Windows on ARM
Qualcomm had an event in Hawaii this month. December has been traditional over recent years for those interested in mobile processors to jet off to the US state in the middle of the pacific.
The central announcement was the new SnapDragon 8 Gen 1. This processor is already on the agenda for the next generation of mobile phones. However, it's also viewed through the prism of Windows on ARM. ARM is the design of processors that uses lower power and RISC (reduced instruction set) to provide thin, light and battery saving devices. Unnecessary attributes in the world of the desktop PC. Desktop PCs could be inefficient heat producing high horsepower devices plugged into the mains power. To keep ever more powerful chips cool the heatsinks got bigger and the fans became larger and some gamers had watercooled systems.
Intel has been the brand of raw processor horsepower. Attached to Microsoft's Windows operating system for over three decades. Intel has had some competition. AMD produce compatible chips that use the same basic instruction set.
When mobile computing and lightweight laptops arrived the Intel chips were ill-suited for battery driven low power operation. Battery life has been a problem for the Intel design.
The history of ARM is different. Low power, efficient, ideal for mobile. The design became part of the "system on a chip" (SOC) idea. Powerful cores for demanding tasks and efficiency cores for tasks demanding less power.
In 2012 the first Microsoft Surface tablet/laptop ran Windows RT. This was Windows without Intel. Unfortunately, Microsoft's main market is business. Business is all about legacy. The tricky question of how thousands of applications used in business, often dating back years, would run? Those applications needed Intel.
When Windows 10 was released the prospect of ARM rose again. PC manufactures knew that Intel were not producing the best processors for mobile. Microsoft partnered with Qualcomm and put a mobile chip in a Surface. The Surface Pro X. More expensive than the Intel, slower, ran Intel code in emulation, didn't support 64 bit. Even Windows enthusiast bloggers didn't recommend it except for very specific scenarios.
The market for Windows on ARM is small. Not enough to promote innovation. Processors remain rooted in mobile phone designs.
Apple moving it's entire computing line-up to ARM has changed the debate. Apple's M1 processor is designed specifically for their PCs. The latest Qualcomm chips are said to be on their way to being comparable with the M1 by 2023. By then Apple will have had three years of selling ARM based chips. Microsoft can't do the same transition because it's main market is in the conservative business and enterprise sector. Change is incredibly slow. Apple has a market that changes by decision of Apple itself.
Watching Windows on ARM is painful. Not many are buying because Microsoft won't fully commit to the low power future. Microsoft won't commit because it's customers don't like change.
If you want a PC with great battery life, thin, light and powerful then, right now, the best choice may well be Apple. The only down side, from the perspective of a Windows user, is using MacOS.