Windows on Arm finally has legs

When I first used the Arm-powered Surface Pro X in 2019, I loved the hardware but didn’t love the software experience. Everything seemed late. Microsoft didn’t have native versions of Edge or its Office apps, and it was clear that the Surface Pro X was released too early. With little support from developers, Windows on Arm was unlikely to succeed.

Nearly five years later, the Windows on Arm experience has improved significantly. Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon X Elite and X Plus processors deliver a Windows 11 experience that feels like any regular laptop. Microsoft and Qualcomm have also been pushing software developers to create more ARM64 native applications, and it’s made a huge difference.

Apps like Photoshop, Dropbox, and Zoom are all native, as are entertainment apps like Spotify, Prime, and Hulu. Even Chrome, Opera, Firefox, Vivaldi, Edge and Brave are all on Arm now. That’s a good start, but there are still plenty of applications that will need to be emulated on these latest Copilot Plus PCs, and that’s where Microsoft’s Prism emulator comes in.

Microsoft says Prism is as efficient as Apple’s Rosetta 2 translation layer and can emulate applications twice as quickly as the previous generation of Windows devices on Arm. I’ve been testing the Surface Laptop over the past week and haven’t experienced the erratic behavior I observed on Microsoft’s previous emulator, which also impacted the battery life of the Surface Pro X. But I didn’t see any dramatic improvements either. emulated application performance promised by Microsoft.

Microsoft’s claims are difficult to test without comparing previous Arm-based devices. YouTuber Gary Explains did just that, comparing x86 or x64 versions of Firefox, Cinebench R23, and HandBrake on a Surface Pro

Microsoft’s new Surface devices are powered by Arm-based Qualcomm chips.
Photo by Chris Welch/The Verge

Gary explains found that Prism brought a 10 percent performance improvement in Speedometer 3 running on Firefox, an 8 percent jump in single-core Cinebench R23, and a 4.5 percent improvement in multi-core Cinebench R23 compared to the previous emulator. HandBrake performance also improved by 8% thanks to Prism.

In my own testing, I found that Prism handles non-native app compatibility well, but performance varies depending on the complexity of the app. ShareX, a screenshot tool, works well with the Prism emulator, but it’s a lightweight app. iA Writer and Notion aren’t native, but they also work well on these latest Snapdragon chips. Discord also performs much better than I’ve seen on Arm in the past, but there are still occasional stutters and slight lag when navigating between servers.

For heavier applications, Prism doesn’t bring the experience up to par with what you’d find on a laptop with an Intel or AMD processor. Adobe’s Premiere Pro was virtually unusable for editing 4K video on the Surface Laptop, which is probably why Adobe is now blocking its installation on the Snapdragon X Elite and Plus processors.

Blender is another example of an emulated application with disappointing performance. Blender doesn’t detect Qualcomm’s Adreno GPU, so everything hits the CPU instead. As a result, performance on rendering projects is terrible, with one test I ran taking over 15 minutes, compared to just over two minutes on a 13-inch MacBook Air M3. Blender will have a native ARM64 version soon, but I tested the first alpha copy, and it only marginally improved the results because it still doesn’t capture the GPU properly.

Intel has dominated the laptop GPU market with its integrated solutions for decades. So I think Qualcomm still needs to work with software developers like Blender to ensure applications are optimized for its GPUs. Blender illustrates that Microsoft’s Prism emulator can’t solve everything.

Native ARM64 apps get the most out of Microsoft’s new Surface devices.
Photo by Chris Welch/The Verge

Speaking of GPUs, games don’t “just run” on the Snapdragon X Elite and X Plus, despite Qualcomm’s assurances. I didn’t make a big deal out of reviewing the Surface Laptop because it’s not a gaming laptop, but gaming on Windows on Arm is disappointing right now. Shadow of the Tomb Raider I kept crashing when I tried to play, and most other games I tried simply refused to launch. Fall Guys generates an unsupported error, just like Halo Infinite. Destiny 2 didn’t even launch – no errors, just a lot of nothing. Star Field did the same.

