If you've been looking for a Windows laptop or tablet, there are actually quite a few systems that are now featuring Qualcomm processors. That's right. The same company that probably made the chip that's sitting inside your Android smartphone. But why the heck are they putting ARM architecture, Qualcomm chips in Windows computers instead of the x86 architecture CPUs from AMD and Intel that we're all used to. Is this kinda like what Apple is doing with their ARM-based M1 chips?
Well, yes and no. So as consumer grade ARM chips have become more and more capable in recent years, I mean, just think about how much more powerful smartphones are than they were a decade ago. It's become clear that you don't necessarily need a high-powered x86 chip to handle common tasks like watching videos, shopping online, or working inside of an office suite.
So Windows on ARM was conceived as a way to give laptop and tablet users the full Windows experience they're already familiar with, but with significantly better battery life as ARM chips tend to use less power than x86 ones. Windows on ARM first appeared in 2018. So we were well into the era of smartphones as do-it-all devices by the time it showed up, but it wasn't especially well received.
Users complained that the Qualcomm-based systems were rather sluggish. And it certainly didn't help that the first systems used the Snapdragon 835, an already year-old chip that was designed more with phones in mind than laptops. So while it was cool that Snapdragon gave these laptops 4g connectivity, basically by default, that wasn't exactly a feature that made up for generally poor performance, meaning they didn't get off to the rockin' start that Apple did.
Another contributor is the fact that Windows for ARM doesn't have the advantage of a vertically integrated company behind it, making the hardware and software go hand in glove together. Another issue was that early Windows on ARM machines couldn't support many common Windows programs, natively. Windows itself, and apps offered through the Microsoft store were specifically written for ARM chips, but other programs had to be emulated, which is to say basically, they had to be translated from x86 instructions to ARM instructions in real time, which taxed the CPU and resulted in even worse performance.
Making matters even worse, increasingly common x64 applications, so the 64-bit version of x86, wouldn't run at all, as Windows for ARM didn't originally feature an x64 emulator. But 2018 was years ago now, and Windows on ARM is a lot better these days. So what did Microsoft change?
Microsoft's plan wasn't to just leave Windows on ARM running on weak hardware with poor software support. Qualcomm started to come out with chips like the Snapdragon 8cx, which was specifically designed for laptops and tablets, and packed a much bigger punch than the reused phone chips. Microsoft then tweaked the 8cx and created their own version of it called the SQ1, which made its way into their Surface Pro tablet lineup in 2019. Qualcomm then expanded the chip product line to cover more price and performance tiers. And while their new lineup still hasn't caught up to Intel or AMD in terms of performance, the newest chip set to be released, had a multicore performance score in Geekbench comparable to a Ryzen 5 2000 series. So it's definitely nothing to, sneeze at.
Indeed, reviews of more recent devices have noted snappier performance combined with multi-day battery life. And we should see better compatibility with third party apps going forward. Windows 11 is finally introducing support for x64 programs. Though the feature has notably been removed from Windows 10 since Windows 11 came out.
The way Windows on ARM handles emulation has also been streamlined, with Windows 11 being able to emulate portions of programs that haven't been ported over to run natively on ARM. So developers can actually run combinations of x86 and 64, and ARM code at the same time, if they have a program that isn't fully written for ARM yet, which is super cool.
Microsoft has also made more developer tools available to programmers, which should encourage more software studios to write for Windows on ARM. In fact, Adobe has recently rolled out native Windows on ARM versions of Photoshop and Lightroom, with more of the Creative Suite apps to follow.
Of course, Windows for ARM isn't a magic bullet for solving the performance versus battery life problem, especially if Qualcomm is the only one building chips. And they have been. Microsoft has had an exclusivity deal with Qualcomm for Windows on ARM PCs. Though, that is reportedly ending soon. Meaning we could see more competition coming down the road. In fact, it appears the industry may be moving more toward getting chip fabricators, like TSMC, to directly customize off-the-rack ARM designs instead of buying whatever Qualcomm is offering. That way, other chipmakers that want to get their hardware inside Windows for ARM systems can bring their own innovations, maybe resulting in higher levels of performance, and allowing Windows on ARM to become a true rival to Apple's M series ecosystem.
Just be prepared to shell out some money if you want the best performance you can get on a Windows on ARM device, as these laptops sell for amounts that rival higher end x86/64 systems, but with obviously less performance. But better battery, right? I mean, who needs a charger?