Microsoft wanted everyone to use Windows 10.
Faced with slow adoption of Windows 8 and the stubborn popularity of Windows 7, Microsoft made Windows 10 a free upgrade for anyone using either version—the offer technically expired years ago, but to this day, old Windows 7 and 8 product keys still activate Windows 10 without protest. The OS was billed as a return to form that would appeal to people put off by Windows 8’s divisive touchscreen-oriented interface while still retaining touch-friendly features for people who had bought a PC tablet or a laptop with a touchscreen.
Windows 10 would be long-lived, too. Some in the company billed it as “the last version of Windows”—one big, stable platform that would simultaneously placate change-averse users, huge IT shops that would have kept using Windows XP forever if they had been allowed to, and software developers who would no longer need to worry about supporting multiple wildly different generations of Windows at once. Windows could still change, but a new twice-a-year servicing model would keep that change coming at a slow-but-consistent pace that everyone could keep up with.
Microsoft actually accomplished its main goal with Windows 10: by any measure, it is the most widespread and most universally accepted version of Windows since XP. Statcounter says that nearly 80 percent of all Windows systems worldwide run Windows 10; the Steam Hardware survey pegs Windows 10 usage at or above 90 percent, suggesting an even greater level of acceptance among enthusiasts.
Those top-line numbers do require some context. Microsoft has put out a dozen-ish distinct releases that are all called Windows 10, and the newest version of Windows 10 is at least as different from the version that launched in 2015 as (say) Windows 7 was from Windows Vista. But in theory, nearly every computer with Windows 10 installed will eventually be updated to the newest version, and that gives Microsoft a larger and more consistent platform than it has had in a very long time.
The problem for Microsoft is that achieving one goal—the same version of Windows running on almost all PCs—hasn’t necessarily had the results that Microsoft was hoping for. Make Windows 10 big enough, the thinking went, and developers would be more willing to migrate from their old Win32 apps to newer Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps and easy distribution through the Microsoft Store. And since UWP apps would be able to run not just on PCs but also on Xbox and Windows Phone, speedy Windows 10 adoption in the Windows-dominated PC industry would kick off a virtuous cycle that would bolster Microsoft’s other hardware and software efforts.
That part never really happened. UWP apps never took off, and Microsoft’s new play to make the Microsoft Store relevant is to allow developers to submit whatever kinds of apps they want to it. The Xbox, while successful, remains narrowly focused on gaming and media-streaming. And Windows Phone is dead, murdered by a combination of user and developer disinterest driven by confusing messaging and baffling corporate neglect.
And that’s at least part of the reason why, after a release that treated widespread adoption as its primary goal, Microsoft is releasing a brand-new version of Windows that isn’t even supported on computers more than 3 or 4 years old. “Windows Everywhere” was ambitious, but the dream is dead. Microsoft has shifted its focus to providing solid versions of its apps on iOS and Android, and even Microsoft’s modern-day phones run a Microsoft-flavored version of Android rather than anything Windows-related. The new version of Windows is more preoccupied with the places where Windows already is and is likely to stay—risk-averse, money-rich, security-conscious businesses. There are plenty of user-facing changes, sure, but the PCs that run Windows 11 (at least officially) need to support a range of hardware- and firmware-level security mechanisms that are fully supported but optional in Windows 10.
(The more cynical take is that the new requirements are meant to drive new PC sales, an interpretation made all the more nefarious by ongoing pandemic-driven PC part shortages and price increases. I personally find Microsoft’s security rationale compelling, but there’s not no evidence to support this more nefarious read of the company’s intentions.)
We’ll focus on those security features and system requirements in this review while also covering the new design and the broad strokes of new and updated apps and the other changes Microsoft has made to Windows under the hood. We’re also planning separate coverage about a few specific areas of the operating system, including gaming, new Linux subsystem features, and how it runs on older “unsupported” hardware; we’ll link those pieces here as they go live.
Table of Contents
- New system requirements
- UEFI Secure Boot
- TPM 2.0
- A “compatible” processor
- The hardware I used
- A free upgrade (or downgrade)
- Windows-as-a-service lives on
- A new look
- More consistency, but still haunted by the past
- A new sound
- A redesigned user interface: Taskbar
- Start menu
- System tray and notifications
- Touch and ink changes
- Windows Explorer
- Context menus
- Snap Layouts and a smarter Snap for portrait mode
- Other window-management tweaks
- App highlights
- Microsoft Teams, now built in
- Microsoft Store
- Clock and “focus sessions”
- Snipping Tool
- Under construction
- Grab bag
- Microphone-usage indicator
- Smaller disk footprint and smaller updates
- 64-bit x86 emulation on ARM
- Terminal replaces Powershell
- Improved voice dictation
- Selecting a default browser is more annoying (sometimes)
- Android apps aren’t here yet
- RIP 32-bit Windows (1993-2021)
- App removals
- A good, if rough, new Windows with a PR problem
- The good
- The bad
- The ugly