Windows 11 early review - Shiny, inefficient, confusing

Updated: July 9, 2021

Time to give Windows 11 a proper review. In my last article, I talked about hardware requirements, TPM and all that, and I invested a fair deal of time handling the different hurdles and issues in getting the preview builds of Windows 11 installed. I tried the setup process on a test laptop with AMD Ryzen 5 processor, and inside a virtual machine on a laptop powered by an 8th gen Intel processor. In the end, things went well.

Now, I want to see what Windows 11 actually does. Mind, this is an early review. So anything you see today may change, and/or not be indicative of the final product. However, based on my past experience, what you see today is largely what you'll get in the final product. OK, so Windows 11, here we go. Begin.

Teaser

First impressions

I can talk about two separate tests - my real, laptop upgrade, and a generic virtual machine test. Apart from a few small screenshots that show the vanilla results, I will focus on the actual laptop results. These are far more interesting. So let's see what happened in the upgrade process.

By and large, apart from the visual change, most of my settings were correctly ported and preserved. This is a very good thing. My privacy was largely unchanged, my applications are all there, and the defaults apps have not been "accidentally" reset. The default browser is Firefox and all that.

The system also sits in a triple-boot configuration, with two Linux distros, one of which controls the bootloader. Those were not affected during the upgrade. Windows 11 did not hijack the setup, and everything works like before. Very nice.

Upgraded

Privacy and such

Mostly, things were alright, and my efficiency-focused setup wasn't affected.

Speech off

The privacy settings were left at their previous, correct (Off) values.

There were some annoyances, though:

Startup

Cloud search enabled

Screenshot borders

RoUnDeD CoRNeRs

The whole discussion around rounded corners in Windows 11 reminds me of the scene in The Dictator, where Admiral-General Aladeen discusses the missile cone shape with Nadal. It's got to be rounded. No, it's got to be pointy. The shape of the missile has nothing to do with payload delivery! Indeed. What matters is the content, ergo applications, but hey, corners!

The new style feels like a mix between Plasma and something from the world of Apple. Happier colors, more depth. Less flatness, which is good, but not enough. Now, look at that Explorer. The window borders feel almost like Windows XP. It's almost like people reuse ideas from the past, gasp, fads come and go, gasp, and then, there are basic human needs, which cannot be defeated by hipsterology.

Explorer, corners

That said, the interface feels a little toyish. The icons don't feel professional enough. I did reduce the scaling factor on the laptop from 150% down to 125% and even 100%, and things look more reasonable then, but it all still feels a little crayony. The bonus effect is that the less-flat toy-like effect gives the mediocre screen on my laptop a bit more life, so things don't look quite as washed out as they normally do.

Scaling

I've not yet played much with scaling factors, so we shall see what gives soon.

Overall usability - it's pretty bad at the moment

You will notice that the Settings tool has been revamped. In a good way. It no longer does the stab-the-screen touch nonsense so much. You get actual categories, which seems to show that Microsoft is most likely ready to get off the useless touch hype train. Settings is now more like ... wait for it ... Control Panel. However, the inconsistency will probably continue for another decade or three, because in every version of Windows, admin tools have come in four or five different UI layouts, ranging from the NT4 era onwards. The important thing is for people to be able to accomplish what they need. Six years down the road, Settings is still not as good as the old and proven Control Panel, though. That's what happen when you use touch paradigms on the desktop, you half the usability and the IQ of the user, at the same time.

Settings

On the other hand, the system menu is weird and annoying. Oversized and useless. It also has a "Recommended" section, which at the moment, cannot be disabled. This feels like Attempt 3.0 at doing something other than a classic menu, and it's meh. Hopefully, it will improve, because right now, it serves no purpose.

OK, let's see. First, the Administrator account. I had no idea why there were so many blank placeholders for different items - I guess the apps needed to be "downloaded" post-install or some such, and I really hate that the menu shows files/filenames, but without an extension. This looks messy and untidy, but I guess it appeals to the casual idiot, who supposedly needs a "recommended" reminder to see what files they have opened recently.

