Clever use of emulation allows Windows 10 and Win32 apps to run on ARM-based chipsets
Windows 10 has been shown running on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chipset, marking a move away from Microsoft’s reliance on Intel’s x86 instruction set.
Demonstrated at Computex 2017, Qualcomm showed that a full Windows 10 and Microsoft Office experience could be had on a prototype device running its flagship system-on-a-chip, rather than a reliance on PCs and laptops using Intel or AMD processors.
Both Qualcomm and Microsoft have touted a new wave of laptops from PC makers like HP and Dell.
Windows 10 on ARM chips
Bringing Windows 10 to chipsets based on mobile processors and instruction sets (the means by which software communicates with hardware) from ARM, has been on Microsoft’s agenda for a while.
But traditionally Windows and its associated app ecosystem have been made to run on the x86 instructions set created by Intel decades ago; ARM’s instruction set is different, which is why it dominated the mobile chips arena while Intel is the king of the hill in desktop and laptop processors.
However, through the use of a transformation layer to emulate the x86 instructions of classic Win32 apps found in the Windows Store, Microsoft and Qualcomm were able to run Windows 10 and its apps on the Snapdragon 835, a powerful mobile chip but not one that can outpace an Intel Core i processor.
Through the emulation, Win32 apps can be installed and run on a device with an ARM-based chip in the same fashion as it would on a more traditional PC.
Such x86 emulation is nothing particularity new for the tech world, with Apple having used a transformation layer called Rosetta to ease its Macintosh computer transition from the PowerPC instruction set architecture it developed with IBM and Motorola to x86.
But the emulation for ARM chips is significant in two ways: first, it could upset the strangle hold Intel has over Windows with its x86 architecture, potentially forcing Intel to innovate with its processor architecture to stay competitive.
Secondly, for consumers and businesses, such emulation will see more power efficient laptops and hybrid devices in different form factors from Asus, Lenovo and others, with built in LTE as standard due to the modems Qualcomm has built into its chips, now called platforms by the chipmaker.
“With Snapdragon, hardware makers can create Windows 10 PCs that are thin, light, fan-less, and designed to deliver long battery life. With the integrated Snapdragon X16 LTE modem, your Windows 10 device can support blazing fast Gigabit internet speeds for a virtually anytime, anywhere experience,” said Qualcomm’s blog.
While there are plenty of capable and affordable laptops and hybrid 2-in-1 devices on the market to keep the appeal of more traditional Windows machines ticking along, putting Windows 10 on ARM architecture and Qualcomm chips could really shake up the somewhat stagnant PC market.
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