Released in October 2021, Windows 11 is the first numbered update to Microsoft’s operating system in more than six years. You would expect there would be dramatic changes between Windows 11 and Windows 10. But there weren’t. To a great extent, Windows 11 looks and works much like its predecessor.
That said, there are quite a few minor differences between the two, and the new OS may take some getting used to. I’m here to help. Whether you’ve upgraded a Windows 10 machine to Windows 11 or you’ve got it on a new PC, this cheat sheet will get you up to speed on it. I’ve also provided quick-reference charts listing useful keyboard shortcuts, touchpad gestures, and touchscreen gestures.
Since Windows 10 has been in use for so many years, I assume most readers are familiar with its features. See our Windows 10 cheat sheet for detailed instructions on using OneDrive, the Edge browser, the Windows Clipboard, Windows apps, and more. In this story I’ll focus on features that are new to Windows 11 or that have changed from Windows 10.
Note: As with Windows 10, if you want to get the most out of Windows 11, you’ll have to use a Microsoft ID as your user account. Without a Microsoft ID, you won’t be able to use a number of apps or sync settings among multiple devices. So when you set up Windows 11 for the first time, sign in with an existing Microsoft ID or create a new one.
The new Start menu
The biggest change in Windows 11 from Windows 10 is front and center, literally. It’s the Start menu. Instead of being anchored to the left side of the screen, as it was in Windows 10, it hovers just above the bottom center of the screen.
It’s much smaller than the Windows 10 Start menu, and you don’t scroll through it as you do through the Windows 10 Start menu. Instead of large tiles, some of which are “live” tiles that display changing information, you get multiple rows of small application icons. Simply click the application you want to run.
Windows 11 gives you control over how the app icons are organized on the Start menu — just drag and drop any icon to a new location. The applications you see are just some of those on your PC. To see them all, click All apps at the top right of the menu and they’ll appear in a scrollable vertical list.
When you right-click a tile, a menu pops up. Here’s where things get a bit confusing, because not every Windows app and desktop application has the same pop-up menu. Most have some combination of these options:
Move to top: Makes the app the left topmost app on the Start menu — the first on the list.
Unpin from Start: Select this and the icon vanishes from the Start menu.
Run as an administrator: This lets you run the app or application as an administrator.
Open file location: Opens File Explorer to the folder where the application lives.
Pin to taskbar: As it says, this pins the app to the taskbar. If it’s already pinned, you’ll get an Unpin from taskbar choice.
App settings: This leads to a screen that lets you change the app’s settings, such as whether to allow it to run in the background or get access to your microphone.
Uninstall: This uninstalls the app. Some Windows apps created by Microsoft, such as Clock, cannot be uninstalled. Over time, however, Windows 10 has let you uninstall more built-in apps than previously. Both Windows 10 and Windows 11 may continue that trend in the future.
Rate and review: This option is available only for apps downloaded from the Microsoft Store. It brings you to a page that lets you rate the app and write a review. The rating and review appear in the app’s description in the Microsoft Store.
Share: This lets you share a link to the app using a variety of methods, such as Mail, Twitter, and others.
Some Windows apps have other choices as well, depending on their purposes. For example, right-click File Explorer and you get choices such as mapping or unmapping a network drive.
When you click the All apps icon to display your applications in a scrollable list, you can right-click any app icon to see some combination of these choices. On the menu you’ll also see a list of files you’ve recently opened in that app; click any to run it.
The bottom of the start menu has an extremely useful section called Recommended. It includes a list of apps you’ve recently installed and files you’ve recently opened. So rather than having to open an application like Word, and then browse for a file you’ve recently worked on, you can just click the file in Recommended, and it launches the application and opens the file in it. To see other files you’ve recently opened, click More for a longer, scrollable list.
You can right-click any file on either the Start menu or the scrollable list, and you’ll find some combination of these options:
Open in web browser: This is available only if you’re clicking an Office file stored in OneDrive. It will open the file in the web version of the appropriate Office app.
Open file location: Opens File Explorer to the folder where the file lives.
Remove from list: Removes the file from the Start menu and the scrollable list.
