Windows on ARM was supposed to deliver the best of the both worlds: the low power consumption, long battery life, and always-connected capabilities that come with ARM-based chips, and compatibility with millions of Windows applications.

In practice, it’s been more of a mixed bag. Not all Windows applications have been compatible, and performance hasn’t always been stellar.

But at least Microsoft is tackling one of those issues – the company has announced that the latest preview build of Windows 10 on ARM adds support for x64 emulation, which means that 64-bit apps designed for computers with Intel and AMD chips can now run on PCs like the Surface Pro X, which have Qualcomm Snapdragon processors.

Lenovo Flex 5G Windows 10 laptop with Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx

Emulation has been part of Windows on 10 on ARM since it first launched in 2017. But at first that only meant you could run 32-bit applications designed for x86 architecture. That was good enough for many older Windows applications, but it meant that newer apps that were only available in 64-bit versions wouldn’t run at all.

Now you can use those applications on Windows computers with ARM processors, although Microsoft notes that the feature is still in developer preview and that “both compatibility and performance” will improve over time.

That said, there’s some processing overhead involved in emulation, so any x86 or x64 apps that you attempt to run on a Windows on ARM PC will likely run more slowly than a native version of the app compiled for ARM processors. So Microsoft is encouraging developers to make those ARM-native apps.

Some developers, like Adobe, are doing it. Others? Not so much. So emulation will likely remain important for the foreseeable future.

That said, now that Apple has released the first MacBooks with ARM-based processors as the first step toward transitioning all of its Mac computers to ARM chips within the next few years, there’s much more reason for developers of desktop applications to start supporting ARM architecture. Whether developers who are busy porting their Mac apps to Apple Silicon will also take time to create and/or port Windows on ARM versions remains to be seen.



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2 replies on “Microsoft brings x64 emulation to Windows on ARM”

  1. I’m not one of those anti-Intel and pro-not-Intel folks but I think this is great news.

    Although, now that several benchmarks and real-world experience with Apple’s M1 MacBooks show how powerful and power-sipping the M1 is even when emulating x86, I’m hoping ARM vendors can keep up even a little bit.

    1. After seeing the M1 benchmarks running emulated x86 software and beating or on par with the 2020 Intel MacBook Pros let alone native software, I started hoping other ARM vendors could come up with at least a large percent of that for Windows devices. Then eventually see it get used in UMPCs that I like so much.

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