Windows on ARM — Everything You Need to Know

CG Director Author Petar Vukobratby Petar Vukobrat   /  Published 

Microsoft, by the looks of it, seems to be fully cognizant of the fact that ARM’s here to stay — hence the release of their most recent dev kit.

For thin, low-powered devices, ARM is not only the better option but also the future.

Few people believed in it and, well, it’s easy to understand why; as the technology itself advanced and became more and more powerful, however, the more real said future became.

Apple was the first big company to truly tackle this field and, well, the results speak for themselves.

Its M1 and M2 chipsets have taken the world by storm and signaled for the first time — loud and clear — that ARM may well be the best possible option for the multitude.

The regular user doesn’t really care much for base clock speeds, TDPs, CUDA cores, and whatever else: these are all nuanced details for the tech-savvy among us.

Instead, the “average Joe” cares only about things like battery life, fan noise, and the speed at which his hardware can execute the task at hand.

That’s why Apple’s latest MacBooks are still selling like hotcakes — they provide an unparalleled user experience. And that, in short, is mostly because of Apple’s incredibly advanced silicon. These chipsets are astoundingly fast, efficient, and, perhaps most importantly, powerful.

And so, naturally, it’s impossible not to wonder whether Microsoft could pull off the same. It doesn’t have the same tightly-knit hardware and software integration as Apple, but it could, by all means, build towards a very similar goal (and, by proxy, performance level).

Let’s put it bluntly: Apple has too big of a head start. That much is a fact.

Still, it’s never too late for the rest of its “adversaries” to step up and board the ARM hype train. The sooner they start, the sooner they’ll have something comparable to offer.

M1 vs Intel vs AMD power to performance

Source: wccftech

In the meantime, Apple’s poised to keep bearing the fruits of their labor — and deservedly so.

That’s why that aforementioned ARM-based dev kit from Microsoft is so important. It is a step in the right direction. It might not be a particularly tremendous step, but it’s a step nonetheless.

What Makes ARM So Different?

ARM and x86 refer to two totally different architectures.

The first thing you need to keep in mind — the first difference, rather — is the way in which they process tasks (or, to be a bit more specific, the way in which they handle instruction sets).

ARM chipsets do this at a reduced speed; they handle one instruction set after another.

X86, on the other hand, is a lot more powerful of an architecture, and that allows it to tackle everything at a much greater speed — simultaneously. Because of this, there’s a huge disparity in their speed but also efficiency and the amount of heat which they generate whilst working.

ARM, on the other hand, is a lot more efficient. That’s why it’s powering nearly all of today’s smartphones.

It has more than enough power but all of it is still contained within a moderate (and rational) power envelope. That’s also the reason why today’s most powerful smartphones don’t need any active cooling.

Another interesting thing is that the ARM architecture can actually be licensed out to manufacturers which, in turn, allows them to modify various different segments and fine-tune its performance.

That’s another huge benefit and also one of the biggest reasons why this fascinating architecture can be found in such a diverse range of devices — computers, laptops, mobile phones, smart TVs, tablets, smart speakers/voice assist devices, and everything in between.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Because these two architectures process instruction sets differently, they are essentially only capable of handling tasks and programs designed for their own architecture.

Here’s the thing though: companies like Apple and Microsoft have devised emulation layers that can convert x86 code into ARM, therefore broadening the list of available applications.

Apps With Native Support for M1

Image Credit: isapplesiliconready

Depending on how well this layer was developed, the emulation itself can either be (relatively) imperceptible — which is to say with little to no performance loss — or downright dreadful.

It takes ample engineering prowess to execute such a thing without the end user ever noticing that his or her software is actually being emulated in real-time.

No such emulation layer is perfect, though, which is why it’s so important for developers to update and optimize their programs for both x86 and ARM.

This list of supported applications grows ever bigger with each passing day (mostly because of Apple’s participation in this field), and we can easily envision a future (one that is within reach) where all of our most important programs have native support for both architectures.

Another important thing to note is that ARM is advancing much faster than x86. The former always lacked in sheer horsepower but that, too, is changing. X86 processors, on the other hand, still aren’t nearly as efficient as they need to be.