Windows Search is integrated directly into Start via a text box across the top of the screen. At first, it’s a bit confusing to use, because clicking the box doesn’t place a cursor in the text box and let you start searching. Instead, a search screen pops up — the same one you’ll see when you click the Search icon on the taskbar. It takes some getting used to. (You’ll find out more about Search in the next section of this article.)
You can also manage your user account from Start by clicking your account icon at the bottom left of the screen. Click and choose Change Account Settings. You’ll be able to change the photo associated with your account or take a new one, switch to a local account, and more. When you click your account icon, you can also lock your PC and sign out of Windows.
To put your PC to sleep, shut it down, or restart it, click the power button at the bottom right of the Start menu.
Windows 11 Search is much like Search in Windows 10, with a few minor tweaks here and there. To do a search, click the search button (a magnifying glass) on the taskbar. A rectangular pane pops up with a search box at the top.
When you first launch the Search box, it shows three areas below the tabs; these are somewhat confusing and only sometimes useful.
- Top apps is a row of icons of your commonly used applications and apps, such as Word, File Explorer, Settings, and others. Click any icon and you’ll be sent to the Search box or section of the app’s icon you clicked. You’ll then have to perform a search in that app in the usual way.
- Recent on the lower left has nothing to do with search — it’s supposed to be a list of apps you’ve recently used. Click any to launch it. But the label “Recent” isn’t always accurate. In my testing, it didn’t list the apps I had recently launched. Instead, it listed some that I rarely used.
- Quick searches lists generic searches that Microsoft believes you might want to run — “On my PC,” “Today in history,” “New movies,” “Translate,” and “Markets today.”
It’s much more useful to simply type your search term into the search box at the top of the pane. Windows Search uses the Bing search engine to look through your files, your Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage, your videos and music, the apps on your PC, your settings, your email, the web, and more. The “Top apps,” “Recent,” and “Quick searches” sections disappear, replaced by search results and related searches.
You can target your search by clicking any of the tabs just underneath the search box:
- All displays all search results.
- Apps shows any app-related matches.
- Documents shows documents on your PC that match the search.
- Web displays results from the web.
- More shows results from other places, including individual apps, emails, and folders including Music, People, Photos, Settings, and Videos. You’ll have to click the down arrow next to More to see them all.
One last note about search: By default, Windows Search only looks through a limited selection of default libraries and folders including OneDrive, Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures, Videos, and Desktop. It won’t find files kept in other locations on your PC. However, you can change that. Go to Settings > Privacy & Security > Searching Windows, and in the “Find My Files” section, select Enhanced. That will tell Windows to search through your entire PC. If there are folders you want to exclude from the search, go to the “Excluded Folders” section, then click Add an excluded folder and browse to the folder you don’t want to search.
Widgets, widgets, widgets
Windows 10 has always offered widgets such as a news feed, weather, and more. You could run them individually, but they never had a home of their own.
In Windows 11, that’s changed. Click the Widgets icon on the taskbar (it’s a square divided vertically into two sections, one white and one blue), and a large panel appears on the left side of the screen showing a preselected set of them, including weather, news, sports, and others.
Each widget shows changing information, such as stock prices or the weather. Click one and you usually are sent out to the web for more details. You can change the size of each widget, remove it, and customize it by clicking the three-dot menu icon at its upper right. The menu typically offers some combination of these choices:
- Small, Medium, Large. Click the appropriate option to change the widget’s size.
- Customize widget. This leads to a screen that lets you change how the widget works. It’s generally different for each widget. For example, in the Sports widget, you can choose to get news about specific teams or specific leagues. And in the “Watchlist Movers” stock-tracking widget you can add new stocks to watch.
- Remove widget. This removes the widget from the pane.
To add a widget, click the “Add widgets” button, then browse through the widget categories and click the + button next to the widget(s) you want to add.
Teaming up with Teams
Windows 11 was finalized during the COVID pandemic, which changed the way we work and live, with videoconferencing and chat increasing as in-person meetings decreased. In Windows 11, Microsoft doubles down on the bet that chat and video meetings will remain an important part of people’s work and private life, even when life becomes more normal.
