Microsoft Windows 11: the most important new features

Today, Microsoft officially unveiled Windows 11, the next major version of its operating system (after a leak unofficially unveiled it Last week). It will bring a new revamped Start menu, better support for touchscreens and multiscreen, tighter integration with Xbox Game Pass, and a new push for the Windows Store. If you missed the keynote for the ad, here’s what you need to know.

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

You’d be forgiven if the new features in Windows 11 sound familiar to you. Microsoft is adding widgets, translucent windows, and window hanging. All of these features have been around for a while, but Windows 11’s approach seems better. In fact, most of the new features seem to be built around a theme of incremental improvement rather than a comprehensive overhaul (which is good, as we all remember Windows 8.)

With the exception of one minor change which could be quite polarizing.

Start menu and taskbar are now in the middle

At first glance, the biggest difference in Windows 11 is that the taskbar and the Start button are centered instead of on the far left of the screen. There will be an option to put it back in the corner if you’re not ready to retrain your muscle memory, but Microsoft seems to want to align the feature more with the look of macOS and Chrome OS.

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

Widgets are back (again)

Microsoft tried to create widgets for years before ditching them, but this could (maybe) be the version that’s left. A new button in the taskbar will open a widget panel with a task list, weather, traffic, calendar, and other basic widgets. It’s not much different from how widgets work in macOS, available when you want to take a look but disappearing when you don’t need them. Eventually, the feature will be open to developers, so they can add their own widgets, but we’ll have to see how the feature really takes off.

Using multiple monitors is about to get a lot easier

Laptop users who connect their computers to a separate monitor are all too familiar with the hassle of managing all of their windows. Once you disconnect the monitor, all the windows on that monitor are resized and shuffled, creating a mess on your desktop. Windows 11 puts an end to this. When you unplug your laptop from a second monitor, all open windows on that screen will be minimized but will remember their place. When you plug the screen back in, they’ll come back to where they were before.

Instant Groups will make Windows reorganization more intuitive

Windows’ current snap feature is useful if you want to put two windows side by side, but you will have to make any other arrangement yourself. Windows 11 will change that. Now, when you hover over a window’s Maximize button, you’ll see a small arrangement selector, showing you different layouts you can snap windows onto, including three or four window layouts. You can then select which windows to fill in for the rest of the layout and get to work faster.

Translucent windows are back in fashion again

Another in the category of features that Microsoft gave up only to return, Windows 11 will again introduce a translucent window design. Apps and window borders, including the Start menu and the widget menu themselves, will be semi-transparent, like a frosted glass window. It’s a pretty look and probably won’t have the same performance issues that Aero had on low-end hardware the last time Microsoft tried this trick.

Touch screens should be easier to use

While the Microsoft hardware team is doing some excellent laptops and convertible tablets, the software did not quite follow. Windows 11 hopes to fix some of the more annoying problems by adding larger touch targets for resizing windows. There’s also a smaller touchscreen keyboard that can be placed in the corner of the screen for one-handed typing, much like you might type on your phone. If you are using a stylus, the operating system will also support haptic feedback, which can make writing more natural. Whether these changes are enough to make Windows a natural touchscreen experience remains to be seen, but it can’t be worse than switching entirely to tablet mode like Windows 10 is doing now.

It’s free this holiday season

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

PC gaming gets some of the best Xbox features

With Microsoft owning two of the biggest gaming platforms in the world, Windows for PC gaming and the Xbox, you’d think combining the two would be a higher priority. Well, finally, Windows 11 is making it a reality.

For starters, Windows 11 will bring two of the Xbox’s gaming enhancements to the PC. The first is the company’s DirectStorage API, which allows games to load data directly into your GPU memory, which can dramatically reduce load times. The process is a little more complicated than this brief description suggests, but if you have the hardware and games that support it, you’ll spend a lot less time waiting to play.

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