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The basic-black Lenovo Thinkpad X13s that I’ve used as my daily laptop this year could be taken for any other Windows machine, except for the hardware apostasy inside: It has a processor not based on the Intel-developed x86 (and now x64) architecture that’s been at the heart of PCs since the original IBM PC.
This Lenovo, like a small but growing set of laptops, instead has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 processor built off the Arm architecture that Apple now employs in processors across its entire computing lineup.
But where Apple has both coaxed developers to rewrite their apps for its Apple Silicon laptop and desktop processors and provided an emulation layer in macOS that runs apps developed for Apple’s older Intel processors with only a slight tax in performance, things haven’t progressed as smoothly on the Windows side.
So while I can’t often point to any issues with this ThinkPad that prove I’m running Windows on an Arm chip, the exceptions are hard to ignore, much less shrug off.
When It Works, It Works
The state of Arm-based Windows computing has advanced immensely since its 2012 debut on the original Surface tablet that ran “Windows RT”—which couldn’t execute x86-coded apps at all, one of the multiple failings that doomed that branch of Windows.
Eleven years later, with an app-emulation layer built into Windows 11 that supports both 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) Intel-architecture apps, it was easy for me to forget what processor hid below the ThinkPad’s keyboard. Apps that have yet to get an Arm rewrite—for example, Google Chrome, Slack, Netflix, Evernote, and Spotify—launched and ran, as far as I could discern with my own eyes, just as if this laptop had Intel inside.
“Microsoft deserves a lot of credit for significantly improving emulation of legacy x86 apps in the latest version of Windows,” says analyst Avi Greengart, president and lead analyst at Techsponential(Opens in a new window)—who has also been using a ThinkPad X13s. “My entire productivity workflow is now supported. That wasn’t the case just a year ago.”
Microsoft’s own Office apps and Edge browser, meanwhile, already offer Arm versions, and Qualcomm cites growing third-party support in such widely used apps as Photoshop (note: feature-incomplete(Opens in a new window)), Zoom, Disney+, and Netflix.
“These big momentum players are all really invested in the platform,” Rami Husseini, who leads product management for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon compute business, said in a video call staged in Microsoft Teams (an app that itself now has an Arm-native version). “You can start to see that inertia accelerate.”
Users like you, however, may overlook Arm-native apps if developers don’t tell you about them—or serve up an x86 version instead of an Arm release.
For example, Mozilla shipped a beta Arm version of Firefox in April 2019(Opens in a new window), months before Microsoft shipped a test release of Edge for Arm(Opens in a new window). But its website didn’t show off that advantage, and installing Firefox from the Microsoft Store on that ThinkPad yielded an Intel-architecture edition because Mozilla only posts x86 and x64 versions to that app store.
Downloading Firefox’s installer from Chrome or Edge also got Intel-spec versions of Firefox for a while afterward. A spokesperson for Mozilla said that should not have happened, and more recent installs via that standard method yielded the Arm edition.
Mozilla’s statistics show few people are enjoying its work to support multiple processor architectures. That spokesperson said about 57,000 people a month use the Arm release out of a monthly total of about 190 million browser clients(Opens in a new window).
One Massive Holdout
The browser that dominates on Windows, Google Chrome, has yet to offer even a test version for Arm on Windows, even though Google shipped an Apple Silicon version of that browser(Opens in a new window) on the same day in 2020 when Apple’s Arm-based processors debuted in the MacBook Air.
Sticking with Chrome out of habit on an Arm-based PC may be understandable, but it can inflict a nontrivial cost in battery life compared to Arm-native Edge.
With the ThinkPad set up under the same conditions each time—one browser and then the other streaming NASA’s live YouTube channel with the screen set at 50% brightness, the computer on a Verizon Wireless 5G signal via a hotspot, and the battery left on the Windows defaults—the laptop lasted for 9 hours and 13 minutes with Chrome running the test. With Edge? More than 2 hours longer at 11 hours and 44 minutes.
Two of Google’s lesser-known releases, meanwhile, didn’t work at all.
Nearby Share, the Windows app from Google that allows wireless file transfers between PCs and Android phones, was installed despite a warning of incompatibility. But then it did nothing except randomly surface a blank window in front of other apps.
The VPN app that Google provides to people who sign up for any of its Google One extra-storage plans, meanwhile, failed at the start of install attempts with an “Installation failed because your version of Windows is not supported” error.
