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6 things you need to know about Windows 10 S and Surface Laptop

The new Surface Laptop ships with Windows 10 S, a variant of the Windows 10 Pro OS with one caveat: it only runs Windows Store apps. We've written a lot on Windows 10 S already including detailed a hands-on, and we explained why Windows 10 S is the right move for education – and eventually for consumers.

Today, I want to highlight a few things you may not know about Windows 10 S, how it works, what's unique about it, and how upgrading to Pro works.

See Surface Laptop at Microsoft (opens in new tab)

Windows 10 S is really just Windows 10 Pro

Windows 10 S is a just variant of Windows 10 Pro. That's not a naming trick because it has all the same features, including BitLocker and Remote Desktop, both of which are not in Windows 10 Home.

Windows 10 S or Pro? (They're basically the same.)

Windows 10 S or Pro? (They're basically the same.)

These features are the reason why you can only upgrade from 10 S to Pro and not Home, which would be a downgrade. The pricing also reflects this, too, because users with PCs that cost more $799 and that come with Windows 10 S will be charged $49 – versus $99 – to upgrade to Pro starting in 2018. (It's free for 2017.)

The one difference is the inability to run non-Windows Store apps and games. In other words, if you download a .exe from the internet (or side load it) that .exe won't run. This limitation is for security, battery, and long-term performance considerations. The idea is to make your laptop more like a tablet or smartphone for speed and reliability.

How to upgrade from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro

The process of going to Windows 10 Pro is simple. If you try to run an app you downloaded off the internet, a popup message will explain why it cannot run. Eventually, that same dialogue will fetch data from the Store to let you know if that app is available in the Store, and it will take you there to get it.

What happens when you try to run an .exe on Windows 10 S.

A dialogue box asks, "Still want to run this unverified app? See how." Clicking "See How" takes you to the Store to unlock Pro. Next, you just click "Free" and it will grab a file and begin the installation.

How the Pro upgrade looks in the Windows Store. Just click 'Free' to get started.

Once installed, the Surface Laptop will reboot, do a quick configuration and return to Windows 10 with a little notification to let you know the update is complete.

Quick configuration gets the Pro upgrade ready.

The whole process takes about three minutes and requires only a button click.

You pay for a Windows 10 license either way

I often hear that Surface Laptop should just ship with Windows 10 Pro, or that Microsoft is "nickel and diming" by charging $49 starting next year to upgrade to Pro from S.

But even if Microsoft shipped Surface Laptop with Windows 10 Pro, the company would just slip that $49 fee into the base cost anyway, raising the price from $1,299 to $1,348. You're buying a Windows 10 license either way, whether's Home, S, or Pro. Microsoft audits how many licenses it sells and distributes, and even on its own devices, there is a fee. Whether you see that cost upfront or embedded in the device purchase is another issue. But you are paying it.

Microsoft Office is in the Store

Microsoft's goal is to get as many of its old Win32 apps into the Store, and Microsoft Office is a big one. If you're on Windows 10 S, you need Microsoft Office, so it's great to see it launch on day one of the Surface Laptop.

What Microsoft Office looks like in the Windows Store for S users.

The process is simple, and the apps behave and look just like the Win32 apps that you would download from the web. You can also just download Word, for example, if you don't need all the apps. Later, if you upgrade to Pro the same process takes you to the web, and you can't download Office through the Store.

You can just download Word if you don't need the whole Office suite.

The Surface Laptop comes with a free one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal.

You can't rollback to Windows 10 S from Pro

Once you go to Windows 10 Pro, there is no go-back button to Windows 10 S. It's a one-way process that is the same if you upgrade from Home to Pro, so there is nothing new here.

However, there is a way to revert. You need to download the Surface Recovery Image (opens in new tab) from Microsoft's website. Those files will let you wipe and restore the Surface Laptop to its original state.

Simply resetting the Surface Laptop through the "Reset this PC" feature will not work. That makes going back to S more cumbersome than I'd like, but the worst case scenario is you'll use the top tier of Windows 10.

Windows 10 S performs the same as Windows 10 Pro

Another misunderstanding about Windows 10 S is that it is only part of Windows 10 Pro, or that it's"Windows Lite" and missing some core components. That's not accurate.

During the upgrade process, the Store just checks the license and configures some files on your Laptop. You then reboot the PC, and you're on Pro. There are no files to download or large installations. If you take a Windows 10 S Surface Laptop and run it next to a Surface Laptop with Windows 10 Pro, they'll behave exactly the same if you stick to Store apps on both machines.

