Windows 10 on ARM Compatibility Check-In

Posted on July 3, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 10 with 35 Comments

When Microsoft announced Windows 10 on ARM in December 2016, it touted the platform’s battery life and connectivity advantages. Left unsaid, of course, was that this platform’s compatibility issues would prove problematic for years to come: From the outset, Windows 10 on ARM (WOA) was designed to run 32-bit Win32/x86 desktop applications directly on the system, unchanged, via emulation technology. But it couldn’t run 64-bit applications at all, not even ARM64 apps. That capability eventually arrived, but we were told repeatedly that Win32/x86-64 app compatibility was impossible.

But the compatibility story was initially even more complicated than that. WOA couldn’t run entire classes of applications, including shell extensions. It couldn’t utilize x86 drivers, which is as big a problem as not running x86-64 apps. And it didn’t support Hyper-V virtualization.

As bad, the first generation WOA PCs were based on the woeful Snapdragon 835 SoC and the performance was abysmal, even on my Envy x2 review unit, which came with double the RAM (8 GB) that HP was offering at retail. That these PCs were further hobbled by Windows 10 S mode is, well, impossible to explain.

Ultimately, I found myself in an all-too-familiar position with WOA: My initial excitement was slowly chipped away by a steady drumbeat of bad news as the reality of this platform became clear. The problem with WOA, I wrote in April 2018, was that it existed solely because Microsoft wanted to goad Intel into doing better, but it was released too early, inflicting its performance and compatibility issues on early adopters.

By that August, I was trying to figure out when and how WOA could make sense as a shipping product. Microsoft and Qualcomm were working to move past the Snapdragon 835 to the 850 and then to something originally called the Snapdragon 1000, which was eventually rebranded to the 8cx. These evolutions of the hardware platform would improve the performance over time.

Well, the Lenovo Flex 5G I’m currently reviewing includes the latest version of this 8cx chipset, which now supports 5G networking too. And with this change, I feel like WOA is starting to make sense, at least from a performance perspective: Native performance is excellent, and in my early testing, emulated x86 performance ranges from excellent (Office) to fair (Visual Studio).

But compatibility has remained an ongoing concern, is still, as I noted in January 2019, “problematic.”

That said, there are signs of life. The new Microsoft Edge is available as a native ARM64 app now on WOA and users will simply get this version when they download it from or have it automatically update over legacy Edge via Windows Update. Again, it’s early, but Edge performance seems excellent on the Flex 5G, and everything—including extensions—just works. This is important because Windows users use their web browser more than any other app, so Edge being native bites off a big chunk of the compatibility complaint.

And by late 2019, there were rumors that Microsoft was working on bringing x86-64 app compatibility to WOA. Microsoft had hinted at this during the Surface Pro X launch, and then it confirmed the news in May. This support won’t allow WOA systems to utilize the broad world of x86 drivers, but it will at least let users install 64-bit applications like Photoshop. It’s a big deal.

And it can’t come soon enough. While I recently switched from Adobe Photoshop Elements to Affinity Photo—Photoshop had been perhaps my most problematic incompatible app on WOA—it turns out that this new app is also 64-bit only. So it won’t work on WOA either. Sigh.

But it’s instructive to look back on the compatibility issues I had with WOA two years ago and see what, if anything, has changed.

The Flex 5G ships with full Windows 10 Pro, with no S mode to be found. That alone is a welcome change.

Back then, I was using Google Chrome, and the installer correctly detected that it needed the 32-bit version, which worked but was a bit slow. Having a native ARM64 version of Edge instead of an emulated version is a huge improvement.

In 2018, I was using MarkdownPad 2, a 32-bit text editor, and I still use it now, but only for the book. It still works well on WOA, as does the emulated Microsoft Office suite. So that’s all good. (And I’m curious whether Microsoft can tell third-parties what it did to make Office feel native on WOA. Surely, there is some advice to be had there.)

I’ve been writing code again since last fall, so installed Visual Studio 2019 Community. This is a 32-bit app, so it works. But the performance is terrible, and my initial compile of the WPF version of .NETpad was breathtakingly slow. It was like watching a slow-motion video. But at least it worked. (And yes, the .NETpad app runs fine.)

I mentioned that Affinity Photo won’t even install. I’m not sure what I’ll do here, but most probably I’ll have to go with Paint.NET on this system.

One thing I didn’t write about two years ago was drivers. And this is interesting.