Menu

From the Administrator account.

I then logged into my standard account, to see what gives there, and also did the same on the virtual machine, to compare the stock "vanilla" experience to an existing user. Pinned apps, nope. Don't want. Then, the Recommended nonsense. I don't need you to show me my new apps. No.

Standard account

From my standard user account.

In the VM, I had the following. A typical mix of nothing valuable. And of course, there's no logic to it, whatsoever. Why would a video editor be under Recommended when I'm running inside a lowly VM? No one is going to do video editing like that. All that pinned stuff used to be useless tiles, and now it's useless icons. Still no value.

Menu, default

Default menu in a virtual machine, clean install, no actual usage.

I unpinned all of the nonsense, and the menu still does not show you the list of apps - it still defaults to its so-called primary page. This is what it looks like when you remove the "apps" - an empty plate of boredom and sadness. The logical thing would be: no pinned apps, show all apps. Simple.

Empty

I also don't like the central position for the menu. It's just wrong. At the moment, you can move the menu to the left corner, and hopefully this will still be possible in the future, too. But you cannot put the taskbar elsewhere, as you could in the past. So, the ergonomics takes a hit.

Set to left

Menu on the left

The new right-click is also annoying. Too big ... and it introduces a second mouse-click, whereby certain options are hidden in the first level, and you need another action to show everything. A waste of effort, just like Start Menu was in Windows 8.1. Absolutely useless.

Custom pin, more options

The scrollbars in Settings change their width on hover from thin to thicker. What's the point? And why introduce a visual inconsistency while a user is doing something? If you want to make the scrollbars bigger and easier to use, then, maybe, y'know, make them bigger to begin with?

Quick Launch

Another issue - the new taskbar does not let you add Quick Launch. You may say, but it's a relic from the olden days! Except ... it offers superior functionality compared to the pinned apps. Mostly because of two things:

As it happens, in Windows 11 (and also 10), the Show desktop button is a thin strip on the far right of the taskbar. Not very helpful if most of your pinned apps or shortcuts are on the left. Much like the mouse travel problem in Gnome 40. Here, in the preview build, the Show desktop button was also slow, sluggish and not responsive (seems to be fixed in the latest release, but not when I tested). So I wanted to add a big and useful one on the left, which can be accomplished with Quick Launch, like say in Windows 10.

Only, Windows 11 doesn't allow you to use Quick Launch anymore, even though it exists and has all the right buttons. Now, there's a way around this, and you can add a custom icon that minimizes all the windows to your desktop, but we'll talk about that is a separate tutorial.

Quick Launch

My Explorer windows lost accent color - seems like a bug somewhere. Also, this looks like a NEW file manager?

The much bigger issue is - launching Explorer. In Windows 10/11, it only allows you to open to Quick access or This PC, not a random folder like E:\Games. With normal, ergonomically superior Quick Launch, you can have seven or ten different icons for different Explorer paths, each one with its own icon, each one pointing to a different folder on your system, even a remote location if you will.

Open to in Explorer

XP window border styling, modern nonsense functionality.

The new "modern" software forces you to use the low-IQ layout, which is why I'm still using Quick Launch on my Windows 10 machines. If and when Explorer allows you to open multiple locations from multiple icons, then I will no longer really need it. Before you foam and explode, yes, you CAN "hack" your way around, as always. That's NOT the point. But I expect simple, sane and efficient behavior by default. That's the magic word. Quick Launch, drag 'n' drop, done. New stuff, right-click, hacky, hacky, path, path. More in a separate guide.

Default apps

Windows 11 comes with a new model for managing default applications. Seems to be per-protocol. I am not sure why this method, because it's more complex and exhausting - perhaps that's the reason, so people get tired and choose not to switch away? This is more cumbersome.

