On the one hand, Microsoft’s move to bring Windows 10 to an entirely new chip architecture is one of the most exciting things to happen in the mobile computing space in years. On the other hand, early reviews of the Windows-powered HP Envy x2 and Asus NovaGo leave me wondering who exactly the target market for the first Windows 10 computers with Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chips would be.
The Asus convertible laptop is priced at $599, and the HP tablet with a detachable keyboard costs $999.
The good news is they reportedly offer stellar battery life and always-connected features thanks to their integrated 4G LTE modems. But they also seem to offer the kind of CPU performance you’d expect from a $200 laptop, not a $1000 computer.
Maybe we shouldn’t think of these devices as traditional Windows computers at all, but as a new category of devices that just happen to be able to run some legacy apps when you need them. But the truth is that anything you can do on a Windows on ARM PC, you can also do on PC with and Intel or AMD chip… Probably faster (although maybe with a few less hours of battery life).
It might not seem fair to compare a device with a Snapdragon 835 processor to one with a Core i7 chip, but if you’re considering whether to spend $1000 on an HP Envy x2 or $1,100 on a Lenovo Miix 720, I think it makes sense to expect similar performance.
But after running a bunch of benchmarks, the folks at TechSpot figured it makes more sense to compare Windows 10 devices with Snapdragon 835 chips to those with Intel’s entry-level Celeron Apollo Lake processors. You know… the kind that you can find in $300 laptops. And even then, the Apollo Lake chips come out ahead in most performance tests.
Windows 10 on ARM can run apps that are natively compiled for ARM-based chips, including the Microsoft Edge web browser. And when running those applications, TechSpot notes that a Snapdragon 835 chip seems to be roughly equivalent to an Intel Celeron N3450 quad-core Apollo Lake processor.
But most popular Windows applications aren’t natively compiled for ARM, so Windows 10 on ARM uses emulation to let you run 32-bit x86 applications. The first thing to keep in mind is that there’s currently no support for 64-bit x86 apps. The second is that not all 32-bit apps will run either. And the third is that those that do run are a lot slower than native apps.
For example, here are some scores TechSpot got for Google’s Octane 2.0 browser benchmark:
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 with Edge (ARM native) browser: 10,712
- Intel Celeron N3450 with Chrome (x86) browser: 10,629
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 with Chrome (x86) browser: 3,500
In other words: run native apps and you get the kind of performance you’d expect from a cheap laptop, for 2-3 times the price. Run x86 apps that require emulation and you get significantly worse performance… if you can run those apps at all.
TechSpot also has results from benchmarks including PCMark, Cinebench, x.264 HD, Handbrake, and Photshop that tell a similar story. In fact, the Envy x2 with a Snapdragon 835 is astonishingly bad at rendering phots and videos, taking up to 4.5 as long as a Chuwi Lapbook Air with a Celeron N3450 chip to apply an iris blur effect effect in Photoshop.
Interestingly, the Envy x2 is a bit faster than the Lapbook Air when it comes to file compression using Winrar or 7-zip. I wonder if part of the reason is that the HP tablet has faster storage.
Despite all of this, there are still some reasons to be excited about Windows on ARM. It really does seem to offer better battery life and lower power consumption, which allows for smaller computers with fanless designs that you might only have to charge every few days.
But if you want the best performance, you’re probably going to want to stick with native ARM apps… which is probably why all of the first-gen Windows on ARM computers will ship with Windows 10 S rather than the full version of Windows 10. By limiting you to installing only apps that come from the Microsoft Store, Microsoft is basically ensuring that you’ll get the best possible performance from the apps you can install.
Still, one of the key differentiators between Windows 10 on ARM and the now-defunct Windows RT is that you can run x86 apps on computers with ARM processors now. You just need to switch/upgrade from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro… and doing that will probably make the limitations of the new software a lot more clear.
If Microsoft can encourage more developers to create Universal Windows Platform versions of their apps so that they have native support for ARM processors, I guess I could see some folks paying a premium price for long battery life and always-connected capabilities… even if CPU performance is stuck at Apollo Lake-like levels.
But Microsoft’s been trying to attract developers to create Windows Store/Microsoft Store versions of their apps for years, with limited success. It’s not clear that things will change anytime soon. So it’s not clear if Windows 10 on ARM will become more useful anytime soon.
Then again, I guess there are three other things that could help:
- Cheaper Windows on ARM computers
- Faster ARM processors with more competitive performance
- Windows on ARM optimizations
The first Windows on ARM computers to ship are already using dated tech: they’re powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 processor, which is last year’s flagship. Newer phones are already shipping with a more powerful Snapdragon 845 processor. Maybe that chip will offer better Windows performance… if device makers decide to stick with the platform long enough to try upgrading their chips.
As for lower prices, I suspect that if the Asus NovaGo, HP Envy x2, and Lenovo Miix 630 experience sluggish sales, we could eventually see price cuts. But if companies end up selling them below cost, that doesn’t provide much incentive to produce follow-ups.
I think if we really do start to see cheaper Windows on ARM devices, they’re likely to feature cheaper processors, like the Rockchip and MediaTek chips that are used in low-end Android tablets and Chromebooks.
We could also see devices with lower-quality displays, cheaper build quality, and other cost-cutting measures. But I’m not sure that would make Windows on ARM computers more attractive.
Finally, it’s possible that Microsoft could roll out future software updates that improves the performance of Windows on ARM, particularly when it comes to emulation. I don’t know if that will happen, but there’s always a possibility that the expensive Windows 10 on ARM devices hitting the streets today will become more useful over time through software updates… something we regularly see happen to devices that ship with Google’s Chrome operating system, for example.