Windows on ARM still hasn’t caught up this year

2022 was supposed to be the big year for Windows on ARM. It’s been a long road to get here, and for those of us who have followed the transition from the beginning, it hasn’t been without its ups and downs.

But there was a lot of hype surrounding Windows on ARM this year. Windows 11 was making big improvements in compatibility, Qualcomm was increasing performance, and the Surface Pro 9 pushed it all into the spotlight. And yet, looking back at the end of 2022, Windows on ARM has barely made a dent.

It all starts with performance.

Side view of Lenovo ThinkPad X13s showing the lid and ports.
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Windows 11 on ARM only officially supports Qualcomm processors. Right now, that includes everything from the Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 to the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3, along with Microsoft’s custom SQ1 and SQ2 processors (based on Qualcomm’s chips). Theoretically, Windows 11 on ARM could run on other ARM-based CPUs, but we’re only concerned with what’s officially supported here.

Since its inception over a decade ago, Windows performance on ARM has suffered. That got better over time, but the latest Windows 11 on the ARM laptop we tested, the Lenovo Thinkpad X13s, it is still far behind the Intel and AMD machines. We won’t list any other machines because they couldn’t run anything other than the Geekbench 5 benchmark, and their scores aren’t worth mentioning.

For a quick comparison, I’ve included the slowest 12th Gen Intel CPU we’ve ever tested. That’s the Core i3-1215U, a 15-watt chip with six cores (two Performance and four Efficient) and 8 threads. As we can see, the ThinkPad held up well in only one benchmark, the Geekbench 5 multi-core test. In all other benchmarks, the ARM CPU was between 28% and 65% slower. And that compares to an Intel CPU that provides significantly slower performance than most you’ll find in mid-range and premium laptops.

geekbench
(single/multiple)
hand brake
(seconds)
cinema bench R23
(single/multiple)
Lenovo ThinkPad x13s
(Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3)
Bal: 1,087 / 5,643
Performance: 1087 / 5642
bal: 505
Yield: 528
Ball: 593 / 2221
Yield: 594 / 2506
Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5i
(Core i3-1215U)
Bal: 1,513 / 5,676
Yield: 1515 / 5970
bal: 251
Yield: 181
Bal: 1,488 / 4,087
Yield: 1582 / 4842
Apple Macbook Air M2
(M2)
Bal: 1,925 / 8,973
Yield: N/A
bal: 151
Yield: N/A
Bal: 1,600 / 7,938
Yield: N/A

We can’t have a discussion about Windows on ARM without considering Apple’s move from Intel to its own ARM-based CPUs. The current low-end Apple Silicon chip is the M2, which provides eight CPU cores (four for performance and four for efficiency), eight or 10 GPU cores, and various other improvements. It also uses a BIG.little design and is based on the ARM architecture. But clearly, it’s in a whole different league when it comes to performance, including outperforming many faster Intel and AMD processors than the ones we’ve listed here.

Qualcomm has been committed to making faster SoCs for Windows laptops, but hasn’t been able to keep up so far. We have not tried the Microsoft Surface Pro 9 5Gwhich uses that company’s SQ2 CPU based on Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2. But we can assume that their performance is similar.

Battery life is a plus

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

One area where Windows 11 on ARM does quite well is battery life. We will compare it again with the Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5i thanks to its relatively low-power Intel CPU, but it doesn’t have a big battery either. You can find Intel and AMD laptops that last longer, but have bigger batteries, so it’s not as direct a comparison.

However, the ThinkPad does well, beating our average in our web browsing test and very well in our video test. Other ARM-based Windows laptops have done even better, but they were based on older SoCs and were significantly slower. Keep in mind that Apple managed to squeeze quite a bit of battery life out of its ARM architecture and is currently the class leader in battery life.

The bottom line is that if you need a Windows laptop with long battery life but can live with limited performance, you’re safe in buying a Windows 11 machine on ARM.

searching the web Video
Lenovo ThinkPad x13s
(Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3)
11 hours, 48 ​​minutes 19 hours, 39 minutes
Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5i
(Core i3-1215U)
7 hours, 55 minutes 10 hours, 42 minutes
Apple Macbook Air M2
(M2 of block)
17 hours, 59 minutes 21 hours, 9 minutes

Features and compatibility

Two USB-C ports on the left side of the Thinkpad x13s.
Arif Bacchus/Digital Trends

One of the selling points of Windows 11 on ARM laptops is its always-connected Internet, which in current incarnations includes 5G support. That has become less of an advantage as manufacturers have bundled 5G modems with Intel and AMD CPUs. So your choice of 5G-enabled laptops is wider than ever, and Windows 11 on ARM no longer stands out.

As mentioned above, app compatibility is much better in Windows 11 on ARM. You can now run most legacy Windows applications through the emulation layer built into the operating system, although they will run more slowly. Apple’s emulation layer is faster, and many apps have already been rewritten to directly support Apple’s ARM CPUs. That doesn’t happen in Windows 11 on ARM.

However, the biggest issue with compatibility is with driver support. Unless a peripheral manufacturer has rewritten their drivers to support Windows 11 on ARM, it won’t work with the platform. And that includes any application that requires specialized driver support. For example, we can’t use our colorimeters to test displays in Windows 11 on ARM laptops because the drivers aren’t supported.

A long way to go

Performance and device compatibility need to improve dramatically for Windows on ARM to gain a stronger footing in the laptop market. Frankly, Apple has put Microsoft and Qualcomm to shame with how quickly it transitioned from Intel chips to ARM CPUs, which increased performance and battery life. Some of the best machines for creators are MacBook Pro with M1 Pro and M1 Maxand better and faster Apple Silicon chips are on the way.

For now, unless you need the best battery life, there’s little reason to pick a Windows 11 laptop on ARM. And we don’t see that changing for a few years unless Qualcomm and Microsoft have some secret platform that’s ready to compete with the best.

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