Microsoft Windows has changed a lot in the past 20 years, but there are many areas where it hasn’t. There are still a few visible features in Windows 11 that date back to Windows XP from 2001, or even earlier.
In stark contrast to macOS, which breaks compatibility with legacy software on a semi-regular basis, Windows is designed to break as few old applications and games as possible. That has many advantages, but it also means some Windows components haven’t significantly changed in years, as altering them could cause a chain reaction of old applications breaking. For example, even though Internet Explorer is slowly being removed from Windows 10, the rendering engine is used by some Windows software and won’t be removed anytime soon.
There are also some Windows components that Microsoft could modernize without risking backwards compatibility. That has been a focus for Windows 11, as apps like Notepad and Paint finally received much-needed makeovers, but there are still more system components that are the software equivelent of living fossils.
Windows was originally built to run on top of DOS, and early versions included a Command Prompt or other shortcut to access the underlying DOS system. Microsoft later built a more modern version of Windows for server and enterprise use that wasn’t based on DOS, called Windows NT, and Windows XP ended up as the first general-use Windows release based the upgraded system.
Both Windows XP and Windows 11 have a Command Prompt, mostly intended for running command-line utilities or batch scripts. However, Windows XP also included the NT Virtual DOS Machine, or NTVDM for short. This allowed 16-bit and 32-bit DOS applications to run in the Command Prompt (or from the File Explorer), in addition to early 16-bit Windows software. It’s not compatible with all applications and games, especially ones that rely on direct access to hardware, but it does work.
Microsoft never supported NTVDM on 64-bit versions of Windows, or Windows on other architectures, like ARM. However, it could still be enabled on all 32-bit x86 Windows releases, including Windows 10. Windows 11 isn’t available on 32-bit x86 PCs at all, so NTVDM is completely gone, but the Command Prompt remains for running command-line tools and scripts.
More recently, Microsoft has been working to merge PowerShell, the Command Prompt, and other command-line shells into the unified Windows Terminal. Newer builds of Windows 11 now open Command Prompt sessions in Windows Terminal by default, but you can change a setting in the Terminal to get the old CMD.EXE back.
This is cheating a little bit, because the Control Panel has changed significantly since Windows XP, and Microsoft has been slowly phasing it out in favor of the Settings app. However, the Control Panel is still the only way to access specific options in Windows, and some of the actual settings panels are very similar to their XP counterparts.
First is the File Explorer Options dialog, accessible in Windows XP from Appearance and Themes > Folder Options, and in Windows 11 from Appearance and Personalization > File Explorer Options. Microsoft has added a few new options over the past 20 years, but most of the layout and available settings are identical.
Another example is the Internet Properties menu on Windows 11, which is called Internet Options on XP. Some of the settings have been moved elsewhere over the past 20 years, but the Security and Adanced tabs look almost identical.
Most of the settings here were intended for Internet Explorer (like the toggles for ActiveX), which isn’t even available on Windows 11, though they could also affect some applications that use the old IE engine to load web content.
The Run Dialog has been a core component of Windows for decades, and the Windows 11 version is identical to the Windows XP panel. On both operating systems, you can open it with the Win + R keyboard shortcut. The Run dialog allows you to type the name of a program, the full path to any file or folder, or any web address to open it.
There are a few more methods to access the Run dialog on Windows 11, such as right-clicking on the Windows logo, but the small box itself has remained unchanged. It still works just as well now as it did in 2001, but I wouldn’t mind a frosted glass background, like the Start Menu.
The Character Map is a simple system tool in Windows that shows you every character in every installed font, along with the keyboard shortcut for typing it in another application. You can also use it to copy a given character to the clipboard, so you don’t have to type out the whole shortcut.
The utility has not visibly changed at all over the past 20 years. The lack of search, emoji support, and other features has led to the development of modern third-party replacements, such as Character Map UWP. The emoji picker in Windows 11 (Win + Period on the keyboard) can also be used to insert special characters, but there’s no search there either, except for emoji and GIFs.
There are many ways on Windows 11 to check hardware and software data, including the Settings app, Device Manager, and Task Manager, but one utility has stuck around for over 20 years. The System Information application can display just about every detail about your PC, from the BIOS version to your list of startup programs.
Despite its outdated design, System Information can be one of the fastest ways to check various aspects of your system, especially compared against multiple searches or clicks in the Settings app. You can’t change anything from System Information, though — you can see your startup programs, but you can’t add or remove them.
Disk Cleanup is still the primary method of cleaning up Windows system files and cache before your PC does it automatically, while also emptying the Recycle Bin, if you want. The utility is present in both Windows XP and Windows 11.
There are a few differences between the two versions, though. Later Windows updates added a separate toggle for system files, and additional menu entries for other data types. The “More Options” tab in the XP version is also gone, which just contained shortcuts to Add and Remove Programs, System Restore, and other utilities.
Windows has a built-in utility called ODBC Data Source Administrator, which allows you to connect to some external databases — primarily useful to computers in work settings or enterprise deployments. You can find it on Windows 11 by searching for “ODBC,” and it’s accessible on Windows XP from Control Panel > Performance and Maintenance > Administrative Tools.
The utility isn’t all that interesting on its own, but it is one of several methods to see the incredibly old Windows file picker in action. Using either Windows 11 or XP, go to the User DSN tab, then click Add > Driver do Microsoft Excel > Select Workbook. This specific file picker is much older than Windows XP — it dates back to Windows 3.1 from 1992.
Raymond Chen from Microsoft explained in a blog post that Windows brings up the ancient file picker for old applications, to avoid breaking compatibility with legacy software. He said, “programs from that era don’t support fancy things like long file names, and when they try to customize the dialog, they are expecting to customize a Windows 3.1-style dialog, so that’s what we give them.”
Both Windows XP and Windows 11 have a simple application called About Windows, which can be accessed by opening the Run dialog (Win + R) and running “winver” (without the quotes).
The panel displays the logo for the current operating system, as well as copyright information and the current build number. Some of the text details have changed over the past 20 years — the amount of RAM is no longer displayed, for example — but it’s not all that different.