Default apps

Mini-summary on the ergonomics side

Lots of problems:

Now, as you can see, there are quite a few issues with the new UI. In general, there is absolutely no need for this thing, the same way there was no need for Windows 10 look & feel. There was nothing wrong with the old, classic desktop formula, except it was old, and people need to be paid to do new things, because new things sell, and the plebes get excited by shiny colors. I intend to write a separate tutorial that shows you how to fix some of the nonsense, so you CAN have a classic menu, a big show desktop button, and a few other important details like that. More on that soon ...

Classic menu

Performance, bugses

Not good at the moment, but this doesn't worry me - it's a Dev build. Compared to the Windows 10 that sat on this box until very recently, the desktop responsiveness is quite bad. Everything is slower and laggier. The system responds like it has a mechanical disk not an NVMe.

If you go into Settings > Personalization, any change triggers a 30-sec freeze, during which the Settings window is unresponsive. It also crashes often. The visual changes take many seconds to apply. The whole thing feels buggy.

My Explorer also lost accent color, but only when in the foreground - as you can see from the Quick Launch screenshot earlier. But when you background the window, the correct style is applied. However, apart from the Explorer bug, which will hopefully be noticed and fixed, Settings never uses any accent color, and it's always pale and low-contrast gray, which is annoying - also true in Windows 10.

Accent colors

But wait a mo! This is a different Explorer from the classic one. And here the plot thickens. If you launch explorer.exe, then it starts normally, and it DOES hove accent color. It's only this new thing, whatever it is, with its very Gnome-like look that struggles. Not that looking like Gnome indicates a problem, but there's a lot of empty space, no clear indication what things are meant to do, and such. Then, the problem extends to Settings. Weird color stuff, but no proper theming.

Colors messed up

View benefits? What is that even supposed to mean?

Settings also comes with a mangled navigation. Fire it up, and look what happens in the top right corner. This ain't no VM, this is a physical host, my IdeaPad 3 with its Ryzen processor and Vega graphics. All real work stuff, no tomfoolery.

Broken theming

I tried using Open-Shell to get the classic menu behavior - at the moment, it only works with the Super key. If you click on the menu icon, Windows always super-imposes itself over. I presume this is just an early usage issue that will be sorted out some day. Therefore, I'm kind of marking this one as neutral. No screenshots, as they don't really make much sense here.

When it comes to updates, Windows 11 tells you how "long" the process will take - but this seems to be a deliberately pessimistic overestimate, because for me, the particular update only took about one minute, including the reboot in the middle. A bug or a feature?

Time

The battery indicator shows no time - only percentage. I assume this is a bug, because otherwise, it's useless.

No time for battery

The system tray thing also feels like a phone applet, which makes it extra useless. Here, you get the same effect like the System Menu pinned items. Remove everything, except say Wireless, and you have an empty and useless popup menu. An idea that feels borrowed from Plasma slash Gnome, but executed with a random Android spin.

Default system tray

Anyway, the whole thing. Majestic, innit? If you remove Wireless, you get the icon there, but no control over access points. Such a ridiculous and inconsistent choice. Why this whole phone-like nonsense? This is a laptop, not a touch brick.

Empty tray

System tray

At the end of the day, worth it?

Well, not really. Let's try to separate Windows 11 from the Dev edition-ness of this release. The early testing issues are not an issue - they will be fixed. I'm talking speed and Explorer losing accent color. The bigger, fundamental problem lies in the inefficiencies of the new UI. It's just all over the place.

Remember my Windows 8 review and Windows Blue & desktop conspiracy articles? Here, I see some of the same useless logic that went into the whole touch frenzy around when Windows 8 was conceived, but not quite as much, though. Or rather, a brand new angle.

