Windows 10 S Review: Faster, Simpler -- and Incredibly Painful To Use
Windows 10 S is the latest version of Microsoft's new and improved operating system, which is about to launch with the new Surface Laptop and a series of machines from third-party manufactures.
It joins Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro as the three versions of Windows aimed at consumers. However, confusingly it is not an upgrade to either, but a class of Windows in and of itself.
What Is It?
Strictly speaking Windows 10 S is Windows 10 Pro but with some limitations that are designed to, in Microsoft's words, "be streamlined for simplicity, security and speed." In other words Windows 10 S is meant to be more secure, faster and have longer battery life, like-for-like on the same computer.
The biggest limitation is that it is restricted to using only apps downloaded from the Windows Store, of which there are about 700,000 available. The quantity is not the issue, but the quality is: the Windows Store is full of dross, from outdated and abandoned apps, to clones and useless junk -- but the situation is improving almost monthly.
How Do I Get It?
You can't buy Windows 10 S without a machine: it will only come on new computers -- primarily those aimed at the lower-end or the education market, aside from the Surface Laptop.
If I Don't Like It Can I Change It?
Users can upgrade from 10 S to Windows 10 Pro with a few button presses, as Windows 10 S is built on Windows 10 Pro. For many the upgrade will be free for a limited amount of time. Surface Laptop users can upgrade to 10 Pro for free until the end of 2017 -- or face a fee.
What's It Like To Use?
If Windows 10 S is to be known by only one thing, that thing would be speed. It's the fastest version of Windows I have ever used -- from switching and loading apps to booting up, it's noticeably faster than either Windows 10 Home or 10 Pro running on similar hardware.
If all you only use the built-in Windows apps, such as Mail and Calendar, People, Skype, Edge and Office, Windows 10 S won't seem any different -- expect the speed. It behaves just like any other version of Windows 10. It has the normal Start menu and of course same mix of new-looking Windows 10 interface hiding the ancient Windows XP-era Control Panel if you dig deep enough.
It's not restricted in any noticeable day-to-day way (you can even mess with drivers, disks and group policy, just not the registry), apart from where you can install apps.
I found Windows Store restriction to be more bothersome than I expected. About half the apps I use on Windows come from the Store, which is great and makes setting up machines easier and faster. But the other half I find it very difficult to live without. For instance, I haven't found a good simple text editor in the Windows Store -- although there are many -- and as I do not use Adobe I struggle to find an image editing program that will do what I need.
Photoshop Elements 14 is available via the Windows Store, so if you were to stick with Windows 10 S that would be your best bet -- but it's no full Photoshop. Photoshop isn't available on the Windows Store, and neither are excellent image editors such as Affinity Photo and the free Gimp.
I'm also a Spotify user, and as the desktop app isn't available in the Windows Store, I was confined to the Flash-based Spotify Web player in Edge, which was a terrible experience (I quit after it failed to play more than two songs sequentially before falling over). I also missed the WhatsApp Windows 10 app, the Signal Chrome extension and Steam and all the games I've got.
While I can get by with alternatives most of the time, one of the biggest issues I had with Windows 10 S was the limited browser selection -- you've got Edge and that's pretty much it unless you want to deal with Internet Explorer 11. You can't install Chrome, Firefox, Opera or any other browser; they're not available in the Windows Store and are highly unlikely to be -- though given that Apple's iTunes is coming to the Windows Store, I wouldn't say never.
Microsoft's Edge is an interesting problem. Some will like it -- a more stripped-down experience of the web that you can draw all over. It has some nice features, but I found that it just wasn't up to scratch as the only browser you have access to.
It's faster than Chrome, Safari and all the rest -- according to Microsoft -- but I didn't find it to be. It choked on some of the more mundane sites, requiring a couple of reloads to get it to render them correctly, and it wasn't anything to do with plugins or Flash.
It failed to load Microsoft's Office install subscription page, meaning I had to switch to another computer using Chrome to deactivate an older install of Office to activate it on another one. Not even being able to render your own site fully is a bit embarrassing.
Edge will struggle with anything built with Chrome or Firefox in mind. It was a nightmare of jumping text cursors, copy and paste garbage and straight-up broken features trying to use the Guardian's editorial tools, for instance, all of which work perfectly fine in Chrome, Firefox and Safari.
The Wire browser app didn't work properly, missing certain characters from pasted text. Not even tech site Engadget's galleries worked as they're meant to.
Should all these sites and web apps work in Edge? Probably, but unless Windows 10 S becomes a storming success and grabs Edge a greater slice of the worldwide browser market share (it's currently claiming just 1.73% compared to Chrome's 54.14% according to data from StatCounter) then it's unlikely everything will become compliant.
* If you're setting it up in anywhere quiet, plug in headphones before you start it up the first time as Cortana shouts at you
* Most peripherals work fine, but if you need a particular utility to run your printer or scanner or any other peripheral, you can forget it
* It comes with BitLocker to encrypt your hard drive
* If you upgrade to Windows 10 Pro there's no going back
* I couldn't find away to paste just plain text or to keep formatting in Edge
Edge was incredibly vexing
Windows 10 S is a nice attempt by Microsoft to create an easier to manage, faster Windows 10 experience. It feels like it is intended to become Microsoft's default operating system -- a step below Windows 10 Home -- and that might be what happens unless consumers rebel.
It lives up to most of Microsoft's promises. It is faster. It is more secure in that at least it won't run anything that's not downloaded from the Windows Store, and it is simpler. The underlying Windows 10 experience is great, so if all the normal applications people install were available through the Windows Store, it would be brilliant.
But they aren't, and Edge simply isn't ready to be your only browser -- it is holding the whole of Windows 10 S back. The app situation may change, particularly if Windows 10 S becomes popular enough to be a draw for developers to get their programs into the Windows Store.
For now by all means try Windows 10 S, but be prepared to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro almost immediately.
© 2017 Guardian Web under contract with NewsEdge/Acquire Media. All rights reserved.