Microsoft Windows 11: The most important new features

Today, Microsoft is official revealed Windows 11, the next major version of its operating system (after a leak unofficially revealed it last week). It will bring a new, revamped start menu, better multi-screen and touch screen support, tighter integration with the Xbox Game Pass, and a new push to the Windows Store. If you missed the keynote of the message, here’s what you need to know.

Windows 11 is similar to earlier versions, but (hopefully) better

You would be forgiven if the new features of Windows 11 sound familiar. Microsoft is adding widgets, translucent windows, and window snapping. All of these features have been around for a while, but the Windows 11 approach looks good, better. In fact, most of the new features seem to be designed around a theme of incremental improvement rather than wholesale overview (which is good because we all remember Windows 8.)

With the exception of a minor change that can be quite polarizing.

The start menu and taskbar are in the middle now

At first glance, the biggest difference in Windows 11 is that the taskbar and Start button are centered as opposed to being on the far left of the screen. There will be an option to move it back to the corner if you are not willing to retrain your muscle memory, but Microsoft seems to want to bring the feature more in line with the way macOS and Chrome OS look.

The new Start menu, which also appears in the center of the screen, has been redesigned to remove Live Tiles (only marginally useful in the past), instead of a set of pinned apps and recent documents. A search interface appears at the top of the menu, which, like the Start menu today, will intelligently search for the documents, apps, or settings you are trying to find.

Widgets are back (again)

Microsoft tried to make widgets happen for years before abandoning them, but that may (perhaps) be the version that holds. A new button in the taskbar opens a widget panel with a to-do list, weather, traffic, calendar, and other basic widgets. This is not so different from how widgets work in macOS, available when you want to see a glance, but disappears when you do not need them. Eventually, the feature will be open to developers so they can add their own widgets, but we’ll have to see how much the feature actually takes off.

Using multiple monitors is becoming a lot easier

Laptops that put their computer in a separate monitor know all too well the hassle that comes from controlling all of their windows. After disconnecting the screen, all windows on the screen change and shuffle around, creating clutter on your desktop. Windows 11 puts an end to that. When you remove your laptop from another monitor, all open windows on the screen are minimized, but remember their location. When you reconnect the monitor, they pop right back to where they were before.

Snap groups will make reorganizing Windows more intuitive

Windows’ current snap feature is useful if you want to put two windows side by side, but any other arrangement you need to make yourself. Windows 11 changes that. When you now hold the mouse over the Maximize button in a window, you will see a small event selector that shows you various layouts you can snap windows for, including layouts with three or four windows. You can then choose which windows to fill in the rest of the layout and get started faster.

Transparent windows are back in fashion

Another in the category of features that Microsoft only stopped bringing back, Windows 11 will once again introduce a translucent window design. Apps and window boundaries — including the start menu itself and the widget menu — will be semi-transparent, like a frosted window. It’s a nice look and probably will not have the same performance issues that Aero had on lower hardware the last time Microsoft tried this trick.

Touch screens should be easier to work with

While Microsoft’s hardware team makes some great convertible laptops and tablets, the software has not quite kept up. Windows 11 hopes to solve some of the most annoying issues by adding larger touch targets to resize windows. There is also a smaller touch keyboard that can sit in the corner of the screen to type with one hand, not unlike how you can type on your phone. If you use a pen, the operating system also supports haptic feedback, which can make typing feel more natural. It remains to be seen if these changes are enough to make Windows a natural touch screen experience, but it can be no worse than switching completely to a Tablet mode, as Windows 10 does now.

It’s free this holiday season

Just like the last time Microsoft announced a new, larger version of Windows, the update for Windows 11 will be free if you have Windows 10. The only other caveat is that your system must meet the minimum requirements for Windows 11, which you can check by download the PC Health Check app here.

PC games get some of the best features from Xbox

When Microsoft owns two of the largest gaming platforms in the world – Windows for PC games and Xbox – you would think that combining the two would have a higher priority. Well, finally, Windows 11 makes it more of a reality.

To begin with, Windows 11 will bring two of Xbox’s game enhancements to the PC. The first is the company’s DirectStorage API, which lets games load data directly into your GPU’s memory, which can drastically reduce loading times. The process is a little more complicated than the short description makes it sound, but if you have hardware and games that support it, you will spend much less time waiting to play.

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