Upgrading an old PC to Windows 10? You're on your own

Microsoft's free upgrade strategy places the burden of support on PC makers -- and for 'unsupported' systems, they're punting to you

Want a free TV? Buy a Windows 10 PC from Dell. Like other computer vendors, Dell is waging a desperate struggle to stop customers from defecting to smartphones, phablets, and tablets. Dell was so eager to ride the Windows 10 upgrade wave, it even offered customers free shipping and a guarantee that their new PCs would arrive on July 29 -- launch day for the new operating system.

There's nothing wrong with old-fashioned salesmanship, even if the TV giveaway reminds me of the toasters offered to new customers by failing banks years ago. But the arrival of the new Windows 10 has left many owners of older PCs out in the cold and has laid bare the differing priorities of Microsoft and the hard-pressed PC makers.

Microsoft doesn't care if you buy a new PC

Microsoft, desperate to attract developers to its tarnished platform, is doing everything it can to push Windows 10 onto as many PCs as possible. It's even forgoing significant amounts of revenue by offering Windows 10 as a free upgrade for at least a year, a clever business move that has pleased enterprise IT.

PC makers, of course, are always much less interested in having their customers upgrade their existing systems than in selling new ones. That's not new, but with Windows 10, the contradiction between the needs of the vendors and Microsoft has never been sharper.

Microsoft damaged the PC makers by producing the deservedly unpopular Windows 8, and there was plenty of public grumbling by PC executives about it. Now Microsoft is telling people who have those unloved systems they don't need new ones. That will only perpetuate the PC makers' pain.

Something had to give, and in this case, it's the needs of the owners of older PCs.

The "supported" list -- and beyond

Whenever a new Windows operating system debuts, driver and BIOS issues emerge. It's tough on businesses, and it's tough on consumers who may suddenly find that they can no longer print, connect to the network, or use an expensive graphics card.

I've checked in with the major PC makers and found that some of them have Web pages listing what they call "supported systems" that will run Windows 10. Those pages are not so easy to find, but they exist at Lenovo, Dell, Acer, and Toshiba. HP and Asus provide system lookup pages for checking out individual PCs.

What does "supported" mean? In most cases it means that the PC maker has updated drivers or has tested the system, including the BIOS, and has determined it can run Windows 10. That's straightforward.

Less clear, though, is what to do if a PC is not on the list. In some cases, the system will run Windows 10, although the manufacturer has not written drivers or tested it. In other cases, it won't run Windows 10 at all.

Microsoft has provided its own tool to test for Windows 10 compatibility. The Get Windows 10 app was pushed onto many PCs before Windows 10's release during routine updates. If you fire up the app and select the Check Your PC option, the app will scan your system for potential Windows 10 compatibility problems.

What happens if Microsoft says your PC is OK to upgrade, but that system isn't on the vendor's supported list? Here, for example, is what an Acer spokeswoman told me:

We will release any required BIOS updates and/or drivers for any systems on the approved list. If a product is not on the approved list, a customer may still be able to install Windows 10, but we will not release new BIOS/drivers for Windows 10, cannot guarantee it will work, etc.
That's pretty much what I heard from the other companies, too.

Welcome to patch city

The worst case is when Microsoft's compatibility app gives the thumbs-up -- and the system won't run properly once the update has been performed. If the system was on the vendor's Windows 10 approved list, that vendor should provide support. If not (particularly if it's an old, out-of-warranty system) the chances of getting vendor support are slim.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is already whipping out patches on an operating system that has only been live for a couple of weeks. Microsoft has released the second "cumulative update" -- meaning a major set of patches -- for Windows 10 in only three days.

We're also seeing buggy updates, an issue that has bedeviled Microsoft's Windows patches for several years now. Windows 10 is already experiencing its own buggy updates.

Overall, Windows 10 is a huge improvement over Windows 8, but the reluctance of PC makers to support many potentially viable PCs smacks of planned obsolescence. That won't do much to build loyalty at a time when the PC makers should be showering the thinning ranks of their customers with love.

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