Win­dows 10 S

Free un­til March 2018

Tech Advisor - - Contents - Mark Hach­man

Mi­crosoft’s Win­dows 10 S is what hap­pens when a once-easy­go­ing op­er­at­ing sys­tem has chil­dren and turns into a he­li­copter par­ent. Win­dows 10 S, a locked-down ver­sion of Win­dows 10 found on the Sur­face Lap­top and a small group of low­cost, third-party note­books, keeps stu­dents safe and se­cure by re­strict­ing them to the Win­dows Store. But as our re­view shows, the lack of free­dom chafes.

Lock­ing your PC away from the big, bad, out­side world makes sense when your chil­dren are go­ing off

to school or univer­sity, at least ac­cord­ing to Mi­crosoft. But even the most du­ti­ful par­ent will won­der why their child can’t use Chrome to beam YouTube videos to a Chrome­cast, print on some lo­cal print­ers, or protect their PC with any­thing other than Win­dows De­fender. There’s al­ways an es­cape hatch: a sim­ple up­grade to Win­dows 10 Pro. But oth­er­wise, Win­dows 10 S can be an ex­er­cise in frus­tra­tion.

Who’s it for?

Mi­crosoft pro­vides Win­dows 10 S free of charge to aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions, and it’s not hard to see why: it wants a school’s IT de­part­ment (not you) to buy its as­so­ci­ated In­tune for Ed­u­ca­tion man­age­ment sup­port soft­ware, as well as an Of­fice 365 for Ed­u­ca­tion sub­scrip­tion for the Of­fice apps stu­dents will use.

Win­dows 10 S and its hard­ware are also chas­ing Chrome­books, the cheap clamshell note­books pow­ered by Google’s free and man­age­able Chrome OS, which have taken the ed­u­ca­tion mar­ket by storm. The re­sem­blance is not an ac­ci­dent: In fact, as we were writ­ing this re­view, Asus let us know that a ver­sion of its Chrome­book C202 would be re­leased in Septem­ber as the W202NA, a Win­dows 10 S-pow­ered ma­chine.

As with Chrome­books, stu­dents can’t pick up a copy of Win­dows 10 S and load it onto their own ma­chine. Instead, it will come pre­loaded onto Mi­crosoft’s Sur­face Lap­top or a small cadre of third-party Win­dows 10 S lap­tops priced for mod­est school bud­gets and ruggedi­zed to with­stand class­rooms full of chil­dren.

So far, how­ever, only the Sur­face Lap­top is avail­able. As Mi­crosoft re­vealed in Au­gust, the low-cost Win­dows

10 S lap­tops won’t ship un­til at least Septem­ber, pos­si­bly miss­ing the back-to-school win­dow for the 2017 school year.

For this re­view, we’re not con­sid­er­ing how man­age­able Win­dows 10 S is, or whether it’s a better choice for se­cur­ing an aca­demic en­vi­ron­ment than Chrome OS. Instead, we’re look­ing at it from the user’s per­spec­tive – what it’s like to use com­pared to full-fledged Win­dows.

We tested a Mi­crosoft-sup­plied Sur­face Lap­top, which comes pre­loaded with Win­dows 10 S. We will note, how­ever, that we up­graded the Lap­top to Win­dows 10 Pro for bench­mark­ing. To re­turn the Sur­face Lap­top to Win­dows 10 S, we down­loaded a pub­licly avail­able Sur­face re­cov­ery image, which is some­thing you’d nor­mally do only if your sys­tem were mal­func­tion­ing. The process was pretty easy, though Mi­crosoft says that you’ll need a USB stick of at least 16GB in size. We found it took about an hour’s worth of time to down­load and in­stall the image.

Mi­crosoft also asked us to make this crys­tal-clear: If you re­vert from Win­dows 10 Pro to Win­dows 10 S, all apps, data and set­tings are re­verted, and will be erased from your PC.

Hey, this is (only) Win­dows 10

If you’re com­fort­able work­ing within the Win­dows 10 en­vi­ron­ment, Win­dows 10 S re­ally is al­most virtually iden­ti­cal to Win­dows 10. The so-called Out of the Box Ex­pe­ri­ence is iden­ti­cal, with Cor­tana walk­ing you though setup. Once in­side the op­er­at­ing sys­tem, nearly all Win­dows func­tions like Win­dows Hello,

File Man­ager, Cor­tana, Win­dows Ink, and the var­i­ous built-in Win­dows apps all work iden­ti­cally to their equiv­a­lents in Win­dows 10 Home or Pro.

