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Microsoft's Cloud PCs debut – priced between $20 and $158 a month

We tried 'em on Windows, iOS and Android, and can't say they're very exciting

First Look Microsoft has revealed the full range of options and pricing for its Windows 365 Cloud PCs, and The Register is not impressed – on price or performance.

Your humble hack signed up for the base level of the service: a $20/month Cloud PC with a single virtual CPU, 2GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. The signup process was not slick, produced some 404 errors as admin pages failed to load, and I waited over 30 minutes for the cloudy PC to spawn.

Once the ethereal PC started running, performance within a browser was decidedly laggy when running on Windows 10 Pro on a 2019-vintage Lenovo X1 Carbon with 8GB of RAM and a quad-core Corei5-8250U CPU at 1.60GHz. We connected to the Microsoft cloud over consumer-grade internet service rated to 100Mbit/sec download speeds and on a wired ethernet connection interfacing to the Lenovo through a USB-C dongle. Microsoft does not call for more powerful equipment or faster connections.

Performance improved a little when using Microsoft's remote desktop app, but that software wanted to float above all other apps rather than allowing access to my PC's native Windows implementation alongside the cloudy desktop.

Running local Windows and Windows 365 together set the laptop's fan whirring after worryingly few minutes of work.

Logging on in any environment is made slightly weird by Microsoft giving the Cloud PC names like "Cloud PC Business 1VCPU/2GB/64GB" rather than something more intuitive. On Android and iOS, the Cloud PC is also listed as a "Workspace" rather than a "PC" – another small inconsistency and irritant.

I also got Microsoft's remote desktop app running on a seventh-gen iPad and Samsung's A52 midrange smartphone. While setup on both devices was laudably simple, neither machine is fit for purpose – Windows is just not designed to be used on small touch-screen devices. Microsoft hasn't defaulted to re-locating the cursor to wherever a finger touches glass, so users either need to figure out how to change that setting or re-learn gestures.

Running local Windows and Windows 365 set the laptop's fan whirring after worryingly few minutes

The service did impress with its persistence: as we cut from device to device, the Cloud PC resumed in precisely the state we left it on the last device we tested. Operating over a 4G connection on the A52 in no way degraded performance.

If forced, your humble hack could do productive work in a Cloud PC in a browser or Microsoft's client – but either Samsung’s Dex desktop environment or a Raspberry Pi would be faster.

The Register is happy to attribute some of our unhappy early experiences with Windows 365 to day-one teething problems. Maybe acquiring the least-impressive spec on offer didn't help, but if so why on Earth does Microsoft offer a cloud PC with such poor performance?

Microsoft also offers many more powerful cloud PC options on the Windows 365 pricing page. Two are Business plans, one with Windows Hybrid Benefit and the other without. The third is an Enterprise plan.

Prices for the Enterprise plan and the Business plan with Windows Hybrid Benefit are the same, and listed in the table below. Prices for the other Business plan add $4 per user per month to the prices in the table.

Virtual CPUs GB RAM Storage options Price/month
1 2 64GB $20
2 4 64GB/128GB/256GB $28/$31/$40
2 8 128GB/256GB $41/$50
4 16 128GB/256GB/512GB $66/$75/$101
8 32 128GB/256GB/512GB $123/132/$158

Microsoft has also created three recommended configurations at $31, $41, and $66 a month – aimed at “light productivity”, “a full range of productivity tools and line-of-business apps” and “high-performance workloads and heavier data processing” respectively.

Microsoft's prices undercut Amazon Web Services’ WorkSpaces by a few dollars a month, but the AWS offering includes a little more storage space. AWS also charges either an up-front monthly fee or a base fee plus hourly charges.

Windows 365 is billed as a SaaS service, in contrast to the Azure Virtual Desktops that Microsoft now positions as platform-as-a-service (PaaS) for those who aren't afraid to manage the many complexities of desktop virtualization. Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) has never been a hit outside highly regulated industries. COVID-19 gave it a boost because it offers far superior security and manageability compared to VPN access to remote resources.

But the Windows 365 admin interface is not welcoming or intuitive, help files seem not to be well-populated, and the service throws little complexities in admins' faces. For example, my Cloud PC was automatically named "VSB_Policy_with_OS_Optimizations - Simon Sharwood" and the list of active users named me as one user and added another named "CloudPCBPRT".

I came away from my morning fiddling with Windows 365 convinced that it does not make Windows a viable option on mobile devices. Native apps will make users vastly more productive than the square peg of Windows pounded into the round hole of Android or iOS.

But it does make VDI accessible to price-conscious users who don't have IT teams with the skills or inclination to grasp the complexities of SaaS-y Windows. Those users have for years been targeted by service providers that have packaged the likes of VMware Horizon DaaS and Citrix Virtual Desktops into SaaS services, but such offerings have never escaped a niche.

Windows 365 will almost certainly do better, merely because Microsoft launching the service gives the whole concept of cloud desktops greater legitimacy.

So while the service does offer a nice new option for those who need more security – or a way to offer a PC to temporary staff – it's not revolutionary.

But, on the desktop these days, what is? ®

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