Windows 11 hands-on: A cleaner OS to keep you productive

Judging from the first Windows 11 Insider Preview, Microsoft’s next OS is shaping up to be much more than a mere Windows 10 update. The company is fundamentally shifting the way many aspects of Windows works, with a centered taskbar redesigned Start menu, among other changes. But it’s still Windows, so at its core it still works like it always has. There’s the focus on productivity that Microsoft leaned into with Windows 10, along with subtler improvements that makes for a more pleasant user experience. At this point, Windows 11 feels like an OS that will please PC diehards mainstream users alike.

Gallery: Windows 11 Insider Preview | 9 Photos

At first glance, the Windows 11 Insider Preview, which started rolling out on Monday, doesn’t look much different from the leaked build we covered a few weeks ago. The centered icon-filled taskbar still looks distinctly Mac-like; the rounded window corners give off a slightly more polished vibe; the redesigned Start menu is sure to be controversial. It features pinned app shortcuts up top, recommended files at the bottom, a link in the top right to see the entire unfiltered Start Menu.

This Start menu is certainly different, but after testing out the leaked build for two weeks, I’ve grown to prefer the changes. I’ve never met anyone who used the Live Tiles in Windows 10’s Start menu, those were just a distilled remnant from Windows 8’s horrific full-screen Start page. It’s nice to be rid of that legacy, once for all.

As I dug further into the preview build, I noticed small tweaks throughout that just felt, well, nice. Instead of combining notifications system shortcuts into a single right-hpane, they’re now broken up across two screens. Hitting the clock in the Windows 11 taskbar brings up all of your notifications, along with a full calendar. The system shortcuts, meanwhile, are combined into a single screen that pop up when you press the Wi-Fi, sound or battery icons.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

From there, you can join other wireless networks, turn Bluetooth on off, along with airplane, battery saver or Focus assist modes. Sliders along the bottom also let you manage your volume screen brightness. This isn’t that different from Windows 10, but the overall look is a lot cleaner easier to read. (Maybe I’m just sick of hitting the “More options” to expWindows 10’s shortcut settings.)

Microsoft is also clearly pushing a taskbar UI that only features icons in Windows 11. It’s something the company started doing with Windows 7, but up until Windows 10 you always had the option to turn on labels for taskbar icons (at least, until they started piling up too much). While it tended to make Windows look a bit messy, I always liked being able to see what a window contained before I actually clicked on it. Windows 11 no longer has label options of any kind, there’s no indication that Microsoft wants to bring them back. They just don’t fit into the neat aesthetic the company is aiming for now.

At first I figured losing labels would be a pain, but I’ve grown used to living with an icon-filled taskbar over the last few weeks. And I’d gladly lose labels in exchange for better multitasking features, like this new OS’s revamped window snapping. Now you can hover your mouse pointer over any app’s maximize button to see an array of areas to snap it to, like the top left or bottom right of your screen. It’s much more accurate than dragging a screen to a specific spot hoping Windows automatically snaps it into place.

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