TPM Trouble: Which PC Enthusiasts Are Allowed to Upgrade to Windows 11?
Microsoft unveiled Windows 11 on Thursday, but it didn’t answer a lot of low-level questions about the operating system or why it changed the minimum system requirements. Said requirements are trivial except for one thing: Windows 11 requires TPM 2.0 support — unless it requires TPM 1.2 instead. The company has officially disclosed two different statements on that subject.
According to the Windows 11 minimum specifications, PCs running Windows 11 must have a TPM 2.0 module installed.
According to CRN, however, Microsoft has said that TPM 1.2 is a “hard floor” for installing Windows 11, while TPM 2.0 is a “soft floor.” Supporting TPM 1.2 instead of requiring 2.0 will improve the situation (if it’s true), but the vast majority of enthusiast systems do not have a physical TPM module. The capability is often disabled in firmware by default. On the OEM side of things, new systems have been required to offer TPM support since 2016.
Physical TPM modules can be purchased for various motherboards for $15 to $50 and there are a number of boards that support the capability in firmware. But enthusiast systems built before TPM support was common may find themselves SOL. There are a lot more 10-year-old systems still serving as gaming PCs than there used to be. Back in 2019, Anandtech compared the performance of a Core i7-2600K against CPUs like the Core i7-9700K to see what the performance delta would be.
The newer Intel CPUs are much faster at 720p, but the gaps shrink as resolution rises. By 1440p, the 9700K is just 1.19x faster than the 2600K. At 4K, it’s five percent faster.
There are plenty of reasons a Sandy Bridge owner might want to upgrade off a 10-year-old system, but that doesn’t change the fact that the CPU inside such a PC is GPU-limited at high resolutions. The number of gamers running more than four cores rose significantly in the past year, but 52 percent of the systems surveyed in the Steam Hardware Survey are dual-core or quad-core.
Enthusiasts running older hardware are not the only group of people affected by this problem, however. Anyone who bought or built a motherboard without TPM enabled will have to go through the process of enabling it. Some people will inevitably wind up buying a physical TPM 2.0 module whether it’s strictly required or not. The entire issue is confused right now, and Microsoft releasing two different statements regarding whether TPM 2.0 is required did not help.
There’s going to be a lot of confusion over which PCs support Windows 11 and which PCs need UEFI updates/reconfigurations to do so. In theory, Microsoft’s just-released PC Health Check utility could help people identify their motherboard make and model, or offer some generic instructions on how to open a PC to install a TPM chip.
The initial screen is promising enough:
The response is not.
The PC Health Check gives no information on why your system failed or what you need to fix to remedy it. TPM support isn’t even mentioned. Microsoft’s PC Health Check is incapable of identifying the most common reason why an end-user with an otherwise-fast PC won’t be able to install Windows 11.
Microsoft’s Windows 11 launch event didn’t include a discussion on which PCs would and would not be eligible for Windows 11 on the basis of TPM 1.2/2.0 support, and it didn’t mention that enthusiasts running on older hardware could wind up stuck on Windows 10 unless they buy new equipment during a historic CPU and GPU shortage.
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On June 16, I wrote: “What customers will care about is whether the update from 10 to 11 goes smoothly. Nail that, and the rest falls into place.”
The update from Windows 10 to Windows 11 is not going to go smoothly for a significant number of people. Microsoft needs to confront this issue directly and clarify which TPM standard is required and how end-users with motherboards that lack a TPM module header and/or don’t support the feature in firmware are supposed to install Windows 11. If the answer to that question is “Those users don’t get to run Windows 11,” Microsoft needs to say it and explain it with more nuance and depth than it used in the screenshot above.
I am hopeful that Microsoft has a plan to allow PC enthusiasts and retail channel users without TPM support to upgrade to Windows 11. There’s actually a fair bit of technical data the company didn’t share today. But I will not recommend that end-users with older hardware they are otherwise happy with replace it merely to satisfy the security requirements of a new version of Windows. I will not recommend that end-users who are not comfortable installing hardware or tweaking UEFI settings attempt to do so.
If Microsoft wants to tie Windows 11 to certain security features like TPM 1.2/2.0, even in the retail channel, it has every right to do so. It still needs to explain that situation far better than it has, preferably with a software tool that provides some kind of useful information on why your PC can’t upgrade to Windows 11 and what could possibly be done to change that. And it needs to work with motherboard manufacturers to make certain updates are pushed to enable TPM 1.2 / 2.o where possible, including on boards that would normally be too old for updates.
By making such an important change and providing no real information about it, Microsoft has guaranteed discussion of Windows 11 will largely revolve around who can run it as opposed to discussing the merits and capabilities of the OS. The company could not have sabotaged its launch more effectively if it had tried.
Update (10:50 AM): Added a note to clarify that this issue is specific to retail channel PCs and older systems. Since 2016, OEM-shipped systems have been required to support TPM, even if they do not enable it.