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Windows 11 release date, beta download, features and more

Windows 11: Your guide to Microsoft's next Windows OS
(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Windows 11 was revealed today, ushing in a new era for Microsoft's desktop operating system. What we previously suspected would be a transformative update to Windows 10 ended up being an entirely new OS. Where Windows 10 undid some of the mistakes of Windows 8 by reverting to a more familiar layout, Windows 11 attempts to modernize, simplify and introduce new features designed to make users more productive. 

Microsoft officially revealed Windows 11 on June 24 at a digital event where it walked viewers through the new interfaces and features. Among those is the addition of Android apps to the Microsoft Store, a snap tool for easy multitasking, and Teams being integrated directly into Windows 11. We also learned the OS will be a free upgrade for eligible Windows 10 laptops and desktops. 

From what we've seen, Windows 11 appears to be a gorgeous remodel of Windows 10 and a breath of fresh air from the antiquated interfaces found in the world's most popular laptop OS. We will learn more about Windows 11 next week when the OS beta goes live. Until then, here is a breakdown of everything we do and don't know about Windows 11.

Windows 11 release date

Microsoft didn't provide a specific release date for Windows 11, but we know the new OS will arrive this holiday. But first, a beta will launch starting in July so testers can get their hands on the operating system and provide valuable feedback before the worldwide launch. 

It's also worth noting that there are rumblings that Windows 11 could be released in the month of October. For example, tech pundits have noticed that many screenshots in Microsoft's Windows 11 marketing campaign feature the "October 21, 2021" date in them. Could this be a hint that Windows 11 could be headed our way earlier than we thought?

Windows 11 reveal video

If you'd like to rewatch the full Windows 11 reveal, Microsoft uploaded the 45-minute video to its YouTube channel (see the video embedded above). In it, Microsoft quickly runs through some of the changes coming to the new OS. 

Windows 11: What is it?

Microsoft had long teased a major update to its desktop operating system. Called Sun Valley, this update was assumed to be an overhaul rather than an entirely new OS after a Microsoft exec called Windows 10 the "last version of Windows." We now know better. 

Windows 10 will eventually be phased out in favor of Windows 11, which Microsoft will arrive holiday 2021. Windows 11 will be a free update for users of Windows 10, Windows 8 and Windows 7.

What happens to Windows 10?

Microsoft will eventually phase out Windows 10 by dropping support. As it stands, Win10 will stop receiving support on October 14, 2025, giving users about 4 years before they are strongly encouraged to transition to Windows 11. 

Microsoft wrote in its support document: "Microsoft will continue to support at least one Windows 10 Semi-Annual Channel until October 14, 2025." 

When the clock strikes midnight on that date, Windows 10 will stop receiving crucial updates including security patches. If this date holds, Windows 10 will be just over 10 years old when it enters retirement. It's possible Microsoft chooses to or is forced to extend the life of Windows 10 if users don't adopt Windows 11.

Windows 11 Taskbar and Start Menu

The upcoming OS will introduce a radically new Start Menu and Taskbar. Though already controversial, these revamped elements are among the most exciting UI changes debuting in Windows 11. 

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Instead of being left-aligned, the new Taskbar features icons centered at the bottom of your screen, not unlike macOS. Pressing on the Start Menu (a modernized blue Microsoft logo) presents a floating window that displays pinned and recommended apps as well as the restart/shut down button. A small icon in the top-right corner takes you to a full app list. 

Icons in the Start Menu were also given a makeover. Instead of dynamic Live Tiles, colorful app icons sit atop a uniform transparent background. It gives the operating system a more cohesive appearance compared with the disjointed amalgamation of recycled parts found in the current version.

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Next to the Start Menu is a search icon similar to the current Windows 10 tool except that it too is floating. Here, you can run a system-wide search for documents, apps, documents and more. Next to those mainstays are your pinned apps (which could include a new File Explorer). Oh, and if you don't like the center alignment, you can easily move it to its traditional spot on the left. 

The Action Center icon remains on the bottom-right corner as is the system tray where you can pin tools for quick access. Minor updates were made to the Action Center; there is a larger brightness slider and reshaped buttons.

Windows 11 design and animations 

On to another 90-degree turnaround. Windows 11 will swap sharp corners for rounded ones that adhere more closely with Microsoft's Fluent Design language. This gives the OS a softer, less aggressive aesthetic. This is another design choice that may not be embraced by all users, but to us, it gives Windows 11 a welcoming appearance. 

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Animations are also different from what we see on Windows 10. For example, when you minimize a window, it shrinks into the centered Start Menu. When you maximize, a transparent outline appears before the window expands. 

