Windows 11 road test

PAT PILCHER spent some valuable time with Windows 11 and shares with you, our dear reader, the pros and cons.

Windows 11 review
Windows 11 boot screen

 

Now that the Windows 11 preview has finally hit the Windows Insiders programme, it was time that the good Witchdoctor gave it the once over. Users traumatised by Windows 8 might be nervous. They could also be forgiven for thinking Windows 11 is a mere theme pack upgrade (it isn’t). The news with Windows 11 is mostly positive. In fact, having spent a week or two with it, I’m quietly impressed with both its look and features.

If you want to try Windows 11 out for yourself, getting hold of the insider’s preview copy is a complete doddle. Just join the Windows Insider program and search for it via the Windows start menu or the web. Before you do anything, you’ll need to use the PC Health Check app to make sure your PC can run Windows 11. Once all that is done, the Windows Insider preview version of Windows 11 will download via Windows update. A full version of Windows 11 will be available as a free upgrade from Windows 10 later this year.

The big news with Windows 11 over its older sibling is that its look and feel has changed for the better. Although I sometimes found myself momentarily baffled attempting specific chores in Windows 11, its shiny clean interface soon became second nature. The learning curve isn’t terribly steep.

Thanks to the wonders of Gigabit fibre, downloading and installing the preview copy took around 8-15 minutes plus a reboot. The setup felt seamless, even though this was a preview build, which means it should be a little rough around the edges. So far, I’ve not experienced the new Black Screen of Dead (Microsoft must have a sense of humour as the BSOD acronym still works).

The overall look and feel of Windows 11 seems a lot more grown-up and far less cartoony. It’s almost as if Microsoft took all the good bits from IOS and Chrome OS and added a sachet of Microsoft flavouring. Even the start-up sound for Windows 11 is a lot less jarring, being a soft, almost pleasant chime.

The most noticeable change upon flicking past the lock screen is the cantered start button, along with my most frequently used apps on the taskbar. Visually, the start menu feels a lot less cluttered and crisp. Those clunky live tiles that I’d long ignored are gone burgers. Thank goodness.

Windows 11 review
Windows 11 Start Menu

If the thought of a centred start button gives you hives, don’t panic. It can be moved back to the left for a more classic Windows look. There were also a few absences, which isn’t terribly surprising given the preview is a beta build. Cortana has been given the boot by the Windows Search applet. Personally, I think this makes a boatload more sense given how often I’ve used Cortana (hardly ever) and the search function (several times daily). A few other Windows 11 headline features (such as the ability to run Android apps, the Amazon store and so on) were also not present in the preview build.

As with any new OS, the first menu I always visit is the Settings menu. It’s been given a much-needed visual overhaul. The index view of applications now shows your PC at the top and your OneDrive, updates, and Office status. While its functionality is like its Windows 10 counterpart, there are lots of visual improvements. Navigating settings now feels more intuitive, thanks to a massively decluttered vertical list of settings options. Each option comes with a brief explanation, which is great news for anyone new to Windows.

Windows 11 review
Windows 11 Settings

Another change I like is Windows 11’s Personalisation options. As with Windows 10, right-clicking your desktop brings up an options menu to tweak Windows look and feel. The personalisation options available in the preview build don’t offer much that is different to Windows 10 (there are only six theme choices in the preview). After opting for a darker theme, my PC switched dark mode, which saw windows being less dazzling on the eyes. For notebook PCs with OLED displays, this should help increase battery life.

Like Windows 10, the lower right-hand screen corner houses the Notification Centre. Notifications still appear at the right-hand bottom of your screen. They’re now cards that are vertically stacked where they’re less likely to interfere with your workflow. A small calendar widget also appears. It should, in theory, sync with an Outlook account. Clicking the small battery icon also brings up the quick settings menu.

The File Explorer layout has changed – for the better, although some changes were initially confusing. Atop the File Explorer window sits a pile of quick shortcuts to often used file locations. This is a great idea as it can save a lot of farting about. The one aspect I found confusing was the new button. Instead of giving you the option of opening a new File Explorer window, it simply allows you to create a new folder, document and so on. Not a biggie, but it’s an annoyance.

One of the quirkier aspects of Windows 11 is its Widgets. These slide out from the left-hand side of the screen once you click the Widgets button on the taskbar. Confusingly, you’ll have to enable Widgets first. While it’s early days and the preview widget selection is limited, the slide-out window is big and obscures desktop real estate. I can’t help but think that desktop widgets rather than a clunky slide out window would have been a less irritating option. Making matters worse, the current selection of widgets in the preview build adds little that is useful. The bulk of the optional widgets consist of little more than low-rent news I can already get elsewhere. Here’s hoping Microsoft and developers bolster the selection of widgets with more useful options with the retail Windows 11 release.

While widgets were an irritation, I found Windows 11’s Snap and multi-screen handling brilliant. Windows 11 can remember what windows are where and save it to the taskbar for quick future access. Hovering your mouse over the maximise button on the top right of any open window allows you to choose various “zones” on your PC’s desktop for windows to snap to. You can also create nifty Snap group layouts by snapping together two or more app windows. For frequent tasks requiring drag and drop, Snap makes a tonne of sense, saving you a pile of time. If you use a multi-monitor setup at the office but also take your laptop home, chances are that you’ll like how Windows 11 works with displays. It can remember the layout of your screens and default back to it when it detects you’re running multiple screens.

Microsoft has also revamped the Microsoft Store app. It appears to have taken a lot of inspiration from the Xbox app store. It now has a left-hand navigation pane and feels a lot more spacious, being far less cramped. Finding and learning more about an app before you purchase also seems a lot easier. As I was testing the preview build, Android apps from Amazon were not available. Assuming Microsoft can navigate Google’s recent decision to move away from the APK format, it should be a compelling feature. Running Android apps should allow users to pin Android apps to the taskbar and Start Menu, cut and paste and share data. The other big news with the Microsoft app store is that all apps can have their own commerce engine. This allows developers to take home all revenues without Microsoft taking a cut. Wonder how Apple and Google Will react? Microsoft is hoping it’ll inject new life into the app store by appealing to developers, resulting in even more apps being available in the store.

There’s also a pile of other, less obvious but useful Windows 11 tweaks. Microsoft has thankfully decided to kill the burning train-wreck that was Skype, replacing it with the more intuitive and reliable Microsoft Teams based chat app. Again, this isn’t in the Windows 11 preview build, so we’ll have to wait and see how it works.

Another less obvious but bound to be appreciated tweak is what Microsoft calls “Dynamic Refresh Rate”. It isn’t for gamers but is instead intended for making inking with a stylus seem a lot smoother. Windows will automatically increase the display refresh rate if it detects you’re drawing. Gamers also stand to benefit. Auto HDR can change up the look and feel of games. According to Microsoft, it’ll work automatically. Windows 11 also uses Direct Storage, just like the Xbox Series X and S. With it, games load using the GPU, freeing up CPU cycles and resulting in faster load times. Microsoft also said that a future update to the Xbox Game App will bring Xbox Cloud Gaming to Windows 11. Sadly, this isn’t likely to be available in New Zealand any time soon (why Microsoft, why?)

All told, Windows 11 is shaping up to be the best looking and most intuitive version of Windows yet. The cartoony icons and garish colour schemes of previous Windows versions are gone. Windows looks all grown up and ready for business.

 

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