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Hands on with the First Windows 11 Insider Preview

Windows 11 is here! Sort of. Microsoft released an Insider Preview of Windows 11 to anyone daring enough to try a beta OS. Naturally, I installed it immediately. Already I’ve found features Microsoft never even mentioned and omissions that I really wanted to try.

Note: Bear in mind that this is pre-release software. Microsoft itself says that the Windows 11 Insider build has bugs and flaws. As with all beta operating systems, you probably shouldn’t use this on your primary PC.

Do you actually read that note just above? You really should. I installed Windows 11 on my daily driver PC that I use to write most my articles. It’s also my gaming computer. I’ve run Windows Insider builds on my daily driver for years. I know how unstable they can be and what problems to expect. But it could all go terrifyingly wrong. Don’t be like me—try Windows 11 on a PC you don’t care about.

That should be immediately clear from Microsoft’s note on known issues. Microsoft says the taskbar won’t show on multiple monitors, settings won’t launch if you have multiple user accounts, the install button might not work in the Microsoft store, and more. I ran into additional unlisted problems, too (more on that later).

Still, the Insider Build does present a first look at Microsoft’s goals for Windows 11. And a lot of that revolves around a cleaner, more consistent interface, starting with two items the company didn’t talk about during launch—File Explorer and settings.

Goodbye Ribbon, Hello Command Bar

The new Windows File Explorer with a Command Bar

It’s surprising to me that Microsoft didn’t spend much (if any) time on upcoming changes to File Explorer. Like it or hate it, the Ribbon has been around for years, and it wormed its way into File Explorer starting in Windows 8. That meant most people probably didn’t see it until Windows 10, consider how “beloved” Windows 8 turned out to be.

With Windows 11, the Ribbon is gone again. In its place, you’ll find a command bar. Maybe. I say that because at first, I still had the Ribbon. Microsoft’s known issues list states it’s working on an issue that makes the command bar disappear, but in my case, I never had it.

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Eventually, I figured out that an odd setting was getting in the way: “launch folder windows in a separate instance.” As soon as I disabled that, the new command appeared. How much you’ll like it is probably up for debate. Instead of a packed Ribbon with scores of options you have to search for, you’ll find a few of the most commonly used commands in icon form.

Hopefully, you recognize the icons because they don’t have visible names. If you can’t figure out that rounded box over a line stands for layout options, hovering over them will reveal what they do. When you select a file or program, File Explorer will surface more commands that you use for the file, like “set as desktop background” or “rotate right.” That seems limited to image files though, clicking on programs, PDFs, and other file types didn’t pop up additional commands.

A context menu in File Explorer

Microsoft also introduced a new context menu (that’s the menu you get when you right-click). I’m going to be honest, it looks weird at first, but it’s a big improvement. File Explorer’s context menu can be a pain to use in Windows 10 because programs like to add options to it, which extends the list and slows it down. With Windows 11, that’s no longer an option for developers. Hooray!

Open the new context menu, and you’ll find a shortlist of commonly used commands. Like File Explorer’s command bar, what options you see depends on what you right-click. For instance, right-click an image, and you’ll see the “set as desktop background.” Microsoft gave most of the context menu plenty of padding for touch actions, but it made one odd choice. Rather than stick cut, copy, paste, rename, and delete into the list as words, those commands show up a horizontal bar of icons at the top without much padding. It’s not very touch-friendly.

You can get to the “old” context menu from Windows 10, but I’m unsure why you’d want to. To activate it, you right-click on something, then choose the “show more options” entry. Or you can use Shift+F10. That feels like a lot of work to get to some additional options in a slower menu.

Revamped Settings, But Control Panel Won’t Die

A settings menu

The Windows 10 Settings app isn’t great. If you’re anything like me, you probably open Settings, click the menu you think will contain the setting your want to change, fail to find it, then try a search. It seemed more concerned with looking pretty, even if that meant some menus looked vastly different from others.

In another surprise that wasn’t announced at the launch event, Windows 11 gets a Settings app overhaul. Now it’s consistent across the board. And not just that, but it actually looks like it belongs to Windows 11 instead of something that was clearly tacked on later. Even the refreshed icons are better. I find it easier to locate the stuff I’m looking for, with some odd exceptions. You won’t find an add/remove programs spot anymore. Instead, you go into the App sections and click on the submenu vertical dots to get an uninstall option. That’s annoying.

Likewise, placing the “optional features” dialog for adding things like fonts and languages in the apps section wouldn’t have been my first choice. Thankfully there’s still a search option. Sadly, it’s incredibly slow in this beta. I knew the risks.

