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Windows 11 will tap into top speed on Intel's new Alder Lake chips

Only the latest Microsoft software will be able to take advantage of processor technology called Thread Director that improves PC battery life and speed.

Windows 11 on a Microsoft Surface Laptop

Windows 11 on a Microsoft Surface Laptop.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Here's a good reason to upgrade to Windows 11: Your laptop won't be able to take advantage of the full range of speed and battery features in Intel's new Alder Lake processor without Microsoft's latest operating system.

Windows 11 arrives on Oct. 5, the same time of year as the first PCs using Alder Lake, Intel's successor to its 11th Gen Core "Tiger Lake" chips. Microsoft adapted Windows 11 for Alder Lake's headline feature, a combination of performance and efficiency processing cores that maximize speed and battery life, respectively. Specifically, Windows taps into Intel's Thread Director hardware that scrutinizes computing tasks as they run to figure out which core makes the most sense for each task.

Supporting Thread Director makes Windows smarter about overseeing the hundreds of computing processes, called threads, that modern computers run simultaneously. It's like a train system operator scheduling traffic better by knowing each train's speed and importance.

"The Windows 11 thread scheduler is much smarter about dynamically picking the most appropriate core," said Mehmet Iyigun, Microsoft's manager for partner development, in an August briefing. Such oversight offers a "huge impact on perceived performance."

Microsoft didn't comment on how significant the benefits from Thread Director would be. 

The speed and efficiency boosts provided by the combination of Windows 11 and Alder Lake could prompt an upgrade cycle for both businesses, which are often reluctant to roll out upgrades, and consumers, who can hang on to laptops until a big advance in technology arrives.

The lure of performance enhancements could help Microsoft coax reluctant customers to upgrade Windows instead of letting old versions linger for years. The long lifespans of Windows XP and Windows 7 in past decades brought problems like unpatched security vulnerabilities and incompatibility with new software.

If you have a work-supplied laptop, your employer's tech decisions affect you, and better performance and battery life are benefits any IT manager can appreciate.

"In the enterprise, [Thread Director support] could be an accelerator for Windows 11 adoption," Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart said. Businesses also might like Windows 11's security, management and productivity improvements, he added.

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Based on its observations, Thread Director provides advice to the operating system about which tasks are high priorities for the performance cores and which are lower priority background tasks that can be assigned to efficiency cores. It reassess its conclusions with changes like new tasks arriving or an older task finishing.

Windows 11 also improves how software installed on a computer communicates its needs to the operating system, allowing for enhanced performance. Windows already had a programming interface that software could use to request more resources for better performance. In Windows 11, software can now say when it wants to go easy on your battery, preferring efficiency over performance.

One app that'll take advantage of the efficiency option is Microsoft's own Edge browser, Iyigun said.

Intel is working with Linux programmers to add Thread Director support to that operating system, the company said.