In fact, Mi­crosoft’s own sum­mary slide points out that Win­dows 10 S and Win­dows 10 Pro are nearly iden­ti­cal, but with two key dif­fer­ences: Win­dows S is re­stricted to apps in the Win­dows Store, and you can’t join a Win­dows 10 S ma­chine to a com­pany do­main. Oth­er­wise, on both Win­dows 10 S and Win­dows 10 Pro you can use BitLocker, Win­dows Sub­sys­tem for Linux, and the HyperV vir­tual ma­chine man­ager, though you may need to en­able fea­tures within the Win­dows Fea­tures con­trol panel.

It’s when you be­come bored or dis­sat­is­fied with Win­dows that the trou­bles start.

For safety’s sake, Win­dows 10 S pro­hibits you from in­stalling apps from any­where but the Win­dows Store. You’ll be able to down­load the app, but when it comes time to in­stall it, the Win­dows 10 S he­li­copter par­ent steps in (see op­po­site screen­shot).

That means, for in­stance, you can’t down­load a game from the Steam gam­ing ser­vice. If you’d like to use Google’s Chrome browser, you can’t – only Edge. Win­dows 10 S will al­low you to down­load an ex­e­cutable file from a third-party source, or trans­fer it onto the

PC from a USB stick. When it comes time to launch it, though, Win­dows 10 S will block it.

You likely have cer­tain apps that you sim­ply take for granted, whether they’re class re­quire­ments – like Pho­to­shop (or GIMP), Au­toCAD, or MatLab – or teach­ing aids for younger stu­dents, like Mavis Bea­con Teaches Typ­ing. Silly lit­tle util­i­ties that you may have tucked away in a folder sim­ply won’t work. Re­mote sup­port so­lu­tions like LogMeIn123 also re­quire the user to down­load an ex­e­cutable be­fore a re­mote tech­ni­cian can log in and help you solve an is­sue with your PC, so this so­lu­tion’s out, too. Even tried-andtrue ex­e­cutable ‘apps’ within Win­dows, such as the Com­mand Shell or Reg­istry Edi­tor, are off-lim­its.

This can’t be over­stated: The lack of flex­i­bil­ity is the big­gest rea­son not to in­vest in a Win­dows 10 S note­book – un­less you plan to up­grade it to Win­dows 10 Pro.

A larger is­sue, in my mind, is that Win­dows 10 S forces you to use Mi­crosoft’s Edge browser. While the num­ber of avail­able Edge ex­ten­sions has climbed to 48 at the time of this writ­ing, with ex­cel­lent choices in­clud­ing Ghostery and LastPass, Opera, Chrome, and Fire­fox have thou­sands of plug-ins and ex­ten­sions from which to choose. Im­port­ing web­sites and stored pass­words from plat­form to plat­form sim­ply isn’t as con­ve­nient in Edge as it is in Chrome. The bot­tom line is that it’s a change in be­hav­iour that’s forced upon the user, which is sure to ir­ri­tate some.

Fi­nally, there’s Of­fice. The Win­dows 10 S ‘pri­vate cat­a­logue’ fea­ture al­lows a school or univer­sity to cre­ate a sort of ‘store within the Store’ to carve out apps that a par­tic­u­lar class might need. It won’t al­low you to join the ma­chine to a busi­ness or cor­po­rate net­work, though. This might not mean much, but if you had vi­sions of sav­ing a pound or two by con­nect­ing a busi­ness ac­count of Of­fice 365 to a Win­dows 10 S PC, it won’t work. The Sur­face Lap­top we re­viewed did come with a year’s sub­scrip­tion to Of­fice 365 Per­sonal, how­ever, which is avail­able in a beta form. I didn’t notice any dif­fer­ences be­tween Of­fice 365 and the Win­dows 10 S ver­sions of the apps.

Some par­ents will un­doubt­edly sup­port re­mov­ing the po­ten­tial dis­trac­tion of say, Over­watch, from their child’s PC. And if a school has a web-based cur­ricu­lum set up for Chrome­books, a Win­dows 10 S ma­chine

should be able to step in with­out miss­ing a beat. But in my mind, the lack of free­dom to ob­tain apps that stu­dents may need robs a lot of the value from Win­dows 10 S, es­pe­cially as chil­dren move higher in the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem.

Un­for­tu­nately, the com­pat­i­bil­ity is­sues ap­ply to third-party hard­ware, too. When I tried to con­nect the Sur­face Lap­top to an older Dell all-in-one printer via a USB con­nec­tion, the Lap­top rec­og­nized the hard­ware,

but wouldn’t load the driver – in other words, I couldn’t print, with no ex­pla­na­tion why. Any driver or third­party ap­pli­ca­tion that con­tains scripts or ex­e­cutable files will be blocked by Win­dows 10 S, Mi­crosoft’s sup­port doc­u­men­ta­tion re­veals. But that’s a lot of gob­bledy­gook to a con­sumer who buys a Sur­face Lap­top for their stu­dent, then has to call Mi­crosoft or a sup­port tech to find out why their son or daughter can’t print a draft of their pa­per.

