Windows on ARM: It’s nearly here (again)

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Benchmarks for HP laptop with Snapdragon CPU spotted

It’s a milestone in Windows history: the first benchmarks for a new generation of ARM-powered Windows hardware have been sighted in the wild. Geekbench has recorded an instance of a box running Windows 10 on the “Qualcomm CLS” platform.

This entry describes an octocore processor, running 8GB of memory, and cites a Qualcomm BIOS. The Geekbench confirms that 32-bit x86 instructions are running on the RISC processor.

For what it’s worth, the mystery silicon achieved a benchmark of 1066 (single core) and 3641 (multicore). This puts it well behind modern x86 processors – in fact, it wouldn’t make the top 1,000 in the Geekbench 3 single-core table. But that’s not the point. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, running x86 instructions on ARM is “like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”.

Microsoft announced its partnership with Qualcomm to put x86 on ARM last year, a move that coincided with Intel tearing up its roadmap for 4G modems. Microsoft intends this not for phones but for “always-connected PCs” with multi-day battery life.

HP, Lenovo and Asus are signed up to the Windows on ARM adventure. Intel isn’t happy about its beloved instruction set playing in somebody else’s house so one presumes the implementation is lawyer-proof.

Readers who can remember the 1990s will wonder how Microsoft ended up here. Windows NT was designed to be portable, and for several years Microsoft encouraged versions for a variety of RISC processors including Alpha, MIPS, PA RISC, and PowerPC. The perceived inevitability of Windows owed much to the proposition that it offered one API across a variety of hardware, when at the time the Unix world was split into two camps, and dozens of sub-camps.

As it turned out, the high-end RISC workstation market remained a small one – Intel vowed that the Itanic would wipe them out – and one by one the RISC versions of Windows fell away.

When Microsoft attempted to run Windows natively on ARM, in the shape of Windows RT, the world stayed away. There was too much technical debt, aka legacy cruft, to make a clean port. Something, somewhere wouldn’t run.

So a portable multiplatform system that originally ran x86 through software emulation became an x86 system that could only run other platforms through hardware emulation.

And so here we are. ®

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Hat-tip to Roland Quandt at WinFuture who smoked out the results.

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