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I'd given up, but the Snapdragon X launch may have saved Windows on Arm

I've tried to use Windows on Arm laptops on and off for years, but Snapdragon X finally looks like the real deal.

Published onJune 9, 2024

Windows logo on laptop stock photo (17)
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

If you’ve tuned into Computex this week, the headline act has been the debut of numerous Windows on Arm laptops powered by Qualcomm’s long-awaited Snapdragon X Elite and X Plus platforms. You might not think it based on the launch hype, but this exclusive collaboration between Microsoft and Qualcomm to bring Arm energy efficiency to Windows is actually entering its seventh year. Finally, the long-touted (if not a tad overblown) benefits of leaving x86 behind seem to have arrived.

I’ve dipped my toes into the Arm project on a couple of occasions. First with 2018’s Lenovo Mixx 630 powered by 2017’s flagship smartphone-class Snapdragon 835 processor. Performance was pretty poor for laptop use cases, with sluggish multi-tasking and poor emulation of non-Arm-based applications. The ecosystem of native Arm apps was absolutely rubbish back then, severely limiting the platform’s appeal. I still have this little 2-in-1 around, but it’s such a slog to use that it’s sat collecting dust. Still, those were the early days, and Windows on Arm would eventually improve.

Fast-forward to 2020, and I spent more time with the Surface Pro X — this time powered by Qualcomm’s original laptop-first Snapdragon 8cx chipset. Performance was still far more mid-range than top-of-the-line, but the ever-improving software setup made this a Windows on Arm machine that I could almost use for most of my daily work. Think of a premium Chromebook but with Windows instead of ChromeOS. Unfortunately, I needed image editing, too, which the original Surface Pro X could only handle at a snail’s pace. Still, I’ve kept this guy around as a plucky media player and web-browsing tablet, and it still runs pretty well today. Subsequent 8cx revisions made the platform a fair bit more powerful, but 4G/5G networking, fanless designs, and above-average battery life remained the real draws.

Are you interested in laptop AI capabilities?

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Arm-PCs were sluggish and lacked that killer app. That's all changing this year.

But even in the past couple of years, there hasn’t been a hugely compelling reason to jump to the Arm landscape over the familiarity of Intel and AMD. Yes, battery life and connectivity are slightly better on the few Arm products available. Still, they’ve been overpriced, and there has only ever been a comparatively small selection of products from which to choose. While the native app and emulation situation has improved to the point that it’s no longer a major problem (though it is still not ideal), few would take the risk and stick with hardware that is known to work flawlessly. Unlike Apple, which has successfully moved over to Arm with its M-series processors, Qualcomm’s chips haven’t offered competitive high-end performance, making them more suited to lighter office tasks than creative work. Despite seven years of effort, there still hadn’t been a compelling reason for joe public to buy in. Even an enthusiast like me abandoned any hope of using such a laptop as my daily diver in recent years.

However, that’s all changed with Snapdragon X, which may have single-handedly kept Windows on Arm from fading into obscurity. Early indicators point to very competitive performance thanks to Qualcomm’s custom Oryon CPU architecture. However, we won’t know for sure until products land in our hands in the next few weeks, and emulation performance is a whole other unknown. Still, traditional performance is not a killer application, but the promised ultra-durable battery life will certainly catch the eye of the Windows faithful. But perhaps the real head-turner is AI-powered CoPilot Plus, which is debuting on Snapdragon X laptops and will follow on platforms like AMD’s Strix Point laptop chips and Intel’s Lunar Lake soon enough. While AI might be a very modern buzzword to some, it’s been an underutilized capability of Snapdragon platforms for Windows for many years. Finally, the hardware and software stars have aligned so that the platform stands out against the bulging portfolios of AMD and Intel.

AI might not (yet) be an all-encompassing momentum shift for the entire industry; we’ve been pretty lukewarm on the features during hands-on time with the new laptops. Still, the trend has finally given manufacturers a reason to adopt and, more importantly, market CoPilot Plus and the Snapdragon X platform en masse. There is no shortage of partners who are all releasing products simultaneously, giving the launch much-needed emphasis and weight — something all too lacking from previous Windows on Arm releases and many modern product announcements, too, for that matter. Between Microsoft’s Surface line-up, Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Samsung, consumers are spoilt for choice in size, design, and configuration options, which is a great place to be in. Compare that to the handful of Arm-PC releases in previous years and it’s easy to see why there’s momentum this time around.

The Snapdragon X launch spoils us for choice, and I love it.

Best of all, we can order our laptop of choice right now — no months of waiting or wondering if something newer is right around the corner. There’s clarity in this launch window that makes it very easy for consumers to compare all of the available options, pick out their preferences, and get straight on board. The smartphone market, by contrast, is dogged by overlapping release cycles that make timing an upgrade incredibly difficult unless you’re loyal to a very specific handset range. The only downside is that all these Snapdragon X laptops will cost you north of $1,000 — a substantial barrier to entry.

After seven years of weighing up the pros and cons of moving to Arm, I’m very much looking forward to getting my hands on one or more of these Snapdragon X Elite laptops and finally testing out that premium Windows on Arm experience that was promised all those years ago. It’s about time, after all.

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