Living with Windows 10 S: The Basics

Posted on July 29, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Windows 10 with 93 Comments

Living with Windows 10 S: The Basics

When it comes to Windows 10 S, you know what’s waiting for you: A world of Store apps and websites. But reality diverges wildly from theory when you actually try to use Windows 10 S. And here are a few basics to consider ahead of time.

First, here’s what I’m doing: In the grand tradition of “idiot blogger doing stupid stuff so you don’t have to,” I’m going to try and use Windows 10 S every single day between now and the middle of August, when I return from our annual home swap and move to Pennsylvania. Now, I’ve already used Windows 10 S, so I know what I’m in for. And it’s not pretty. So I’m going to bend the rules a little bit.

That is, I’m not going to just use Windows 10 S, and I’m going to split time between this limited new product and a more mainstream version of Windows. See, I’ve got real work to do. And let’s face it, the truth is that Windows 10 S just can’t cut it. Not yet.

So what’s the point? Simple: I feel that Microsoft’s efforts to move us to this more streamlined and modern Windows version is well-intentioned and even correct. It’s just Windows 10 S isn’t ready yet. So in an attempt to figure out which failings are big enough to require a compromise on Microsoft’s part, and which are just me being normal and set in my ways, I’m going to undergo some pain. I’m going to try and make this work. Again, I know this won’t go well. But I’m really going to try and fight through it.

And it’s already been a fight. The first 36 hours of using Windows 10 S haven’t exactly been tear-inducing, but they’ve been painful. Aggravating. Irritating. And exhausting. I’ll get to that, and I’m sure I’ll be ruminating more as we move forward about the work flow changes that this system may require of us all.

But let’s think about the basics here.

First, as the Windows 10 S website tells us, this new platform is “streamlined for security and superior performance.” That’s an empty platitude unless you know the specifics, which are these:

Apps. Like other Windows 10 product versions, Windows 10 S comes bundled with a mixture of traditional Win32 desktop apps (including File Explorer) and Store apps. But, as a user, you can only acquire new apps from the Store. In Windows 10 S parlance, these apps are called “verified” apps. Because we need another way to refer to these things, apparently.

Microsoft Edge. Windows 10 users spend over 50 percent of their time using the system in a web browser. And in Windows 10 S, that browser is Microsoft Edge, and only Microsoft Edge. This is good and bad, and I’m sure I have a Homeric post coming about using Edge in the real world. But for now understand that Edge’s ability to run web apps means that Windows 10 S users actually do have another avenue for apps, meaning web apps. And though the experience isn’t particularly sophisticated with Edge, web apps tend to be much better than any bundled or Store apps. So you’re going to want to get to know Edge. Sorry.

Edge. We’re stuck with each other.

Security. Like other Windows 10 product versions, Windows 10 S comes with a complete suite of security technologies, including Windows Defender and always-on disk encryption. Unlike with other Windows 10 product versions, however, you cannot install a more powerful or feature-complete AV or anti-malware solution on Windows 10 S. So you’re stuck with what Microsoft provides. This, too, is both good and bad. But from my perspective, Defender is just fine, and it is lightweight and rarely gets in your face. I see this one as a win.

Installing Windows 10 S this week, it occurred me that the first roadblock some are going to have to overcome is that you basically have to sign-in with a Microsoft account. If you’ve read the Windows 10 Field Guide, you know that I generally recommend that users of Windows 10 Home or Pro not sign-in to the system with a Microsoft account (MSA), especially when they first acquire a new PC or upgrade. Over time, you might want to switch that local sign-in to an MSA, but because I usually use so few Store apps, I just sign-in to individual apps as needed instead.

Don’t do this with Windows 10 S. Anyone who actually chooses to use Windows 10 S needs to be all-in with the Microsoft stuff, and the seamless pass-through of credentials in apps and OneDrive, and the ability to sync your settings between devices, is a big part of that. If you’re using Windows 10 S, you need to be onboard with MSA and, more generally, with Microsoft.

I’ve also seen, now, as in my first Windows 10 S experience back in June, that Windows 10 S is familiar until it isn’t. What I mean by that is that, as you get Windows 10 S set up using the Out of Box Experience (OOBE), it is familiar, and is, in fact, identical to the process you will undergo if you set up Windows 10 Pro. (That’s likely true for both individuals and business users, but I’ve only set it up using MSA, as an individual.)

