Microsoft is claiming this week that its hardware partners are “on track” to deliver the first ARM-based Always Connected PCs by the end of the year. Like many of you, I’m looking forward to this. And I’m curious to see how—or even if—Qualcomm can shake up the PC industry.
So what’s happening here? There seems to be a lot of misinformation—or at least misunderstand—around these two separate but related pushes.
As you may recall, Microsoft announced last December that it was partnering with mobile chip-making giant Qualcomm to port Windows 10 to the ARM platform that powers most smartphones and tablets. This isn’t another halfhearted port like Windows RT or Windows Mobile, however. It’s “full” Windows 10, including compatibility with (Intel-based) the Windows desktop applications that customers actually need.
The Qualcomm partnership is two-fold.
First, Qualcomm provides the leading ARM designs today, and Windows 10 is specifically being ported to the high-end Snapdragon 835 chipset, which has been shipping for months on various flagship Android handsets. That chipset is powerful enough to run the x86 emulation software that makes Windows desktop application compatibility possible.
Second, Qualcomm is the only ARM chipmaker that is big enough and powerful enough to offer a counter to Intel. This is important to Microsoft because AMD, despite a nice Ryzen push this year, has effectively disappeared from the market and no longer offers effective competition to Intel, a slow-moving behemoth that won’t innovate unless pushed. This is key to Microsoft, as it needs Windows 10 running on modern, reliable, highly-connected, and very portable hardware; that is not Intel’s strong suit.
We’ve only seen a handful of Windows 10 on ARM demos since that initial announcement. And we’ll need to collectively test a variety of hardware devices—ASUS, HP, and Lenovo are among the PC makers on board here—to see whether Microsoft’s promises are true. That is, will ARM-based Windows 10 PCs deliver the performance—especially with x86 desktop apps—that users expect from PCs and the battery life they expect from modern mobile devices? That’s an open question.
So let’s get to the misunderstandings. There are a few.
First, Microsoft is not making one or more new Windows product versions, or SKUs, that specifically target ARM. Instead, it has specifically said that it will port Windows 10 Home, Pro, and Enterprise to the platform. (This was last December, and the firm has since announced Windows 10 S, which will also be ported to ARM.) In other words, Windows 10 is Windows 10. And when you run, say, Windows 10 Pro on ARM, you get exactly the same capabilities as you when you run Windows 10 Pro on an x86 PC. Because it’s the same product. Boring, right?
Second, Microsoft in May announced something called the Always Connected PC initiative, which establishes a new class of portable PCs that include Embedded SIM (eSIM) capabilities for universal compatibility with cellular data systems worldwide. This initiative has been incorrectly tied to ARM by many because, after all, ARM chipsets—like the Snapdragon 835—do include integrated cellular data chips. It’s a natural fit.
Well, don’t be fooled by that: You will, in fact, be able to buy Always Connected PCs that run on both Intel and Qualcomm platforms. And there is a longer list of PC makers—ASUS, Dell, HP, Huawei, Lenovo, VAIO, and Xiaomi—that are known to be building Intel-based Always Connected PCs. You’ll have more choice on Intel than on ARM. Especially at first.
But there is a related issue to consider. It is Qualcomm, and not Intel, that has the expertise in this area. It’s mobile chipsets have offered integrated cellular data connectivity for years, after all. And more to the point, many PC makers—including Dell, HP, Fujitsu, Lenovo, Toshiba, Panasonic, and, wait for it, Microsoft—already offer Qualcomm cellular modems in their PCs. Because they’re the best in the business.
But the Snapdragon 835 still has the edge from a connectivity standpoint. Not only is this platform more efficient than anything Intel offers, but its cellular modem technology is better, too: The Snapdragon 835 features the Snapdragon X16 LTE modem, which supports Gigabit LTE for download speeds of up to 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps).
“That’s three to seven times faster than the average U.S. broadband speed,” Qualcomm says. “The Snapdragon X16 modem is designed to support an ‘Always Connected’ Internet experience that’s faster than most Wi-Fi networks in homes and offices.”
Can that type of connectivity speeds overcome any of the presumed slowness of emulated x86 code? Will these ARM-based Always Connected PCs deliver battery life that exceeds, hopefully dramatically, that of their Intel-based competition?
I cannot wait to find out.