If you hate Settings, you can always head to the control panel, though. Because even in Windows 11, Microsoft doesn’t have the courage to kill off the control panel and remove that duplicate functionality. It feels like an admission that Settings still isn’t good enough to replace an interface that originated in 1985.

The Centered Taskbar Is Fine

A taskbar with centered icons

Let’s get into the stuff we know about. Like the new taskbar. Panos Panay, an executive at Microsoft known for his passionate presentations, said during the launch event, “we put Start at the center, which puts YOU [emphasis his] at the center.” I’m not sure about all that, but the new centered taskbar does exactly what it says on the tin.

Similar to file explorer’s command bar, you won’t find labels under icons anymore. And now you’ll find most of your taskbar icons (including Start) at the center, instead of off to the left as they have been since Windows 95. With that new positioning, Microsoft introduces fun new animations. Icons rise into the taskbar as you open programs and zip away when you close them. And the taskbar “dock” dynamically expands as you open more programs to keep everything centered.

Of course, if you don’t like the new centered look, you can change it back to a left positioning. I get why you might want to. I’ve been tempted to do it constantly throughout the last few days. For years, Microsoft trained me to look down to the left to find Start and my open programs. I’m constantly looking to the old location, then remembering the icons have a new home.

On the right side, you’ll find a consolidated system tray. And I really really like it. That’s partly because Microsoft killed the notification icon, which I never once clicked on purpose. Clicking on weather and time now activates notifications, which is fine, I guess. Clicking on the Wi-Fi or Audio symbol pulls up widgets to control those functions, Bluetooth, airplane mode, and so on. Compared to Windows 10, it’s a great way to cut a lot of unnecessary clutter.

It isn’t all working perfectly. Out of the box, the taskbar won’t appear on external monitors (or anything beyond the primary monitor on desktop). You can turn on a setting that will make the taskbar appear, but no matter what you do, Start and the other icons won’t appear. I’ve left it alone for now. Also, changing between dark and light mode locks my PC up for around a minute.

New Start Menu and Rounded Corners

The revamped Start menu.

Along with the new taskbar, Windows 11 revamps the Start Menu. I have a confession to make—I hardly ever use the Start Menu. For better or worse, Windows 8 trained me to search to find the programs and files I need to open, and that’s my go-to. Beyond that, the only time I open Start is to get to the power options.

If you hated the Live Tile system introduced in Windows 8, you’ll be glad to know Windows 11 puts Live Tiles in the grave. Now you’ll find a detached Start Menu with a list of pinned apps, along with recommended apps and files. The recommended set of apps and files seems to be recently opened items.

Now, you would think the pinned apps would match the apps you’ve pinned to the taskbar, at least to start. But that’s not the case. Instead, it’s a Microsoft advertisement. You’ll find 10 Microsoft apps, followed by 5 more apps that you might or might not have installed. That’s how Windows 10’s Start Menu works, offering up a mix of Microsoft apps and apps that paid for placement. The more things change, the more they stay the same. And the more I feel vindicated in not using the Start menu.

Oh, and if you want a full list of programs, that’s a step back from Windows 10. You’ll have to click the “All Apps” button to get to those, and there’s no way to bypass that. The best you can do is turn on a “frequently used apps” setting in settings.

Spotify with three round corners and one jagged corner
That top right corner is NOT round.

As for the other new look, round corners, there’s not much to say beyond it’s there, and not every app can do it right. Developers might need to upgrade their programs to take advantage of round corners properly. Spotify, for instance, has three round corners and one 90-degree corner. Other third-party apps, like UltraEdit, work perfectly. It’s a fresh new look, but in three to five years, I’m sure we’ll move back to traditional corners and calling that a fresh new look all over again.

Widgets Are There and Mostly Broken

The new widget panel.

Microsoft decided to turn its newly introduced News and Weather app in Windows 10 into a Widget Panel in Windows 11. Instead of popping up from the taskbar, it now slides out from the left side of the desktop window. To be honest, I think this is another one of those features that will mostly go unused—at least by me.

That’s partly because the news suggestions it makes don’t align with any of my interests, despite telling Microsoft what type of news I am interested in (and which news categories I don’t care about). The more I seem to tell it to stop foisting politics on me, the more it seems to add to the list.

But worse yet, the widget pane doesn’t work right half the time. The first six entries show up in a side-by-side column that’s too wide for the widget. You have to scroll horizontally to see it all. Scroll down, and it switches to a single item column that’s oddly offset from the previous side-by-side column. That’s when scrolling works right. Every other time I try to scroll, only part of the widget actually moves, leaving a broken view of mismatched entries. The same thing happens in the widget’s settings.

