A few years ago, I reviewed the Surface Pro X. As you might remember, I was very critical of Microsoft at the time, saying that it was the Surface I tried to love but ended up hating. The hardware itself was fine, but the main reason I didn't like my new Surface was due to the underlying issues in Windows on ARM.
Fast forward 2 years later, things have really changed. With things like Project Volterra, and Microsoft optimizing more apps for ARM-based SoC, Microsoft is taking Windows on ARM much more seriously. I felt so good about it that I reinvested and got a ThinkPad X13s for the long haul.
I already reviewed that laptop, but now I want to step back a bit and talk about my experience with Windows on ARM itself. More specifically, what I like and don't like about it. after living with an ARM-based computer for a month.
What I like
Day 2 of battery testing in my real world. 100% charged at around 9:45 AM. down to 75% at 12:53 PM. Off for a quick trip now and will put the laptop on standby let's see what happens when I open it when I get home... pic.twitter.com/VMlecs869S
— Arif Bacchus (@abacjourn) June 22, 2022
Alright, so I'll start with this. The number one thing I like about Windows on ARM is battery life. This is something that Microsoft (and its partners) have advertised heavily, and I must say that it is absolutely true. ARM-based SoC such as the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 run at a lower wattage than their Intel counterparts. This means smartphone-like wake times and standby times, and battery life.
In my case with the ThinkPad X13s, I got to nearly 13-14 hours of web browsing out of my laptop on most days. At worse, it was sometimes 10 hours. Laptops with Intel or AMD chips top out at around 9 hours max, though devices with Intel's P-series 12th gen chips (like the recently reviewed Dell Inspiron 16 2-in-1) can top higher. At any rate, battery life is the biggest strength of Windows on ARM. Even standby is incredible, as I often leave my ThinkPad in sleep overnight, coming back to it and finding no battery drain.
Number two on my list is how streamlined and efficient Windows on ARM feels. With many Microsoft apps now being optimized for Windows on ARM, the things I needed most for my workflows worked perfectly. Microsoft Edge and Microsoft Teams all run without freezing or other issues since they're both optimized for Windows on ARM.
It's a big difference from when the Surface Pro X was released and these apps often froze up on me or simply crashed. Coming from using a Surface Laptop Studio as my main machine, I can barely feel the difference between it and my ThinkPad during my web-based workflows. The even better news is that Microsoft is working to optimize more of its own apps (and even Windows apps) for ARM. Visual Studio 2022, the Microsoft Store, and Media Player are just a few that Microsoft is beta testing ARM-based versions for. Even partner apps like Adobe Photoshop are now optimized for ARM, and even more business apps can be optimized through the Microsoft App Assurance program.
And, while I am here, I'll also touch on the way that the system feels. Windows on ARM devices are passively cooled. meaning they have no fans. My ThinkPad never gets hot during regular usage. The only times it did get hot were when it was charging, or when I ended up doing a demanding task, like gaming or using virtual machines in HyperV.
Virtualization with HyperV
On this same performance topic, I do want to mention some other things I tried out. It's amazing to me that Windows on ARM has virtualization support. With the ThinkPad X13s being a Windows 11 Pro device, I was able to create virtual machines through Hyper V. Windows 10, Windows 11, Ubuntu, you name it. It all worked! And, with the ThinkPad supporting up to 32GB RAM, I could run multiple VMs simultaneously. It's really impressive stuff!
What I don't like
Part of the emulation layer & gaming
Hmm, is my favorite video editor, Wondershare Filmora optimized for Windows on ARM? It doesn't show in 32-bit mode like Chrome and other apps do. It acts like it sees the GPU but doesn't use it? A short pod takes 25 mins to encode on the ThinkPad X13s. Not good, I guess. pic.twitter.com/IheEhrhBAI
— Arif Bacchus (@abacjourn) June 21, 2022
There's only one thing I don't like about Windows on ARM, and it is the app emulation. Microsoft initially only allowed for 32-bit app emulation in Windows on ARM, but that changed in Windows 11 (and for a short time in Windows 10) when they shipped 64-bit app emulation, too. Again, I won't lie, the new emulation opens up the possibility to run a lot of great apps on Windows on ARM and that is amazing. Even 32-bit apps like Chrome work great without any issue. However, there's one flaw.
While it is possible to run 64-bit apps on Windows on ARM, these apps sometimes can't read the GPU in the Snapdragon SoC properly. Instead, they depend on the CPU to do all the hard work. The best example is when I tried to encode videos using Wondershare Filmora on my ThinkPad. The final project took a painfully slow time to export. The same also applied when I tried to play games on Steam.
Broforce plays very well. About 70-90 frames per second. Good emulation there. pic.twitter.com/NUYz9gtiSh
— Arif Bacchus (@abacjourn) June 22, 2022
Some lighter titles worked fine, but heavy games like CS: Go didn't read the GPU layer properly. In my tests, only Windows Store games seemed to have read the GPU. I just really hope that Microsoft manages to fix the way app-emulation works, and lets emulated apps unlock the full power of the Adreno GPUs. This would finally give Windows on ARM the M1-level performance for all apps and not just optimized apps.
The app compatibility issue also applies to drivers, too. My printer didn't work on Windows on ARM, but most of my other accessories did. If I didn't have a spare PC laying around, I would have been in for big trouble, not being able to print documents from my ThinkPad.
I still believe in Windows on ARM
All this said I'm still a believer in Windows on ARM. Unlike with the Surface Pro X a few years ago, it seems as though Qualcomm has finally caught up with Intel with its new SoC, and new machines with the 8cx Gen 3 should work well. Windows on ARM performs great, and while app-emulation might hold it back from breaking most people away from Intel machines, I feel as though Microsoft's well invested in it heading into the future, and now is the right time to buy a Windows on ARM laptop, to make the most of it sometime down the line.