There’s plenty about Microsoft’s new Windows 10 S that’s not fully understood, not the least of which is its built-in upgrade path to Windows 10 Pro. Which Windows 10 S device you buy and where you buy it, however, will decide whether you’ll pay a $49 fee for the the upgrade—or have Microsoft pay you with a year’s subscription to Office 365.
With most Windows 10 S devices reserved for closely managed classrooms, there's arguably only one Windows 10 S device where the transition from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro becomes an important decision: Microsoft's Surface Laptop, designed for college students. But as hardware vendors start shipping more laptops with Windows S installed, more users will have to consider how they handle this upgrade path. We'll explain what we know so far.
What is Windows 10 S again?
Microsoft designed Windows 10 S to accompany students from elementary school all the way through college, ready to graduate to full-fledged Windows PCs. The operating system and its small flock of laptops are designed to shoulder Chromebooks out of the market, where Google's ecosystem currently dominates.
Windows 10 S is simple enough: Users are presented with an OS that appears to be almost identical to Windows 10, including the ability to run legacy Win32 apps and Microsoft’s modern UWP apps. Microsoft prevents users from downloading additional apps from anywhere but the Windows Store, however, and secures those apps inside a sandboxed “container.”
To support Windows 10 S, Microsoft orchestrated two hardware ecosystems around it: a collection of sub-$300 rugged clamshell notebooks for younger students, and the Surface Laptop, a premium $999 (and up) notebook intended to challenge the popular MacBook Air in higher education. All of these devices are powered by Windows 10 S.
The Surface Laptop creates the most confusion, because it'll likely be used in classrooms where others are using full-fledged Windows 10 machines. If a teacher wants her students to use a non-Store app, those students will be forced to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro.
A simple path from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro
Microsoft representatives showed off of several of the new Windows 10 S devices at its event in New York City, and walked me through how to upgrade from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro. Both paths eventually lead to the Windows 10 Store.
Because of the additional security surrounding Windows 10 S, the operating system actively blocks any attempts to sideload apps from the Web or other sources. (This includes other browsers like Google Chrome, for instance.) Instead, Windows 10 S pops up a notice warning you that your app is forbidden, and refers you to the Windows Store for alternatives. A tiny link at the bottom also asks whether you’d like to run apps from outside the Store, and, if so, provides you a link to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro.
Clicking that link launches the Windows Store, and leads you to a page where you can begin the upgrade process. (Typing upgrade in Windows 10's search box will also lead you to the page.) Note that Microsoft also breaks out a dedicated tab for education apps within the Store, so you might want to see what's there before upgrading. While the upgrade process doesn't erase any of your data or apps, backing up is always a wise idea.
Where you buy determines what you’ll get...
Consumers rarely have to deal with software licensing issues, outside of renewing an Office subscription or ensuring Windows will still work after upgrading your PC’s hardware. With Windows 10 S, though, it may get a bit messy.
You'll be able to buy a Windows S device like the Surface Laptop at a traditional retailer or through an educational institution. (What's not clear is whether the low-cost Windows 10 S notebooks will also be sold at retail: on that question, Microsoft said it will have "more to share" when the devices ship this summer.) For now, however, there are consequences to your choice.
Traditional retailers like Best Buy said they’ll sell the Surface Laptop, offering promotions like a $50 gift card and an additional $100 off if you sign up for an additional College Deals program. You could also buy a Surface Laptop directly from the Microsoft Store, traditionally accompanied by a 10-percent discount for educational purchases. Colleges and universities are also expected to sell them directly to students.
Regardless of where you buy a Windows 10 S device, joining it to an .EDU domain at a school or university can confer additional freebies, such as a one-year subscription to Minecraft: Education Edition for new Windows 10 education PCs, plus a free Microsoft Office 365 for Education with Microsoft Teams.
...Or what you’ll pay
If you upgrade that PC to Windows 10 Pro, some of those freebies will go away, along with some more of your money. If you purchased a Windows 10 S device through a traditional retailer, and you've never joined it to a educational domain, Microsoft says it will cost $49 or less to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro.
The exception is a temporary offer for consumer devices priced at $799 or higher, where the switch to Windows 10 Pro will be both free of charge and include a free Office 365 personal subscription. Right now, the Surface Laptop is the only device within this loophole. According to the Surface Laptop product page, the free Windows 10 Pro upgrade offer will expire on Dec. 31, 2017. As of Sept. 5, 2017, however, Microsoft extended the offer until March 31, 2018.
"We hope this provides increased flexibility for those people searching for the perfect back-to-school or holiday gift," the company said.
If the Windows 10 S device was joined to an educational domain, the switch from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro is completely free, Microsoft says. However, Pro upgrades will lose access to the free Office 365 for Education subscription, and there’s no indication yet that Microsoft will offer you the free Office 365 Personal subscription that the Surface Laptop customers were provided.
Remember that most of the low-cost Windows 10 S hardware is designed for classrooms, where educators care more about manageability than anything else. It's doubtful that many third-graders will want to spin up a Hyper-V virtual machine.
The best course of action, if you’re not a student but still want to order a Surface Laptop, is to preorder and then upgrade to Windows 10 Pro before the free offer expires at the end of the year. As students move on to high school or college, accessing Windows 10 Pro becomes more important.
Updated on Sept. 5 to note the extended free upgrade period until March 2017.