Impressions, Superb Battery Life, What Needs to Improve

You’ve now seen all the performance figures for the first Windows on ARM device powered by the Snapdragon 835. It’s an interesting platform with some benefits, as I’ll get to in a moment, but the performance is disappointing to say the least.

When looking at UWP apps that run natively on ARM, the Snapdragon 835 is typically faster than the Intel Celeron N3450 and varying degrees slower than Intel’s Core processors from the last few years, based on limited testing. Certainly when you put the Envy x2 next to an N3450-based device, just browsing through Explorer and using Edge is noticeably faster with Windows on ARM and I think that’s reflected to an extent with the benchmark results.

It’s not that surprising to see the Snapdragon 835 fall behind Intel’s U and Y series Core processors when looking at native apps, as the Snapdragon 835 has a very low TDP, while Intel’s competing chips can go as high as 15 or even 25 watts. Put more power in the equation, and you’re likely to win.

However, the real killer is x86 emulation performance. Being able to run x86 desktop apps is a key ingredient to this new Windows variant. Even ignoring the compatibility issues for a moment, x86 performance on ARM chips is terrible, which puts the whole platform into question at least in this early iteration.

When the Snapdragon fails to get even close to a measly Atom-based Celeron processor in a number of workloads, you’re not going to get a good real world experience. When you use the device with a desktop app like Excel or Photoshop, it’s easy to get frustrated by how sluggish, laggy and unimpressive the performance is. Using a Celeron N3450 is tough when you’re used to Core i5 or i7 performance, and the Snapdragon 835 is significantly worse than this.

Now I’m sure Qualcomm or Microsoft would tell you that emulating x86 apps is meant to be a niche workload for these devices, and for the most part you should be using Edge as your browser, and UWP apps from the Store for everything else. And that makes sense, as the performance of emulation is so bad you won’t want to use emulated apps very often.

The problem there is key apps people use on a daily basis are not available through the Microsoft Store. Chrome, for example, is the most popular browser but if you want to use it with Windows on ARM, prepare for a painful emulated experience. Edge isn’t terrible, but most people would agree it’s not as good as Chrome overall. I shudder at the thought of a typical non-enthusiast user buying one of these devices, using Edge to download Chrome as usual, and then getting stuck with horrendous performance.

And it’s not just Chrome. Microsoft do offer Office UWP apps, but they are positioned as Office Mobile and lack the full feature set of standard Office. The traditional Office we all know and love is in the Store, but it’s a Win32 app that doesn’t natively support ARM, so if you want features like macros, again you’re stuck with emulated performance.

I could go on with more examples of commonly used apps not available natively on ARM, but the basic point is x86 app emulation is a key pillar to Windows on ARM, and the performance is not up to scratch yet on this second try.

At this point you’re probably wondering: why have Windows on ARM at all?

Well there is a key advantage, and that’s battery life. The Envy x2 lasts notably longer than other devices out there from the limited testing I’ve been doing, even when using emulated apps. Qualcomm and Microsoft both said Windows on ARM battery life would be fantastic, and so far I agree.

Windows on ARM devices also support LTE connections, due to the integrated modems in Qualcomm SoCs, though this is less of an advantage as some Intel-powered devices also have integrated LTE. The Envy x2 is also unbelievably quick at waking from sleep and processing Windows Hello facial recognition, so there are some heavily optimized areas of performance, too.

But my final thoughts on Windows on ARM are largely negative. Yeah, you get fantastic battery life, but in my opinion it’s not worth it when the performance you get ranges from disappointing to outright terrible. There aren’t enough ARM-optimized apps for not just enthusiasts, but typical users wanting to run Chrome and Office, and even in ARM-optimized apps, you’re not going to match or get close to the performance Intel offers with their low-power Core processors.

The final nail in the coffin is pricing. The HP Envy x2 is a $1,000 tablet. Battery life is fantastic at this price point, but the Snapdragon 835 struggles to outperform an Intel Celeron CPU typically found in sub-$300 notebooks, so it’s way too expensive. Other Windows on ARM devices are expected to sell for as low as $600, which is a more appropriate price point, but even then I don’t think it offers enough value over existing Intel options.

For example, right now you can purchase the entry-level Surface Pro with a Core m3 processor for $599, down from $799. Even with just a Core m3 processor, the Surface Pro is a much more capable device that’s way cheaper than the Envy x2 or similarly priced to other Windows on ARM devices. If you’re more after a laptop, a quick search on Amazon brings up mid-range laptops with a significantly more powerful Core i5-8250U for less than $600.

This puts the first iteration of Windows on ARM in a precarious position. I could possibly see Windows on ARM becoming a solid niche option for basic users that want great battery life and are content browsing the web using Edge and running UWP apps. But devices would have to stay around $600 or ideally push even cheaper for that option to be attractive, and I’m not sure the goal of Windows on ARM is to cement itself as an entry-level experience.

For this platform to really succeed, I think two things need to happen. First, Qualcomm and other ARM partners need to release notably faster chips at a similar level of power consumption. Second, the x86 emulation engine needs to be refined significantly with a focus on performance and 64-bit compatibility.

There are some promising signs here if you look close enough, and this platform has much better foundations than Windows RT ever did. But right now, it’s hard if not impossible to recommend jumping in as a consumer, and that’s disappointing considering the discussion around the platform when it was first announced.

I will have a full review of the HP Envy x2 coming up soon, and for what it’s worth, HP has delivered a really nice piece of hardware here. It’s a shame they’ve been let down by the early state of Windows on ARM's performance, but I guess that’s the risk you take in launching an early-adopter product.

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