Microsoft is launching new “Always Connected PCs” that pair Windows with smartphone-class ARM processors. These devices can run traditional Windows desktop apps and offer long battery life with cellular connectivity, but they’re just too expensive and limited.
Future Windows on ARM devices will likely have better performance at a lower price and be much more compelling. But, as usual when it comes to technology, we recommend you skip the first-generation products.
What is Windows on ARM?
Windows on ARM is a full Windows 10 operating system running on on ARM CPU rather than a typical 32-bit x86 or 64-bit x64 CPU. ARM CPUs are generally found in smartphones and mobile devices like iPads. Typical PCs include processors from Intel or AMD.
The ARM hardware platform gives Windows on ARM a few advantages. ARM CPUs use less power, so you should get longer battery life. They offer true “instant on” resuming so you can immediately wake up the PC and resume where you left off, like waking your phone. They run silently with no fans. And they include cellular connectivity, so you can add one of these devices to your cell phone plan—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon all support these devices in the USA—and have Internet access everywhere. (Or everywhere you have cellular connectivity, at least.)
All three first-generation Windows on ARM devices use a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, which is the same processor used in the Samsung Galaxy S8, Samsung Galaxy Note 8, Google Pixel 2, Google Pixel XL, and many other 2017-era Android smartphones. New phones like the Samsung Galaxy S9 are already shipping with faster ARM CPUs. This is also why they’re being called “Windows on Snapdragon” devices.
Windows on ARM is Full Windows, Unlike Windows RT
In the Windows 8 days, Microsoft released Windows RT, which ran on ARM hardware and forced you to install software from the Windows Store. But Windows 10 on ARM is much more powerful. It’s a full version of Windows that lets you install software from anywhere, if you like. Developers can compile their desktop applications for ARM and you can install them. It even includes an emulation layer that lets you run traditional Windows desktop apps that were written for 32-bit Intel x86 CPUs.
These Windows on ARM devices do ship with Windows S Mode enabled, which means they can only install software from the Store by default. But you can change that with the flick of a switch, and it’s free. Afterwards, it’s like using a typical Windows laptop and you can get software from anywhere. This is a huge improvement from Windows RT, and means these devices should have a much brighter future ahead of them.
We just don’t think that future fully arrives with the first generation of products.
The Emulation Layer is Limited and Slow
The emulation layer that lets you run traditional desktop applications, also known as Win32 applications, works. However, it has some performance problems. And including those older ARM CPUs in these devices include isn’t helping matters, either.
Many reviewers agree that classic Windows apps perform badly. The Verge tested the ASUS NovaGo and wrote that “performance in Chrome is rather bad, with sluggish load times, stuttery scrolling, and slow transfers between tabs.” The review goes on to say that Electron-based apps like Slack “have abysmal and frustrating performance” and that Photoshop works “about as you’d expect it to: slowly.”
Laptop Magazine tested “Dirt 3, a low-end racing game that runs on even $250 computers” on the ASUS NovaGo. However, “the system was so sluggish that it took 10 minutes just to get past the animation on the splash screen.” Many of Laptop Magazine’s benchmarking tools wouldn’t run and just crashed. The benchmark results they could get weren’t pretty, as the ASUS NovaGo had a Geekbench score of less than half the average consumer laptop. They found that the HP ENVY 2 has about the same performance—which it would, as it has the same ARM CPU.
There are serious compatibility issues, too. The emulation layer is only compatible with 32-bit Windows apps. However, most Windows users are now using 64-bit versions of Windows. Some new apps may only offer 64-bit versions, which means they won’t work at all on the emulation layer. For example, reviewers note that Photoshop Elements doesn’t run on these PCs because it doesn’t offer a 32-bit version. Many modern games only offer 64-bit executables, too, so you can’t even try to play them on this hardware.
These First Devices Are Too Expensive
Given the performance of the emulation layer, these first-generation devices are just too expensive for what they are. The ASUS NovaGo starts at $599, the Lenovo Miix 630 starts at $799, and the HP ENVY x2 starts at $999. That’s a lot of money for a Windows PC that can’t run many Windows apps with acceptable performance—especially when you can still get decent traditional laptops in those price ranges.
Battery life is good, though likely not good enough. The Verge found the ASUS NovaGo’s battery life was about 11 or 12 hours in real world tests, which is a big difference from the up to 22 hours ASUS promised. That might be better than a typical ultrabook by a few hours, but it’s a long way from what ASUS advertises.
Compared to a typical Intel or AMD laptop, you end up paying more money for a bit of extra battery life, slightly faster wake times, and always-on connectivity. But you can get that cellular connectivity on more capable laptops.
What You Should Buy Instead
That 4G LTE connectivity is nice, but, for the price and the performance you get, it really doesn’t make sense. If you really want a Windows PC with anywhere cellular connectivity, we’d recommend Microsoft’s Surface Pro with LTE Advanced. Yes, at $1449 it’s more expensive than these Windows on ARM devices, but it runs a speedy Intel processor and will be a much more capable machine. Microsoft even offers financing so businesses can get a Surface Pro with LTE starting at around $50 per month.
Remember, whether you get a Windows on ARM PC or a Surface Pro with LTE, you’ll be paying an additional monthly fee to add that Windows PC to your cell phone plan. Anyone who’s willing to pay that fee will be better served with a more capable Windows PC.
But you don’t need a laptop with built-in cellular connectivity to connect to the Internet from anywhere. You can get a solid Windows laptop and create a hotspot with your iPhone or Android phone when you need the connectivity. You won’t have to pay an extra monthly fee and you’ll have a laptop that can run the apps you need to use with solid performance.
Or, if you just want a portable device with cellular connectivity and you don’t need a PC in the first place, you can get an iPad with LTE for $459. That’s cheaper than these Windows on ARM devices. Yes, it’s an iPad so you can’t run Windows desktop applications, but it’s not like powerful desktop apps run well on these Windows on ARM devices anyway—and iPads have more tablet apps available.
Of course, If you’ve read all this and still want one of these Windows on ARM devices anyway, we’re not going to stop you. But we just don’t think they make any sense—yet.