The new Widgets interface in Windows 11 is an evolution of the News and interests flyout that Microsoft debuted in Windows 10 in early 2021. As with many features in Windows 11, Widgets is simpler and, in some ways, less sophisticated than its predecessor. But it also has roots in some features from Windows past, like the Longhorn Sidebar.
Microsoft announced it was testing News and interests in January 2021, and it was described as a way to get “quick access to an integrated feed of dynamic content such as news and weather that updates throughout the day.” The News and interests feed can be personalized, as can its taskbar button, which can be an icon only or an icon with text that briefly describes the weather. It was expected to debut in Windows 10 version 21H2—this was months before we even knew about Windows 11—but Microsoft shipped it earlier, adding it to all supported Windows 10 versions in April 2021.
Widgets plays the same role in Windows 11, and it provides a similar user interface and similar top-level interests, or, as they’re called now in Windows 11, widgets. You will see weather, stocks, sports, photos, and news widgets by default, as in Windows 10. And they look almost identical to their Windows 10 counterparts, with each widget appearing in a color-coded, rounded rectangle.
There are some differences, of course.
First and most obviously, Widgets doesn’t offer an “icon with text” option, so there’s no way to see the weather forecast at a glance. Instead, like other Windows 11 taskbar items, Widgets appears only as an icon. This was done in the name of simplicity, as News and interests requires a configurable option that determined whether the feed pane appeared if you just mouse over the News and interests icon.
Second, Widgets features a prominent web search field at the top of its pane. Windows 11 seems to overemphasize search for some reason—Start search can now be triggered several different ways, for example—so this is perhaps not surprising. (And as noted below, Widgets is really just a front-end to backend Microsoft services like Bing and MSN, so you won’t be surprised to discover that this search field uses a search engine, Bing, that most Windows users otherwise ignore.)
Search results appear in a Microsoft Edge window, regardless of which browser you’ve configured to be your default. (A task that, alas, has gotten much more complicated in Windows 11.)
And Widgets can be toggled with the WINKEY + W keyboard shortcut, so there’s no need to even display its taskbar icon. (News and interests doesn’t have a keyboard shortcut, and in Windows 10 the WINKEY + W shortcut toggles the Windows Ink Workspace.)
Under the covers, Widgets uses Microsoft services like MSN to supply its news and information, and many users will find MSN’s celebrity- and non-news-centric approach to news to be confusing if not outright annoying. As I write this, for example, the top stories called out their own boxes include something about a celebrity in a bathing suit and the new team over at CBS Mornings, for example. Even those that wish to use this feature will likely want to spend a lot of time customizing it. Granted, that’s an issue with lots of news feeds.
For those in the Microsoft ecosystem, this might be worth the effort. These aren’t enabled by default, but you can turn on widgets for Outlook Calendar, Microsoft To Do, and (Xbox) Family Safety today, and a Microsoft 365 widget is on the way.
Microsoft also offers a web interface for customizing your interests—it’s common to the News and interests feed in Windows 10, of course—but it opens in Microsoft Edge, regardless of which browser you’ve configured as your default.
It will be interesting to see whether Microsoft can make Widgets truly useful for most users, or whether its real aim—to drive traffic to MSN and Bing, and to increase Microsoft Edge usage—simply gets in the way. But the good news is that Widgets is easy enough to disable: just right-click its taskbar icon and choose “Hide from taskbar.” I suspect that is exactly what most users will eventually do.