WOA relies on so-called class drivers, which are the drivers that Microsoft provides with Windows. For the most part, you should find that hardware compatibility is fine: You plug in a USB stick, a printer, a dock, or whatever, and it will probably work. The issue is with the driver packs that many hardware makers provide for their products. These things often include both the actual drivers, which won’t work in WOA, as well as special software that goes beyond the built-in capabilities in Windows.

An all-in-one printer, which combines printing with scanning and even faxing, is a good example. And since I have a few of these in the house, I thought that might be a good test. And it was: HP has a nice store app called HP Smart that is available from the Microsoft Store, and it seems to work fine under WOA. But if you dig deeper, you can see the issue: Basic printing, for example, is fine, but if you want to access more settings than the stock set, you only see the Windows interface with WOA.

On real Windows 10, you get HP’s much more thorough customizations.

To be clear, this isn’t a dealbreaker: The printing capabilities in WOA would probably meet most people’s needs, and it appears that scanning and faxing work normally in WOA too. But it’s kind of interesting to see the differences between how this works on “real” Windows and WOA.

With the ongoing caveat that it’s still early, I guess I’d say that WOA has improved over the past few years thanks to some great performance and compatibility improvements, but that there are still challenges that could make this platform unacceptable to many individuals. Like many of you, I’m sure, I wish Windows 10 on ARM would improve more quickly—seriously, it’s been three and a half years already—but this is good progress overall.

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Comments (35)

35 responses to “Windows 10 on ARM Compatibility Check-In”

  1. anoldamigauser

    Do all of the Office apps work? Specifically, does Access work?

  2. limafoxtrot

    Thanks for the update. There hasn't been a lot of sensible commentary on WOA over the last couple of years, and your articles on this were a major factor in my own decision making on where to go with this. I love the concept, and the user-profile fits me well - I needed a highly portable device for basic office tasks that I can take between multiple locations, with LTE and long battery-life. I don't create content on the the road, but I do lots of Office/teams/skype/zoom/citrix.

    But the price-point was pretty insane compared to similarly priced x86 machines, so only happy to jump in experimentally when I could pick up a second-hand c630 on the cheap (busted touch screen which I only occasionally regret, but USD240 shipped to Oz).

    My experience so far is that the pros comfortably outweigh the cons for my particular use-case (which is probably very common for the typical office-worker), and a significant factor in its favour has been the ability to use Edge/chromium websapps to run things like zoom/teams etc.. I've even managed to stay in windows S mode.

    I was nervous about the driver issues, but have hooked up to three network printers so far without any trouble. The only USB device that hasn't worked for me so far was a USB (gaming) headset, but given the headphone jack, that's not a major loss. I have a vague memory of having trouble with a USB audio interface, but not 100% sure about my memory of that...

    Only major gripes have been the absence of Citrix Workspace in a native ARM version. I've been working around that via a remote desktop connection, which is an extra and unwelcome step.

    In the end, my take is that if you know exactly what you do and don't need, and what WOA can and can't do well, and you find an acceptable price-point - then it's a reasonable choice.

    There are a lot of ifs in there, to be sure!

  3. wolters

    I have the Surface Pro X and it has actually been very good as far as compatibility. I had to hunt down the 32 bit version of PowerBI and GOG Galaxy is hit and miss when launching games but if you run the game directly, it works.

    All in all, WOA on the Surface Pro X has been impressive.

  4. nkhealthmedicalcare

    The smartest move from MS. One of the main problem of the MS is that they put things on the market that are half-baked

  5. stmorr82zw5zml

    I’m looking forward to the release of WOAFULS: Windows on ARM Full Underpinning Legacy Support. ?

  6. geoff

    This is exactly the lesson that the recent ARM GeekBench results for Apple (ARM dev kits) and Windows Surface Pro X highlighted.

    The Geekbench results show that ARM is now OK for real-world use. Not i7 or i9 level, sure, but very good. That's what we learned.

    (And yes, of course the benchmarks themselves are not entirely trustworthy. They never are. Geekbench in particular seems to be tweaked far beyond any practical usefulness purely to show that Intel's latest x86-64 processor is ever so slightly faster than the one it replaces. In the real world, no improvement is apparent, but Geekbench shows a few percent, somehow. Only "extreme tuning" for Intel will do that. Benchmarks are a joke.)

