The cheap laptops that come with Windows locked shut

There are cheap laptops and there are Chromebooks, and the expectation has been that even the least expensive of the former will run the latest version of Microsoft Windows. But it turns out that some of the windows are locked shut.

This lightweight HP laptop runs Windows without a hard drive
This lightweight HP laptop runs Windows without a hard drive

Chromebooks are Google’s take on budget laptops. They can be had for less than £150 and run a lightweight operating system based, as their name suggests, on the Chrome browser.

Unlike conventional laptops, they have no hard disks but rely on permanent storage chips not unlike SD cards in principle. This makes them much lighter to pick up and less demanding on the battery.

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Storage space is limited but it doesn’t matter because the expectation is that most of your work will be done on websites and apps within Chrome and that your documents will be stored in the cloud.

Machines like this have become very popular, so it was only a matter of time before Microsoft attempted to get in on the act. Its lightweight laptops – manufactured not by itself but by regular PC makers like HP, Asus and Lenovo – start at around the same price as Chromebooks and have similar physical configurations, with storage chips instead of hard drives.

They run Windows 10, and from a casual glance one might infer that they run the same software as any other Windows computer. The reality is somewhat different.

Realising that Windows is a cumbersome system too slow and unwieldy for a modestly specified machine, Microsoft has attempted to slim it down. It has done this by disabling those parts of it that tend to drain the battery and slow down the system over time – which, it appears, is nearly all of them.

It has designated this configuration Windows 10S. It’s not a cut-down version but a full, gargantuan installation with large parts of it rendered non-functional. The S stands for Store, as in the Microsoft app store which apes those of Apple and Google in selling programs that meet criteria set down by each company. Laptops running Windows 10S will install apps from this store but from nowhere else. That means that you can’t download and run programs from the internet or from disks you already own.

This would be less of a limitation if you could access all the programs you want from the store, but Microsoft’s shop is more sparsely stocked than its rivals. It doesn’t, for instance, let you install Chrome or any other third-party browser, so you’re forced to use the feeble Microsoft Edge to surf the internet. You can’t even select Google as your default search engine; the company’s third-rate Bing is your only option.

If these limitations don’t worry you, S Mode is fine. But not being able to work in the way you expect of Windows defeats the object of having it. It’s arguably less functional than a Chromebook. For that reason, Microsoft has hidden a switch that lets you turn on the bits it disabled and return to the regular system. It doesn’t go out of its way to publicise this functionality and had originally said it would charge users £50 to implement it. But that would have amounted to a hidden surcharge on the retail price and rendered the machines very poor value indeed, if not downright unsalable.

The company’s current policy is not to charge to switch, but it has been rather less transparent than you would want windows to be. So if you’re tempted by one of these machines and you don’t want it in S Mode, you should turn it off sooner rather than later, lest it changes its mind again.