This week, Microsoft will officially unleash the Surface Laptop, a $US999 Apple MacBook rival with solid specs and eye-catching aesthetics. There’s more to this story than just the hardware, however.
The Surface Laptop serves as the showcase device for Windows 10 S, a new version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system. This new Windows 10 S is designed to offer better battery life, security, and performance on even the cheapest laptops…with one big tradeoff.
With Windows 10 S, you can only, and I emphasise only, download software from the Windows Store, Microsoft’s app market. That means that you won’t be able to download and install popular software like Google Chrome or Adobe Photoshop, among other things.
After a little over a week with the Surface Laptop, I’m here to tell you that Windows 10 S is a solid idea. But in reality, its execution is lacking, and more than a little frustrating. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s the only thing wrong with the Surface Laptop, which is otherwise fantastic.
So what’s the big idea?
First, it’s important to note that you’re never totally stuck with Windows 10 S. If you don’t like it, you can go to the Windows Store and pay $US49 for an upgrade to the stock-standard Windows 10 Pro. Surface Laptop owners can make that one-way switch for free through the end of 2017.
With that said: Windows 10 S is a shot across the bow at Google. It boasts a faster start-up time, higher security, easier management for the IT department, and speedier performance on all laptops — all hallmark features of Google’s low-cost Chromebooks, which are the most popular computers in American classrooms.
With your normal, average Windows computer, all the programs running in the background — many of which were placed there by the PC manufacturer — gradually eat up more and more of your computing power over time. PC superusers call this “bit rot,” and reinstall Windows on their machines periodically just to clear it out.
Enter Windows 10 S: Since it can only run software from the Windows Store, there’s no way that those little background programs can even get installed, let alone sap and impurify your precious computing power. That same limitation also means most viruses and malware aren’t able to worm their way into your system, either.
And as a nice side-benefit, cutting down on all that background activity on your system also brings theoretical gains to battery life.
It’s all a fine idea. It’s too bad the execution is so dad-gum frustrating.
What’s it like to use?
At first, Windows 10 S seems like it might be just dandy.
The Microsoft Edge browser, while still not up to the same level as Google Chrome, is way better and faster than its predecessor Internet Explorer. The Windows Store has key apps like Facebook, Slack, Twitter and Netflix, and Microsoft promises fully-featured desktop PC versions of Microsoft Office, Apple iTunes, and Spotify are on their way to the Windows Store imminently.
So for the first day or so, I was cruising along, using Edge, and enjoying what seems to genuinely be a slightly speedier version of Windows 10.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for cold, cruel reality to set in.
One of the first things I do on every new PC is install Steam, the mega-popular video game social network-slash-store. But there’s no version of Steam for the Windows Store, meaning that my shiny new computer couldn’t play most any of my existing PC games.
OK, fine. I tried to get over that very minor headache. And yet, I kept running into more: At work, we use a service called Okta, which manages our logins to systems like payroll and expense reporting. Okta plugs into the Google Chrome browser… but it’s not available for Microsoft Edge. And you can’t install Chrome, if you recall. Argh.
And then, I tried to sign into an online meeting using Google Hangouts. You need to install a browser plugin to make it work, which is normally no big deal. But because that plugin didn’t come from the Windows Store, it won’t open. I had to scramble to grab my iPhone, so I could use the app to get into that meeting. Argh, again.
The bottom line
I recognise that not everybody uses the same mix of apps that I do. I would, however, bet money that if you’re using Windows 10 S for anything other than Facebook, Netflix, and Microsoft Office, you’re going to run into some kind of incompatibility or unavailable bit of software, sooner or later.
To Microsoft’s credit, the company is positioning this mainly as an operating system for the classroom. The Windows Store may not have the same variety of apps as iPhone and Android, but it does have games like Minecraft and Roblox, both smash hits among the younger crowd.
And it’s certainly possible that as the Windows Store attracts more developers, those gaps in what you can do with Windows 10 S will get fewer and further between.
Still, truthfully, while I did notice some of those faster boot-up times and so on, it didn’t seem like such a gain over the stock-standard Windows 10 that it’s worth these tradeoffs. If you do get a Surface Laptop, I’d advise you to go to Windows 10 Pro, ASAP, while it’s still free.
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