    Geekbench has not been 'optimized' for ARM on any OS, and it's - by design - pushing through some kind of emulation when running on ARM. Yes, we all understand that. The point is, that even after that, the results are still good enough.

    As of now, it's OK to buy ARM, and the Surface Pro X (and the Lenovo Flex 5G) is a viable device. I personally don't have one, but they sure look attractive right now. I don't need a new PC, but that's the one I'd get if I did.

    Apple knows it too, and has gone 'all in' with ARM. That's a big statement.

    Intel should be worried. A tipping point has been crossed.


    When microcomputers first came out, there were a lot of things they could not do yet like a full minicomputer.

    Patience was obviously going to be needed before I could leave the minicomputer behind and switch to a micro to do all the same things. It is the nature of the industry that we are always developing new compatibilities, and any transition takes time and work, but is done eventually.

    • Paul Thurrott

      Microcomputers, as you call them, also brought new and unique capabilities to the masses right away. Today, ARM-based PCs are functional subsets of what people can already do with existing PCs. The advantages of ARM---improved battery life and power management---just aren't on the same level as the era you're comparing it to. For the most part, people are trading real-world functionality (x86) for theoretical advantages (ARM). If the compatibility issue was gone, this would be a very different conversation. That that will/may happen someday doesn't matter today.
  8. Martin Sjöholm

    Super happy with my Surface Pro X with 16 GB RAM. I only do Office type of work on it, and as such it does a terrific job. Have no complaints at all. 1Password is a bit sluggish, and Teams occasionally crashes. My Surface Pro 5th gen had much worse performance, when connected to the workplace, strangely enough. I do use Affinity, but I'd go for my desktop gaming PC for that anyway, so not a miss for me. I can appreciate that quite a few people would be disappointed, though with the lack of certain apps they'd expect.

    • Paul Thurrott

      Sorry if it seems like I'm picking on you, but this is very typical of those defending using WOA today. "Have no complaints at all" = - 1Password is a bit sluggish - Teams occasionally crashes. - I do use Affinity [but I can do that on a different computer] So, no complaints. But three very real issues that would never happen on a real PC. Which, again, is my point: That one (or in your case, three) thing that would kill the experience for normal (i.e. "non-technical") users that just use this thing as the tool that it is.
    • omen_20

      In reply to RoundaboutSkid:

      That'd be fine if you were talking about the cheap Surface Go 2. Pro X with 16 GB of RAM starts at $1500. That is insane.

  9. codymesh

    Microsoft simply doesn't have the kind of vertical integration to force ARM compatibility down an entire developer's bases' throats and magically solve the compat problem.

    The progress on the software side is in line with where one can realistically expect, but at this point i'm actually more disappointed by the hardware coming with WoA. These devices are too expensive, they're not fast, and they don't deliver on insane battery life either. The f*ck?

  10. behindmyscreen

    In reply to red77star:

    You're a professional at crap posting on ARM aren't you?

    • red77star

      In reply to behindmyscreen:

      Last time I checked ARM turned to be a joke compared to my ThreadRipper...what can I do....say it is good? I am not sure what is such big deal about Apple version of ARM, they will never crack 10% of the desktop market. Not sure about Apple fans but I got no money to waste on toy devices. My real work happens in Windows / Linux using x86-x64 ThreadRipper along with Nvidia 2080 ti.

      If ARM was that good it would be powering new XBOX and PS5 but that is not the case. Do you know what powers PS5 and new XBOX to gives that awesome gaming experience? X86-X64 along with AMD GPU based on future NAVI2.

      I will keep professionally crapping at anything ARM which was around since 80s and it is still crap since then.

      • lvthunder

        In reply to red77star:

        You aren't comparing things that are meant to be compared. ThreadRipper is meant for pure performance. These ARM devices are meant to get good battery life. They have different goals. Someone who wants 15 hours of battery life isn't going to be looking at the ThreadRipper just like someone looking for pure performance isn't going to be looking at a Surface Pro X.

        ARM chips can be performance based as well. It was announced that the fastest super computer in the world was running an ARM chip.

        • red77star

          In reply to lvthunder:

          All I hear lately is bunch of people comparing new Apple silicon to x86-x64, let's measure it then. Fastest Super Computer means nothing, they had to add ton of cores to match and surpass can always throw more cores at it.

          Funny thing is that the latest Ryzen CPU for Mobile gives you good 10 hours of battery life having ~ performance of desktop x86-x64 part, it seems to me ARM is not that efficient if you really want to compare that.

