MAY 22, 2024 /

Windows 11 Early Impressions: Cleaner visuals with a learning curve

Microsoft recently released its first public-facing beta version of the Windows 11 operating system that it will ship later this year. You’ve got to be signed up to its Windows Insider program to get it – and be willing to accept a little risk in terms of unstable operating systems – but then this is exactly what I’ve done for quite some time now in terms of software generally.

I’ve been writing about various flavours of Windows right back to the point where Windows 95 was the most up-to-date version you could get, so it’s fair to say that I’ve seen a lot of change in the way Microsoft thinks.

I’ve seen it through the era where it still wasn’t quite sure about this whole “Internet” thing, to the era where it used bundled Internet Explorer to utterly crush its Netscape competition. I can recall going to a Windows XP launch where (and I swear I’m not making this up) Microsoft handed copies of Windows XP over to tech journalists along with Windows XP branded boxer shorts. I remember (not fondly) the weird visual approaches of Windows Vista and Windows 8. I’ve seen some unusual Windows stuff, is what I’m getting at.

Now we come to Windows 11, and I’ve been tinkering with the beta for a while to get a feel for what Microsoft’s improved or changed, and what I think works – and where some may stumble with it.

The most obvious visual change is that the start bar and pop up menu that comes from that start bar is centrally located. You can shift it back to the left, but I’ve left it central for now, simply because that seems to be in line with Microsoft’s thinking, which is fundamentally about simplification.

Microsoft’s been down this road before with that whole big icons “metro” tablet interface in Windows 8 that so many people hated, but here it feels like it makes more sense. Most of us are quite au fait with smaller icons and less text on our smartphones and tablets, and that’s more of the feel that you get with Windows 11’s start menu and pinned and recommended icon approach.

That simplification approach is evident elsewhere too. For a long while I’ve thought that the Windows settings approach was muddled between about 20 different layout styles, some of them dating back eons in computing time.

Windows 11 cleans that up a lot, with a much better, centrally managed settings interface that should make it easier to find the details that you want to change.

I also rather like the new “snap layouts” feature. Windows 10 already allows you to snap open windows to a side of the screen by dragging, but by holding the mouse pointer over the maximise button, you can use and create custom layouts for your open applications.

Having recently switched to an ultra-wide 16:9 desktop monitor for my working desktop PC, it’s great to be able to smartly make the most use of my extra horizontal space without having to fight Windows to get it right.

All of this change comes at a cost, however, and there are aspects of the new visual layout I don’t love quite as much. File Explorer also gets a Spring clean, and while I can see how it fits into the Windows 11 aesthetic, the icon-driven approach can be confusing if your muscle memory is (like mine) already tuned to the more classic approach.

Right now, Microsoft is playing it relatively quiet with the new Widgets available in Windows 11. I’m not sure yet if I do want processor cycles being used up by AI-driven widgets at the left side of my screen, but everyone’s uses could vary there.

Then there’s just the plain old fact that as humans, our brains are pretty lazy creatures. Windows 11 is an interesting overhaul of Windows, but it also represents a new learning curve.

More than once I’ve found myself pondering where a feature might be or trying to do something the “old way” that Windows 11 thinks of in a slightly different way. It’s very much my job to adjust to change, so I’m OK with that – but I can totally see more rusted-on Windows users finding it a bit more challenging than that.

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Alex Kidman
A multi-award winning journalist, Alex has written about consumer technology for over 20 years. He has written and edited for virtually every Australian tech publication including Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and more.