everything else you have installed. The ‘Recommended’ heading below displays recently used files, apps and folders – including from cloud services such as OneDrive and Microsoft 365 – enabling you to quickly pick up where you left off, even if you last used a different device.
However, many people have been disappointed by this, especially the lack of customisation ability. However, Microsoft has since added the ability to choose the split between Pinned and Recommended sections.
One new feature that has gone down well is the new Snap Layouts multitasking functionality. Hovering over the maximise button allows you to choose the arrangement of apps on the screen, as you can see below.
Widgets haven’t been a major feature of recent versions of Windows, but that’s changed now. The panel slides in from the left, but can be customised to fill the whole screen if you’d prefer. It’s designed for quick glances at important information without distracting you from what you were doing before you opened it.
Teams and chat are integrated into Windows 11, with future updates allowing you to share windows and toggle mute directly from the taskbar.
The Teams integration now extends to the Edge browser. It means individual tabs now show up within Task Manager, with GPU and crashpad data shown too. Tabs on the taskbar will also include the site, icon and topic name, although this is replaced by a generic icon during private browsing sessions.
Many stock apps have been redesigned, including File Explorer and the Microsoft Store. The latter includes Android app support via the Amazon Appstore, but you can also use the Epic Games Store if you’d prefer. There’s no indication the Google Play Store will be added to Windows 11, but a workaround allows you to do just that.
If you’d rather stick to official services, Google is also working on a dedicated Play Store Games app. This is expected to be compatible with Windows 11 and Windows 10 and released sometime in 2022.
The stock Photos app has also been redesigned, as is shown by Microsoft’s Panos Panay below:
Windows 11 also has a brand-new Action Center, splitting Quick Settings, Notifications and a music controller into separate sections. Its design is inspired by Windows 10X, making it easy to navigate using touchpad, mouse, pen or finger.
Windows 11 also has new Snipping Tool. It replaces Windows 10’s Snip & Sketch, but offers a lot more functionality than the legacy Snipping Tool found on earlier iterations of Windows.
Plenty of stock apps have also been redesigned to be more in keeping with Windows 11’s new design. They include Calculator, Clock, Notepad, Media Player and File Explorer.
Windows 11 also has a brand new startup sound. Check out the five-second clip below:
This has been designed to be in keeping with the rest of the Windows 11 UI. It supports both light and dark modes, with the same sliders appearing when changing brightness via the keyboard shortcuts. Other notable changes in this update include a new in-progress call window for the Your Phone companion app, more on-screen keyboard themes and the ability to uninstall the clock.
There are also a range of stunning new wallpapers to choose from, and you can choose from a variety of preset themes or choose your own.
Windows updates are now 40% smaller and are applied in the background, so shouldn’t interrupt your work – or play. Windows 11 is also more efficient, which means it uses less power which means your laptop should last longer.
You should have no concerns when it comes to buying a Windows 10 laptop or PC now, provided it’s compatible with Windows 11.
Upcoming Windows 11 features
Moving forward, Windows 11 is shifting to annual feature updates, but several new features are expected to arrive long before October 2022.
Independently of feature updates, Microsoft has confirmed that Windows 11 will be getting its first big update in February 2022. Confirmed features include redesigned Notepad and Media Player apps, new taskbar functionality and a public preview of native Android app support.
The latter has been available to members of the Windows Insider Program since October, but this is the first time the feature will be widely available. You’re officially limited to the Amazon Appstore, but a workaround means you can install the Google Play Store too.
As Windows Central reports, several new features could be on the way later in the year, potentially as part of the 22H2 update. These will supposedly be as follows, with all new functionality available to Insider soon:
- App folders in Start
- Drag and drop on Taskbar
- Quick Settings / Notification Center improvements
- Pinned files in File Explorer
- Acrylic title bars – that’s something Windows Latest is also reporting
- Snap Bar snapping
- UX Gestures for Start/Quick Settings using touch
- New live captions feature
A February 2022 Insider build had several features disabled, suggesting they may be added in a future update. These include the ability to hide the taskbar when using Windows 11 as a tablet, a new sustainability mode within Settings and stickers that can be pinned to the desktop wallpaper. Focus Assist will supposedly be known simply as ‘Focus’ and get a couple of new features, while Priority notification sessions will be easier to access.
It would be nice to see the option for Widgets to be pinned to the desktop, but support for third-party apps here could be even better. That’s what FireCube on Twitter suggested in January 2022, based on screenshots from the Microsoft Store:
An earlier Windows Latest article discusses a taskbar feature that may not arrive in February. The Microsoft Teams integration has received mixed reviews, but it will supposedly also apply to the Edge browser soon. It means individual tabs now show up within Task Manager, with GPU and crashpad data shown too. Tabs on the taskbar will also include the site, icon and topic name, although this is replaced by a generic icon during private browsing sessions.
The Task Manager is also expected to get an Eco mode soon. The same article suggests this will be used to allocate more resources to specific apps by setting the priority of others to ‘low’. This stops resource-intensive apps from consuming too much of the CPU or GPU power, and it’s expected sometime around the start of 2022.
Elsewhere, the eagerly anticipated Dynamic Refresh Rate (DRR) feature looks to be on its way soon. As Windows Central reports, Intel’s latest generic drivers now include the option within settings, allowing the display to automatically adjust between 60Hz and 120Hz depending on what you’re doing. This can help conserve battery life when a high refresh rate isn’t required.
Judging by a recent tweet from The Verge’s Tom Warren, the release of the Dynamic Refresh Rate feature could be imminent:
However, the expected requirement of a high refresh rate display which is rated to work with DRR drivers means most Windows 11 devices won’t be able to benefit – even many 120Hz panels aren’t compatible. Among those that do work are Microsoft’s own Surface Pro 8 and Surface Laptop Studio.
It’s not clear if we’ll have to wait until Windows 11’s first feature update to see all these features- that’s expected in 2022, potentially as soon as July.