Windows 11: biggest features, release date, free upgrade

Windows 11 is coming in 2021 (and 2022), and here's everything you need to know (so far) about the new UI changes, features, release date, and pricing.

Windows 11 Start menu and desktop
Windows 11 Start menu and desktop
  • Microsoft introduces Windows 11, and here’s everything you need to know.
  • It’ll release during the holiday season of 2021, and rollout will continue in 2022.
  • Windows 11 will be a free upgrade for Windows 10 devices.
  • The OS will introduce a significant UI design overhaul and many new features.

Microsoft officially announces Windows 11, the next generation of its desktop operating system. The company made the announcements at its virtual press event (which the company streamed live) on June 24, where it revealed a major UI shift that we’ve not seen in more than a decade and many new features, including support for Android apps. Perhaps more importantly, the software giant said it will be a free upgrade for existing Windows 10 devices, and the rollout will begin this holiday season and continue in 2022.

Although a leaked version of Windows 11 has provided an early look at the design changes and some of the features, during the event, Microsoft has shown that “Windows 11” is more than just another version of Windows 10 with a splash of fresh paint. In this new version, you will see a brand-new Start menu and taskbar, general UI overhaul throughout the experience, performance and gaming improvements, multitasking enhancements, redesigned Microsoft Store, and a lot more.

Overall, we are getting a better version that will benefit those who rely on Windows daily.

What’s new on Windows 11

Here are the most important changes coming to the next version of Windows:

A new Settings app

Perhaps the first thing that will draw your attention quickly, as you sign in to Windows 11, is the new Start menu that now appears centered on the updated taskbar, clearly inspired by the Chrome OS and macOS design. 

The new menu ditches the Live Tiles system in favor of traditional icons and a more simplified design. Also, there is a “Recommended” section that works like “Timeline,” surfacing the most used items, including documents and folder locations.

Windows 11 new Start menu
Windows 11 new Start menu (source: Microsoft)

The menu is based on the design that the company was previously working for Windows 10X. It floats above the taskbar, and it follows the new style design with rounded corners. (In fact, a lot of the changes on Windows 11 were originally planned for Windows 10X, a project that Microsoft canceled before it was released.)

In addition, there’s a new taskbar with a similar design as we’ve seen in the previous version, but it now aligns all the buttons to the center, and you’ll notice a new Start button and new icons for Search, Widgets, and Task View.

Although the Start menu and taskbar have a centered alignment, you can still change the settings to align the buttons and menu to the left like it was on Windows 10.

User interface changes

As part of the other UI changes, Windows 11 introduces an updated user interface design to be “modern, fresh, clean, and beautiful.” You will notice this with the implementation of rounded corners and semi-transparent effects for most visual elements like windows, buttons, and menus.

According to Microsoft, “everything was done intentionally to put you in control and bring a sense of calm and ease.”

Windows 11 will also ship with updated dark and light modes that look a lot better than those in previous releases.

Windows 11 Start menu and desktop
Windows 11 Start menu and desktop (source: Microsoft)

Furthermore, there is a new system font, sounds, and updated animations for many actions, including opening apps, resizing windows, pinning and unpinning buttons from the taskbar, and more.

Multitasking improvements

While you have been able to snap windows at the different quadrants of the screen for a long time, Windows 11 introduces a new feature known as Snap Layouts, a menu that appears hovering over the maximize button that lets you quickly snap apps with different layouts on the screen.

Snap Layouts
Snap Layouts (source: Microsoft)

Then there is the Snap Groups feature that enables Windows 11 to remember the collection of apps you snapped on the screen, so if you need to switch to another app, you can simply hover over one of the apps from the group in the taskbar to view and select the group to return to the set of multiple apps together.

Group of snapped windows
Group of snapped windows (source: Microsoft)

Windows 11 also comes with a new feature specific for multi-monitor setups. It does not have a name, but it’s an option available in the Settings app that allows the system to remember the windows locations based on the monitor connection. This means that when you disconnect a second monitor, the windows on that monitor will now minimize, and when you reconnect the display, the windows will open again in the same location.

