When Apple announced the M1 chip for the new Macs, many of us had a light bulb. It turns out that the ARM chips that had been used in our phones for so long too could make a lot of sense on laptops and even desktop PCs.
Some of us expected Microsoft, Qualcomm, Intel and AMD to move tokens and make announcements that might involve the adoption of ARM chips for laptops, but at the moment things are completely stopped. Qualcomm’s latest development miniPC is further proof that the interest of these semiconductor manufacturers and Microsoft itself for a Windows 11 on ARM is currently non-existent.
Is this it, Qualcomm?
From the big semiconductor manufacturers, Qualcomm has been the great hope since that Apple announcement to pose a rival to the M1 and their successors.
Those expectations are still a long way from being met. Qualcomm presented these days the Snapdragon Developer Kit, a miniPC based on a Snapdragon 7c —Not even its second generation, something more decent— aimed at developers who want to work on applications for Windows 10 on ARM or also Windows 11 on ARM.
The team is not even meant to compete with, for example, the Mac mini M1: while the latter is officially priced at 799 euros, Qualcomm kit costs $ 219 and it has a modest configuration based on the aforementioned Snapdragon 7c processor accompanied by 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage capacity.
This miniPC is not even intended for developers to build their Windows 10/11 ARM apps on it – it’s rather an easy way to test them, and this is one of the “notable” releases (with lots of quotes) in the field. Windows 10/11 for ARM make one thing clear: Microsoft (at least for now) cares little about this platform.
We still have high expectations with Qualcomm, however. The acquisition of Nuvia at the beginning of the year is promising, and in fact at Qualcomm they already said that They prepare chips that will leave behind Intel and AMD in laptops. Whether they deliver on that promise remains to be seen, of course.
Intel has Alder Lake, AMD is anyone’s guess
The truth is that the appearance of the new M1 Pro and M1 Max puts even more distance between what Apple poses for our PCs and laptops and what the Intel and AMD of a lifetime pose.
The current situation is curious: Intel and AMD seem to be totally confident that the x86-64 architecture is still the future of our computers, and their product sheets prove it. None of them seem to be concerned at all about Apple’s chips, which have managed to match or exceed the proposals of these two potential giants, but who have done so with astonishing energy efficiency.
At Intel, yes, they have taken a singular turn with Alder Lake, a family of processors that embraces the big.LITTLE philosophy and combines high-performance cores with high-efficiency cores.
The result is at the moment very different from that achieved by ARM’s M1 chips, and although there are certain reasonable similarities in Intel’s proposal, their performance and consumption are an evolution of what we had in previous Intel families: despite the fact that the focus has changed, we still have chips like the Core i9-12900K that they are very powerful, but they also consume a lot.
With AMD everything is unknown, and it does not seem that in principle the company is going to make major changes in its strategy. The focus will continue to be on processors with the x86-64 architecture (also called AMD64).
The appearance of ARM chips from AMD is, beware, a possibility. A few weeks ago rumors surfaced that Microsoft and AMD are working on an ARM processor for laptops which would be much more powerful than what we have seen in previous Windows on ARM devices.
It seems that Samsung could be involved in that effort, but at the moment almost all are promises in an initiative that certainly looks as interesting as the NVIDIA project, but that has everything to prove.
Microsoft does not say a lot (or maybe yes)
Of course, Microsoft does not seem to be willing to discover their cards, if they have any hidden in this regard. There have been hardly any mentions of Windows 11 in ARM although the version exists and brings seemingly sensible changes for developers.
In fact the news that arrives about the potential of Windows 11 in ARM makes it ironically of its rival. Some have used the new MacBook Pros with M1 Max chips to play Windows video games and check their performance, and those games ran on top of a virtual machine with a Windows 11 image on ARM.
The performance despite the complexity of that scenario was quite decent according to those tests – but beware, not all of them work and when they do they may not work fluently in other tests – and it shows that Windows 11 on ARM could perform very well with a suitable native chip.
That even taking into account that Microsoft itself recently emphasized again that using Windows on Macs with Apple’s ARM chips it was not an officially supported scenario by the company.
There are nonetheless clues that certainly favor a future push for computers with Windows 11-based ARM chips for ARM. The most important came from the launch of Windows 11 itself, which supports the installation and execution of Android applications.
This interesting option is allowed in Windows 11 through the Windows Subsystem for Android, and makes use of Intel Bridge technology, which as explained in Android Central makes use of a run-time compiler that is responsible for offering this possibility.
This component is necessary because Android applications, designed for ARM processors, and running on x86-64 processors must be “translated”. What about ARM chip-based Windows computers? That that translation is unnecessary, and Android support would be native.
That Microsoft has offered that option in Windows 11 could be a sign that these teams will end up appearing and (perhaps) that they will do so with many more features than the current ones. At the moment it seems that the future is far away and that the world of Windows-based PCs and laptops will continue to be the one we have now, but we will have to be vigilant, because there are signs that things could change.