Microsoft created a great deal of confusion earlier this year when its initial guidance indicated systems older than three years old would not be allowed to upgrade to Windows 11. It turns out there’s more nuance to the situation than Microsoft initially stated.
Here’s the official word from Microsoft:
Following the results of our testing, we are making a small number of additions to the compatible processor list (explained further below), but otherwise will maintain the minimum system requirements as originally set. We have concluded that the compatible 64-bit processors selected, 4GB of memory, 64GB of storage, UEFI secure boot, graphics requirements and TPM 2.0 are the right minimum system requirements to deliver on the principles we established to best support you.
The only systems officially being added to the “Compatible” list are the Intel Core X-series and Xeon W CPU families and — specifically — the Intel Core i7-7820HQ, which powers Microsoft’s Surface Studio 2. According to Microsoft, “After carefully analyzing the first generation of AMD Zen processors in partnership with AMD, together we concluded that there are no additions to the supported CPU list.” The company has also updated the PC Health Check app to deliver more nuanced advice.
But that doesn’t seem to be the final word.
When Windows 10 shipped, Microsoft offered free upgrades for a year before publicly ending the program — except, Microsoft never actually publicly ended the program. You can still download and install Windows 10 using an old OS key. It works perfectly. Officially, the program is long over. Unofficially, it’s still going.
MS appears to be doing something similar here. Officially, Windows 11 will not be available for upgrade unless you own an 8th Gen or later Intel CPU and a Zen+ chip (not Zen 2) from AMD. Unofficially, it may be a different story.
Before we dive into that, small clarification: Despite claiming to have worked with AMD extensively, Microsoft apparently has no idea what Zen 2 actually is. The company continues to refer to chips from AMD’s 2000 series as Zen 2, despite the fact that they are classified as Zen+ processors. This isn’t trivial to the conversation, because Zen and Zen+ are very nearly the same core with identical motherboard compatibility, yet “Zen” isn’t supported while “Zen 2” (Zen+) is. For a company that claims to have worked closely with AMD, it doesn’t appear to have worked closely enough to read an AMD product sheet. Zen+ CPUs are supported in the same motherboards as Zen, but one qualifies and one does not.
Luckily, it may not matter. The Verge is reporting that “[A] restriction to install the OS will only be enforced when you try to upgrade from Windows 10 to Windows 11 through Windows Update. This means anyone with a PC with an older CPU that doesn’t officially pass the upgrade test can still go ahead and download an ISO file of Windows 11 and install the OS manually.”
If true, this substantially changes the calculus for users. Windows 11 will be available as an upgrade to those with older hardware; Microsoft just doesn’t intend to advertise the fact. In keeping with this supposed plan, Microsoft doesn’t list any information about how you’ll be able to sneak older equipment onto Windows 11 — just a bunch of poorly articulated data on how Windows 11 supposedly prevents kernel errors. Specifically:
Devices that do not meet the minimum system requirements had 52% more kernel mode crashes. Devices that do meet the minimum system requirements had a 99.8% crash free experience.
So, two things about that. First of all, if your OS doesn’t crash 99.8 percent of the time, a 52 percent increase in kernel mode crashes is actually trivial. To calculate that, we calculate (0.2+(0.2*.52)). That works out to 0.304, which means old hardware is stable 99.696 percent of the time instead of 99.8 percent of the time. This is not a large shift. Microsoft is sowing FUD on the topic.
Second, it’s not clear which specific improvements in Windows 11 would improve these metrics. Because Microsoft doesn’t identify if these failures are occurring in recent equipment or literally across all Windows 10 devices not eligible for an official upgrade, it’s possible that some of these systems use much older DRAM. A paper from Google some years back found that DRAM is responsible for far more errors than many users realize, and that much of what we think of software crashes may be DRAM errors. Given this, it’s possible that increased error rates on older systems can be chalked up to outdated drivers, DRAM errors, or other minor causes of low-level instability. Again, we’re talking about a shift from 99.8 percent to 99.7 percent stability over an unspecified period of time. You’d be hard-pressed to find that difference in any manual record of reboots for a system or even a group of systems. 0.1 percent variance would vanish into noise without an enormous amount of information.
Assuming it’s true that Microsoft intends to allow users to manually upgrade, our question is why the company didn’t just announce this to start with.
Microsoft has repeatedly doubled down on Windows 11’s hardware requirements. It repeatedly insisted that no, there would be no bypass, no back doors. Roughly a month ago, during a Reddit AMA, Microsoft’s Aria Carey stated: “We’re still going to block you from upgrading your device to an unsupported state since we really want to make sure that your devices stay supported and secure.”
If The Verge is right, no they aren’t. I’d feel better to see Microsoft publicly confirm The Verge’s statements, but having watched how the company handled long-term Win 10 upgrades, it’s possible it does not intend to do so. This option may just exist quietly and indefinitely throughout the lifespan of the product.
If that’s the case — and especially if it was always planned this way — we’d like to see Microsoft either play its cards a little less close to the chest, or at least offer a little more ambiguity than it has here. If you intend to leave a quiet upgrade option, say things like: “The following machines will be officially supported for Windows 11. Additional plans for other hardware will be announced a later date,” and put that in the launch announcement. The technical press is capable of parsing the difference between “officially” supported and “unofficially supported.” It’s not a new distinction.
So that’s where things stand at the moment. Enthusiasts with older hardware will be able to install or upgrade Windows 11, but will not be offered the upgrade via Windows Update.
The current betas and Insider versions do not allow installation to a machine if that machine is not connected with a TPM 1.2 or 2.0 module. This can be bypassed in several ways, but right now this unofficial support is still locked out. Since Microsoft hasn’t commented yet directly, it’s possible enthusiasts will still need to jump through several hoops to get hardware running.
The near-term improvements of Windows 11 over Windows 10 look pretty small. Windows 11 and Windows 10 will both support features like DirectStorage, for example. There is one area where we know Windows 11 will offer superior performance over Windows 10: hybrid computers. CPUs based on Lakefield and Alder Lake will deliver at least slightly improved performance in Windows 11 thanks to that operating system’s improved support for hybrid CPUs. Chips like Alder Lake will run Windows 10 if you prefer to stick with that version of the OS, but they ought to run a bit faster on Windows 11.
If the only difference between official and unofficial Windows 11 support is whether the OS gets offered to you in Windows Update, that’s a pretty fair solution to us. Now please stop obfuscating local account setup.
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