Microsoft shocked nobody when they announced Windows 11 last week, as there had been plenty of leaks of the ISO beforehand that well and truly ruined the big surprise for everyone. But Microsoft did have other surprises in store for us, and they weren’t all good! In fact what shocked me the most was the approach Microsoft have taken to determining that a machine is supported running Windows 11, so I’ve broken down the individual requirements below and conducted some research into what may be behind these decisions!
Let’s get this one out of the way first, Microsoft have specified a minimum of a 64GB storage device is required to install Windows 11, but with no mention of actual disk usage. Immediately this signals a death sentence to most netbooks on the market as a common manufacturing decision for these was a single 32GB eMMC storage device, though I doubt that was the driver behind this decision. Microsoft just want to make sure the OS has some breathing room, though for most users, just having Office + Windows 10 can saturate a 128GB SSD.
Microsoft have made no comment on the speed of storage required to run Windows, though the DirectStorage API requires an NVMe drive to function, so if you’re planning on getting the best gaming experience, you’ll need to make sure your machine has an NVMe.
Microsoft have made 4GB RAM the minimum, and this has another side effect, they’re now only supporting Windows 11 as a 64bit operating system, a 32bit version will not be made available. Now at first glance you may think, “well, 32bit supports up to 4GB RAM”, and you’d be right, but also wrong. Windows 32bit has support for 4GB of address space, but as other hardware needs to also have space to address, the maximum usable is nearer 3.1GB, which is below the 4GB minimum!
Going further down the 32bit rabbit hole, a maximum of 2GB RAM can be used by a 32bit application, so encouraging the push to 64bit makes sense. Microsoft have been trying to push people to x86-64 since Windows XP Professional x64 Edition first released in 2005! Microsoft can now simplify their code base, dropping a lot of legacy and allowing them to reduce Quality Assurance (QA) efforts. The results of such actions can be huge, Linux recently managed to remove over forty one thousand lines of code from their kernel just by removing a legacy IDE driver.
Microsoft haven’t specified any minimum speeds for RAM but before you go about dusting off some DDR2 from your Windows Vista machine, make sure to read on…
I personally have two big issues with the Windows 11 requirements, with this being the primary, purely because Microsoft have been deliberately evasive in their announcement, leaving a small link to supported processors. So here it is: Microsoft are dropping support for a LOT of processors. Microsoft will officially support a dual core 1Ghz x64 processor or better, provided it exists on their list.
The biggest issue with Microsoft’s supported processor list is that it doesn’t make sense no matter which way you look at it from a technical perspective. For my comparison we’ll use the two Intel flagship products from their respective generations. The i7-7700k (7th Generation/Kaby Lake) and the i7-8700k (8th Generation/Coffee Lake).
UPDATE 28/08/2021: Microsoft have made some slight concessions on CPU requirements, though not nearly enough, with most of my concerns below remaining valid. The Windows Team blog post is available here. In essence however they’re adding support for a small section of their 7th generation processors, namely the Intel Core X-Series, Intel Xeon W-Series. They also couldn’t resist adding more controversy by including a single specific processor that they just happen to use in the Surface Studio 2, the Intel Core 7820HQ. To increase the controversy around this Microsoft will not be universally supporting this processor, instead stating only devices that shipped with modern drivers based on DCH design principles…
Elsewhere in the blog post, Microsoft have claimed after discussions with AMD they will still not support 1st Generation Ryzen processors (Zen), with support starting from 2nd Generation (Zen+).
The i7-7700k and i7-8700k are both based on the 6th Generation/Skylake architecture, with iterative improvements, so this immediately rules out an architecture requirement. This rules out dependency arguments too such as requirements for specific instruction sets, looking at the required instruction sets for Windows 11, there’s no demand for a cutting edge CPU like Microsoft are demanding, with CPUs such as Intel’s 4th Generation/Haswell easily meeting these specifications.
Furthermore although the i7-8700k supports faster RAM, both CPUs support the same minimum RAM speeds, ruling out RAM bandwidth requirements. If we look at the AMD processor requirements, Microsoft are only supporting Zen+ as their minimum architecture even though it is effectively just a die-shrink of the Zen architecture.
CPU Integrated GPU (iGPU)
We’ll discuss in more detail later, but there are some GPU requirements to use Windows 11, but as these CPUs contain an identical iGPU, this voids any change in GPU as being a compatibility justifier, as AMD Ryzen CPUs (not APUs) also omit any GPU entirely, it makes no sense why the first generation Ryzen would be omitted based on this reason either, though that would be assuming a common topic as to why the CPUs had their support dropped.