So it put a “Chat with Microsoft Teams” feature where you can’t miss it. You’ll see an icon for Teams, Microsoft’s chat, and videoconferencing software, just about dead center on the taskbar. Click the icon, and a Teams screen opens up with your contacts on them. (Note that the icon looks like a video camera until you click it. At that point, it turns into a conversation bubble icon.) Scroll and search through your contacts, click the person with whom you want to connect, and a Teams chat and videoconferencing window opens, requesting to connect. (You can also use the Windows key + C keyboard shortcut.)
At that point, you use Teams as you would normally. If your contact doesn’t use Teams, they will get an SMS message, and you can chat that way. (For help learning to use Teams, see “Microsoft Teams: How to use it, and how it stacks up to Slack and Zoom.”)
You should be aware, though, that Teams in Windows 11 is for personal use only, not for business use. That means the full suite of enterprise Teams features, such as the use of channels, being able to search through message archives, and so on, isn’t available. That may change over time, but for now, it’s only for limited use.
Handling Windows 11 updates
Windows 11 is a boon for businesses and people who didn’t like Windows 10’s twice-yearly feature updates because of the potential for bugs being introduced with each new release. Windows 11 only gets feature updates once a year. Better yet, you can control whether and when to install each new feature update.
When Microsoft releases its annual Windows 11 feature update to the public, it isn’t automatically installed. Instead, Windows notifies you that it’s available with a message and a “Download and install” link in the Windows Update Settings pane. If you don’t want to install it, ignore the message and your PC stays as it is. Whenever you want to install an update, just click the link and follow the instructions.
There is one caveat. When your current version of Windows 11 reaches what Microsoft calls “end of service” — the point at which Microsoft no longer supports it — Windows 11 will install a more recent feature update automatically. For Windows 11 Home and Pro users, that’s usually 24 months after your current Windows version’s release. For Windows 11 Enterprise and Education users, that’s typically 36 months.
Even so, it’s theoretically possible to skip over some feature updates entirely. Since they’re released every year, you could install one version, decline to install the next one that’s released, and then install the one after that.
You have control not just over the annual Windows 11 feature updates, but also over the minor updates that Microsoft issues in between them. You can pause these smaller updates for up to 35 days.
To do it, go to Settings > Windows Update and next to “Pause updates,” click Pause for 1 week. You can keep doing this every seven days a total of five times to delay it for 35 days.
To do it, go to Settings > Windows Update > Update history > Uninstall updates. That brings you to the Control Panel and a list of updates. Select the update you want to uninstall and click Uninstall.
You can also ask Windows to alert you, via a system tray icon, when you need to reboot your PC in order to finish an update. Go to Settings > Windows Update > Advanced options, and next to “Notify me when a restart is required to finish update,” move the slider to On.
Next page: Task View, Snap Layouts, Quick Settings, and more →
Task View and virtual desktops
In Windows 11, Microsoft redesigned its Task View feature for creating multiple virtual desktops, and it’s now more useful than ever.
To activate Task View, click its icon (two overlapping squares) in the taskbar just to the right of the Search button, or press the Windows key + Tab. When you do, Task View springs into action.
(Note that Task View no longer includes Windows 10’s Timeline feature that displayed snapshots of the files you worked on recently.)
Task View is divided into two sections. At the top of the screen you see your currently running apps and applications arrayed against a fuzzy version of the desktop so you can quickly see what you’ve got running. Click any thumbnail to switch to that app. If you hover your mouse over any thumbnail, an X appears in its upper-right corner. Click the X to close that app. For those used to using the old Alt + Tab key combination to cycle through open apps and applications, you can still do that as well. Press the Esc key to leave Task View and return to where you were.
At the bottom of the screen, you’ll see thumbnails of any virtual desktops you’ve created, along with a “New desktop” button. You can run a different set of apps inside each virtual desktop — for instance, you could dedicate one desktop to work-related apps, and another desktop to entertainment-related apps. To create a new desktop, activate Task View and click New desktop at the bottom of the screen.
To switch between desktops, click the Task View icon and click the desktop to which you want to switch. You can keep creating new desktops this way and switch among them. To close a virtual desktop, hover your mouse over it in Task View and click the X on its upper right.
