When Microsoft took the wraps off of Windows 11, the news came as a complete surprise to most Windows watchers. Windows 10, after all, had been among Microsoft’s most successful products ever, and the strategy of adding to the operating system with regular feature updates (twice a year at first, then annually) appeared to be working well enough.
Making matters even more confusing, the new version was arguably an incremental change to Windows 10, with a new look and feel on top of core code that was practically identical to its predecessor. The more important change, it turned out, was a new set of hardware compatibility requirements that made many existing PCs ineligible for upgrades. That marked a bold change of direction for Windows, which has historically prized backward compatibility as a key requirement.
Two years later, Windows 11 is slowly pushing its predecessor toward the exit, with Windows 10 due to reach its end of support in 2025. Since the initial launch on June 24, 2021, Microsoft has released two annual updates for Windows 11 (versions 22H2 and 23H2) and, in a noteworthy break with longstanding policies, has also shipped a raft of new features not tied to either of those major updates.
With Windows 10 nearing the end of its decade-long run and Windows 12 on the horizon, Windows 11 is squarely in the spotlight. Does it have a long-term future? How does this upgrade affect the way you work with your PC? I’ve updated this FAQ to cover the latest developments.
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, Windows 11 is the successor to Windows 10. It’s built on the same core architecture as Windows 10; indeed, Microsoft could have chosen to deliver the new features in Windows 11 through a series of semi-annual feature updates to Windows 10 without a name change.
Instead, it chose to make this a good old-fashioned “big bang” release, with a new major version number and a laundry list of new features.
For starters, there’s a new user experience, with refreshed colors and icons, major changes to the Start menu and taskbar, an extensive reworking of the Settings app, a Widgets pane designed to deliver bite-sized chunks of news and reminders, and a greatly improved way to snap windows into position. Subsequent updates include a tabbed File Explorer and the AI-powered Windows Copilot.
If you’ve been unimpressed with the paltry selection of apps in the Microsoft Store, you’re not alone. Windows 11 offers a major update to the Store, including the option for third-party developers to make their conventional Win32 desktop apps available for secure downloads through the Store.
Speaking of apps, Windows 11 includes Windows Subsystem for Android, allowing Android apps to run on the familiar Windows desktop. That feature has also received regular updates since its initial release in 2021.
Before you get too excited about the Android-on-Windows possibilities, be aware that, for now at least, those apps will come from the Amazon app store, which also suffers from Paltry App Selection Syndrome. In theory, the availability of Android apps could expand in the future with the addition of more robust app repositories like the Samsung App Store or even (gasp!) the Google Play Store. Anyone with a long memory of Microsoft’s experiments in this space has a right to be skeptical.
The first release of Windows 11 was version 21H2, which was made available to the general public on October 5, 2021. (Members of the Windows Insider Program received the build early as a cumulative update on September 16, 2021.) That initial release was identified as build number 22000.194. Version 22H2 (build 22621) was released on September 20, 2022; version 23H2 (build 22631 was released on October 31, 2023.
For each of those major releases, monthly cumulative updates increment the minor version number. For a list of updates and links to release notes, see the Windows 11 Update History page. (Use the pane on the left side of the page to select the major version number.)
Microsoft offers Windows 11 as a free update to PCs running Windows 10 that meet compatibility requirements and are not blocked for compatibility issues. To manually upgrade a PC from Windows 10 to Windows 11, go to the Download Windows 11 page, where you can choose one of three installation options:
Run the Windows 11 Installation Assistant, a utility program that downloads the necessary installer files and upgrades the current PC.
Create Windows 11 installation media on a USB flash drive or, for traditionalists, a DVD.
The most important change in the Windows 11 era isn’t software at all. Instead, look at what Microsoft calls the servicing schedule, which now produces feature updates once per year (in the second half of the calendar year) instead of adhering to the frenetic twice-a-year feature update schedule that prevailed for the first few years of the Windows 10 era.
Although those annual releases are still called feature updates, that name is a bit of a misnomer, as Microsoft is now regularly releasing new features in between those major releases. New features can arrive via Windows Update or through the Microsoft Store
The support calendar (what Microsoft calls the Windows lifecycle) is also pushed out, with Microsoft offering 24 months of support for retail and OEM editions: Home, Pro, Pro for Workstations, and Pro Education. That’s a change from the 18-month support window offered for Windows 10. IT staff in business and education environments get 36 months of support for Enterprise and Education editions. That’s an improvement over the unusual tick-tock support schedule implemented for Windows 10, where only H2 releases get three full years of updates.
