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Microsoft Unveils ARM-based Windows 10 With Full X86 Compatibility

Four years ago, Microsoft was lead by Steve Ballmer, caught in a whirlwind of the “tablet tsunami” and eroding market share. The company wanted to ditch its traditional desktop apps in favor of new touch-based apps for tablets which featured ARM processors. A half-hearted project named Windows RT was born. “Windows on ARM” project debuted on Microsoft’s first Surface RT device featuring NVIDIA Tegra processor. It was a bold and confusing attempt to force people into a new world of touch apps, but Microsoft made the fatal mistake of providing something that looked like Windows but didn’t function like Windows.

Windows RT couldn’t run traditional desktop apps, but it had a desktop mode and most of the regular Windows utilities that have existed for more than 25 years. Microsoft is correcting that mistake today, and taking another attempt at developing Windows for ARM processors. At its own WinHEC event in Shenzhen, China, Microsoft announced a major new partnership with Qualcomm to port Windows 10 to ARM. This is not Windows 10 Mobile. Real Windows 10 on a new generation of portable PCs.

This is made possible because of two things. Qualcomm’s System on a Chip (SoC) designs have improved so dramatically in the past four years that their performance rivals that of mainstream Intel Core chipsets for PCs. And even better, Microsoft has developed an emulation technology that allows Win32 applications to launch and run unmodified on ARM-based PCs. And to do so with what I am assured is excellent performance. Emulation will ensure these devices can run anything from Office and Photoshop to video games like Crysis, the only catch is support will be limited to x86 win32 applications. There will be no 64-bit support, but that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for most people given the limited adoption of 64-bit apps.

ARM chipsets also provide integrated cellular modems, enabling what Microsoft calls not just pervasive connectivity, but everywhere connectivity. Microsoft will be also selling data connectivity directly from the Windows Store, and will change Windows 10 so that it can intelligently move between Wi-Fi and cellular networks on the fly. ARM-based PCs also really exceed their Intel-based equivalents from a power management perspective is that they provide a much lower idle power draw. This means they will probably hold their charge longer while sitting unused.

As rumored, this functionality will require Qualcomm’s upcoming Snapdragon 835 SoC and, as such, it will be late 2017 or sometime next year before such devices are shipping in volume. In other words, this isn’t happening in the Windows 10 Creators Update timeframe. Instead, this will be a feature of the next version of Windows 10, which is expected in late 2017. We will unfortunately have to wait until then to see how this kind of devices perform.