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ARM based Computers Editorial

ARMs Race | Microsoft may be emulating 64-bit code on ARM based PCs soon

Microsoft’s initial reaction to the iPad was with Surface. It was thin, light and improved on many limitations the first few iPad models had.

It came with a built in kickstand, which meant it could be propped up by itself for watching movies or for Skype calls. It included a magnetic keyboard attachment for an impossibly thin and futuristic keyboard design, a full size USB-A port, mini HDMI and a magnetic power cable attachment called Surface Connect.

It came in two flavors one powered by Intel and the other powered by a chip architecture similar to the iPad. The Qualcomm Snapdragon powered Surface was paired with a new touch & gesture optimized OS called Windows 8 RT.

Windows Phone OEM Nokia built the Qualcomm Snapdragon powered Lumia 2520 a year after the first-generation Surface was announced. Both the Microsoft Surface and Nokia Lumia 2520 could be found at carrier stores offering an always-connected computing experience that some of us are just starting to experience today.

Microsoft’s Surface introduced a brand new form factor to convertibles. While many other convertible designs have been tried, abandoned or refined, it is the Microsoft’s Surface design that has withstood the test of time. The kickstand enabled the tablet to adjust viewing angles and the Touch Keyboard was impossibly thin but didn’t offer any key travel, instead utilized haptics to emulate key presses. There was an optional, slightly thicker ‘Type Cover’ keyboard that utilized a low profile butterfly design instead.

While the ARM powered Surface was before its time, it would struggle to find market success, even with the introduction of the Surface 2 it was later was replaced by an Intel Atom-powered Surface 3 in March of 2015. Microsoft seemed to hibernate Windows on ARM for a time, while it continued with Windows on mobile phones and ‘Continuum’ which enabled you to utilize your Windows 10 mobile phone as a desktop PC.

Related Reading: ARMs Race | Series

In 2017, Microsoft re-introduced Windows on ARM with some significant advancements. This time Windows 10 on ARM was able to emulate 32-bit code which means you could install 32-bit .exe (x86) programs like your favorite web browser, or PC software like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Those programs would run a little slower in emulation but was an amazing feet none the less.

Like the original Windows on ARM, the new generation devices unveiled in 2017 were powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 and featured built-in cellular connectivity and could used with most mobile carriers. The HP Envy X2 was especially remarkable, ultra thin, 1080p display, all-day battery life, an ingenious keyboard case with an included kickstand that doubled as a cover and an included pen.

There were two drawbacks with Windows 10 on ARM in 2017, the Snapdragon 835 and the fact you could not install 64-bit applications. The 835 was a phone processor and when compared to a PC was similar to an Intel Atom powered laptop. If you were using apps designed for ARM you never noticed any performance limitations. The problem was that while 64-bit applications only accounted for a small number of apps, for some people that needed specific apps, they couldn’t make the jump to an ARM-powered PC yet.

Even in 2018 with the introduction of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 and devices like Samsung’s Galaxy Book 2 the x64 app limitation remained. But the 855 boosted performance which made emulation of 32-bit apps faster and improved the Always Connected PC experience overall.

The Galaxy Book 2 is Samsung’s answer to the Surface Pro - The Verge
Samsung Galaxy Book 2 powered by a Snapdragon 855

In 2019 Microsoft returned to the first-party ARM powered tablet space with a new Surface, the Surface Pro X. This time Microsoft had laid the foundations a few years prior to unveiling Surface Pro X.

Microsoft had worked with Qualcomm to design a custom Snapdragon 8cx chip and called it ‘SQ1’ (Surface Qualcomm 1). It featured an 7nm octa-core processor running at 3.0 GHz with a 2 teraflop capable Adreno 685 GPU, with RAM options started at 8GB with up to 16GB available.

Surface Pro X was impossibly thin, featured an ingenious pen charging cradle on the keyboard, a 13″ PixelSense display packing 2880 x 1920 pixels with slim bezels and gigabit LTE. The true pinnacle of what Windows 10 on ARM offers embodied in one device.

Surface Pro X

13″ Touch-Screen – SQ1 – 8GB Memory – 128GB Solid State Drive – Wifi + 4G Lte – Matte Black

But still the 64-bit app limitation remains. To put that in context, we recently picked up a Surface Pro X and featured it in our recent article about Microsoft’s XCloud App for PC’s, running on our Surface Pro X. We would like to utilize Affinity’s Photo and Designer apps on it but they are only offered in x64 flavors.

Yes it is true that we could utilize Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator as they make 32-bit versions of their apps available but their subscription model is quite expensive when you consider each Affinity app is only $50, or if you get it at 50% off like it is now, it is much cheaper than Adobe’s monthly subscription. There are other apps some people need that are only offered in the 64-bit flavor, so for them Windows 10 on ARM is not an option yet.

Fast forward to today, according to Twitter user @never_released, they noticed mentions for x64 code emulation on ARM64 processors. The architecture will reportedly be called ARM64EC, for x64_64 on ARM64 machine type.

Related Reading: ARMs Race | Series

The commit is dated march 2020 and was posted by Kenny Kerr an Engineer on the Windows team at Microsoft.

Lenovo Yoga 5G, powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx and X55 5G modem

This is proof that there is work being done to support x64 app emulation for ARM64 PC’s, but currently no timeline.

OEM’s continue to build Windows 10 on ARM PC’s with a wider variety of chips available like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx, 8c and 7c. The 8cx is currently utilized in a handful of device like the Samsung Galaxy Book in the image below.

The 7c in particular could enable low cost always connected LTE PC’s and all-day battery life to help bridge the broadband gap during and after the pandemic.

Perhaps we will learn more about x64 app emulation on ARM64 PC’s at Microsoft’s Build Conference on Tuesday the 19th.

How many of our readers have an ARM powered Windows PC now or would get on if it could emulate x64 apps? Let us know in the comments below.

Surface Pro X

13″ Touch-Screen – SQ1 – 8GB Memory – 128GB Solid State Drive – Wifi + 4G Lte – Matte Black