It’s worth dig­ging though this Mi­crosoft-com­piled in­dex of sup­ported (and un­sup­ported) de­vices on Win­dows 10 S to see if you’ll ex­pe­ri­ence the same prob­lems I did: the vast ma­jor­ity of older print­ers aren’t sup­ported. To be fair, set­ting up Google Cloud Print for a Chrome­book has its own is­sues, which is why Google is adding lo­cal print­ing as an ex­per­i­men­tal fea­ture in Chrome OS. Still, doesn’t it seem slightly in­sane to be forced to en­sure your de­vices are com­pat­i­ble be­fore buy­ing a Win­dows ma­chine?

Se­cu­rity and speed

You may re­call that the ‘S’ in Win­dows 10 S sup­pos­edly stands for ‘simplicity’, ‘se­cu­rity’, and ‘speed’. We’ve al­ready seen the down­side of ‘simplicity’.

One of the sell­ing points of Win­dows 10 S, ac­cord­ing to Mi­crosoft, is its re­sis­tance to ‘known ran­somware’. 10 S is the com­pany’s new­est and most hard­ened OS, ac­cord­ing to a com­pany blog post. ZDNet al­most im­me­di­ately put that claim to the test, and found that Win­dows 10 S could be ex­ploited via an old work­around: Word macros. We didn’t try to

re­pro­duce ZDNet’s re­sults, but take Mi­crosoft’s claim with a grain of salt.

An­other thing to con­sider: don’t think that apps like Avast An­tivirus Down­load Cen­tre or Kasper­sky Now – all apps that ap­pear in the Store when you search for ‘an­tivirus’ – rep­re­sent ac­tual an­tivirus pro­grams. They’re not. You’re de­pen­dent upon Win­dows De­fender’s built-in fire­wall and an­tivirus – both com­pe­tent, but prob­a­bly not as se­cure as a third-party so­lu­tion.

Fi­nally, there’s speed. Mi­crosoft claimed that Win­dows 10 S is faster to boot and re­sume than Win­dows 10 Pro. Orig­i­nally, we found that Win­dows 10 S was slower than Win­dows 10 Pro. Af­ter retest­ing, we found it’s slightly quicker to boot, but also slightly slower to re­sume from a cold boot. Nei­ther dif­fer­ence is es­pe­cially sig­nif­i­cant.

A click away from Win­dows 10 Pro

You can up­grade to Win­dows 10 Pro through one of two ways: ei­ther by a link at the bot­tom of the Win­dows 10 S pop-ups that ap­pear when you try and run an ex­e­cutable file, or by sim­ply typ­ing Win­dows 10 S Pro into the search box of the Win­dows Store. Ei­ther way, click­ing the In­stall but­ton be­gins the process. It doesn’t ap­pear that you’ll ac­tu­ally need to down­load the new op­er­at­ing sys­tem, as I was able to up­grade with­out be­ing con­nected to a wire­less net­work. Win­dows rec­om­mends that you save and close all your files and apps be­fore you be­gin the process. Back­ing up to OneDrive or an­other lo­ca­tion would be a good idea.

When I up­graded from Win­dows 10 S to Win­dows 10 Pro, Win­dows in­formed me it was ‘pre­par­ing to switch’, re­booted once, than com­pleted some fi­nal prepa­ra­tions be­fore it launched Win­dows 10 Pro. All told, the process took nine min­utes.

As we noted above, the switch from Win­dows 10 S to Win­dows 10 Pro is as­sumed to be a one-way street. That’s not nec­es­sar­ily true, as you can down­load and re­store from a Win­dows 10 S disk image. But restor­ing Win­dows 10 S from that disk image will erase all files, apps, and set­tings.


It’s dif­fi­cult to con­struct a sce­nario where a user would want Win­dows 10 S. Sure, an el­e­men­taryschool stu­dent with a cur­ricu­lum built around the web might not care whether they use Edge or Chrome. A con­cerned par­ent try­ing to min­i­mize dis­trac­tions for a child away at school might buy a ma­chine run­ning an op­er­at­ing sys­tem that locked out most games. Part of the is­sue con­cerns how Mi­crosoft has at­tempted to stretch Win­dows 10 S from ele­men­tary schools all the way through col­lege, which have vastly dif­fer­ent re­quire­ments in terms of hard­ware and soft­ware.

Mi­crosoft tries to con­vince you that Win­dows 10 S is al­most Win­dows 10 Pro

Sorry, no Win32 apps for you. Win­dows 10 S has strict pro­tec­tions in place

If you try to down­load and in­stall Google’s Chrome browser, a dif­fer­ent warn­ing pops up, en­cour­ag­ing you to open Edge instead

A num­ber of Of­fice apps are avail­able un­der Win­dows 10 S, which ap­pear to have the same func­tion­al­ity as they do un­der Of­fice 365

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