Teaching computing means I have something of an obligation to keep up with the latest developments, or at least this is the excuse I've been using for many years to justify spending large amounts of money on things I don't really need.
Last week, Microsoft released Windows 11 to the general public and very quickly it appeared in Windows update on my home PC. Just before we get into things, we need to just clarify the following:
So, if you're sitting comfortably, here is my experience with Microsofts latest and greatest, which they are very confident is going to be a "great experience." Only last week, the product manager for Windows 11 was expressing how he couldn't wait for his father to get the update so he could experience how good it was. I'd suggest his father is currently asking his son to fix his PC for him...
Initially, things went well. The update appeared in Windows update with the message "Great news! Your PC is compatible." Remember that little gem for later on, won't you. So I downloaded the installer and set it off, only to encounter the following three times in a row:
"Something" had gone wrong. I think it would be fair to suggest that, across the technology industry, error messages are shamefully awful. I understand the need to simplify things and that many users may not understand any detail which is given, but a small "Click for details" wouldn't harm and would definitely reduce the amount of time spent on Google trying to work out what in your specific case has apparently gone wrong.
As it turns out, for no apparent reason, simply rebooting (this was on a cold boot anyway) fixes the issue and you're off again. This time, we passed 71% installed without an issue and a message popped up saying the system would now reboot to complete the installation. No problem, off you go!
One restart later and this is what greeted me:
Hmm. Was it the TPM/Secure boot thing?
Off into the UEFI I went and I dug around to make sure all the settings were in place and that nothing silly had happened such as booting in the wrong mode. To make doubly sure that I'd not missed anything I tried booting with settings for TPM on, off, various other settings on and off, and finally with legacy boot on and off.
No dice. The upgrade installer had nuked the boot loader and that was that.
What to do? Well, the next sensible option seemed to be a USB installer, so I created one and booted from that. It helpfully told me:
"You've started an upgrade, you should just restart to complete that!!"
Yes. Yes I should, but that option has been unfortunately murdered by the installer, so we'll go for a clean install. In fairness, being someone of the age where I lived through DOS, Windows 3.1 and 95, I should and do know far better than to ever trust a Windows upgrade process.
I went through the installer, selected the version to install, clicked next and...
"No! You can't install windows 11, you don't have the correct hardware!"
Can we all see the problem here? Microsoft told me I do indeed meet the requirements, twice. Now, because I made the mistake of rebooting, clearly some of the electrons have fallen out of my machine and something has been disabled. Or not.
The problem again here is super useful error messages - why not just tell me which bit of the requirements I apparently don't meet? We are none the wiser and because of this I now have a dead PC with two options - put Windows 10 back or plough on regardless. I'm sure you can tell which option I went for.
Unfortunately, being in the dark about their dislike of my hardware set up, I had no choice but to go nuclear with the fix and add registry settings in the installer which disabled checks for RAM, CPU and TPM. I still have absolutely no idea what the installer didn't like, but within minutes we were back up and running and being nagged incessantly by the final install process to create or use a Microsoft account. We won't go into why this is a terrible idea now, but it is a terrible idea.
What is Windows 11 like to use?
In many ways, it's not really any different. I like a lot of the cleaning up thats taken place throughout the user interface, Explorer for example is especially nice to use.
However, some of the major changes are just horrible.
The Windows 10 start menu was horrible. Truly, truly horrible and it seems that at least some of that feedback made its way back to Microsoft who decided to try again with the new Start menu. The new Start menu is better than Windows 10, but it is still awful.
Microsoft really want you to search for things as the default way of doing things, which is fine in some circumstances but utterly unnecessary for nearly all the common things you need to do with your computer. There's clearly a "Spotlight on the Mac is useful" angle here, with one unfortunate difference. Invariably, Spotlight finds the things you want most of the time, whereas Windows search finds things you don't.
There are lots of little inconsistencies and annoyances littered throughout this new UI and Start menu inparticular. The worst of which is, if you do start a search, but then for any reason decide you want to go back to the apps menu/home you.... can't do it. Look at the screenshot above, can you see a way back to the main Start menu? It's not by clicking on "Apps" either...
