Welcome to a new episode of Ask ZDNetwhere we answer your technology questions.
This week in the mailbag: Can I install Windows 11 on my not-very-old Surface PC, even if Microsoft says it’s incompatible? Why should I consider a VPN? And why can’t I say no to Windows driver updates?
If you have a question about any of the topics ZDNet covers, one of our editors and contributors will likely have an answer. If not, we’ll find an outside expert who can steer you in the right direction.
Questions can cover just about any topic remotely related to work and technology, including PCs and Macs, mobile devices, security and privacy, social media, home office equipment, consumer electronics, business etiquette, financial advice…well, you get the idea.
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the high volume of submissions, we cannot guarantee a personalized response, but we do promise to read each letter and respond here to those we think our readers will find important.
How can I install Windows 11 on my “incompatible” PC?
I have a great Surface Pro 5 PC with an Intel Core i7-7660U CPU, running Windows 10. It’s only a few years old. When I check Windows Update, I see a message that it is not compatible with Windows 11. Will this machine eventually support Windows 11? Is there a way to get around this?
Microsoft officially released the Surface Pro 5 in June 2017 and continued to sell it as a current model until its successor was released in October 2018. That means your Surface Pro is probably about four years old and should still have a long life. Unfortunately, the 7th Gen Intel Core CPU is not on the list of Windows 11 compatible CPUs, which means that upgrades via Windows Update are not supported and probably never will be.
However, there are two workarounds, as I document in ZDNet’s Windows 11 FAQ.
If you are willing to perform a clean install of Windows 11, you can boot from installation media and run Windows Setup. That option completely skips the CPU compatibility check.
To upgrade your system, you must modify the registry as described in this Microsoft support document. (The usual warnings apply when working with the registry. Make a full backup before proceeding.) Open the Registry Editor and navigate to the following key:
Create a new DWORD value, AllowUpgradesWithUnsupportedTPMOrCPU, and set it to 1.
You can now upgrade by downloading an ISO file, mounting it as a virtual drive, and running Setup from Windows 10. You’ll see a stern warning about compatibility issues, but after clicking OK in that dialog box, your upgrade should go through without any serious issues.
Will using a VPN help protect me from malware or ransomware?
I keep reading that using a virtual private network (VPN) is an important security measure. But I’ve also heard it won’t protect me from malware or ransomware. If that’s true, what’s the point of using a VPN?
Security and privacy are closely related, but they are not the same. Understanding the difference is essential to understanding what a VPN does and doesn’t do.
The basic concept behind a VPN is simple: software running on your PC encrypts every bit of network traffic before it reaches your PC’s network adapter, then sends that encrypted data to a remote server managed by the VPN service. That remote server in turn sends the data to the public internet. The encrypted “tunnel” between your device and the VPN server makes the network both virtual and private† Many corporate networks only allow remote connections through a VPN. Still, you can also buy consumer-grade VPN software to connect to untrusted networks, such as those at airports and coffee shops.
The advantage of this type of network is twofold. First, it prevents someone on your local network from spying on your internet traffic. That’s especially important if you’re using a Wi-Fi network that’s out of your control.
Second, you can hide your location, which prevents some types of tracking and also allows you to bypass geo-restrictions on some services. If you’re in Europe and want to watch a movie limited to the US, you may be able to fool the streaming service by connecting to a VPN in the US
VPNs are resource-intensive and can take a huge toll on your network bandwidth. Therefore, you should only use them when you need them.
When I’m at an airport or hotel, I prefer to connect my cell phone to my laptop (or bring a device with a built-in cellular connection) so that I can avoid the risks of that untrusted network. But if the cellular signal is weak or unavailable and I have no choice but to connect to that public WiFi, I use NameCheap’s paid FastVPN service. My colleague Jason Perlow uses ExpressVPN. “It’s compatible with OpenVPN, an open source VPN protocol,” he says, “meaning I can use it with all the devices I own — iOS, Android, Windows, even my network firewall.”
But whichever option you choose, nothing in that virtual private network looks for threats to your PC. For that kind of protection, you need security software specifically designed to detect malicious software and dangerous connections.
Why am I getting new drivers through Windows Update?
When I checked for new updates on Windows Update, one of the updates was a new driver for my lovely gaming mouse. I always thought driver updates were optional, but this one doesn’t give me a choice. I have to install it along with all updates for Windows. What is going on?
Some driver updates are indeed optional, but if you are offered a driver through Windows Update without the option to decline it, the driver developer is the one who made that decision. When the developer submitted that driver to Microsoft, they checked the Automatic box, meaning they wanted it delivered to all applicable systems. And before the driver made it to Microsoft’s update servers, it also had to undergo formal “flight testing” with PCs in the Windows Insider program.
(If you’re curious about Microsoft’s rules for driver developers, see the “Understanding Windows Update Driver Distribution Rules” article in the Windows Hardware Partner Center.)
Typically, drivers delivered in this manner resolve hardware issues that have been identified (using telemetry data) to cause problems for a significant group of customers. Providing these solutions through Windows Update is a much more reliable way to resolve these issues than relying on customers to manually download and update drivers.
In the rare event that a driver provided as an automatic update is causing problems, you can and should discuss this with the manufacturer of that hardware.
Send your questions to email@example.com† Due to the high volume of submissions, we cannot guarantee a personalized response, but we do promise to read each letter and respond here to those we think our readers will find important. Be sure to include a working email address in case we have follow-up questions. We promise not to use it for any other purpose.