Microsoft debuted its first true laptop last week, and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, even downright effusive.
For the hardware, that is.
Microsoft chose to debut a new edition of Windows with the Surface Laptop, and the same reviewers who loved its elegant design and performance were almost uniformly scathing in their rejection of the brand-new Windows 10 S.
And rightly so. Whoever made the decision to debut Windows 10 S on this particular piece of hardware was not thinking clearly. This is an ultralight premium laptop, sold at a premium price. It competes with devices like the MacBook Air, Dell's XPS 13, and HP's Envy x360.
The Surface Laptop starts at $1000 and the highest-spec configuration costs a hefty $2200. If you're willing to pay that price, you want to run the full range of Windows software.
By contrast, the machines that will ultimately form the installed base for Windows 10 S are low-cost PCs designed for use in classrooms, managed by professional IT staff. (For an overview of Windows 10 S, see my two posts from last month: What is Windows 10 S? and Windows 10 S: Chromebook killer or the second coming of Windows RT?)
The mismatch between the hardware and software could not have been more profound, and the reaction from reviewers could not have been more predictable.
Here, put on your flame-retardant suit and read this sampling of reactions to Windows 10 S that I gathered from last week's first wave of reviews.
We start with Peter Bright in Ars Technica, who nailed the argument that Windows 10 S is not a good fit for the Surface Laptop:
The Surface Laptop runs Microsoft's new Windows 10 S: the locked-down Windows 10 that can only run apps from the Store. This will soon include Office. While the major thrust of Windows 10 S is education systems in the same kind of price range as the sub-$500 Chromebooks used by middle- and high-schoolers, Microsoft's hope is that the Laptop, and machines like it, will extend the appeal and reach of Windows 10 S to audiences such as college students.
These groups tend to be willing to pay a little more (hence the pricing being more in line with that of, say, the MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro). But whether they'll be willing to live with the constraints imposed by the Windows Store is, well, less than clear.
In Laptop magazine, Mark Spoonauer called Windows 10 S "Training wheels I don't need," adding this tentative prediction:
Over time, Windows 10 S could force more developers to create apps for the Windows Store, which will ultimately make the OS more compelling, but I don't being locked into a stripped-down experience. It frankly feels anti-Windows. For now, I suggest upgrading to Windows 10 Pro, which you can do for free.
Raymond Wong of Mashable tagged Windows 10 S as the "one big suck" of the Surface Laptop, adding, "Students I asked all gave Windows 10 S's huge app restriction a thumbs down [but] upgrading to Windows 10 Pro will 'un-cripple' the Surface Laptop."
The editors of The Verge assigned two separate Surface Laptop reviews, one for each variation of Windows 10.
Tom Warren, who reviewed the Surface Laptop with Windows 10 Pro, dismissed Windows 10 S as "a new, slightly crippled version of Windows 10."
Dieter Bohn, who apparently drew the short straw, called the hardware "worth the wait" but had few kind words for Windows 10 S or the Windows Store.
[I]t ships with a new operating system called Windows 10 S. I say it's "new" but that's not really true at all, because the only new thing here is that 10 S is locked down so it can only run apps downloaded from the official Microsoft Windows Store.
That limitation has a ton of benefits: it means that Microsoft can vet every app that goes on your machine for malware. It means that those apps will follow new rules inside Windows that can keep them from chewing up your battery or hogging your system resources. It means that Microsoft can more confidently push out security updates and new features.
But the trade-off for all those benefits isn't worth it because the Windows Store is an app desert. Many of the apps you expect are either not in the store or -- if they are there -- are worse than what you can get on iPads, Mac, the full version of Windows, or even on the web.
Finally, like The Verge, ZDNet published two reviews of the Surface Laptop.
In her "non-reviewer's review" of the Surface Laptop with Windows 10 S, Mary Jo Foley acknowledged that her computing needs are unlike those of traditional hardware reviewers:
I have said recently that I believe I could live with a Chromebook these days, as I almost never need any Win32-only apps. The Surface Laptop proved my hypothesis was right.
For those who code, rely on Win32/legacy applications, want/need access to the Bash shell, the Surface Laptop -- as it is configured out of the box -- is not for you. For those like me who have few app needs and/or who can use browser-based versions of oft-used apps like Google Maps and Google Search, the Surface Laptop isn't a hindrance.
Anyone who has followed Mary Jo for any length of time probably wasn't surprised that she singled out Notepad (yes, the venerable, bare-bones Windows text editor) as her favorite app.
ZDNet's formal review of the Surface Laptop was nowhere near as forgiving. Chris Duckett called the default configuration "a trip on the Windows 10 S express you'll end quickly," calling out the biggest problem for ZDNet's business focused readership:
In the plus column for Windows 10 S, it boots quickly and adds security features, but for power users, the safety rails that Windows 10 S has in place can feel like restrictions. Not to mention that for enterprise, the ability to join an old-school Active Directory domain is absent, and only joining an Azure Active Directory is offered.
Well, you get the idea.
I can certainly envision customers who would benefit from a laptop running Windows 10 S. I'd love to hand it to a nontechnical user who just wants to use Office, browse the web, and never have to worry about browser hijackers and ransomware.
But the idea that you're going to get through four years of college without ever being asked to install a conventional Windows desktop app is laughable. True, the Surface Laptop includes the option to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro, and it's free through the end of the year.
Honestly, though, Windows 10 Pro should be the default configuration, with Windows 10 S available as an option for the rare user who truly doesn't care about backward compatibility.
If you don't believe me, just ask the reviewers.