Hands-On with Windows 10 on ARM x64 Emulation

Posted on December 11, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Windows 10 with 75 Comments

Apple’s ARM-based M1 chipset has thrown the Windows community into a tailspin, given the failure to date of Windows 10 on ARM (WOA). But this week, Microsoft took a major step toward fixing one of WOA’s biggest problems when it introduced the first pre-release version of x64 app emulation. How does it measure up?

It will be a while before I can evaluate an M1-based Mac: I’ve traded in my 2020 (Intel-based) MacBook Air and am awaiting the Apple gift card I’ll get in return so that I can order one. (Most likely a Mac Mini with 16 GB of RAM, but we’ll see.)

But what I can do is see how this improves the application situation on WOA. And do so using a PC, the Lenovo Flex 5G, that is powered by a modern Snapdragon 8cx 5G system on a chip (SoC).

I reviewed this PC in mid-summer, noting that its great battery life, 5G connectivity, and versatile convertible form factor were, unfortunately, undone by its terrible performance and software compatibility, and its expensive pricing. Fortunately, I have my own shortcomings, among them procrastination: I should have sent the Flex 5G back to Lenovo by now, but since I didn’t, I can at least see what Microsoft’s first stab at x64 emulation for WOA looks like.

Before getting to that, let’s review what I see as the three key problems with WOA, two of which are fatal. Listened in reverse order of importance, they are:

Driver compatibility. WOA-based PCs cannot take advantage of any x86/x64-based drivers, like those that hardware makers ship with scanners, printers, mice, keyboards, and so on. I describe this as the least problematic WOA problem because the platform does come with what Microsoft calls class drivers, so most peripherals will still work. They just won’t give you any of the custom capabilities that the manufacturer might provide. So for some, this could be hugely problematic. But for most people, it’s probably not a huge issue.

Performance. WOA systems have struggled since the beginning, and after what I’ll call 3.5 generations of Qualcomm chipsets, performance has definitely improved, just not enough: Even the most modern WOA-based PCs, like the Flex 5G, are sluggish. The good news? This is a solvable problem, and while I can’t accurately predict when some combination of hardware and software improvements finally puts WOA over the top, at least for mainstream users, that will definitely happen. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Application compatibility. This is WOA’s Achilles Heel. When this platform first launched, WOA could run 32-bit x86 applications in emulation, but very slowly, and ARM32 applications natively, though there were none to few available. Over time, Microsoft added 64-bit ARM64 support to the platform, and this year it finally admitted that it was working to add 64-bit x64 emulation to WOA. That’s what we’re looking at today: The ability of this ARM-based platform to install and run 64-bit Intel-type applications.

Looking at that list, you can see why adding x64 support is so important, even if it’s slow at first. As I’ve observed in the past, slow is better than not working all, and the performance issues are solvable. Just running the applications that users rightfully expect of anything named Windows is thus job one. And so here we are.

Well, here we are finally. Just installing the Windows Insider Preview build that enables this feature was time-consuming, and it didn’t help that I experienced a “green screen of death” (the Insider version of the blue screen of death) while I was trying to install the build. The slow pace of the install isn’t entirely WOA’s fault—Insider builds often take a long time to install, even on x64 systems—but I was reminded of the leisurely performance of this particular PC in getting it ready.

Anyway, after an afternoon of slowly installing the new build, I signed-in and then installed the two prerequisites suggested by Microsoft: A preview version of a  new Qualcomm Adreno graphics driver specifically designed for the Flex 5G and a preview version of the ARM64 C++ redistributable. Then, after a reboot—I wasn’t prompted, I just thought it was prudent—I opened up Microsoft Store and displayed the list of applications I’d previously purchased and installed. There are two key x64 apps in the Store that won’t normally appear when viewed on a WOA-based PC (because the Store filters out incompatible apps): Adobe Photoshop Elements (I’ve purchased versions 15 and 2020) and Affinity Photo. Both now appear in the Store.

So that’s good. I then installed each application, of course, though I’m only using Affinity these days.

Affinity installed more quickly, which makes sense as it’s the (much) smaller application. So I ran that immediately and, perhaps not surprisingly, the performance is very slow. The application takes a long time to start, and operations within the application—like loading a file, or even displaying some menus and dialogs—are likewise slow.

But it does work, and that’s huge. After all, this PC is slow even when running native applications. Of course it’s going to run emulated x64 apps slowly. So it’s pokey. But it gets there.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 2020 was also slow, of course. It’s a beast of an application, after all. Just setting it up for first-time use was slow, and then launching what I think of as the application—the Photo Editor bit—took somewhere between 45 and 60 seconds to even display the first time.

But I was pleasantly surprised by the performance: Elements seemed to just work normally, and my normal image load, cropping, and exporting workflow proceeded normally. Nice. (One wonders if Microsoft somewhat prioritized for Photoshop Elements, given its popularity.)

OK, this wasn’t a particularly comprehensive test. But even in this early state, x64 emulation on WOA seems to achieve its goals. And in doing so, Microsoft has finally, after three long years, eliminated the single most debilitating problem with this platform. In doing so, it only has one other major hurdle to pass, general performance, which, again, seems like a solvable problem. WOA, finally, is on the path to being viable.

And that, folks, is great news.

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