There’s also a quicker way to switch to switch to a virtual desktop (or create or close one) without activating Task View. Hover your mouse over the Task View icon in the taskbar and you’ll see thumbnails of all of your virtual desktops. Click the one you want to switch to. To close one, hover your mouse over its icon. To create a new one, click the New desktop button.
If you’re the kind of person who likes their apps arranged on the desktop just so, you’ll likely be interested in Snap Layouts. With it, you group your open windows into one of a half-dozen pre-built screen layouts, such as having two apps side by side, each taking up half the screen. Or you might have one app on the left and two stacked vertically on the right, or four apps in a grid. The hope is that you’ll be able to find the layout that fits the way you work.
To use Snap Layouts, open the applications you want to be in it, then hover your mouse over an application’s maximize icon on the upper right of the screen, located between the minimize and close icons. Choose the layout you want and which position you want the application to be in, and the app window snaps into that position. Then you can choose from your other open apps to fill in the rest of the spots in the layout.
Once all the places in a Snap Layout are filled, that app grouping is saved as a Snap Group that you can quickly return to later if you’ve opened other apps or minimized any of the app windows in the group. Hover your mouse over the taskbar icon of any of the applications in a Snap Group, and you’ll see two small popups — one that’s a thumbnail of what’s open in the application itself, and another that shows the Snap Group. Choose the Snap Group icon, and you’ll switch to the whole group in the layout you set up previously, rather than to the individual application.
Quick Settings and notifications
Windows 11 does away with the Windows 10 Action Center and instead gives you two separate taskbar flyouts, one for your notifications, and the other to make changes to your system via Quick Settings.
To check your notifications, click the date and time on the taskbar or press the Windows key + N. A flyout pops up with a calendar of the current month and with any notifications above it, for things such as your news feed, new emails, and security and maintenance messages. You’ll know when you have new notifications, because a small blue icon with the number of new notifications appears in the date and time area on the taskbar.
Security and system notifications are generally well worth heeding. For example, you may be told that you can speed up your PC by stopping unnecessary programs from launching at startup. Tap the notification and you’ll be sent to the Task Manager, which lets you stop them from running. The alerts also tell you when you’ve got printer woes, issues with Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud-based storage or similar problems. So overall, you’ll probably find it worth your time to regularly check your notifications.
As for email, you might find those notifications less than useful, because the Notifications feature doesn’t always play well with your mail provider. If you’ve set up the Windows 10 Mail app to hook into your Gmail account, you will see a notification when that account gets new email. When you click the notification, the Mail app launches and you can read the message there. But the system doesn’t take into account whether you’ve already checked your Gmail account in a browser, so you’ll continue to see notifications for messages you’ve received, even if you’ve already read them in Gmail and deleted them.
You can change which notifications show up or turn them off completely. Go to Settings > Notifications and turn the slider to Off in the Notifications section at the top of the screen. If you want have some appear and some not appear, first turn the slider to On. Then scroll down and next to the notifications you don’t want to see, turn the slider to Off.
You can also customize each type of notification you see. Click the right-facing arrow next to any notification, and you’ll be able to change options such as what priority it should be given when displayed along with other notifications (higher priority notifications show up at the top of the list), or whether to play a notification sound when it appears.
To get to Quick Settings, click the network, volume, and battery set of icons on the taskbar or press Windows key + A. Six icons appear in two stacked rows, the top three for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Airplane mode, and the bottom three for Night light (which changes your PC’s lighting to a warm yellowish), Focus assist (which stops notifications), and Accessibility (controls things such as the Magnifier and Narrator). Depending on your computer and setup, these icons might be different — for example, you might see a battery icon on a laptop.
You can use Quick Settings not just to turn settings on or off, but to customize how you use some of them. Those that allow for customization have a right arrow next to them. So, for example, click the Wi-Fi icon to show all available Wi-Fi networks and select which you want to use.
Below the icons is a volume control for your speakers. To the volume control’s right you’ll find a link to Settings, as well as an edit icon that when clicked lets you change which settings appear in Quick Settings. Click it and you can delete any icon by clicking its pushpin button on its upper right. You can also add new icon by clicking the New button and choosing which you want to add from the menu that appears.