But again, this is a beta.

A Revamped Microsoft Store but no Android Apps

The revamped Microsoft store showing Netflix menu.

When Microsoft announced Android apps for Windows 11, it felt like a bombshell moment. But a moment later, it clarified that doesn’t mean Google Play apps. Windows 11 will integrate the Amazon Appstore. And suddenly, what had been a bombshell moment felt more like a bellyflop.

There’s a bit of hope—Microsoft says you’ll be able to sideload apps. But it’s not clear how any of that will work. I want to tell you that Android apps work great on Windows 11, but I can’t. This build doesn’t include that feature. For now, all we get is the newly revamped store. And by newly revamped, I mean “a coat of paint.” A familiar theme for Windows 11.

The new Microsoft Store app looks fine. The quick access to apps, gaming, and entertainment (movies and tv shows) is nice. But ultimately, the real exciting feature is bonafide programs in the “app” store. Already you can find OBS, Canva, and Zoom in the Microsoft Store. The Adobe Creative Suite will arrive sometime in the future. But these aren’t “apps.” They’re traditional programs. That means all updates and payment processing will go through the programs and not the Microsoft Store.

Curating programs in the Microsoft Store might prevent you from downloading a scam piece of software masquerading as well-known software. That’s easy to do when you misspell a name like VLC media player and end up on a scam site that used the same misspelling. At least that’s the theory. As the “known issues” notes warned, I can’t install any of the programs from the Microsoft Store. It fails every time. “It doesn’t work right” might be the other recurring motif in the Preview, but hey, we were warned.

It’s All Worth It for a Better Multi-Monitor Experience

A desk with three monitors and many windows open.
Josh Hendrickson

Windows 10 annoys the heck out of me for one reason alone: terrible multi-monitor support. I currently use three displays. Up top, I have a 43-inch ultrawide, and just beneath that are two portable monitors. Most of my main work, including writing articles, happens on the ultrawide. I keep Slack on one portable monitor and all my other messaging programs on the other. It’s a great way to have quick access to all my communications without cluttering up my work.

But Windows 10 frequently forgets where all my windows go. It happens when my computer goes to sleep, restarts, or sometimes for no reason at all. Every window will be the wrong size, in the wrong position, and even on the wrong monitor. It’s infuriating to rearrange all my windows so frequently.

But Windows 11 solves all of that. Supposedly Microsoft designed the new multi-monitor feature with laptops in mind. When you disconnect an external monitor, Windows 11 will move the apps to your laptop’s display and minimize them. When you reconnect the display, the apps will automatically move back to where they were. Whatever magic Microsoft put into that process solved the problem for me, too.

With one exception, I never have to rearrange my windows anymore. I can restart my computer or let it go to sleep with confidence that Windows 11 will remember my preferred layout. The one exception is the Your Phone app I use to connect my Android phone. But I suspect the actual app is the problem and not Windows. It always behaved strangely, even on Windows 10.

And speaking of layout management, Windows 11 added the new Snap Group features Microsoft mentioned during the launch event. In theory, I really like them. In practice, I don’t use them. But that’s due to my unique monitor situation. I have a close to full-screen window on my main monitor, and my second monitor hosts a full-screen slack. My third monitor is home to three apps, which I keep nearly the same size. The new snap options don’t have anything like that as a choice.

For now, I’ll continue using PowerToys Fancy Zones for my window layout management. But the Windows 11 implementation is much easier to use, even if it has fewer choices. I think it’s the way to go for the average user.

So now that my main machine is on Windows 11, you might be wondering if I plan to go back. I don’t. Yes, the widgets are broken, but I probably won’t use those anyway. And yes, rounded corners look funky in some, but that should get better with time.

So far, the positives outweigh the negatives for me. Context menus that don’t suck! I don’t have to rearrange my windows all the time! The taskbar doesn’t bother me, and I could always stick the icons back on the left. I am, however, annoyed that I can’t move the actual taskbar over to the left side of my ultrawide. That’s the most sensible place to put a taskbar on an ultrawide, and Microsoft should put that option back in.

But while I’m a crazy, crazy person willing to put up with an unstable OS to be the bleeding edge, you shouldn’t install Windows 11 on your main PC. It’s still early days, but what we have so far is very promising. It’s just a shame Microsoft insists on mucking up the entire launch with terrible mixed-messaging on which PCs can’t run Windows 11 and why. Windows 11 is good enough to far to break the “good-bad” cycle. But Microsoft as a company isn’t.


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