In addition, Microsoft is re-introducing “Virtual Desktops” as “Desktops.” The feature is virtually the same as before by helping out create virtual spaces to separate your the different types of work. However, the controls are now located at the bottom of the screen, and you can now set a different background image per virtual desktop.

These new features help you organize your windows and optimize the screen real estate as much as possible.

Microsoft Teams integration

Microsoft is also integrating Teams into Windows 11. However, it appears that this is not the full version of the communication service. Instead, the feature is known as Chat from Microsoft Teams, and it’ll let you “instantly connect through text, chat, voice or video” with anyone regardless of the platform, including Windows, iOS, or Android.

Chat from Microsoft Teams
Chat from Microsoft Teams (source: Microsoft)

According to the company, if “the person you’re connecting to on the other end hasn’t downloaded the Teams app, you can still connect with them via two-way SMS.”

Furthermore, you will have the option to quickly mute and unmute or start presenting directly from the taskbar.

Widgets instead of Live Tiles

Live Tiles may be gone, but the idea will live on with a new feature called Widgets. This is basically a new version of the “News and Interests” experience we have already seen on Windows 10. However, the new experience slides from the left side of the screen, and it provides the time and box to search the web.

Windows 11 Widgets
Windows 11 Widgets (source: Microsoft)

In the leaked version of the operating system, the experience took only half of the screen. However, during the event, the company demonstrated that you can expand it across the entire screen.

Widgets in full screen
Widgets in full screen (source: Microsoft)

“Widgets” is powered by AI, and it offers a personalized feed with weather information, news, sports, and maps. Microsoft also said that it is building a button that anyone can use to send tips to support local content creators.

The company also says that when “you open your personalized feed, it slides across your screen like a sheet of glass, so it doesn’t disrupt what you’re doing.”

Windows 11 on gaming

Beyond productivity, Windows 11 is also an OS for gaming. In this new version, Microsoft is investing heavily to improve the gaming experience. For example, Windows 11 will now support DirectX 12 Ultimate. DirectX 12 is the technology standard for creating and managing gaming, images, and multimedia (such as visual effects and audio effects) that run on Windows-based devices.

The Ultimate version isn’t a significant upgrade from the original DirectX 12, but it brings some new changes. For instance, you’ll have access to Ray Tracing 1.1, which won’t require the GPU overload of the main processor, making games for Xbox Series X, Nvidia, and AMD graphics cards easier to optimize.

DirectStorage is a new technology that allows games assets to load faster to the graphics card without bugging down the processor. In other words, this means faster load times and more detailed game worlds. (This feature will require the latest NVMe drives and optimization by the game developers.)

In addition, Microsoft is bringing Auto HDR that will convert games in standard dynamic range (SDR) to high dynamic range (HDR) automatically on supported hardware for a large number of DirectX 11 and DirectX 12 games.

Xbox Game Pass for Windows 11
Xbox Game Pass for Windows 11 (source: Microsoft)

Finally, Windows 11 will also integrate Xbox Game Pass using a new Xbox app. This also includes xCloud integration to stream games from the Xbox Network.

Redesigned Microsoft Store

Perhaps one of the most significant changes on Windows 11 is the new app store. In this new version, you will find a new Microsoft Store that includes a new interface design that makes it easier to find and download apps, games, shows, and movies.

Microsoft Store
Microsoft Store (source: Microsoft)

For developers, this is also a big deal because now the Microsoft Store will accept virtually any app, including unpacked traditional (win32) apps, Univeral Windows Platform (UWP) apps, or Progressive Web Apps (PWA). Developers will also have the choice to host their apps using the Microsoft commerce engine or use their own commerce engine, which means that developers won’t have to give Microsoft a cut of their revenue for in-app purchases.

Finally, Windows 11 will now support Android apps natively, bringing even more apps to the desktop. This is possible thanks to the new Microsoft partnership with Amazon and Intel to bring the Amazon Android app store to Windows. Using Intel’s Bridge technology, you can now use the Microsoft Store to discover, download, and install Android app directly from the Amazon Appstore.

Android app on Windows 11
Android app on Windows 11 (source: Microsoft)

However, the integration isn’t that simple since the first time to download an Android app, you will need to download and sign in to the Amazon Appstore app before using the Microsoft Store to download Android apps on Windows 11.