Google did not answer two requests for comment. Greengart’s take: “Google is kind of a black hole; I can never predict when or even if they will fully update and support their products on any platform.”
Arm Upsides Can Be Vague
What do you get for making the effort to find Arm-native apps? Using apps like Edge, Firefox, or Office may not yield a perceptible speed boost, because browsing the web and editing a story or a spreadsheet aren’t particularly processor-intensive activities.
It doesn’t help that Qualcomm’s initial Snapdragon offerings for PCs haven’t been that fast—certainly not compared with the acceleration Apple delivered with its first M1 processors relative to the Intel CPUs that preceded them.
Lucky us, the HandBrake(Opens in a new window) video-conversion app—a key part of PCMag’s laptop-testing routine—allows for a direct comparison, using the Lenovo ThinkPad X13s, because that app comes in both x64 and Arm releases.
In our standard benchmark, converting a 12-minute 4K video to 1080p resolution, the Arm version of HandBrake needed 15 minutes and 6 seconds to do the job on the ThinkPad. The x64 version, meanwhile, suggested how much overhead processor emulation imposes with a 25-minute, 39-second time on the same laptop.
However, recent Intel-based laptops running the x64 build of HandBrake have needed from 7:24 to 10:49 to complete that test, looking at our recent HP Dragonfly G4 review.
Qualcomm says Arm shines brighter in applications that leverage generative AI for computing tasks—and can take advantage of the Hexagon processor in the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 platform.
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In that aforementioned Teams video call, Peter Burns, product and marketing lead for Qualcomm Snapdragon Compute, cited a demo of the image editor Luminar Neo at Microsoft’s Build 2023 conference in May. In that demo, the Arm release of that app zipped through a set of sharpening algorithms in 8.4 seconds(Opens in a new window), versus more than 2 minutes for the Intel architecture edition.
“You combine that performance delta with the efficiency, and it’s night and day,” Burns said.
Snapdragon laptops like the ThinkPad X13s also include their own 5G capability—although the appeal of that is a little less clear on a personal level, with a smartphone that includes its own mobile hotspot connectivity without needing an extra subscription. (Of course, features like this are intended primarily for enterprise and small business customers providing that connectivity to their staff.)
Qualcomm: Wait ‘Til Next Year
Microsoft has also touted Arm’s potential to accelerate AI-powered apps(Opens in a new window), and the company also points to recent and pending updates to such developer tools as its own Visual Studio and third-party releases like Python, Qt, and Unity Player.
The Qualcomm executives made the same point in the Teams call. “Think of it as building the building blocks that developers need in order to accelerate their app development,” Husseini said. “These [developers] are excited to have all the tools that they need.”
Anshel Sag, a principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy(Opens in a new window), underscores the importance of Microsoft putting its shoulder into making Arm a fully welcome processor architecture in Windows. “Developer critical mass has to be driven by Microsoft,” he writes in an email. “Windows is the primary operating system here, and developers need to be sure that Microsoft will make it as seamless as possible to build or port apps to Arm.”
Qualcomm is also anticipating a hardware upgrade: The Oryon processor that it talked up at last November’s Snapdragon Summit is planned for a reveal in much more detail at this year’s edition of that conference.
Oryon is set to be the first shipping hardware output of Qualcomm buying the chip-design firm Nuvia in 2021 for $1.4 billion. At the time, it said that Santa Clara, Calif., firm’s CPU expertise would help it catch up with Apple’s Arm achievements; Qualcomm now expects PCs to ship with Oryon chips in 2024.
Last September, Arm itself—as in the company that developed the Arm architecture below both Apple and Qualcomm’s new processors—sued Qualcomm over the Nuvia acquisition, saying Qualcomm would need to secure its approval for Nuvia to transfer its technology to its new corporate parent.
Asked about that, Husseini and Burns pointed to previous remarks from Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon about the lawsuit. For example, in May, Amon suggested at an investor conference(Opens in a new window) that Arm should want Qualcomm to succeed, saying, “At the end of the day, we’re their largest customer, and they’re suing their largest customer.”
Moor Insights’ Sag urges caution about expecting too much from Oryon’s debut, however. “My expectations are lower than most because it is a first-generation product, but it will still deliver ample performance with maybe less-than-ideal power,” he says. “We’ll see a much better result from the second and third generations of Oryon.”
In other words: You might be better off waiting until the year after next year to get in on Arm-based Windows laptops and tablets.
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