Is Microsoft's Windows Signature Edition Worth It?

Microsoft doesn't publicize it much, but there is, in theory, a better version of Windows 10 out there. One that's stronger, faster, longer-lasting and without all of the bloatware that you hate. It's called a Microsoft Signature Edition PC (sometimes called Windows 10 Signature Edition), and if you believe the hype, it's the best version of Windows 10 around. That is, if you've heard the hype at all. 

The Signature program goes as far back as Windows 7, though the average person isn't aware of it When Laptop Mag asked around the PC industry to learn more about it, we received some conflicting answers and all roads led back to Microsoft. Despite touting Signature as "Windows at its best," even the Redmond, Washington-based company was surprisingly tight-lipped. So what is Signature, anyway?

"Microsoft Signature defines a Microsoft-crafted software experience for new Windows PCs," a Microsoft spokesperson told Laptop Mag in a statement. "We ensure new PCs meet our strict standards, do not contain any third-party trial programs, junkware, extraneous utilities, toolbars and screensavers. Every machine marked Signature has been tested and certified for optimal hardware and software performance, and has a pre-installed, ready to go anti-virus program that never expires. From anti-virus to firewall to anti-phishing technologies, Windows provides more security features and ongoing updates for the supported lifetime of your device. All PCs sold by Microsoft Store are Signature Edition machines."

In short, a laptop with Signature Edition is supposed to be a faster, cleaner machine. All laptops sold at Microsoft Stores use this version of Windows, but so do some laptops sold through other outlets.

But what does "Signature" mean, exactly? Not a whole lot.

Foggy on Features

If you could get a version of Windows to make your PC faster, you'd get it, right? But it doesn't seem quantifiable. Microsoft didn't tell me how much faster Signature PCs are, nor what the tests or optimizations are, though I've been told there is a quality bar for Signature PCs. Without that information, it's impossible to know what's going on on the software side, or if it's all attributable to a lack of bloatware.

Windows Signature PCs I’ve tested have had less third-party software in the start menu, but several pieces of Microsoft-loaded crapware remain.

Reporter and Windows expert Ed Bott suggests that it's the lack of antivirus and other drivers from third-party companies that may increase performance, as well as fewer programs launching upon startup. "I suspect you can take the claimed performance benefit as a best-case scenario but it's still a valuable thing assuming you're not paying an excessive premium [for the privilege]," Bott said.

The part about being more secure? That's Windows Defender, an antivirus program that is built into every Windows 10 PC, laptop or desktop. It's getting better, but it got just a 5 out of 10 in our last review, so there are other better antivirus apps that are more secure. Of course, some antivirus programs can take a toll on system performance, but the best ones cause little impact..

Windows Signature PCs I've tested have had less third-party software in the start menu, but several pieces of Microsoft-loaded crapware remain. Apps in the Create, Explore and Play sections in the Start Menu, like Drawboard PDF, Candy Crush Soda Saga and Bubble Witch 3 Saga, appear on every laptop we've received for review for the past several months.

A representative from one notebook vendor said that Microsoft, not the company that makes the laptop, controls what goes in these slots in both vendor and Signature images of Windows, so they aren't tied to the Signature program. Microsoft didn't comment on how apps are chosen for those slots, except that they've been approved.

"Microsoft has started bloating up the OS with a lot of games and applications that many users might not really want, said Stephen Kleynhans, analyst and vice president of the mobile and client computing group at Gartner. "So while PC makers are reducing bloatware on new machines, the perception is that Microsoft is increasing it."

Kleynhans pointed out that this issue is especially bad for small business users that can't afford the enterprise edition of Windows 10, which lacks this bloatware. "Not everyone wants Candy Crush," he said.

The one upside is that the bloatware Microsoft puts in doesn't affect system performance.

"It's worth noting that all of those apps are Windows Store apps, and many of them are just shortcuts," Bott said. "The good thing about Store apps is that they use zero resources unless you actually run them. They can't auto-start and they don't have any system drivers that can impact performance. You can uninstall them with a menu option by right-clicking each one, and the uninstall is super clean. So as 'bloatware' goes you're out a relatively small amount of disk space, and that's it."

