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Windows 10 vs. Windows 10 S: What's the difference?

Here's everything you need to know about Microsoft's latest operating systems.

Windows 10 S running on a Microsoft Surface device.
Getty/Drew Angerer

You may be hearing a lot of talk about Microsoft's Windows 10 ($110 at Amazon) operating system lately, since the tech giant recently ended support for its predecessor Windows 7 ($5 at Target) and is encouraging users to upgrade their devices. But Windows 10 isn't the only version of the OS out there: There's also Windows 10 S, a stripped-down version aimed at students and small businesses. 

Although they are both based on the same foundation, there are several key differences between Windows 10 and Windows 10 S. Here's what you need to know. 

Read more: You can still download Windows 10 for free -- and you should because Windows 7 is dead

What is Windows 10?

Windows 10 is the latest version of Microsoft's operating system, first released in 2015. When it came out, a Microsoft employee called it "the last version of Windows." This doesn't mean that Microsoft will be getting rid of the OS, but that Windows will operate more as a service, with continuous updates instead of one huge upgrade.

Microsoft releases major feature updates twice a year, typically in March and in September, and Microsoft recommends installing each update as it is available. The latest was the November 2019 update. However, as hardware ages, some devices might not be able to receive updates anymore over time. 

Read more: The best antivirus protection of 2020 for Windows 10  

Windows 10 includes several new capabilities, including integration of Microsoft's digital assistant Cortana. It also has a number of new security tools: Windows Defender Antivirus protects against malware and spyware across email, apps, the cloud and the web, while Windows Hello offers a password-free sign in option to unlock your devices with your face or a fingerprint reader. 

While some people were initially hesitant to make the switch due to reports of several bugs in earlier versions of Windows 10, Microsoft has made several changes to its update approach starting with the May 2019 release, including slower rollouts with additional testing, more options for pausing updates and more disclosure of known issues, so your experience should be smoother.

Read more at TechRepublic: Windows 10: A cheat sheet

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What is Windows 10 S?

Windows 10 S, announced in 2017, is a "walled garden" version of Windows 10 -- it offers a faster, more secure experience by only allowing users to install software from the official Windows app store, and by requiring use of the Microsoft Edge browser. Sometimes referred to as "Windows 10 in S mode," Windows 10 S is installed on lower-cost laptops aimed at schools and students, including the Microsoft Surface Laptop

The stripped-down OS represents Microsoft's efforts to compete in the classroom against the likes of Google Chromebooks and Apple iPads. Machines running Windows 10 S are easier for administrators to set up and manage, according to Microsoft -- which can also be beneficial for small business owners. 

If you want to, you can upgrade from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro to get the full Windows 10 experience. However, switching back afterward is more complicated (you can find out how to do so in this guide to upgrading from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro and back). 

For more, check out Windows 10 tips and tricks: Secret start menu, taking screenshots and more, and 6 simple security changes all Windows 10 users need to make