The dream of carrying a single device that combines the best of laptops, tablets, and smartphones inched closer to reality this week, when Microsoft and Qualcomm announced a small but significant improvement to their Always Connected PC platform.
The update, announced at Microsoft’s Build developer conference, will allow 64-bit apps to run natively on laptops and tablets that use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon CPU, originally designed to power smartphones. These devices include the HP Envy x2 detachable tablet, which boasts a physical keyboard, a constant LTE connection, and days of battery life. In theory, it’s as efficient as an Apple iPad but with the full power of the Windows ecosystem behind it.
The problem is that a few apps, such as those designed to run on 64-bit Intel and AMD processors that power the majority of PCs today, haven’t been able to run on Snapdragon-powered systems. These include many obscure titles like third-party DVD burning software, but also major apps like Adobe Photoshop Elements.
Now there’s an SDK to let developers create 64-bit versions of these apps that will run natively on Snapdragon. Microsoft says these apps can soon be submitted for inclusion in the Microsoft Store.
But even with this improvement, the experience of using Windows on a Snapdragon-powered device like the HP Envy x2 leaves a lot to be desired. Here’s a rundown of what you can expect if you buy one right now.
Many Apps Work, But They’re Oh-So-Sluggish
Switching from Intel or AMD to Qualcomm is a bit like changing the voltage on an electric railway or using a different octane fuel in your car. Some cars and locomotives are fine with the change, but others will wheeze, seize up, and grind to a frustrating halt.
The same is true of apps. Pretty much every bit of software that runs on Windows is compatible with an Intel or AMD processor, because they all understand the same type of instructions, known as the x86 architecture.
But Qualcomm employs an entirely different instruction set architecture, known by the name of the company that created it: ARM. In order for an x86-based app—say Google Chrome or Adobe Photoshop Elements—to run on the Snapdragon 835 processor that powers the Envy x2, one of two things has to happen: someone has to rewrite its instruction set; or Windows has to translate the existing x86 instructions into ones that the ARM-based Snapdragon 835 can understand.
Right now, both are happening at the same time. Microsoft is vigorously encouraging software developers to make ARM-native versions of their apps. Many have already acquiesced, and many more likely will thanks to this week’s announcement. The easiest way to find out if the app you need will run natively is to visit its page in the Microsoft Store. Scroll about halfway down the page to the System Requirements section, where you’ll find a field labeled Architecture. If you see “ARM” anywhere in this field, the app will run natively on a Snapdragon-powered PC.
Even though it’s running natively, that doesn’t mean it will offer the same experience you expect from your current Intel or AMD PC. That’s because the Snapdragon processor prioritizes energy efficiency over performance, and the relatively small amounts of memory in most Snapdragon PCs (typically 4GB or 8GB) doesn’t help. Any processor-intensive task, from a web browser with multiple tabs open to converting a video file, will feel sluggish. In fact, I performed these and many other everyday tasks during my brief time testing the Snapdragon-powered Asus NovaGo laptop, and the sluggishness was pervasive.
Meanwhile, every PC powered by a Snapdragon processor has a built-in emulation layer to translate instructions from x86 apps. If you see “x86” (but not “ARM”) in the Architecture field on the app store, that means the software will run in emulation. Expect even slower performance in this situation, because the app has to send its instructions to the emulator, which then sends it to the processor, then back to the emulator, then finally back to the app.
A Few Popular Apps Don’t Run at All
While most most x86 apps use the 32-bit architecture, some use the newer 64-bit architecture, which allows them to take advantage of more system memory, among other improvements. These 64-bit apps currently won’t run at all on Snapdragon-powered PCs. The Microsoft Store makes this very clear: The app’s page in the store will only display “x64” in the Architecture field, and there will be a message near the top of the page explaining that it won’t run on your PC.
A glaring omission from this week’s announcement is support for 64-bit emulation. It looks like Microsoft won’t be extending emulation support to 64-bit apps, instead relying on developers to translate them into ARM-native versions. The company claims that more than 90 percent of current Windows apps have 32-bit versions.
In many cases, an app will have many versions, so you’ll see several different entries in the Architecture field. For example, if an app has 32-bit and 64-bit Intel versions and its developer has also created an ARM version, you’ll see “x86,” “x64,” and “ARM” listed. In this case, you’ll automatically get the ARM version when you download it onto a Snapdragon-powered PC.
If you’d like to install an app that’s not available on the Microsoft Store, you’ll have to upgrade your Snapdragon PC from Windows 10 S to a full version of Windows 10. It’s not as easy to find out if these apps are 32-bit, 64-bit, or ARM native, since the Always Connected PC initiative is so new. If you can’t find any information on the developer’s website, you can just install the app and cross your fingers. If it’s not compatible, Windows will display a message to that effect when you try to open it.
The same process described above also works for drivers, which are pieces of software that communicate with hardware peripherals like printers or keyboards. Many mainstream peripherals have drivers that are built into Windows, which means they’ll run on a Snapdragon processor. If your peripheral requires a third-party driver that hasn’t been rewritten for ARM, though, it won’t work. Emulation won’t save you here.
Finally, games and other apps written to take advantage of the OpenGL graphics framework newer than version 1.1 won’t run. Because a Snapdragon CPU prioritizes power savings over performance, though, you probably won’t want to play graphics-intensive games even if they are compatible.
Just to make things even more complicated, some Intel-powered Windows tablets and laptops are also marketed under the Always Connected PC banner. Obviously, these machines will run any modern Windows app, but they might not offer the power efficiency that is the key benefit of the Snapdragon processor.
If by this point you’re scratching your head and wondering if you need a computer science degree to use an Always Connected PC, your frustration is understandable. Very few people will buy an Envy x2 or an Asus NovaGo to use as their primary computer, since the concept is still so new. Even Microsoft employees given preproduction versions to test approached them with trepidation, Windows General Manager Erin Chapple acknowledged during a recent interview with PCMag.
So right now, it seems that we haven’t quite reached the holy grail of one device to rule them all, at least not if you want to do everything at more than a snail’s pace. But Microsoft and Qualcomm have big plans for the future, and it’s conceivable that with future Snapdragon processors and more ARM native apps, there will one day be no discernable difference between using a Snapdragon-powered Windows PC and an Intel- or AMD-powered one.
Until that day comes, you’ll still have to carry around a tablet, laptop, and smartphone if you want to be prepared for any tech eventuality.