      • Paul Thurrott

        Please stop posting your opinions as if they are fact. All you're doing is jumping into a conversation and ruining it for no reason. And you do it again and again and again.
        • red77star

          In reply to paul-thurrott:

          What I said, it is fact. ARM is joke compared to ThreadRipper, Ryzen or Comet Lake S in performance department. Is ARM better at power level, yes...but performance is not free. More performance, more power is needed and if you ask me x86-x64 is pretty damn good in 7nm AMD done and it is just getting better.

          Sorry Paul but new XBOX you will buy is powered by AMD Zen Variant 8/16 cores CPU with NAVI 2 GPU and similar specs PS5 is going to have as well.

          It is not ARM closed.

      • naddy69

        In reply to red77star:

        "I am not sure what is such big deal about Apple version of ARM, they will never crack 10% of the desktop market."

        Mac is approaching 30% share in the U.S., and is over 15% worldwide. It is no longer 2005.

  11. Jorge Garcia

    The smartest move for MS in my opinion is for them to, sure, keep polishing WOA (it is the future after all IMO), but also make a "dumb" parallel OS for the basic-needs consumer. Make it look kind of like Windows but under the hood it's really just Android/Google Play Store. Definitely don't call it Windows though. There would be zero reason why every laptop they sell couldn't come pre-loaded with BOTH operating systems. I give the end user enough credit to be able choose which OS launches at boot, all it would take is a brief explanation/choice screen. I also feel that the lion's share of end users would stay on the Android side permanently. Would Google ever allow this? Probably not, but it would give normal people a reason to buy a Windows laptop once again, other than inertia, which is what exists now.

  12. AwkwardSwine

    All of the Office apps work. What Office does to get near-native performance is a technology called CHPE. Compiled Hybrid Portable Executable. They build many of the core Office DLL's so that they contain both Intel and Arm native code. This makes a big difference in performance. To my knowledge Microsoft has not opened this CHPE process to third parties.

  13. glenn8878

    Lacking is a case to use it instead of remaining with Intel. Windows is just not mobile. Then there’s Apple’s superior implementation.

    • Paul Thurrott

      Windows is quite mobile. What does that mean? It's not less mobile than the Mac. Most Windows PCs are laptops.
      • glenn8878

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        Laptops are portable PCs, not mobile devices. WOA won't help much to make Windows mobile, otherwise Surface tablets would have shown the way as transition devices. Phones and tablets are mobile devices, but Surface Pro are clearly designed to be Laptop PCs instead of like an iPad. Windows is spinning it's wheels. Neither fish or fowl. This is just an example of an Intel power play. ARM Macs are not different, but at least we know there's a more credible bridge to be fully mobile if Apple takes the route, but Macs might not have touch. We already know this based on rumors.

  14. MikeCerm

    Microsoft really screwed the pooch when they decided to exclusively partner with Qualcomm for WoA. There was no reason to do so, since Qualcomm basically brings nothing to the table but cellular integration that virtually nobody needs in a laptop, and the Qualcomm "monopoly" tax meant that WoA devices would be priced like high-end devices, creating the perception that WoA is bad. It's not. It works great, compared to the average $200-300 laptop, where everything either has an slower Apollo Lake chip and 6-8 hours of battery life, or a pretty speedy i3 with 3-4 hours of battery life. If Microsoft had done what Google did and worked with Mediatek or Rockchip on some $400 laptops, they could have delivered performance that's a bit better than Apollo Lake and Pentium Gold and north of 10 hours of battery life. There would literally be nothing to complain about, and a lot of people would be happily using WoA devices as we speak.

    • brandonmills

      In reply to MikeCerm:

      I always thought Nvidia Tegra would have been the perfect partner. Move to ARM and retain a graphical advantage.

      • SWCetacean

        In reply to BrandonMills:

        Nvidia mostly stopped developing Tegra for PC/tablet-class devices though. Other than the Nintendo Switch and some TV boxes, Tegra looks to be mainly targeted at automotive applications. And the Tegra used for the Switch is several years old.

        Some of the old Windows RT tablets did use Tegra chipsets. I think the Surface RT 2 used Tegra 4. However, I think that by the time Microsoft was developing Windows 10 on Arm, Nvidia had already exited the tablet/consumer market for Tegra.