Using Windows 11 on a tablet or 2-in-1
Windows 11 does away with the separate tablet interface of Windows 10. Gone is the Windows 10 feature called Continuum that automatically sensed the device you were using and switched Windows 10’s interface to match it. In Windows 11, tablet users see more or less the same interface as desktop and laptop users.
There is at least one very minor change in how Windows 11 looks on a tablet versus a desktop or laptop — the taskbar icons are slightly wider apart to accommodate tapping with a finger rather than clicking with a mouse. If you use a 2-in-1, you won’t have to do anything when you detach or attach your keyboard; Windows 11 automatically makes the switch.
Probably the biggest change in Windows 11 for users with touchscreens is that you can use three-finger and four-finger gestures on the screen itself, not just the touchpad:
- Swipe left/right: Switch to the last used app window
- Swipe up: Show all open app windows
- Swipe down: Show the desktop
- Swipe left/right: Switch to the previous/next virtual desktop
(See below for more touchscreen gestures, along with keyboard shortcuts and touchpad gestures.)
To turn on touch gestures, go to Settings > Bluetooth & devices > Touch > Three- and four-finger touch gestures and turn the switch on.
Minor changes and missing features
Some familiar features from Windows 10 have been tweaked slightly in Windows 11, usually for the better.
Settings: Windows 11 reorganizes and streamlines the Settings app somewhat, but in general it’s the same app as in Windows 10. Get to it by clicking the Start button, then clicking Settings. You can also get to it from various places throughout Windows by clicking on a gear icon, such as on the lower right of the screen in Quick Settings.
(See our Windows 10 cheat sheet for general information about using the Settings app.)
Clipboard: In Windows 11, the Clipboard gets a particularly useful new feature – the ability to paste emojis, Kaomojis, symbols, and GIFs from pre-selected libraries. A row of symbols at the top of the Clipboard lets you access any of the libraries. Scroll or search through any and click what you want to paste.
Cortana: Microsoft’s digital assistant, which has struggled to gain traction, is turned off by default. There’s good reason for that — with each succeeding year, Microsoft takes away more of its features. These days, there’s not a whole lot it can do.
If you do find Cortana useful and want to enable it in Windows 11, go to Settings > Apps > Apps & Features, then scroll to the Cortana entry. Click its three-dot icon, then select Advanced options. On the screen that appears, in the “Runs at log-in” setting, move the slider from Off to On. The next time you log into Windows, Cortana will start. To run it, do a search for Cortana and then click its icon.
One problem with running Cortana this way is that even though it runs at startup, its icon won’t show up on the taskbar until you run it manually. The icon disappears when you close it. When you go to the taskbar settings that let you control what icons should appear on it, Cortana doesn’t show up as an option, even if it’s enabled to run at startup. You can, however, pin it to the taskbar by running it, then clicking its icon on the taskbar and choosing Pin to taskbar.
In addition to those changes, Microsoft streamlined Windows 11 by cutting out several features from Windows 10. Here are the most obvious ones:
People: In Windows 10 this let you pin contacts to the Windows taskbar, and then communicate with them without having to open a separate app. It’s no surprise People is gone — Microsoft said some time ago that it would kill the feature. It’s been replaced with a stripped-down version of Teams, the collaboration app Microsoft is pushing heavily in a remote-first world.
Skype: Microsoft’s legacy chat and videconferencing tool Skype doesn’t ship with Windows 11. As with People, it’s likely because Microsoft is trying to move as many people as possible to Teams. However, you can still download Skype and use it in Windows 11.
Timeline: Timeline, a Windows 10 feature that let you review and resume activities as well as open files you’ve started on any of your Windows PCs, has been axed.
Handy keyboard shortcuts, touchpad gestures, and touchscreen gestures
Windows 11 supports a variety of keyboard shortcuts as well as gestures for touch-based devices. Try them out a few times, and before long they’ll become second nature.
First let’s look at the most useful keyboard shortcuts — get to know these and you’ll save oodles of time as you zip around Windows 11 without taking your hands off the keys.
Next up are touchpad gestures. Touchpads are standard equipment on laptops these days, and for everyday computing, a modern touchpad can do everything a mouse can, and more. (Note, however, that if you have an older machine, some or all of these gestures might not work.)
Finally, if you’re working on a tablet or a touchscreen PC, here’s how to get around.
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