Not content with forcing "live tiles" on us all last time, now there is a forced "recommended" panel. There are many reasons why users don't want the OS to recommend documents and programs here, most of all privacy. If you turn the option off, instead of giving this space over to something useful, you are left with this blank panel which takes up 50% of the space dedicated to the Start menu itself. This is terrible interface design.
When the Start menu was introduced in Windows 95, the idea was genuinely quite revolutionary and it really did work. It was the result of an unimaginable amount of money which had been spent on research and development by a team of engineers at Microsoft. They refined and refined until they hit on the final design which shipped with the seminal operating system.
The whole goal was that a user could so literally anything they needed to by just clicking one button and there it all was - your programs, documents, settings, help, search... you name it, it was there.
By Windows 98 and latterly, Windows 2000 they had basically perfected the Start menu. It worked, and it worked well. Did it need to change? Well, this one I guess is down to personal preference, but from a functional point of view, no, there really was no need to alter the design other than an apparent need to always be seen to be moving forwards by changing the way everything looks.
This is very different, however, to the ribbon interface in Office. Around 2007, applications had often grown so complex that the menus were absolutely stuffed with options, sometimes many levels deep and knowing where to find the particular option or setting you wanted was often a dark art in itself. Tool bars had got out of hand with the number of buttons on them and something did need to be done. Many people didn't like the switch to the ribbon interface, but there can be no doubt that it made finding things much easier than before.
I have, then, been forced to once again install OpenShell and put the "old" start menu back. I genuinely didn't want to do this and had resolved to give the new menu a decent go, but honestly, it's such a horrible experience, I found myself staring at it wondering how to do simple things rather than just getting on with some work.
In the image above, you can see everything that is right about the original design. In one click I can see all the things I use all the time (new start menu has this too, so no big deal there) but also I can get to settings, quickly view network and hardware devices and ultimately, if I need to, view all the programs on my system with a single click - but without losing any context. There is no need to swipe forwards and backwards through various different changes of interface, it's all there, one place, one screen. Menu style interfaces may not be "glamourous" or modern, but they do actually work.
My final main gripe with Windows 11 is the same as Windows 10. Microsoft have enough money in the bank to enable them to buy a country. They also have enough money to employ some of the finest designers, software engineers and programmers in the world. Which means things like incomplete UI refreshes simply should not be allowed to happen, let alone make it out of the door twice in succession.
When they redesigned the settings app, it was meant to replace control panel which had become "cluttered and difficult to use." No problem, I don't mind the settings app at all, and the Windows 11 one is quite nice. Why, then, is it so easy to find yourself unceremoniously dumped into the old control panel and old dialogues? Why are there still two ways in which to do the same thing? In the screenshot above, I can manage programs which are installed through the old "programs and features" panel, or in "apps and features." Why? This is just crazy.
But these are the worst examples - when you find yourself staring at a dialogue which is from Windows 2000, complete with the image of an old CRT monitor. Microsoft went to all the effort of removing the tabs from this dialogue for desktop background, graphics settings and so forth but then... just left this one for no reason. It's not hard to make a decision "do we ditch this option, or shall we integrate it?"
It is these kinds of things that Microsoft have been doing for years. When Windows XP launched they'd redesigned all the icons to look new. Only, they didn't, and you often found yourself looking at something which had been around since Windows 95. It was something so simple, yet utterly jarring when you saw it that everyone wondered why it had been left that way.
Sadly, these kinds of things are what drive people either away from Microsoft and towards companies like Apple or just serve to enrage and confuse their customers. There cannot be someone at Microsoft who hasn't pointed out the problems here, but it seems clear they are not being listened to.
Apple may not be perfect by any means, but I genuinely never thought I'd see the day where I am glad I am fortunate enough to not have to use Windows all the time these days.
Ah yes, finally, I made the mistake of rebooting my system again. Nothing could go wrong this time, could it?
No. Not much, only, can you tell us what these applications are again? We've forgotten...
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