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Computer makers, including Asus, HP, and Lenovo, have been talking a lot about a new kind of laptop, the Always Connected PC, that they plan to roll out in the spring. The PC makers have been promoting the laptops’ promise of 20-plus-hour battery life and their ability to connect to cellular networks, but until now they’ve provided less information about the operating system.
These laptops, which use Qualcomm processors originally designed for Android smartphones, will come out of the box running a somewhat stripped down operating system called Windows 10 S.
This operating system has been discussed by Microsoft since last spring but hasn’t yet appeared in any products; it is also slated for upcoming Chromebook-like PCs intended for the education market. (A handful of similar-sounding “always connected” PCs with Intel processors will run normal Windows 10.)
The new operating system brings a new wrinkle to the buying decision for consumers interested in the new, Qualcomm-powered laptops. The trade-offs start with the kind of software they’ll be able to run.
You’d Better Hope There’s an App for That
The biggest way Windows 10 S differs from the now-familiar Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro operating systems is that it runs apps only from the official Microsoft Store. Users won’t be able to download applications from sites such as Adobe.com or Mozilla.org.
Granted, there are nearly 700,000 apps in the Microsoft Store, according to the company, but that impressive-sounding number won’t help if the app you need isn’t included, whether that’s Apple’s iTunes or Media Player Classic.
“If you stick to routine tasks like web browsing, email, and productivity, you can find apps in the store, if not already pre-installed on the laptops,” says Antonette Asedillo, Consumer Reports’ lead PC tester. “But if you need specialized software, such as the Adobe Creative Suite, then 10 S isn’t for you.” (You can find the entry-level version of Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, in the Store.)
Even your choice of web browsers is limited with Windows 10 S. You won’t find Chrome or Firefox apps in the Windows Store, so hopefully you like Microsoft Edge, the successor to Internet Explorer that debuted in 2015.
In addition to the restrictions on software, Microsoft says that while many hardware accessories and peripherals—such as external mice and printers—will work just fine with Windows 10 S, some devices may have reduced functionality or may not work at all with the new operating system.
“You won’t be able to manually install drivers, so accessories such as a printer or scanner may lose functionality from being limited to a generic Windows driver,” Asedillo says.
But there’s a caveat to all this. Consumers who don’t like Windows 10 S won’t be stuck with it. Microsoft says you can perform a one-way upgrade to Windows 10 Pro for what the company describes as “an affordable price”; last year, the company cited an upgrade price of $49, but it would not confirm that pricing when we asked recently.
It Could Be Safer From Malware
Windows 10 S isn’t all about limitations. It also provides consumers with some advantages over other versions of the operating system.
Boot time, performance, and battery life “have a significant impact on how people are satisfied or not satisfied with their PC,” says Aaron Woodman, general manager of Windows consumer marketing. And, he says, Windows 10 S and approved apps will improve all three parameters—while also minimizing consumers’ risk of accidentally downloading malware while looking for apps on the open internet.
“Part of the Windows Store’s app certification is to check for viruses and malware, so they do have that level of security,” Asedillo says. “By limiting installations to pre-screened apps, you’re less likely to have rogue software doing malicious activity.” But, she adds, no app store is foolproof—just ask Google.
And other than the restriction on where you can download apps, this should be a full Windows 10 experience.
Consumers will find critical Windows 10 tools such as the digital assistant Cortana, Windows Hello (which lets users log into their PCs by looking into the webcam), and direct integration with OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage service.
Consumers can fire up Word to write and edit long text documents, while family budgets can be endlessly tweaked with Excel. And popular services such as Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, and social networking sites like Facebook work on Windows 10 S.
“Users who just need something that works and is lightweight—Windows 10 S could slot nicely for them,” says Linn Huang, a research director who tracks the PC market at IDC, a market intelligence firm.
Then there’s the attractive price for Windows 10 S computers. Both the HP Envy x2 and Asus NovaGo, two of the first Always-Connected PCs due this spring, will start at $599 when they’re released. Though it’s not impossible to find ordinary Windows 10-based laptops for this price, they haven’t always fared well in Consumer Reports ratings.
As for where else we may see Windows 10 S pop up, that’s less clear.
A recent report on Thurrott.com, a Microsoft-focused news site, suggested the company is planning to eliminate Windows 10 S as a distinct version of the operating system in favor of making an “S Mode” available for Windows 10 Home and Pro. This could open up the possibility of even more devices, especially those aimed at less tech-savvy consumers, running this flavor of Windows.
When asked about these reported changes, a Microsoft spokesperson merely stated that “Windows 10 S provides a streamlined, secure, and battery-efficient experience that we believe is a great choice for many customers. We’ll share more about what’s next for Windows 10 S when we’re ready.”
We’re looking forward to testing the first Windows 10 S, Always Connected PCs when they become available to consumers.
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