Built directly into the maximize button in Windows 11 is the ability to snap programs to different parts of the screen. Pressing the maximize button brings up an icon with six different layouts to choose from for when you're working with multiple windows. 

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You can put your current window side-by-side with another or even two other apps, or one can take up the left half of the screen with the other two stacked on the other half. It's an excellent new feature that should make it easier to multitask. 

Windows 11 Widgets

Pinned to the Taskbar by default is a new Widgets panel that presents news, weather and other customizable information like sports scores and stock prices. The panel appears on the left side of the screen when you select the widget icon. This essentially replaces the News and Interest card Microsoft brought to Windows 10 in April. 

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pressing on any of these cards will take you to the source of the info. For example, selecting the score of the San Francisco Giants game will take you to MLB.com, or a news article about politics might direct you to the New York Times. Everyone will have a unique experience with the updated Taskbar as it shows personalized information. Each of the cards can be adjusted so the weather can be shown as an icon with text or as an icon only (so it takes up less space).

Windows 11 icons, wallpapers, Dark mode and sounds

Windows 11 will feature new icons and wallpapers. Microsoft had already swapped some old icons with new ones in a renewed effort to modernize Windows. We don't love all of the refreshed avatars, many of which are simplified versions of older images, but they are at least high-res and colorful. 

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The wallpapers, on the other hand, are undeniably stunning. We took a deep dive looking at each new wallpaper and there isn't one background the Laptop Mag staff doesn't enjoy except perhaps the one that reminds us of Pringles (only because it makes us hungry). These wallpapers are grouped into themes that change the accent color of the entire OS.

Light mode is enabled by default but a Dark Mode is also available and accessible in the same way as is it in Windows 10. Finally, Windows 11 will introduce new sounds including a relaxing new start-up charm.

Control Panel, File Explorer and Windows Store

Cue sad trumpet music. The Control Panel looks unchanged in the leaked early builds of Windows 11; we hope Microsoft has some tricks under its sleeve when the final OS is revealed because, as it stands, the Control Panel looks ancient and more out of place than ever before. 

Fortunately, the File Explorer, where your documents, photos, videos, and downloads are stored, is getting a new look. The top bar was simplified with a "new folder" option on the left side. Also, icons in the top bar are no longer stacked on top of each other, resulting in a much cleaner interface. 

Windows 11

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Now called the Microsoft Store (formerly the Windows Store), Windows 11's app store is where you'll purchase apps, games and videos. It, too, was redesigned. And while it looks similar to the Windows 10 version, the Microsoft Store gets some inspiration from the Xbox Series X's visual design. More importantly, developers will keep 100% of the revenue they make if they use their own commerce channels. The other major news is that the Microsoft Store will support Android apps natively thanks to Intel technology and a link to the Amazon app store. 

Windows 11 performance

Windows 11

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft says Windows 11 is more efficient than Windows 10 and should therefore enable longer battery life. Yes, that means your laptop, once upgraded to Windows 11, should last longer on a charge than it did before. 

It gets even better. Windows updates will be 40% smaller than they were in Windows 10, and they will download in the background. Gaming will also be improved on Windows 11 as it will bring Auto-HDR for automatically utilizing High Dynamic Range to increase color depth. And by bringing direct storage to Windows 11, Microsoft is reducing load times and faster render speeds.

What Microsoft hasn't mentioned is whether apps will run faster on Windows 11 than they did on Windows 10. 

Outlook

Windows 11 is poised to be the next-gen OS Windows users have demanded, and frankly, deserve. Now 5 years old, Windows 10 is getting long in the tooth, having received a trickle of new features and design updates over the years. As much as Windows has improved in its lifetime, Microsoft's OS has a long way to go. Unstable updates have left a bitter taste in users' mouths while a fragmented UI lags behind modern web standards. 

With Windows 11, Microsoft has a chance to start over by delivering a fluid operating system that performs well even on budget hardware. Modernizing the layout, adding new quality of life features, and promising significant (and stable!) updates should reverse the adoption of alternative operating systems and grow the Windows market share. Microsoft showed last year that it could create contemporary, compromise-free software with the new Edge browser. If Windows 11 delivers, then Windows users will finally have some ammunition to bring to the age-old Microsoft vs. Apple war. 

Phillip Tracy

Phillip Tracy is the assistant managing editor at Laptop Mag where he reviews laptops, phones and other gadgets while covering the latest industry news. After graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin, Phillip became a tech reporter at the Daily Dot. There, he wrote reviews for a range of gadgets and covered everything from social media trends to cybersecurity. Prior to that, he wrote for RCR Wireless News covering 5G and IoT. When he's not tinkering with devices, you can find Phillip playing video games, reading, traveling or watching soccer.