Windows 11 first impressions, impressive first build, very fast, lots to like

The first build of Windows 11 was released to the public this week and build 22000.51 is remarkably polished for a built this early. As soon as the build...

The first build of Windows 11 was released to the public this week and build 22000.51 is remarkably polished for a built this early. As soon as the build was available, I started checking the Windows devices I have, to see if it was eligible for the upgrade, they were.

I have upgraded 2 out of the 4 machines so far and after using it for a few days, I want to use it everywhere.

Naturally everyone is excited about the controversial decision to move the Start button and pinned applications to the center of the taskbar, but after living with Windows 11, that’s the least important change from Windows 10.

Windows 11 is fast, like really fast. Microsoft had suggested it would perform better on the same hardware and they weren’t joking. Unlike many, I’m not running this in a virtual machine, or on a test device I never use, I’m now running this on my primary laptop, a Dell XPS 13, because if I’m going to really understand this, I need to live with it.

This means I upgraded my existing machine, so the improved performance is not a symptom of starting with a fresh install of Windows, it’s the same applications and files I had before, just faster, thanks to lower system resources being consumed by the OS, leaving more for the applications.

New in Windows 11 is a completely revamped start menu, action bar, settings menu and Store, so lets talk about them.

Start Menu

Windows 11 completely drops the Tiles that arrived back in Windows 8 (I guess everyone from that team has left now), instead we get a revamped start menu with new functions. At the top we find Pinned apps which is fine, it’s similar to the Pinned apps found to the right of the Win10 start menu. If you end up with more than 18 pinned apps, you get a the ability to scroll down to access additional pins.

Clicking the ‘All Apps’ button in the top-right takes you to a full list of all the apps on your machine and yes, there’s still the jump lists that allow you to click or tap on the letter your app starts with and jump straight to it.

Searching from the start menu remains fairly similar, just tap the Windows Key and start typing the application, setting or document you’re after, this is super fast to return results as well, so Microsoft have clearly worked some magic on their Windows 11 indexer.

Below the pinned application shortcuts is the really new section of the start menu. This brings in the connected OS element, meaning that you can see list of your most recently modified files, be it locally or in the cloud. For those of us who leverage Office 365, you’d be used to seeing a list of recent office docs available to you in the open menu, but this takes it a big step further, by integrating it at the OS level. Basically this makes moving between machines, really seamless.

In the settings, you can configure additional shortcuts in the lower-right, these include options for a shortcut to your Downloads, Documents Photos, Music, Video and more, which I find really helpful, so I enabled it.

My one frustration with the Start Menu search, is that any result from the web, launches in Edge, ignoring the fact you have Chrome set as your default browser.

Settings, Personalisation, Animations and more

Wow, the settings menu really did get a massive makeover in Windows 11. All of the settings you regularly need are now packaged in a mature and comprehensive Settings menu. This is something Windows 10 attempted, but failed, even after years of updates.

While Windows 11 still does have a legacy Control Panel, most users will never need to see that, with basically every setting you can think of, now using the new, uniform settings UI.

While the rounded corners of application windows is definitely new in Windows 11, it’s perhaps the attention to detail on the Dark theme that’s my biggest surprise in personalisation. If you select a Dark theme, the whole set of UI is dark, including Windows Explorer.

There’s a bunch of subtlety in Windows 11, things that you may not appreciate unless you’re paying close detail. Things like the animation of applications being minimised or restored, right-click menus rolling out, rather than simply appearing. When I first heard that this was coming, I really thought these would slow you do, but they really don’t, it seems Microsoft actually used this product before shipping it.

Those of use who regularly use the Action Center (swipe in from the right, or WinKey+A), will notice a substantial change to the way this looks and works. The notification and control panes have now been segmented. Access to regular controls like brightness, volume, WiFi, Bluetooth, battery life and more, are all still there, but only if you click on the WiFi, Volume, Battery icon, which are a single button. If you click on the clock, you’ll get the latest notifications, which are shown in segments, almost bubbles which I can’t say I love, compared to the single panel we had before.

Microsoft Store

Finally the Store, something Microsoft has really struggled to get right. After decades of training people to download software from the web, Microsoft tried to get application developers to publish their apps through the Store and in Windows 11, they are try again.