So, the approach is different from Windows 8. It's sort of hybrid. Mostly desktop, with some real improvements in this space and further distancing from the touch delusion (partly), but then also more focus on the "apps" idea, which still borrows from the mobile world. Hence, the requirement for an online account for the Home edition, which is something I will test in the future. Hence, the new menu that looks like a home screen on an Android phone - lo and behold, Windows 11 will run Android apps! Meh. Why would anyone ever run inferior touch-based software on a high-precision device controlled by a mouse and a full keyword? But there you go. Apps, idiots, money. Sounds like a good formula. Haters be hatin'.

The issues I've identified will annoy techies mostly - because they are the ones that need efficiency and productivity. Having to right-click twice for useful stuff, or the Recommended nonsense in the menu, or the lack of ability to pin folder shortcuts to the likes of D:\compile-Qt-stuffs and M:\Movies (in a simple way), these will only create anger with people who know their way around computers. The sad bit is, the new stuff won't provide any real value to idiots, though.

The new UI layout is also rather ... confusing. There isn't a clear sense of identity. This is neither Mac nor Plasma nor old Windows nor Gnome. A mix of things that doesn't adhere strictly to any one discipline of desktop usage. More like an experiment, let's see what works. So, looking at my needs, I was able to tweak back a lot of the useless stuff and get 95% of what I expect from the desktop. But then, this is just wasted energy.

Going back to Windows 8, indeed, true to me judgment, Windows 10 reintroduced a classic desktop formula, because a desktop is a desktop. Now, once again, there's a bold foray into unknown territory. It pushes against fundamental efficiency and basic human needs, and that never works well in the long run.

Going forward, my guess is that Microsoft will tone down some of the new stuff they showed here, bringing almost visual parity with Windows 10, but then with just enough distinction - the more XP-like borders and alike, to make it feel like a brand new and bold project. The center position of the menu will probably look cool for a whole of fifteen minutes to ordinary users, but anyone with some tech ability will shove it to the left. As for the rest, we shall keep on testing.

But will I switch? Based on what I see here, only when a moment of no-choice happens - provided I've not found a solution to my gaming and office requirements by then (2025 or so), the only two things that still force me to keep on using Windows. Not because Windows 11 is horrible - because, like my switch from Windows 7 to 10, there is nothing revolutionary or exciting about the whole deal.

Conclusion

I find the whole early Windows 11 experience quite odd. The operating system does some things rather decently. Seamless upgrade, my apps and permissions were preserved, I can even run KompoZer from 2008 without any problems. Better system settings and all that. But then, why ruin all these good things with extra mouse clicks and a weird menu alignment? Or why add extra mouse clicks when they are not needed?

The one thing that dejects me is that I have to invest energy making things behave in an efficient way. Young people don't understand it yet, but time is the most precious commodity in the world. No matter how smart or rich you are, you get 80-90 years tops. Maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less. Why waste them clicking on an icon twice or three times or whatnot, when you can do it with less? Even more importantly, when you could do it with less! For example, what's so special about not allowing Explorer to point to a random disk location? How's Quick Launch threatening the grand business model?

Yes, at the end of the day, I got slightly different icons and colors, the menu is still where it belongs, and my battery indicator will probably be fixed some day. Using a Pro edition, I'll be able to avoid the online account nonsense, and I can pin the Show desktop icon onto the taskbar just fine. I ought to be happy, right? But not really. There isn't anything inherently wrong with Windows 11. But there's also no room left for useful invention in the desktop space. It's a formula that's 40 years old, and anything new is just noise. Move a button here, move it there.

This article is already too long, so let's bring it home. Windows 11 is a minor bump on top of Windows 10, featuring more visual contrast, more desktop inefficiency, and making a few nerdy things harder to achieve. It seems to aim at the app experience, but whether this will work out ... not likely. Win32 is still the king, and it will remain for a long, long time, because some fundamental needs are unassailable. As long as humans have 10 digits, and pixels are so tiny, there's only so much you can do with a screen and some software on it.

More to come. I will write some guides, and try the Home & online account thingie when possible.

Cheers.

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