Windows 10 on ARM… again?

Every now and then, there’s a clear break in the technology industry that indicates the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one. It’s often characterised by things like a particular version of popular software, or a new capability consumers never had before, or a new player in the hardware space. It’s a drastic shift like the release of Windows 95, or Apple’s switch from Power9 to Intel Core that takes us into a new era of computing. Today begins a new era with Windows 10 on ARM and the end of Intel’s grip on the mobile market.

Yeah sure, some people said this before with Windows 8 RT, and those first-gen netbooks that shipped with Linux on them, but that was different. With Windows 8 RT, none of the underlying hardware was capable of running Windows 8 properly thanks to lacking GPU power and no DirectX 11 support, and no-one wanted to use the UWP apps designed by Microsoft. There was never really going to be any shift in consumer preference unless the offering was dramatically better. And the storage on those devices was slower than a herd of snails stampeding through peanut butter. Better than a hard drive which ran like molasses, but not great either.

Though the Windows RT initiative ultimately failed, Microsoft never let up on the idea of running Windows on an ARM device, and the end result of their dedication to the concept has resulted in the Windows 10 on ARM platform (or WARM, as I like to call it). Officially, Microsoft calls it the “Always Connected” PC, but there’s going to be a lot of confusion surrounding this name for reasons I’ll get into later.

So what is Windows 10 on ARM? In a nutshell, it is the entire Windows experience, from end-to-end, on the ARM platform. Windows 10 benefited from having an existing native platform to build off of thanks to Windows RT, but everything else from the UI, the services, the driver model, and the software support for UWP applications had to be rewritten. WARM is part of a secretive, years-long Microsoft project called “Andromeda”, which is Windows 10 built from a common kernel and the needed components to make it work on different platforms.

Andromeda is a big game-changer for Microsoft from a software perspective and a services perspective. With it, they can mould Windows 10 to work on nearly any platform out there, stripping it down to the bare minimum for IoT devices, or fashioning a fully-fledged installation for a workstation.

The ARM platform is not the only thing that Andromeda targets. Microsoft could roll this out to PowerPC devices, to RISC processors, MIPS, and even SPARC. It’s Microsoft’s play to get Windows everywhere, even into where Linux traditionally dominates, because they so desperately want to capture the IoT market, or a large part of it, and connect those devices up with Azure services and Microsoft software. The next step from here is Windows Server on ARM.

And when I say it’s the Windows experience from end-to-end, that includes third-party applications. Devices running Windows 10 on ARM will be running Windows 10 S, which limits you to using applications from the store. However, by paying a $50 upgrade fee to move to Windows 10 Pro, you gain access to the ARM-compatible x86 emulator, which allows you to run any x86 application in near real-time on ARM processors. The technology stems from Microsoft’s work on Xbox One porting old games from the Xbox and Xbox 360. In the case of the Xbox One, those ported applications don’t run natively. Instead, they are run inside a virtual machine, enclosed in their own container and prevented from interacting with the base operating system that runs the Xbox dashboard and services.

On WARM devices, x86 applications are run natively, but use a emulator to translate CPU commands into something that a RISC-based processor like ARM can understand. Microsoft used telemetry from Windows 10 to figure out what are the most popular applications people use on their computers, and they have assisted these companies by partnering up with them and tuning the emulator for these apps. This includes professional software like Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office, and Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, among others.

For some games and third-party software, Microsoft worked on custom .dll files that include optimisations for these programs to work best with the emulator. These would include games as well. It’s not a gaming powerhouse by any means, but people might be pleasantly surprised by what Qualcomm can manage with their Adreno graphics.

For everything else on the Windows ecosystem, it should just work as intended, perhaps with a few hiccups for certain software suites that need to use kernel-mode drivers. For the moment, the emulator is only capable of working with 32-bit programs. That cuts out a large part of the market that ships 64-bit software and videogames, but Microsoft says they’re working on the project and will have more to reveal soon.

Late last night, at a conference in Hawaii, Microsoft and its partners Qualcomm, ASUS, and HP revealed two devices running Windows 10 on Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 platforms. The ASUS NovaGo is the first traditional ultrabook using the Snapdragon 835 platform. It’s a 2-in-1 device with a rotating hinge design and a 13.3-inch 1080p IPS touch display. Internally, it has a Snapdragon 835 platform with 4GB or 8GB of DDR4 memory, up to 256GB of UFS 2.0-class storage (the successor to EMMC), over 22 hours of battery life watching video content, and the promise of all-day battery life for productivity purposes.

This easily eclipses the typical ten-hour battery life ASUS gets from their UX-series of ultrabooks using the same form factor, and the batteries are probably even the same size. The NovaGO has pricing that starts at $599 for the model with 4GB of RAM and 64GB UFS storage, topping out at $799 for 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. The NovaGO starts shipping this year, apparently.

HP’s first foray into the market is also using an existing design from their ENVY X2 family. This is a more traditional Microsoft Surface clone, but it lacks a kickstand in favour of using the included Type cover to hold up the back of the tablet. It includes a Surface-like active stylus with 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity, a 3:2 aspect ratio display with Retina-like levels of picture quality, all-day battery life, and 20 hours of video playback. The keyboard is also backlit, which is nice, and there’s only one model currently – it ships with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. There’s no price available yet, but it will be launching in the first quarter of 2018.

Both devices, by the way, come standard with Qualcomm’s X16 LTE networking, which means that depending on who your cellular provider is and which tower you’re connecting to, you could get up to 1Gb/s LTE speeds on your device. That’s not only unprecedented, but also slightly insane. No network on earth is ready for this kind of connectivity, and even the local LTE tower near me just about falls over when trying to saturate a 40Mb/s LTE connection. I can’t fathom how much more strain Gigabit LTE will be for network providers.

The Windows 10 Connected PC era is here, again, and it’s now running Snapdragon 835. What a time to be alive.