Only a few new CPUs make the grade, but there will be ways for enthusiasts and IT pros to use Windows 11 on other PCs.
What may seem overly onerous system requirements for Windows 11 are about delivering reliability, security and compatibility alongside the innovations in the new operating system. Customers are asking for both, Microsoft told TechRepublic, and that takes the right combination of hardware, software and drivers: hence, the restrictions on which CPUs and PCs are supported.
Microsoft isn’t changing its mind about requiring PCs that have 64-bit processors with specific features for speeding up security features, TPM 2 and modern drivers (plus the same storage and memory requirements as apps like Zoom and Teams already need).
SEE: Windows 11 cheat sheet: Everything you need to know (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
But after working with Intel and AMD and the PC OEMs, as well as looking through telemetry data again, Microsoft is adding three extra processors to the list of CPUs Windows 11 supports: Intel Core X-series (Intel 10th generation i9 Cascade Lake processors used in high-end PCs pitched for video and photo editing), the Xeon W-series CPUs used in workstations and some Intel Core 7820HQ systems.
This last is the only 7th generation (Kaby Lake) Intel processor being added to the list, and it’s only PCs like the Surface Studio 2 that have the right model or DCH drivers. DCH stands for Declarative, which is about how they’re installed; Componentized, which means they must have a base driver that can be easily updated; and Hardware Support App, which means, say a graphics driver can’t be buried inside a giant multi-function desktop app that you have to install.
The way DCH drivers are built is important because it means, if they crash, Microsoft and the hardware manufacturers get more information back from Windows about what went wrong, so they can fix the driver and avoid similar PC crashes in the future.
Microsoft did get together with AMD and look at whether generation 1 Zen processors would give users a good enough experience in Windows 11 to make the list, and both companies decided that they wouldn’t.
This wasn’t just about looking at the specs to see that the Core X-Series has the right Speed Step power throttling feature to support the Quality of Service levels that will let Windows 11 save on power usage; it’s also about what the telemetry shows about PC reliability. That’s information from all Windows 10 users who leave telemetry and problem reporting turned on, as well as from Windows 10 and Windows 11 insiders who report problems, and from the crash data that software creators and hardware makers have from their Windows users.
Microsoft is only talking about this in very broad terms, but PCs that don’t meet the Windows 11 system requirements have 52% more blue screen (kernel mode) crashes; again, that includes PCs running Windows 10 that are below the Windows 11 hardware floor and are already crashing more. Whether they’re running Windows 10 or Windows 11, 99.8% of PCs that meet the minimum spec don’t have crashes. Apps hang 17% more often on PCs below the minimum spec. Microsoft doesn’t get as much data about third-party apps running on Windows, but for Microsoft apps like Office or Visual Studio where they do have the crash information, they crash 43% more on PCs that don’t match the new system requirements.
And the main reason PCs crash is drivers (usually graphics card drivers), and drivers are where the hardware and the operating system meet.
That means making Windows reliable as well as secure and compatible requires moving to more recent hardware that comes with modern, DCH drivers as well as having the right instructions to make security features that rely on virtualization fast and reliable (and that are less likely to have older drivers that are incompatible with those security improvements).
SEE: Windows evolves: Windows 11, and the future of Windows 10 (TechRepublic)
Just looking at the specs for processors isn’t enough because even some 8th generation CPUs that come with modern drivers turn out to crash far more often than expected (three or four times more than usual, in some cases).
That kind of data is why the Windows 11 CPU list is so very specific in what might seem like arbitrary ways. Microsoft also told us it doesn’t expect to add any other processors to the list.
That doesn’t mean it will be impossible to run Windows 11 on a PC that doesn’t have the minimum specification: There will be a number of ways Microsoft will let you do that, but these options will also make it clear that you won’t be running a supported configuration, so users know they’re making a trade-off to use Windows 11 on that hardware.
The Windows 11 Insider program lets you try out the new OS on hardware that doesn’t meet the full system requirements, and Microsoft told us Insiders will be able to move forward with Windows 11 even if they don’t have TPM 2.0 and a CPU on the supported list.
IT pros and technical enthusiasts will also be able to install Windows 11 on systems that don’t have a listed processor or TPM 2.0 using the Media Creation Tool. There will be warnings when you try to do this because the PC will be in an unsupported state, and it’s likely to be less reliable than a PC with a CPU that is on the supported list. But if you want to put Windows 11 on a PC and you don’t mind the potential issues, you can.
PCs that don’t need the Windows 11 specs won’t be offered upgrades to Windows 11 through Windows Update or enterprise tools like Microsoft Endpoint Manager, but when Windows 11 is closer to shipping there will also be other ways for IT admins to try out Windows 11 on PCs that aren’t yet being offered the upgrade. Microsoft told us it will be testing those with some large enterprise customers to make sure they work well.
But many of the large enterprises who were initially unhappy about the new hardware requirements for Windows 11 are coming around, Microsoft suggested. They will have a way to run Windows 11 on the unsupported systems where they really need to do that, for whatever reason. But they also want reliable, compatible PCs that run applications and the new Windows experience well so employees will be productive and increasingly, they’re prepared to phase out the older devices that don’t deliver that.
The new PC Health app
For users who don’t want to force Windows 11 onto a PC that won’t run it well but do want to know whether their PC will run Windows 11–and if not, why not–the new release of the PC Health app should be more useful than the previous version.
When you run it, the PC Health app will now tell you exactly which components on your PC are blocking the Windows 11 upgrade, with colour coding to show whether you can do anything about that. So if you have a TPM 2.0 security processor but it’s not enabled, you’ll see a yellow warning and a link with instructions for turning it on. But if you have a processor that’s not on the list, the warning will have a red icon and a link to the list of CPUs that are supported.
There are still some updates that Microsoft needs to make to the PC Health app so that it correctly recognizes PCs with an Intel Core 7820HQ processor that can be upgraded, like the Surface Studio 2–that’s coming in a few weeks. Until then, if you run it on one of those PCs, you’ll get a warning that the app can’t identify your system properly, with a link that will take you to a list of specific PCs with that processor that can run Windows 11. That’s why the PC Health app is currently still aimed at Windows Insiders rather than general Windows users.
But there’s some more good news: It now works for PCs running Windows on Arm or Windows in S Mode.