Microsoft and Qualcomm are officially unveiling the first Windows 10 laptops based on ARM today. As expected, HP, Lenovo and Asus are the manufacturers that create these new laptops that include a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor. The first devices are similar to the 2 in 1 tablets / laptops we've seen with Intel-based processors , but they differ mainly due to the version of Windows 10 and the Qualcomm processor that is feeding 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 applications on these new devices. These devices look and feel like normal laptops, and will run most of the software you would expect to see on a laptop. HP and Asus announce their devices today, and Lenovo is expected to follow them in the coming weeks.
The obvious question is why do these devices exist? Microsoft has worked with Qualcomm to create these "always active" PCs so that they are always connected to LTE connections and work more like an iPad than a traditional Windows laptop. That means that you open the laptop and it should be resumed instantly, or close the lid and never have to worry about draining the battery. These devices should have the benefits of the battery and the type of LTE connectivity that we have not seen regularly in Windows laptops.
HP and Asus devices will include Windows 10 S, designed to run only applications from the Windows Store, but users will be able to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro at no charge (per now) to access the full desktop applications. Microsoft originally compiled Windows 10 to run on ARM chipsets, so all Windows, Edge and shell processes run natively without emulation. Microsoft has also analyzed the main third-party desktop applications and natively compiled a set of system DLLs they trust to ensure robust performance.
Microsoft's emulation work means that you can download most of the 32-bit exe files from the web and install them on laptops with ARM technology. However, there are some exceptions. Windows 64-bit applications are still not supported (developers will be able to compile them in the future) and Microsoft does not support applications that use kernel mode drivers. That means that most third-party antivirus software will not be compatible, and the vast majority of games that use anti-cheating software will not work properly either.
Everything else should run correctly, including applications such as Photoshop, Office, and Chrome. Performance is obviously still the big question around these devices versus those based on Intel, but the idea is that the battery life throughout the day and not having to charge your device regularly could offset a little performance. The first devices should work for around 20-22 hours of active use, but if those estimates are something like what we see with Intel-based laptops, then the reality could be much lower. We will try them a lot to find out.
There are obvious concerns about Microsoft and Qualcomm's ARM in Windows efforts. We have seen similar promises of the "connected mobile PC" previously, and have failed. Microsoft worked with Nvidia to produce Windows RT tablets five years ago, but claims about performance and battery life never lived up to reality and the operating system did not run traditional desktop applications. It was a disaster that looked like a bad engineering project, instead of an operating system for consumers, students and companies.
Microsoft is not working with Nvidia yet in this new effort, and the company will not say if it plans to do so 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 common device you would see today in a retail store, and are designed to be thinner and lighter while improving battery life and maintaining application compatibility. They do not include the typical fans that you would find on a laptop, so they will also be silent.