This familiarity continues as you personalize the system in various ways and install apps from the Store. Which, I do only in limited ways normally. For example, I purchased the Store version of Adobe Photoshop Elements 15 because of its liberal install policies, whereas when you buy it directly from Adobe you can only install it on two PCs at a time.

But you will run into issues. Oh yeah you will.

In my case, Adobe Photoshop Elements 15—the one Store app I give a damn about—will not run; it simply crashes on the first-run experience. I tweeted about this on Friday, tried every app and Windows troubleshooting technique you can imagine, including completely reinstalling Windows 10 S, and it just would not work. And then Adobe reached out to me and told me they were aware of this issue and were working to fix it. Something specific to Windows 10 S, apparently. (Oddly, I installed and used this back in June, so it must be tied to a more recent update on either end.)

These are the terrible apps that the Store recommends as Photoshop Elements alternatives. Yes, really.

You’re going to need to experiment when it comes to apps and, in my experience, at least, there are compromises no matter which direction—a Store app alternative to a desktop application you currently rely on, or a web app—you turn.

So I typically use Google Chrome for my web browser because it is better than Edge in every way imaginable and because it works on mobile (Android, iOS) too, giving me the ability to sync bookmarks, passwords, and more between devices. Yes, web browsers are web browsers, and I admit that Microsoft has done a nice job of piling new features into Edge in each version. But it’s not just about browsing the web.

One Chrome feature I use extensively is its ability to add any website to your Windows desktop. When you do this, you can optionally choose “Open as window” to make these pinned shortcuts behave like native app windows, with no browser UI. I do this for Google Inbox, Google Calendar, and Twitter Lite, an incredible Progressive Web App (PWA) that is just as good as any native Twitter client.

The version of Edge that ships with Windows 10 S doesn’t even support the ability to pin web page shortcuts to the taskbar, let alone run web apps in native app windows. Yes, the ability to pin web page shortcuts to the taskbar is coming in the Fall Creators Update, yes. But when you open those shortcuts, they just open in a new tab in the existing Edge window. It’s not sophisticated at all.

Windows 10 S is so helpful when you try to install a real web browser.

So this is going to require compromise. Your ability to weather these work flow changes will depend on the individual, but I can say from experience that this kind of thing eats away at me, and once I reach some threshold, I just give up. This is why I don’t use Edge on Windows 10 Pro: The things it doesn’t do well, or at all, just add up until I can’t take it anymore and go running back to Chrome. I have had similar experiences on Chromebook, macOS, and the iPad Pro.

Well, I can’t do that in Windows 10 S. So I’m going to have to compromise, and figure out whether I can use native apps, like Mail, Calendar, and Twitter. Or maybe I just use Edge and web apps. Neither is super-appealing to me, but at least the native apps are standalone windows and reasonably usable. The web apps are better, more efficient in use, but stuck inside a web browser.

The things you can’t do will add up. How this impacts you, again, will vary according to how you do things and what apps and services you use. Chrome is obvious enough, but I also use Dropbox for my book work and, oops, you can’t install the Dropbox sync client—or any non-OneDrive sync client—on Windows 10 S. So you have to either deal with the website or the Store app.

Microsoft likewise doesn’t allow you to even change the default search engine in the Edge browser, so if you want to use Google Search like a normal person, you’re going to have to change the way you do things—no more address bar search for you, Bing boy—and maybe put a bookmark to Google in your Favorites. Or just make Google your home page. Which I think is what I’m going to do.

I’ll write about the app choices I’ve made, and will likely change over time, in the near future. But suffice to say that the availability of high-quality Store apps is so small to make that term oxymoronic. And I’ve found very little in the way of apps that are acceptable counters to the web apps and desktop apps I usually use. This is an ongoing struggle.

If you’re living with Windows 10 S, you’re already on the bleeding edge, so you may want to consider enrolling your PC into the Windows Insider Program. This will give you early access to new Windows 10 features, which at this time means the Fall Creators Update. And while I normally don’t recommend that to norms, that product version is, in fact, essentially complete and the risks are lower. On that note, I’ve upgraded Windows 10 S to the Fall Creators Update, if only to take advantage of Edge’s new ability to pin websites to the taskbar. At least grant me that indulgence.

What me worry?

Software developers, gamers, and other power users will never be able to use Windows 10 S, not now and not in the foreseeable future. And the truth is, I can’t use it either: I just rely on too many solutions that can’t work, or work well, in this environment. But then that’s why I’m splitting my time for the next few weeks. And it’s going to be frustrating.


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