There is also some slight variation in what's allowed. After I noticed some of Asus' own software on a Signature gaming notebook, Microsoft informed me that the rules have some fluidity, and that custom software can be included as long as it doesn't hurt the user experience (though I was not provided with what those guidelines are). Other vendors confirmed that they can include their own software and driver applets.

Unless Microsoft is doing something under the hood in Signature versions of Windows to make it faster or offer longer battery life, it appears that the majority of the optimizations can be achieved by uninstalling the bloatware and unnecessary utilities when you get your computer, though not having to do that at all is a plus.

MORE: How to Use Windows 10 - Guide for Beginners & Power Users

Not Just the Microsoft Store

Microsoft touts that all laptops sold in its retail stores are Signature machines, and that's true. In fact, I’d imagine many people buy laptops from Microsoft each year and have no idea they're even getting it or its benefits.

As of this writing, the Microsoft Store website claims that Signature Edition PCs are "Only at Microsoft Store," but that's misleading.

Lenovo, for example, switched its ThinkPad line exclusively over to the Signature Edition at the beginning of this year. You can't buy a ThinkPad without Windows 10 Signature Edition. A representative told me it came partially because of customer demand, and in a live ThinkPad 25 hands-on, Laptop Mag Editorial Director Avram Piltch did field questions about whether or not it had Signature.

This year, Asus has sent several review units running Signature Edition, including the Flip S UX370. An Asus rep confirmed that the Flip S is being sold in the United States only as a Signature Edition machine.

Dell, on the other hand, doesn't sell any Signature Edition laptops through its own website. As of this writing, you can get the Dell XPS 13, XPS 15, Inspiron 15 5000, Alienware 15 and Alienware 17 with Windows 10 Signature Edition at Microsoft's Store. You can also buy machines from Acer, MSI, Toshiba and Porsche Design through Microsoft.

Who Wants Signature? Who Needs It?

Signature, as it appears, is a small change, and likely one you can achieve by yourself, through uninstalling third-party software or reinstalling the OS. If there are other changes, no one could say.

But we can all agree, that, for the most part, not having bloatware is a good thing. Right?

"This results in systems that doesn't have a lot of nagware or unwanted programs that a user has to spend a lot of time uninstalling," Kleynhans told me. "In general this makes for a more pleasant experience right from the start."

So that’s great for most consumers. But, Kleynhans suggests, less-experienced users may appreciate the extra software: "They perceive it as something extra added to their machines, and it can point them to a game or maybe a tool that they might not otherwise find." He pointed out, though, that it's usually low quality, so the tradeoff probably isn't worth it. Signature Edition could also affect price. Bloatware, Kleynhans explained, is a moneymaker for vendors that are trying to be profitable on razor-thin margins. When that's wiped out from the Signature program, vendors may end up charging more money for the laptop to make up costs, he said. While we compared laptops from the Microsoft Store and found some were $100 or $200 more than non-Signature versions from the manufacturer, that wasn't always the case and in some instances you can't choose, so it's hard to say exactly what the price differential is.

The benefits to the user of Signature program become weaker over time. - Stephen Kleynhans, Gartner analyst and VP

His prediction is that the future of Windows 10 won't have actual preloaded software, but ads that push you to the Windows Store (this has already started with some games, but not all apps). If that's the case, he said, end users get more control over what's installed on their machine, and with the ads tiles being easy to remove, "the benefits to the user of Signature program become weaker over time."

The Signature Paradox

In the hundreds of laptops we review a year, the bloatware situation has plateaued, to a point, though there are still some offenders. But if customers make it a point to want to go bloatware- free, and they are, then only Microsoft's preloads will be left. This leaves Signature Edition as a weird paradox: It's the self-professed best version of a Windows 10 PC, with bloatware only of Microsoft’s choosing. But without annoying preinstalled antivirus and trialware, that's really good enough for most people.

Should you seek it out? Probably not. The people who are knowledgeable enough to know about Signature Edition laptops are likely the same who can reinstall a copy of Windows 10. But if you find it, it"s hard to argue against ease of use.

Image credit: Dell

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