That means if you unlock to Pro but still stick to Windows Store apps, your Surface Laptop is effectively running Windows 10 S. Going to Pro and using just Store apps won't change battery life or performance. If, however, you upgrade to Pro and begin to install third-party, non-Store apps like Google Chrome or Adobe Creative Cloud all bets are off. Both of those apps, for instance, install background updates or phone-home helper apps that take up memory, CPU cycles, and can slow down your Surface Laptop.

Microsoft guarantees Windows 10 S machines will behave as consistently on day one as on day one thousand. The company can't say that for Windows 10 Pro, because you could install dozens of awful apps that destroy performance and battery life.

Conclusion: Windows 10 S is a breeze

If you're an enthusiast or someone who needs a random app that's not in the Windows Store, upgrading to Windows 10 Pro is super simple. It takes just a few minutes, it is free, and you lose nothing. If you don't install apps that run in the background or hog your registry, you won't see any performance degradation going to Pro from S.

Windows 10 S, for now, is ideal for people who find everything they need in the Windows Store (I fit that description), or people who just want a premium Windows laptop that never gets "PC rot" from unverified applications. This discussion is not about right or wrong, or which is better; it's about trying to deliver a particular experience.

Surface Laptop Review

In my experience with Windows 10 S, I had no issues going to Pro. Everything was simple to understand, and the process – if you can even call it that – was easy. I'm curious to see how many people stick with Windows 10 S. I am sure Microsoft will pay close attention to those upgrade rates too and whether they decline over time as the Store grows.

Bottom line: There is absolutely no reason to let Windows 10 S on the Surface Laptop deter you from a purchase.

See Surface Laptop at Microsoft (opens in new tab)

