There has been strong speculation that Microsoft has been preparing a pretty substantial update for Windows 11 following its update in February 2023, and more evidence has emerged in a recent Windows Insider webcast (a virtual conference where members of the developer community can voice concerns).
In particular, it’s expected that File Explorer is getting an overhaul by moving it to WinAppSDK, a set of tools and libraries used to build modern Windows applications.
This will allow for greater integration into the WinUI 3 framework, increased functionality through access to new APIs, and other improvements. This is a significant shift on the underlying technical level, but it will preserve existing app frameworks, such as .NET and those of Win32 UIs, while hopefully providing an enhanced File Explorer experience to users.
File Explorer is a major part of Windows 11, and has been a mainstay of Windows operating systems since Windows 95, so any major design overhaul is going to have big repercussions for the overall look of Windows – and if Microsoft doesn’t get it right, it could prove divisive.
According to Windows Latest, which has tested an early version of the new-look File Explorer, there are a number of new features that will be included (some of which have cropped up in previous speculative reports and insights from Windows 11 preview builds).
Functionally, we expect to see increased web integration and further online integration with Microsoft 365 (including into your own local file manager), along with improved file recommendation features such as prominently highlighting file recommendations with larger thumbnails and including suggestions from said Microsoft 365-driven recommendations.
New-look File Explorer
There are also multiple notable expected design developments. Firstly, there are redesigned menu features like the file directory box, search box, and home button, with some options like ‘copy’ being moved to make the interface less cluttered and more streamlined, and to make more room for search features.
Secondly, it looks like there’s a revamped left-side navigation and details pane, making this more touch-friendly, displaying more file details, and using Microsoft 365 integration to provide further details from your organization (if you work for a business with Microsoft 365 subscriptions) like comments, emails, and more.
Finally, a reworked “Gallery” area with improved photo-viewing capabilities and more useful detail pane view, and an attractive home preview page visually similar to other modern Windows 11 apps.
The newly WinAppSDK-enabled File Explorer will be available to those in the Windows Insider Program in the near future, allowing for direct feedback and the ability to help developers shape the product before a definitive version is released to the public. Microsoft has stated that for the time being, the existing Windows 11 File Explorer is not being rewritten, and instead substantial changes will be introduced gradually. It has not yet been stated when this version of File Explorer will be rolled out to testers.
We also do not have a date for when this version is expected to debut, but various sources speculate that this may happen later this year. As we mentioned, a considerable effort is in progress with a visual overhaul of this size, and because it concerns user usability and interaction, Microsoft will no doubt try to make sure the final version of the new-look File Explorer in Windows 11 is adequate.
It’s predicted to be the biggest update to the file manager in a decade and has the potential to be quite an improvement when it comes to usability, especially for its use for organizational purposes with the robust integration of Microsoft 365 for several key features.
Ironing out the kinks
Some people who have already tried out an early version of the new File Explorer have said that it’s far from perfect at the moment. For example, it hasn't been confirmed if photo tagging will be added or if the searchability of photos using the Gallery view will be improved.
Additionally, it is unknown if Microsoft will try to sneak ads in more places like it has started trying to do in the Windows 11 Start menu. All of this is still speculation, and this update is still very much in development, which means Microsoft developers may change their minds about any of these features, and how exactly these various features will appear is yet to be decided. With a change this big, however, let’s hope Microsoft doesn’t mess it up.