This really is a chicken and egg problem. If there’s no great apps in the Store, users don’t launch the Store when they want new software, but if users aren’t buying through the Store, developers will distribute software using alternative methods.

The Windows 11 Store looks clean and surfaces all the right information you’d expect across Apps, Gaming and Entertainment (Movies and TV), with the Home screen serving as a good front door Microsoft can use to feature the best new apps or content.

Key to a success in Windows 11, will be to have major software vendors publish their apps through the store, as well as solving the issue of discoverability. One of the biggest benefits users get, is that these apps in the Store, have been vetted by Microsoft (usually automated testing), to confirm the app is not malicious.

When developers bundle their apps to package them for the store, that also means they’re able to be uninstalled simply by right-clicking in the start menu and selecting Uninstall, simple enough for anyone to do.

Right now, Microsoft 365 is available, however Adobe Creative Cloud is not available, but Microsoft has said it is on the way. It’s clear the Store is now mature in Windows 11, with the ability to see all the important details about the apps and content, ahead of making your download or purchase decisions. There’s a detailed description, screenshots, ratings and more.

External Display Improvements

When you’re using a laptop connected to a USB-C dock, like most people these days, you’ll often disconnect to go to a meeting. At that point your window arrangements are usually lost, and you spend the 10 minutes after you return to your desk, repositioning everything.

Thankfully Microsoft has addressed this frequent and annoying issue in Windows 11. You can see in the video above, that I disconnect the laptop, and the external displays go to sleep. When I reconnect, they wake up, and the applications I had open, return to their previous locations. This really is a great usability improvement, long overdue and insanely welcome.

Snap zones

I used and loved FancyZones, as part of the PowerToys toolkit, but after moving to Windows 11, I barley use it. There’s a whole new way of arranging application windows in Windows 11. Windows 10 simply offered quadrants to snap your windows into, but that gets turned up to 11 in this build.

When you hover over a the normal Maximise button, you’ll now get presented with an overlay you can use to snap that application to a range of possible arrangements. These include 50/50 split, 80/20, Thirds, a full height left panel, with a vertically split option on the right, the regular quad and a 20/60/20 split.

What’s interesting about how this works, is that clicking the maximise button still works as normal, as does dragging an app to the top of the screen, it simply fills the screen. If you choose to leverage the snap suggestions, the app snaps in place, but then doesn’t leave you hanging, it prompts you to select from the remaining open windows, to populate the other regions in that layout. Nice Microsoft, this is actually really useful and I find myself leveraging this multiple times per day.

Room for Improvement

Obviously I’m fairly positive about Windows 11 as it works really well so far, for a build that is unlikely to get to General Availability until very late 2021 or early 2022. The really unfinished part of this build is multi-monitor support. Basically if you run multiple displays, your taskbar remains on just one of those displays.

As someone who runs a 49″ Super ultrawide from Samsung, I really was hoping for better OS support from Win11 and I’m sure that will come, but today, it’s not really there.

There are times where I’d like to check Task Manager and I definitely have serious muscle memory to launch it by right-clicking the taskbar and selecting Task Manager. To my shock, Windows 11 has just 1 right-click option on the Taskbar, which is Taskbar Settings, so I’d really love to see them return just this function.

There’s a Widgets icon in the Taskbar of Windows 11, which is next to Search, which is next to the Start button. While apps pinned to the Start Menu can be re-arranged, for some reason, these first 3 have to always be in that order – note: you can hide Search and Widgets.

Final thoughts

Ultimately I’m really impressed by what’s on offer with Windows 11 in this early stage and the best way to highlight that is that I miss it already when I go back to a machine without it. My favourite feature by far is the extra speed, followed by settings and the subtle animations in the UI. I think the rounded corners were unnessary, only to help on the mission of making this distinctively different, helping justify the full build number.

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Creator of techAU, Jason has spent the dozen+ years covering technology in Australia and around the world. Bringing a background in multimedia and passion for technology to the job, Cartwright delivers detailed product reviews, event coverage and industry news on a daily basis. Disclaimer: Tesla Shareholder from 20/01/2021
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