Security updates continue to arrive monthly, on the second Tuesday of each month.
Unlike Windows 10, which was specifically designed to run on older hardware, Windows 11 requires relatively new hardware and is blocked as an upgrade on older PCs. Most PCs designed and sold in 2019 or later will work with Windows 11. Owners of PCs that fall short of the minimum requirements may still be able to install Windows 11, but Microsoft warns that those installations will be unsupported.
Security: TPM version 2.0, UEFI firmware, Secure Boot capable
Graphics card: Compatible with DirectX 12 or later, with a WDDM 2.0 driver
Display: High definition (720p) display, 9″ or greater monitor, 8-bits per color channel
To check for Windows 11 compatibility, download and run the PC Health Check app, which will identify specific compatibility issues that prevent an upgrade. Older hardware is less likely to pass Windows 11’s stringent compatibility checks; for example, most Intel 7th Generation Core processors are not on the list of compatible CPUs, nor are PCs built using AMD Zen 1 processors. PCs built in 2016 or earlier are almost certain to be unsupported.
Windows 11 requires a hardware security component called a Trusted Platform Module (TPM), along with UEFI firmware (no legacy BIOS allowed) and Secure Boot. The UEFI requirement also means that system disks must be set up using the GUID Partition Table (GPT) standard. Systems that use the legacy Master Boot Record (MBR) system are unsupported.
Virtually all PCs designed and built since 2015 include TPM 2.0 support, although you might have to go into the firmware settings to enable it.
Naturally, you’ll need an internet connection to keep Windows 11 up-to-date and to download and use some features. Beginning with Windows 11 version 22H2, setting up a new PC for personal use requires an internet connection and a Microsoft account to complete the out-of-box device setup. The option for a local account is available when setting up Windows 11 Pro for use on a business network. For a full explanation of user account types, see “Windows 11 setup: Which user account type should you choose?”
And this might be a good place to raise a farewell toast to 32-bit Windows, which is now officially retired. Windows 11 is available only as a 64-bit OS for 64-bit CPUs (32-bit Windows apps will continue to be supported, however).
The Windows 11 Setup program includes a utility that checks for compatibility with the hardware requirements and blocks upgrade installations on devices that don’t include a supported CPU or TPM 2.0. However, you can bypass that compatibility check by downloading an ISO file and performing a clean install. To upgrade a system that is running Windows 10 but doesn’t meet the hardware requirements, a Microsoft support document specifies the following registry key modification you must make first:
This PC doesn’t meet the minimum system requirements for running Windows 11 – these requirements help ensure a more reliable and higher quality experience. Installing Windows 11 on this PC is not recommended and may result in compatibility issues. If you proceed with installing Windows 11, your PC will no longer be supported and won’t be entitled to receive updates. Damages to your PC due to lack of compatibility aren’t covered under the manufacturer warranty.
To a casual observer, Windows 11 looks like a glorified theme pack for Windows 10, but there’s more going on than meets the eye. There are some noticeable visual tweaks to what Microsoft calls the Windows 11 user experience (UX), including new icons, with more vibrant colors and rounded corners, as well as a new system font.
Visuals aside, Windows 11 also makes some fairly radical changes to the other fundamental parts of the Windows UX, including the Start menu and taskbar. The Start button still sits at the left of the taskbar, but the taskbar itself is now centered at the bottom edge of the display. (There’s a setting to move everything back to the left if you don’t feel like overpowering your muscle memory from decades of having Start in the lower left of the screen.)
Clicking Start slides open a new pane that barely resembles the scrolling lists of apps and utilities found on the traditional Start menu. In Windows 11, this space is split into two rectangles under a search box, with the top half dedicated to program icons and the bottom half given over to shortcuts to recent documents. You can pin programs and folders to that top space, drag them into your preferred order, and group them into subfolders.
The only other tweak for Start is the option to pin some system folders to the bottom row, between the user profile picture and the power button. The Start menu can’t be resized.
Most of what’s noteworthy about the taskbar is what’s missing from its predecessors. The taskbar is centered at the bottom of the display; you can align it on the left, but you can’t dock the sidebar to the top or sides. Recent builds have also brought back the ability to show labels and turn off the options to combine buttons for multiple windows associated with a specific app.