    • Jorge Garcia

      In reply to MikeCerm:

      I feel that A LOT of people want and/or need cellular support in their laptops. Tethering is an extra, annoying step, and it's not always easy to find a wifi hotspot you can readily use. If were a road warrior I would most certainly want to have LTE support built in to my laptop.

      • MikeCerm

        In reply to JG1170:

        You're wrong. I am a "road warrior" and there's almost nothing I can't do on my phone. If I need a PC, I remote desktop into one from my phone. The vast majority of people don't need built-in 4G because they only use laptops at home/school/work, places with Wi-Fi. They would take it if it were free, sure. But when you tell them it adds $100 to the cost of the laptop and then it's an extra $20/ or $50/ or $100/month (depending on carrier and usage) they're like, "nope, I'll just use Wi-Fi." I'm not saying that nobody needs it, just that it's something that 99% of people are not willing to pay for.

      • Paul Thurrott

        Honestly, I'm surprised it's not more common by now.
    • Paul Thurrott

      Actually, Microsoft chose Qualcomm because it is/was the biggest maker of CPUs on earth and it needed a company that could compete at scale with Intel. It was the obvious choice.
      • MikeCerm

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        Because of how overpriced the Qualcomm-powered WoA devices are, competing at scale is not an issue. They're guaranteed to sell so few, it doesn't matter how many they can make. Besides, Qualcomm doesn't actually "make" anything. They don't own any fabs. Any one of TSMC's other customers could just as easily compete with Intel at scale, the same way Qualcomm does. Another partner could have delivered 80% of the performance for 30% of the cost. Qualcomm does have some proprietary GPU and cellular tech, but their CPUs are only "lightly modified" ARM designs, and nothing that belongs in a $1000 laptop, or phone for that matter. Phones are a bit of different story because every mW counts a lot more. But even there, Qualcomm chips have made phones so unaffordable that mid-range phones are picking up a lot of mind share.

    • jimchamplin

      In reply to MikeCerm:

      Qualcomm is laughably bad at CPU design. They’re years behind Apple, and semiconductor design is their primary business. They just updated their smartwatch platform which replaces a pitiful 7-year-old design with a pitiful 3-year-old design. After their cheap, lazy approach killed the Android smartwatch industry, they release another insultingly bad update.

      Even the chip they “specially designed” for the Surface Pro X is slower than an iPad Pro chip running emulated x64 code. Qualcomm is like Intel if Intel was even more lazy and incompetent. But like Intel they’re big and have lots of money, which impresses other businessmen.

  15. jblank46

    I’d be curious to see what battery life looks like using a combination of native and emulated apps. Also comparing the 8cx vs SQ1 performance and battery life.

    • Paul Thurrott

      I don't have a Surface Pro X to compare (thanks, Microsoft). But I'll be looking at battery life over time, for sure.
  16. proftheory

    WOA should drop Intel support and just go with its own instruction set.

    • SvenJ

      In reply to proftheory: Then you are kind of back to Windows RT. That didn't work out so well.

    • jimchamplin

      In reply to proftheory:

      The presence of the compatibility layer doesn't affect the performance of native code. It's used via the same software interface as WOW64, which thunks 32-bit calls to 64-bit on x64 Windows. It's just that WOW64 in ARM Windows adds binary translation to the thunking.

  17. winner

    ONE of the big problems at Microsoft is that they put things into the market that are half-baked.

    Apple, in general, does a far better job of waiting until they've sweated the details.

    This is why I have confidence that the ARM Mac transition will go quite smoothly.

    Meanwhile, we saw the Kinect, the Band, the Kin, the Zune (welcome to the social!), Windows Phone (two major architectures later, but still not the same as Windows 8), and for Windows 10, we still have Win 95 icons, as well as both a Control Panel and Settings.

    The small stuff. That's what Microsoft can't seem to address.

  18. train_wreck

    Paul, have you used the Flex in work scenarios long enough to get an estimate on battery life? Apologies if this was posted elsewhere, didn’t see mention here or in the First Impressions article.

    Feels like it needs to have minimum decent battery. If battery life is less than stellar, and the price isn’t that low, and performance sometimes isn’t that great, AND drivers aren’t always there.....

  19. bradavon

    WoA is real Windows.

    I have a question please:

    I understand Microsoft 365 presents itself as x86 32-Bit for compatibility but is already ARM64. When x86 64-Bit support comes to Windows 10 will this also be ARM64 ready too? Looking to switch to 64-Bit Microsoft 365 if it won't be emulated. Thanks.