The first two Windows 10 computers with ARM-based chips are already available, and the third should go on sale any day now. But early reviews suggest that the Asus NovaGo, HP Envy x2, and Lenovo Miix 630 are hampered by software limitations and relatively slow performance.
At least part of the issue is that they all ship with Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processors, which may have been a state-of-the-art smartphone chip when it launched in 2017, but it’s relatively pokey by PC standards… especially since it has to emulate x86 architecture to run some apps.
This year PC makers are expected to launch the first Windows 10 devices with Snapdragon 845 chips, and it looks like the next-gen processor could bring a big performance boost.
Recent entries in the Geekbench database suggest computers with Snapdragon 845 chips could score around 25 higher in multi-core CPU tests, and about 40 percent higher in single-core CPU tests.
It’s always a good idea to take synthetic benchmarks with a grain of salt, since they’re not always representative of real-world performance. That’s especially true when we’re talking about unreleased products: it’s possible that software and hardware changes that roll out before these devices hit the streets (if they ever do) could have a big impact on performance.
That said, as WinFuture noted when it first spotted these benchmark listings, it looks like not only is the Snapdragon 845 chip more powerful than last year’s Snapdragon 835, but it looks like PC makers are running it at higher clock speeds than smartphone makers.
Most phones that use the chip have top speeds of 2.8 GHz. An unannounced Lenovo computer has the octa-core chip running at speeds up to 2.96 GHz.
While a 40 percent performance boost sounds exciting, it’s worth keeping in mind that Qualcomm’s chips have a long way to go before they catch up to Intel and AMD’s latest processors, at least in terms of raw horsepower.
I went looking for another processor that offered similar Geekbench scores, and the closest I could find was the Intel Pentium N4200, which is a low-cost, low-power quad-core processor based on Intel’s Apollo Lake architecture. It was released a few years ago and is regularly used for low-end laptops like the Lenovo IdeaPad 120S, which has a list price of $250, but which often sells for even less.
Windows 10 on ARM computers, by comparison, currently have prices that start at $599 and go up from there.
There are some advantages to Windows on ARM. These computers tend to be very energy efficient, offering long battery life and thin-and-light designs. They’re also considered “always-connected” PCs, since they have integrated support for 4G LTE data networks, allowing you to stay online when you leave the comfort of your home or work WiFi network. And, like smartphones, they can enter a low-power state when the screen is off, while continuing to receive notifications and other updates.
They can’t run 64-bit apps designed for x86 architecture though. Microsoft recently released an SDK that makes it easy for developers to port those apps to ARM64 architecture so they can run natively on Windows 10 on ARM. But it’ll be up to developers to decide whether to do that… which creates a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: there’s not a lot of incentive for Windows developers to ensure their apps are compatible with ARM unless there are a lot of people using these new computers. But there’s not much reason for people to use these computers unless they support all the apps users want to run.
That’s a problem that’s less serious today than it was a number of years ago when Microsoft trotted out Windows RT, an operating system that could only run apps that were specifically compiled for ARM architecture (and which could only be downloaded from Microsoft’s app store). Supporting Win32 x86 apps through emulation helps reduce the size of the app gap. But emulation uses more resources than running native apps, 64-bit x86 apps aren’t natively supported, and in the end I still have to wonder if you might not be better off just buying a computer with an Intel Celeron or Pentium processor for less than half the price of a Windows 10 on ARM PC?
Or maybe Microsoft and Qualcomm have a few more tricks up their sleeves that we can’t see from benchmark tests alone. I’d like to be pleasantly surprised.
Perhaps we’ll hear more from the companies soon… the annual Computex computer show is just over a week away.