If the public has yet to embrace non-x86 Windows PCs, it’s not for want of the industry’s trying. The concept of a low-power, always on PC (like a phone, but with a bigger display and better input method) has been around for years without quite being able to grab a foothold with buyers. But the latest version, the Lenovo 8cx 5G, which was announced at Computex in 2019, is the best attempt so far and heralds a maturing presence likely to begin to make a dent in the market this year.
The first go at a Windows-on-ARM PC was back in 2011, when Microsoft dedicated a version of Windows 8 to ARM architecture. It was called Windows RT and ran only in 32-bit mode. Lacking much in the way of application software, Windows RT was retired after only two years with just Microsoft’s own Surface 2 and a Nokia system to show for all the effort.
After a few years to let the bad taste rinse out of its mouth, the industry took another shot. In December 2016, Microsoft and Qualcomm announced the new effort at Microsoft’s WinHEC show in Shenzhen. By that time, Qualcomm had brought to market a more powerful application processor — Snapdragon — and Windows 10 was becoming the dominant version of Microsoft’s platform. The 10nm Snapdragon 835, already powering high end smartphones from Samsung and Sony, was to be the little engine that could. Despite the early promise of this initiative — it ran “full” Windows and boasted LTE download speeds — it also ran aground on tepid industry support and a lack of consumer interest.
Which brings us to today. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 850 addresses the performance hurdles that tripped up the 835, and Microsoft has committed real resources to the effort. Lenovo’s Yoga C630 flexible convertible and Samsung’s Galaxy Book2 2in1 convertible sport Windows 10 on the 850.
Why should this time around be any different from that past? One thing the ARM-based systems have to overcome is the inertia of the existing PC ecosystem. Intel’s x86 architecture (also used by AMD) has been the base for PCs since their inception in the early 1980s, and a ton of hardware and software has been optimized for the platform. Also, the entire PC supply chain has been handling x86 parts and systems for decades. To get anyone to try something new, it has to be demonstrably better than whatever they’re used to. Otherwise, there’s no reason to take the risk.
The state of play looks something like this: 850-based systems clearly have superior battery life, boasting around 18 hours in “real-world” settings. The performance of these machines is also up. Whereas the 835-based systems were compared unfavorably to Intel’s low-end Celeron chips, the 850 is a good match for Intel’s Core i5 line, essentially the midrange of the top lineup. Software issues remain. Microsoft has ported many, but by no means all, apps to run on ARM natively, including Office, Minecraft, Spotify, and Netflix. Most recently ARM announced support for Electron, which, among other things, lets Windows-on-ARM programmers produce a nearly native Chrome browser experience. But there’s still a gap.
On the plus side, x86-based systems need to go to sleep and wake up to preserve battery life, while Snapdragon-based devices can drop to low power without going through the sleep-wake cycle. This advantage allows an instant-on PC experience much like that of a smartphone. The two types of hardware makers expected to bring Window-on-ARM devices to market this year are the traditional PC hardware OEMs (firms like Hewlett-Packard, Asus, Dell) and smartphone companies that also make PCs (e.g., Samsung, LG, Lenovo). The former are mostly sticking to tried-and-true clamshell designs, while the latter are aiming for innovative convertibles.
In order to get the ecosystem to crank over and catch, Qualcomm is undertaking a broad jump-start initiative. Although it may be difficult to convince hardware vendors to design systems for a market that barely exists, the same is not true for the carriers. As of this writing, 19 carriers around the world, including major European firms like Telefónica, Swisscom, and Telecom Italia as well as both Verizon and AT&T in the United States, have signed up to distribute always-on PCs. It turns out that carriers have discovered that the more devices people put on their data plans, the stickier their relationship is. Operators like AT&T and Verizon now carry Windows-on-ARM devices in company stores, and, in some weeks, sell more of them than traditional brick-and mortar-retailers like BestBuy.
It may be that the 5G era will be kinder to Windows-on-ARM PCs. Qualcomm sees a bright future for them, particularly among large enterprises, which could substitute private 5G networks for existing wired connectivity. Richer configurations will help, and more device makers are expected to come to market this year and next. It is rumored that, in order to stimulate design in the space, even Microsoft may, à la Surface, come up with its own version.
The positioning of these systems is key. The public could easily embrace a device that acts like a smartphone (always on, long battery life), has all the software anyone could want, but features a much bigger screen and better user interface.