I was recently invited to London to attend an event with Qualcomm about the new range of laptops that use their Snapdragon 835 Mobile PC Platform running Windows 10.
Windows 10 on Arm is one of the more exciting developments in the laptop industry right now as it aims to alleviate many of the issues users face with laptops, primarily battery life, connectivity and portability.
ARM-based processors are typically what we find in mobile phones, with the Snapdragon 835 being last years flagship chip. The chip found in these new laptops is called Snapdragon 835 Mobile PC Platform but there is no real difference between the mobile and PC chip.
Mobile chips have advanced so much and become so powerful that it has become feasible to run much more demanding software than you will find on your phone, while at the same time being far more power efficient than the Intel options and incorporating a wider number of feature, in particular, mobile connectivity.
The problem with ARM and Snapdragon chips is that Windows does not traditionally run natively on this chip, nor does any of the software for it.
Legacy x86 applications such as Microsoft Office will be emulated using a custom emulator from Microsoft. This will allow these applications to work as-is on Snapdragon platforms. At launch, x64 applications will not be supported, and applications that require kernel mode drivers will need to be re-compiled to ARM64.
It is possible for developers to recompile apps for native arm compatibility using existing MSFT developer tools, but this obviously is dependant on the developers doing it. As the market grows, we will no doubt see many developers adopt this approach.
To overcome some of the issues with app compatibility, devices are shipped with Windows 10S; this is a version of Windows 10 Pro that restricts users to installing apps via the Windows Store. In general, if it is on the Windows Store, it should run fine on an ARM-based device. Windows 10S also offers users more security as you are installing software for a verified source. For advanced users, you have the option to switch to Windows 10 Pro free of charge.
While there are some compromises to be made with Windows 10 on Arm, there are many benefits. Snapdragon 835 allows users to achieve true multi-day battery life in a lightweight laptop. A term Qualcomm is pushing is “always on always connected” where the laptops never need to be shut down and they are always connected if you have a mobile SIM. With traditional laptops when you put them to sleep, there is still a battery drain, and waking the device up takes a few seconds. This is not the case with ARM, the laptop wakes up immediately, and you can leave it in sleep mode for days with no significant battery drain. Some of the tests Qualcomm have done show laptops achieving over 20 hours local 1080p playback, nearly double that of some of the best Intel-based laptops.
I will go over everything in more detail in my full review, but for now, that covers the pros and cons of Windows 10 on Arm.
At the end of the event, I was loaned an HP Envy X2 for the next few weeks to try out, it came at a good time for me as I am on holiday, so a portable device with fantastic battery life is just what I need.
I have been using the device for nearly a week, allowing me to make some initial impressions of the laptop itself and Windows 10 on Arm overall. I will skim over most bits, covering things in more detail with my full review in a couple of weeks.
Design and Build
The HP Envy X2 is one of the more expensive devices running this platform, coming in at £999 for the base model with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage.
The overall build quality and feel are exceptional, the device itself is more like a tablet which is then enclosed in a leather effect folio case which acts as both the adjustable stand and keyboard. I am not normally too fond of 2-in-1s with a detachable keyboard similar to the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 as I find them a bit difficult to use on my lap. The Envy X2 is much more comfortable to use on my lap, and there is not too much keyboard flex when typing.
The adjustable folding stand was a little confusing when I first use it, but it offers a wide range of motion and provides a good level of stability.
One downside of such a thin lightweight laptop is that HP has dropped as many ports as possible, you are now left with a single USB-C port.
The most important part of this review is how well does Windows 10 on Arm work. Well, first of all, there is no Chrome on the Windows Store, I am heavily entrenched in the Google ecosystem, and I use a lot of other apps in my day to day work for FTP and SSH and other tools. There are apps on the Windows store for this, but I like what I like and didn’t want to switch. Therefore I quickly enabled Windows 10 Pro.
