Windows 11 insider build is surprisingly unpolished and unfinished

Windows 11 insider build is surprisingly unpolished and unfinished

Windows 11 looks to be a decent upgrade, but not one to lose sleep over missing.

Microsoft made early Windows 11 builds available via its Windows Insider program the week after its first major announcement, and we’ve spent quite a few hours kicking the tires. When Windows 11 publicly releases, it’s likely to be a fine operating system—but right now, it’s an unpolished, unfinished mess.

Of course, this isn’t a surprise—Windows 11 is still only available in the Dev channel of the Insider program. The three Insider channels are Release Preview, Beta, and Dev; Dev roughly corresponds to a software alpha, and Microsoft itself describes it as “the newest code,” with “rough edges and some instability.”

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Windows 11 is upgrade only (for now)

The first disappointment we encountered with Windows 11 is a puzzling one—it can’t (yet) be cleanly installed as a new operating system. To install Windows 11 Build 22000.51, you must begin with a fully patched and up-to-date Windows 10 installation, then flight it into the Dev channel, then upgrade it to Windows 11 via Windows Update. (If you’re not already on Windows 10 20H2 or newer, you’ll need to get through that upgrade first.)

We had no real problems updating either a well-used Windows 10 VM or a brand-new one—but we strongly advise against upgrading to Windows 11 on a machine or VM that matters to you, unless you have a guaranteed method of recovery you both trust and are prepared to use. Although one of our test VMs is a “daily driver” we rely on, it’s sitting on top of a ZFS dataset—and we took a manual snapshot prior to the upgrade, for easy rollback.

Ironically, the first look anyone gets at Windows 11 itself right now is the dreaded BSOU (Blue Screen Of Updates)—after flighting our Windows 10 VM into the Dev channel and one very quick download, it rebooted. During the reboot, we get the usual “don’t turn off your computer” message—but it’s in a new font and possibly on a slightly different shade of blue background.

Although the initial download in Windows Update is over rather quickly, the “working on updates” phase is not. This phase took about an hour on each of the Windows 10 VMs we upgraded—one reasonably well-used, and one brand new.

Alpha means alpha

It took almost no time to find our first and second nasty Windows 11 bugs—the DNS resolver was strangely and inconsistently broken, and the network configuration dialog under Settings was broken as well.

You can see the DNS resolver issues in the first screenshot above. We can ping—Google’s anycast DNS provider—without issue, so we know that general connectivity is fine both inside the LAN and outside of it. But attempts to ping fail! The confusion only gets worse when we use nslookup to query our DNS server directly—it answers our queries just fine. Nevertheless, attempting to ping the same hostname directly fails, as do most attempts to browse with Edge or Chrome.

The second bug came while trying to troubleshoot the first—attempting to set IP address configuration directly using Windows 11’s Settings dialog fails miserably, with a cryptic message to “check one or more settings and try again.” There’s nothing actually wrong with the settings—the dialog is just broken. Next question—is Control Panel still there?

Thankfully, Control Panel hasn’t yet been done away with in Windows 11, and its tried-and-true network adapter configuration dialog works just as expected. Unfortunately, that didn’t resolve the original DNS issue—which turns out to be some conflict between Windows 11 and the VirtIO network driver we’re using.

Changing the VM’s network adapter to emulated Intel e1000 resolved the DNS issue—as does, hilariously, leaving the NIC as VirtIO and just using a DNS server on the far side of a WireGuard tunnel. (WireGuard has its own virtual NIC, so we’re technically not using our “real” network card to access the DNS server on the far side of the tunnel.)

Over the week or so we’ve been playing with Windows 11, we’ve also had the entire VM lock up and require a hard reset several times. Did we mention that this is still alpha software, and nobody should be running anything they care about on it yet?

