Microsoft and Qualcomm are officially unveiling the first ARM-powered Windows 10 laptops today. As expected, HP, Lenovo, and Asus are the manufacturers creating these new laptops that include a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor. The first devices are similar to 2-in-1 tablet / laptops we’ve seen with Intel-based processors in them, but they differ primarily because of the version of Windows 10 and Qualcomm processor that’s powering them.
Microsoft has previously shown Photoshop running on an ARM version of Windows 10, and the company has developed a special emulator to run traditional x86 apps on these new devices. These devices look and feel like normal laptops, and will run most of the software you’d expect to see on a laptop. HP and Asus are announcing their devices today, and Lenovo is expected to follow in the coming weeks.
The obvious question is why do these devices even exist? Microsoft has worked with Qualcomm to create these “always-on” PCs so that they’re always connected to LTE connections, and work more like an iPad than a traditional Windows laptop. That means you open the laptop up and it should instantly resume, or you close the lid and never have to worry about the battery draining. These devices should have battery benefits and the type of LTE connectivity that we haven’t seen regularly in Windows laptops.
HP and Asus’ devices will include Windows 10 S, designed to only run apps from the Windows Store, but users will be able to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro free of charge (for now) to get access to the full desktop apps. Microsoft has natively compiled Windows 10 to run on ARM chipsets, so all Windows processes, Edge, and the shell all run natively without emulation. Microsoft has also looked at the top third-party desktop applications and natively recompiled a set of system DLLs that they rely on to ensure performance is solid.
Microsoft’s emulation work does mean that you’ll be able to download most 32-bit exe files from the web and install them on ARM-powered laptops. There are a few exceptions, though. 64-bit Windows apps aren’t supported yet (developers will be able to recompile them in the future), and Microsoft isn’t supporting apps that use kernel mode drivers. That means most third-party antivirus software won’t be compatible, and the vast majority of games that use anti-cheat software will also not work correctly.
Everything else should run just fine, including apps like Photoshop, Office, and Chrome. Performance is obviously still the big question around these devices vs. Intel-based ones, but the idea is that all-day battery life and not having to charge your device regularly might make up for a slight hit to performance. The first devices should run for around 20–22 hours of active use, but if those estimates are anything like what we see with Intel-based laptops then the reality could be a lot less. We’ll be testing them heavily to find out.
There are obvious concerns around Microsoft and Qualcomm’s ARM on Windows efforts. We’ve seen similar promises of the “connected mobile PC” before, and they’ve flopped. Microsoft worked with Nvidia to produce Windows RT tablets five years ago, but the performance and battery life claims never lived up to reality and the operating system didn’t run traditional desktop applications. It was a mess that looked like a bad engineering project, rather than an operating system for consumers, students, and businesses.
Microsoft isn’t working with Nvidia yet on this new effort, and the company won’t say if it plans to in the future. Either way, it’s clear from the emulation software that Microsoft has learned some valuable lessons from the Windows RT disaster. These new laptops look like any regular device you’d see in a retail store today, and they’re designed to be thinner and lighter while improving battery life and maintaining app compatibility. They don’t include the typical fans you’d find in a laptop, so they’ll also be silent to use.
Asus’ NovaGo 2-in-1 includes a 13.3-inch HD display, up to 8GB of RAM, and up to 256GB of storage. There’s even stylus support, and two USB 3.1 ports, a HDMI port, and a microSD reader. Asus’ NovaGo will be priced starting at $599 for 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. A $799 model will include 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. HP’s Envy x2 is a slightly smaller 2-in-1 with a 12.3-inch display, up to 8GB of RAM, and up to 256GB of storage. HP’s device also supports a stylus, and both of these will come with LTE connectivity. That should be something we’ll see on most, if not all, ARM-powered Windows 10 laptops, enabling connectivity away from Wi-Fi hot spots. HP’s Envy x2 will be available in Spring next year.
These first devices lay the foundations for the future of what’s to come from this new Windows 10 on ARM effort. We could see tablets, and more hybrid devices running on this new software. One thing we’re unlikely to see is phone hybrids for now, as Microsoft tells me the current wave of devices doesn’t support a telephony stack.
If the battery life and performance live up to Microsoft and Qualcomm’s claims, then it could be an exciting upcoming year for Windows laptops. Microsoft is also rumored to be creating its own special notepad-like device with an ARM chipset, and if the company goes ahead with it then we’ll likely see it appear next year. For now, we’ll have a closer look at the new ARM-based Windows laptops and performance shortly from Qualcomm’s Snapdragon summit, so stay tuned to The Verge.