Windows itself works flawlessly there is no lag when browsing around the system everything works as it should.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 has some AI features built in and this is supposed to improve facial recognition, so I thought I would try it out. I have found that it works very well, as long as you are facing in the rough direction of it Windows unlocks almost instantly, so much so it feels like it wasn’t locked in the first place at times.
The combination of the face unlock, always on and always connected meant that I can flip down the keyboard, log in, get back to what I was doing previously almost instantaneously, it is extremely impressive and a feature I will miss when going back to an old-fashioned laptop.
I did encounter several issues with running some apps, I am not 100% sure if it is ARM related or maybe something else but the 2 notable problems were Chrome and Spotify. With Chrome, it worked for the first hour or so, but once I had signed into my account page would show the error Aw snap, failed to load. At first, I thought it was an extension issue, but starting from scratch without syncing all my data via an account I still encountered issues. In particular, I can't log into Google Mail, Notes or Drive without encountering the issue. Recently there has been an issue with Windows 10 breaking Chrome and it is possible that rather than specifically Windows 10 on Arm on being able to run it. I have read other reviews stating Chrome does not run well on Arm.
Secondly, and possibly even stranger, was Spotify, for some reason that does not work for me, even with the Windows Store version. I can log into it, and it partially loads up the display but then goes into a sort of boot loop, loading the display then just resetting, while also being very slow. I haven’t had enough time to try and diagnose the issue, and it is likely I can fix it, but with 2 major apps not running properly on the device goes to show there are likely some major compromises you need to make with this set up. As it is early days of the review, I will hopefully find the solution to both of these issues by the time I do the full review.
IE works flawlessly, and that is fine for casual browsing, but I need a lot of extensions with what I do on a day to day basis. I occasionally use Firefox still, so for the time being that has become my main browser on this system, it's not ideal but it works.
So far everything else appears to work OK, in particular, Netflix and media playback has been a godsend for me. On my 3-hour train journey home I managed to set up the laptop, log into Netflix and download a couple of shows for playback for my journey using the mobile data provided. I watched a couple of shows and did some work on the train all without relying on tethering my phone or paying for the terrible WIFI service by Virgin. The only issue was the poor performance of mobile data on trains, but this is not the laptops fault. During this period the battery barely dropped, I think it used less than 5% during the journey and I didn’t charge the laptop until the evening before my holiday on the Monday (4 days).
There is a lot to love about Windows 10 on Arm and the HP Envy X2 as a device, but at the same time, there are some major compromises you need to make when opting for this platform.
At nearly £1000 having a laptop with restricted access to apps is going to make this quite a niche choice, you need to want that always on always connected ultra-long battery life to benefit from this. Your average consumer probably doesn’t need access to apps outside the Windows Store, but I suspect the average consumer doesn't want to spend £1k on any computer regardless of its features, nor would they then be willing to spend extra on the mobile data which is required to really make this laptop shine.
Enthusiasts, business users, power users or whatever you want to call them, will likely be put off with app compatibility issues.
Though if you are affluent and want something that can excel at basic tasks while offering you huge amounts or portability and freeing you from the power cord, then this is an amazing laptop. I feel like it sits a couple of steps above a Chromebook or Android tablet, while being a little below a normal laptop functionality and performance wise.
While that may be a niche group of people, this is a first-generation product. The Snapdragon 850 mobile platform aims to solve a lot of the issues, it will bring 64-bit compatibility and large increases in performance, as the platform grows as a whole we will see developers compile their apps to run natively on ARM.
There are cheaper options, the Asus NovaGo is around £700, the hardware doesn’t feel as nice as the HP Envy X2, but at this price point, it is a little easier putting up with some of the compromises the ARM-based system requires.
There are rumours of the 1000 platform which would be built from the ground up offering Intel levels of performance while keeping all the advantages of the ARM. I asked about this at the event, knowing nothing would be admitted, and was unsurprised when I was told they had heard nothing about it at all, even in future roadmaps.
Overall, I think Windows 10 on Arm has huge potential; it could shake up the ultraportable section of the market