Snap layouts and snap groups

Snap layouts and snap groups are features we particularly look forward to in Windows 11—finally, a tiling window manager for the rest of us! Unfortunately, they’re not as useful or intuitive as they ought to be yet. In order to add an application to a snap layout, hover over that app’s maximize button, and the snap layout selection drops down. Clicking a specific box inside one of the four snap layouts offered will resize, reshape, and move the application to fit.

Once you’ve added several apps to a single snap layout, snap grouping becomes available—but it’s not very easy to discover, and the current clumsiness of its use sharply decreases the value of this promising feature. In order to access snap groups, you hover over the taskbar button for any of the snapped groups. After a moment or two, this spawns the familiar Aero-style application preview bubble over the app’s taskbar icon—but in this case, it also spawns a second Aero bubble for the group as a whole.

Interacting with the snap group from here requires right-clicking the group’s Aero bubble, which allows you to restore, minimize, or close the group as a whole. It also offers “Group settings”—which turns out not to be settings for that particular snap group, but a link to the Multitasking section of Windows 11’s Settings dialog.

Task view, aka virtual desktops

Virtual desktops receive an updated treatment in Windows 11, bringing them front-and-center in the attempt to get more Windows users interested in them. If you’re not already familiar with the concept, the idea is that you create additional desktop workspaces, which are accessed via the Task view button on the taskbar.

Apps opened on one virtual desktop don’t show up on other virtual desktops—the apps can still talk to one another, should they need to; this isn’t an entire separate user session. But visually, they’re segregated onto different spaces. This makes it easy to, e.g., have one “work” desktop with your work email, a selection of work-related websites, and professional applications; and a second “play” desktop with shortcuts to all your favorite games, your personal email open, and so forth.

Once you’ve created and populated your virtual desktops, the Task view button also helps you manage and switch between them. Hovering over Task view shows you the virtual desktops you have open; clicking it gives you a list of running applications on the current desktop as well as a list (and previews) of the virtual desktops themselves. You can also right-click an individual desktop in Task view to rename it—so your virtual desktops can really be “work” and “play” rather than the default “Desktop 1” and “Desktop 2.”

Unlike earlier versions of Windows virtual desktops, you can set wallpaper individually per virtual desktop in Windows 11. Unfortunately, this doesn’t extend to the entire theme—if we change one virtual desktop from Windows (light) to Glow, all virtual desktops changed to the Glow theme. We were, however, able to set one desktop to Windows (light) and another to Windows (dark). So this may still improve before Windows 11 reaches release status.

Microsoft Store

We have to be honest—we never spent much time in the Microsoft Store in Windows 10. Before Windows 11, the Microsoft Store was limited to a special class of application called Universal Windows Platform apps, which limited its appeal. Those apps have a separate installation and uninstallation procedure than “normal” win32 or win64 applications, and frankly it’s just not how most of us are accustomed to finding applications on Windows in the first place.

Windows 11 aims to change that, with sweeping changes to the Store allowing win32win64UWPPWA, and even Android apps to be purchased and installed. We were especially interested in the Android app sideloading—which Microsoft says should happen by way of Amazon’s app store, which can itself be installed via the Microsoft store. Unfortunately, Android app functionality is either not in Windows 11 yet, or we just couldn’t find it.

That left the Solitaire situation to check out. Searching the new Start menu for FreeCell got us initially excited, when we saw screenshots of the classic app—but unfortunately, those turned out to be from Wikipedia results!

Limiting the Start menu’s search results to Apps only got rid of the misleading screenshot and presented us with nothing but a link to search the Microsoft Store itself—which is a separate action. The Store’s results, unfortunately, do not populate the Start menu’s own results.

All of this is a bit of an unintentional red herring—as it turns out, Windows 11 does ship with a card game application called Microsoft Solitaire Collection that includes FreeCell. We found this app slow, clunky, and unsatisfying. It’s loaded with frippery like selectable graphics for the back side of cards (many of which require purchase) and “leveling up” as a player, but dragging cards was slow and tended to overshoot the mark.

