Is the Windows Arm version ready for macro photography?


Indications are that Qualcomm's Snapdragon

For those who haven't been keeping track, this will allegedly be Qualcomm's first Arm processor for Windows PCs that does for PCs what Apple's M-series chips did for Macs, promising better battery life and performance than equivalent Intel chips. This would be a departure from previous Snapdragon chips for PCs, which performed worse than (or, at best, similarly to) current Intel options, barely improved battery life, and came with a host of software incompatibility issues to boot.

Early leaked benchmarks look promising for the Snapdragon

Rumors suggest that Microsoft's flagship Surface tablet this year will switch to using Qualcomm's Arm chips exclusively instead of selling Arm and Intel versions side by side (there's an Intel Surface Pro 10, but it's only sold to enterprises). Microsoft has tried to make Arm Windows happen multiple times. But this time it seems different.

A brief history of Arm Windows

The first public version of Windows to run on Arm processors was Windows RT, a compatible fork of Windows 8 that launched on a few devices in late 2012.

Windows RT came with significant limitations, most notably the complete inability to run traditional Windows x86 desktop applications, as all applications had to come from the Microsoft Store, which was much more sterile than it is today. There was no x86 compatibility mode at all.

This limitation was probably due in part to the limited, low-performance Arm hardware available at the time. Arm processors were still mostly 32-bit, with slow processors and GPUs, 32 or 64GB of slow flash storage, and only 2GB of memory (at the time, 4GB was generally considered adequate for a PC, and 8GB was spacious). Even if you have an x86 app compiled, the compiled apps will feel bad since Arm hardware actually struggles to run native embedded apps consistently well.

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Asus VivoTab RT, is one of the few Windows RT-powered tablets released during the Windows 8 era.
Zoom in / Asus VivoTab RT, is one of the few Windows RT-powered tablets released during the Windows 8 era.

Andrew Cunningham

Windows RT died the death it deserved; It never worked on many devices, and those that did had completely disappeared from the market by 2015 or so. But the technical foundations of the operating system are still relevant today.

As detailed by then-Windows President Steven SinofskyMicrosoft has done significant work to define the Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL), ACPI firmware, and base class drivers for the Arm version of Windows so that the operating system can install and run as expected on a wide range of standard Arm hardware in the same way it did on a PC. x86 is completely unified. (Compare this to Google's Wild West approach to Android, which to this day cannot install core operating system updates or security updates without specific intervention from chip makers and hardware manufacturers.)

These were key elements that Microsoft could reuse for Windows 10, which first arrived on Arm devices in 2017 with support for 32-bit x86 app compilation. This version of Windows-on-Arm was more of a technical demo than the dawn of a new era, but it came close to becoming what Windows-on-Arm needed to succeed: a direct replacement for the x86 version of Windows, where the two versions were indistinguishable to Too much for non-technical users.

The next big step on this path came in 2020 when Microsoft announced Preview of compiling 64-bit Intel applications for Arm computers, though the final version ended up being a Windows 11 exclusive when it launched in late 2021 (leaving behind, by the way, that first wave of Windows 10 Arm PCs with the Snapdragon 835 — another case where… Early adoption in this ecosystem led to dead-end users). Developers also got an easier way to access Arm when Microsoft started Allowing them to mix x86 and Arm code in the same application.

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This brings us to where we are now: an Arm version of Windows that still has some compatibility gaps, especially regarding third-party accessories and specialized software. But the vast majority of productivity apps and even games will now happily run on the Windows Arm version, without requiring user or developer intervention.

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