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We tested Windows 11 ahead of next week’s launch

On June 24, Microsoft will unveil the latest version of Windows, Windows 11. We spent some time on the operating system today after a copy leaked online. The upgrade function did not work properly on our test bed, 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 the system. This specific OS image requires it. It took a few hours to get things in square, but the end result was this desktop:

The picture is dated to very late May, which makes it quite recent. We do not know when Microsoft will release Windows 11 to system shipment manufacturers, but nothing about the installation suggested that the release was less than final. However, that does not mean it is not, so take what you see with a grain of salt.

I want to be clear on something in advance: This is not a review. We have not been informed about Windows 11 or heard Microsoft discuss the features. That does not mean that I have no idea what it is to see, but this is not the last word on the end product.

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

As always, Microsoft tries to push you to create a non-local account. If you do not have an internet connection, there is still an option to avoid the default account that is not local. We do not yet know if Microsoft hides the option if you start with an internet connection. It has done so in the past with Windows 10, although it later updated its installer to remove this hostile feature. Here it hopes to stay away.

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

It’s easy to move the Start menu back to the left of the screen if you don’t like the look of a centered option. I do not like it, but I’m willing to hear what Microsoft’s rationale is for centering things. After 20+ years with the Windows key that acts as the machine’s effective lower left limit, I’m in no hurry to move it.

When we talk about the Start menu, it looks like this when it is filled with applications:

There’s one thing I do not like about the new Start menu: I could not find a way to force it to skip the attached applications and display the default alphabetical list automatically. While you can click the “All Apps” button shown in the image, the selection does not hold. The system returns to the “Pinned” standard as soon as you close and reopen the menu. It may be an option to change this behavior; I did not spend much time looking.

There is also a new boot sound. Our test bed would not play it – audio implementation did not seem to work, for whatever reason – but you can hear it below:

I significantly prefer the Windows 10 Start menu after removing all the pins from it. I do not think using the old-fashioned Start menu as opposed to fixing things is necessarily faster. It depends on questions such as: “Are you faster at finding icons than entering the name of an application?” I prefer the old, narrow Start menu because I do not like pop-overs that cover my primary screen and prefer menus that do as little of it as possible.

Unfortunately, leaving all the tabs from Windows 11 in a similar way leaves only a block of empty space.

This is a step back from Windows 10. In Windows 10, the default Start menu automatically shrinks to accommodate the end user’s desire not to use pins. Windows 11 does not support this preferred behavior. This behavior may be disabled, or the “All Apps” view is the default, but Windows 10 handles the same scenario by seamlessly adjusting the size of the Start menu. and it shows “All Apps” anyway. This suggests that these changes are intentional.

Here are some of the new icons and user interface work Microsoft has done. I do not care much about UI updates in any way, but I think the new icons are really nice. They pop up a little more than the old ones did, which is useful for instantly identifying which folder you want to access from the left list.

One of the programs Microsoft proposes for installation (visible in the screenshot above) is Adobe Photoshop Express. This is an interesting choice because Photoshop Express is usually a paid product; Windows 10 installations have not, as far as I know, specifically shown that the application as a reboot installation option before. It is not clear if Microsoft has an agreement with Adobe, or if app suggestions are somewhat random. I strongly prefer that Microsoft offers an offline photo editing application instead of pushing customers towards an application with online login requirements. It is not clear whether Adobe offers these features “for free for a 30-day trial”, or in fact “for free”. The former seems more likely than the latter, but it is possible Microsoft has some software announcements to make at this event. “Free Photoshop Items with Your Free Upgrade to Windows 11” seems like an unlikely sale, but it’s interesting.

Classic control panel-style menus continue to exist next to the Settings page, unfortunately. Many existing settings menus are not 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 settings page for the clipboard is the same. I did not perform an extensive search in the Settings menu to look for any potential changes, but at least some parts of the settings program are identical between Windows 10 and Windows 11.

There is a new feature called Dashboard that shows news and information. The Verge calls this “Widgets”, but the default layout is more like another news feed. The old Vista modules may contain a good deal of functionality, and it is not clear if these features are duplicated here. In any case, you have news on your desktop without having to open Chrome, Firefox or Edge. It only works if you have a Microsoft account (shown above). Once authenticated, the box looks like the screen below:

There’s no sign of “News and Weather” update Microsoft just pushed out to Windows 10 (which luckily can be hidden), so either Microsoft decided it was a bad idea, or it is not implemented in this version of Windows 11 yet.

This has been a visual inspection of what is available in the operating system because we do not have a list of changes under the hood, and running inside a virtual machine does not allow us to test for changes in the low-level scheduler as it runs the OS originally wanted.

This is not a review

Spending a few hours with Windows 11 on a virtual machine is not the same as running it on native hardware or knowing what aspects to test, specifically compared to Windows 10. For the most part, it feels just like running Windows. The weird centered Start menu takes seconds to change. At the moment, my impression of things is quite positive. It is still possible that Microsoft has made many low-level changes. There is a precedent for this: Windows XP SP2 was a major overhaul of Windows XP, with many security updates and changes under the hood. Microsoft may have updated a lot of Windows support, and we’ll have to wait until June 24 to hear about them.

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

Given what we’ve heard of a dramatic new redesign for Windows, one wonders if “Windows 11” is not what Microsoft decided to call Windows 10X after the OS revolved around addressing “single screen products” Back in 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. Sounds like the company killed the specialized Windows 10X and wrapped the GUI around a Windows update. Throw in some new features and functions, a few quality of life upgrades and voila: the next version of Windows.

I have not seen anything interesting enough to justify calling this “Windows 11” – yet not – but given that Microsoft is likely to do the update for free, there is not much reason to complain about the company’s decision to introduce a larger number. What customers will care about is whether the update from 10 to 11 goes smoothly. Nail it and the rest falls into place. And it’s possible that Microsoft has many interesting details about new low-level features such as Alder Lake support and better high-core scaling coming June 24th.

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