Beware of “featured free games”

Before we spotted the Microsoft Solitaire Collection, we noticed that the front page of the Microsoft Store itself offered Solitaire: Treasure of Time as a featured free game. We gave that a spin and almost immediately regretted it.

Treasure of Time is, unfortunately, a naked cash grab which will look familiar to anyone who’s taken a bored trip through a mobile application store. Although the gameplay mechanic is based on a variant of Solitaire, the application itself revolves around a magical, mystical quest with all of the familiar free-to-play, pay-to-win hallmarks: bizarrely overanimated women, time-limited “energy,” and in-game currency.

We’re disappointed to find a generic cash-grab listed as one of Microsoft’s top-three featured free games in its new Store. Treasure of Time isn’t even a particularly good example of the genre—the storylines are complete throwaway nonsense, the “energy” necessary to play a round dissipates rapidly (we were done in less than a half-hour, unless we wanted to buy “diamonds” with real money), and we found the animated characters disturbing—all the way down to misogynistic touches like the primary character holding her binoculars backward.

We don’t want to burn time reviewing a god-awful free game—but “featuring” cash grabs like this one isn’t a good sign for Microsoft’s new Store. Careful, effective app curation which exposes the best apps and hides the worst is perhaps the single biggest element such a store can provide in the first place—without trustworthy curation, a user might as well go back to downloading apps directly from vendor websites.

Uninstalling Solitaire: Treasure of Time was also a frustrating experience—there was no uninstall link in its Store page or in the Microsoft Store’s “Library” page, where you can see all of the apps and content you’ve installed from the Store. It also wasn’t present in Programs and Features—only in Apps and Features, which is the Settings version of the application management dialog.

Thankfully, you can also uninstall Store apps directly in the Start menu’s “Recommended” section—once you’ve found it inside the Start menu, right-clicking for a context menu offers Uninstall as an option.

Windows Subsystem for Linux

This wouldn’t be Ars Technica if we didn’t put the Windows Subsystem for Linux through its paces as well. We were happy to discover that WSLg—the new upgrade to WSL which allows graphics and audio from Linux applications—installs by default along with WSL itself now.

A single command was sufficient to install WSL with graphics and audio, along with an Ubuntu userland—wsl -d Ubuntu --install is all it takes. Rebooting as requested during the installation presented us with the first of many whole-VM lockups, unfortunately—in the second screenshot, you can see the CPU utilization pegged at 100 percent on all cores for several minutes straight.

Forcibly restarting the VM resolved whatever random lockup we’d encountered, and WSL finished its installation within a few milliseconds, after which everything “just worked.”

In the final screenshot above, you can see my Windows 11 virtual machine running virt-manager—the same app I use on my Ubuntu workstation to manage and access the VM in the first place. For some extra fun, I’m using an SSH connection from the Windows 11 guest to the Ubuntu host, which allows me to pull a console on Windows 11 guest I’m inside in the first place.


First of all, we want to stress that bugs and even system lockups in this early build should not be taken as foreshadowing the final, released product—Windows 11 is still alpha software, so bugs and weirdness are to be expected. Although Windows 11 is clearly nowhere near ready for prime time yet, the early build gives us a good idea of where it’s headed.

Windows 11 doesn’t seem much, if any, more resource hungry than Windows 10—at first boot to the desktop, a Windows 11 VM with 4GiB of RAM is using 2.3GiB. It also boots quickly—in general, it seems a bit quicker to get to the login screen than Windows 10 was, though a little slower to reach the actual desktop. But we expect this will vary more widely by what applications users have installed than it does by operating system version.

Once the bugs are fixed, we expect Windows 11 to be a worthwhile upgrade from 10—an upgrade of approximately the same magnitude as the one from Windows 7 to Windows 10. It’s difficult to imagine any of 11’s new features confusing many users, although users may need a dash of extra help discovering those features in the first place.

On the flip side, users with older systems that don’t meet Windows 11’s notoriously stringent hardware requirements shouldn’t feel too left out—while 11’s new features are nice, we didn’t see anything we couldn’t live without.

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