Microsoft's Windows 11 is awesome. It also abandons millions of users.
The latest version of Microsoft's 36-year-old operating system began its rollout on 5 October 2021. Some eligible devices may not receive it until mid-2022. Still, there's a chance your PC will have the update by the time you read this.
If you have a new PC, that is. Windows 11 is a free upgrade, but in a break from past releases, Microsoft will exclude hundreds of millions of PCs that run Windows 10.
To add insult to this injury, Microsoft is ejecting users who installed the preview build of Windows 11 on unsupported machines as part of the Windows Insider Program, which is used to test new Windows builds. These machines will prompt users to "please install Windows 10." Yes, that's right. Microsoft officially told users to downgrade.
Windows 11's system requirements are strict: It excludes a large majority of Intel processors sold before October of 2017 and all AMD processors sold before late 2017. This includes flagship processors like Intel's Core i7-7700K and AMD's Ryzen 1800X. They beat the system requirements of cutting-edge PC games like Control and professional applications like Adobe Premiere Pro, but they're not good enough for Windows 11.
Those who buy a new PC will find another obstacle. Windows 11 Home, the version installed on most consumer PCs, will require a Microsoft account and a connection to the Internet to complete setup. PCs sold with Windows 11 Home will be more restrictive than an iPhone.
The company's messaging hasn't helped. The first Windows 11 preview came alongside a PC Health Check meant to gauge eligibility, but users discovered it was inaccurate. Microsoft then removed the software for improvements until just prior to Windows 11's release. Microsoft then tried to placate critics with a promise to expand the list of supported processors, but only a handful of additional Intel processors, and no AMD processors, made the cut.
PCs sold with Windows 11 Home will be more restrictive than an iPhone.
Windows 11's system requirements leave hundreds of millions of users stranded on Windows 10 (global PC sales exceeded 250 million each year from 2015 to 2017). Many of those excluded likely don't yet know this is going to happen, or why.
Microsoft says the change will improve reliability and security. An official post claims Windows 11's requirements provide a "99.8 percent crash-free experience" in internal tests and says security improvements "were informed based on trillions of signals from Microsoft's threat intelligence." Dig deeper and you'll find the requirements are tied to Windows Driver design principles known as DCH and Trusted Platform Module 2.0, a crypto-processor used to protect PCs against malware.
The decision also bears the fingerprints of Panos Panay, who took over the Windows division in 2020. Panay has taken firm stances on controversial design decisions: As head of Microsoft's Surface devices (which use touch screens) he caught flak for delaying the adoption of USB-C until 2019. In 2017, Panay had a row with Consumer Reports over the reliability of Surface devices.
Windows 11's requirements stain a launch that otherwise offers plenty of optimism. I've used the new OS since July and have few complaints. The updated interface, which includes a centered Start menu, rounded edges, and tweaked right-click menus, is refreshing and coherent.
Microsoft is even gaining traction with gamers. Windows 11 adds new features like Auto HDR, which uses AI to provide automatic HDR to games that lack it, boosting brightness, contrast, and visible detail. Xbox Game Pass for PC, which offers hundreds of titles for US $9.99 per month, finally provides a reason to use Windows' bundled Xbox app.
Windows 11 is a great upgrade. It's a shame millions of users won't have a chance to use it.
This article appears in the November 2021 print issue as "Windows 11 Leaves Many Users in the Lurch."
Matthew S. Smith writes IEEE Spectrum's Gizmo column and is a freelance consumer-tech journalist. An avid gamer, he is a former staff editor at Digital Trends and is particularly fond of wearables, e-bikes, all things smartphone, and CES, which he has attended every year since 2009.