Daniel Rubino
Executive Editor

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

36 Comments
  • Question: Why is the Core i5 Surface Pro fanless but the Core i5 Surface Laptop isn't?
    .
    I'm sure both were developed side by side and have a lot in common. Also they were released one after the other.
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    Question 2: Driver updates are always .exe files. How will W10S owners get them, if Windows Update doesn't find the latest? This has happened with my HP laptop a few times. I get certain drivers only from their support webpage but not Windows Update.
    .
    Edit - Same driver issue on the Creators Update and 16215.
  • They probably used the configurable TDP on the Core i5 Surface to lower the power usage and reduce heat. That reduced performance. We will have to look for reviews to confirm though. 
  • One thing it could be is you don't want any heat under the keys, where the CPU is in the Laptop. Probably not the reason, but I know I hate when a laptop gets hot under certain keys.
  • Hmm, that's a good point, King Nerd.
  • " Driver updates are always .exe files"
    Not accurate. Many default drivers now come through Windows Update. For other machines, like HP or Dell where they have preloaded updaters presumably they can override "S", we just have not seen that scenario yet. For Laptop, all Surface drivers come via Windows Update though. Microsoft's long term goal is to have all drivers go thru WU and many already do.
  • Yep, can't remember the last time I had to go about manually updating drivers other than getting GPU drivers on my 1 desktop machine
  • I bet you'll still get the latest drivers for your monitor if you check for updates via Device Manager. It happens with me every time. Even with the Creators Update. I've never got the OEM drivers via WU.
    .
    But everything else works. USB, printers (basic), Graphics (basic), mouse, keyboard, SSD, Lumia connectivity. Pretty nice indeed.
  • Yeah the GPU drivers do come via Windows Update, it's more a conscious choice to get them manually for the GPU to read the release notes and to do a clean install of the drivers
  • Weird. I've got an NVIDIA GTX 750Ti card but Windows Update doesn't find the drivers. I get it from their support page.
  • i guess the surface pro would be used for heavier software, and needs better cooling to do that, while the surface laptop would be useful for more basic stuff. also, the surface pro is available both with and without active cooling
  • You got it wrong. It's the opposite. The Surface Pro (2017) Core i5 version (2-in-1) is fanless.
    .
    Surface LAPTOP (showcased with Windows 10 S on stage) on the other hand has a fan.
  • from what i've found while searching around, the surface pro (2017) is available with m3, i5 and i7, and the m3 and i5 versions have a fanless option, but are also available with active cooling.
  • What do you mean by "but are also available with active cooling"? They ARE fanless but with the really good Surface tablet class cooling, as Panos Panay puts it. Is there a variant without "active cooling"? I'm confused now.
  • I just want to know where we can download Win10S.  I'd love to play around with it.  Why isn't it on MSDN? :(
  • Didn't they say it will only be available on new devices?
  • I believe so. Although I've gathered from the articles here on WC, that the staff has access to an actual Win10S install.  Or, they only have a Surface Laptop to test it with.  It makes me wonder if you did a reset of the OS, if it would revert from Pro back to S.
  •  "It makes me wonder if you did a reset of the OS, if it would revert from Pro back to S." The article explains if you do a reset it won't work, you need to grab the SL recov. image, which they linked to. Hopefully eventually they'll make it far simpler to upgrade/downgrade as we so chose. They do after-all want to encourage folks to stay on S (not ditch it forever for Pro/Win32), & therefore "stoke" the Store.
  • Thanks, I saw that but didn't make the connection.  I did try going to the link to download a recovery image (using a fake SN) and it threw an error.  Probably because of the fake SN. ;)
  • You can make any Windows 10 version almost like the S version, you can set windows to accept only windows store installs.
  • It's similar, but it's not the same.  There are some features that Home doesn't offer but S does, and the upgrade experience is only available to S users.
  • I did that with my tablet. Reset it and then immediately set it up for store apps only. Hoping to get the most out of battery life, which really sucked when I had any Win32 processes running.
  • Why don't they make Office available through the store to everyone? My girlfriend laptop has a small hard drive with O365 and if she could install office from the store she could pick which apps she wants. Also she could install on the memory card. Both of these would save a lot of space, as O365 installs everything + installs them on the main hard drive without asking. Even without this storage issue, I'd gladly install office from the store to ensure I have a clean uninstall when I want to uninstall!
  • Technically it's "Preview" so they eventually will.
  • Good news. As soon as out of preview I uninstall O365 and reinstall from the store. I want W10 pro as I need a few programs not in the store but I want to use it more and more "like W10S" and use alternatives from the store when available even if I need to change some habits (of course, that is if I can find alternatives as good as the desktop ones).
  • Is there any rationale for why it's based on W10 Pro rather than Home? I feel like they're mixing their messages with the versions.
  • MS is positioning Windows S to be the most secure version of Windows. That necessitates BitLocker and domain based computer management, neither of which I believe is in Windows Home. People more familiar with the security and management features of the various Windows SKUs can probably confirm and clarify.
  • Windows 10 S can't join an on premise domain, it only supports Azure AD - You need to go to pro for on premise AD
  • I guess it's very "all or nothing" with 10 S, i.e. if I want my kids to use 10 S on their laptops with their own profile, BUT I want my own profile to be an admin on their box (able to install an EXE if I wanted to) - I can't because the whole machine is 10 S only?
  • Install pro and change kids profiles to store apps only.
  • Wait...you can do that? (Not sure I'm ready yet though as I won't hear the end of it if Steam can't be installed!)
  • Not sure how it works as a per-user setting, but you gotta credit Microsoft for branding and making a big ol' deal over a setting they had introduced in the Creators Update (i.e. blocking non-Store apps) and re-introducting it as "Windows 10 S." Reference: https://www.windowscentral.com/how-block-desktop-apps-windows-10-creator...
  • Does Microsoft think this will entice developers to create more apps? It doesn't solve the app gap.
  • Let me guess: your solution is to pay developers, right?
  • If Surface Laptop is for education, why Visual Studio 2017 is not available in Windows Store?  
  • I've asked the same thing, Mark. I do development, and literally can't just do with 10S, but I want to try it out. I'd be happy to if I could do development in 10S. My guess (just a guess, I don't know) is that you wouldn't be able to run compiled programs on 10S anyway, since it won't let you launch the application in the first place. If they added in a 'developer mode' setting in 10S that did a managed launch through Visual Studio (or VSCode) in a way that would clean up everything after, it might work. I think that's a fringe case and a clumsy workaround when they fully intend to support pro as well as S anyway. That said, I do hope to see VSCode in the windows store, and more importantly I'd love to see VirtualBox make it's way to the store. VS/VSCode in the store does nothing for 10S as it stands, just like the linux distros in the store won't be any use on 10S. However, if I could have 10S installed, use Virtualbox, and do development in a saved state instance that's protected, I would be happy to play with and use 10S.
  • From the article Windows 10 S "has all the same features" of Windows 10 Pro it lacks HyperV!