The taskbar contains one new button, which opens a Widgets pane on the left side of the display. The selection of widgets, although improved from the initial release, is still limited mostly to Microsoft services and a cringe-worthy selection of news headlines. The ability to fine-tune the visibility of tray icons and a crisper, cleaner Quick Settings app are welcome changes.
File Explorer gets the same visual refresh as the rest of Windows, with a simplified ribbon and shortcut menus. It retains the familiar three-pane arrangement, but the contents of the navigation pane are different, as is the ability to open folders in separate tabs. The new home layout in the center pane offers a view of recently used documents with the option to pin favorites as well.
The Settings app, on the other hand, gets a complete makeover. A new navigation pane on the left provides ready access to the main categories, with sections on the right that slide open as needed to enable adjustments to system settings and personalization options. One noteworthy improvement is a detailed display that shows battery usage on an hour-by-hour basis, allowing you to identify which apps are responsible for unusual battery drains. A recent addition is a new home page that consolidates access to recent and commonly used settings, personalization options, and devices.
On touch-enabled devices and tablets like the Surface Pro, you’ll find big changes in the way that the pen and touch elements work, with more graceful transitions from PC to tablet mode and vice versa. On conventional PCs with multiple monitors and docking stations, the system is finally smart enough to remember the arrangement of windows when you reconnect. There’s also a new Voice Typing feature that lets you dictate text to be automatically typed into any app or text box. (Press Windows key + H to activate this feature.)
Options for arranging windows on large external displays are significantly expanded compared to Windows 10. The familiar “snap” shortcuts still work to position windows side by side, but hovering the mouse pointer over the icon in the upper right corner of any window displays additional options for arranging three or four windows, as shown below. Those arrangements are also available from the taskbar, allowing you to restore a specific arrangement with a single click.
Despite the significant UX refresh, you’ll still encounter places where bits of older, even ancient Windows elements peek out. That’s especially true for the last remaining bits of the legacy Control Panel and any app hosted by the Microsoft Management Console (MMC).
Microsoft allows anyone to run preview versions of Windows 11 on supported hardware by opting into the Windows Insider Program. Insider releases are available in four channels: Canary, Dev, Beta, and Release Preview. In the new arrangement, those first three channels maintain separate paths from current builds; the only way to get back to the public releases is to reinstall Windows.
The lineup of Windows 11 editions is identical to those available for Windows 10, as are the suggested retail prices for corresponding Windows 11 editions. The complete lineup of retail and OEM editions includes Home, Pro, and Pro for Workstations.
On any PC with a properly licensed copy of Windows 10, the upgrade to Windows 11 is free. Although you can upgrade to Windows 11 on a PC running Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, the upgraded installation will not be activated automatically until you supply a product key or otherwise apply a Windows license.
Yes, you can install Windows 11 in a virtual machine (VM). In fact, you can create a virtual TPM in a Windows 11 VM that will satisfy the hardware requirements of the new operating system. On a Type 1 (bare metal) hypervisor like Microsoft’s own Hyper-V, you’ll be constrained by the same CPU requirements that govern installations on a physical PC. On a Type 2 hypervisor such as Oracle VirtualBox or VMware workstation, you might be able to spoof that requirement, but the effort is probably not worth the risk.
On a Mac with an Intel-based processor, you can install a third-party hypervisor and then use a downloaded ISO to install Windows 11. On Macs that use Apple Silicon (M1/M2/M3), the Microsoft-authorized option requires Parallels Desktop version 18 or later. You’ll need to supply a license for Windows 11 Pro to activate the virtual installation. For details on the limitations of Windows VMs running on this platform, see the Microsoft Support article: “Options for using Windows 11 with Mac computers with Apple M1 and M2 chips.”.
Most apps and devices that work with Windows 10 should work as expected under Windows 11. The newer operating system is sufficiently similar to its predecessor that the differences shouldn’t pose a problem for most apps. The best way to check compatibility for a Windows app is to install Windows 11 in a virtual machine and try running it. (If you encounter an error, be sure to use the Feedback Hub app to file a report.)
If you discover a compatibility issue with hardware or software after upgrading to Windows 11, you have 10 days to roll that upgrade back to the previous installation of Windows 10. That option disappears after 10 days, so don’t delay.