In June, we wrote that Windows 11 will leave millions of PCs behind, seemingly because their processors aren’t as new and fully featured as Microsoft would like.
This morning, Microsoft revealed a change of plan to The Verge: it won’t technically abandon those millions of PCs, because you’ll be able to manually install the downloadable Windows 11 ISO on whatever you want. The company’s also extending its official CPU compatibility list to a bunch of Intel’s most expensive Xeon workstation processors and its most expensive line of Core X desktop CPUs — and, tellingly, the less powerful Intel chip it shipped in its Surface Studio 2, so it no longer has to defend the idea of abandoning a flagship product that it still continues to sell brand-new.
But while it might seem like Microsoft’s opening up the floodgates, the confusing reality of Windows 11 upgrades hasn’t changed quite as much as you might think. While DIY PC gamers, IT admins, and other power users will be able to perform a clean install of Windows 11 on existing hardware dating back years, it still sounds like Microsoft will be encouraging millions of people to replace their perfectly good Windows PCs.
Imagine for a moment that you’ve never heard of an ISO; you’re hoping to upgrade your aging machine to the refreshing yet familiar Windows 11 this fall; and you want to know if it’ll work. You might well fire up Microsoft’s PC Health Check app, because that’s the exact tool the company is advertising for that purpose. But that tool might lead you astray. Microsoft tells The Verge that app will still check your CPU against Microsoft’s list of supported processors — and direct you to “relevant support articles that include potential remediation steps” if you don’t have the chips that Microsoft prefers.
Most Windows PC owners probably won’t bother with a compatibility checker app, of course. They’ll just wait for the Windows Update that can automatically bring it to them for free, much like how Windows 10 was a free update when it arrived in 2015. But here, again, Microsoft will only be updating computers with supported CPUs.
Avoiding automatic updates for CPUs that aren’t supported makes some amount of sense: Microsoft doesn’t want to be blamed if it makes your Windows experience worse, and it can’t test every single configuration under the sun.
But how much worse is worse? Microsoft makes it sound pretty bad at first, writing that it saw 52 percent more kernel mode crashes (aka the infamous BSOD) when testing systems that didn’t meant its minimum spec — whereas machines that did meet it had a 99.8 percent crash-free experience. But if you do the math, it means we’re going from a 2-in-1,000 chance of a BSOD to a 3-in-1,000 chance. That additional amount of downtime might not be acceptable for a sysadmin managing thousands of older computers, but it’d likely be a different story for the average person who only buys a new PC every four to six years.
As we’ve explained before, Microsoft has some valid security reasons to insist on more stringent hardware requirements like TPM 2.0, particularly from its laptop and desktop partners. The company’s been targeted by some extremely troubling attacks and would like to prevent more, but it only has so much leverage over the PC industry to make sure security features are actually turned on. (Microsoft has technically mandated TPM 2.0 since July 2016.)
None of this will be a problem for those who simply buy a new computer with a preloaded copy of Windows 11. But that’s my point — now that Microsoft has revealed it’s not actually locking Windows 11 to those security features, the list of supported CPUs feels even more like a gift to Intel and PC manufacturers in the form of extra computer sales (where Microsoft profits off each Windows 10 license) than a staunch security play. And it’ll be a shame, particularly for the environment, if people wind up tossing PCs that are perfectly capable of running the new OS.
As security expert (and former Microsoft threat intelligence analyst) Kevin Beaumont put it earlier this year, the company’s motivations are questionable:
In the middle of a pandemic when orgs are hurting, with a global chip shortage, MS are trying to get people to replace things for security reasons that are questionable.
Buy a Surface? No. Make a better OS.
— Kevin Beaumont (@GossiTheDog) June 28, 2021
Microsoft is potentially about to push lots of people toward buying a new computer this fall, and PC manufacturers will be only too happy to help. I just wonder how shameless Microsoft will be as time goes on: when it comes to promoting its own Microsoft Edge browser, it has repeatedly disrespected its own users’ choices with forced Windows Updates.