Microsoft has dabbled with ARM support in Windows over the years, most famously (and disastrously) when it launched Windows RT. That stripped down flavor of Windows 8 was a commercial and critical flop, but Microsoft aims to make ARM-based PCs a thing in the era of Windows 10. Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf provided an update on the future of Windows on ARM in a recent investor call, saying the first Qualcomm-based Windows PCs will be available at the end of this year.
Microsoft and Qualcomm first revealed this plan in December 2016, but there was little in the way of details at the time. What we do know is Microsoft has learned from the past, and it won’t be going down the same path as Windows RT. That version of the OS lacked support for true desktop apps, relying completely on the so-called Modern UI apps that rolled out with Windows 8. In its new take on ARM PCs, Microsoft has developed a built-in emulator that can run regular desktop apps on the ARM architecture.
Mollenkopf made his comments in connection with the Snapdragon 835, the latest chip from Qualcomm that is currently only available in the Galaxy S8. This is a quad-core chip based on Qualcomm’s custom Kryo 280 64-bit CPU core. In current configurations, it can be clocked as high as 2.45GHz.
In a demo last December, Microsoft showed a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 running Windows 10 without any appreciable lag. It worked fine in Edge and even booted up Photoshop in a respectable amount of time. The main selling point here is efficiency — a PC powered by an ARM SoC could run for much longer, and the on-die support for cellular modems means it’ll be easier for OEMs to include mobile data.
ARM chips should also be cheaper than Intel or AMD, which means cheaper machines. Microsoft has seen less expensive devices like Chromebooks and iPads eat into sales of Windows laptops, and many of these devices run on ARM. However, ARM-based Chromebooks tend to use less powerful (and therefore cheaper) ARM chips. Windows needs the power of something like the Snapdragon 835 to be viable. OEMs might find the savings over Intel parts to be smaller than expected.
The first wave of ARM Windows devices will come from brands other than Microsoft — Lenovo is rumored to be planning a convertible laptop of some sort. We may get a peek at some early ARM-based Windows devices at the Build conference in May.
Now read: Windows 10: The Best Hidden Features, Tips, and Tricks