Another possibility is chipset differences between generations, whilst the CPU architecture has gone untouched, newer chipsets supporting newer features have been made available. However were this to be a valid argument, it would be something that Microsoft could specify as a notable requirement instead of blacklisting generations of CPUs. Between the 200 (Kaby Lake) and 300 (Coffee Lake) generation chipsets, the following improvements were delivered:
- Integrated USB 3.1 (10Gbps) for up to 6 ports
- Integrated Wireless AC controller
- Integrated SDXC 3.0 Controller
Taking this a step further, Kaby Lake generation CPUs also work on Skylake (iX-6XXX CPUs) generation motherboards. If we now compare the 100 (Skylake) and 200 (Kaby Lake) series chipsets the main feature is Intel Optane support, which is once again, not a requirement of Windows 11.
I won’t spend much time here as it’s a laughable concept, but should be highlighted. Windows 11 requires a dual core CPU with 1Ghz of frequency. The Intel Celeron N4000 is on this list with its 1.1Ghz base frequency and even a boost frequency of 2.6ghz on its two cores/two threads. The i7-7700k has four cores/eight threads at a base frequency of 4.2Ghz. It feels cruel to compare these, but on we go!
I’ll keep the punishment brief and just look at Passmark, it will tell us enough…
- Intel Celeron N4000 receives a Passmark score on average of 1424.
- Intel Core i7-7700k receives a Passmark score on average of 9707.
That means the Intel Celeron N4000 scored approximately 15% of the score the i7-7700k achieved. Leaving no doubts this CPU selection wasn’t based on a performance baseline.
A final angle I chose to approach this from is the angle of security, considering the infamous Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities had hardware mitigations implemented within Intel’s Coffee Lake generation.
There are two problems with this, software mitigations already exist and even with some of the dramatic worst case performance penalties you can still have a much better experience with a fast Kaby Lake vs a slow Coffee Lake.
The second issue completely undermines this argument also, Microsoft will be supporting the Intel i7-10510Y CPU which although it has a 10th generation prefix, is actually based on Kaby Lake and thus has no hardware mitigations to these security risks.
Thoughts on CPU compatibility
I feel obligated to call Microsoft out on not just this CPU mess above, but also on their changing of history, if you go to the Windows 10 Client Processor support lists, they’ve omitted many CPUs that are certified for Windows 10 from their own lists. Intel state Ivy Bridge (Core iX-3XXX) CPUs are the oldest supported CPUs for Windows 10 (with an upgrade caveat), but even on the oldest listed Windows 10 builds there’s no mention of anything below a Broadwell (Core iX-5XXX) generation CPU.
Microsoft have announced that DirectX 12 support is required for Windows 11. Whilst specific requirements haven’t been highlighted as to why this is necessary, DirectX 12 is more efficient than its previous generation counterparts and with the tighter integration of Microsoft Teams and Xbox into Windows 11, from my perspective this seems to be attempting to deliver an acceptable baseline for these services, which ultimately is what these system requirements are all about. An argument could be made here that forcing this requirement on people with no interest in either service is heavy handed, but as DirectX 12 was released alongside Windows 10, this shouldn’t impact many existing systems that meet the other Windows 11 requirements.
Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 2.0 Requirements
This was the first requirement that was being reported on by the media as a problem, Microsoft are mandating that all hardware running Windows 11 must be able to support their security technologies such as Device Encryption, Windows Hello and Secure Boot. This is great news, it allows for a consistent baseline across all devices that these features will be technically possible, making it easier to increase adoption of these technologies.
However, unfortunately Microsoft have generated some problems for themselves here. Firstly, in a market currently being impacted by shortages of CPU/GPUs, storage and RAM, within 24 hours of Windows 11’s requirements being announced, reports of TPM constraints also started to be announced.
Furthermore Microsoft have already started to undo their tough stance on security by announcing OEMs will be allowed to request exemptions to the TPM requirements.
The final major requirement for Microsoft is internet connectivity, Microsoft won’t certify a device that doesn’t contain Ethernet or Wireless connectivity, and Windows 11 Home edition requires internet connectivity for device setup as only Microsoft Accounts will be supported for Windows 11 Home edition’s initial setup.
Will Microsoft Listen?
Since I started writing this article, Microsoft have announced that they will review support for 1st Generation Ryzen and 7th Generation Intel, but no commitments have been made. This is a cautiously optimistic step in the right direction, I’ve tried to keep this post purely about the technical limitations but it is also important to address the environmental impact that this move is going to have.
Devices that don’t support Windows 11 will need to be replaced, and whereas Windows 10 offered a migration path from Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 (provided the device was capable of supporting Windows 10), it’s a far less supportive path forward this time. Windows 10 has an end of life of 2025, at that point, devices incapable of running Windows 11 will most likely be discarded (unless the user is comfortable utilising a vulnerable system or an alternative Operating System such as Ubuntu).
I’m hopeful that Microsoft will support additional CPUs, provided the TPM requirement is still met, and that this will be no more than a minor stumbling point for Microsoft’s Windows 11 release.
Windows 11 will begin rolling out to users late 2021.
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