And so the wheel turns. Microsoft is rolling out Windows 11 to devices that can handle its specs. One of our kids was fired up for it so I did a circuit of the PCs in our house to see which could take it, which couldn’t, and which ones just needed a simple BIOS/UEFI change (for trusted computing, mostly). I wouldn’t say it’s a let down – Windows 11 definitely looks different – but, so far, the improvements and the drawbacks make it a wash.

The most noticeable changes are in the interface. The Ribbon, introduced in Microsoft Office and throughout the Windows 10 interface, seems to be entirely gone. In what strikes me as a baby-with-the-bathwater approach, the move to simplify the look and feel has made it a bit harder.

A Clean Sweep

Take Windows File Explorer, for example. When you click on This PC in the left hand navigation, it will show you available drives. You can also add a shared drive by mapping a driver letter. In Windows 10, there is a Ribbon, and a tab with a button to map a drive. Now, it’s stashed under a three-dot (hamburger) menu.

A screenshot of Windows File Explorer in dark mode, with the three-dot menu expanded. “Map network drive” is on the menu listing.

This seems to be a common approach throughout the interface:

  • Simplify the basic functions on the toolbar
  • Eliminate almost all text labeling
  • Throw everything else under an “Other” menu

I had hoped that some of this might be adaptable. For example, if I go to the submenu enough times, does my frequently used item appear on the toolbar? Not so far.

The one that is still giving me a moment’s pause each time I use it – and I use it a lot – is the right-click menu. It’s where I would select Open With since I don’t always use my default program. Or I might need to extract files using 7Zip, which handles more compression options than the built-in Windows compressed files.

Here is a right-click menu for a file. Notice that the cut/copy/paste and delete options are now icons compressed at the top of the menu. Show more options is … well, everything.

A screenshot of a right-click menu on Windows 11 showing basic options.

When you click show more options on my PC, you would see this list:

A screenshot showing the show more options menu

Show more options shows, in fact, all the options from the previous menu (although it renames some of them) as well as other options you may have on your PC. I can only assume that this is 80/20 pareto principle usage design. So far, though, everything I am using is on this second level menu.

Off to a Bad Start Menu

Perhaps the most egregious noticeable example of this weird move away from navigation is on the Start Menu. I’m getting accustomed to the Start button being in the center of my task bar now (it can also be on the left). But when I click the Start Menu, my pinned apps are just randomly listed. You can’t group them any longer. The inability to organize these apps may reduce the usefulness of the Start Menu, since all apps are – like the Show more options menu – a layer down now.

A screenshot of the Windows 11 start menu and pinned apps

In my case, I dragged icons around so, as they automatically reordered, they started to group themselves. In this way, if I’m looking for a music app, they’re all generally in the same area. Same with gaming apps. But it’s not ideal.

In fact, it requires maintenance that wasn’t necessary before. This is the same behavior on the Taskbar. You used to be able to toggle an option to show all icons on the taskbar (along the bottom right corner near the time and date) or toggle individual ones on or off. Now, by default, they’re all toggled off. As you add apps, you have to toggle each one on – there’s no global setting to show all of them.

The other obvious drawback is that a lot of button labels are gone. If you open up Microsoft Paint, labels for select or crop are gone. Same with other stock apps, like File Explorer. The design makes an assumption that people know what all of these buttons are.

A Better Store

One area of obvious improvement is the Microsoft Store. It seems small but I found a lot of my apps in the Store for the first time. This has a couple of advantages. It can make finding an potential app easier. Also, you can use the store’s update function to update any apps, if they don’t warn you that updates are available.

In my case, apps that I used to download directly from the project or vendor that are now in the store include:

It’s a minor thing but it’s a nice improvement. The Microsoft Store in the past has been full of … apps of questionable origin. Now, we’re seeing major apps like Firefox come available in the Windows store. I’m hoping that this wider availability means some more focus is being put on the Store.

Teams Integration

Windows 11 also comes with a version of Microsoft Teams installed. It does not come with Skype. You can install Skype from the store but Teams is a nice addition in these days of virtual meetings. The only downside is that it will not work with Microsoft 365 (work or education) accounts.

If you’re in this position, like I was, you can just uninstall Teams. Then go to Microsoft and choose the download specifically for work and school users. I’ve seen that Zoom is starting to test advertising in its free version and I’m wondering if that’s what’s coming for Teams home users as well.

Screenshot of a Microsoft Teams download page on Microsoft.com, with the Teams for work or school download button on the right.

This was the behavior with a clean install of Windows 11, which is what I had to do to bypass a persistent installation error message. On other PCs in our house, where the upgrade went smoothly, they retained the work/education version of Teams if it was already installed. So if your upgrade went normally, you may never notice the alternate version of Teams.

To Stay or Revert

Every change has its challenges. So far, there is not a huge difference that will impact my use of Windows to suggest I should roll back to Windows 10. The cosmetic labeling is a hassle but I’ll get accustomed to it. The extra clicks on context menus is frustrating but, again, I’ll probably find workarounds or just get used to it.

The Start Menu’s a loss. I could see people avoiding it. So all of you people who store all of your icons on your desktop? You win. I am probably going to start using the Windows PowerToys more often. You can find it in the Microsoft Store and it has a number of nice utilities, including a search feature alternative to hitting your Windows key, called PowerToys Run.

Screenshot of the PowerToys Run desktop search, which appears in the middle of your desktop screen.

It works out to the same number of keyboard clicks (Win key v. [alt][space]) but you don’t get that janky set of Bing search engine results. This means that, with PowerToys Run, I tend to see the app I’m looking for or the document I need more quickly than if I have to weed out – visually – the extraneous noise in Windows search.

All in all, I’m glad Microsoft has created a free upgrade path for Windows 10 users. All of our family have gotten accustomed to the interface now and the regular software updates. It would be nice for the operating system to finally fade into the background when thinking about using a PC.