For the first time ever, buying an ARM-based device is not only a viable option but maybe even a preferred one, depending on your line of work and overall needs and preferences.

ARM PCs — Why the Allure?

It’s actually quite simple: now, for the first time ever, ARM chipsets can provide both power and efficiency.

You get incredible battery life (assuming it’s a portable device) and more than enough processing power — at least in Apple’s case — for basically any task you might think of.

It’s the perfect architecture when harnessed appropriately — hence such great interest from numerous different manufacturers.

And that, also, is why Microsoft has found itself in such a challenging situation. Windows on ARM does exist, but it’s nowhere near as polished as macOS at the time of this writing.

Moreover, its emulation layer cannot even hold a candle to Apple’s, which is yet another big reason why Windows on ARM isn’t nearly as advanced and popular as one would expect given Microsoft’s revered status in the industry (and overall prowess).

Case Study: Surface Pro X

There are only two ARM-based Windows devices worth mentioning: the first-generation Surface Pro X and the Surface Pro 9 5G. Both are running on Qualcomm’s SoCs and, well, neither of them is particularly powerful.

Microsoft SQ1 ARM processor

Image Credit: Microsoft

Back when the first Surface Pro X came out, it was actually sold at an exorbitant MSRP and had very few applications that could run natively. The entire user experience, therefore, was rather abysmal.

The 2022 version, on the other hand, can actually be deemed usable. It’s still not great and the SoC itself isn’t as capable as one would expect, but it’s certainly a lot better than its predecessor.

That’s the thing: Windows on ARM still isn’t ready for mainstream use. We are moving towards that point, though, and that, in short, is a future we’re all looking forward to.

If you’re really hellbent on getting an ARM-based Windows device, you should probably consider the Lenovo ThinkPad X13s. It’s a lot cheaper than anything Microsoft has to offer and yet comes with a better keyboard and a traditional laptop-style design.


Let’s go over a few potential questions you might have regarding this particular topic:

Is Microsoft on ARM Worth Exploring?

Absolutely, but only if you’re a developer or someone who’s interested in such an obscure, niche thing.

In five years’ time, Windows on ARM will surely be a lot more attractive.

Right now, though, it’s flawed in more ways than one; still, these are growing pains and are par for the course.

Is Microsoft’s SQ3 As Good As Apple’s M1 or M2?

It absolutely is not. The SQ3 chipset is basically about as powerful as Intel’s 8th Gen mobile processors — and even that might be an optimistic stretch.

Now, make no mistake: you can still get your work done on such a chipset, but it’s not going to be particularly snappy as, well, any other option on the market.

Add to that numerous compatibility issues and probably a bunch of bugs as well, and you get a very flawed user experience — one that simply isn’t worth the asking price.

Apple’s M1 and M2, in comparison, are “light years” ahead. A completely different ballpark.

Why Did Windows on ARM Fail So Much?

Because of a series of bad calls on Microsoft’s end.

It created these beautiful albeit severely underpowered devices — and decided to sell them at a premium. That… makes no sense whatsoever. It was and still is a lousy value proposition, hence its early (if not immediate) demise.

Be that as it may, Microsoft still hasn’t given up, and a brighter future may well be in the cards.

Is Microsoft’s Surface Pro X 5G Worth It?

Absolutely not. It’s a bafflingly underpowered device that’s being sold at a premium.

It’s incredibly well-built and wholly versatile as well, but that doesn’t warrant such an exorbitant price tag.

You can actually get better performance from a Surface Pro 7, so unless you absolutely want an ARM-based Windows device, don’t even consider whipping out your wallet and making the investment.

Unless, of course, you can purchase it at a severe discount.

Over to You

Are you interested in Windows on ARM and, if so, why? Let us know in the comment section down below and, in case you need any help, head over to our forum and ask away!

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Petar Vukobrat

I first sat down in front of a Pentium II in 1999 and it feels like I’ve been sitting in front of a computer ever since.

And, well, until mankind comes up with something better and more entertaining, that’ll keep being the case.

If you have any questions — or just want to talk about all things PC and Apple — leave a comment down below!


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