Windows on ARM revisited: Where are we in 2020?

Windows on ARM instead of x86 architecture still remains rather novel, even as Microsoft moves to release fancier ARM-based laptops.

Here at BrianMadden, we’ve been following Windows on ARM devices for nearly a decade, ever since Windows RT first debuted in 2012, even if not all of our interest could be defined as positive.

In 2017, Jack expressed interest picking up a laptop with Windows 10 in S Mode on ARM, though he never did buy one. Contributor Rachel Berry also looked at the ARM laptops that were announced in 2018, which included the Always Connected PC laptops.

Now that it’s 2020, it’s time for an update to see where ARM and Windows has progressed since then—has there been much progress or have things stalled out?

What have we seen recently from Microsoft on ARM?

Microsoft has continued to announce new Windows on ARM laptops over the past couple of years. At RSA 2020, I had a chance to pick Microsoft’s David Weston’s brain about Windows on ARM. He explained that they will continue to work on Windows on ARM devices. Personally, he is a big fan of ARM since they provide always-on security, superior battery life, and lower-power consumption. He admitted that ARM currently only offers mid-tier range benchmarks, but they’ll be more competitive in time. Despite confidence in Windows on ARM, David wouldn’t comment as to whether we might see the new Windows 10X running on ARM.

One of the more recent Windows on ARM laptops to see a release was the Surface Pro X. It was the first laptop to use the joint Qualcomm-Microsoft processor SQ1 (e.g., a tweaked version of the Qualcomm 8cx) and runs full Windows 10. Unfortunately, reviews weren’t the hottest about the device. While the processor did see improved performance, more than some reviewers were expecting, the battery life (estimated 13 hours) was less than one would expect from an ARM device and there continue to be app compatibility issues. Using Chrome won’t be a good experience, but Microsoft’s Chredge does offer native ARM support.

Some other Window for ARM devices that came to market since our first articles or will come to market soon include the Lenovo Yoga 5G, which will have Qualcomm’s 8cx processor and their X55 5G modem (for those on the 5G hype train, I guess). The downside of the Windows on ARM laptop from Lenovo is that the specs aren’t the greatest (8GB RAM max?!) and the usual high price tag (starts at $1,499). The recently released Samsung Galaxy Book S offers similar specs (but much better battery life) for about $500 less. For the more budget-minded users out there, the Lenovo Yoga C630 provides the usual ARM experience, with long battery life, but subpar app experience. Not a lot has hit the market since the initial devices were announced.

I looked around for any sales numbers for Windows on ARM laptops, but aside from hints here and there in articles, I couldn’t find anything with actual numbers. An article from late 2019 by The Register cited lackluster sales due to limited availability (for example, the Samsung Book2 missed its original release date) and premium pricing. The latter would definitely be hard to swallow from a device that has limited use for power users.

Still, Microsoft must see something from these devices, or they likely wouldn’t keep working to release new ones. I expect to see prices come down as Qualcomm releases more laptop-specific processors like 8c and 7c that are more lower-tier in comparison to the premium 8cx.

Closing thoughts

We’re slowly seeing more and more Windows on ARMs devices announced and seeing release, and the tech inside them keeps improving. However, I would argue that the experience still isn’t quite there for many users yet. The sub-par specs and high price tag will scare off those looking for a Chromebook-comparable experience and power users won’t be able to use all of their apps just yet on Windows on ARM devices.

The biggest issue remains the app compatibility—the situation has gotten better, but it’s still not there. Microsoft hasn’t released enough native ARM64 apps on the Microsoft Store, you can emulate 32-bit Intel apps but they often are considered a step behind the Intel experience, and 64-bit Intel apps don’t run at all. On that last note, however, there was some positive news out in late 2019 that Microsoft is working on 64-bit emulation—though it’s not expected until 2021 at the earliest.

Despite app issues, Windows on ARM remains an interesting prospect as it continues to mature with both Microsoft and Qualcomm investing further.

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