We’ve Tested Windows 11 Ahead of Next Week’s Launch

On June 24, Microsoft will unveil its latest version of Windows, Windows 11. We spent some time with the OS today after a copy leaked online. The upgrade function didn’t work properly on our testbed and the system itself failed to recognize the OS image when we installed it on a bootable drive (both USB and not). Fortunately, VMWare Workstation Pro 16 can virtualize a TPM 2.0 module, provided you have one in your system. This specific OS image requires it. It took a few hours to get things squared away, but the eventual result was this desktop:

The image dates to very late May, making it fairly recent. We don’t know when Microsoft will release Windows 11 to manufacturers for system shipments, but nothing about the installation implied the release was less than final. That doesn’t mean it isn’t, however, so take what you see with a grain of salt.

I want to be clear about something upfront: This is not a review. We have not been briefed on Windows 11 or heard Microsoft discuss its features. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a few thoughts about what there is to see, but this is no kind of final word on the end product.

The first part of the Setup process is identical to Windows 10. Once the initial formatting and copying of data is complete, however, the menus and message presentation changes. It’s easily the friendliest-looking installer Microsoft has ever built.

As always, Microsoft attempts to shove you into creating a non-local account. If you don’t have internet connected, there’s still an option to avoid the non-local account default. We don’t know yet if Microsoft is hiding the option if you boot with internet connected. It has done so in the past with Windows 10, though it later updated the installer to remove this customer-hostile feature. Here’s hoping it stays gone.

The new Start menu looks like this when you boot up.

It is easy to move the Start menu back to the left-hand side of the screen if you dislike the look of a centered option. I dislike it on sight, but I’m willing to hear what Microsoft’s rationale is for centering things. After 20+ years of the Windows key serving as the effective lower-left-hand boundary of the machine, I’m in no hurry to move it.

Speaking of the Start menu, once it populates up with applications, it looks like this:

There’s one thing I don’t like about the new Start Menu: I couldn’t find a way to force it to skip the pinned applications and show the default alphabetical list automatically. While you can click on the “All apps” button seen in the image, the selection doesn’t stick. The system returns to the “Pinned” default as soon as you close and re-open the menu. There may be an option to change this behavior; I did not spend a great deal of time searching.

There’s a new startup sound as well. Our testbed wouldn’t play it — audio pass-through didn’t seem to be working, for whatever reason — but you can hear it below:

I significantly prefer the Windows 10 Start Menu after you’ve removed all the pins from it. I don’t think using the old-fashioned Start Menu as opposed to pinning things is necessarily faster. It depends on questions such as, “Are you quicker at finding icons than you are at typing the name of an application?” I prefer the old, narrow Start Menu because I dislike pop-overs that cover my primary display and prefer menus that do as little of it as possible.

Unfortunately, removing all the pins from Windows 11 in a similar fashion just leaves a block of empty space.

This is a step backward from Windows 10. In Windows 10, the default Start Menu shrinks itself automatically to accommodate the end-user’s desire not to use pins. Windows 11 doesn’t keep this preferable behavior.  It could be that this behavior can be disabled, or the “All Apps” view made default, but Windows 10 handles the same scenario by flawlessly adjusting the size of the Start Menu. and it displays “All Apps” regardless. This suggests these changes are intentional.

Here’s some of the new icons and UI work Microsoft has done. I don’t care much about UI updates one way or the other, but I think the new icons are genuinely nice. They pop a bit more than the old ones did, which is useful for immediately identifying which folder you want to access out of the left-hand list.

One of the applications Microsoft suggests for installation (visible in the screenshot above) is Adobe Photoshop Express. It’s an interesting choice because Photoshop Express is typically a paid product; Windows 10 installations have not, as far as I’m aware, specifically shown that application as an install option at fresh boot before. It’s not clear if Microsoft has a deal with Adobe or if app suggestions are somewhat random. I’d vastly prefer Microsoft offer an offline application as a photo editor rather than pushing customers towards an application with an online login requirement. It’s not clear if Adobe is offering those features “free for a 30-day trial,” or actually “free.” The former seems more likely than the latter, but it’s possible Microsoft has some software announcements to make at this event. “Free Photoshop Elements with your free upgrade to Windows 11” seems an unlikely sales pitch, but it’s an interesting one.

Classic Control Panel-style menus continue to exist alongside the Settings page, unfortunately. Many existing Settings menus haven’t noticeably changed from Windows 10. The general privacy page is identical, as are the pages for Account Info, Camera, Email, Tasks, and Voice Activation. The general Clipboard settings page is the same. I didn’t perform a comprehensive search of the Settings menu to look for every potential change, but at least some sections of the Settings application are identical between Windows 10 and Windows 11.

There’s a new feature called Dashboard that displays news and information. The Verge calls this “Widgets,” but the default layout is more like another news feed. The old Vista widgets could incorporate a fair bit of functionality and it’s not clear if those capabilities are duplicated here. In any event, you’ve got news right on the desktop without needing to open Chrome, Firefox, or Edge. It only works if you have a Microsoft account (shown above). Once authenticated, the box looks like the screenshot below:

There’s no sign of the “News and weather” update Microsoft just shoved out to Windows 10 (which can thankfully be hidden), so either Microsoft decided it was a bad idea or it isn’t implemented in this version of Windows 11 yet.

This has been a visual inspection of what’s available in the OS because we don’t have a list of under-the-hood changes and running inside a VM doesn’t allow us to test for low-level changes to the scheduler the way running the OS natively would.

This Is Not a Review

Spending a few hours with Windows 11 in a VM isn’t the same thing as running it on native hardware or knowing which aspects to test, specifically, compared with Windows 10. For the most part, it feels exactly like running Windows. The weird centered Start Menu takes seconds to change. At the moment, my impression of things is pretty positive. It’s still possible that Microsoft has made many low-level changes. There’s precedent for this: Windows XP SP2 was a major overhaul of Windows XP, with a great many security fixes and changes under the hood. Microsoft may have updated a lot of the underpinnings of Windows and we’ll have to wait until June 24 to hear about them.

The Windows 11 logo. It’s the Windows 10 logo, but from a different angle. If you’re going to change it this little, while change it at all?

Given what we’ve been hearing about a dramatic new redesign for Windows, one wonders if “Windows 11” isn’t what Microsoft decided to call Windows 10X after that OS pivoted to address “single screen products.” Back in May, I wrote about how Microsoft’s inability to launch a product without the name “Windows” on it has hampered the company’s ability to move into new markets. It sounds like the company killed the specialized Windows 10X and wrapped its GUI around a Windows update. Toss in some new features and capabilities, a few quality of life upgrades, and voila: the next version of Windows.

I haven’t seen anything interesting enough to justify calling this “Windows 11” — not yet — but given that Microsoft is likely to make the update free, there’s not much reason to complain at the company’s decision to introduce a bigger number. What customers will care about is whether the update from 10 to 11 goes smoothly. Nail that, and the rest falls into place. And it’s possible Microsoft has a lot of interesting details on new low-level capabilities like Alder Lake support and better high core count scaling coming on June 24.

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