There aren’t many native Windows on Arm games, so Prism has its work cut out for it here. I managed to get Grand Theft Auto V works but with a lot of image stutters. Cyberpunk 2077 also worked on the Surface Laptop 7th edition, but at around 26fps on average at low settings on 1080p resolution. THE Witcher 3, Baldur’s Gate 3, Control, Rocket LeagueAnd Minecraft everything worked out of the box as well.

The biggest problem here is that most anti-cheat services use kernel drivers that are not supported by emulation. BattlEye, a widely used anti-cheat service, is one of the few exceptions to support Windows on Arm, but it seems games like Destiny 2 Games that use this anti-cheat software will need to be updated to work properly here. Fortunately, there is a dedicated website that lists supported games that work well. I don’t have much hope for Arm-powered gaming laptops in the near future, though.

Many games use anti-cheat technologies that are not supported on Windows on Arm.
Screenshot by Tom Warren / The Verge

Another thing I’ve encountered is apps that simply refuse to install. Google Drive is the most important here, as it throws an error stating that the Windows architecture of Copilot Plus PCs is not supported. Google’s Drive app on Windows integrates into the shell much like Dropbox, something Microsoft didn’t originally support on Windows on Arm. There is, however, a native version of Dropbox that integrates with File Explorer. So we hope that Google will soon be able to offer a similar experience.

There are also compatibility issues with external devices. I’ve seen reports that Brother printers and scanners don’t work well on Arm or simply that generic printer drivers don’t support all the features you’d expect. There is no quick and easy solution for accessories that require driver assistance, and that will likely only happen as more people use these new Copilot Plus PCs. I’m less concerned about driver issues here because I think most people will be able to plug the type of accessories (webcams, printers, storage drives) you use into a laptop and get them to work with the built-in drivers. under Windows 11.

VPN apps also remain an issue on Windows Arm. Bitdefender, NordVPN and Private Internet Access do not work. VPN developers use TAP and TUN adapters and virtual devices and need a Microsoft-signed driver to work properly. Fortunately, Android Authority reports that VPN developers are working on ARM64 versions.

This is encouraging because the last time I regularly used Windows on Arm in 2019, I said, “Most of the applications I use on a daily basis have not been recompiled for ARM and probably never will be.” Now, it seems that application compatibility on Windows on Arm is changing daily, which is a scenario I would not have expected five years ago.

While we’re in this transition point, you may need to use beta builds or download special versions of native ARM64 Windows apps, much like the macOS transition. This means that Windows Store app versions are not always ARM64 and you may be able to find the enhanced version on the web before the App Store version updates. This was initially the case with Slack earlier this month, before the store version was updated.

Microsoft has a few additional settings to control the Prism emulator.
Screenshot by Tom Warren / The Verge

For everything else, Microsoft offers tools for power users that could improve the compatibility of apps on Arm with existing unmodified x86 or x64 apps. There is a Program Compatibility Troubleshooter that can help enable or disable emulation settings, and you can also enable them in an executable’s properties. You can control things like hybrid execution mode to force the use of x86-only binaries, disable floating-point optimization that could impact performance, and much more. You can also change how an emulated application uses multiple CPU cores, which can improve performance or compatibility for certain applications.

Ultimately, it’s up to app developers to focus on native ARM64 support for their apps. The sheer number of native apps now available shows that things are moving in the right direction. These new Qualcomm chips also provide the brute force power needed to emulate applications a little better, alongside Microsoft’s Prism improvements. On a day-to-day basis, I think most people won’t even encounter application issues here, as most of the key applications are already native or work well in emulation.

I am confident that many more ARM64 applications are still on the way. During my testing, the benchmark tools and applications were updated to support ARM64, which surprised me. I’m willing to bet we won’t be discussing Prism or emulated application performance as much in a year or two because native ARM64 applications will be as common as x64 applications are today after the x86 transition begins in the early 2000s. After 12 years of trying to transition to Windows on Arm, it looks like Microsoft is finally on the verge of success.

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