Also, to make this experience work, Microsoft is implementing a new Windows Subsystem for Android solution similar to the Windows Subsystem for Linux to build an Android virtualization environment without the need for the Google Play Service support.

The Android apps are expected to run on Intel, AMD, and ARM processors.

Windows 11 touch features

On Windows 11, the touch experience is also changing. In this new version, Microsoft is improving the gestures you use on tablets and will no longer include a tablet mode. Instead, Windows 11 will simply adapt to the environment as needed. 

Some of the changes around touch include a new touch keyboard with theme support, much like keyboards on mobile devices. There is a new voice typing app to write with voice. And Windows 11 will support haptic feedback for supported pens.

Windows 11 touch keyboard themes
Windows 11 touch keyboard themes (source: Microsoft)

In the official announcement, Microsoft says that it has “improved the experience for touch, creating more space between the icons in the taskbar, adding bigger touch targets and subtle visual cues to make resizing and moving windows easier, as well as adding gestures.”

Voice Typing on Windows 11
Voice Typing (source: Microsoft)

Windows 11 performance and updates

In addition to the new features and UI design changes, Windows 11 will also include various performance improvements. According to the company, without immediately sharing specifics, devices will wake up faster, Windows Hello will be faster, Microsoft Edge and any other browser will run faster, devices running Windows 11 will consume less power prolonging battery life.

In addition, Windows 11 will update faster with fewer interruptions since Microsoft will make updates 40 percent smaller, and they will be more efficient as they happen in the background.

Also, Windows 11 will move away from two semi-annual feature updates to one annual upgrade per year. This means no more upgrades and headaches twice a year. Furthermore, it appears that Windows 11 will move to a 24-month support schedule for consumers, instead of 18 months.

New File Explorer and Settings

Although the company hasn’t officially revealed them yet, during the event and follow-up videos, some glimpses show a new version of File Explorer and Settings app that includes a completely overhauled design that aligns with the new design style we now see throughout the desktop.

In this new version of File Explorer, it appears that the ribbon menu is going away, and instead, it includes new controls optimized for touch. In the video, it’s hard to see everything, but the new app still preserves the same familiar structure but with a new look and feel that makes it modern.

Windows 11 new File Explorer
Windows 11 new File Explorer (source: Microsoft)

During the event, Microsoft also briefly showed off the new Settings app, which includes a new design with a new organization for settings but keeping navigation on the left side, colorful icons, new visual cues, and semi-transparent elements similar to the Start menu and other parts of the OS.

Windows 11 new Settings
Windows 11 new Settings (source: Microsoft)

Windows 11 release date

Windows 11 does not have a specific release date. However, Microsoft is expected to start offering the new version to compatible devices running Windows 10 as a free upgrade by the holiday season, and the rollout will continue in 2022. Some new devices from manufacturers are also expected to start shipping with Windows 11 during the holiday season of 2021. (Although it’s not official, the release date could be on October 20, 2021.)

As part of the Windows Insider Program, Microsoft is expected to release the first public preview to testers on June 28, 2021.

If you plan to upgrade a device running Windows 10 to Windows 11, it’s important to note that the system requirements have changed. To install the new version of Windows, you will need a device with a 64-bit processor, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage as a minimum. Also, it’s now a requirement to have a TPM 2.0 configured and enabled and Secure Boot. Otherwise, you won’t be able to perform an in-place upgrade or clean installation of the OS. (Use this guide to confirm if your device will be compatible with Windows 11.)

About the author

Mauro Huculak is a Windows How-To Expert who started Pureinfotech in 2010 as an independent online publication. He has also been a Windows Central contributor for nearly a decade. Mauro has over 14 years of experience writing comprehensive guides and creating professional videos about Windows and software, including Android and Linux. Before becoming a technology writer, he was an IT administrator for seven years. In total, Mauro has over 20 years of combined experience in technology. Throughout his career, he achieved different professional certifications from Microsoft (MSCA), Cisco (CCNP), VMware (VCP), and CompTIA (A+ and Network+), and he has been recognized as a Microsoft MVP for many years. You can follow him on X (Twitter), YouTube, LinkedIn and Email him at [email protected].