The personal computer has been evolving ever since the recent punch in the gut from smartphones and tablets. Since then, the bottom has literally fallen out of tablets, smartphones are flat, and exciting growth segments within the PC sector keep humming, albeit the market is at a much lower level. Consumer electronics players like Samsung, Huawei, and even Xiaomi have jumped into PCs, and they’re not jumping in because they don’t see the opportunity. Microsoft has been working aggressively to facilitate the growth of these growth segments of the market, including ones created by Microsoft. Microsoft successfully popularized the detachable PC tablet category with the Surface line of products and their partners have followed and in many ways, improved on the original, particularly in the commercial space.
One of the new categories Microsoft is investing in within Windows 10 is called the “connected laptop”, which literally is a laptop always connected to the internet, more matching a smartphone user experience. One of the ways that Microsoft has looked at accomplishing this is through their new Windows 10 user experiences and interfaces. The other way that Microsoft has looked to accomplish this is by once again embracing ARM-based chip vendor Qualcomm to enable low-power, long battery life, devices that are always connected and meet performance expectations.
Qualcomm is Microsoft’s lead partner on the second version of Windows on ARM ( ARM Holdings ) with the announcement of their partnership late last year. This effort, as many remember, is similar to, but not exactly like Windows RT, which turned out to be a failure for all of those involved, including Microsoft, NVIDIA, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments. That effort was doomed to fail mostly due to software compatibility caused by running a different operating system and/or under-performing silicon. Microsoft says with Qualcomm silicon and Windows 10, they have solved it this time around.
Microsoft’s solution this go-around is to create only one version of Windows and to enable full compatibility within the single OS of UWP (Universal Windows Platform) applications, a more refined version of what had been done in the past. The difference this time being that Microsoft’s application store is much more robust with a larger and more capable of UWP application marketplace. However, this is still a limited amount of applications and for the remainder of non-UWP apps Microsoft says they will emulate x86 on ARM to enable full compatibility with most apps. This emulation results in a performance hit of unknown percent and may be one of the major make or break points for Windows on ARM.
Performance of the Snapdragon 835 and Windows 10 is key
The biggest question for Windows on ARM after applications and compatibility is performance and right now that question is placed squarely on the shoulders of Qualcomm. As Microsoft’s lead partner, Qualcomm is leading with their fastest SoC available today, the Snapdragon 835 processor. This processor is the SoC inside of flagship devices like the Samsung Galaxy S8, Sony Xperia XZ Premium, HTC U11 and Xiaomi Mi 6, and is commonly associated with highest Android mobility performance. While Qualcomm hasn’t made any official Windows on ARM performance claims, I suspect that they will vary from application to application, especially those that are not UWP apps. I would expect more consistent performance across UWP apps, even though we once again still have some time until we really know what kind of performance we can expect. I would consider a win matching something between fanless Intel Core m3 and fanless Core i5 performance.
My recent frame of performance reference with Qualcomm on Windows 10 is the HP Elite X3 smartphone which includes a Snapdragon 820, docks to a Lapdock and a Desk Dock. The X3 runs native ARM-based Windows 10 and native ARM-based UWP and Windows 8 mobile apps. I find the X3 sluggish running extended applications in Continuum like native Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The Snapdragon 835 used in the latest Windows systems is the next generation processor beyond the 820 with improved GPU, DSP and overall battery life, but has very similar CPU characteristics as the 820. So, what I’ll be closely be watching are performance indicators, like benchmarks.
ASUS, HP Inc. and Lenovo show support
At Computex 2017, Qualcomm announced in partnership with Microsoft their first three lead OEM customers for the Snapdragon 835 on Windows. The partners include ASUS, HP and Lenovo which are among the top 5 biggest PC vendors in the world and among the most innovative in adopting new form factors and designs and processor architectures. The reason for the leading PC manufacturers to embrace Windows on ARM and especially with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 has a lot to do with connectivity.
Traditionally, Windows PCs have suffered from a lack of connectivity outside of Wi-Fi hotspots and as a result aren’t always connected. With the introduction of the Snapdragon 835 and its integrated X16 Gigabit LTE modem, we may finally see PCs with truly ubiquitous connectivity and without the concerns about unsecure Wi-Fi hotspots. Additionally, the Snapdragon 835 offers a very low power processor that doesn’t get very hot but still performs quite well which can allow these PC manufacturers to innovate on size, battery life and form factor.
I have a high degree of confidence that future Windows on Qualcomm systems will have very good battery life, connected standby and very good, if not great, connectivity characteristics. Qualcomm and Microsoft announcing with three lead PC OEM partners like ASUS, HP and Lenovo lends a lot more credibility to the Windows on ARM effort, too. Microsoft appears to have chosen a good partner in Qualcomm with the right connectivity story and high-performance processors and its OEMs are responding. However, there is still a long road ahead for devices that will use Snapdragon 835 and we still don’t know what end performance will look like in either UWP or legacy X86 Windows desktop applications until devices launch later this year.
It may turn out that the 835 is the lead vehicle and that something like a future “Snapdragon 845” (made up by me, by the way) might be more appropriate for Windows with new faster CPU cores based on the just announced ARM Cortex-A75 designed for form factors like laptops. Maybe Qualcomm could even take some of the server core pairs and pull it into a future Windows laptop. Maybe Qualcomm will bin the 835s and increase frequency and voltage. Thanks to the quick iteration of the smartphone semiconductor business and diversity of the ecosystem, there are still many opportunities for Microsoft and its partners to get this right even if it isn’t perfect the first time around.