October 19, 2021

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5 things to know before jumping into Windows 11

Windows 11 is almost here and that means it’s time for every PC user to get up to speed on what that’s going to mean for their daily lives.

Launching officially on Oct. 5, Windows 11 marks the first new numbered Windows release in more than six years. At least on the surface (pun not intended, but acknowledged), Windows 11 looks like a fairly radical departure from what came before. Basic Windows staples like the taskbar and start menu have been totally retooled from what they had been for decades prior, for example.

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The good news is that once you start using Windows 11, it’s clear that these changes aren’t so intimidating after all. This is still Windows through and through. That said, it can’t hurt to get ready for the Windows 11 experience before diving headfirst into the future of PCs.

Here are some of the biggest changes to know about before installing Windows 11.

Retrain your start menu brain

Mashable Image


Credit: screenshot: alex perry / mashable / microsoft

For basically as long as I’ve been alive, the Windows start menu has been the main PC hub for organizing and seeking out installed applications, always situated in the bottom left corner of the screen. Sure, the look and feel of the start menu itself has changed wildly over time, but any PC user’s muscle memory tells them to whip the mouse cursor down and to the left to find it. That is no longer the case.

In what is probably the single biggest visual departure from previous versions of Windows, the Windows 11 start button now sits on the left side of a taskbar that’s been centered on the very bottom edge of the display. To be frank, it looks like a leaner version of the signature app dock on macOS. I’m not the first person to notice that and I won’t be the last. It’s not the most original take on a UI for a home computer, but I personally think it looks nice.

If you click on the start menu icon or press the Windows key, you’ll find that the actual look and feel of the menu itself has changed a decent amount, too. A grid of pinned apps takes up the top half of the start menu, which can obviously be edited and arranged by pinning or unpinning apps to your heart’s content — just like how the Windows taskbar has worked for years. A “See All” button on the upper right corner of the pinned apps section will, naturally, just show you a list of all your apps. Beneath that is a “Recommended” section that shows apps or documents you’ve been looking at recently and might want to access again. Finally, a search text field at the top of the start menu will let you seek out anything on the PC you’re looking for, whether it’s a Word doc or a specific part of the settings menu.

This new start menu and taskbar arrangement is more of a redecoration than a full remodel of the Windows UI, but longtime PC users will surely need to train themselves not to click on the bottom left corner of the screen anymore. It’s totally empty down there. You’ll just waste your time.

Learn to love desktops

Gamer’s delight on one desktop…

Credit: screenshot: alex perry / mashable / microsoft

…and an artistic masterpiece on another.

Credit: screenshot: alex perry / mashable / microsoft

There are lots of different reasons and ways to use a Windows PC. One part of your day might be dominated by Excel and Slack because of your job, while you might rely more on Steam and Discord during your free time. Windows 11’s new “Desktops” feature lets you keep all of these programs open at the same time without any of them getting in the way of one another.

Simply click the icon that looks like two overlapping rectangles on the taskbar and you’ll be able to create and swap between different desktops. Each desktop is basically a distinct fork of the typical Windows home screen where you can open and arrange whatever apps you’d like and keep them there, away from anything else. It’s a computing version of separating the personal from the professional. I can have separate desktops for gaming and artistic endeavors that never have to collide with one another. You can even give each desktop its own background wallpaper.

Just like the centered taskbar, this isn’t exactly new to home computing. Some versions of Linux have had this exact feature for many, many years. Mac has a version of it called “Spaces,” too. Even so, it’s eminently useful. You don’t have to constantly open and close different apps throughout the day anymore if you don’t want to. Once you’re done with work, just switch to a non-work desktop. Honestly, this change was overdue.

Bend and snap (mostly just snap)

One snap grid lets you easily divide the screen into four equally sized windows for a frankly overwhelming amount of productivity.

One snap grid lets you easily divide the screen into four equally sized windows for a frankly overwhelming amount of productivity.
Credit: screenshot: alex perry / mashable / microsoft

The next feature I’ll highlight actually goes hand-in-hand with desktops. Windows 11 makes it a lot easier to lay out different windows in visually pleasing and functionally useful ways with “Snap Layouts.”

If you’ve got two or more windows open, it couldn’t be easier to place them into these pre-designed grids. Simply hover your mouse cursor over the maximize button on said window (that’s the one to the left of the close button, in the upper right corner) and Windows will show you a handful of different grids you can use. Click the specific part of the screen you’d like to place that window in, and Windows 11 automatically reshapes and resizes the window for your needs. You can also manually do this by clicking and dragging a window to the borders of the screen, but I think the other way is easier and more precise.

This is an easy way to distinguish one desktop from another. On one, I have work stuff taking up most of the screen with Slack as a right sidebar. On another, I can have four different Office programs divided equally so each is as visible and usable as the rest. This is just a simple, intuitive organizational tool that makes resizing and organizing windows faster than before.

It’s just fun to say “widget”

Widgets are fine, I guess.

Widgets are fine, I guess.
Credit: screenshot: alex perry / mashable / microsoft

The new “Widgets” feature in Windows 11 isn’t nearly as useful as any of the above changes. However, it’s worth talking about because it spawns from a button that, as far as I can tell, you can’t remove from the taskbar. If Microsoft really wants us to use widgets, it’s worth knowing how they work, at least.

Clicking on the widgets button (a long vertical rectangle with smaller ones to its right) will bring up a customizable panel full of, well, widgets. These can run the gamut from local weather to news stories about topics you flag as your interests in the settings menu and even the latest baseball scores. This isn’t revolutionary, as even previous versions of Windows have had things like this, but Windows 11 widgets are at least fairly clean to look at and live entirely in this menu if you don’t ever want to engage with them.

Of course, you can add and remove widgets to your liking. I took the stock market tracker widget out of there immediately because I couldn’t care less about that, but maybe you do! Oh, and if you’re on a Surface (or other touch-driven Windows 11 device), you can bring widgets up at any time by swiping in from the left side of the screen. That’s honestly a little more intuitive than clicking a taskbar button, so widgets might be best suited for folks who prefer to use Windows 11 in tablet form.

Accessibility matters

These colorblind modes don't really help me, but they might help you.

These colorblind modes don’t really help me, but they might help you.
Credit: screenshot: alex perry / mashable / microsoft

Last but obviously not least, Windows 11 has a sizable suite of accessibility options to suit different people’s needs. Simply open the settings menu and find “Accessibility” on the left sidebar to see everything Windows 11 has to offer in this regard.

There are contrast settings for people with light sensitivity, customization tools for captions for those who are hard of hearing, and even a handful of different colorblind modes for folks like me whose eyes can’t easily distinguish between some hues. A computerized narrator voice can be customized with different tones, pitches, and talking speed for anyone who needs Windows 11 to read what’s on screen to them, too.

Windows has had plenty of these things before, but Windows 11 efficiently groups them together and makes it easy to alter these settings to fit whatever your specific needs may be. The colorblind filters here may not be especially useful for my specific brand of color deficiency, but they’ll surely help someone out, for instance. Can’t complain about that.

For all the changes Microsoft made to Windows 11, it’s still Windows at its core. If you’ve been using Windows for years, it shouldn’t take you long to adjust. I’m personally into most of the changes, even if the new taskbar orientation is a little too Mac-like. This isn’t anywhere near as unpleasant a new Windows launch as Vista was, for those of us who are old enough to remember that. It’s clean, simple, and has plenty of ways to make your everyday life just a little bit easier.

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